Like a raven shot in mid-flight, the black object pirouetted through the air and landed onto the car's windscreen, bounced once and fell forward and heavily onto hot tarmac in front of the car. The driver, too shocked to apply his brakes, drove over the object before stopping, his body jolting as both sets of wheels lurched over the bundle. The body lay still but for its wings, black as night, fluttering in the breeze.
But the shapeless object lying on the road was no bird. The black wings became human clothing as I slowly recognised an arm, then part of a leg. The barely revealed human limbs unveiled the terrible reality of what I'd witnessed. This was no bird. This was a woman clad in the black cloth of the traditional Arabic burqa. All that was visible was an arm extended as if in sleep. A hand, henna-painted, resting palm upwards on the tarmac with gold bracelets bunched at the wrist, glittering in the sun.
It had been the Haj, the time of pilgrimage to Mecca, near the airport in down-town Jeddah and it was fully packed with pilgrims. Yet everything stopped, frozen by the sudden horror. Then, it was as if a switch had been flicked, and everyone reacted.
The cowd converged on the scene as I did, moving towards the victim before Kamal stopped me with an arm across my chest.
'Leave her. You can't help,' he said, shaking his head in disapproval. 'You know how the way is, here. It is as I explained to you. It's best you don't get involved.'
Kamal was Palestinian, a refugee who had a healthy disrespect, if not outright disdain, for his chosen employers and their country and traditions. I looked back at the scene.
The woman had by now disappeared under a wave of white clad pilgrims trying to help, everybody was shouting and gesticulating. A sea of Haj pilgrims dressed in the traditional ihram. I watched the driver wailing, his hands to the sky. Some prodded at the bundle of cloth in the road. It was difficult to comprehend.
For the victim's sake, I knew speed was imperative. I did have some rudimentary first aid knowledge and holding back from offering assistance was unbelievably hard. But I just stood and watched with Kamal's advice ringing in my ears. As a foreigner and an unbeliever, I had been told that I should never intervene in disputes, especially not in fatal or near fatal traffic incidents. If the victim died then that death could be attributable to me, due to my 'help'. 'Blood money' could be demanded. Or even worse, death, as in the eye-for-an-eye philosophy of the Koran. In this country, he told me, it was best avoided. A risk not worth taking.
The police arrived with sirens blaring and two cops began clearing the people away. Yet the bundle in the road wasn't touched. A nearby taxi was commandeered and the broken woman was half lifted, half thrown onto the back seat and driven off. Even if she'd survived the impact, the rough handling could well have killed her. The feeling of shame within me for not doing more, stung.
Kamal simply shrugged and said: 'Let's go. Tomorrow we go diving. Forget this. It's nothing. Plenty of accidents every day.'
I turned and picked up the scuba tank I'd just filled with air and tried to put his advice into effect, concentrating on the morning dive the next day.
But that night I slept poorly. The next morning I was tired and not in the frame of mind to dive with Kamal; I called him and cancelled. He accepted without comment. I headed alone to an isolated beach out beyond the city, far from habitation and at the edge of the desert. I was about to break some cardinal rules. Never dive without a buddy and always leave information about where you are diving. But I'd become tired of advice.
Shrugging on my tank, I walked through low dunes towards the lagoon and the Red Sea surf breaking on the reef edge half a mile beyond. At the normally bleached white sand of the beach, I found it cloaked by a dark moving mass. The surface was covered in a carpet of a vast sea of feeding hermit crabs. Stepping into this moving mass caused them to hurriedly scuttle away. The crabs keeping a precise arc of distance, a sentient wave, never allowing me close, as if they could sense my guilt over the death of the woman.
Eventually they allowed grudging access to their shallow lagoon between the beach and the reef and then closed ranks behind me with the precision of a drilled army. Behind me were the bones of the Saudi Arabian desert and ahead, the inviting warm waters of the Red Sea.
Stepping into calf deep, bath-hot water, I was wary of the sharp coral and alert to deadly stonefish, a creature that hides motionless and camouflaged on the sandy bottom, their poisonous barbs ready to pierce even protective footwear. So I started my usual dance, a shuffling two-step that disturbed clear water and lethal fish alike. It’s a long waltz to the reef carrying a heavy full tank of air, mask and flippers while scanning the rippled sand for signs of danger.Eventually I reached deeper, waist-high water. A few steps further and the sand erupted. A grey, disc-shaped object exploded from the lagoon bottom. A stingray, lying hidden in the sand, had made its escape, its barbed tail lashing inches from my thigh. It was gone in an instant, leaving just a fine contrail of sand in the blue water behind it. I resumed my clumsy safety dance with added vigour.
I arrived at the reef's edge and its vertical drop-off into the depths, the waters turning dark blue and inviting. Myriad fish, their colours undimmed by the water’s clarity, flashed as they twisted and turned in the glare of the morning sunlight as they hunted. I donned my mask and ducked below the water to see what was around.
A slithering motion caught my eye; black and yellow, a sea snake drifted near, smug in the knowledge it possessed one of the deadliest venoms on Earth. I don't mind snakes that don't mind me, and I waited as it languidly veered away towards deeper water.
