Chapter 4: Mo’destee Vert
1789 – Goree Island and the Door of No Return
The boat’s crew began to scurry around, bustling and moving as one. Mo’destee felt the movement of the boat become constricted as the cage jerked forward.
Once the cage was open, the men began the process of throwing the children to the ground where they were huddled together, howling for their parents. Mo’destee looked around and saw the island where they had moored. There was a long plank set up so the boat could be unloaded. She watched as the women were bound together by a rope tied around each of their waists, then attached to the next woman. They were standing in a single line. Many of them were crying, too, several with their faces caked with blood. Mo’s eyes scanned for her mother or Tamala as the women were led away. She didn’t see anyone she recognized. Without warning she was lifted by one arm and tossed to the ground. With a quickness, she stood and turned to her captor who had just closed the now empty cage. His stare bore into her and he looked up to where the women were being led away.
“What about this one?” he hollered in French to the other men.
One glanced back and shrugged, “Looks like a kid to me,” he shouted back. The man lifted his foot and kicked Mo’destee in her backside, causing her fall to her knees.
“I bet I could make a woman out of you,” he said with a sexual sneer. She clamored on all fours to the group of frightened children.
They were led into a large enclosed area that had several big, wooden doors. The men were shackled by neck rings. A large metal pole was slotted through a loop on each man’s metal neck band, causing the shorter men to have to walk on tiptoe and the taller men to have to stoop. She could hear the women crying for their babes. Their group was combined with another group of children and they were all corralled into a long, narrow cement room.
They were instructed to remove their clothes. Most were wrapped in traditional Afrikan garb. The women were forced to remove their head scarves. They were further grouped after a thorough inspection from head to toe. The man grabbed Mo’destee by her chin and forced her to open her mouth. He inspected to be sure she had all her teeth, then motioned for her to move to a room with a group of children.
The smell of feces and panicked cries filled the narrow space. Mo’destee was sure she was the oldest. Why had the bad men put her with the children, was she supposed to take care of all of them? She moved to the corner furthest from the door, across from a thin window, and sat with her back to the corner. It was now as dark as the night got. Most of the noises had died down, although she could still hear the sobs of some. There was a thin mewl coming from the other side of the room that sounded like her brother.
“Emeka?” she whispered.
“Mo,” came back in a hiccup.
“Window,” she said with an urgent tone. Mo’destee stood and watched a single shadow grope his way towards the window opening. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness and saw the silhouette of her baby brother making his way to her.
“Mo, Mo, Mo,” he blubbered.
Once they found each other, Emeka clung to her and his presence somehow made her feel braver. The other children were calmed by the little boy getting comforted by the young woman. Tamala’s two sons were also there and once they recognized her and Emeka, they also huddled close. In turn, the other children began groping her, hanging on her legs and pulling her hands away from brother. She moved to the floor and spread her arms out. Emeka had moved to her back and had his chunky arms secured around her neck. More and more children piled onto Mo’destee. They curled up like a pack of dogs and stilled for the remainder of the night. Some slept, others fretted and jumped at every sound. Mo’destee closed her eyes and felt her brother’s weight clinging onto her, his soft breath in her ear. It seemed she slept for a moment.
Light glowed through the slat in the window. The heavy door opened then closed. A tray of food scraps had been left in front of the door. Most of the children’s eyes sought hers before they moved towards breakfast. A couple of the bolder, older children had already made to the tray and began stuffing their mouths with crusts of bread and fruit that was borderline rotten.
“Hey.” She only needed to speak the syllable one time for the bolder ones to stop eating. The bodies parted as she moved towards the door. The food the men had left was little more than trash. She noticed a jug of water that had been left, too. “Let’s make this a game, I’m the mama bird,” she said trying to sound normal. “I’ve got food and water for good little birds that make only small little peeps.” Even in this dank, damp cell she could command the children’s attention. She could offer a moment of normalcy.
The children all respected their elders and Mo’destee was just enough older that they all sat at attention, a few making faint peeping noises with their nervous energy. She noticed a clam shell in the ruins of the food. She picked it out and cleaned it the best she could, then dipped it into the water giving the oldest boy the first sip.
