This story came to me two or three years ago. I started drafting with the end in mind. I quit because I couldn’t think how to write the end (I didn’t want the end), and when I returned to the draft in November I was surprised the story I’d nearly finished in my head was only a five hundred word start. Before you read: I wrote this story first thinking of Syria and the refugees desperate to escape death, and then I thought about this story as response to the horror of Yemen’s famine. Now I finished the story and am afraid to post but will. Please do not read what you do not want.
The children came ashore in three low, leaky boats and sat on the white sand. Two resort cleaning staff crossing behind the beachfront villas saw the children’s hunched shadows and called Sandu who was just rising to start his day. He walked quickly to the beach and saw the silent children sitting in three lines facing the water. Sandu motioned to his staff and from a distance they conferred. The guests would wake soon. There was a woman who practiced yoga at sunrise. Sandu called his superior who was still sleeping. It was no use. The cleaning staff looked at Sandu and then past the children, to the empty boats bumping in the shallows of the four star Cherish Resort. Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear, a habit of childhood that returned rarely: at his wedding to a woman he met two weeks previous, at his promotion, at news of the death of his father. He dialed his superior again and left a voice message. We are being invaded.
One of the cleaning staff suggested they take the children back to their quarters. There are too many, another argued. Sandu counted and said, Fifty-seven, plus or minus two or three. He couldn’t tell if some of the bigger children were holding infants or bags to their chests. We have to go see, sir. Sandu nodded. You go, he said. He watched the two cleaning staff amble across the sand toward two of the bigger children. They all kept their voices low. Sandu looked down the row of villas and checked the time. The sky was just getting light. That yoga woman could never sleep in. But if she did it was possible, wasn’t it, to get the children off the beach, maybe into a conference room, though that would be a far walk from here. The boats came from a neighboring island, loosed by wind perhaps. Sandu looked at the sky, looked at his watch. The children were silent.
One of the cleaning staff came back up to Sandu. There are seventy-one at the start. Only sixty-three now. We might have miscounted at the start. Sandu rubbed his jaw, then tugged gently at the hair behind his ear. He asked, Where are they from?
Sir, they thought they were going to Australia.
In those boats?
Yes, sir, they are on the sea for seven days.
Sandu walked down the beach to the yoga woman’s villa. She was here by herself. Miss Elena. She wore linen in shades of fog. He’d been in her room twice, once to deliver an airmail letter she’d requested be delivered day or night (he’d been thankful the letter arrived midmorning and he only interrupted her tea) and once to pick up a package for overnight courier service. She kept her villa clean, seemed only to sit in one chair at the table and on one sofa in the front room. She practiced yoga at sunrise, and took long baths in the evening. The more Sandu considered, he decided she was the guest that concerned him least. She would not howl about the children.
There were four other villas on this beach and two of them occupied for the week, one by a British couple in their seventies who read through the morning and napped through the afternoon, and the other by an Arab couple in their thirties who called Sandu with endless requests. Colder ice, more towels, an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker. The Arab couple would not be pleased. Perhaps they would accept an upgrade to a villa on the Blue Lagoon beach.
Sandu neared Miss Elena’s villa as she opened the door so that when she looked up, she startled to see him. He and other resort staff attended the villas as anonymously as possible to give guests a sense of privacy and ownership. Unless requested, no villa offered a butler, maid or nanny but Sandu took care to anticipate wants and needs and after nearly two decades of hospitality he understood how to provide or fulfill without crossing an illusionary line, without causing imbalance or discomfort; equally important, Sandu understood how to leave a guest alone, how to wait for a raised hand, tilted head, uneaten lunch that said a want or need. Now Miss Elena, whom Sandu knew preferred to be left alone, startled but calmed when Sandu said, It is me, Miss Elena. Sandu from the resort. I know you enjoy sunrise yoga and I hoped to show you another beach you may enjoy.
If it okay, Sandu, I prefer our beach. She gently closed the door to her villa and stepped onto the sand.
It is okay, but this morning the beach is occupied and I know you enjoy solitude.
Miss Elena looked at him for a moment and Sandu realized how this must appear. A male staff member luring a single woman to a secluded beach. Sandu coughed and said, I do not mean to alarm. I only – I – and Sandu had no words. He did not want to say what came out of his mouth. Miss Elena, he said, There are children on the beach.
They arrived at dawn on boats.
I do not want you or the other guests disturbed, that is all. If you are amenable to practicing yoga on a different beach – Sandu gestured toward a path leading over a small, manicured hill of low plants and tall trees. For a moment it seemed Miss Elena would not take his direction, but then she nodded. He walked ahead of her, silently, and left her where the path returned to sand.
It is very beautiful, she said, Thank you.
You are welcome. Sandu turned to walk back through the resort, to the beach with children. Already he was afraid what the cleaning staff might have decided without him.