I took a long second to gaze around, at the contrast of the brilience of the blue sky meeting the darker blue of the sea. Behind me a gentle swell was breaking in a white line along the coast marking the reef edge. I re-considered my actions. Clearly it was stupid to be doing this and I should have notified someone. But in truth, I had no one to tell and at that moment, I didn't much care. Nevertheless, I was still cautious. Waiting for me below the water would always be some danger, perhaps in the form of sharks or barracuda with their particularly cold and dead eyes. Then their would be the lion fish, their elegant and beutiful spines ready to inject and poison the unwary. There was always this fear of the unknown. I wondered again if I should turn back. But, ignoring the only sensible and right decision, I stepped off the reef and fell into the sea.
The warm sea water felt cold on my over-heated skin as I floated exposed on the oily calm of the surface. I fitted fins and mask, emptied the buoyancy vest, turned and slid down into the blue depths.
Instantly, the sound on the reef flooded my ears, crackling and popping with a thousand fish chewing on coral for their breakfast. I finned down the reef wall, watching two reef-sharks slink away into the gloom further below. Always staying close to the underwater cliff for protection, I spotted a wary conga eel hidden within the shadows of his crevasse. From there he peered out as if seated in a private box at the opera, watching unimpressed as clown fish danced for his pleasure. Protective anemones surrounded them in their supporting roles alongside shoals of stripped triggerfish pirouetting in a great undersea ballet.
Deeper I fell and the density of life faded with the sunlight. Then, out of the increasing darkness came a surreal sight. A row of huge rubber truck tyres appeared, each one tethered by a rope from a sunken wreck below, straining towards the surface like the dead fingers of the drowned. The ropes that held them leading down to the depths were an enticing invitation to explore that was impossible to resist.
But a quick check showed I was going to the limits of acceptable depth. I turned and looked up towards what was now an alien sky. The brillient blue of the sky had vanished. Through forty five metres of water the sunlight was now reduced to a small coronal haze with the weakness of moonlight. The ship, lying on its side, was bathed in gothic monochrome. The tyres, once protecting the ships side at dock, now floated mournfully above my head, as if clawing for air. I finned further down a now vertical deck, peering through broken portholes into dark cabins where shadows morphed into broken furniture, crockery and the debris of extinct life.
Sinking deeper into the hulk and going beyond the time permitted at this depth, I became even bolder and I wanted to go deeper. A small voice inside in my head shouted a warning vainly at me. Dimly I understood my elation and boldness was the beginning of narcosis.
I knew it was way past time to leave, but no, I wanted to stay in this cool darkness. Yet the voice in my head still pestered and nagged at me. Then, with what felt like supreme effort, I turned and began to fin back towards the surface. Training had kicked in. I forced myself to go slow, fighting a rising sense of panic, realising that I’d gone way beyond normal dive safety limits. My air had faded to nothing. Don't hold your breath, the voice in my head shouted. Obediently I exhaled the last of my air from decompressing lungs and ascended at the rate of the bubbles around me.
Breaching the surface, I found the calm sea I had left had been replaced by a rough swell. The current drove me towards land and waves began to toss me like flotsam against the coral. The sharp edges ripped into my skin, scolding me for the bravado of not wearing a wetsuit, then dragged me away before throwing me back again. Each time I was thrown against the rock, I struggled to grasp onto a hand hold. Pain stabbed through me as coral ripped my gloves, lacerating my hands and tearing at my unprotected legs. My strength was fast ebbing away with each failed attempt to escape the surf.
An opening appeared in the reef cliff and I recognised a narrow gully, an entrance to the lagoon and a route to safety. The current picked me up in it's hand and swept me inside, past the sharp rocks and spikes of coral outcrops towards the safety of the lagoon. I kicked with the last of my energy, desperate to avoid rock and coral, knowing if I failed I might well be swept mercilessly back out to sea.
Yet I failed. Strength ebbing from my body as quickly as the surf drawback dragged me away. Helpless and exhausted, I let the sea take me. There was really nothing more to do but contemplate my foolish arrogance.
It was then that a wiry arm appeared from nowhere, gripped my buoyancy vest, and hauled me out onto the reef. In an instant I was free of danger. Lying on my back like some half-dead fish, staring up into the blue of a cloudless sky and the wrinkled face of a lone Saudi fisherman. He stood looking down at me and shaking his head. I coughed water, grinned in relief and thanked him. I wasn't sure he understood, but he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, perhaps thinking about the idiocy of foreigners and their strange games. He then turned and returned to his nets.
Back at the beach the crabs had gone, perhaps disappointed I hadn't donated my body to their feast. I'd failed to help one stranger, yet another stranger had helped me.
He at least had thought, it was a risk worth taking.
Wanghan Li PRO
So great collection and writing! Learning! Congratulations!
Beautiful moving story. Thanks for sharing. And what a great gallery of images!
Piera Polo PRO
Wonderful story, very well written and great images chosen. Thanks for sharing. Congrats. Best wishes Piera :))
Thank you Massimo!
Expand your senses, super construction.
thank you all !
Evan Oz CREW
Well-written, Peter. Thanks for sharing the story and images.
Evan, glad you enjoyed it and thank you for the kind comment!
Evan Oz CREW
You're very welcome.
Yvette Depaepe CREW
Many thanks for sharing this deeply human and universal story, Peter! Real food for the soul, my friend. Cheers, Yvette