Yesterday, a stranger landed on our beach. I was on the beach because Pa won’t let me go out on the boats fishing. I saw the sail first, then the man balanced on the prow of a wooden boat, skinny knees protruding from under cut-off fatigues. He was real dark. Even in the distance I could make out that he was darker than me or Andre or Paul. He waded ashore and heaved his boat a little ways up onto the sand. The stranger looked at me out from under a floppy, canvas, army-patterned hat. There was burnt skin peeling on his nose and cheeks. He looked young, in his mid-twenties at most.
I spoke first. “My name is Mattieu. I am fourteen. Welcome to the Seychelles.”
When he answered, his voice was deep and lilting, filled with music. “I’m Kizza,” he said. “Is your village nearby?”
I smiled. “It’s quite close, but all our men and boys are fishing and the women are at the market selling yesterday’s catch.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask me why I wasn’t fishing too.
Kizza’s brown eyes danced. He stretched his arms wide, then slapped his hands on his knees and laughed deep, booming, and bell-like. “Then, I’ll pull my boat up on the beach out of reach of the fingering tide and sit in the sail-shade to wait.” Kizza leaned down to the bow rope neatly coiled on deck. He looked up. “Mattieu,” he said, “maybe you could stay around for a while and we could swap stories if you have no work.”
“Cool,” I said, using one of the words I had picked up during the tourist season. Kizza swung the rope over his shoulder and dug his feet into the sand. I watched his boat slide up the beach. I saw how as it ceased to bob with the tide, it became a lifeless thing, made of wood and canvas. I could see the name now, painted on the stern, Rosa Maria, in white on the red wood. “Did you know her?” I asked quietly. Kizza followed my finger with his eyes. Then a change came across his face, almost as if a shutter had been pulled down behind his eyes. “Yeah, I knew her,” he said softly. Then the shutter flicked up. “Is that far enough?” he said, his eyes shining.
* * *
We sat in the shade of the Maria’s sail, while Kizza told me his story Kizza’s teeth and dirty T-shirt gleamed white on his black body as he spoke of his country Angola; of the rivers and the seas and the people. I listened, hands clasped around my knees, as he described the brutal civil war and the scourge of HIV/AIDS, which had devastated Angola. I was entranced as he told me how he had fought two years for freedom, and how it was won. Then he told me how his thoughts turned to love, and how just weeks before his marriage to a beautiful woman with a Portuguese name, she had drowned in the monsoon rains. I listened, raptured. His words were no longer just words; they blended together into blurred images that danced before my eyes like mirages on the sand. I felt his pain as he told me how he knew he could no longer remain in Angola so he was pursuing his dream to circum-navigate Africa in a twenty-two foot sailboat he named after his fiancée.
“Now,” he said, “this is my purpose. Everything I have, I am giving to this quest. I do not know what I will do once I reach Angola again, but I know I cannot stay there.” He let out a ringing laugh and hit the sand beside him with his open palm.
That broke the spell. My head snapped up to look at the sea. I saw how the tide had risen and then the shadows of fishermen on white sailcloth guiding their boats in to the beaches. One lone boat followed them, a figure hunched over at the tiller. I knew it was my pa’s boat, the Samuel.
I ran down to meet the men, sand swishing on my dry feet. The yellow, blue, and red skiffs blurred in my mind with the black faces of the villagers. I talked with and laughed with them. They jested back, my friend, Andre, hovering on the outside of the group, a strange mixture of pity and compassion in his eyes. I thought about Kizza’s eyes, how they sparkled with life as he spoke, and I realized that he treated me as a man, while the villagers acted like I was a child.
The fishermen departed, talking loudly about the day’s catch. Kizza looked back at me, about to say something, then old Dominque touched his arm and he turned to go. I gazed down the beach at the boats drawn haphazardly onto the sand, drinking in the sounds of the sea. The memory came unbidden, rising from the depths of a dark sea in my mind.
