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Without Country

The rigger coiled the line of wet rope around his hand, reeling in the sea crate they were using as a makeshift raft. ‘Look up,’ he said, pushing down on one edge of the crate, seesawing the man lying on top.

‘Where are we?’

‘Look up.’

The man, a journalist, sank lower into the boards of the raft, tightening his grip on the stupor he had resigned himself to. ‘Why don’t you just tell me?’

Ahead, across the last stretch of marbled ocean, a wall of cliff signalled their destination. Beneath it stretched a long line of beach sand, pale in the morning light. ‘I can see the beach,’ the rigger said.

The journalist turned over, revealing his mask of sunburn. ‘How far is it now?’

The rigger counted back from the shore in sets of waves. From the cliff top a litter of grey angles shot into the sky: seabirds scattering across the noisy water like loose change. A fragment of the flock landed in the nearby swell.

‘Are they birds?’ asked the journalist, edging to his elbows.

‘Yes.’ The rigger stared into the thin bead of the nearest bird’s eye. ‘Seagulls.’

‘A good sign.’ The journalist reached over his head and separated his shirt from his poached skin. He lay back down and, moments later, sat up. ‘Is it empty,’ he asked quietly, ‘the beach?’

A mast of bone struck through the skin. ‘Is it bad?’ he asked, turning his face away

The rigger looked along the coast. A single bone-white tree stuck out against the dry brush marking the escarpment, its featureless limbs needling upwards like a hand signalling stop or hello – he couldn’t tell which. An unremarkable coastline, he thought. Dry, aching sand interrupted by confusions of limestone rock and flotsam. ‘It looks empty,’ he said, eyes fixed on the leafless tree. The tug of the rope brought him back into the water. ‘We’re close now,’ he said, easing two fingers between the rope and his ringbarked flesh. ‘We don’t need the crate.’

‘Just a bit further,’ said the other, as he touched the pulpy mess of his eyes. ‘Anyway, I’m not sure I would know which direction to swim in.’

The rigger glanced again at the man’s face. ‘It’s not so bad,’ he said. He could smell the ripening stink of diesel on their skin. ‘Your eyes, I mean.’

‘Are you a doctor?’

‘No.’ The rigger looked at his shrivelled hands.

A wave passed through looking for the shore, the crate lazy on its back. The birds moved off towards the tip of the beach, where lines of surf gathered to pound the scrap yard of jagged reef. In the opposite direction, the coast softened into emerald shallows and immature belts of reef and weed. The sands of a new country moving between the rigger’s toes. He dug in his heels, gathered up the slack, and headed towards the weed.

THE RIGGER PULLED the raft between the mats of weed that pricked the surface of the water. ‘Do you think they’ll look for us?’ asked the rigger.

‘Not for a while,’ said the journalist as he retrieved his shirt from the water and covered his face, letting the wet fabric seal around his mouth like substitute skin. ‘There’ll be plenty of others to deal with. We need to move off the coast, though. They’ll watch the beach.’

Each drag of the ocean current rearranged the mossy continents around them. The rigger waited for the weed to shift its weight away from his legs. ‘Are you worried?’ he asked.

‘Worried about what?’

‘About the boat.’

‘What about it?’

‘The rest of them. What’ll happen to them.’

‘Don’t take on other people’s pain. You can’t fix it.’

‘I guess so,’ said the rigger, starting to move forward again.