Bushrod Island, Liberia
by Shannon Gibney
Land of giving. Land of taking. Land which does not speak, but always listens. Palm fronds and sharp bluffs everywhere, encircling me. Mango, coconut rush off the branch into my waiting grasp. No one, nowhere…Savage black faces with glowing, yellow eyes piercing the night. Calls sometimes, communion with an ancient, older power – one which neither hears nor recognizes the voice of The One True God, the Light out of which can only come Life. Silence keeps all things known to those who sleep with ears open. Sometimes, just before waking, I know that we are not alone, that someone watches me as I sleep. I think they have spears, and that they mean me and my children harm. The colorful red and yellow and white birds that flit from tree to tree overhead are really the tools of damnation, victims in a Godless battle to live without love. To die in hell.
The whites were one kind of hell, with their whips and their blood lust and their insatiable unseemly hungers, but this could well be a hell of another order entirely, this land. And my children, and my children’s children, may well spread their seed on this barren land that I have bequeathed them, and they will encounter nothing but heat and fire. Nothing will grow here, and what was once living will die. What the sickness doesn’t take, the depravity will surely make up for, in time. There is no forgiveness here, nothing but a sun that doesn’t recall the cost of its endless shining: blackness, blackness. Everywhere.
When they had disembarked from the ship after more than three months at sea, the children were not the only ones who struggled to find their footing. The sea had taken their legs, and it would take awhile to get them back.
“Welcome to the land of liberty!” a thin, hawk-nosed white man barked at them as they stumbled out of the dugout canoe and onto the sandy beach and continuously-foaming tide. Perhaps he was the chief colonial official of the encampment, she wasn’t sure. The fact that he took her arm and steadied her as she tripped her way forward made her wonder if he had lost both his whiteness and his manhood in the bush. He looked like he had certainly become much too accustomed to the life of an untethered bachelor, with unkempt hair and overgrown facial hair. He smelled like he hadn’t had a bath in weeks, and when Yasmine took a look around the peninsula that they had abandoned Virginia and the Scott Plantation for, she began to understand why. Cape Mesurado was a towering mound of rock, clay and sand above them, rising higher in the sky than many of the buildings she had seen in Norfolk. The Atlantic Ocean slammed onto the coast with a deafening crash that she wondered if she could ever get used to. There was an enveloping mist that seemed to cover everything, and standing pools of water weaving in between the rocky edges of the coast, with mosquitos buzzing above them. But it was the ubiquitous and uncontrollable green that unsettled her the most. She couldn’t even explain why, which was even more troubling. The sheer audacity of the leaves, branches, mangrove swamps, flora and fauna of all types – much of which she had never seen and could not identify – could not be undone. Houses would be built, roads made, brush cleared, but there was a certain wildness that the land would never yield. You said you wanted freedom, James whispered in her ear.But you weren’t prepared for this much. She sucked her teeth and hushed him away, You long dead, husband. Unless you fitting to take up a hoe or a pistol in the name of your family, you best go ‘way.Mercifully, he was silent after that.
And then there were the savages; the ship captain had called them “Kru.” They had come up beside them, in thin, dugout canoes of some sort as they entered the harbor. They had the blackest skin she had ever seen, and faces permanently marked with blue (“Mama, we get new faces like that, now that we here?” Big George had asked her excitedly, as they prepared to board the boat. She hadn’t been able to muster any other response than a flat “No,” which she hoped conveyed her extreme distaste at the very idea). These “Kru” wore long tan robes, bracelets, and other pieces of jewellery. There was raw power in their command of each stroke, and they looked into the eyes of the colonists fearlessly, shouting to the crewmen in a guttural and clipped language. To look on them was to stare in the face of a terrifying nothingness, to accept the void at the center of human existence , but also, to be strangely drawn to it. It was a fearful sensation.
