the waters at dusk almost make me forget about the slaving, the slavers. the wildflowers growing alongside the river bank. the sky going from day to night with shades of red and yellows. the moon will be orange for only a short time. i must get to the river bank before it changes shades.
i sit with the waters and we are the same. i breathe with low tides, slow waves, and ripples. we inhale and exhale together. when i feel a slight breeze, feels like the river is breathing in me as i am breathing into it. the night life swarms around me and hovers above the river. we have much in common. it is leaving its breaths in me. we are one huge heart beat connected in time.
for this moment, there is no pain. no one is where they don’t long to be. the tobacco roads, cotton fields, and sugar lands are in a time that’s not near. for this moment, we’re just here, together feeling our need for the other. we are remembering, we are connected. there is no time, just space. we’re connected in spaces.
the waters almost make me forget i’m far from home. i’m far from my mother and my sisters. from the thompson plantation, to the johnson’s, to the white’s, onto the taylor’s. more than four summers come and gone. i’ve grown. each time i grow further and further away from mama. each day, it gets harder and harder to believe, i’ll return. it’s becoming harder to believe that i’ll be anything but a slave. i don’t remain a slave. i know that. it’s been over a hundred years since those days of chains and lying near death at that river bank. this, those days were my beginning. they shaped me.
i have to believe when i look at the waters, when i look up to the skies, that something, someone is watching and listening. someone that will let her know that i am not forgetting her. someone that tells her, i won’t die until i find her. she can’t let me go. even if she thinks i let her go, she cannot let me go. i need to believe that she is telling the earth, to keep me.
i’ll run to the river bank and stare at the sky, listen to the waters so that i hear her in the breeze on top of those ripples. sometimes, i wait to hear anyone. i keep trying. i am forgetting the sound of her voice. her voice that i could hear no matter how loud we got during festival and celebrations. i always knew her voice. now, it barely visits me in my dreams. if i never hear her again, i don’t know why i would want to keep opening my eyes each morning.
i leave dishes at the well. they are clean. they will remain until the next meal. I finish my duties so that i may go to the river bank.
sky was the first to go. mama was left with all girls. slaver sold or killed my brothers. one of them ran away. they didn’t spare his life. they dragged him back to make mama watch him scream until his screams all left. she sat with him until he moaned. then, his moans left. when his breaths were gone, she screamed and moaned for him.
mama was left with six girls.
all those times when she hugged us, kissed us, and told us how much she loved us, it was all for nothing when sky stood with chains hugging and trapping her body. we all came out to watch. i didn’t know it was to say goodbye.
that day, i looked at mama with pity. she was only alive. what good is living if you can’t save your children? the birds fight for their chicks, the horses protect their colt, but slaves have to go silent when their slave children are in danger. almost like it’s not danger. mama fell to her knees. she couldn’t save her kids. she couldn’t save herself. she couldn’t move. all she could do was pray and wail. she’s the keeper. but is she the keeper if we can’t stay with her? we had owners we knew nothing about. slaves got owners not parents. no family like we not people. even animals got family. we was only there to work and get sold when the time came.
not to live. not to love. not to make a family or be happy. certainly not to think we could keep the little families we make.
all those times, she hugged and kissed us, mama couldn’t do anything to save us. no matter how much we cried, the people wailed, sobbed, yelled, and begged, we watched sky walk away with the rest of people we called family. the chains, departure music. everyone began singing. it would take me awhile to know it was a song to god. i only heard moans and groans cried in harmony.
i stared at a tree rather than see my sister taken. noni, had let my hand go. sky may as well have been her twin instead of me, they were closer. i didn’t look to see where noni went to. i felt her gone.
the wind blew into the trees the same time i felt her leave. i heard it blow past me and go up. the leaves rustled against the branches. each other trying to make more room to stretch out. the ones that couldn’t find room, they fell from the tree a lighter shade of brown. they almost touched the ground but the wind lifted them and blew them in the direction of the horses, the wagon, the slavers, the chains, my family. i counted them. six leaves gone to the winds.
i looked to the road, sky was gone. those chains rattling from those who couldn’t be seen, only heard. that day, i stopped believing in monsters and ghosts. it could be someone i once knew trying to find me or find home.
i hear yelling and look around me. mama is on the ground like she is sleeping.
i long to see mama’s face again. it’s been so long. i wonder if she is alive. i don’t feel her, seems if she isn’t alive, i wouldn’t be here either. she has to still be breathing. but i feel nothing but myself. i wonder if she feels me still. i am not the oldest or the youngest. i didn’t stand out then. i’m only a few minutes older than noni. there is nothing about me that would be remembered. i don’t feel her much anymore.
