Slave ships sail for a very long time, and they sail so far from where you were born that you begin to forget who you are.
And so did little Akua. She’d even forgotten what she looked like. Which on balance, she was alright about. It’s just she didn’t want to forget what her mother looked like, and now it seemed she had. Akua became sad and found it difficult to sleep without a picture of her mother in her head, she cried.
Every night the face of her mother faded a little making Akua’s throat swell with anguish. She cried every night, for how many nights she did not know. What she did know, is that she did not want to cry anymore. Instead she had decided she was going to swim back home and find her mother. There had never been any doubt she could swim, she had always been good at that. She is the fastest swimmer in the village, her mother calls her ‘Yellowfin’. How had Akua allowed herself to be captured after her mother told her to go. Keep running. Running, running, running so fast. Very fast. Too fast, because suddenly the hand on her shoulders had gone. Where had her mother gone? Well, it did not matter now because she was going back to find her. No more crying only swimming.
Way below Akua’s feet. Someone else was busy swimming. A young mermaid, who to the human ear, was named, Hasani. She was happily speeding away from her older sister, Aegaea and her cousin, Talori.
Hasani’s underwater wake left foamy lines of white in the blue. Her family called her name, with playful irritation, while Hasani sliced the tide like a swordfish. She could not hear them; the heat of the chase distracted her. A human ship. She could see the hull just out of reach at about 15 leagues up. Who was on that ship? Was it bad pirates with treasure to share? Was it a freight ship with spices and tea. She had kept a chest of saffron for over year now, and the scent still filled her gills. Or was it one of those terrible Slavers throwing live cargo overboard her Homedeep was full of abandoned captives, but she was too young to as yet understand the human ability to mark others as less. Mermaids, you see, are all equal.
Perhaps now is a good time to tell you something you need to know about the names humans give mermaids. They are our best but still a rather poor translation, as we could not possibly hope to pronounce or understand any mermaid’s real name. Lucky for us, mermaids cannot roll their eyes, they leave that to sharks. Coincidentally also an indication of their infinite patience. But more on that later.
Up to the ship again where Akua waited. The flour-skinned men had not shouted for what felt like a long time, her line of sight dimmed now, she thought it must be dark. She could hear the muffled cry of a baby and as the adults around her had started to slump and huddle she could make out their sad shapes trying to remember how to sleep.
Lucky for Akua, these were the early days when they did not realise shackles did not bind small children while they slept. Their legs and wrists were too tiny. Often the youngest of the human cargo would slip out of their bonds at night play clapping games with other children who used to be the sons and daughters of enemy tribes all here together parents not forbidding the Akan to laugh with the FraFra.
Then in the tiny slither of time before dawn they would recapture themselves as if nothing had changed. Akua had only seen ten seasons; she knew that she would be free, with a bit of wriggling.
Now she had picked the night she was determined and silent. She twisted and turned until the chains, and large hoops of iron fell off her hands she looked up quietly exclaiming her joy. She looked back down at her bruised and scraped wrists, she rubbed them and thought of her grandfather punishing her hand with a stick for drinking his kutukù. How that stick had hurt but these leaden rings hurt more. She blinked the memories away she could be distracted, she got to work on the clamps around her ankles these were harder, she blistered and cut herself, and she felt the metal scrap against her bones but with one last push each of the chains were off. She balled herself into a crawl and slowly edged passed the snores and the sighing. She tried not listen to the weeping as she worked through the piles of flesh stuck together with grief and remembrance. Her eyes were squinting against the darkness she found the food hatch. Her aching hands pushed hard. It opened.
A ladder lit by one star awake. Akua couldn’t clamber quick enough. Suddenly she was on the deck of a very, very big ship. She looked up at a ceiling of white billowing freely, reminding her of her father’s tents in the rainy season. The wood beneath her feet tilted from side to side and made her feel strange, but it wasn’t a feeling of fear. She felt that maybe her tongue wanted to escape.
So did she.
She could see some men lying between huge bundles of rope. Ah. This was like a game of ‘come-find- me’, but she knew she could not let herself be found. She looked around her she saw the bulwark on the starboard side of the ship and followed its line up to the Bowsprit. She darted toward it like a little brown rabbit and scrambled up onto the rail. She heard noises from the flour-men and crouched from their view and caught a glimpse of the sea. Her eyes were strained by the vastness ahead of her she could see no end of blue and had the thin dark line of the horizon was unbroken to where ever she turned her head. She could not be stalled by fear she must stand and dive off the ship. She stood there staring out at the rolling sea.
