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By Sea They Come

Ciaran MacLennan

She reminded me of my daughter with her dark intelligent eyes/And her brown hair bunching in lazy curls about her shoulders./She looked up at me as I hoisted the boat clear of the sea and smiled with even/white teeth

Human Cargo
I guided the wire and the great piston arms of the davits, first for one boat and
     then the other
And lowered them gently into the calm black sea
We watched as they became just red and green navigation lights in the distance while
Pearl blue clouds tumbled softly along the ship’s hull and
We waited for them to return from the navy boat Leeuwin.
They came back, the two fast jet boats, bows proudly riding the slow swell,
     and rolled in alongside. The coxswain connected to the davit wire and, gently,
     gently, I plucked them, pop, from the yielding sea womb and back up into the
     davit arms, brimming with a secret cargo,
As wild eyed as bag men,
Huddled together, ______________
Diminutive in the bright orange life jackets, like strange midnight nestlings
     looking up, white eyed and hollow cheeked,
Those lean-boned sons of Bangladesh,
Famine driven into the sea.

The Patient
He sat there in the shadows just inside the entrance to the prison block,
Thin and black, he was hard to make out in the dark.
He sat there patiently waiting.
He was being transported ashore for medical treatment.
All the other refugees had been transferred over onto a naval boat and he
     remained alone.
His knees were touching the way a schoolboy’s might waiting outside a principal’s office for punishment,
He sat there in the dark all alone.
Most of the people he had met in the two days he had spent onboard the Ocean Protector had been wearing guns and other weapons like tasers and pepper spray.
He must have been very afraid.
When he came out between the two customs officers he did not reach their
He went into the boat with the officers and the doctor.
And the bridge gave them a sweeping lee as we lowered away and the fast boat backed off the ship’s side and swung its bow into the low choppy swell and headed for the ancient red brow of Darwin’s shoreline.

The Unaccompanied Minor
She reminded me of my daughter with her dark intelligent eyes
And her brown hair bunching in lazy curls about her shoulders.
She looked up at me as I hoisted the boat clear of the sea and smiled with even
     white teeth
And seemed, somehow, unafraid.
There were other children, wet and ragged, but also unbowed,
Unbowed by the shark-grey navy boat and its navy men in mindless grey
With their guns strapped low on their thighs so maybe they could quick draw
and get a bead on … whom?
Maybe an eight-year-old girl or her six-year-old brother, or their mother or
     father, or the cutthroat crew
Barefoot and threadbare as any hobo.
But there she was smiling up at me
Unbowed by white phosphorous, unbowed by bulldozers or dictators
Unbowed by imperial America or her attack dogs and satraps
Unbowed by hunger or by flood
She smiled the whole way up and I retracted the davit arm and lowered the boat
     into its housing
The customs men wore their guns a little higher and were dressed in dark
     blue jumpsuits and jackboots, they wore white latex gloves, laughed among
     themselves and barked orders in English to refugees.
I watched as the girl left the boat and waited in line
I watched as she took the hand of a much younger girl, and together and with
all the other refugees they were directed down the stairs to the prison block.

We stood back as the customs officers herded them off the boats,
Some of the women were crying and a man had collapsed at the bottom of the stairs
The ship’s crew did not have shoes and stepped gingerly on the iron grating.
The children, as always, seemed impossibly brave.
The customs officers directed them down the stairs and lined the men up
     alongside the prison block and spread them eagle against the bulkhead, kicking
their heels apart, and patted them down demanding to know whether or not
     they carried any weapons.
One had a small pocket knife and a customs officer held it in his gloved hand
     and demanded to know what it was for:
It was just a regular pocket knife.
This went on for hours.
We launched the customs boats and they came back full of those terrified
     human beings they call PIIs (potential illegal immigrants). When they had cleared each boatload customs tossed the baggage down two
metres from the deck above, if the refugees owned anything that could be
     broken it certainly would be. I found out later that these people were from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Palestine.

They have a space on the aft deck
It is delineated by a yellow plastic chain and is perhaps 25 metres long by 10 or
     so wide
     and they have their lunch there beneath the shade sail we put up but little
     breeze reaches them because of the high ship’s gunnels and it is always in the
     mid thirties, at a minimum, by lunch
The refugees have hung their clothes out to dry along the chain
There is a green lace bra beside a woman’s scarf and children’s clothing, pink
     and green T-shirts with shiny transfers.
The adults sit together talking softly while the children play among their
     crossed legs and, even under the constant armed guard of the customs officers,
     are still happy.
After lunch, which is about an hour though sometimes longer but never much,
     they are sent back into the prison block.
The women’s quarters consist of two rooms, no windows, both with nine bunks
     but no mattresses
Though they are given thin foam mats to sleep on.
The men’s quarters are also windowless but without any bunks, like some
     strange stifled dojo, and above the door there is a small metal plate stamped
     ‘austere accommodation’.
They are lucky enough to have received our old, well-used and dirty gym mats
     as bedding.

©Ciaran MacLennan



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