Short story – The Refugee

I first posted this story on 21st January this year, under the title “Where is Europe?” I think this may have misled people into thinking it was a political post about Brexit, and it had very few readers. So, here it is, retitled but otherwise unchanged!

Short story – The Refugee

Latifah struggled up from the nightmare, sobbing, the taste of fear like blood in her mouth. As she opened her eyes she saw her mother.

“Quickly, Latifah, quickly!”

She heard revving engines, screeching tyres and gunshots. For a few seconds she lay petrified, too frightened to move. They had come!

Her mother pulled her to her feet, thrust her abaya over her head, tied her niqab in place.

“Come quickly,” she implored.

“Allah, do not let me fall into the hands of these men; let me die first,” Latifah prayed.

Men were pounding at the front door, battering it. She could hear her father shouting. There was a burst of automatic fire, and agonized shrieks. Her mother gasped, pushed her out of the back door, and they stumbled away.

Behind them were screams, and the flickering light of burning buildings; in front was darkness. Latifah’s mother fell to her knees.

“I’m wounded. You must run, Latifah, run!” She fell forwards, face in the dirt and lay still. Latifah let out a howl of despair, and then ran.

She ran until breathing hurt, until her legs wobbled, until she could no longer hear the dreadful sounds and the flames were hidden behind a hill. And then she wept for her mother and her father and her brothers, for her friends and for her home. There was no way back.

She walked on through night, and the desert, and the sunrise, until she reached a small town. The gunmen weren’t there; this was still a place of friends. Latifah had a little money, and she bought some bread and drank from a water fountain. “Which is the way to the sea?” she asked everyone.

It was a long walk. Sometimes she was lucky and found a day’s work, which would buy her a little food to last a week. Sometimes she had to beg. She slept in the open, fitfully.

And she reached the sea. Her eyes grew large and round in her gaunt face. The sea was so large! It was like a desert of water! “Where is Europe,” she asked everyone.

Some shrugged; some laughed; “It’s like heaven,” said a woman. “You only get there after you’re dead.”

One good-looking young man said, “I can fix it for you to travel there. Show me your face.”

“No, that would be sinful!” she exclaimed.

He grabbed her niqab and pulled it off roughly, tossing the rag into the bushes at the side of the road. She fought him, but he was strong and she was starving,

“Allah protect me!”

She fell and felt him press hard on top of her. He smelled sweet, rotten. The stones under her were gouging into her back, and they lacerated her as she struggled. He was laughing as he forced her legs apart. And then, suddenly, he slumped. His head fell against Latifah’s, stunning her.

It was the face of a very young man that she saw first as she recovered consciousness. She gasped and shrank back.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “See, I’ve found your niqab. You can put it on and be modest again.” She looked at him as a cat approaches a stranger, warily, ready to flee.

“It’s alright. Here it is.”

He held it up. Latifah snatched it, tied it in place.

“Are you alright to walk? We’d better go. I think I killed him when I hit him with the rock. He…he hasn’t moved.”

Latifah dragged herself upright, and sobbed. She hurt all over, and her limbs shook. She looked at the young man. Why, he was a boy really, hardly older than she was!

“Thank you,” she said. “Do you know where Europe is?”

“It’s over there somewhere.” He gestured towards the sea. “Is that where you want to go?”

Latifah nodded.

“My family is going tonight. Do you want to come with us?”

“Could I?” she said, hardly daring to believe it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I shall have to ask.”

That night, Latifah and Asif, with the strong arms of Asif’s mother around them, crossed the sea and reached safety.