The Paper Swan
Author:Leylah Attar

I’d rather be dead than at his mercy.

What the fuck has he done to me?

Where the fuck am I?

I had braced myself for his bullet, but there was a moment of silence after I’d said my prayer. He picked up a strand of my hair and stroked it gently, almost reverently. Then he whipped me with the butt of his gun, a sharp whack that felt like he had split my skull. The San Diego skyline tilted and started disappearing in big, black blotches.

“I didn’t give you permission to speak,” he said, as I keeled over from the blow. My face hit the deck, hard and fast, but it seemed like everything was happening in excruciatingly slow motion.

I caught a glimpse of his shoes before my eyes closed.

Soft, hand-tooled Italian leather.

I knew shoes, and there weren’t too many of those around.

Why didn’t he pull the trigger? I thought, as I blacked out.

I didn’t know how long I was unconscious, only that the question still sat with me, like a dragon at the mouth of a cave, refusing to budge, ready to unleash the fire of all the monstrous possibilities that were worse than death.

Why didn’t he pull the trigger?

Maybe he planned to keep me blind and drugged and tethered to his side.

Maybe he wanted to cut out parts of me and sell them.

Maybe he’d already scooped up my insides and it was just a matter of time before the anesthesia wore off.

Maybe he thought he’d killed me and had buried me alive.

With each passing thought, pain transformed into Terror, and let me tell you, Terror is a bigger bitch than Panic. Terror swallows you whole.

I felt myself sliding deep inside her belly.

I smelled Terror.

I breathed Terror.

Terror was eating me up raw.

I knew my captor had given me something, but I didn’t know if the paralysis was temporary or permanent.

I didn’t know if I’d been raped or beaten or hideously mutilated.

I didn’t know if I wanted to find out.

I didn’t know if he was coming back.

And if he did, I didn’t know if this, whatever hellish state I was in, was better, safer, easier.

Terror continued stalking me through the labyrinth of my mind, but there was one place she could never get me, one place I knew I’d always be safe. I turned into that corner in my head and shut myself off to everything but MaMaLu’s lullaby.

It wasn’t really a lullaby. It was a song about armed bandits and fear and danger. But the way MaMaLu sang it—soft and dreamy—always soothed me. She sang it in Spanish, but I remembered the meaning more than the words.

Down from the Sierra Morena mountains,

Cielito lindo, they come A pair of black eyes,

Cielito lindo, they’re contraband. . .

I saw myself in a hammock, blue sky above me, Esteban giving me an occasional absentminded push, while MaMaLu sang as she hung clothes up to dry. Those afternoon naps in the gardens of Casa Paloma, with my nanny and her son, were my earliest memories. Hummingbirds buzzed over red and yellow hibiscus, and bougainvillea spilled from fat, unkempt hedges.

Ay, yai, yai, yai,

Sing and do not cry,

Because singing cheers us up,

Cielito lindo, our hearts. . .

MaMaLu sang when Esteban or I got hurt. She sang when we couldn’t sleep. She sang when she was happy, and she sang when she was sad.

Canta y no llores

Sing and do not cry . . .

But the tears came. I cried because I couldn’t sing. I cried because my tongue could not form the words. I cried because MaMaLu and blue skies and hummingbirds defied the darkness. I cried as I held on to them, and slowly, one step at a time, Terror retreated.

I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. I was still engulfed in darkness, but I was aware of a constant rocking motion. Maybe my senses were starting to kick in. I tried to flex my fingers.


Be there.



My head was still pounding, from where he’d knocked me out, but beyond its boom-boom-boom there were voices, and they were getting closer.

“You pass through Ensenada often?” A woman’s voice.

I couldn’t make out the whole reply, but it was deeper, definitely male.

“ . . . I’ve never got the red light before,” he was saying.

My abductor’s voice, etched in my brain, along with his shoes.

“No big deal. Just a random check before . . . crossing the border.” The woman’s voice was fading in and out. “I need to make sure . . . vessel’s serial number matches the engine’s.”

The border.



The rocking motion suddenly made sense. I was on a boat, probably the same one he’d taken me out to. We were at Ensenada, the port of entry into Mexico, about 70 miles south of San Diego, and the lady was most likely a customs officer.

My heart picked up.

This is it. Your chance to escape, Skye.

Get her attention. You have to get her attention!

I screamed and screamed, but I couldn’t make a sound. Whatever he’d given me had paralyzed my vocal cords.

I heard footsteps above, which made me think I was probably in some kind of storage space below the deck.

“Just to verify, you’re Damian Caballero?” the woman asked.

“Damian,” he corrected. Dah-me-yahn. Not Day-me-yun.

“Well, everything looks like it’s in order. I’ll take a pic of your hull identification number and then you can be on your way.”

No! I was losing my window of opportunity.

I couldn’t kick or scream, but I found I could roll, so that’s what I did. Left to right, side to side. I rocked, harder, faster, not knowing if I was knocking up against anything, not knowing if it was making any difference. The sixth or seventh time I did it, I heard something grate above me, like wood scraping against wood.

Oh please.

Please, please, please, please.

I put everything into it, even though it was making me dizzy.

Something crashed. A loud thud. And suddenly it wasn’t so dark anymore.

“What was that?” the woman asked.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“It sounded like it came from below. Mind if I take a look?”


“What do you have in here?” Her voice was clearer now.

She was close.