Ahmed falls from the steel deck thick with diesel oil and malice, through a rain unlike anything he’s known, and he glimpses an almost touchable shore, shameless, sharp and cruel, unreal and foreign, rich with waste and electricity, though the air’s not a thing to loiter in.
I’m flying to a distant destination.
Engulfed by cold, seawater cloaking him greenly, Lut’s wife parades from the city of salt to mock him like some handsome angel, tempting him with endless water. A trail of rising bubbles glows as Ahmed passes. With the last of his strength, he climbs the seaquake’s liquid steps to steal a squall of foul air. No swimmer of tempests, Ahmed. Hope’s foolish when weight’s the decider.
Shore light slips through clawing fingers. He’s only known a lack of water, and here he’s breathing the blessed stuff.
The burden of the sea is a body’s fate.
Opening liver-purple lungs to swallow emerald crush, he tastes bitterness, breathes warm bubble-death. Ears take in waves and mocking slot machines. Eyes ruptured by punch-bag amusements in an English seaside town, so unlike the landscape of his youth where each year new canyons are carved by flood and drought, new camps for driven-out families encroach on his family’s land. The geography’s ox-bowed by hungry militias. The downwardness drives out such memories, deeper he goes, beneath again, turning to face the keel above. Lost everything: Home and future, in search of crumbs of tomorrows. A place safe from strafing, struggling, slaughter. When the country’s ripped by war over water and oil, it is the little people like Ahmed who are forced into becoming pathfinders. He’d practically hauled his family to these safe harbours.
God, pull up Your fisher’s line, I’m caught.
Waiting for him behind his closing eyes, beckoning: His village, huddled in the trembling embrace of a once green valley made ochre by heat; Incomprehensible, a traumatised scrubland once his playground; Planes criss-crossing their crucifying way across the heavens, dropping white bags of rice and medicine, delivering bombs and leaflets – you never know what will be gifted to your fallow fields; Bright-clothed sisters, once alive with laughter. And here come grandfather’s goats, dancing home through twilight-joy in a rhythm all their own, to join a farewell celebration, dishes, fires, singing, fresh bread donated by kind women in the West. The old man’s there in all his toothless glory, along with everyone Ahmed’s ever known, and every tenderness from sharing. Blue cigarette smoke rising into sundown from his grandfather’s lips, proud of his pathfinder grandson setting sail for the port over the barren mountain, where forests once offered shade, a boy becoming a brave sailor full of prospect. Ahmed was the hook his family sent into the gullet of the western world. He’d sworn an oath he’d pull the family behind him. He was to be Noah’s respite dove, fetching olive sticks, craving a new home. Instead, Ahmed pecks at estuary silt, becomes downness tumbling deep.
Regardless, almost thankful.
So far to walk from broken hills and shattered valleys. Ahmed’s just one pungent peppercorn in a long line of such boy-men. He belongs nowhere now, no more able to light a fire to find his way among pathfinders, hope dowsers, those falling toward unsafety, than your only daughter or my only son. There is no over there, his grandfather whispered in his ear, stroking his last precious goat. ‘There is only one here. There is only one tribe.’
I am netted in a fishless mesh.
He’s abating yet he’s rising. The sea cleans him, wreaths him ready for a seaweed shroud, the envy of his sisters whom he buried with his own young calloused hands. Ahmed’s dissolving in cold water, imagines himself a martyr to his sisters’ succour, searching for a quiet place just to be. A land with and without differentials.
I am a latticework of prayers.
The sea knows a body by the shape of its memory. Ahmed presents his green human credentials: The opening of eyes upon the moon that shines at home; A taste of thin yoghurt; The warmth of being held by a woman who loves him; First steps and ululations; Last meal at which he saw his mother living; The day a teacher strikes him for his stutter; The effervescent discovery of football; The cut-outs of his parents drawn by cluster bombs; Made in Britain jets erasing family names; Burials; Burnings; The bodies of bright sisters in a ditch; A chance to escape brokenness; Heart-dearth; Loans; The borrowing of hope.
I am a swallower of seas.
You have to pay for the freedom not to starve. These are your inhuman rights. Across dry hills to the poisoned port. Bribes. Cold Nights. Disgust. The things required. Awful food, an inability to pay anymore or pray anything. Smuggled. Smothered. Many days at sea. A tanker’s engineer all Judas smiles on deck when a new world comes in sight despite the storm: ‘Come face the storm, Ahmed! See England’s promise.’
Water remembers. It knows oiled-hands upon a desert boy’s back; The tossing of a man no older than my child toward streetlights forever out of reach upon a hoped-for shore: Uprushing spray; Downburst waves; Every name of unkind disappointment. The sea croons to a body drowned by sadness as much by water. It feels hands grasp the rolling limbs it owns. Gloved fingers reluctant to leave a boy to the fishes. Women and men who are friends to all nations hauling too late a refugee toward blue light. Water pouring from a body. At last the touch of foreign sand. Water tucks into its purse of stories Ahmed’s final revelation, that for the lack of food any grandfather will sacrifice his favourite goat to feed his family, understanding too late that there is nothing for tomorrow. That for the lack of the sky’s water stolen away by factories grandsons will travel to places safe from drought. The realising too late there is no safe place remaining.
My coming here is a miracle not a sin. You made me come.
4 thoughts on “Here Come Grandfather’s Goats by Antony Osgood”
I am constantly impressed by the effortless quality of your prose. I imagine it takes a lot of work to achieve the flow you excel at.
Absolutely brilliant! Rich and desperate and artfully structured. One to remember.
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The flow that you get throughout your stories is so impressive.
Technically you are as good as anyone on the site.
But none of that would matter if you weren’t a brilliant story-teller.
You are a brilliant story teller!
All the very best my friend.
I’m very humbled by your positive comments. When I was a young man I happened to be taught by a wonderful English teacher, Adri Kent, who encouraged me to write, and to ‘keep on writing’ – she showed me how practically every author I admired spent a lot of time drafting, and redrafting, and rewriting. She said writing was for most of us mortals like sculpture: the initial idea is the raw material, then it is a matter of discovering what you uncover as you go, and to be guided by the material. No matter how great your original material, it can always benefit from polishing. So ‘Here Comes Grandfather’s Goats’ as you see it is, I think, about draft eight or nine.