She had been on a small boat before, with her brothers. How she had wished for them never to come back after they pulled her hair and chased her up the Wawa tree. One day her brothers had taken her out for a long game of Pilolo, to her mother’s shouts that they were all making her mad with their noise. She had found all the stones and sticks they had hidden but when she had called for them called and called they did not answer they had just gone, and they had never come back now she wished they were here, to help her turn this big boat around.
Yes, she knew about boats. Yes, she knew about water surely this was just very big water.
The air stung her nose, and she wrinkled it to stop it from sneezing. No one had noticed her. She held her arms above her head. Took a deep breath and threw herself forward.
The fall was long, but the painful slap of salty sea against her skin seemed longer. If she had ever felt anything colder, she could not now remember it. She let the current take her down her eyes shut against its salt. Her arms did not flail with confusion. She was indeed a powerful swimmer. Soon, composed she harpooned back to the surface, bubbles streaming to where she knew she would find air. She opened her eyes and mouth as soon as her throat filled with it, she gasped and laughed with her success. She shook her head as she felt her shoulders break the waves. Treading water she took a look up at the massive bow of the ship she flipped forward as if diving for shells back home. Finding a good depth she started her paddling.
She was fast at first, and she felt she was moving a good distance for a while. The ship was smaller now, but Akua was not sure which way she should be going. She had been so concerned with getting away she had not thought properly enough about where she should be going. Now thought that if the bow of the ship was facing her then perhaps she should be going in the opposite direction. She could not contemplate going passed the ship again she would be hauled back on board and beaten for sure, panic set in making her arms like thick planks. She tried to press on, but now her legs were numb, and she could not make another stroke. She began to sink. First, the water forced itself into her mouth causing her to splutter. Her chest was beating, the sound in her ears like the drums the day her brothers went missing.
Her head and eyes were fuzzy, she sank another yard, her cheeks felt thin like she could put her fingers straight through them.
She was beginning to think that maybe this water was just too big. She let herself be turned over by the current her she just wanted to sleep, and she knew when that happened, she wanted her mother. She kicked a little with her feet but then unbent her knees and uncurled her hands but let her legs and arms stretch out she smiled her calm. Her chest did not even seem to hurt anymore the water had become warmer, and above her, the shape of the big ship was disappearing up into the blue. She shut her eyes, and she wanted to touch her mother’s face before she went to sleep she had missed doing that every night for so long just one more touch so she could have a dream that would not wake her. She held out her hand, and Akua felt happy that she could feel a face.
Then Akua heard a giggle, and she opened her eyes to see who owned the laugh. There was a little girl just like Akua but whose skin was the colour of just-melted butter with hair that had the curly life of orange tree worms. Akua could hear the big ones in her head, who told her that when she crosses over her guardians would come. Clearly, Akua was on the other side, but the big ones had not said that the guardians would be so pale. Akua felt the little girls hands on her face pulling her forward.
Then the worm-headed girl kissed Akua sealing her mouth with the sweetest breath so that Akua instantly felt buoyant. Her lungs filled with new air; her eyes were clear her she could even use her ears to hear. The little girl started to giggle again. “Are you my ancestor…? What happened to your other leg?” asked Akua but the little girl laughed even more. Then Akua noticed it was not a leg at all, but a tail like a dolphin Akua became scared “You are a monster”.
“I most certainly am not”, said the little girl pouting before she flipped backwards in a glittery somersault of bubbles. Akua had seen the big fish do that at home and felt that anything that could do something that beautiful could not be that horrible.
“I am looking for my mother,” said Akua. At this, the little girl with a dolphin tail stopped turning her shimmery circles and sensed that Akua did not like to feel like playing right now. She swam back to her side and tipped her head so that their heads were touching, and looking at Akua with her very green eyes she said: “I do not know if she will be here, but if you stay with me we can look for her together”.
Akua thought that just even in this short while she had stopped feeling quite so lonely and as such did not think it was a bad idea to follow the fish-girl so she allowed herself to be taken by the arm and they swam away from under the shadow of the ship.