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"Imagination Will Save You" (5)

"Not knowing who I am is like being locked behind a closed door. My adoptive parents understood my obsession to open the door and get to the other side. They encouraged my acting. Instinctively, they knew that it helped me to pretend to be different people." (Print of the Globe Theatre in London from a print by Hollar-Wenceslaus, 1647, @Vcitoria and Albert Museum, London)



The next morning, Yusef woke to the screams of his fellow ship passengers, the people whom he had sentenced to a burning death. He writhed in torment, the bunk barely large enough to contain his agitation. Some time passed when through the miasma of his grief, he saw an uneasy Adrian staring at him, searching for words. Haltingly, the captain began:

“You did what you did because you thought that it was the right thing to do. We can act only out of the span of our experience. You handled the situation the best way you could.”

He paused and, in a stronger voice, continued:

“It’s over now, Yusef. And for some reason, you were spared. You are the sole survivor and are able to talk about it. Don’t make those words weepy words; make them fighting words.”

“Fighting words,” Yusef repeated. “What do you mean? What is there left to fight? The ship is gone, destroyed.”

Adrian took one small step forward to the bunk.

“I, too, have been enslaved as an indentured servant. I know what you know about slavery and more. I did the crossing and fourteen years of servitude in the New World. I have lived someone else’s design, surviving at the whim of others. And I’d still be doing it if I hadn’t stowed away on a ship to Jamaica five years ago.

“The ways of the world are twisted, insane, but we don’t have to accept them. We can change them.”

“What do you mean?” asked Yusef.

Adrian’s eyes hardened with commitment.

“I hate slavery,” he said. “But all I’ve ever done about it is save myself from its grubby fingers.”

“Wasn’t that enough?” Yusef asked.

“No,” Adrian answered, passionately. “No, it’s not enough to save your own neck. Look at what happened to those slavers. They all died seeing after themselves. We’re in this life together. We must do something to help others escape a horrible fate. We must set them free.

“We must liberate slave ships of their human cargo!”

In the thrill of revealing his plan to Yusef, Adrian’s voice had lifted higher and higher until he had adopted the rousing sound, proud posture and sweeping gestures of a man of God preaching salvation.

“We’ll let people decide where they want to go. Back home to Africa or onward to America. That is their fight, isn’t it, Yusef? Everyone has the right to choose for themselves.”

Adrian breathed heavily. He lowered his outstretched arms at his sides, the palms of his hands open and facing the heavens. He married his gaze to Yusef from whom he craved approval and a pledge to join the liberation. Adrian did not expect Yusef’s reaction.

“What is your name?” Yusef asked, with an impassive expression.

“Adrian Graff,” he answered, startled by the question.

“I see.”

That was all. Yusef spoke not one word about the mission. Once more, he turned his back to Adrian and stared at the wall.

“I’d better go get the doctor, let him know you’ve returned to the living. You’re awake and talking anyway,” the spurned man said, nastily.

Adrian pushed his way out of the morass of his cabin, angry with disappointment. He had had such different expectations of Yusef. The soles of the heavy black boots Adrian wore clunked with his ire. He started a buzz among the men still in their hammocks when he went to fetch Franz. “Why was the captain upset? What had the stranger done? Where was he from? What would he do now?”

The questions multiplied; the ship nearly rocked with them. While Franz examined Yusef and determined him to be recovering nicely, Adrian barked orders to the crew. When Robert heard his friend and caught his abrupt manner, he knew that the night had not opened up Yusef Suleiman. The smooth-tongued actor, however, decided to bide his time before meeting the man. Other crew members peeked into Adrian’s cabin and found a disconsolate man who stonewalled conversation by feigning to fall asleep. By the time Robert made his entrance the next morning, with a song on his lips and a bowl of porridge in his hands, Yusef’s resistance had waned and his curiosity had waxed. The bedridden man turned and faced his first visitor of the day. With this open reception, Robert’s confidence heightened because he believed he could ply open the close-mouthed stranger.

“What do you want?” Yusef snapped.

“I brought you food,” Robert said, lightheartedly. He stopped and waited for Yusef’s permission. “You’re weak. You have to keep eating to build up your strength.”

The aroma of the porridge had wafted over to Yusef, titillating his appetite and filling his mouth with saliva.

“I am hungry,” Yusef said, lowering his defenses.

“Good. My name is Robert Berry. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yusef Suleiman Jallow,” he said, as he walked to the bunk and sat on the edge of it.

“A pleasure to meet you. I suppose everyone knows who I am by now,” Yusef said, nervously.

“That’s a fact,” Robert said. “We don’t have much of this left, but I thought it would be easy for you to eat.”

“You’ve tasted porridge before, haven’t you?” Robert asked, as he fed Yusef the first spoonful of gruel.

“No, I haven’t,” Yusef answered, after swallowing it. “What is it?”

“Oatmeal. A cereal that’s made from oats boiled in water. The oats come from Europe. You’ve lived or visited there, haven’t you?” Robert asked, as he fed the ship’s mysterious guest another spoonful.

“No, I haven’t,” Yusef said.

“But your English is so good,” Robert said. “I would have sworn you spent time in England.”

Yusef swallowed another mouthful of the sweet, hot cereal as he looked into the warm face of the actor. Robert’s round eyes shined with goodness, reassuring Yusef that he was safe. These sailors were treating him well. He could reveal something of himself to this kind man and, perhaps, find out more about this ship.

“I’m a merchant, he said. “A Fula merchant. My native tongue is that of the Fulani. But I traded with the Royal African Company from England much of the time, so I learned English. It’s best that you speak the language of the trader. That way there is no confusion over terms and no translator you can’t trust. The Europeans came to my land for gum arabic, gold, hides, ivory and beeswax. I also speak French, Dutch and several African languages besides my own.”

