Slavers bringing captives on board their ship on Africa’s west coast (19th-century print)
The next morning, the raw and erotic smell of the sea wafted into Adrian’s cabin, awakening him and arousing memories of lovemaking with Sarah from whom he had fled. He imagined his sure hands framing her oblong face, his fingers embedded in her temples, as he repeatedly thrust himself into her. The yellow of a rainbow tinged her smooth honey skin; the rose of a sunset kissed her high cheekbones. Her curvaceous body glowed with the heat of passion as did his. Their mingled sweat matted his straight hair and kinked her dark curls. Her eyes closed, she opened her mouth wide as if to scream but no sound issued forth. Adrian compensated for her quiet. He uttered plentiful declarations of love and devotion that spilled one after the other, his head bobbing to the side. Then, with a final lunge, he forced her black eyes to peel open as he let out a wail for the enchantress.
Adrian both cherished and despised his recollections of their deep night and predawn sessions of secreted love, not because they made him ache for her and she was not there but because he was indentured to Miss Sarah Cuthbert. She was his mistress, his owner. Before he left her tobacco plantation outside of Charles Town, she had determined the shape of his life and its content. Adrian more than lusted for the woman who had robbed him of his freedom; he loved his gaoler.
The captain rose and checked on the still unconscious stranger before digging into his trunk and pulling out a plain smoking box made of live oak, the tree that shaded hot Carolina roads. He sank down into his bedding and slowly, ceremoniously, opened the box. Carefully, he removed its sole content, a thin torn scrap of yellowed paper. He ran his fingers along the fuzzy edges of the serrated half of his contract of indentured servitude. The document required no signature, just a perfect fit with its other half which Sarah held. As Adrian stroked the paper, the years fell away, and he was flung back into the choking hold of his past.
Sarah was considered peculiar in the Province of Carolina, a young and wealthy woman of color. When she whished in alone from the Caribbean with a mysterious past, her neighbors offered her a restrained welcome to their attempted New World utopia. She attended balls, dinners and soirees, unescorted. At social occasions, men paid her compliments on her appearance, which was always classic, always elegant, but they never pursued her. It was one thing to bed furtively a slave, quite another to court openly a free woman and, perhaps, marry and sire brown-skinned heirs. None were daring enough, although temptation made them all itch for her. Women acted cordially toward her in public but shunned her company in private. Because she was independent, beautiful and her looks were intriguingly different, they viewed her as a wild threat to their well-ordered lives. Sarah, not one to entertain hypocrisy, spent most of her time on her property directing the work. For pleasure, she read novels and played the violin.
Adrian came into Sarah’s life, weary, as repayment of a debt for yet another owner. Soon after he arrived, she caught him fiddling with her violin and began to give him lessons. For five years, they played together until one day, after they finished the third and final movement of a piece, they wrote their own fourth. Sarah, however, did not fall in love with Adrian. She never confused sexual passion with romantic longing.
In her bedroom, Sarah permitted them to be themselves but, outside of it, the iron line between owner and property was left intact. The inequity titillated Sarah, heightening the excitement of the illicit affair. But it clawed at Adrian, who would have died for his feelings to be reciprocated and, above that, needed to be seen as a person on equal footing with his lover. He hungered to be seen. A knot grew bigger and bigger in Adrian’s throat until he could not breathe any longer. After two years, he had to go. He convinced himself that if he were the same man in a higher station, Sarah would return his love. He assigned himself the task of proving himself noble and worthy of her. So, Adrian stowed away on a ship headed southeast to Port Royal, Jamaica, in pursuit of a moral quest behind which he could throw himself and win Sarah’s love. With the satisfaction of discovering his mission through his meeting with the stranger, he returned his contract to its box and packed it away again.
The stranger did not budge as Adrian shoved his trunk back under the bunk. The captain could hear his compatriots in The Brotherhood shuffling about at the start of their day. The aroma of strong coffee lured him out of his cabin to the deck, where he found Trevor brewing the only food prepared in large quantity for the entire crew. Sailors ate what they wanted when they wanted, unless there was a special feast. Before Adrian approached Trevor, he urinated overboard, attaining a rush of pure joy in the moment. After his release, he breathed in the expanse of faint blue sky and sapphire sea. Three graceful gulls rode the wind behind the Good Hope, until they realized that they were too early for breakfast scraps. Then, they flew off to do their own fishing. Adrian sought out Trevor, who sat at the bow, listening to the quiet. Trevor loved the sea and swore again that he never would forsake it, even after death. To ensure forever, he wore a tiny, pink gold hoop in his left ear as the price of admission to Neptune through the gates of the kingdom at the bottom of the sea. He worried over whether Adrian’s secret decision was to leave the sea, but he dared not revive the subject and risk breaking the peaceful spell of morning. Adrian would talk in his own time.
“Good morning,” the captain said.
“Yes. Good morning,” Trevor answered. “How is the stranger?”
Concern for the survivor’s condition had meshed into Adrian’s psyche. He was quick with a response.
