Table of Tales
Some of the People Could Fly: Winged Daughter, Born 1740
My Mother Came Running Across Oceans: Daughter, Born 1753
Measuring Grief: Daughter Becomes Mother Magdalen
The Last Time I Felt Anything: Mammy Water, Born 1756
The Wolf and the Tree: Angel Girl, Born 1769
Blood Red and Bone White: Rose White, Born 1787
Beat Back the Night: Heaven, Born 1786
Babies Donít Cry: Rose Red, Born 1787
My Soulís Glass Coffin: Angel, Born 1767
Wander the Wide Heavens: Solace, Born 1804
SOME OF THE PEOPLE COULD FLY: THE WINGED DAUGHTER, BORN 1740
Some of the people could fly.
I could fly. But my mother could not. The gift was known to skip a generation.
So I stayed in the slaverís stone tower with my mother and helped her kill her other babies.
She said it would be wrong to let them live and be sold across the waters into chaos. When I killed them, she said they would fly free.
I dreamed of freedom. What was it?
To be a girl who left my motherís snug hut to fetch fresh water in a gourd on my head? A girl who swept the earth smooth between the huts on my fatherís compound dreaming that, when I married, I might be first wife someday. A girl who stood in the sun to pound fufu for my motherís dinner, her middle baby tied sleeping on my back. I saw such girls when I was allowed out of the stone tower where my mother walked in her chains. I heard of such girls when my mother held me and her tears ran into the parts between my tight braids and cooled my itching scalp.
My mother had once been such a girl. I would never be.
I was a girl whose head no one patted in the marketplace when our captor left me coins and let me out of the tower for market days. I walked between the mats of spread fish and the brown piles of cassava and yam, and people turned from me as I passed. When I stopped to buy, they took the bright money my father had given me and held it up to see it shine in the sun that danced in off the sea.
I walked alone.
I slept on damp stones with the smell of my motherís bitter sweat to warm me, instead of a cooking fire.
We never had fire. We ate our food raw or dried, just as I brought it up the stone steps from the market. For my mother had no fire pit in which to cook, and she had no stones worn smooth and charred black by many meals, and she had no coals left banked and waiting.
But when our captor came in the night, he brought fire. He held it high and stuck it on our wall, so I had to shut my eyes not to see my mother.
What good did it do me?
For I must run for seawater in the morning and watch her wash the cuts his beard had made on her cheeks and the places where she said heíd left her unclean. Then I dumped the bloodied water with my motherís scanty refuse in the sea.
Down the stone steps to bang on the splintered door and yell for a red-eyed guard to let me out.
Across the sinking sand to the lapping, stinging water.
And back into the dank dark where one window let in light, but not enough air.
Each morning, my mother wept as she cupped her hands in the half-gourd of cluttered brine Iíd brought her and splashed it quickly on her burning places. She hissed with pain.
Her tears ran. She said she thought she would have finished crying by the time I was so big that I could tend her, instead of a guard. But she had little left besides her tears.
And the beauty scars of the tribe that had rejected her and would never shelter me. For my very color was shame, like the brand burned onto people led to the big ships. My mother and I were never to act out of fear and flee.
My mother was sold to protect her village from invasion. Had the daughters and brides of the villageís elders been seized instead-for slavers honored no traditions-then shame would have fallen on the ancient name of her people, forever. To my motherís way of thinking, in our banishment lay our dignity and our belonging to those who had sold my mother away.
"We must wait and bear our anguish until our captorís own sense of honor makes him send us home. For it is he, not we, who act without dignity." She stared out the window, head high, beauty scars shot with light from the sun.
"Mother, how can it be right to chain a woman who does not mean to flee? He gives you no chance to show him your honor."
My mother and I knew nothing, really, of our captor and his people. She thought all women lived as did the women in her village. And my mother felt she lived with dignity in her sorrow, for her shame preserved the honor of her people for as long as the world would live.
I was the one who felt no such thing.
"Why am I of less value than other girls?" I had not asked to be born the bleached color of the sand that led to the slaversí ships and their distant shores. Where were the people who asked this sacrifice of us, to weep with us and thank us for their freedom?
My motherís honorable shame was bitter to me.
I walked alone. I had one dream. I had one hope.
I knew I lived only because my mother had no older child to do what I did, to sneak from the beach to the bushes back from the shore, pick the thorns and scavenge splinters from the fishermenís boats to drive into her newbornsí soft little heads.
As long as I could remember, I had gathered the thorns and splinters in the months when my motherís belly grew round and the skin across it rolled with a live babyís kicks like thunder and cracked with pale brown scars like lightning, waiting to burst with life and death.
I gathered thorns in the months when the weight of the captorís body left my mother pressed into the stones in the morning, her head pillowed on the bones of my hip as she wept and begged her old gods in her old tongue for mercies they would never grant.
Or maybe they did grant them in their strange way.
For sometimes the little sand-colored babies were born dead, limp and wet with blood and slime into my hands, too little to keep them from sliding between my motherís spread legs across the wet stone floor.
She rolled her dark eyes open and smiled as the thin warm limbs and faces of her babies turned a color like bad fruit.
She never smiled when she made me jab the live ones in their heads. She would nurse them and watch the greedy mouths suck. "You must do it for me, daughter. My hands. My soul. I cannot."
It was true. Her hands trembled as she held the live ones. "Only to empty the breast," she assured me. "To fill his stomach for his journey. Then you must send him on his way."
The women in the marketplace bore their newborns on their backs with pride and stopped haggling and gossiping just so everyone might wait and watch them nurse. Those women with circles of gold, bronze, and copper round their ankles to make music of their footsteps.
The music of my motherís footstep was the drag of her chain. A black band clutched each ankle and ate into her swollen feet. The chain between them made her shuffle as her babies fell from her body and she paced, raising her ritual cry to ancestors who would not hear her, did not care.
She prayed while I laid her babies in my half-gourd and started down the steps. I heard her as I waited at the barred door for the guard, the rush of ocean keeping time to her stumbling chants.
I buried her babies, tiny soft skulls first, in the cool sands. I thought of her useless prayers. I thought of flight and freedom and buried their wings last. "Go to the gods."
Someday I would soar in the sky like birds. Someday, when my mother or her captor died. And when I soared, I would think of these babies and fly for them, too.
"Weak," our captor said. It was a word I knew well. My mother, still bleeding from her births, hung her head out of the circle of his torchlight. "Too weak to sell, old dear. No use as a breeder. I donít know how you ever survived in the bush. Chin up now, you neednít cry. I donít need the money from your pickaninnies. Have no fear." His hands glowed pale and red in firelight as he reached for her.
Sometimes my mother lay on the stones where our captor left her and said her urgent morning prayers. I could not truly understand, for I never learned my motherís ancient tongue.
But I have often trembled and wept from her fury. Her rage has sent me running for the barred door and the sand and the stinging sea. When no one was near to see me, I have lifted my arms and cried to know what curse the gods unleashed on the world when they set these slavers loose in ships with sails.
"When will it end? Where will it leave my mother and me, when it ends at last?" And the question I cannot say. What chaos spewed them out?
When I asked this of my mother, she scolded. "Never think such a thing! To think is to bring to you! Think of-think of-" her eyes went dull "-birds in an empty sky that does not smell of salt." Her faraway village.
Is that how things come to pass? One thinks them into being? Then might I not think my mother and myself free?