Just three of the men had come onto the ship, conversing with the captain and first mate in a kind of broken English that made her native tongue sound unfamiliar – even barbaric. Yasmine pulled Nolan and Little George to her, and glanced behind her, to make sure that Lani was still safe on her back.
“Mama, they black, like us,” Nolan said, his eyes growing bigger by the moment.
Little George snickered. “Boy, they ain’t Negroes. What you got up in that big head of yours – peanuts?”
Nolan glanced hatefully back at his big brother. Their relationship was changing so rapidly with each passing day that she couldn’t keep up. One moment they were the best of friends, sharing food and jokes, the next they were insulting each other. All of it was making her very, very tired, which made her even more eager to get off the ship. Hopefully, the strangeness of their new home would distract them from each other.
“They blacker than them blue-black boys Ol’ Master Scott got working in the fields back home, and they ain’t never seen no Uncle Sam,” said Little George.
Nolan pulled back, and peered at them more deliberately this time.
“They home is in the jungle, and they live in trees,” Little George continued. “Probably got no idea what real civilization is. Just look at them.”
So Nolan did just that, slowly taking in the widespread bare feet, long legs, and broad chests. “Mama,” he whispered in her ear. “What’s wrong with them?”
Yasmine frowned. Nothing on the ship, at the ACS meetings, or in Norfolk had prepared her to answer questions like this. She shook her head, at a loss for words. “Nothing,” she said. “Nothing.”
Nolan, being a normal six-year-old, did not let this go. His small brow furrowed. “But…” he sputtered, “I thought you said they’d be black. You said, back home, that where we were going was covered in black people everywhere. You said they were free, too. But these people ain’t black.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Who knows what they are.”
Beside them, Little George and Big George leaned further over the guard rail, and exchanged grins. “That kid be more right than he even know,” said Big George, and they both laughed.
This angered her for some reason, and she said, “They may live different than we do, but they are still our black brothers…and sisters,” she added, thinking that wherever there were men, there had to be women, somewhere. “They just got a whole other way of doing things.”
The two older boys laughed, still eyeing the Kru men up and down, incredulously. “You got that right,” said Little George.
The smallest of the three Kru men looked sharply behind him at that exact moment, and gave the two insolent boys a withering look. He glanced at them as if they were dogs, the lowest of the low, and Yasmine wondered just for an instant, if he thought them as barbaric as they did him. The thought did not linger, however, and in the next moment she remembered that they had neither education nor God here yet. At every ACS meeting, they had echoed this sentiment, as well as at the Smith’s. She had had very limited schooling on the plantation, but knew, just as her children did, that they had been taken from the Motherland in chains to become slaves and beasts of burden. She knew that at some point in the distant past, her ancestors, and the ancestors of her children had spoken the same doomed language, and worshipped the same false gods as these blue-faced apparitions before them. She never thought she would say it, but the one good thing about slavery had been the light of religion, the humane logic of civilization. There was no way she would ever condone what those Crackers had done in the name of profit to get them there, but Heaven was a reward they had not counted on. She smiled sometimes, when she thought about how surprised the Crackers would be to be surrounded by so many black folks in the hereafter. And now, they had gone back to the root of it, the abominable trade in human flesh that had destroyed so many lives, and was crippling so many more. If nothing else, in sharing the truth of civilization with these people, they could convince them to stop their participation in the savage trade, and help them secure their own places in Heaven. They might not all see reason, but there was hope enough to try. Yasmine smiled, tentatively. For the first time since James died, she felt optimistic about her future, and that of her children. Maybe being born Negro wasn’t such a bad thing, after all? Maybe she, they, could use their wretched experiences towards something other than death, something beyond the afterlife.
“Attention, passengers!” the first mate was shouting to everyone standing on the promontory. “These men will take you, three families at a time, the rest of the way to land and safety.”
