Chapter 1 – How Does She Know
In the hull of the dark slave ship, only the dim light from a wall-mounted torch near the stairs shined on the sweaty bodies lying motionless, one atop another. The bodies had little-to-no room to move, like an overcrowded stable full of cattle left unattended for weeks.
The sounds of waves hitting the ship’s sides intermingled with wordless moaning, crying, and weak sighs. Ayira, a young black woman, appeared near death; sweating profusely, though she could barely lift up her head, she strained to peer above the dozens of bodies that restricted her every movement. She gasped and her eyes widened; she shivered and stifled a scream as she stared into the surrounding, all-encompassing darkness.
“Imani – Imani... I see it again – I see it again. It’s coming to me – It’s coming to me. What do I do?
Imani...” gasped Ayira.
She could move only her tear-filled eyes. They darted from side to side, searching for each sound that scared her. She gasped and shivered uncontrollably, and then slipped into unconsciousness.
Sixteen-years earlier, in a small African village within the Ethiopian desert’s heart, six-year-old Ayira ran up to her older sister, Malaika, and tapped her on her arm. The girl, three-years Ayira’s senior, walked toward their hut carrying a dried wood bundle as Ayira followed closely behind. Malaika walked around the side of the hut and placed the dried wood atop a larger pile of wood.
“We have to go again,” said young Ayira.
Malaika frowned. “No – no, not again. You got me in trouble before, remember... No – no.” “Please? We have to help him.”
“Help who? Why me? Ask Enu – let her get in trouble, she deserves it for eating most of the meat last night.”
Young Ayira started to pout, “Please...”
Malaika sighed and looked around. “How far is he? This man you speak of.” “Not far – not far at all.”
Malaika’s voice quavered as she asked, “This better not be like before... Am I going to get scared again?”
Young Ayira quickly shook her head no. Malaika hesitantly nodded, and Ayira smiled, showing her two missing front teeth.
Malaika grabbed a small water-filled jug and slung its strap over her shoulder. When Ayira darted into the hut, Malaika scowled; however, the younger sister quickly returned, carrying an animal-skin blanket and a larger jug of water.
The older sister grumbled, “What are we doing? Staying the night? What is all this?”
Ayira ’s eyes filled with tears as she tried to walk away struggling to carry both the jug and the blanket, Malaika impatiently strode over and grabbed the jug out of her hand, and they hastened toward the desert.
As they walked, Malaika glared at her little sister and demanded, “Why do you always ask me? You should ask Enu and let Father beat her instead.”
They noticed a young white man with shoulder-length dirty blond hair as he slowly crawled across the scorching desert sand in the midday heat. The man wore no shirt, only beige knee-length breeches. Thoroughly sunburned, his back covered with blisters, he continued crawling for a moment and then laid down upon the burning desert sand as if to die as the buzzards hovered above him. He barely had his eyes
open. Through the hazy heat, he saw the two small shadows walking toward him. He slowly closed his eyes.
Confused, Malaika looked at Ayira and asked, “Is this the man you speak of?”
Young Ayira nodded yes, as they stood over him, staring curiously at him, their shadows shielding his face from the sun. He slowly opened his eyes and squinted. Malaika bent and wet the man’s lips with a few drops from the water jug. The young man cautiously lifted up his head as she poured more water into his mouth.
“Did he fall out of the sky?” asked Malaika.
Frowning, Ayira covered the man with the blanket she held in her arms. When he struggled to sit up, Malaika gave him the jug, and he poured some of the water on his head.
“Look. He’s going to waste the water,” said Malaika. Ayira hid behind her sister and peeked around her.
“Thank you – thank you,” said the young man with a European accent. “What did he say?” asked Malaika.
Young Ayira pulled Malaika’s arm and whispered into her ear. Malaika stared at Ayira and then asked, “How do you know that?”
The young man said in the girls’ language, “Thank you – thank you. There is nothing out here for miles and miles. How did you find me?”
“We saw the birds,” said Malaika.
Shielding himself from the sun with Ayira’s blanket, he replied, “What are you doing out here alone?
Children do not travel alone this far from their village.”
Malaika pointed at young Ayira, “She told me you were here.”
The young man appeared confused as Malaika continued, “She says you will be safer in that village.”
Malaika pointed to her right toward nothing but a vast desert. She grabbed young Ayira’s hand and they started to walk away.
“Wait – how can I thank you?” asked the young man
Ayira only stared back at him as they hurriedly walked away.
Malaika looked at Ayira and, her voice quavering again, and said, “You better hope we get back before Father does, or I will not be the only one beaten tonight.”
