Unhealed Wounds

  

Their march from Chief Ebeya's village to the coast, through dense interior, takes a toll of eight fatalities: seven captives, and a shipmate; seven carcasses pried from shackles then discarded, one corpse buried; seven heathens tossed to scavengers, one soul sent with prayers to Him, who knows the difference, evidently, between spirits of the worthy and those whose lowly attributes give them cause to be enslaved, though even arch, traditional enemies seldom risk their Godhead's anger by withholding rites prescribed so the dead might rest in peace.

 

Contorted grief, demolished pride, the degradations of captivity, torture hapless kinsmen terrified by the thought of leaving home. For where?

 

A woman with her hand extended, held as by a toddler—though the child does not exist outside its mother's fevered state—conveys but one among a multitude of post-traumatic tableaus that comprise this glum procession while it plods its dreary way. Others, front to back, express degrees of misery similar, as assorted portraits pass, exhibit anguish on parade, before a backdrop of incongruous untamed beauty. Wildebeest, zebra, elephant, buffalo, topi, giraffe, gazelle,  in grand profusion, cross the plain, beneath a spacious dome of sky, from midnight blue to fiery bloodshot, pin-prick stars to solar rays, both moon and sun describing arcs to the snaggletooth horizon.

 

Ironbound prisoners cast as silhouettes, proceed across the foreground, while vignettes, depicting predator versus prey, preempt the screen. A lion pride overwhelms the flailing hooves of an impala. Grinning molars of hyena crunch a dik-dik's fragile frame. A leopard hoists its simian catch aloft to gorge among the tree limbs, as a jackal family waits for gory scraps to drop, to snatch—with a ferocity warning nearby cliques of Marabou stork and vulture 'keep your distance lest the carnage here incorporate wing and beak.' A Kori Bustard stealthily pins a snake beneath its tapered talons and proceeds to peck the writhing coils into mincemeat.

 

Hippos wheeze, contract their nostrils for submersion into stagnant pools and wallows, rousting tick birds from the grayish, pinkish blubber as it sinks. A monstrous crocodile, jaws agape in what resembles heat prostration, waits on anything that mistakes repose for sluggishness; death comes swiftly to the careless, to the ill, the very young, the very old. The inexperienced, the unlucky, and the foolish likewise perish in a wilderness ruled by wildness, be it dead-of-night or day.

 

Attached like paper dolls unfolding (hieroglyphics set in motion), single file, the human chattel marches on, though dimly seen, for blackness overcomes anatomies, cloaks emotions, covers up thoughts as it obscures, with equal density, those who lag, who guard, who lead, while twilight segues into 'no' light; dusk capitulates to the dark, and sounds alone become the landmarks in a hazardous, harsh terrain where what is seen surrenders vigilance to perceptions honed by dread, imagination almost worse than clear-and-present dangers; for those that 'hunt' nocturnally likewise 'haunt' through the wee-hours gloom, striking mortal terror... onto dawn, when at last it breaks.

 

Bea, still borne by a foursome at the corners of her litter, is as discontent as they with her burdensome infirmity. She lapses into reverie; mutilation of her sex is a crime already poised to be avenged.

 

We see a mamba's slender body barely stir among the cushions that comprise the royal bed of Chief Ebeya, sound asleep. His breathing rises, falls, and rises, with an unsuspecting cadence; falls, and rises, falls. A simple toss and turn will seal his fate—as was intended by the woman who installed the lethal viper.

 

Bea intuits, as the grudging bearers jounce her, it has worked; the Chief has shifted his position.

 

Struck! Attack is instantaneous. Chief Ebeya, wide awake, attempts to dodge envenomed fangs intent on dosing him, past caring who has done this deadly deed, past sending armed men in pursuit of her whose own wounds feel less caustic when compared to those inflicted on her former husband. Seized, a searing pain now creeps and crawls along the chieftain's veins and arteries, from a pair of holes, in triplicate, to the cortex of his brain, inflamed with fright—infused with poison, as adrenaline speeds the toxin through his panic-stricken nervous system. Trauma. Sweat. The shakes. A realization settles in that breaths are precious, heartbeats golden. Limbs feel wooden; taste buds clog; the song of life becomes a dirge, disabling ears, as eyesight fogs, and wide-set nostrils cease to flare. Chief Ebeya, with a morbid wheeze, expires.