“What’s your name?” she asked gently as she moved to the next child waiting for a few drops of water.
“Baako,” he answered, his eyes still on the pile of food.
“Well, Baako, good to meet you, I’m Mo.” She refilled the shell with water and administered the next child a sip. “I’m going to need your help here.” Their eyes finally met. “Will you watch that food so no one takes any until we can figure out what we have?”
His eyes flashed understanding and he moved to block the other children from the scraps. Once each child had a little of the water, she returned to Baako and the food. “There’s not enough to feed us all.” She noticed a child squatting to relieve his bowels. “Not there, no.” She glanced around the slight room then pointed to the corner nearest the door. “Go there, let’s all just go in one place.” Mo’destee picked up the tray of food and moved closer to the window for some light. The mish mash of sustenance was stale or almost rotten. A meal worse than they would have fed their pigs back home. She picked one piece of dried fruit and passed the tray to Baako. He took two small pieces and set the rest on the floor. One by one, each child approached and gently took only one or two pieces, ensuring everyone got at least one bite.
They huddled together at one end of the room, farthest away from the door. Baako kicked the tray so it slid near the door and their excrement. Mo looked at each of the hungry faces as they settled in for another long night.
Their days became somewhat of a routine. The door opened and closed and the food tray was set on the ground. Then they were taken to an open aired court-yard where they spent several hours a day. They were all so hungry and exhausted from getting little to no sleep that they didn’t have the energy to play. Then the children had to muck out their little sliver of a room daily like a horse stall. A dark young man came to collect the filth each day. He was quiet and never made eye contact with any of them. The rest of their hours were spent sitting or standing together.
One afternoon while they were out in the sunshine, Mo’destee heard a ruckus. She moved to look towards their quarters and saw dozens of women being prodded through a door at the end of the hallway. She could see daylight and sky through the open doorway. One of the women was screaming, and several of the white men were moving towards the opening in a hasty way.
“Did she jump?” Mo’destee heard a loud, male voice boom over the commotion.
“Nnnoooo!!!” the wailing woman began to sob.
“I’ll be damned, she jumped,” the man said. When his back was turned, the woman that had been overcome with grief moved quickly to the door. Mo’destee could tell she moved with purpose. “Oh no you don’t,” the man said and grabbed the woman by her hair. Her feet came out from under her and the man jerked her like she didn’t weigh anything and threw her onto the floor. Before she could stand again, he had put a metal ring around her neck and pulled her with a large chain. More of the women were moving out of the doorway, beyond where Mo could see.
“That’s the door of no return,” Mo’destee heard a voice whisper near her ear. It startled her. She looked towards the voice and realized it was the young man that came to collect their poop each day. The kids had referred to him as Scat Man.
“What do you mean?” she asked, her voice coming out meek and hoarse.
“The door of no return. Once you go out that door, that’s it. Your life is over.” It was odd to hear him speak; the entire conversation rattled Mo.
“Couldn’t be worse than it is here,” she answered. His wide-eyed, horrified look told her it could.
Once the room was so full it was difficult for them all to sleep prone, the white men took them all out and lined them up in the hallway near the door of no return. They didn’t need to be tethered like the adults; they were compliant. They were all fearful of the white men. They were all starving, too. They didn’t have enough nourishment to give them the energy to be rebellious.
Mo’destee watched and listened to everything. She could hear a man being flogged, his screams rising above the noises of women being raped and children crying of hunger. Emeka’s stomach had started to distend. His eyes were flat, he slept a lot, and he wasn’t very responsive to food or water. Currently, he was draped over her back. She hung onto his wrists as he was too weak to hold his own body onto hers. Tamala’s sons were near her too; they held onto each other and leaned into her, their legs weak.
The door was opened and salty, clean air rushed in. Mo’destee filled her lungs with it. She exhaled, and the line started moving towards the opening. The men were prodding the children over a plank with rope woven sides. Her mind whirled at the thought of the woman jumping into the ocean from here. She looked around, wondering how she could have accomplished such a task.
