Water was refreshment. A bringer of fish. An instrument of light. A place to strip and ease the skin during blasting afternoon heat. Water was a knee baby’s source of joy. A place to gather and launder cloth.
Now, water was a shark bath, an endless stretch of grey, a bobbing, rocking, and storming transport. The repetitive slap of waves on the boat’s planks during the quieter days, delicate as it was compared to the pounding impact during torrential rain and wind, nevertheless tormented the kidnapped. The holds pulsed with the throbs of welts that puffed and stung where iron cut and abraded. Joints vibrated in fiery ribbons of pain. Slap. Slap. Slap. Skin went sour with infection. Sick guts released over and over. Lips puffing to cracks. No wonder a slaver could be smelled two leagues off.
River-fresh water was something both less and more than memory.
The rocking made some of them sick. More seaworthy souls were sickened by the sliding puddles of vomit. The defecation corner lasted all of one day and then it was the defecation hold, entire. In a short week and a half, dysentery would cause its floral notes to be squirted into the stew.
How could any man, tall, short, Portuguese, Dutch, English, with or without stripes, turn an entire ocean of water into such a vast jug of indignity?
Jemma vowed to appease his ancestors with blood. Water might serve evil with its trans-Atlantic currents, but he would stand and rise on terra firma. He would stand and rise no matter the contour of the land drawing closer by the sick and sorry day.
Maghalah would be renamed “Maggie”. The auctioneers couldn’t hear Yoruba in the syllables and the buyers didn’t care. By some stroke of weird fortune, an overseer haloed in red hair atop a face littered with freckles, such a strange sight to many of them, would buy both Maghalah and her mother, renamed “Saffron,” but it would be hard to consider either the girl or her mother lucky by any other measure. Maghalah’s tiny frame would sweat and tremble all the way across the Atlantic to Sullivan’s Island. And after. The torment of the Captain’s violent privilege would not be remembered, but nor would it be forgotten. Trauma gone underground.
When the Passage and quarantine on the barrier isle were finally over, and after their sale and relocation, and during their seasoning, Saffron would comb her daughter’s hair in the pre-dawn hour and rattle on in a low voice about the acacia trees that ringed their village, about the clay along the Niger River, and ask in Yoruban, did her dear sweet girl remember the sound of women pounding cloth at the river, the thumps and the laughter? Saffron worked memory like a defiant muscle. Saffron needed to speak her own tongue. Saffron wanted her daughter to remember, but she no longer recognized what was balm to the soul and what constituted ongoing torture.
Home was not free of suffering, of course, but a natural order prevailed, more or less. Death might strike suddenly and heartlessly, imparting grief and ruin, but there was no one collection of people — not even competing and raiding tribes taking slaves – no one collection of people who had ever so thoroughly robbed another group of people of power and spirit and dignity, and then enforced that lowly status, savagely perpetuating it forward for twelve generations, based solely on skin color.
Though silence would become their primary language when in and among their captors, sometimes the native tongue of one or another would convey something immediate and raw. Such a conveyance might save a life – if the life wanted saving. Or it might express a lyrical sentiment or nuanced observation that their broken English could not. And it mattered, even if only one other bondman in the field understood. Keening in their native language gave comfort in those early years. Even if it was a voice of one or two, instead of the whole assembly, even if three or four languages rose in chorus, even if it was in the dark, fields and fields away from the Big House, where they were consigned to the dank, low spots of the woods, away. Small comfort as those echoes of home were, they would soon be transmuted, blended, and adapted to their new world, and faster than you might think possible.
This style exercise was written a few years ago and edited this morning, done in imitation of the opening section of “Dancer” by Colum McCann.
Though there’s some risk in publishing a couple of pages from my novel-in-progress, “Blood and Indigo,” I’m doing it anyway, partly because these pages have been rejected from the manuscript. Four of the novel’s characters show up — mother/daughter, the red-haired overseer, and Jemma. Only Jemma is based on a historic figure. He’s one of two figures consistently named in accounts of the Stono Rebellion (9/1739). The other is Cato.
All photos taken by me on an iPhone. In order: coffee pot from slave quarters at the Aiken Rhett House in Charleston; window opening and door and final house view from McLeod Plantation on James Island, sweetgrass basket was made by local African-American artisan and purchased at Charleston City Market.