They waited hours before being seen. Benoy cradled his mother on a bench in the Teknaf Upazila Health Complex. He cupped a hand over the limp side of her face. She slurred something, then moaned.
“What hurts?” he said.
Her unintelligible response set Benoy’s gaze across the hospital lobby, at the twenty or so other Bangladeshi in waiting. One man met his eyes. He pressed a bloody towel to the mess of his forehead and looked away. Benoy held his mother tighter. His free hand reached into his pocket. He touched the winning lottery ticket to remind himself that it was real: a spot among twenty-two thousand others for a Diversity Immigrant Visa, to start another life in America. Immigration lawyers, sponsored by the US Embassy, had arranged to take him to Dhaka later that week, where his visa would be processed. A flight to New York City awaited.
His mother was placed in a cot among dozens separated by tall, gauzy curtains. The doctor was uncertain if she’d recover from the stroke. He reminded Benoy that the hospital couldn’t afford to keep her on life support for long. Benoy sat at the edge of her mattress until the facing wall clock read the hour of dawn. He was unwilling to leave until the last possible moment. Not working was an option few could afford, and countless others were only too hungry to take his place. As long as he lived in Teknaf, there was no escaping the sea.
Benoy stood in the Bay of Bengal, his calloused palms grasping the hem of the gillnet, which was held open between the circle of fishermen like a huge mouth. A dozen men surrounded Benoy. Everyone gathered a portion of the net and drew it closer together. Inside, fish danced in crooked rows of silver. Men emptied the net with large woven baskets. Benoy and the others returned the net to the small fishing boat. They pushed from the stern until the boat ascended the beach. Then they secured it among a line of other long, crescent-shaped trawlers, all painted in yellows, reds and blues, their many colorful flags waving in the gentle evening breeze.
Around him, the fishermen chatted and laughed. Benoy hurried past them. Near the edge of the beach, rows of tables were set up for the purposes of shutki, salting and drying the day’s catch. In the center of a fishmonger’s rough table sat a Black Fin shark’s head–its triangular snout upright, the jaw of its razor teeth gaping open as if still shocked by its own death.
His mother lay unconscious for days. Each night Benoy sat at her bedside until dawn. Tonight the lawyers would take him to Dhaka, and then America. On the Diversity Visa, he’d travel alone, without his mother.
The doctor advised him not to leave. His mother’s passing wavered above their heads.
“We will be forced to make a decision in your absence,” the doctor said, gesturing to the heart monitor. Benoy stood against her small, gray cot and squeezed her bony hands. She answered him with steady breath, the gentle rise and fall of her chest.
He remembered how young and joyful she appeared on that day he won, only a month ago. They’d played the visa lottery for years after his father was lost at sea. It was her constant faith in him that enabled his will. He imagined her healthy and standing upright, adjusting her drab, olive sari. Its pallu was draped loosely over her bony shoulder, with a bronze house-key anchoring the end tip in place, a slow-moving pendulum.
Benoy smoothed the silver hair against her head. He kissed her brow and turned away.
In the marketplace, Benoy felt oppressed by the shouting vendors and the flattened sound of Indian doggerel hip-hop on transistor radios. He walked by tables of bangles, sandals, and shawls made by the Rohingya of Myanmar, who’d taken refuge in Teknaf. Often their children begged in the streets. Once, Benoy was approached by a small girl propositioning herself to him in exchange for rice. He’d shooed her away with a few Taka. Now he looked for the child in the crowd, but saw only a black sedan waiting at the edge of the marketplace. As he approached, a car door opened and Benoy was soon inside.
The lawyers were generous. They told him what to say to the US Embassy and described the lavish accommodations of the hotel he’d be staying in until boarding his departing flight. Benoy held himself against the steady assault of the air conditioning and studied the chauffeur’s balding head. As the car accelerated, his eyes clung to the dirt streets, the busy stalls and sea outside of his window. They lingered there long after his world receded far into the distance.
Olivia Kate Cerrone was recently awarded writing residencies by the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency, Art Farm, the Vermont Studio Center and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a wide variety of literary magazines, including The Portland Review, The Dos Passos Review, Gigantic Sequins, Word Riot, and Italian Americana, where she won first place in the journal’s 2012 “Festivals” short fiction contest. She is currently at work on The Hunger Saint, a novel involving the carusi, the child-aged sulfur miners of Sicily. Chapter excerpts have appeared in Hot Metal Bridge and were translated in the Italian literary journals El-Ghibli and ScrittInediti. Visit her at www.oliviacerrone.com.