 

Detached, chagrined, an inconsolable Barnaby drops back, falls in step beside Bea's stretcher, grasps her hand. It's weakened squeeze returns the fondness his expresses, reassured that, come what may, she will not be forsaken.

 

The gun that never should have found its was into spiteful hands—the object over which contenders wrestle—veers and fires, removes three fingers and the thumb of Chief Ebeya's shocked successor, then dethrones him willy-nilly with a butt end to the skull. The man's assassin seems exultant at his luck, this glad development lending indisputable status, as it does, to him whose aim is redirected at the other would-be heads of state. Retreating, plotting plots behind impromptu shows of deference, bowing, scraping, those with weapons less impressive yield. Their coup d'état will keep. The gun is King. Long live the King—till he, too, is disarmed.

 

Crowe's vista, from the edge of an escarpment, oversees sunrise, as the plains below awaken. Herds adrift are softly backlit by the honeyed orb that soon will scorch the torsos of a hundred individuals and their drivers. Climbing, stiff, from having slept in twisted postures through a long night's restless vigil, guards and guarded curse the roles that each respectively must portray. To stand on watch or crouch in shackles is a boon to neither coterie. Each, if asked to utter private thoughts, would wish for joint surcease.

 

Without exception, marchers hunger, thirst, and suffer from exhaustion. None is pleased about this switchback they are scaling like a centipede—head now well above the zigzag of a tail still lost in shadows un-dissolved by dawn's encroachment. Rising, winding up—away from or en route to fates uncertain, be they homeward bound or exiled—moods are uniformly grave, expressions dour, demeanors bleak.

 

(The film score swells; assorted tom-tom, cymbal, bamboo flute, and whistle, yield to rattles made of stones and seeds in hollow branch and gourd. As if the vocal chords of those who leave their roots behind are strummed, we hear an everlasting requiem, a communally droned lament released like insects from a bottle, spread like ashes from an urn, morose, funereal in its dire reverberations.)

 

Bea is worse. The constant jostling tears at sutures she would gladly have removed had she a razor, and the fortitude. Having neither, she endures, complaining only with her eyes when disconnected from her lover. He, despite implicit condemnation, seldom leaves her side. In fact, he soothes her, strokes her blatantly, matching strides with those who bear her.

 

This 'iniquity' earns him outright sneers, at first, then crude asides expressed by Whites and Blacks alike. It seems unanimous; Bea is hated: as the wife of Chief Ebeya—whose demise is yet unheralded, though the witness Bea engaged to bring her word is closing ground; as Barnaby's consort—Barnaby's 'folly,' in the view of most, his harlot, or his flaunted indiscretion, disapproved of and reviled; and as an extra load—a burden, in addition to provisions, on the heavy hearts of those required to carry her.

 

Captain Crowe

Mister Lathrop! Do you think we might prevail upon Her Highness, there, to walk? We're losing precious time.

 

Barnaby

She's ailing, Captain. Bleeding.

 

Captain Crowe

Woman's nature. Hardly warrants being toted hither and yon, I vouchsafe.

 

Crewman

Runner!

 

In the distance, at a stringent pace approaching the escarpment, is an envoy, recognizably plumed, from Chief Ebeya's tribe—his ' former' tribe. Dispatched by prearrangement—Bea's—the steadfast runner closes. Porters, grateful for a respite, halt. Their stoppage jolts the line. All down the switchback, news of why the climb has paused stirs speculation.

 

Captain Crowe, retracing steps, addresses Bea in broken Bantu, and mistakes her feeble protest for consent to part her thighs.

 

Captain Crowe

Good God in Heaven!

