Chapter 3: Mo’destee Vert
1789 – Baila Village, Senegambia
By dusk, the group was nearly home. Their food and water had run out, they were dusty and tired. The blood from GB’s nose had dried on his skin and the front of his tunic. Little Mo could see the pain in her father’s face, the way he avoided looking at the other men, the way he wouldn’t meet her eye. She knew there was something he wasn’t telling her and Jabari’s dad. As they made their way back to the little village, Mo wondered if she would ever see Jabari again. The weight of loss settled over her. She knew that pain would settle over his parents, too. It was as if Jabari’s dad aged with each step. Mo began to worry about Jabari’s mother and the news when they arrived. Her stoic face materialized in Mo’s mind. She was such a beautiful woman. Her face was chiseled like those from Egypt. Maybe her and Jabari’s children would have the same facial features. When that thought crossed her mind, the reality of Jabari’s absence stabbed into her soul. Tears sprung to her eyes and she felt her shoulders begin to shake with despair.
Within a minute, GB was at his daughter’s side, his arm around her, holding her. “We’ll find him,” he said softly. Wordlessly, she shook her head as the tears slid down her grief-stricken face. She watched as her father and Jabari’s father exchanged a distressed look.
When they reached the village, there seemed to be a dark cloud hanging over each person and as the travelers joined the ones that had stayed behind, the mood darkened further. Tamala and Mambo steered little Mo to the table and allowed her to serve herself with the adults. This wasn’t what being an adult was supposed to feel like, this river of grief splitting her heart into two. She glanced around for Emeka, hoping the toddler’s face would bring her comfort. Seeing him in the arms of another village adolescent pained her further. The food was flavorless, the grass mat she was sitting on uncomfortable. She wanted to go and pile up with the other children of the tribe. She wanted to cry, to scream and throw a fit akin to one of her toddler brother.
Every now and then, little Mo’s mother would reach over and stroke her head or back. The act was meant for comfort, but it only added a fresh pang of hurt. Her eyes traveled to the fire in the center of the gathering. Usually there would be a celebration of the day, a giving of thanks in dance, but tonight there were no such festivities. Mo watched Mambo make the sign of the Baobab tree and then flip her fingers from above her head, shaking them to the ground in conscious motions. The death dance.
“He’s not dead,” Mo’destee said towards the medicine woman. Mambo’s eyes moved slowly to meet Mo’s. A hush fell over those that were still eating; all eyes were on the two women.
“All three may as well be,” Mambo stated and continued the practiced movements. From the edges of the darkness, a cry escaped Jabari’s mother’s mouth. The noise pierced Mo’s heart.
“He’s not dead,” she said again. Mambo resumed her slow and meaningful death dance. She began to hum and moan as she moved. Other noises began to come from the crowd. Members of the tribe mourning their loss. A few moved behind Mambo and mimicked her motions, their cries harmonizing with hers.
“He’s not dead!” Mo shouted. Her mother moved behind her and wrapped her arms around her eldest child. The rest of the mass joined in the death ritual. Howls, chants, and the songs of grief rose up, sheathing the village in sadness. Jabari’s mother’s wails haunted Mo’s dreams that night.
Noises that were once nightly comforts kept Mo from sleeping well. Their hut was too quiet, the only regular breathing sounds coming from Emeka. Even Tamala’s side of the hut seemed too quiet. She pictured her parents lying side by side, their fingers entwined, both holding their breath, waiting for the morning light. Mo laced her fingers together and pictured Jabari’s hands entwined together with hers. Fresh tears burned her eyes.
Days turned to weeks. Daily activities were done with an air of caution. The village still felt the hole the missing boys created. Jabari’s mother stayed in her hut and refused to eat. Mo’s mother visited her often and came back with reports of sorrow to mix with Mo’s own heartache. It was not only loss they felt, but fear. They were leery of strangers, specifically anyone in uniform.
Mo would often sit and stare at the line of huts, watching the tribe’s people. Her eyes would scan over them as if she were just not seeing Jabari, as if he were still there. Against Mambo’s advice, Jabari’s father, GB, and several of the other men from the tribe went back into Dakar. They were solemn and silent when they returned. There was no gathering that night, no fire.
“La tahzan InnAllaha ma’ana.” Qur’an 9:40 became Mo’destee’s mantra and included in all five of her daily prayers. “Don’t be sad, indeed Allah is with us.” She had to believe Allah was with her since her heart was breaking that Jabari was not.
The nights are the worst, Mo thought. She had been having difficulty sleeping and was plagued with horrible dreams. They each started the same, her dozing off, thinking of Jabari’s warm brown eyes and the way he had kissed her at the pump the day he went missing. Then in her mind’s eye she would see running rabbits. The motion would startle her and she would look up into a Baobab tree where a flock of grackles took flight, their dark bodies set off by the pale blue of the sky. When her focus returned to the tree, she realized someone was stuffing Jabari into the opening of the tree but he was not dead. He was fighting them off and resisting being laid to rest. Their eyes lock and he mouths, “Mo,” and she wakes, heart pounding, hands shaking.
