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A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora
By Sheree R. Thomas
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Copyright © 2004 by Sheree R. Thomas
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First eBook Edition: 2004
The Dark Matter Series
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative
Fiction from the African Diaspora
Dark Matter: Reading the Bones
they would not remove themselves from his mind.
he dreamt of them, of her, every night. they all did.
the mass of human flesh lay beached upon the shore. in the pale early dawn they were indistinguishable.
they were poured upon the sands, fished out of nets like pounds of shrimp.
as his eyes adjusted to the light, he could make out land. he wondered, as he watched the ghosts move about, to what special hell he had been brought.
he would never forget the sound of teeth gnashing as she gave herself to the sea.
she gave herself to the sea. there was no struggle. she sensed him behind her. she reached back as his hand found hers. she squeezed it tight. she had only time to grab him before being engulfed by water.
razzberry heard the unloading all night. as the sun began to rise he could make out the mound of brown human flesh on the shore and the shadow of the ship beyond.
he could feel people all around him. he had grown used to this communal form. he had lost the parameters of his own body, just as he had given up the designs of his soul. it took all his effort to open his eyes. for so long it had seemed so useless, confined to the shadows and darkness as he had been.
ghosts moved about freely, unconcerned for their cargo. there was the sense of exhilaration and completion that came at the end of each journey. satisfaction, having delivered over half of their cargo safely. they waited for the auction and the payment of their money.
as the sun rose, the mound began to move. warmed as they were by the sun, they no longer clung to each other. as the thaw of the journey and last night's unloading set in, the cold subsided. they each began to take back their limbs.
they all remembered kiobe's screams, among those of the other women the ghost had chosen.
kiobe had been taken for the longest, passed around as she was. no one had seen her for two risings of the moon. they had begun to think of her as lost when she returned bloody, taken, wet with the pollution of many ghosts. she cried until she fell asleep, then she screamed until she woke herself to cry.
atiba saw from her one corner of the vessel. she saw him. he saw it in the look in her eyes. she knew it in his. by the time he reached the railing she had already leaped. he focused on where the waters had withdrawn her. he eluded the hands of many ghosts reaching. he jumped after.
sharks that followed the ship of death continued in the process of their evolution, cleaning the waste and filth, drawn as they were by the blood of her taking and the remains of the communal blood in which they had lain.
they all remembered. it would not escape their dreams.
slowly they returned to life. scared. scarred by the passage. they had crossed. they were the bridge. generations would cross through their collective womb.
each in their own way understood the distance. they would never again be home.
there were many tongues, many peoples among them. most were still chained. slowly they were released into a pen, washed, clothed, then given some gruel to eat, passed by ladle, by ghosts, from one communal pail.
as they were released they drifted together in the communal pen. it was here that for the first time many of them were able to find the sister tongues they had heard in the darkness.
that darkness. lying one upon the other. barely breathing. constant endless shifting, in the struggle for room. all would not survive. it had seemed an eternity before the one voice called out for silence. those of his tongue indicated this to each who was near. in this way slowly the silence had been achieved.
calling the name of a people, those of that tongue would cry out searching for information: a sound, a name, a place, anything familiar, any vestige of their ever distancing home.
it was on that day, when a young warrior son urged the people to learn the sounds of the one in bondage beside them, that resistance was born. resistance which gave birth to survival.
so many died. so many gave themselves to the sea.
amazingly the eyes adapted to the darkness, to whatever little light surrendered itself through the virtually non-existent openings in the belly of the wooden ship.
next had come the arduous task of moving. each day at least one shift. as the voyage continued there had been more room.
there had been death, left to rot amongst them. they had lost so many. fluids everywhere, from every opening of the living, the dying and the dead. this was the constant in which they survived.
one quarter of the cargo was brought above each day. drenched in the waters of the sea, made to move, dance, then returned to the constant, the methodology developed by the success of the many crossings.
among them were a people who did not speak.