They were herded onto the ship and down the stairs to the underbelly of the boat. It seemed familiar; the hallway, the door at the end. She realized with horror the room they were putting them all in was exactly like the room they had at Goree Island. She saw the hall, the window, the door; it was all an exact replica of their little prison room. The workers of the ship had them stand in a line with one hand on the shoulder of the person next to them. Once that line was wall to wall, they created another row so that once the children were all lined up, they had their arm length by their arm length to get comfortable for the journey.
The men had lined up the children by size, but Mo could still see Emeka. His eyes and nose ran nearly constant and his stomach was bloated. His eyes had lost their sparkle. Baako and one of Tamala’s sons were also with her in the cramped quarters.
The food was nothing more than the trash from the crew. They had no fresh water. There was urine and feces on the floor an inch thick. Their days resumed as if they were still on the island. The only difference was the white men came and took them out to the upper deck where they spent most the day. They were not bound like the adults. The women were tied waist to waist until they were on the upper deck, then they were told where they could sit and they were untied. The men were bound by manacles around their ankles but the neck rings were removed when they were on the upper deck. Most days it was so hot it was difficult to say which was most uncomfortable, being there or in the squalid room that reeked. The sun hurt their eyes for a few minutes at first, but the fresh air was sweet.
Emeka wasn’t getting better. Mo had to hold him on her back; he couldn’t get up and down the stairs each day unassisted. She carried him to a spot near the railing and hoped the spray would moisten his dry, cracked lips. The sea water made them thirstier, but the mist was a moment of relief.
It was there she heard her name, “Little Mo?”
Mo’destee’s head snapped up in alarm, the voice seemed frail and old. A small group of women stood huddled together near the center of the deck. One woman was walking towards them. She looked stiff and hobbled on one knee. As she approached, Mo realized it was her best friend, Amina! Gently she laid Emeka on the wood deck and stood.
“What has happened to you?” Mo asked as she took Amina’s delicate body in her arms.
Amina began to cry. Softly she said, “I can’t speak of the things that have happened to me, it’s… it’s…” Her body began to shake in Mo’s arms. “It’s unspeakable,” she managed.
Mo rubbed her friend’s back and held her as she cried. “They put me in with the children,” she said without emotion.
“Be grateful, sister, be grateful.”
“Do you know where everyone is?” Amina shook her head. Mo continued, “I have Emeka and Tamala’s sons in our quarters.” They turned to the boy lying on the deck. Mo noticed immediately that his skin didn’t look right. His eyes were open but not squinted staring up at the noon-time sun. “No, no, no!” She screamed and fell to her knees, lifting his limp body to her chest. Amina moved near her and put her arms around them both as Mo sobbed.
A white man came up to them and pushed Amina away. “What’s going on here?” he asked in French.
Mo was rocking back and forth, wailing, “No, please no, not my baby brother, not Emeka…”
“Nothing to get worked up about.” The man grabbed Emeka’s arm and wrenched him up and away from Mo.
“No, please no!” Mo screamed. With a flick of the man’s arm, he sent Emeka’s body sailing over the rail. It cartwheeled, his mouth gaped open in a silent scream. His body made little splash. Mo ran to the rail and started to climb over, “No, no, no!” she howled. The white man grabbed her arm and hoisted her back to the deck. She struggled against him. “No!” she screamed.
There was a flash next to Mo and before the man holding her could respond, Amina ran and took flight over the railing like a graceful bird launching from a pier. Her body arched and landed with a much bigger splash than Emeka’s. Mo collapsed on the floor and sobbed. Every bone in her body felt too heavy to lift, too much to bear.
There seemed to be a ripple of shock through those on the deck. Mo’destee wept. Her body shook with grief. It wasn’t long before she had worn herself out. She rolled to the prayer position and said her daily prayer, adding a quote from the Quran, “My Lord! Truly, I am in need of whatever good You would send down to me.”
After a few minutes, she stood and raised her hands over her head, flicking her fingers and lowering her arms in the death dance she had seen Mambo do a dozen times. She began the chant, the funeral mantra to lift the souls to heaven. Once her arms hung limp at her sides, she jerked them above her head and did the dance again and again, the ancient Wolof tune pitching with emotion. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the women that had been gathered with Amina doing the dance, too.
Mo turned and saw all the black human freight in different stages of their own mourning, flicking their fingers above their head and lowering their arms, chanting and crying.