 

With a scowl designed to hide unmanly queasiness, Crowe inspects the sepsis laying waste to Bea's disfigured crotch.

 

Captain Crowe

This mess wants cleansing. Ensign!

 

Ensign

Yes, sir.

 

Captain Crowe

Aid kit.

 

Ensign

Aye-aye, Captain.

 

Crowe, traversing the narrow switchback, issues an appeal. He wants a volunteer, a woman, to administer disinfectant, to assist, or better yet, do what needs be done. There are no takers. Fear—and, more pronouncedly, envy—puts a damper on compassion, every face a hardened mask of feigned incomprehension.

 

Enter runner. Drenched in sweat and panting heavily from the climb (is progress registered as shockwaves traveling link to link apace) the messenger halts, regards the Captain with a by-your-leave complaisance, then looks past him to the litter and its occupant. Bea, ashamed (the White man's rude examination one more proof of her subservience) makes an effort to regain at least a semblance of her pride. She turns and eyes her minion fixedly. With profound respect, he bows. Bea nods acknowledgment, then reclines on the unmanned stretcher.

 

Crowe, perplexed, begins to fumble with a metal box of splints and sailor's remedies, out of sorts about the chore he faces.

 

Captain Crowe

What was that about?

 

His surly question, asked in English, draws no comment. Bea, recoiling, is determined not to undergo the crusty Captain's touch. She casts a pleading look toward Barnaby, who attempts to reassure her—though he also seems reluctant to assume a surgeon's part.

 

While news of Chief Ebeya's murder (leaked) sends said shock wave in reverse. All credit owed is credit given (once the ways and means are learned) to her whose reputation undergoes a drastic transformation. Whore turned heroine, Bea is lauded—if restrainedly.

 

Crowe, amazed, is now presented with an excess of enthusiastic help. Relieved of duty, he repairs to higher ground and waits with Barnaby while a willing 'team' of matrons tends to Bea.


Captain Crowe

What turned the tide, lad? They would like as not have scourged your baggage earlier. Where's that runner?

 

Barnaby

Backtracked. Vanished.

 

Captain Crowe

Did he speak?

 

Barnaby

No. Not to her.

 

Captain Crowe

These folks are worse than Morton's fork in their confound irresolution. Act like weathercocks, always shifting with whatever breezes blow. That stoat Ebeya, for example, swiveling this way, then t'other; sells his enemies into slavery, then reneges on deals with us.

 

Barnaby

Reneges? I paid the price he asked for.

 

Captain Crowe

You paid double. Then got cozened. Half those ration sacks are sandbags—checked last night; we'll have to forage. Trades a fully-functioning rifle for a neutered brood hen. Lord! May God have mercy on this bumpkin, for he knows not piss from lager!

 

Crowe, impatient to be on the move, gives vent to orders testily.

 

Captain Crowe

Finish up down there! Heave ho!

 

Attendants flinch, snap to, fall in. The lengths of leg irons, disentangled, lose their slack. The queue, restored, now lurches upright like a row of toppled dominoes resurrected, bare feet shuffling in the wake of bare feet shuffling, daybreak hatched. The sun, arisen fully, percolates sweat from armpits, brows, and neck napes, prisoners straining to surmount the last few yards from slope to crest—at which point each and every head obeys a common urge to turn and claim one fleeting, farewell glimpse of hearth and homeland.

 

"No more interviews."

"No 'more'? Name ONE that you've done, Graham."

"They 'pretend' they want to know about an actor's craft and process, but their daily bread is gossip—you know, exposés on sin (?)—as if the high and mighty media is above it all. I hate that. Imperfections found in idols are 'egregious faults' times ten. So all us idolized folks, no matter if we cringe at such devotion, end up scourged in front of millions, flogged in public, cut to shreds by tongues so righteous in their lashing that they miss the point entirely, which is ours are human flaws, no more 'egregious' than are theirs. 'Doth not an actor have two eyes, two lips, one nose like every mortal?' Why put frauds like us on pedestals? Fans, wise up! Get off your knees! And get a life; I'm sick to death of this obsession with celebrities who are quoted left and right on topics way beyond their fields. As if a movie star, especially, should be singled out for comment. The illusions we create are simply that; the silver screen presents a counterfeit of reality, not its genuine day-to-day-ness. Films-folk falsify, edit, alter light and sound to suit our purposes—sans the least regard for humdrum authenticity. How things look is how things are to us. We 'specialize' in appearances, clever schemes to trick the eye, to fool the ear, to goose the psyche. Why?