Not wanting to break the momentum, Robert said, “Where is your land? On the coast of Africa?”

“Yes, it’s called Senegambia. But I live inland along the Senegal River.”

“I see,” Robert said.

“Of course, as a merchant, I was rarely at home. I traveled the area scouring for goods, looking for deals.”

Yusef’s voice escalated pleadingly, “I’m a simple businessman. I’m no leader. I’m no hero.”

Robert did not understand that Yusef was defending his actions on the slaver and making a case for not joining Adrian’s crusade. Adrian had told the crew only Yusef’s name. When Robert began talking about himself, Yusef realized that the man knew nothing, and he began to feel at a disadvantage being restricted to the bed. He had not one inkling of what was happening around him.

“I was reared by a childless couple in London after they found me in their doorway, a newborn swaddled in a blanket asleep in a wooden cradle. I was abandoned just hours after being born by a mother I never knew. My parentage is an accursed mystery, and I’m doomed to try to solve it. Doomed to search the faces of strangers for even a smidgeon of resemblance to my own, the same round face, the same brown eyes, the same easy smile.

“For all I know, I could be a member of the Fula tribe and one of your relatives. Or one of my parents could be English. People have asked me that many times. But I can’t answer them because I don’t know. Not knowing who I am is like being locked behind a closed door. My adoptive parents understood my obsession to open the door and get to the other side. They encouraged my acting. Instinctively, they knew that it helped me to pretend to be different people. It calmed me. When I wasn’t acting, I became morose. I loved the stage. I acted for more than six years. I thought my career had run its course. It was time for a change. I decided to leave London and come to America to begin a new life of my own making. If I couldn’t open the door to the story of my birth, I thought I could walk past it.

“I began as a merchant trading goods between Europe and the New World, but I didn’t enjoy that. I felt as though I hadn’t left London because I spent so much time there. I wanted a more dramatic departure from my previous career. I was in Port Royal, Jamaica, five years ago when I met Adrian. He had just left the Carolinas on the run and was looking for a ship to join. The two of us began looking together, and we found the Good Hope. The captain, John Burns, was good enough to take us on, but he was a harsh man hated by his crew. He and three of his cronies were killed in a mutiny three months later, and Adrian was elected to take his place. Adrian is a good man, just and compassionate. He’s made life on the Good Hope a pleasure.

“I don’t regret one moment of my career as a buccaneer. It’s a thrilling life, each day coated with a sense of danger. We live from one attack to another. The men on the ship are close because we risk our lives together and because we all signed on to seek freedom of one kind or another. I sought freedom from my true identity. The crew is of one mind. I admit that sometimes we have to commit heinous acts, yet that’s true of everyone. The difference is that most of us end our lives on the gallows. But what a life! Unpredictable, unrestrained and unsettled. It’s a life that deserves boasting, and we all do. I even forgot my obsession for a time. I’ve come back to it now. My only clue to the past is me. I’m not as driven to find the truth as I was in London, but I haven’t given up the search for my parents, my people and my heritage. I feel like an unfinished man.”

Robert sighed at the end of his soliloquy. Yusef did the same. The actor had not lost sight of his goal of winning over the stranger. But it would be remiss not to say that Yusef’s African origin made him a logical audience for the story of the brown man’s veiled beginnings. Perhaps the man could fit into place a piece of the puzzle of Robert’s existence.

“Maybe I ought to just pick a tribe, any tribe, and pledge allegiance to it. I could take one of their names. But I suppose being Robert Berry is more honest. After all, the Berrys did raise me and love me.”

Yusef looked at him with sadness and horror. Robert had no footing in the world. He had refused that of his adoptive parents. Yusef could not imagine the scariness of it. Here, he lay, staring into the face of a man who was of flesh and bones but who was invisible.

What happens to an invisible man? How does he face life’s difficulties when he has no ancient well from which to draw history? And from history, perspective? And from perspective, strength?

Yusef surmised that if he and the others on the slaver had made the ship’s destination, they would have lost their past like Robert. Estranged from their tribes and their families, they would have had only their memories which, with time, would have shimmered with a dreamlike quality. How long would it have been before the illusions of the New World would have submerged the truth of their history? The Africans’ children would have become Americans, separated from the past, stuck in the present and fighting blindly for the future.

Different people defined the New World differently. Yusef thought about America as a place where some of his traded goods might end up. Now, he was in this crazy, made-up world, where outcasts sought acceptance and losers found success.

“Imagination,” Yusef said, at the end of his ruminations. “Imagination will save you when the answers aren’t there. It will fill the void.”

“Yes!” Robert said, jumping up and nearly knocking over the empty bowl beside him.

“And how rich is your imagination?” Robert spun around and issued the challenge to Yusef.

“A buccaneer is a mythmaker. Have you the creativity of a buccaneer?”

Robert dazzled Yusef whom he had won over through empathy. Yusef reasoned that pursuing Adrian’s plan might be a way to redeem himself. The recovering man tried to sit up straight as he echoed, “I have the creativity of a buccaneer?”

“Do you want to go on the account of the Good Hope?” Robert continued.

“I want to go on the account,” Yusef said.

“All right then, brother,” the Londoner said, as he slapped his thigh. “I’ll go tell Adrian and Trevor and the others.”

Robert threw open the cabin door and nearly ran into a stony-faced Adrian who was walking toward him.

“Yusef wants to go on the account,” he blurted out. “He wants to join us.”

Adrian pushed past Robert to get to the door of his compartment.

“Is it true?” he asked Yusef.

“Yes,” Yusef said, smiling for the first time since he came on board.

Adrian rushed inside and threw both arms around the weak man, who seemed to crumple inside them.

“Thank you,” the captain said. “Thank you.”

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