What will happen to the children?
Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear. He said, I do not know. We will take care. Then before she could ask any more questions, he set off, more quickly now, and when out of view, started to run back to the beach with children.
The children were silent yet. This surprised Sandu. He motioned again for the cleaning staff to join him. His supervisor was still not answering the phone and the other guests could wake or the younger children could cry. Three empty boats drifted in the shallows. Sandu said quietly, This is what we must do. We must take the children to the field behind our housing and sit them in rows on the grass there. We will ask the kitchen to prepare rice and fruit. Sandu called the kitchen manager who was often last to bed and first to rise and requested rice and fruit. Then he walked to the edge of the water and stood before the rows of children sitting cross-legged on the sand. He raised his hands to get their attention but all the little faces were already looking up at him, waiting, so he coughed to cleared his throat. He spoke without raising his voice, in English. He could not guess if they children understood. A few blinked. A few nodded. He used gestures, pointed at the cleaning staff, and at the instructions of a couple of the older children, the group stood and formed two lines and without much rustle, followed the cleaning staff off the beach, along a path that made its way to the field.
What was left on the beach were pocks of footprints, fans where tiny hands played with the white sand. In the shallow water, the three empty boats. Sandu rolled his pant legs and waded to the nearest boat. It was lined with plastic. It reeked of urine and feces. The children had arrived from somewhere, with nothing. Sandu called Manny at the Cherish Marina, to see about removing the boats. He left a message. He called his supervisor again who still did not answer. He swept the beach quickly and thought which embassy might have an answer, which charity or mission on one of the other islands might send a ferry to rescue the children.
By noon his supervisor was still not returning his calls. Only a text: Take care of the children. The boats were gone from the beach. Where the children had sat silently, the old British couple now dozed under the shade of an umbrella, their rum diluted by melted ice. Sandu hadn’t seen the Arab couple, which wasn’t unusual. For three days they requested brunch mid afternoon. He was not worried about disturbing them. He was worried about Miss Elena. He now understood what would come of the children and he should not have said a word to Miss Elena that morning. He lacked discretion. No, he lacked foresight. Sandu did not want to see Miss Elena before the children were gone from the field because he did not want to say any more of the truth to her, about what he was now arranging, about what would be finished by the time she decided to call the concierge to ask to speak to Sandu because he was not answering her calls and she wanted to know about the children on the beach.
The children on the beach? the concierge would ask.
Yes, Sandu told me this morning that boats arrived. Boats with children.
The concierge would pause, having no knowledge of boats arriving or children on the beach.
Sandu again called the kitchen manager, asked to speak with the butcher. Each week Cherish resort slaughtered its own pigs, chickens and ducks. But now the butcher did not understand his request. He balked at what Sandu asked. Sandu could feel the situation slipping. The children could not sit in quiet rows in the sun for too much longer. Two months ago his supervisor instructed him to take care of the cats, feral cats who had come over on a day ferry and were pissing on the beach sand. The year before that Sandu took care of guest’s child bride who wailed for two days before Sandu offered the girl a strawberry juice at dinner, laced with sedatives. Sandu spoke again to the butcher, to be understood plainly. I need three sharp knives, Sandu said, For goats in the field. Sandu bit each word, then softened his tone. He was lightheaded, and asked for a box of sandwiches to also be ready when he came by the kitchen.
When the butcher slaughtered, he worked in a space hidden from Cherish Resort guests, a small patch of dirt behind the storage shed where white plastic chairs, folding tables, old clothes and table settings, extra plumbing fixtures, and the bounce houses were kept. Sandu carried a bag with the three knives and sandwich box past the rows of children (sixty-seven, the accurate count). He opened the storage shed and found a white bucket and filled it with water from a spigot. Then he called one of the cleaning staff to come to him. There were few times when Sandu had to speak with threats. Usually his requests were reasonable. Even the unreasonable requests of guests he could phrase to make the chore simple, and he understood when to couple a task with the promise of a reward, but very occasionally Sandu exercised fear to inspire compliance. Now Sandu showed the cleaning staff the knives and said what he would do and how the cleaning staff would help. You will bring the children, one child at a time, he said. He spoke slowly.
You will not show any fear.
You will not alarm the children.
You will not speak of this to any other person.
And if you do, you will not go home to your own children.
Ever. Do you understand?
Sandu’s phone beeped then and he checked the number, answered and replied to a question about pineapples and mangoes while looking at the cleaning staff. He hung up and said, There is no other way. No one will take these children. They are not even children. I think they are goats. Yes, it will be like goats.