As the sun rose over the slave ship, the people on deck scrambled to their posts. The land had been spotted. As the ship crept closer and closer to land, seagulls soon started to follow. Finally, the anchor was dropped. A limping man in tattered black leather boots slowly walked toward the back of the ship. He stopped at a hatch that led down to the ship’s hull. Two more pairs of feet appeared on each side of the hatch and paused, waiting on the limping man to open the hatch. After heaving it open, he carefully climbed down into the dark hull while the other two men – both carrying rifles – followed closely behind.
After a few minutes, a tapping sound resonated from deep within the ship’s belly. The tapping grew louder and soon became a clanging noise. The limping man returned, pulling chains with thick, long, heavy links behind him. Suddenly, an African man appeared, his neck, wrists, and ankles shackled. He shuffled quickly to keep up with the limping man.
The men returned to the deck. The slave lifted his hands to shield his face from the glaring sun. One by one, each slave came up from the hull, each sicker or skinnier than the other. Crew members threw buckets of water onto each slave to wash off the filth and the awful smell that lingered on them as they passed. The slaves were chained to one another, each in line behind the other.
Finally, the women started to emerge from the hull. As Ayira walked into the sunlight, she was so weak and sick that she could barely cover her eyes. Sweating profusely, disoriented, she could hardly walk.
A slightly overweight African slave woman named Imani helped Ayira along as they walked.
They were roughly pushed into rowboats located on the ship’s sides of the ship. Soon they were heading for land. When they arrived, the slaves were taken to a marketplace and lined up to wait their turn to walk onto a wooden stage where each would be auctioned off.
When Ayira struggled to get up to the stage, a white man carrying a rifle grabbed her and pushed her onto the floor. She stared up at him, confused, as Imani knelt beside her. Whispering into Ayira’s ear, Imani helped the sick woman stand.
When the auctioneer got to Ayira, he said, “Everyone – with this one, I will start off at two shillings.”
A man in the crowd yelled in a heavy European accent, “Are you mad? She is worth nothing. Look at her!”
“She is only seasick; I will start at two shillings.”
Another man in the crowd called out, “She is clearly suffering from some sort of sickness, but I bet it is not seasickness.”
The auctioneer scowled in frustration. Ayira was both shivering and sweating profusely, and dark rings were around her eyes.
“They are not used to the water,” said the auctioneer.
Everyone started laughing and the auctioneer continued, “It is obvious that a few are going to get seasick on the voyage over here.”
He was cut off when the last man who had spoken called, “Sir, you cannot convince me that she is suffering from seasickness. I am the town doctor, and I say she may have yellow fever or jaundice. She is not worth it.”
Everyone else seemed to agree with the doctor.
Then another man yelled at the auctioneer, “I will take those four male slaves at the end, and I will take that one for one schilling.” The buyer pointed at Ayira. Slightly overweight with curly black hair and a thick mustache, was well-groomed, and dressed in fine clothing.
The auctioneer appeared to be stunned and relieved. “Sold – to the smart gentlemen.”
The buyer continued, “Calm down, man, I am not finished. I will also take the fat woman next to the sick one and those three men next to her.”
As everyone laughed, the auctioneer appeared embarrassed and said, “Sold. You made a fine choice, sir.”
All the slaves the man had bought were roughly led back down the stairs and taken to a horse-drawn wagon. The buyer spoke to a slim man named Drake standing next to the wagon. Slender and tall, Drake had shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair, a beard, and mustache; however, he was not attractive, due to his yellow teeth and facial acne, which had given his face craters.
The buyer said, “Drake, put them onto the wagon and take them to the Mississippi River. There will be boats waiting for you. I have to stay here for business, but my son Charles will be here soon and he will accompany you. Since it is late, you all can leave at sunrise.”
He stared at Drake with a serious face, and then continued, “Make sure they get there intact, I do not want the same thing to happen like before.”
Drake nodded and looked down blushing. “Yes, sir.”
The buyer left as the slaves were seated in the wagon. Drake hopped onto the front of the wagon and waited for the buyer’s son, who eventually hurriedly walked up. The boyish, well-dressed, young man had black, shoulder-length hair and piercing green eyes, and appeared to be in his late teens.
Drake said, “Your father has to stay here for business and he wants us to take the slaves to the farm without him. We will have to take them up the river in the morning.”
Charles replied, “How long will that take?”
“It should take a day, depending on how fast the slave's row – or how fast we make them row,” said Drake as he laughed.
Charles nodded and stared at the slaves. They peered back at him through sad eyes, but he quickly looked away as the wagon lurched forward. Two rowboats were tied up at the river when they reached it. Charles grabbed his rifle and went to the rear of the wagon as the slaves climbed down one by one. When Zuberi, a tall, muscular male slave, stared at Charles, the young man ignored him.
Imani tried to help Ayira get off the wagon, but she fell to the ground. When Charles bent to help Imani lift the sick slave, Imani discretely eyed Charles and hesitantly nodded.