Tonight, she woke, startled, with his name on her lips and thought she heard talking outside their hut in a language that wasn’t Wolof, or French.
“GB,” she heard her mother whisper in the dark.
“Sshhhh,” he answered. Mo could feel the hair stand up on the back of her neck and knew her dad was feeling the same tension.
Then the screams started. GB was up and out of the hut in a flash. Fanta grabbed Emeka and curled her body around him, his eyes opening, wide and scared. Tamala sat straight up, fear circling her sleep-crusted yes.
Mo’destee could hear the hostile grappling of her village coming to life, and death. She heard a musket shot, more screaming, children crying, and many voices all talking at once. Suddenly the roof of their hut burst into flames. Tamala screamed and grabbed her daughter, roughly shoving her towards Fanta and Mo’destee, then she turned back and grabbed the youngest son, the other two already awake, moving away from the danger. The fire moved quickly; smoke billowed into the small structure.
“Move! Run!” her mother yelled and, with Emeka in her arms, bolted for the door. Mo’destee heard a wet smack as she moved out of the hut. She hurried to the door and stood in horror. Her mother’s limp body was just a few feet from the door, her face bloodied and caved in. Emeka was now screaming, his face coated in fear. Mo’destee started to move towards him. It was a struggle, like walking through water. Then, suddenly, he was raised up by the arm of a large white man. Their eyes met as the man turned and forced her little brother into a medium sized cage that was nearly full of other village children. From the corner of her eye, she could see Tamala being pushed down, the baby wrenched from her arms. Two more shots rang out, slapping Mo’destee out of her momentary trance.
She ran blindly away from the flaming village, the screams succeeding like the smoke coiling from the burning huts. The noises of her people being killed or kidnapped, her home being destroyed, it was all too much. The rabbit from her dream flashed in her mind, and momentarily she thought of her, Jabari, and Amina as children, hopping from shadow to shadow like savannah hares.
Where was she going to run? The compound was secure; they built the walls to protect them, to keep the danger out. Never did she think the walls could be used to trap her in. She could hear the large man behind her, “Volte aqui, sua cadela.” Before she knew it, he had her.
With animal instinct, she clawed at his hands and tried to bite him.
Mo’destee’s eyes grew wide when she focused on the scene unfolding in her village. It was like something from a nightmare. All the huts were aflame. Two large cages were set on carts and women and children were being forced inside. The livestock were in a tither, braying, calling out their worst fears. Children cried and women screamed. The men were lying face down in a row, their hands behind their necks, two white men standing over them with guns.
Mo’destee’s captor held her by the neck, one hand over her mouth and nose. She struggled to breathe; the more she tried, the tighter his hands were and the weaker she became. Another man opened a cage and the man discarded her into it like she was a wild beast. Air gushed into her lungs and tears stung her eyes. Before she was oriented, another body was tossed casually in and knocked her from behind. Her head hit the metal bar as she fell. The darkness swallowed her and for a moment she rejoiced, thinking Allah would come and take her to heaven. It was the last thought she had as she lost consciousness.
The rabbit dream was fuzzy in her mind. The savannah hare was hopping this way and that, leading her into a tunnel. She was apprehensive but followed the rodent to a river. The rushing water was making so much noise she couldn’t hear herself think, the wet of the spray sinking into her skin. As she watched the river rush by her, she felt herself being lifted and moved her eyes skyward. Perception returned even though it was muddled with confusion.
She was still in the cage. Their bodies were cramped in so tightly that she couldn’t move, barely breathe. Her backside was wet all the way down to her legs and her feet. She could smell urine, feces, and vomit all tinged with the unmistakable copper odor of blood.
Breathing in through her nose, she filled her lungs and then choked. With effort, she managed to free her arm somewhat, enough that she could bring her hand to her face and block the stench a little. She was prone, snug tight to the bars on the cage. Another child laid next to her, with more bodies on top of them both. Many of the village children were curled into themselves, making themselves as small as possible, cramped and confined in the metal cage. Mo’destee realized she was pinned in where she was. She could see slivers of sky through the barrage of black skin that was piled on top of her.
The sounds were haunting, cries and moans coming from every direction. Where were they going? To Jabari? Could it be possible she would be reunited with her love and their families? She lifted her chin just slightly so she could peer out the bars. The motion created a wave of movement throughout the cage, the person on top of her repositioning to accommodate, which caused the next person to have to adjust their restricted position, too. Why were there so many bodies shoved into such a small enclosure? The overwhelming stench caused Mo’destee to gag. She breathed again but this time through her mouth, her hand still doing little to block the reek.
They were on a boat. Mo’destee hadn’t realized the movement wasn’t the cage being hauled by a donkey but the rocking of a large boat. She had only ever been on a small canoe and only once in her life. She had seen large ships and boats from a distance. Fear and panic swept over her like the flames that had engulfed her home. Her home. Her family. What was going on? Where were they taking her?