Yasmine looked around her, at the small bands of men, women and children huddled together in intermittent groupings on deck. She could feel the fear and reluctance that this message generated all around her, which made her relieved that she was not alone. The crew may have known these men and may have reason to trust them, but the passengers certainly didn’t. What made them so sure that they would not just dump them off into the sea once they stepped aboard their awkwardly-fashioned boats? This was their domain, after all, and they would have the upper-hand if they ever decided to expel them.
The first mate must have sensed the same trepidation that Yasmine did, because he held up his right hand in a cautionary gesture and said, “These men are expert mariners, ladies and gentlemen. They have navigated these waters for generations, and are much more adept at handling them than anyone on your extremely competent crew. In short, there is nothing to worry about.”
An audible mumur went through the group of colonists, demonstrating their distrust of this statement as well.
The first mate sighed, obviously exasperated. “We have sailed with them on so many occasions that we now have a contract with these gentlemen, and their village. They are well acquainted with the ACS and the colony in general, and as such, have the full backing of the U.S. government.”
With that, the first mate turned away, and began dragging two large trunks that Yasmine assumed belonged to one of the families on board near the guardrail, and the waiting canoes in the water beside it.
Yasmine returned her gaze back to the three men, who were standing steadfastly on the bow, arms crossed and faces impenetrable. Who knew what they were thinking? Or how much English they could actually understand. This stubborn obtuseness generated the same in her, and was the reason why, she decided, she could not trust them.
“Mam, do you have any things to bring ashore?” a scrubby crewman asked her.
She shook her head. “Everything we got’s on our backs or in our hands,” she told him. They were far from the only ones who were starting anew with completely nothing, but she could feel her face getting hot at the regret and embarrassment that lined each word, and the fact that several other families were listening in. We will make it here, and send back tidings of the riches and comfort of this life. I don’t care if it takes me my whole life to do it, nor if it drives me to my deathbed – I will see these children with lives I couldn’t have dreamed of.
The crewman nodded his head and moved on to the next family. A few minutes later, the first mate helped them on to the small, wobbly boat. It was she, Lani, and Nolan in one, Big George and Little George in another. She tried to find a way to sit comfortably, but the firmness of the wooden board which she was sitting shot pain up her back. When the Kru man who was paddling the ship looked back at her questioningly, flipping his right hand up in a gesture she assumed meant “Are you ready?” She nodded sternly, and looked straight ahead, towards the shore.
“Mama! Mama!” Little George and Nolan came screaming into the communal house. The ACS had supplied a small space for them there, in a large room that they shared with 15 other families. It was meant to be adequate shelter until they had gotten on their feet enough to eke out a small dwelling and farm of their own. Yasmine couldn’t wait to get out on to the land and really start to work, but she had been searching out stories from current colonists about where the most fertile land was, what crops to plant, the best cultivation methods, and the like. The last thing she needed to do was ensure that her children fell victim to an ill-conceived plan. Too many colonists had already told her that bad decisions back home meant less food and more violence from white folks, whereas here, one bad decision could be the difference between life and death. She had to be very careful and deliberate about what she chose for them.
Yasmine turned around, weary from the endless nursing that Lani required. “What is it, boys?”
Nolan’s eyes were as big as work coat buttons, and his face was flushed. “We ran down by the river, and we saw a hippo drinking! A real life hippo, Mama!”
Little George pushed in front of him and began gesticulating widely, punctuating his story. “And then there was this elephant swinging to and fro, to and fro, like this.” He put his elbow to his nose, and threw his weight side to side. “He was following something, we thought another animal he wanted to eat, we thought, but then he ended up finding his babies again.”
Yasmine smiled, in spite of herself. She put her hands on her hips. “And just how did this elephant lose his babies in the first place?”
Nolan shoved his brother aside, so he could corner his mother. “We don’t know, Ma. We only followed him a few miles, and—“
“A few miles?” Yasmine gasped. Sometimes she forgot how big her children were getting, and how they grew more and more independent each day. It made her proud, but also scared her. There was so much that they still did not understand about this dangerous place. “I don’t want you boys travelling that far alone, you hear?” She leaned into both of them, so they couldn’t escape the threat embedded in her tone. “These woods just filled with things we ain’t never seen, heard, or even dreamed of in Virginia. No telling what could get you when you ain’t looking.”