“Drake, take the rest of the slaves off the wagon. I am going to look at the boats.” Drake smirked and nodded as Charles stared at Drake suspiciously.
At sunrise, the men forced the slaves onto the riverboats. Drake sat at the end of one boat to watch over the two male slaves, Zuberi and Tapiwa, who sat behind Imani and Ayira. Charles guarded the rest of the slaves on the other boat.
By midday, the boats had crept up the river into a forest that surrounded them on both sides; chirping birds, croaking frogs, and musical crickets could be heard all around them. Ayira laid her head on Imani’s lap and mumbled under her breath as she slept. A slave on Charles’ boat peered toward the left riverbank but saw nothing but trees. Charles thought the captives on his boat looked restless.
Late in the day, Drake had fallen asleep. Charles’ head dropped as he scrutinized the forest and contemplated the scenery. The slaves whispered to each other whenever no one was looking.
“We must break free or they will kill us,” murmured Zuberi. “How? We have no weapons,” Imani muttered in reply.
They sat silently when Charles glanced at them. Then Zuberi whispered, “There are two of them and there are eight of us. We can overcome them.”
“We can’t overcome anyone; we are in a strange land. If we were to get away, what if we were to travel right into a territory where there are more of them? I can’t take that chance,” said Tapiwa.
" I will not stay with these demons. I would rather die,” said Zuberi.
Imani looked down, with tears in her eyes, and said, “We have no choice. All we have is each other.
We must look after each other, no matter what happens.”
The men slowly nodded and stared at the slaves on the other boat. All but one was sleeping. The slave waited. He heard a bird call on his right.
“If you are to attack them, you must watch them closely. They make many mistakes,” said Tapiwa. Zuberi agreed.
When Ayira started to moan and looked restless, Imani said, “I don’t think she’ll last another sun…” Her words trailed off.
“At least she is not awake to see what is to happen to us – this is a punishment or a test from the gods.
Maybe, if we do as the white men say, the gods will take us back to our land,” said Tapiwa.
The slave who’d heard a bird call on the left side of the river heard another on the left again and turned toward it. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw someone running through the trees. Though he tried to catch the eyes of the slaves on Drake’s boat, he could not get their attention.
“This is not a sign from the heavens. This is not a test...” Zuberi said mournfully. He paused for a moment, and then continued, “What they did to us is not a test. It is far from it.”
“If we were to escape, we must take her with us,” said Imani. “We can’t. She will slow us down,” said Zuberi.
“Wherever we go, we will die or in some way, we will suffer because we are not in our land. We must not take the chance,” said Tapiwa.
Zuberi noticed that the slave on the other boat had an odd look on his face. Confused, Zuberi stared at
the slave, who then slowly picked up his hand and pointed at his ear. “Wait – I think he wants us to listen,” said Zuberi.
They listened and heard a bird call on the right side of the river. Zuberi swallowed nervously and looked back at the other slave, who then pointed to his eye, and turned toward the sound. Zuberi cautiously turned his head to the right side.
Suddenly stunned, Zuberi nervously whispered, “I saw something running behind the trees.”
He thought to himself, and then looked at the slave again. Nodding toward him, Zuberi whispered, “There are people following us on the sides of the river.”
“Are you sure?” asked Tapiwa.
They stared at each other, wide-eyed. Worried, Imani looked down and stroked Ayira’s head. Drake opened his eyes and yelled to Charles, “Keep a close eye on them, slaves!”
“Why do you say that?” asked Charles.
“Cause I hear them whispering. When they think no one is looking, they start whispering to each other.”
Drake glared at his slaves, surprising Charles. The slaves stared back at Drake, fright apparent in their wide-open eyes.
“Don’t worry; they will not talk anymore. I will make sure of that,” said Charles. “They won’t, I guarantee,” said Drake.
Charles grasped his rifle tighter and looked away.
All was quiet except for the sounds of crickets and birds on both sides of the river. Drake reached down to rummage through a big bag he used as a pillow. He pulled out several large loaves of bread and asked, “Are we hungry?”
The slaves watched Drake cautiously. He threw the bread at Zuberi, who picked it up and bit into it with a slight smirk on his face.
“What are you smiling about, huh?” Drake asked as he threw more bread at the slaves on his boat. “You better calm down,” said Charles.
“Or what? What are you gonna do?” asked Drake.
Charles stared at Drake and tightened his grip on his rifle.
“What’s wrong? You ain’t getting your way – spoiled boy?” said Drake. “Oh, I will get my way. Once we get to the farm – I will get my way.”
“That’s if you make it to the farm... You know, boy, you should go back to the Old Land. This here place is not for you. You’re too soft to run a farm, let alone slaves,” said Drake.
“Believe me – I do not want to be here, but I am. My father needed my help and now I see why.” “Oh, does he? I am the best worker he has, and he will never let me go.”
