Nuala O’Connor

The Turnip Slave

My life of rotten food and discarded clothes never fit me well – I always dreamed of a clean, bright elsewhere. So, when it was no longer safe for me to stay, I paid my dinar and took a boat to Lampedusa, despite all rumours of drowning.

‘Go back,’ people cried, at Tripoli.

‘I cannot,’ I said. ‘All is lost to me in Libya.’

I planted my face forward little knowing I would end up on the farthest edge of Europe, my hands once again filthy with dirt that was not mine. The boat was old and flipped this way then that; the waves heaved, tormenting us like sirens. I lay on the deck for many hours so that I would not have to witness the lurch of the water.

My girlhood playground was Kikla dump, it was my home and my workplace too. Grandma and I picked for rags, for copper, for cardboard – anything we could sell. Our hut was one small island of harmony in that seeping, stinking place. You’d think that the high smell of garbage would fade, that it would become as natural as breath after many years. But no, every morning we tied fresh rags around our faces to repel the sweet, verminous stench. Every night we scrubbed ourselves down.

So why now do I dream of Kikla dump as a milk-and-honey place, a sanctuary of perfume and light? Why do I feel it as warm, not scorched, pleasant instead of putrid? I dream, I suppose, because of Grandma, who curled her body around me at night to shield me from prowling men. Who never let me stray out of her sight when we picked the mounds of rubbish. Who sang to me about the ghibli, that warm dusty wind, in her tuneless, lovely lilt. I did not know it then, but we had freedom, Grandma and I.

I dream, too, because this place is worse. Oh, yes, the air is clear and I do not spend my day wading through swamps of detritus; my lungs are free to breathe. But I am trapped, as sure as if I were behind bars in the meanest jail. Here the sky is low like a sheet of zinc; there are clouds such as I have never seen – cat-fluff balls that race each other to see which can spill the most water for the longest time. The rain is an endless wash; it soaks my clothes first thing and I shiver all day. The fields where I dig and plant, hoe and carry are sticky with black earth. Nobody talks while we work, the mistress forbids it. At night we sleep in a shipping container, ten of us piled in, but when the bolt goes across there is peace of sorts.

‘Where are you from?’ we whisper.

‘What is your story?’

‘Do you think I will ever get back home?’ says the smallest of us, the one we call Twig.

‘Yes,’ we say, to comfort her, ‘yes, of course you will.’

I am of asida in date syrup, and warm winds that heckle the white-hot sun. I am of Kikla dump and Grandma’s safe embrace. I am not of rain and wind and loneliness; I do not know how I ended up like this. Will I ever be able to leave?

In the container, all night, I listen to the human sounds of the others: nine noses snore, nine windy stomachs grumble, and nine sets of hands muffle sobs. Sometimes someone calls out – for their mother most often. I do not shout for long-dead Grandma but my mind sings a refrain: How can I get free? When will I be free?

I am the youngest here but Twig is tinier and, still, she must plunge her hands into the earth and pluck turnips bigger than her head. She teeters a loaded wheelbarrow along the rows, wary of the mistress’s anger if the barrow tips. I never let Twig stray out of my sight while we work the black fields. At night, she bucks and mewls in her sleep, like a deranged pup. I curl my body around her to shield her from these prowling nightmares. And I sing to her about the warm dusty ghibli, in my own tuneless lilt, until she calms. Then I lie still and conjure Grandma, dishes of asida in date syrup, warm winds that heckle the white-hot sun, and freedom.

UNDHR Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.


This is one of a series of short stories of equality and human rights commissioned to mark International Human Rights Day 2015. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates and news.

Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, and lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections. The most recent, ‘Mother America’, appeared from New Island in 2012. Her third poetry collection, ‘The Juno Charm’, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and Nuala’s critically-acclaimed second novel ‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ appeared in April 2014, also from New Island; it was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. In summer 2015, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, ‘Miss Emily’, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. ‘Miss Emily’ was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015. Further information: