The journey took more than four hours. Crammed to the gunnels with more than a hundred people, the old fishing boat was slow. As it fought the currents, the engine could do little more than growl. Any wave caused it to shudder, as if it were afraid of the water. Wedged between two men and a woman with a baby on her lap, I couldn’t move an inch. I grabbed hold of my amulet and closed my eyes. Some people had thrown up inside the boat; others had urinated and defecated wherever they could. If we hadn’t been up on deck, lashed by the wind, the smell would have become unbearable. But nobody said a word. Whether it was because we were dreaming of a new life in Europe, or because we were petrified of drowning, we were silent. Only the sea demons had their say.
A glowing moon dominated the sky; few stars dared to twinkle.
Suddenly we saw lights and we knew that we had arrived. Europe was sparkling for us. Europe was our sky. The angels had come in the form of seagulls. Shortly thereafter they put us in rubber dinghies and unloaded onto a beach. We had to jump into the frozen water and wade up to the sand. Several people were bowled over by the waves. The woman carrying her child placed him on top of her head to prevent him from drowning. The first to set foot on European soil started to shout. Some ran about; others hugged each other; others still got down on their knees, and prayed. When I finally reached land, I collapsed, exhausted. Sand got into my mouth.
Was this how Europe tasted?
I’d been dreaming about Europe ever since I saw it on television. Europe was beauty, happiness and abundance. Europe was Paris, London and Rome. The Eiffel Tower, the palace of the queen of England and the Vatican. Europe was Cristiano Ronaldo, Prince William and so many other good-looking men. In Europe there were no wars, no hunger, no diseases. In Europe they didn’t hit women, they didn’t cut girls and they didn’t force children to work. In Europe people were good. Europe was where I wanted to be.
The problems started when my father died. I was seventeen and the eldest of my sisters. My mother said that I should find a husband. There was an old man who offered money to marry me, but I refused. She beat me with a stick. He lashed me with a whip, but I still refused. I wanted to go to Europe. I told her I would rather die than live with that man and she eventually gave in. She told me I had brought dishonor on the family, that I was cursed and that one day demons would come and get me.
So I asked her to let me go to Europe.
A month later she appeared with another man. He was younger, better dressed, had a gold chain around his neck and smelled of perfume. I wouldn’t even have minded marrying him if it hadn’t been for Europe. The man came up to me and ordered me to open my mouth. Then he walked around me, looking me up and down. He groped me and I started to laugh. Finally he told my mother that I wasn’t very tall or very pretty, but that I’d do fine. And then he left. My mother explained to me that I had been accepted and everything was already sorted. I would leave for the city the following day and then I would walk for some days until reaching the sea. It was the happiest day of my life. I played and played with my sisters. I hardly slept that night, with so many plans for my life in Europe whirling in my head. When the time came to leave, I thought that my mother would be happy I was going, to finally be free of me, that cursed girl, but she hugged me and started to cry. Then she placed an amulet around my neck and turned her back on me.
Now that I’m in Europe, sitting on the beach waiting for them to come and fetch me, this is what I’m thinking about. Memories wash over me like waves. I’m not thinking about Cristiano Ronaldo or Prince William anymore. I just miss my mother and my sisters. I ask the angels flying around me to help me earn enough money to bring them to me. And with my finger I draw a house in the sand, where we’re all going to live one day.
I can see some men walking towards us. They’re all white, but not as good-looking as I was expecting. They shine lights at us and their dog barks at us. One of them must be the boss as he keeps ordering people around. They count us and start to split us up into groups. There are only young women in my group. Twelve. That seems normal to me, as before the journey the trafficker had assured us that we would be working in shops and restaurants. Now they take our documents from us. I don’t know why, but my mother told me never to argue with the powers that be. And so we leave the beach headed for two vans. Nobody says a word to us, and we don’t dare to ask questions. We’ve made it to Europe. What more could we want? We shiver with cold and we’re hungry. But what does that matter, if we’ve made it to Europe?
A bright ring appears around the moon and the stars remain outside it.
The vans set off and we are all happy. Some girls sing. I clap along. I feel so happy I want to have a baby too. A European baby, who doesn’t have to escape on its mother’s head. But then I notice that we are beginning to move away from the lights that we had seen from the boat. And, finally, they disappear out of view. We’re not going to a city after all. We’re not going to Paris, London or Rome. We’re going somewhere that didn’t figure into my plans. But in Europe there must be shops and restaurants all over the place. Yes. Everyone is rich in Europe. We now come off the road and head down a dirt track. The van starts to rock like a boat. The amulet comes off my neck. Nobody is singing anymore. One of the girls is asking questions; she wants to know where we are going. Nobody answers her. She gets up and makes a fuss. One of the men turns around and slaps her in the face. She falls to the ground and starts crying.
I have been tricked. They haven’t brought me to Europe. This is the land of demons. My mother had warned me they would come and get me. I just never imagined that they might take the form of white men. I don’t know what will happen, but at least I won’t be forced to sleep with old men.
João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He is the author of seven books. The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013, the Beverly Hills Book Awards 2014, the Global Ebook Awards 2014, was finalist for the Montaigne Medal 2014 (Eric Offer Awards), and was considered by ForewordReviews the third best translation published in 2012 in the United States. The second coming of Jesus (A segunda vinda de Cristo ã Terra) won the 2015 Latino Book Award. The short storie "A house in Europe" won the 2015 Speakando European Literary Contest. His works are published in Ragazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, Toad Suck Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Danse Macabre, Contemporary Literary Review India, Open Pen Magazine, Queen Mob's Teahouse, The Liberator Magazine, Narrator Internatitonal, The Transnational, BoldType Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, All Right Magazine, South Asia Mail, Linguistic Erosion, Sundayat6mag, Literary Lunes. "A house in Europe" is translated from the Portuguese by Chris Mingay. The Portuguese version won the 2015 Speakando European Literary Contest. The English version received an honorable mention in the 2015 Glimmer Train July Short Fiction Contest.
Chris Mingay, translator. A British national, Chris Mingay has lived and worked in Portugal for the last 15 years. A degree in Modern Languages from the University of Birmingham, and a love of foreign culture, especially that of his adoptive home, has led to his involvement in a series of translation and journalistic endeavours. With his own translation agency and working as a freelance journalist for a number of publications, Chris entered the world of literary translation with João Cerqueira’s award-winning The Tragedy of Fidel Castro. The translation of João’s subsequent novel is already complete and other self-penned literary works are in the pipeline.