“The Sea is as Empty as the Desert” by J. Jason Mitchell

“Hakone (The Old Road at Lake Ashi),” New York Public Library

Rescued by our boat one morning, the man asked me: is it true what they tell us—the traffickers—about these waters,
that the sea has no bottom? I told him no, there is indeed a floor half a mile or more below us, and Europe is a much farther, more difficult journey than the traffickers promised you.

He drew his arm across the horizon and asked me why no fish
could be seen like the rivers near his home despite the water being blue and clear; why was the sea as empty as the desert he had travelled across in the crowded back of a pickup truck that drove straight
for three days through the Sahara from Aghadez to Sabha?

When we patrolled the Libyan coast for weeks on a search
and rescue mission for refugees, our boat often came upon
an ancient brush trap employed for hundreds of years.
It was a simple trap, a few branches tied together by rope, held afloat by a single, plastic bottle—usually a motor oil or detergent bottle— and left to drift. It was enough to attract a few, small fish

seeking shelter which would later be easily netted by fishermen. The trap is universal; the sea is sometimes as empty as the desert.



J. Jason Mitchell is a sustainability strategist. He spent 2016 reporting on the European migrant crisis and working aboard a German NGO search and rescue vessel in the Mediterranean. His work will be or has appeared in the London Review of BooksChristian Science MonitorPainted Bride QuarterlyTar River Poetry and Cimarron Review.