One cleaner looked about to be sick. Sandu gestured to a bush and the man leapt across the dirt to bend over and heave. When the cleaner was finished, he dipped a hand in the bucket of water and rinsed his mouth, then walked away without looking at Sandu. Tell the children there is a boat to take them to Europe, Sandu said, and the cleaner raised a hand to acknowledge. For a few minutes Sandu waited, wanting to look around the storage shed but not looking, trusting the cleaner wanted to see his own children again, here on earth, so when the cleaner came with the first child, Sandu smiled. His smile was kind, warm, nearly tricking the hand that reached for the knife so that Sandu had to let go the smile, take the child’s arm, press a palm to the mouth and nose of the child and quickly cut her throat. The cleaner recoiled. Sandu set the knife down, lifted the girl’s body and carried her to a wheelbarrow. He rinsed his hands, patting them dry on his pants, and dialed another number to call for Manny who did much worse to beat down civil uprisings, who could not find work anywhere but far from home and who did not speak about his past except when very drunk, such as one time when Sandu found him on a guest’s yacht. Manny trekked the wheelbarrow back and forth, dirt patch to quiet cove, for the hours it took to kill the sixty-seven children, and dropped the bodies in old rowboats he covered with blue tarpaulins.
The first twelve were children. Even as Sandu held a hand over tiny mouths, stilled the wriggling bodies by crushing ribs with his thighs as though taking a piggyback ride, even as he drew the knife quick and deep across tiny necks, he understood these first twelve were children with mothers and fathers who thought a boat ferried safety. These twelve boys and girls had aunties who kissed their cheeks, uncles who slipped a candy into tiny hands, cousins who chased up trees and down streets. There were signs of love, like thread bracelets or improbably tidy braids or a careful patch on a shirt or a thin silver ring. The first twelve were children who saw Sandu with a light trust for the barest moment before he grabbed at them to press his hand tightly, to keep their screams inside. And then after the first twelve, all the children were goats, even the smallest who would not learn to speak, until the end.
There was more blood than Sandu anticipated. Manny worked diligently with downturned eyes. Sandu lost count. He was hot and the iron smell nauseated him. He asked the cleaner what number this was as Manny pushed the wheelbarrow down a narrow path, and was surprised to learn he was only just past halfway. He sighed. His arms were sore from holding the goats, from pulling the knife. He didn’t want to ask the time. He remembered the sandwiches and rinsed his hands in the bloody water but had no dry, clean spot on his pants or shirt to pat dry. He picked up a sandwich. The bread turned pink. The cleaner watched without speaking, eyes glazed like fever. Sandu ate quickly and gestured the cleaner to go bring another goat.
He was nearly finished. The children were nearly finished. The cleaning staff and Manny were nearly finished. The children were children again, these last six or seven. One boy had a grain of rice on his chin which Sandu noticed as he reached for the thin arm, thin boy, thin neck. And after him, the last of the goats were children who could not be made goats. Sandu’s back ached and his hands hurt. At the end he stretched his arms overhead, rolled his neck. He spoke briefly with Manny who only needed short words to understand the children must go far out to sea, away from any current that might bring their bodies to any shore. He spoke for a longer time with his cleaning staff who could not meet his eyes until he commanded them to look up. This could not be helped, Sandu said, There is no good place for children who come from nowhere. To show kindness, Sandu allowed the next day off and dismissed them to their night. He stayed behind the storage shed to empty the bucket of bloody water. There was a great mess of blood and dirt, a thick sludge Sandu hadn’t noticed in the middle of his work and it was too much to call usual for a slaughter. The ground took the blood quickly as it took rain and there was no way to dig its depth. Sandu thought for a moment how to take the blood from the earth and decided instead to give more earth to the blood. He pushed Manny’s wheelbarrow to the cove where the children now lay in neat rows under blue tarpaulin and walked the wheelbarrow into the shallows to rinse the blood, then scooped sand with his hands to fill the wheelbarrow before returning to the red dirt and emptying the load. He did this twice more to be certain, then found a rake and pulled the earth over the blood.
Leaving the patch behind the shed, swinging the bucket at his side, the knives ruined now, Sandu crossed to where the cleaning staff asked the children to sit. The children were silent all day which Sandu thought a curious blessing. Sandu surveyed the grass where the children had waited to board the boat taking them to Australia or Italy or wherever they thought they were going to live. He nudged a tuft of grass with his toe. The area looked clean. It was secluded. Likely no one saw the children. And the story of what happened was that the children boarded boats for another island, which may be true if Manny chose an island bog. Manny he could trust. The cleaning staff were diligent but he saw how they could not look at him, how they bowed their head when they approached with the next goat, how they could not lift their heads until he commanded it. Sandu was not yet sure what he would do about the cleaning staff.
At his small living quarters, Sandu turned on the shower. Always he was economical. He turned the water off to lather. He rinsed quickly. He took a nail brush to clean the red brown under his nails, staining his cuticles. Sandu finished and stood wet and naked in the tiny bathroom. He was suddenly very tired. He turned the water on again, to its hottest, steaming the round mirror and scalding his back.
On the other side of the island, guests played in the water or laid on the beach or lost the afternoon to expensive wine or platters of food. Miss Elena did not call Sandu or the concierge to ask about the children. She rested in her bed made up with white linen, then bathed in water scented with lavender oil, then dressed in shades of ocean to walk to the main hotel for dinner, rather than order room service as she preferred. Perhaps because her day began in so unusual a way, it must end with a slight, evening deviation from routine. At the hotel, Miss Elena asked to sit on the patio where she could see and smell the water. Near her table was the old British couple puzzling over a piece of paper the man held in his palm. Miss Elena lifted a hand when the woman looked up. Miss Elena asked what was interesting on that piece of paper and then joined the British couple at their table at their invitation. The three of them passed the paper.
I don’t read Arabic, Miss Elena said. Perhaps one of the staff?
We like a good mystery, see, said the old woman.
So when we found this in the sand, the old man continued, We thought to find what is written, by whom and why.
I think I may know, Miss Elena said. I woke early and this morning Sandu told me boats arrived in the night, boats of children. Perhaps one of them, from a pocket?
Boats of children? The old woman furrowed her brow. Wouldn’t we have heard something?
I did not hear a thing, Miss Elena said, They were quiet at ghosts.
Did you see them?
What has come of them?
I don’t know. I imagine they are cared for.
The table let the conversation lapse as drinks were delivered and after, each was lost to his or her own ideas about boats of children arriving in the night, and where those children might be. Miss Elena looked at the scrap of paper now in the center of the table and touched its edges. It is curious, she said, and when she looked up she saw Sandu across the patio speaking with one of the waitstaff. Miss Elena lifted a hand to call him over. He walked toward her, smiling first at her and then at the old British couple.
If I remember correctly, Sandu said, You are each near the end of your stay at Cherish.
Yes, the old woman said, And it has been lovely. We chose dates to return.
Wonderful, Sandu said. He turned to Miss Elena. And you? For you it has also been a pleasant stay?
Miss Elena said yes. There was a pretend game between Sandu and his guests. The pretend he didn’t already know the answer to his question, the pretend that the guest’s life and stay were truly private, the pretend he could smooth any ill. When he looked at Miss Elena looking up at him now, he saw how pale her neck was, how childlike. Miss Elena smiled. I am curious, Sandu, about the boats of children. Can you tell us what happened?
Sandu cleared his throat. I made a call, he said, And spent the day moving the children from the island. He dropped his voice and said, I really prefer, Miss Elena, that we not talk of the children. It was never my intent for any guests to know of their arrival or, now, of their departure. Sandu looked at the old British couple, to include them in his confession. He bent at the waist a little and said, I am relieved to tell you each child is moved to safety.
Miss Elena put a hand to her heart. She closed her eyes. Thank you, she said, All day I wondered.
Sandu straightened. He was about to move through the patio, to check on other guests, to assure his staff of his returned presence, when he saw a slip the slip of paper. He tilted his head. He knew the paper. He saw these little papers all day, pinned to tee shirts or peeking from pockets. Miss Elena followed his gaze and picked up the paper, held it out for him to see. We found it, she said, Well they found it. On the beach. It looks like Arabic and I thought perhaps a note from one of the children. Do you read Arabic?
Sandu shook his head no. He did, a little. I can look into this, he said, and put the slip of paper in his pocket. It may only be a note from one of our other guests, he said, and smiled. I would not want their privacy compromised in any way. Miss Elena dipped her head, like a schoolgirl in trouble with her teacher, and Sandu again saw her neck. He could sense in his body how close he was to slipping, how careful he now had to be to keep his mind from spilling out his mouth. He remembered the other times followed by this same crucial turn, and pulled at the hair behind his ear. Sandu nodded to the old British couple, to Miss Elena, and before he left, promised to tell her the message, if it were not private. Miss Elena smiled. Sandu walked away but watched Miss Elena throughout her meal. Watcher her drink wine and talk lightly with the old British couple. Watched her play with the pendant of her necklace. Watched her shift her weight in her chair, watched her laugh after a second glass of wine. He thought he could not sleep if Miss Elena did not show him what he needed to know, and he nearly ruined it by returning to the table with a made up translation of the note – a line from a love poem, easily attributed to the Gulf guests – when she laughed and Sandu understood she believed him that the children were on boats again, going away to live. What else would she prefer to believe?
Sandu left the patio then, walked along manicured paths passing guest villas, passing staff lodging where he paused to listen under the dark window of the room shared by the cleaning staff but hearing nothing, walked on to his own small rooms where he took the paper from his pocket and read the name, the place, and wondered which goat was this name, this place.
This is story two of thirty-nine. Started two or three years ago. Draft finished 2 December. 4244 words.