the people of the silence could hear the thoughts of one another. they alone knew the fate in each cargo's hold.
atiba had known each of kiobe's thoughts, through every scream. they all had.
they waited until the washing was complete. the morning moon watched. silently they turned and began walking back toward the water.
movement was undetected for several minutes. their guard was down. they had passed the night. the cargo had been washed, fed, clothed and penned. auction was set for high sun.
the pens were guarded heaviest on the sides near the woods, near where the auction would take place. the slavers held the hill overlooking their prized cargo. it was a while before they noticed the silent band of thirty or more moving without hesitation toward the waters.
as they reached the limits of the pen they jumped it as one. they turned not a head, even as the sounds of agitation grew behind them. they quickly crossed the distance of the natural harbor.
the slavers were stunned. cautious, they sprang into action. quickly they realized they could cut off every path except the one which led to the water. they reached for their guns, but were confused, fearful to injure even a single piece of cargo if it could be helped. suddenly angry, they contemplated their loss.
as if breaking out of a dream state, the slavers suddenly broke into a panicked run, each cursing non-stop, blaspheming their god and their luck. then they suddenly stopped, silenced by what they saw but could not comprehend.
razzberry watched from the hill. it was through him the story was remembered and the truth told.
as they reached the place of waves, each one would grab the hand of the one before.
stepping over wave after wave, they strode confidently, unhurriedly, past the ship lying in the sunrise.
nearly everyone in the vicinity of ibo landing that day came to see, before the silent band was lost from sight.
The Quality of Sand
Del adjusted her spyglass, focusing on the crimson and royal of the Union Jack as it was hoisted up the mast of the Queen Anne. She panned the ship from bow to stern, noting the position of the first mate as he barked orders to three underlings on deck. The deck, she noted, was scrupulously clean. Now that the ship was on its way to port, the crew sought to erase all traces of their cargo until it could be quietly disposed of in a private auction. In the early morning light, the Queen Anne's captain was as yet unaware of the smaller vessel bearing down their starboard side. She inhaled the stinging air, astringent with salt; the wind licked her shoulders as it ballooned their opening sails. It was almost peaceful.
Jamal was suddenly beside her. He gestured to the left side of the Queen Anne's bow—his eyes sharper without a lens—to where a deckhand had removed a plank with the ship's name, replacing it with a new plank that read Sea Dog.
"No matter." She lowered her glass. "She was the Queen Anne at Goree, and she will be the Queen Anne when she is docked at the bottom of the sea."
Arsemma wept that morning. She had not cried in many uncountable days. The sweetness of salt was now foreign to her lips. She had not seen the sun since the day her father died and their chief claimed, then sold, her and her sisters. Forfeit for the tribute her father had refused to make. She did not know if any of her sisters were still alive, nor did she feel the empty tightness of her stomach, swollen as a cassava. I must finally be dying, she thought, relieved as the planks above came apart, spilling in white darkness.
After the last of the Africans had been safely transported from the hull of the Queen Anne to the Meridian, Del wiped her machete clean with a torn scrap of sail. They had affixed the ship's captain to the mast while the first and second mates were hog-tied on deck. The mulatto interpreter had already slit his own throat, saving Del and her crew the unsavory task of soiling their blades on his traitorous flesh.
Ali tore bites from a peach impaled on his knife. He uncovered a coffer brought from the captain's quarters and set it at her feet; the metal casket was full with gold coin.
"Portuguese spoils," he said, grinning, pulp glistening between his teeth.
Del directed him and the others to return quickly to the Meridian. Once safely aboard, she gave the orders to fire the decrepit vessel as they had sunk so many other slave ships. Delphine felt the tightness in her groin release as she watched the fire eat the ship's hull, leaving the masthead bobbing once, twice before disappearing with its load beneath the waves. The torn sails fell, a curtain of red-gold sparks to ash, racing toward the Union Jack, which crumpled into the sea in a streak of black, its authority desecrated. Yoyotte cleared her throat, interrupting Del's pleasure. For expediency's sake, they would have to forgo the ocean's final gurgle as it swallowed the remains. They had already fired several cannons in sight of land, not many leagues from the port of San Salvador, where the governor would soon send reconnaissance to investigate. Del nodded to Yoyotte; by the time the navy arrived, only charred rubble would remain. The sharks, drawn to dinner by the flailing of the few survivors, would finish off the rest of the English.