"To make an audience think, I guess. Or, more importantly, feel. Though it's ironic we accomplish this by means that smack of subterfuge. Can a culture, blitzed by photogenic lies, discover truths?

"Regard the cinema as a resource, not a substitute for experience. Being in this world and of this world first-hand, it seems to me, beats living armchair lives of popcorn, coke, and bargain matinees. Indulge in pleasures non-vicarious, is the best advice. Agree?"

This manifesto, by our cast recluse, came AFTER Scott's request to "schmooze the press corps." Ha; a rag tag outfit THEY turned out to be. Plus, it was widely felt, in-house, that we were finishing a fiasco, thus this sorry show of coverage seemed a condescending gesture engineered, by MGM, our Johnny-come-lately mentor.

"Extempore? Has mother-wit returned to prompt her bouncing-baby-boy?"

"That's it exactly, Vel. It wasn't what I said but how I said it. We are less concerned with substance than we seem to be with style. It's how a speech is staged and phrased that counts. Who cares about its import? Slick delivery; that's the ticket. And besides, 'it's just a film.' 'A harmless dream,' is what our craft amounts to. (Art)—not life—(in parentheses)!

"Whereas truth means art and life are one, if people paid attention. Art and life can be synonymous when you dream your dreams awake. And when you do that, at the risk of being labeled 'weird' or 'crazy,' parentheticals start to merge with content. Substance integrates style. And life unites with creativity in a way that makes both vibrate, causing tingles of delight so strong I sometimes laugh out loud..."

Poor Graham was off and rambling on, as if possessed by feuding twins, the one convinced that 'truth is cinema,' the other one cocksure 'feature films fib' appointing me as referee and silent partner for these squabbles. I mean, sometimes he'd come out with stuff so pat it seemed rehearsed. Except it also seemed spontaneous, namely 'off-the-cuff' contriveduntil I wondered what was pulling Graham apart beneath the rhetoric, in his tug-of-war with seen and unseen forces.

 

Crowe, attired in full-dress uniform, mans the poop deck. Ship at anchor, we bear witness to the prologue of its loading... Dawn... Low tide... The queue of able-bodied bondsmen, roused from shoreline berths at sunup, brush their weary limbs and backs and ribs and buttocks clean of sand, prepare to brave the frothy surf, depart the warmth of terra firma for the stone-cold hem of sea that spreads its skirt along the shore. Marine life teems, as hobbled ankles pick through slimy clots of kelp, proceed toward spars resembling bones of a floating carcass. Tomb or Ark?

 

A web of rope connects the vessel to decrepit planks and pilings. Lines complain, like bows on catgut, lax, now taut with moans of stress as though the craft has grown impatient. Captain Crowe & Company dawdled—at their peril, in this savage land of savage rites and schemes in which they all have co-conspired to replenish distant coffers.

 

Predisposed to disembark, the timbers shiver almost eerily. Soon to house a woeful weight amidships, echoes haunt the holds, as if exhuming former traumas that beset each close-packed voyage, from supplier to demander, New World tapping bloodstreams Old, the captor's captives linked to ancient heartbeats murmuring: Black is beautiful; Black is terrible; Black is Everyman's fount, from the genotype's birth, predawn.

 

Exhausted muscles, aching tendons, staunch and supple limbs alike, revolt on contact with the ocean. Senses wince. The panic spreads, as mute contortions mime reactions to the sailors' goads and prods. These latter, calloused, do their duty fully conscious of the tortures yet in storewhich will instill a wish repeated (month to month and hour by hour) that deprivations, pestilence, ills, and raw indignities cease, desist. A lingering death, a living Hell, a three-month passage seems eternal—and should stop, if God be merciful. Why so deaf? Cries, prayers, and pleas, provoked from every gagging throat below decks, wallowing in the vomit, in the cloying vapors loosed by human waste, win no relief—and thus the cargo's lamentations grow exponentially.

 

This prospect weighs, full-force on him who translates horrorstruck faces. One by one, each passing prisoner seems to grasp what lies ahead, the claustrophobia that afflicts all souls confined to a floating dungeon.

 

Via gangplank, irresistibly hauled, the grudging file ascends, then drops from sight. Each slave is plunged into a dark and dismal terminus that is alien, insecure to feet allied to solid soil, the hull unwelcoming and morose in both its aspect and its function. How survive incarceration in this replica of a casket? How endure a crypt devoid of sun and moon and wholesome air? A choking sob escapes the mouths of those whose shackles scrape on hold struts. Desperation, and the lack of daylight, compounds their despair.

 

The wailing reaches those above like early symptoms of contagion that forewarns the un-afflicted of atrocities bound to swell, to spill beyond the wooden confines. Even warders cringe internally, none more loathe to hear the outcry than is he, with doubts redoubled, conscience troubled by the trials and tribulations of obedience to a father bent on hoarding bills of sale on human beings—the very thought of which drives Barnaby to distraction.

 

Barnaby

Halt the loading!

 

Like a half-ingested eel in a leviathan's gaping gullet, those in tow suspend the process of succumbing to their doom. Resigned, they do not misinterpret this postponement as deliverance—its author being the very man whose wits have been impugned, the very lunatic who attempted to obstruct their children's massacre, he whose acts remain unfathomable and contradictory.

 

Captain Crowe

Who rescinded captain's orders!

 

Crowe stands seething from the forecastle, peering at the row of anxious captives who have stalled. Of times when trouble is most likely, stowing living freight is touchiest. One rapscallion can incite a mass rebellion. Crowe has seen it. Ties to native plots can often flex a strength that shreds the sails, creating havoc always costly, crew and cargo wasted.

 

Captain Crowe

Mister Lathrop!

 

Having lodged the ailing Beatrice—Crowe protesting—in his own bunk, Barnaby crosses to the quarterdeck from his post along the rail and joins the Captain front and center. Eyes determined, jawbone set, his posture stiffens as if contemplating mutiny.

 

Barnaby

By your leave, the men and women we've abducted will be ushered back to shore and there released.

 

Captain Crowe

Are you insane!

 

Barnaby

You will be paid in full, regardless.

 

Captain Crowe

I will see you in my cabin.

 

Crowe is bristling—though controlled enough to keep a level keel before his men. It would not serve to lose his temper in the presence of subordinates, nor to hint that those in chains have just been issued a reprieve—albeit trifling in duration; Crowe is not about to falter. He was hired to make delivery, and delivery he shall make.

 

Captain Crowe

Are you deranged, man! Cull your senses. This is cash-on-the-hoof you're squandering—Lathrop Senior's, if the truth be known.

 

Barnaby

Of that, I am aware. I'll pay him back.

 

Captain Crowe

With what; your circumcised bitch?

 

Barnaby

Desist!

 

Captain Crowe

Desist I'll not! Except from yielding to the vagaries of a spendthrift and his whore! This is the nineteenth century, young man, not the ninth. Uncivilized wenches are for heathens still bewildered by inventions like the wheel. These jigs are one step up from monkeys, lad. Regard them not as equals.

 

Barnaby

You believe that, Captain Crowe?

 

Captain Crowe

I do.

 

Barnaby

In spite of all we've seen, of all we've done to show how 'civilized' people act to serve self-interests?

 

Captain Crowe

Do not lecture me on Mankind's inhumanity; I have lived it. In a shipwreck. Spent a month at sea on rafts of death and flotsam. Men will do unto their fellow men whatever is required to stay alive.

 

As though the memory lingers palpably, Crowe relives it, tastes its bitterness. Then, as if it can be jettisoned, spits. While Barnaby stays his course.

 

Barnaby

If that be true of us, 'tis true of them out there—who are not monkeys; they're alike to us in every aspect barring those skin-deep. By all that's Christian, men should not make other men slaves.

 

Captain Crowe

Nor other women? Set Her Highness free as well, why don't you? See how long she tarries. You're a fool, young Barnaby Lathrop. And a dangerous fool, at that. Have you considered what might happen if we turned those cannibals loose? You think they'd thank us for our kindness—having seen their offspring gutted?

 

Barnaby

That was Chief Ebeya's doing.

 

Captain Crowe

Aye. And done on whose behalf? Your qualms come late; the die is cast. Beware lest scattergood joins the litany of your failings.

 

Crowe stands firm, his protest logged, z bargain struck is a bargain kept. Except the man who holds the purse strings, whether principally or by proxy, is the man by whom the Captain is confounded as they speak—or, rather, glare at one another. Youth will not be countermanded. Love, if love describes the younger's heart, will not be overruled.

 

"I'm talking visions, Vel, like flashes of a parallel sur-reality, every bit as down-to-earth as daily life is—minus stress. And free from Time. From linear Time; the type we're taught from crib to coffin. Try to picture how the world might seem if past and present looped. You know, like here and now could somehow co-exist with way-back-when. Imagine bouncing back and forth between existence as we know it and existence as we knew it. All at once. No gaps between.

"I've seen my doppelganger—cross my heart—a genuine double image, like a split-screen documentary, one self bad, the other self good. Except the evil self could only be distinguished from the nobler by a mask it wore. Real ghoulish. Made of broken bones and teeth; and even horns, I think. All black and white and fiendish-looking. Threatening. Or forewarning; that's the puzzler. I'm not sure it meant me harm.

"In fact, the selves might not be light and dark, so much as late and earlier. Déjà vu is what I mostly felt. Reminded. Of a dream. Or of some former incarnation; that's my best guess."

Weird, or what! I mean, "The Twilight Zone" was where this raving basket-case seemed headed. I was damned if I'd get dragged along for company. Sick, sick, sick!

"And that's what Mattingly must have felt when he was digging up the Flute Players; déjà vu. Or something similar. He gained access. Just like me. How else describe things so minutely?"

"He was cuckoo."

"That's debatable. If they'd published 'all' his findings, not just those pronounced 'acceptable,' there's a chance his contribution might have revamped certain theories as to how and where and when and why our screwed up race began. Man took a tangent. Made a wrong turn somewhere. Screwed up; I'm convinced of it. Man was 'of' the earth, initially—as opposed to being 'marooned' here. Maybe that's the misconception at the root of why we've strayed. A 'God Above' suggests some supernatural presence that's extraneous by the very fact of His, Hers, Its transcending earthly bounds. Whereas a 'God Within' suggests some basic kinship, Man to elements. Which means worshipping our Creator should mean singing Nature's praises, as in harmonizing us with everything around us. Couldn't hurt. And, in the long run, it might serve to save our species."

Hallelujah! As I mentioned, Graham digressed in ways that seemed... well, evangelical. Which was somewhat out of character. More like Barnaby's. Trouble is, or was, that both were walling-off themselves from commonsense realities: Graham by keeping to himself too much and courting his illusions; "Bar'by" Lathrop by his playing nurse to Bea. 

 

We watch a speechless throng unshackled and at gunpoint flee their captors, who, in like form, beat retreat, lest those they just turned loose turn back. Instead, a stretch of untamed jungle offers refuge to the tribesmen, wherein strategy can be plotted. Retribution must be heaped on them who hustle down the quay. The vessel's swaybacked gangplank rumbles. Nervous crewmen, still confused about their Captain's baffling order, seek the safety of an open ocean.

