African American Historical Fiction

The sun-warmed water lapped at her feet, tucking bits of sand and seaweed between her toes. She leaned back on her palms, closed her eyes, and tilted her face to the sun. A quiet breeze brushed her cheeks as she sifted sand through her fingers. The water lapped a bit higher, past her ankles, and flowed lazily back. She shifted and stretched the length of her body on the beach. The water rose, past her ankles and then to her waist, and it was noticeably cooler too... the breeze grew to a chilling wind, insistent. She started to straighten up, scouring the sky for a storm cloud, but there was none, just clear, crystal blue. She considered leaving, but with the thought came another wave, larger than it should be, reaching up her neck, salting her lips. She started to rise, to leave this strangely changing weather, but the water... Another wave hit her face, cold and furious, prickling her skin and grabbing her ankles as she tried desperately to scramble up the beach. It dragged her down, down past the soft white sand, down onto the rocky shoreline. She clawed at the sharp stones, tried to cry for help, but it pulled again, relentless, filling her mouth with brine, pushing her body into the open sea, crashing over her, sucking her in, forcing her down, and there was no air anymore, just salt and water, and it wasn’t clear anymore, it was black, black crashing all around, she couldn’t escape, couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe...  

A hard slap heated her cheek and reverberated across the small chamber, abruptly ending the torment. A woman was leaning over her, whispering fiercely in a language she didn’t understand, shaking her so roughly both their chains rattled. It took a moment to regain her breath and her bearings, to remember she was not on the beach of her home, she was not drowning in strange black water. She blinked rapidly and nodded at the woman, touched her arm with a shackled hand, attempting to reassure with a look, with a touch, without words. The woman released her grip and leaned back, the panic receding slowly from her dark eyes, dissolving into the familiar despair that had taken up residence. 

Mazi sat up, working to awkwardly stretch her bound limbs. A gray light was beginning to fill the single tiny window, a long night turning to day, once again. Only the woman had taken notice of the girl’s breathless nightmare, and since waking her, had settled down and retreated inward once more. Mazi cast her eyes over the dark carpet of chained bodies, filling every inch of the floor, limbs and shackles overlapped in slumber, the only sound the soft murmur of sleep whispers and muffled sobs. She and most had found a way to adjust to the bile-churning smell, to the inevitability of excreting where they stood. They had stopped resisting their chains, learning quickly that these wounds would only be left to fester. Others had quit talking altogether, the division of unshared languages leaving them trapped in spirit, as well as space and time. Instead, a strange, quiet kind of acceptance permeated the cell. Acceptance of the spoiled food and acrid water, offered just enough to keep them alive; of the violence bestowed on them, out of anger, or hatred, or boredom, no one knew, and it didn’t matter; of the heavy feeling that the worst was yet to come.

Mazi stared up at the window, too high to provide the solace of a view. She was familiar with what lay beyond it, that once-kind sea that now inevitably threatened to drag her far from the land she knew. The dream had been pleasant when she’d first arrived. Mami Wata heard her heart’s call through the thick walls of the fort, and the sweet promise of her spirit’s return home each night made the days, weeks, months somewhat bearable. This, however, was an awful turn. She could not feel Mami in this one, just her own inescapable fate. She shifted painfully, dropping hot tears onto the stone floor.

Again, the soft white beach. Again, the warmth washing over her feet. Again, she stretches in the sand, and the warmth flows up, over, and around her. The water is pulling her again, but gently this time, lifting her, weightless, onto its back. She floats, feeling the sun. Feeling safe. Open your eyes, Mami whispers, and she does. Two huge black birds burst from the water at her feet, gliding effortlessly up to circle her in the clear blue above. She watches their graceful dance for a moment, then powerful wingbeats propel them eastward, and they disappear into the horizon. They are me, she thinks, and this doesn’t make sense, but it’s a dream, and it does, somehow. After a time, far off in the distance, she can see a lone bird returning, followed closely by a dark, rainy-heavy cloud. She squints, still floating on a peaceful sea, and realizes it’s not a coming storm, not at all, its birds, beautiful black birds, hundreds, millions of them, all heading toward her, and then they’re circling over her head, every one of them, and all of their wings are tipped with gold.

The ship gave a sickly lurch, and Mazi tumbled across the hull with her fellow passengers, splinters snatching her hands as she tried to catch herself. It righted and they climbed off each other, partially healed wounds re-opened, oozing blood and foul yellow liquid, the sound of someone vomiting nearby. Mazi squirmed beneath her shackles and pulled a few inch-long bits of wood from her bloodied palms. She thought of the dream, a new version, and Mami’s voice, filling her like warm vapor. Open your eyes, she’d said, and what Mazi had seen was distant and beautiful. She thought then of shuffling out of the dark chamber, being shoved roughly through the stone alcove to the striking brightness outside. The door was shut behind them, and they stood staring at the hulking ship, its dark shadow swallowing the daylight and all shreds of hope, assuring them that their memories of home would be their last. She thought of the wailing women, the shouting men attempting to flee and being brutally beaten, dragged off by their heavy irons. Mazi had seen all of this, and she’d put her head down, lumbered up the plank, staggered into the hull, remained quiet. Mami had sent her a message, and within it was a promise. No, not a promise, a pact. Every night she dreamt of birds, great and black with wingtips glittering, soaring over the sea, until the ship found port. 


Minty blinked her eyes in the dim light of the coming dawn, clinging to the images the previous night had delivered. She rolled over on the crushed leaves, her makeshift pallet, thinking. Dreams, Gramma Modesty had said, dreams talk. Modesty was known for sharing few words, and Minty cherished those given to her, stringing them like pearls in her mind. 

“They tell you where you’re goin’,” Gramma said, pouring salts and herbs into a steaming metal washtub. She placed her old gnarled toes in the water, sighing with relief as the warmth washed over them, settling into the creaky wooden rocker and gazing up at the crystal blue afternoon sky.

“Had dreams that told me about your mamma, long before she was even a glimmer in my eye. And had some that told me about you, all about you. So you listen.” 

Gramma closed her eyes then, soaking in the sun, drifting off on the ocean of her memory. Young Minty knew better than to ask questions. She strung the pearl, tucked it safely away.

As the sun rose, she sat up and peered cautiously through the tree line. The light washed over the distant mountains, the loping hills, the golden fields that now blessedly separated her from the Brodess farm. The fog of sleep lifted, and she realized she’d seen this landscape from a bird's eye that night. She’d traveled high above, just like the light of the morning, high enough even to catch a glimpse of the ocean. She had been flying, a great black bird with gold-tipped wings. She stood and stretched, brushed the dirt from her dress, and kept moving.

October 01, 2021 13:04

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