i prepare to head to the river bank. i have to keep trying. she could be waiting for me at the waters or in the stars. her voice could be over the waters with the swarm of bugs and i get there too late only for it travel and never reach me. i keep missing her. that feels better to believe than being forgotten.
i smell the jasmine and lavender that she puts on her skin. ginger blossoms she’d managed to find and pat her arms with because she liked to smell it in the wind. i remember the mosquito plants she kept under our pallets when we slept. she’d bring the soil into our cabin and have us touch it, get it between our fingers, underneath our nails, on the backs of our hands… she’d have us touch it until we played with it and learned not to hate the land. not to blame the land for what we had to do for the land. she reminded us, we were not doing it for the land. “the land can take care of itself. you’re doing this for people that don’t know the goodness of the world. they also won’t know the goodness of you. remember, to love the world. love yourself. you are the same.”
in my organizing of the things the children left behind , their garments and wood made toys, drowning in my memories of mama and yesterday, i missed the sound of someone having come out of the big house. what i feel is someone near me not feeling familiar, not feeling safe. i look up slowly expecting to see the slaver or his wife. but they wouldn’t come to me, they’d speak from the porch. it’s one of the guests. he looks as surprised to see me as i am to see him. i don’t trust it. i am sure he did not stumble upon me by accident.
his eyes, dimmed in lust and perversion. his smile, evil at the corner of his lips. his pants bulge at the seams in the front. it makes him sigh.
“no.” i say in my head. i stand and take two steps back. he covers the distance i try to create.
“let’s see how mute your really are.” he says with a big grin reaching wide across his face. teeth covered in shades of yellows and browns. liquor oozes from his skin in lines of stink on his face. the sweat from the mississippi heat leaves a wet stain covering half the front of his white shirt.
i hike my dress up round my knees and take off running. he is prepared. he wants the game. he wants the chase. his laugh follows me in boots stomping in the soil loud as horses hooves.
i run through the woods. i know the land. branches slap my face. i duck under low branches, jump over logs. twigs and thorns slash my leg and stick into my ankles. he is pounding the earth behind me. i keep running. he keeps up with me.
i hear the galloping of a horse. more than one. “no!” i rather die than have them touch me. i am running to the waters. what if mama’s voice is there or on it’s way? i could miss her. i can’t miss her. not again. i have to get to the waters. the air is getting thicker. more humid, moist. i am nearer.
the horses speed their chase as if they know my intended destination. they are trying to beat me to it. then, i hear the dogs. i panic. the dogs rip limbs from dark bodies. they bring people back from the attack of a pack with torn flesh, hanging eyes, missing ears, holes in the side of their bodies where there was once flesh. the dogs eat us without digesting. i run as fast as i’ve ever run. i am praying for death; i am hoping any god hears me.
i am near the waters. the only light is the moon. i missed the orange. it is almost gray. it is full, bright, and in the middle of the sky. i feel like i can run inside of it. i am reaching for it, begging it pull me in the rest of the way.
my legs and chest tire from the chase. i am almost not breathing. i’ve run long and far in such a short amount of time. the boots still beating the land behind me. the hooves still trampling. the dogs, barking and running. they will reach me first if they are not tied to someone’s hand. i pray that they are. i am no runaway. i am saving my body. that makes it different.
the push i am putting on my body is causing my heart to beat wildly out of my chest. there is no alternative. i can’t stop. one is on foot. one is holding the dogs. one is on a horse. there’s three of them. there could be more. there is always more of them. they will have me. they will have me even if i die with them inside of me. they will have me and laugh while i die. they will still ram their way into me as blood pour out of me. i can’t die yet. they can’t have me. i will never stop running.
a foul stench brute of a man with a red naked torso underneath overalls, steps from behind a huge oak. he is as wide and tall. a knowing grin complete with missing front teeth. too late for me to stop or turn around, his fist punches me in the chest knocking me two feet back onto the ground.
the horses stop galloping. the dogs stop barking. the boots stop its pursuit of me. my chest feels like fire trying to force itself out of me. i am panting and gathering breaths at the same time. the smell of the men and the animals mix and they close in on me. all i can do is breathe and smell everything. it is a horrid rancid stench in the air. i’m on all fours, chest feel like it is caving in. i am dry heaving when his boot kicks me in the side. I hear a break. i feel the break and my air being cut off.
there will be no mercy. he wants me on the ground. i begin crawling. this can’t be my end. this can’t be what happens to me. why are their gods stronger than mine? i want the waters.