I saw Samuel, as real as the images in Kizza’s tale. I was jealous and he was laughing, standing in a brightly painted boat, a salt-stained orange life vest slung over his shoulder. He was fourteen then. “Sam, please,” I said.
He smiled at me, the smile he reserved for his only brother. “I’ll take you fishing tomorrow,” he said. Samuel’s words lingered for a moment on the air, then left me, the waves sighing around my ankles.
When I returned to the village alone, the women had come back from the market and were dancing in time to a drum and a deep tenor voice. Kizza stood in the middle of them, eyes laughing, singing:
By the moonlight,
By ebbing tide,
Look for me on the silver rocks,
By ebbing tide,
By the daylight,
By rising tide,
Look for me in the clear waters,
By rising tide.
By any day,
By any tide,
Look for me in the seas and ships,
For I am life!
I fell asleep that night with the last verse ringing in my ears.
I was heartsick the day after Kizza came as I lifted the prows of the fishing boats and shoved them into the shallows. Pa was the first one out, as he always was. He pushed his own boat out before I was even up, as he always did.
I stared at the shallow ruts the boats made, remembering. It was a foggy day like today. Things come back to me in snapshots; building a sandcastle on the beach with Andre, Andre’s brother’s grim face as he told me the news, the brightly painted little boat in my remembering, then Pa on the beach next to me, turning a scrap of orange nylon over and over in his calloused hands, the remains of a salt-stained life vest. I think I tried to picture it, the smashed little bits of blue, yellow, and red wood floating in a circle, held together by torn canvas, but it shocked me when I saw it. Then there were the painful apologies of the cruise ship captain in broken French, how he failed to sound his foghorn, how he didn’t see Samuel’s boat and, most painful of all, the compensation sum of $500 American and a gray aluminum boat.
I turned away from the sand ruts. I knew I couldn’t stay here. I saw a familiar pair of torn cut-off fatigues looming in the mist. Kizza! I ran up to him. “You’re leaving?” He regarded me with sparkling brown eyes. “Kizza,” I said, “I need to ask you something!” He smiled. I blurted it out. “I want to go with you, to Angola.” Kizza was listening, his head cocked at a funny angle. “Please, Kizza!” I said, “I can’t stay here.”
Kizza’s face softened. He smiled. He shook his head. “OK, but just to Zanzibar.”
“Thank you!” I gasped. I splashed into the water and placed a hand on the prow.
A figure moved in the mist. I saw how warped the silhouette was, hunched over in grief, and I knew it was Pa. The figure came at me, the splashes of his feet in the shallows muffled by the mist. “Mattieu,” he said, spinning me around and pinning my arms viciously to my body, “this is dangerous, too dangerous. You must . . .”
Kizza’s voice cut sharply through the mist. “Your son must not hate the sea as you do.”
Pa dropped my arms. “The sea is death. It is best, Mattieu . . .”
“Listen to yourself!” Kizza shouted, anger blazing in his voice. “Mattieu is not a child. Do not project your fears onto him. Let him decide.”
Pa backed off. My head reeled. So Pa had not gone out early as I thought he had. I took a step toward Kizza. “Pa,” I whispered, “I’ll be back.”
Pa’s face remained expressionless. He stood for what seemed like minutes, then slowly, he uncurled the fingers of his left hand and moved toward Kizza and me. “I want you to take this with you,” he whispered. I reached out and took it from him, a dirty scrap of orange nylon. “And this.” He unrolled the cloth in my hands. Inside was a crumpled bill. It was $5o0 American. “Buy yourself a boat with it,”Pa said. “Sail back here one day.” Our eyes met, then he turned swiftly and ran into the mist. I clenched my fist around the cloth. Kizza had pushed the Rosa Maria out and she bobbed with the swells, filled with life once more. The mist cleared as we tacked away from the Seychelles’ coast, under a bright African sun.
By any day
By any tide
Look for me in the sea and ships
For I am life!