“But Mama,” said Little George. “We weren’t alone at all.”
Yasmine frowned. “What you mean?”
Little George sighed, as if he was explaining something elementary to Nolan. That boy gonna be a whole pack of trouble, once he grown. “Right after we saw the hippo, we happened on a village with the black-black people.”
“The black-black people,” said Yasmine.
“Yes,” said Little George.
“But not the ones with the blue faces,” said Nolan.
“No, it was other ones,” said Little George, as if that meant something. “They looked more normal, though the woman walk around with nothing on.”
“Do so! They got a cloth or something round their privates!” said Nolan.
“But nothing on top, so that don’t really count, do it Mama?”
Yasmine’s face grew hot and she shushed them, worried that some of the other families might hear. What kind of mother let her children be exposed to this kind of depravity at such a young age? She brought her hand to her forehead.
“They didn’t see you, did they?” she asked fearfully.
Nolan looked confused. “Well, of course they did, Ma. They knew we were in their town before we did.”
Little George crossed his arms over his chest. “Ain’t no such thing as a town way out here, stupid. We in blackest Africa, where they only got huts and dirt paths – and that’s if you’re lucky. Otherwise, they just got trees and animals for you.” He hurrumphed.
Yasmine felt the same way she did when her father had come home from the fields just two weeks after her sixteenth birthday, and said that she was to be betrothed in just a fortnight to a man twice her age, who she had never met: As if she was falling headfirst down a well with no bottom. She had to get control of this now.
“That ain’t true,” she said, sharply enough that both boys stopped talking, or trying to best each other, momentarily. “We living in a town right now, if you haven’t already noticed.”
Little George looked at her incredulously, then flopped down on their worn sleeping pallet. “If this is a town, we in more trouble than I thought,” he said, nonchalantly.
Yasmine knelt down so she was eye-to-eye with him, fire in her throat. “What you mean, boy?” She asked.
Little George recoiled – just a little, not much – and then met her gaze, steady. “I mean look around. You see any schools? How bout churches, general stores, real roads, a post office, munitions store – anything the civilized world we left got? How bout some people, either? What is there, bout 80 people living here or something? Them’s that’s survived the tropical death, anyway.”
The anger welling up in Yasmine’s belly could have burned a hole through her. Nolan could see it, and he took a good two steps away from her. But Little George just kept staring her straight in the eyes, fearless. Just like his father.
“That so?” she said. “You the expert on civilization now, is it?”
Little George broke away from her grasp and looked down. “No.”
Yasmine grabbed his chin and spat each word into his face. Families were starting to stare, but she didn’t care. “What was that, boy? I didn’t hear you.”
“I said no,” Little George said, a little bit louder this time.
Yasmine stood up. At least he was still a little bit scared of her; she would need to use that to her advantage. “This town got one school, one church, and one munitions locker. And there be 432 colonists here, for your information,” she said, reciting the information that ACS officials had imparted on each family at the meetings in Norfolk before their departure. “Every damn one of them working their tail off to feed their families, which is what we got to see about doing soon enough. They ain’t complaining about how bad they got it, how hard it is, cause they too busy making something out of the nothing we all found here.”
Little George hung his head, chastised and embarrassed by the attention her voice was garnering. He really just wanted her to stop the rant already, but he knew well enough that once she started she would not stop until she had said everything she wanted to.
“You ain’t noticed by now, we not just fixing to make our own home here, we trying to save these heathens from themselves – save the Race, and by doing so, prove to those Crackers that the Children of Ham ain’t just base animals after all,” she said. She took a breath. “Oh, and by the way, anything you want that you don’t see you have to build with your own two hands,” she said. “It’s what it means to start from scratch, to carve a country out of its own wildness. That’s God’s work, and I’m here to tell you that that’s what we getting ready to do.”