The Meridian dropped anchor in a small cove several miles north of the port. With the aid of the crew left on land, and the people of a nearby quilombo, they transported the three hundred freed Africans ashore.
Yoyotte, Del's first mate and friend since her days at the maroon colony on Haiti, read from the captain's log as they paddled the last of the rowboats to shore.
"As we suspected, three hundred remain out of an original transport of close to seven hundred."
Del shook her head at the loss. "If only we had been able to attack sooner."
"Do you think the quilombo will accept all of them?"
"They will when they see the guns and gold we liberated along with the cargo."
Yoyotte yawned. After sixty-seven days at sea, with little to eat and no time to sleep lest they lose sight of their quarry, they were all exhausted.
"We'll rest here for a few days. And then sail home. I miss Ville-Fleur."
Yoyotte smiled. "I miss my husband."
Arsemma made her way quietly up the winding trail to the cave where her saviors rested. She had been fed pounded fruit with a rich meat-flavored broth. The food was unfamiliar, but there was as much of it as she wanted. And it did not cause her stomach to heave as before. An aged woman with many markings on her face, dressed in blue and white cloth, had given her a strong tea she called "mate" to ease the cramping in her stomach. It had been good to rest and breathe air unclogged by the stench of feces, maggots, and dying. But she had not taken part in the shouts and greetings and dancing. Her sisters were not among those clasping hands and reuniting with loved ones or those who spoke the same tongue. There was not a one who could understand her among these Yoruba, Fon, Igbo, and Asante. But she had seen the man in the dark gold cloak watching her. He was tall like her, taller than many of the others. He had the look of her people, the desert people. She had seen around his neck the iron crescent—maybe he would know the way back to the desert.
Del awoke to the soft gray-green light of morning on her face. Her pallet was empty, but the tonal chanting of Jamal's prayers soon soothed her. In the valley below the cave where they set up camp, the people of the quilombo were stirring. They had taken the Africans along the river and deep into the jungle heights. Peeking outside of the tent, she saw that someone had already left a basket stuffed with a morning meal of starfruit, pomegranates, and corn.
The sun filtered through the ancient towering trees, casting a jade glow on Jamal's back and chest. She closed her eyes again and listened to his prayers. By now, she recognized many of the words and inflections, although she did not speak his first language. As the intonations softened to a whisper, she crept behind him, circling her arms around his waist and resting her palms on his chest, over the heart. She let the mud cloth, which she had draped over them while they slept, fall to her waist. Pressing her breasts against his back, she slid her nipples along the ridges and valleys of his deep scars. Only in their most intimate moments did he bare his tortured flesh to her. At all other times, he wore long, billowy robes and a turban so that only his eyes, jet and opaque, set in a face of carved bronze, were visible. The crew, who knew them to be inseparable, called him her second sword.
She licked at the three moles at the nape of his neck. She marveled at how innocuous they were, like small freckles arranged in a triangle. It only took a moment before they released the blood as he continued to chant in a tone only notes above a whisper. She mouthed the words with him, ignorant of their origin, secure in their meaning:
I am the flame and the sound of vengeance
I am the prayer and the scent of grace
I am the knife and the stroke of hope
I am the goldweight and the measure of truth
I am the blood and breath of life.
He turned so they faced chest to palm, her mouth and lips oily, ready to receive the blessing.
Afterward, while they lay again in each other's arms, impervious to the stirring about the camp, Jamal spoke. "Did you notice the very tall girl among the survivors? The one with the long, pulling eyes and skin like red clay?"
Del shook her head. "They all seemed the same to me."