“Still out of our grasp, I’m afraid.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll come out of it. Have some coffee. It’s steaming hot.”
Adrian sat beside his friend who was regarded as wise by his colleagues. It was easier to contemplate philosophy when moving outside of the strictures of settled society without a wife and children. Trevor was free to be himself at this juncture in his life when responsibility would have beaten him down rather than shored him up. A loner, his life was enriched by his commitment to himself. Even as a boy, he discovered solitary haunts. With a machete, he often chopped his way through overhanging vines and thick undergrowth to the clearing beyond his family’s acres of logwood near the Belize River in Central America. There, the fragrance of the sea would smack him in the face, spurring the usually slow-moving boy into a frenzied bolt toward the water, where he would gaze calmly at his beloved. He daydreamed of a life on the sea and of finding his home, his soul and his peace in it. One day, he would merge with it, he promised himself. Now, on the Good Hope, he had found the contentment that was reflected in his affable manner. Trevor never held a grudge, which was admired by everyone.
As Adrian sipped from his mug, Trevor lit up a smoke that he had wrapped in tobacco leaves. He sucked in pleasure and lost himself in the grandeur of the day. Adrian, however, could not shift his thoughts away from the stranger. The captain got up and paced the deck.
The day wore on for Adrian as did the others that followed on. The waiting tortured him. He could not close his eyes without seeing the stranger stretched out on his bunk. The image also bedeviled his dreams and demanded a place in his concert audiences. The doctor examined his charge every day. But each time Franz left the cabin, his face bore the same waxen expression revealing that there was no perceptible change in the patient. The sand in the glass threatened to run out on Adrian’s hope and faith. Doubt began to creep into his thoughts: maybe his mission was not meant to be, maybe he was fooling himself into believing that it was possible to sail against the wind Still, Adrian prayed hard for the recovery of his friend from whose supine body he glimpsed emanating rays of light. The life force pulsed unmistakably throughout the gentleman. He seemed to be asleep, nothing more, as the activities of the Good Hope buzzed all around him.
Five days after Adrian’s death-defying adventure, the mood lightened on the ship. The men closely regarded the stranger but, now, the tingle of expectancy traveled through their bodies. Later that evening under a faint full moon, Adrian played a round of lively English drinking songs and, afterwards, sustained their spirit by imbibing whiskey heavily, joking with his men and telling them ribald stories.
After a night of it, a drunken Adrian stumbled down to his cabin in a euphoric haze impenetrable by worries. For once, his thoughts were not hovering around the stranger. So, when the man spoke, Adrian almost dropped the pants he was sliding down his legs and his heart nearly leapt out of his body. Adrian asked himself whether the whiskey was talking but when the stranger turned his head toward him, he knew that flesh and blood had spoken:
“Why did you save me? I wanted to die.”
Adrian was dumbfounded. He had expected to be thanked profusely, to be hugged with delirious happiness, to be deluged with well wishes. He leaned back against the closed door in resignation, his right knee slightly bent and turned inwards and his head tilted down so that his glazed green eyes met the deep brown ones of the man.
“How can I explain the horror to you,” the stranger asked, in a sincere, entrancing voice, his penetrating eyes riveting on the unseen. The man had been conscious long enough to speak alertly, not through disorienting clouds of sickness.
“We were hundreds of people, babbling in our native tongues all at once, frantically searching for someone who could understand and respond to us, someone who could reassure us that this was a nightmare that would end soon in the safety of our homes with our families. We spoke louder and louder, each of us hoping that our language would rise above the others and beckon a friend. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us. We shouted out questions about our fate. When we came aboard, the crew squeezed our arms and legs to see how fat we were. Were they planning to eat us? But then, even if we heard the answer in our language, we couldn’t follow it because we were chained to each other like animals.
“Like animals,” he repeated, drawing out each syllable with a sneer. He set his mouth on a straight line before resuming his tale.
“I overheard a sailor say in English that he liked dark meat and he looked forward to feasting. I tried to make sense of his comment, tried to convince myself that it had nothing to do with us. But then, I overheard the crew’s complaints about a food shortage, and I spotted a set of clothing on the ground with nobody in them. I didn’t know what to think. Were they mad, or was I?
“I couldn’t sleep. Time passed, but there was no way for me to mark it in the dark belly of the ship. I couldn’t tell when it was morning or night. I felt as though my body was not mine, as though I had left it. My hands trembled in their metal cuffs, which clinked like gold bracelets. But the bracelets were not gold, and I was not free.
“Then, snatches of the language of the Fulani alighted on my ears. Not only did I hear my language, I recognized the person speaking. It was a clear and vibrant ancestral voice that cushioned my fall into a dungeon of despair. My father’s father’s father counseled me the way he would when I was a boy and fearful of a challenge. He told me that we are strong and always prevail over strife and misfortune. He said that it was all right to feel paralyzed but that we acted courageously.”
The stranger seemed to grow even taller as he straightened out his legs with pride.
