by Kira Bohm
Oh the sting of the lash still burns my back with its fire, and the human waste that I lie upon day and night infects the cuts of the whip, so that my back is one mass of aching, throbbing raw flesh. My ankles are shackled to the woman next to me, and hers to the man next to her, and so throughout the dark space we all occupy. I think there must be at least a thousand of us all crammed into the heaving, stinking hold. A thousand men, women, and children all crying, groaning, seating, bleeding, excreting, and dying. Oh, the dying are worst, for they lie next to you, staring into the dark with empty, unseeing eyes, slowly letting go of their lives, their breathing slowing until finally it stops, and then they begin to decompose, and you realize that you are chained to death itself. And the worst of it is, when the whites come to throw the body into the water, you find yourself envying the dead, as it is freed from its chains and sent from the ship. You imagine your own body being thrown over the nets, into the water, down where the spirits live in the dark, and the image makes you long for death, for it is the last thing left for you to desire in this living hell.
I know, for since the first day we were loaded onto the ship and taken from our homeland, five of the humans chained next to me have died. The first was a woman who spoke a language similar to mine, whose name was Tana. She told me of her child who was left behind in her village when the slavers came, how the whites took everyone in the village but a few old men and women. But after a few days of dark, airless imprisonment, Tana lost hope, and succumbed to one of the many horrible diseases that spread through the ship like wildfire. She was too much a creature of the air and of light for this place. When they took her body I wept and cried her name, but soon the unending misery dulled my feelings for others, and I had little interest in my later chain mates. I know that there was another woman, an old one, and a young man, a boy really, who died quickly; there were two children, both girls who wept the entire short time that I knew them, and there was a man who ranted in a loud, deep voice in a language I did not know, shouting defiance until he was hoarse, and when his voice went from the ammonia burning his lungs, his life went, too.
I open my eyes and see blackness, above me, beside me, below me. The black from the absence of light, and the black of our skin. It is what binds us all together, the reason for our enslavement. Our skin is not white, and so we suffer. I struggle to take a breath, and choke on the air; it is hot, drenched in the stink of fear and sweat and worse. My throat is raw with breathing the ammonia from the urine sloshing around in the bottom of the ship, and I crave water to sooth the pain of my parched and swollen mouth. I shift my body, trying to ease the sores on my back, and feel my sweaty skin sticking to the skin of the woman beside me.
Suddenly I want to scream from the feel of hot, sticky flesh all around me, smothering me. Rage boils up inside of me with the helpless claustrophobia, rage at the chains binding my legs, rage at the bodies all around me, and most of all, rage at the demons who have done this to me, the whites. I open my mouth and shriek my anger at the moldy and bloody deck boards above. I lift my arms, and anger gives my starving limbs strength. I shove at the restricting bodies, scratching and kicking with my bound feet, and tearing at the boards above me, my fingernails breaking, my fingertips filling with splinters and bleeding. It hurts, but the pain is an outlet for my rage. I scream like a tortured spirit, and the bodies around me respond with sounds of outrage at my disturbance. A fist flies out of the dark and hits me in the mouth, cutting my lip. I taste the metallic sweetness of blood in my mouth, and I am quiet for a moment, relishing the moisture. But the salt makes me thirstier, and I scream again. Above, a hatch bangs open, and a rough voice shouts in the white manís tongue. Several of them pass among us, looking for the source of the noise. When they come to me, one slaps me across the face, trying to silence me, but I snarl curses at him and will not be silenced. They unchain me and hoist me to my unsteady legs, dragging me towards the open hatch. I fight them all the way, but I am desperate for fresh air and sunlight and open space, I donít care if they whip me. At least I will be free for a time.
When we reach the open deck, a stiff breeze brushes my skin like a motherís fingers, and my rage disappears. I smile at the world, where the sun is too bright after the long darkness, and stabs my eyes. I donít care; I stare into the sunís glare, then at the wide blue sky, and the ocean that never ends. The sailors force me to my knees and bind my hands, but I keep my face upturned, towards the light. The first lash of the whip cuts my skin, and I shudder, but the pain it brings is welcome, because it comes in the light and air, and I begin to laugh. My body shakes with laughter and whiplash, and dimly I think I must have lost my mind, but the hysterical laughter goes on. The sailor wielding the whip grows tired, and another takes his place, but the pain is far away now, and crack of the whip is drowned by a great roaring in my ears. Tears run down my face, and the laughter tears at my throat. Out of the corner of my eye I see a red blemish, and I turn my head to see fresh blood staining the deck. My blood, I think, and then my vision drowns in blood, and the blue sky turns red, then black.
Voices speak around me, but not to me. My body is lifted, and my eyes flutter open as I am carried by the arms and legs. I see faces of sailors above me, and beyond them, the blue, blue sky, but I feel no pain. I feel my body swung, and then I am flung into the air, my arms windmilling. I seem to fall forever, and then I hit the water with a splash. Salt water stings my tattered skin for a moment, and then the pain is gone again. And slowly I sink down into the water, down to where the spirits live in the dark.