"She is . . . familiar."
"I am beginning to feel jealous. You rarely mention another woman more than once," she said. Dismissing the pensive look in his eyes, she climbed astride him, drawing his attention back to her. "I miss home."
"We will be back in Haiti soon enough."
She nodded. "As soon as we can repair the damage sustained during our last engagement and get out of the lagoon without drawing too much attention."
"Many of the Africans have requested to be returned to the continent."
She swung her legs together, stood up and reached for her garments. Jamal watched as she dressed. Her crimson tunic, woven of fine but sturdy Eastern silk, was high necked but slit almost to the waist on each side to allow her freedom of movement. Del always took long strides, her arms swinging out in front as she walked, ever clearing obstacles from her path. Underneath the long tunic, she wore heavy sailor's trousers and leather whaler's boots. She fastened a thick leather belt around her waist. It was a new addition, ornamented with cowries and ivory. She had found it among the bartered goods of the last ship they'd liberated too late, a Dutch vessel off the coast of Curaçao. She wore it for remembrance.
Someone had propped a large piece of reflective steel in the corner. She patted her hair, not that it needed much attention. Her burnished black and copper locks were twisted into tight, shiny knots all over her head, drawing attention away from her pointed ears—her one flaw, she complained, the right from which hung several gold rings and the left, a single teardrop emerald worth as much as her ship, called "Cleopatra's Tear."
It was her first gift from him.
She pulled her knife from under the bedclothes and affixed it to her belt. Feeling around her neck, she grasped the plain iron crucifix and smoothed the worn leather string upon which it hung to her collarbone. Feeling Jamal's question still lingering in the air, she replied, "It's a better life here. Free. Not on a plantation."
Delphine Toutsuite was the only member of her crew who had never known slavery's harness, but she still bore its scars. Her mother had been born a slave. She escaped from a plantation just outside Port-au-Prince, leaving her days-old daughter with the nuns of Saint Sebastien. She willed her daughter freedom and a name, Delphine, which she had embroidered in red on a soiled linen napkin tucked under her swaddling. The sisters of Saint Sebastien ran a small church and orphanage just outside Port Royal. The church faced the sea and Del knew the tides as well as the church bells marking every hour of her day. The sisters taught her to read, to sew, and to be a devout Catholic until the revolt launched. Del was ten when French loyalists torched the convent and raped the nuns for bringing food to the rebels camped in the nearby mountains. She fled into those same mountains and joined the maroons. Among them and their wild proud ways she learned to fight, to hate, and found purpose.
At fifteen she still possessed the thin, bony frame of a boy brought up hard on fish stew, coconut rice, and christophine. Whatever one could catch and kill. She began to accompany the fisherfolk on their daily runs. A trick of fate found her impressed into service off the coast of Jamaica. She sailed back and forth across the Atlantic, studying navigation from the kitchen of a man-o'-war, learning everything about sea battles, strategy, and men. When Moorish pirates attacked off the coast of Spain, their captain, Jamal Al-Din, recognized her for the woman she had become in spite of six years at sea. United by oath and their shared hatred of slavery, funded by Jamal's merchant vessels, they turned the Meridian into the scourge of the triangle trade.
From the outside, their two-story maison seemed suspended only by a dogged determination to see the next spring, but inside, the rooms were filled with treasures: books, carpets, salon paintings, ivory, woven baskets filled with salt and black pearls. Del had grown accustomed to spartan living; Jamal introduced her to the pleasures of fine paper, incense, and brocade.
Jamal watched her face soften. "You are thinking of Ville-Fleur?"
Their refuge was named for the stubborn, resilient flora and fauna that bloomed no matter the season.
"I am." She began to gather their things. "The sooner we leave the better. I do not sleep easy so close to Portuguese dogs."
She flung back the curtains of their tent and smacked into Arsemma, who flopped to the ground like a sack of flour.
Cursing, Del recognized her as the girl Jamal seemed fascinated with. "What do you want?" she asked first in Yoruba, then in Igbo.