“ah, this is the perfect position.” it’s him, the guest. i never thought to worry about him. when ppl think you’re mute, they think you dumb and leave you be. everyone has let me be all these years. why him? why now? i should be in the water.
i turn over on my back, to see him. to have the earth at my back. to be less vulnerable. he thinks i am opening for him. he is smiling in the moonlight. his brown teeth, clammy skin, thick fingers in their alabaster glory taking someone not meant to be taken, over and over again. he thumbs his suspenders and slides them off his shoulder. his pants fall to his ankles.
he lowers himself until he is right above me. i watch him. the bulge in his pants is almost not fitting beneath his under garments. his knees hit the soil on either side of me. he licks his lips and then sighs. it is a sigh of pleasure. i wait. this will not be my end.
“you will scream for me, won’t you?” he is ready to pull himself from his clothing and be as nude as the day he was born, before me. i will have no other chance but this one. i lift my knee quickly, to meet his groin. if there was room, it’d be be faster and harder but i did what i could. he screams a scream that only dogs were meant to hear. he holds himself falling away from me, to the ground.
a kick in my head keeps me on the ground. the big brute grabs me up with one hand. he puts his hands around my neck. he is well over three hundred pounds. the smell of rotting meat on his breath. “i’ll show you!” he mumbles through his face. not sure where his face ends and his lips begin. one hand is around my neck and the other begins undoing his own straps.
i am fighting for my life. scratching and clawing, kicking and swinging. i am trying to push his eyes out of his face. he throws me against a tree. my body feels broken. i am dizzy. but i must remain alive and untouched until i make it to the waters. silence comes and it comes quick and stealth. i notice the silence of the dogs barking. the guest stopped groaning and cursing. the horses and their heavy breathing, also gone. the brute is still near. i didn’t get his eyes out of his head. the damage i did, it’s only temporary. i take the time to pull myself by scruff and blades of grass to the waters. i am ready for the waters to flow over me. maybe, mama is in them and i should meet her in them. and whatever has silenced them, i do not want it to get me too!
i am near the water. if the wind would blow harder, the waves will come to me. i’ll risk it. whatever beast lies in wait, waiting to devour me below, it will not be as bad at the evil that awaits me on land. underwater, i will just be eaten. i will be food. it won’t be personal. they won’t see me as human, just flesh and bone food. on land, these creatures are worse than any animal. they rip apart flesh only to blame the flesh for being delicate enough to be ripped apart. what right does it have to be torn so easily? what right does it have to bleed? they become angry it is not more than human. the tear and shred more human slaves to prove a point that doesn’t exist. i will succumb to the waters or be eaten alive. both are better than letting them have their way with my body.
he grabs me up again. i am ready to give up my silence and scream in my exhaustion and pain. to cry out the moon, give up being mute and plead to the lands for mercy. please! he is intent on putting his body inside of mine. i must learn his lesson. i rather him hate me so much that he absolutely cannot touch me. not hate me so much he has to show me what his hate can do to me.
i almost hate my skin. being a woman. the girl in me. the part that mama loved. i try to listen to her in the air. all i hear is our breathing. his panting and my half choking. the blackness is stretching itself across my eyes. he’s removed himself from his pants. i smell his blood. i can’t black out before i make sure he can’t touch me. he drops me to the ground. i hear a soft whoosh of wind near me and then it’s gone. he screams briefly. then he is gone. i continue to crawl to the river banks. i don’t feel like i’m moving. the pulling of myself more work, more painful. my wrists feel the calm of the waters.
silence. i lay on the soil and feel my pains. i can’t make it to the waters. i won’t make it. i am still myself. my private parts still mine and still private. but i can’t get to the waters. my body is too broken to keep moving.
there is a touch on my head. it is soft like the waters swimming across my fingers. no one has touched me since mama and my sisters, when i was a child.
“you are safe.” the voice says. i close my eyes. i want mama so badly, i’ve made up her voice to hear, her hand to feel. i want to believe.
the voice is near my ear. mint leaves brush against my nose. softness touch my fists. i release the earth in my grip. i let go of the fight. i want to believe it’s her. but if i do, she could leave me. “this is not god. you are not over. you keep going. you will heal. this is not your end. this is not your place in life. do not let them break you. you are not broken. you are safe. you live. you keep living. this is not god.”
(image courtesy of creative commons / c.j. watkins)