“Who said anything about letting you go... I am old-fashioned, just like my father.” Charles and Drake glared at each other.
“How long does it take to go up a fucking river?” asked Drake, poking Tapiwa and Zuberi with his rifle as they rowed. A loud birdcall on the right caught Charles’ attention. He listened intently.
“How much fucking longer...” Drake asked again. “Sssh – be quiet. I heard something,” said Charles.
The slaves glanced at each other, concerned. The birdcalls stopped. Drake laughed and asked, “Are you going crazy?”
Charles looked confused, “I thought I heard something.”
Smirking, Drake watched Charles with disgust evident in his eyes. When a loud birdcall from the left side caused Zuberi to suddenly turn toward it, Drake angrily bashed the slave with the butt of his rifle.
“Row faster, goddamn-it…”
Zuberi leaned over in pain, holding his head. When he looked at his hand and saw blood, he stood up and stared at Drake, enraged.
“Tapiwa, stop him!” yelled Imani.
He grabbed Zuberi and held him back.
Drake laughed and said, “This one thinks he’s tough.” He stood up and said, “I want you to do something – I dare ya.”
“Please sit down – sit down,” said Tapiwa.
Charles stood up as well, and shouted, “You hit him too hard.” Drake said, “Good.”
Zuberi slowly sat down again, breathing heavily and still very angry. Tapiwa examined the wounded slave’s head injury, but he pulled away and looked at Drake furiously.
.“Do you think my father would want his slave’s damaged?” yelled Charles. Drake smirked, and replied, “He’ll live.”
The sounds of birds chirping and crickets engulfed the air as the sun began dropping below the horizon. Another loud birdcall from the left confused the slaves. They stared at each other and Drake, and then looked around, puzzled.
“What kind of bird is that?” asked Charles.
“I don’t know. But there’s something fishy going on.”
As Drake looked down, waiting for the sound again, they heard a whistling sound; Charles had been shot in his left shoulder with an arrow. Screaming in pain, he fell to the floor of the boat. All of the slaves on his boat huddled against each other, terrified and bewildered.
Screams coming from both sides of the river further frightened the slaves, as arrows suddenly appeared from both directions. They huddled together even more tightly as they tried to avoid the raining arrows. Imani covered Ayira, shielding her from the deadly missiles.
Drake grabbed Imani as a human shield to protect him from the arrows and then fired into the trees on both sides. Zuberi swiftly tried to snatch the rifle from Drakes’ hands, but Drake let Imani go and struggled to hold on to his weapon. As Imani and Tapiwa fought to keep the boat steady and from tipping over, Zuberi wrapped his arm around Drake’s neck. The slave choked the white man, who finally dropped his rifle, and then suddenly screamed in agony as an arrow impaled his stomach. Tapiwa grabbed the rifle and pointed it at Drake. He sat down and held his stomach in pain.
“Shoot him,” said Zuberi.
Tapiwa was scared, but when Drake noticed the rifle pointed at his face, he stopped moving. The arrows suddenly stopped as well.
Zuberi screamed to the slaves, “Let us getaway now!”
The slave on Charles’ boat shook his head, and – trembling with terror – laid down again on the boat’s bottom.”
Jump into the river,” said Zuberi.
Imani eyed Zuberi nervously, and said, “You must help me with her.”
Zuberi shook his head, so she turned to Tapiwa and asked, “Please help me with her?” “If the white men do not kill us, maybe those people in the woods will,” said Tapiwa.
Zuberi yelled out angrily, “Go now – whoever attacks the white men are our friends.”
Tapiwa shook his head, confused. All the slaves on Charles’ boat jumped into the river, except one, who lay down screaming and hid on the bottom. Charles saw his slaves jumping into the river one by one, and yelled, “No – no, they are getting away! They cannot leave!”
Zuberi grabbed the rifle out of Tapiwa’s hands and pointed it at Drake. Holding his wound and in pain, Drake stared at Zuberi’s angry face and then passed out. Zuberi looked disappointed.
“I wanted to see you beg for your life,” said Zuberi. “Please help me with her – please!” yelled Imani.
Zuberi extended a hand toward Imani, “There is nothing we can do for her. Let us go – now.” Imani, visibly upset, said, “I’m not leaving without her.”
“We must save ourselves,” said Zuberi. Imani shook her head as he stared at her in disgust, and then quickly jumped into the river.
“Let us go. She is gone,” said Tapiwa.
Imani sadly shook her head. She hesitantly lifted Ayira’s head from her lap and stood up. She started to cry when, suddenly, Tapiwa grabbed Ayira, picked her up, and then said to Imani, who was obviously relieved, “Go – go. Jump in; I have her – go. I will put her in the river after you then you can swim to her and get her.”
Imani jumped. Tapiwa leaned over the boat’s edge and dropped Ayira into the water.