"She doesn't understand you."
Arsemma looked through Del as if she were made of mist and rose to her knees, cupped her left hand over her right fist. Jamal raised her up and spoke quietly in a language Del knew was his native tongue.
"Arsemma," she heard the child say as she opened her fist. Three dusty braids of hair coiled into knots fell at Jamal's feet.
Del grew impatient.
"We have to alert the others. I want an early lunch."
"Go on without me." Jamal helped Arsemma into the draped cavern.
I keep dreaming of saffron; that fragrant spice whose precious threads are the color of molten gold. My veils were saffron colored, dyed with the vats of spice stored in a secret cave in the desert. So rich in it, we could afford to waste it as dye for our clothes. The trade routes of my people connected the east and west coasts of the continent now called Africa. For my sisters and I, it was simply the land, the earth, the place where men walked. I am the youngest of four daughters in my father's house. Many men had put aside wives who gave birth to two daughters in a row, much less four. But my father would not part from my mother. Amongst his friends he was ridiculed and called Vas Put Ry, he who has no line. He did not care. We were rich. He would choose for us wise husbands, and the business would flourish under his sons-in-law's care. We were sought after. Chants were composed and sung throughout the Bedouin lands and beyond of the daughters of Ahmad Kabril. They sang of our dark hair, the color of a starless midnight sky, and our skin as gold as the saffron itself. We giggled and laughed to hear our beauty so proclaimed, for no man outside our father's house had ever glimpsed our black hair or golden limbs. Never did we walk the streets except in long black veils.
But there were whispers on the caravan, where propriety was often trumped by the sun's heat. Farah, Aisha, Yasamin, and I would steal to an oasis. In the dim light of sunset, steadfastly guarded by our father's men, who kept their backs turned, we would wash with the other women. It was a hedonistic luxury, to splash and rub our scented soaps against each other, loosing the sand from our skin and braids. The sighs of the guards and young, unmarried men in the caravan were palpable as the winds carried our musk to their nostrils. We knew we were safe. It was forbidden to gaze even one moment on the daughters, sisters, and wives of the merchant chiefs. Their eyes would be poked from their sockets and replaced with sand. They would be abandoned to the desert, to forever haunt the sloping plains, beset by an eternal thirst.
Rumors circulating about the wreckage of the Sea Dog reached the quilombo through traveling peddlers. It was not long before the connection would be made, the ship would be missed, and the Portuguese navy would begin to scour the coast for the ship that had sunk her. Claude, the ship's navigator, had plotted their course, a winding way through the most dangerous and, as such, rarely traveled currents of the Eastern Caribbean. Not the most direct route but the best for avoiding the British, who were always on the lookout for pirates and would likely sink a ship manned with blacks and Indians without questioning why they flew French colors. As they lingered, trading for supplies and sounding the Meridian, Arsemma never left Jamal's side. To Del's annoyance, they spent hours conversing in the tented cave.
After thanking the chief of the quilombo and making an offering to the iyalorixá, the resident priestess of Iansá and Iemanjá, in exchange for blessing their journey home, Del discovered Arsemma crouched beside their sleeping mat. After a few weeks of constant food, fresh air, and freedom, the girl resembled the woman she was. Del watched the incessant twitching of her eyelashes as if she were caught in a desperate dream. Del almost sympathized. She allowed that the girl was beautiful, with her coppery skin like burnished pottery with flecks of sandstone and her slick soft hair. Jamal had told her the braids she carried belonged to her sisters, woven of hair never cut before the ships. She rarely spoke, but when she did it was always to Jamal; her eyes never left him, the look in them almost devout.
"You are like a god to her."
Jamal laughed, startling her because his laughter, terse and hoarse, was a rare thing.
"We are both of the desert people, the Khartoum, but to her I am a much more ancient thing. I am a familiar terror. Fearful but nevertheless something she can cling to in this new world."
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2001
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing