Before the squat bungalows of rough hewn timber felled with two-manned
scars at the edge of the river, everything is new, the silence of the
sky the soft caw of crows; and we are landed on pebbles, strangers a
long way from home, the sound of a language climbing in terrible error
through our heads, spinning around, searching for an echo or a familiar
tongue to speak it. I came before these cluttered huts where a village,
before the relief of arrival, was the only cure for the fear; before
they saw us niggers as anything but company, as fellow travelers.
First thing you do is walk out in the bush before dawn; stand in the
deep and breathe. You have to smell to know, how to crush leaf after
leaf to smell out grief and joy, healing and curses. Everything is
strange, and yet, it saturates the air everything becomes familiar as
breathing, familiar as the taste of river water, and you wait for the
spirits to talk, and if they talk funny, they will teach you their
language--show you where to walk, what twigs to pick up, what leaves to
soak; they know your anointing and this is why they keep on giving.
News comes in whispers, an exchange of tales between a simple valet and
a field hand, just where the sweating horses sip from a pail of cool
water. It carries over roads; angry bands of slaves returning to their
dark cottages. It can take weeks, months sometimes, but it comes--so
many dead, so many savaged by white folks, so scared of how close the
rot of brutality came to destroying them. "Stono," they
whisper, Angolan slaves rising up, and they shed blood, watched its slow
spill into the earth; they burnt down crops, these, our sustenance, now
our ancestors flying East, far east sailing homeward.
For every elegant face molded into peace, every stiff eye kneaded shut,
for every bath in mint, cinnamon, ginger and warmed aloes, you
understand the languages spoken on this path through thickening bush;
for each body laid out on wood, orifices washed, fingers cleaned, you
fear nothing of their secret mysteries of flesh and blood, broken bread
and wine. We plant broken bottles and shells in the ground then wait for
the returning sun to promise a safe passage; and you swell with song,
full of the holy food that nourishes you--you grow fat after each
burial, as silent as history, stoic, regal.
All around the trees' leaves are black with burn and dry blood. The
stench of flesh will continue to attack our dreams. I learn to know pink
skin, though black with rot, from the pulping of my brothers'
bodies. My job if to search out from the worms something to keep, to
undo the mystery of the dead, nothing new in this. We must haul the
tender limbs onto wagons, then bury them. Ah, hubris; took at what our
arrogance brings! This war, too, will pass, but I will not forget the
fresh scent of a kill.
Deep in August, news comes in starts, six hundred souls perished in
Mobile; a wicked wind turned its eye to blast into the soft belly of the
first hills rising out of the Gulf, and negroes have been walking
aimlessly for weeks. The heat is cooking everything; mosquitoes taking
the babies home. It's bleak, the future--I will leave these dried
out fields for the dip and rise of green valleys. Pittsburgh with its
tug boats, plying the crisscrossing of rivers, the scream of steel
factory whistles, the stroke of hope in the sky: soon we'll all
learn to cope.