“I heard my father’s father say that bravery is what makes a man a man and my father add that courage must be proven. Then, I heard my mother crying, and I cried, too.
“Soon, a song from my youth pushed past the tears. Chanted by my family and friends, chanted by my tribe, by people with whom I shared the same blood, it lulled me with its familiar rhythm. Over and over, the drummed refrain told of how my ancestors tried to keep the precarious balance between the head and the heart.
“All the messages of strength filled me, and I fell asleep heavy with them. I may have been dead, I slept so long and so deeply. Good that I was able to rest for apiece; I’d need my wits sharpened for the next phase. When I woke, it was to a shame greater than I have ever experienced. The stench of human waste nearly choked me in that sealed vault of filth and fear. My belly quickened, calling me to relieve it of a load. ‘No,’ I told it. ‘You don’t have to,’ is what I was still mumbling as soft excrement oozed out of my body onto my clothes. Never had I felt such humiliation.”
His voice dropped lower than its baritone register; his eyes also fell. Adrian said nothing. He knew that he had no place in this man’s pain, but to listen.
“The man next to me, an older gentleman wrapped in robes of spun gold and commanding blue, killed himself in a most brutal, terrifying way. He brought down his chains against his head, gouging out one eye in his manic pull toward death. I couldn’t bear to look at him. And why, why would I have wanted to stop him? No, I wanted to follow him.
“I lost my will to do anything. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I stopped seeing. I stopped moving. Two small but muscular men unchained me, took me up and laid me out in the fresh air. But I’d lost my will to live. When I couldn’t eat, they whipped my back with a thin leather strap. They took their time beating me unconscious. Suicide clouded my mind. I smiled at the thought of escaping to my death. When a Fulani crew member told me that we were being taken to America to work as slaves for white men, I howled like a madman at the notion of these flesh merchants losing a profit on the bottom of the ocean.
“Who were these men that they felt they had the right to take control of our lives and destinies? I looked at them and saw their dirty hair and nasty ways, and I cringed at the thought of the prospective buyers in America. Why, these crewmen were savages! Not even human. They were wizards at inspiring a hell on earth!
“Then, I got angry, violently angry that I should let them get away with it. I took destiny into my own hands.”
He began a quiet moment that stretched into another time.
“There I lay on deck as they prepared evening meals for themselves. The sun was ducking under the horizon. Three times already, I had seen this time of day. I knew that I wouldn’t have much longer there. Soon, I would be chained again and taken back down into the stinking den. I couldn’t stand the thought of that. The smell of fish stew fortified me for my quixotic mission. The warmth of the fire, so near at hand, comforted me. Suddenly, I knew what I had to do.
“It was a dreamy time of day, sunset, when thoughts roam and people tend not to be attentive to their surroundings. When all eyes had strayed from it, I reached for a burning piece of wood and caught the deck on fire. By the time the slavers, not a little intoxicated, smelled the larger fire, it was too late to save the ship. No one even guessed how it started, I’d say. All they could think of was how to save themselves. They scampered like the desperate men they were.
“They managed to lower four small boats over the side of the ship. I watched the slavers skewer each other to make room for themselves on the boats. Three floated away without any passengers. I’m not certain about the fourth one. I think I grasped the outline of a man but, by that time, my eyes were becoming blinded by the smoke, and I was going faint with the heat.
“My senses awakened me when I felt fur brush past my legs. I looked down and saw that the deck was blanketed with rats. There were legions of them scurrying overboard. I couldn’t believe the breadth of the rat march. I can still hear their feverish screeching as they plunged into the cold, deep waters of the sea. How repulsive they were! How repulsive was I for unleashing all the evil of the night! The other Africans below awaited their fiery deaths in chains. They had no choice; I had taken it from them.”
His eyes glossed over with guilt.
“Don’t you see? It was better to die than to continue a passage that promised to bring more anguish into their lives, perpetuated into future generations. It would have been a future of agony.
“I was preparing to die myself. The crew was gone. I would no longer be tainted by association with those men. I stood on the part of the deck farthest from the fire and prayed to Allah as I waited for it to consume me. In my delirium, in my madness, I believed that I was purifying the ship of evil and that I, too, would be cleansed by the fire.
“Now that you have rescued me, I have to live with my guilt. Death or life, which do you think more peaceful?”
Adrian did not speak immediately because he was still listening to the stranger’s story, the words of which entered his heart a few beats after they left the man’s mouth.
“I am sorry,” he said, when all of the story had caught up with him.
“Yes. Well --,” began the man, stunned by his rescuer’s gentle response.
To mask his feelings of simpatico, the stranger turned his head toward the wall and said, “I’m tired.”
“All right,” Adrian said, graciously accepting his curt dismissal. “But before you sleep, what do people call you?”
“My name is Yusef Suleiman Jallow.”
Adrian returned to removing his pantaloons and settled down into his makeshift bed behind the closed door. But he stayed awake for hours. As he recalled Yusef’s testimony to horror, a gushing stream of golden compassion flowed from him to the man in his bunk.