 

Hoisted mainsails snap. A huff of offshore wind, like stale breath, fills the canvas with humidity that envelops deckhands, ill-at-ease, impatient to be off. The anchor weighed, its pig iron dangles like a pendant from the prow. The hull, anointed by a sluggish tide, approaches swollen waves. One final hazard to negotiate, and the crew can let its guard down. One last bottleneck just ahead, from which an ambush might be staged, and they are free from vengeful men and women.

 

Too late. They are waiting. Armed with pieces of the precious turf that would have been denied them had this gang of would-be 'masters'—now in full retreat—prevailed, the tribesmen lift their fists en masse. Prepared to let projectiles fly, they bide their time until the White man's vessel cruises within range.

 

While Bea, securely stowed in Barnaby's stateroom, feels the tug of birthplace. In a sweat, her fever raging, she imagines distance widening from the land that gives her severed soul identity. Torn, she shrieks. It is a cry that will resound in him who tries in vain to soothe her. Barnaby sponges flesh ignited by a fire he cannot stanch. His dabs and pats and tender wipings-off are useless, if impassioned... ministrations interrupted by percussions overhead.

 

At first a sprinkling, now in thunderous downpour, missiles strike like hail. Crowe issues orders.

 

Captain Crowe

Weather it! Hold your fire, lads! Steady as she goes!

 

The vessel passes through a narrow strait, besieged by vengeful Bantu, whose assault is deathly silent. Only wind and peppering "clicks" disrupt a preternatural hush, at once macabre and disconcerting to the men at whom these parting shots are hastily aimed and hurled.

 

The sticks and stones at last fall short. Their curved trajectories end in splashes, yet persist as if to trounce the ship by injury to its wake.

 

"As for the part that I'm to play in this, Vel, who knows? It's a mystery. It's like being out on stage without a clue. You know, gone dry? Except the lines that I've forgotten don't exist. The script's not written. I'm just there. The folks are waiting. I'm expected to perform. And..."

"WHO'S expecting you? WHO is waiting, Graham?"

"The tribe, I guess. Those women."

"You mean Golden Globes and Mother Nature?"

"Fine. You win. No contest. Time is irreversibly linear; death is permanent; I'm bananas; not a single odd phenomenon I've experienced has been real."

And then he weptor went all teary-eyed; which is when I KNEW he'd lost it. Graham BELIEVEDI merely forced him to PRETEND his whims were nonsense. I felt awful, like a mom debunking fairy tales for a child who clings to dragons, knights, and damsels, or, in Graham's case, 'noble savages.'

"Still, I'm staying."

Or I tried.

"You're what?"

"I'm staying, Vel. In Kenya."

He was absolutely serious.

"WHY?"

"To understand. To see if I can maybe find some fossils. Poke around a bit. Discover—or rediscover..."

"Some clown's dig? You must be kidding! In the first place, you need tools and things; equipment. In the second place, you need permits, special visas; all that shit. And in the third place, you need psychiatric therapy heavy-duty, if you think that I—or ANYONE—is about to let you linger in a god-forsaken place like Masai Mara. Graham, RETHINK!"

But all I managed to accomplish with my little face-facts lecture, was to watch the only door between us close not slam; just shut. From that point on, Graham kept whatever he was thinking to himself. As if he didn't want me worrying. Ha! I wish I'd worried louder. Shortly after, all the worry-in-the-world proven USELESS.

 

In a cabin quarantined perchance "Her Highness" prove contagious, Bea and Barnaby face a rolling, pitching, yawing, tossing test; for her of strength, for him of loyalty.

 

Beatrice

(Water? )

 

Barnaby

Yes. I'm right beside you.

 

With a sponge, he trickles moisture onto fever-blistered lips. Bea scarcely swallows—the request alone has taxed her waning stamina. In between her fits of thrashing, she lies still, her body limp. The bunk, though narrow in construction, seems to dwarf her gaunt proportions—ever-shrinking with each passing day that infection goes unchecked. She shrieks!

 

Above decks, Captain Crowe remarks the muttering of his shipmates.

 

Crewman One

Chuck 'er overboard, I say.

