Sian Evans: Ssshhhh!

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I hear the stomp, stomp, stomp of his boots above deck and then the clump, clump, clump as he descends the ladder down into the hull.  The girls skitter but they have nowhere to go.  The chains do not allow it.  Rattle, jingle, jangle, he gets his ring of keys out and we all hear one slide into the lock.  It clicks and clunks and then, with an ear-splitting screech, he draws the iron gate open.

They continue to Ssshhhh! each other fruitlessly.  I don’t join in; what are they trying to achieve?  He cannot understand our language; he certainly does not understand us.  Ssshhhh!, at least to the best of my knowledge, is a universal sound.  There are numerous sounds I have heard on this crossing – this kidnapping – that are universal.  Despite their best efforts to dehumanise us, regardless of the necessity to bring out our animalistic qualities (a desirable trait that white men pay for apparently), the sum of their effort is failure.  We will not mirror them. We are better than that.  Those of us who are strong, that is.  There are many here that have succumbed to this sublimation.

  • Stay strong.

I say this to the young girl next to me.  She is too young, she has no hairs at the apex of her thighs.  I know this as her dress is torn.  She has not been given another.  They do not treat us that way.  So far they have not touched her.  Her value is too high.  I do not tell her this though.  She is scared enough.  She reminds me of my darling child.  I told her to hide when the men came and she did.  Gogo will find her, nurture her, protect her and watch her grow.  All in my stead.

– He looks at me.
– He will not touch you.
– One day he will.

I do not have to tell her, it would seem.  She is astute.  She has listened to her elders’ stories and realised they were not narratives for pleasing.  These men think we are stupid.  Perhaps many of us here, compared with them and measured against their standards required in a female, are dumb.  But our hearts still beat.  At present, some are beating so loud.  Some.

When I look into the eyes of the other women in the hold I can see myself reflected.  However, I hear it more in their silence.  It is futile to wail, to scream or to beg.  A situation does not change because the day has.  We have been taken, sold and then transported far, far away from all that we know to be sold again for profit.  My worth is more than man’s coin.  Those whose lips do not unnecessarily move show a degree of strength not shrouded by fear.  Do not mistake me, fear is prevalent but fear is a part of us all.  It is born and we bear it when we have something greater than ourselves to lose.  I have borne a child and on that glorious day I birthed a new companion, my invisible friend, Fear.

My daughter is lost to me, in all but memory.  That will fade, I am not fooled by memory and I will not be swayed by heart.  She lives in my blood and there she will remain.  I know she is safe, my people – our numbers now so few – will disappear.  Move inland and escape the merchants of multitudinous colour.  I live on in her and in them.  I will become a narrative not for pleasing on the nights they educate.  On the nights reserved for comfort and love I will be a different kind of narrative; a reminiscence of beautiful times.  I live on.

– I count four dead.
– Yes
– One day it will be me.
– You are young, strong and so you will make it.
– I don’t want to.
– Do not speak like that.
– What life is there waiting for me now?
– There is hope. You are young.
– As are you.

I cannot reply to her.  There is truth in what she says.   Perhaps fear is also the companion of the young. It is borne with them when they acknowledge that there is something greater than themselves to lose.

The man shuffles into the room.  I wonder if he has the white man’s disease – gout.  He sniffles also, I believe him to be allergic to the cargo he transports.  There is a smell and taste to my land that the merchant loves for the gold it brings but more often than not it does not agree with their constitution. There are some on board though who like the taste of something different.  He strokes his beard and purses his lips, fat pink fleshy lines in the lower half of his face.  His teeth are yellow, black, missing, he marvels at ours.  I think him to be addled.  Of all that we offer, in all meanings of the word, he is fascinated by our teeth.  It is an unobtrusive desire.

– Take the dead.
– Yes, Captain.
– Throw them overboard. Then wash yourselves down.
– Yes, Captain.
– Touch the dead only.

I wonder what makes them die.  These strong women, who have battled so much that the land and sky can throw at us, are yielding to death.  We reside in a miasma of it.  I believe it to be invisible, a disease we have never been exposed to previously.  There are other reasons of course: hunger; thirst; internal bleeding from beatings; internal damage from repeated rape; heartbreak; loss of will.  We are not from a fishing village, the sea is unfamiliar to us and it is tortuous.  I think I will die at the bottom of the sea, from a storm.  It is unfathomable for me to conceive my death on this ship.  This is contradictory I know, yet I work with the little choice afforded to me.

– The days are endless. I cannot even see the sun rise and set.  I gauge it from the smell of the sea, the sounds…

I listen to her talk as I watch the Captain.  I respect that she doesn’t heed the Ssshhhh! of the others.  He enters every day to take away the dead and the dying.  He does not want the weak to linger.  I saw his book once.  There is an X for every one of us.  An X placed where each and every one of us sits shackled to the planks of this wooden prison.  It is not every day he scores out an X and it is on those days that he grins, crookedly.

He looks over at her, this young, nubile and promising child and I see that grin again.  Contemplation is rife in his eyes.  His mind is loudly working away on a string of possibilities.  Her worth is only that of the man’s wants.  And the greater his want the more plentiful the gold.  It is but a pitiful marker of an individual’s worth.  He winks at the girl next to me and turns to leave.  As he goes I only have one thought and that is:  take her, have her, but never go looking for my daughter.

He will return tomorrow.  I pray that a storm will hit tonight and I get to die peacefully by the hands of something greater than man – mother earth.  I pray for this.  If he dies too, then he cannot return to my homeland and he cannot lay his eyes on my daughter.  I am not naive enough to think that another man with his thirst for gold and his penchant for trade will not going looking for more merchandise but I cannot control that.

With an ear-splitting screech, he draws the iron gate shut.  I hear a clunk and a click and then he withdraws the key.  It jangles, jingles and rattles as he fastens the ring of keys back onto his leather belt.  I hear the clump, clump, clump as he ascends the ladder and the stomp, stomp, stomp as he moves above deck.

black tree

Photo by Tomek Dzido.

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Tomek Dzido

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