Yasmine stopped then, her words having come to a momentary halt. Little George held his head in his hands.
Nolan tugged at his mother’s skirts. “But Mama,” he said. “Your George is doing his part. He met a girl in the village – a black-black girl, and they made friends.”
Little George eyed Nolan hatefully.
Yasmine looked from one boy to the other. “What’s this?”
Nolan sighed, afraid to continue, but afraid not to. “Your George met a black-black girl on the way to the village. Actually, it was her who brought us there in the first place. They made friends, and even taught us a few of their words.” Nolan smiled triumphantly. “So you see, once we learn their speaking, we can convince them to come here, and help us build the town. Maybe then they can even start coming to church with us. It’s perfect.”
Little George sucked his teeth. “That wasn’t the way of it at all, you little tattle-tale.”
Nolan stuck out his upper lip, pouting.
The other families around them were starting to look away, as the volume and intensity of their voices died down. They began folding their blankets, and gnawing on the dried sausage that the colonial officer had distributed the night before. Yasmine did not want to draw their attention again, and her throat felt suddenly constricted besides, so she simply whispered to Little George, “Tell me. Tell me what happened, boy.”
Little George glared at her. “Ain’t nothing to tell, Ma.” He smiled unexpectedly then, which worried her more than if he were recalling a story of one of the heathen men who had approached him with a machete. This small girl, greeting them with a dangerous kind of innocence, was trouble. “She was sweet, real sweet,” said Little George. “Reminded me of Penny, actually.”
“He’s right,” Nolan chimed in. “She wasn’t scared of us at all.”
“Shut up,” said Little George. He turned back to his mother. “She tried to talk to us in her language, but when she saw that we obviously couldn’t hear her, she brought us back to her village, for everyone to greet us.”
“That so?” Yasmine asked, still whispering.
Little George nodded. “Because she be so kind, I think the rest of them just accepted us as brothers, too. And before we left, she gave me this.” He pulled at a bit of twine she hadn’t noticed before, that hung from his neck, and out popped a small bag at the end.
“What is it?” asked Yasmine.
“I don’t know,” said Little George, obviously half with them in the communal house, telling the story, but also halfway back at the wretched little village with the girl, who Yasmine feared had already left an indelible stain on his memory and whatever it was inside him that created longing.
“We think it’s some kind of spirit or spell or something, to ward off evil beings,” said Nolan. “That’s what the Shaw boy told us it was.” Thomas Shaw was an untamed boy from an equally untamed family, who looked like they had lost the war between the ever-encroaching bush and the cleaner, clearer lines of the town. They lived as far away from the settlement as the colonial authorities thought prudent, and several colonists had already told her that they were just tempting the Natives to attack them.
Yasmine could contain herself no longer. She reached down and snatched the pouch from her son’s neck. It came off in her hand more easily than she anticipated, and the twine snapped up, whipping Little George’s cheek.
He looked at her hatefully, but said nothing.
“This. Is poison,” she said simply. “I don’t want to ever see nothing like this around you never again, understand?”
Little George nodded, the hate still spewing from his eyes.
“Black magic is what it is,” Yasmine said. “It comes from the bush, and it belongs in the bush.”
“But Mama, you just said that we need to teach—“ Nolan began.
“I know what I said,” she said icily, ending all possibility of continuing the conversation. “And I’m telling you both now you better stay away from that village, you hear?”
Her look demanded an answer, and both boys nodded, mostly out of fear.
“Now go and find your brother,” she told them. “I need him to help me carry our new food rations back from the colonial office.”
Both boys ran off then, happy to finally be free from the increasingly constricting space of their mother.
She sighed after they were gone, and looked down at Lani, still sleeping. That child could sleep through anything. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? The question echoed into the wide open of her mind.