 

Crewman Two

Muzzle 'er, leastwise. Gee-zus! Rouse the dead, she will, with all 'er groans an' caterwauls.

 

Crewman Three

Oughta draw an' quarter 'em both, befits a negress an' 'er lapdog. Fie, the way that slut gets fawned upon.

 

Having heard enough, Crowe spits. It serves as warning to the crew that they are trading on his tolerance. His expression is severe, his bearing grave, in fact unchanged since he allowed his ship to set sail with its hold devoid of treasure. Yet a sudden shift in attitude makes him take the couple's part.

 

Captain Crowe

Would that a man among the lot of you owned grit the likes of Lathrop's. Been a fortnight; man has nary et nor slept for tending her.

 

This sharp rebuke curtails the grumbling. Shrieks below erupt afresh.

 

Her backbone arching, Bea's extended torso twitches with a spasm that appears to cause commensurate pain in him who would assuage, as Barnaby apprehends clenched fists before their flailing causes damage. Then he adds his greater weight, eclipsing Bea as might a lover. Bearing down, he tries to quell her trauma. Mindless, Bea still thrashes, till an all-embracing tremor seems to quake through him and her both.

 

Then, like an intertwining knot at last undone, the pair goes slack. The worst seems over. Bea's contorted features recompose, turn tranquil. Barnaby's, slower to release their tension, furrow with concern. He halts his breathing to confirm that it is hers that buoys his chest, her heart that animates his implacable hopes, her pulse that calms his nerves.

 

As if sustaining the illusion he has worked a blessed miracle, cured his loved one by the virtue of his will to do so, healed, Barnaby disavows the evidence (while the soundtrack hums Bea's lullaby). Death is mellow, not insensate. Death is tranquil, not inert. Bea merely rests, not sleeps forever, not yet deaf, dumb, blind, and numb.

 

The cabin rocks (to soft accompaniment, as the lilting air continues), Bea's and Barnaby's berth a cradle (as the gentle music ebbs), a single porthole, like an eye of twilight, peering at the spectacle of a Black girl's corpse in a White boy's arms (the gentle singsong ends).

 

My son. Not yet? They tear my insides like a breech birth. Wah! These cramps of labor cripple. Little man, my little marvel, what still keeps you from reunion with your mother and your homeland and your clansmen? Is your bride-to-be too homely for a man I trust is handsome past all measure? Do our simple joys of dance and song seem plain where you abide? Has life improved so much you spurn the very site where first you breathed it? He who sired you was unworthy; she who bore you likewise wanting; they who slew you... What excuse exists for cowardice? It was wrong to drown my one and only child in fallow mud. There were no no reasons, save unfounded fears bred of minds content with darkness! Superstition is the shadow not the substance of Belief. As lies are shadows of the truth. As evil casts its pall on goodness and inhibits us from choosing paths that guide us toward the Light. To lead the tribe, to lead the tribe... Forgive us crimes committed blindly, and return to lend our hooded eyes the wisdom of your sight that we may look upon Creation without shame.

 

The elder shivers; not from cold; the day is hot. She sheds the insects—that ignore the ring incised around 'The One Who Waits,' 'The  Seer,' whose maw once issued, lo so many seasons past, an 'aberration.' Those with memories long enough to have borne witness still recount how cloudless heavens lost their temper when the infant first came forth. No rain resulted; strictly thunder—heard a second time when features, never seen before or since, were dipped in spring-diluted clay. And then a third report reverberated, as the kindling spat and crackled, as the corpse-consuming fire discharged an onus all agreed befell a people who were cursed by one among them born so pallid. After that, the eccentricities of its mother earned forbearance, few objecting when a twisted reed was laid upon the pyre, none interfering when maternal fingers picked through charred remains to salvage blackened bits, mementos stowed in a drawstring kidskin pouch (which housed another precious keepsake) hung round a lithe-turned-withered neck... now craned to note, through leafy branch and thorn, a reminiscent blueness.

With a thunderous clap, the sun-seared sky resounds!

 

 

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