Aboard a Portuguese Caravel
In the North Atlantic, Somewhere
Between Bermuda and Hispaniola
No light entered the hold except when four of the white men brought wooden buckets of thin, mealy mush. Three of them carried two buckets apiece; the fourth carried a whip and a pistol. The shaft of light stabbed the eyes of the frightened men and women of the Yoruba huddled below. Only if the door was left open a crack, enough for the white men to see, and only if it were left open long enough, did Abeni’s eyes adjust enough to make out the shapes of the others around her.
By the second week aboard, the manacle on the left ankle of the young teenage girl next to Abeni had cut into her flesh, and within three more days it had become infected. Monifa’s complaints of terrible itching told Abeni that the wound was festering. After the first week, Monifa cried that her leg throbbed constantly. She begged Abeni to heal her. In the dim light at feeding time, Abeni saw that the maggots were at work. If they could keep the wound clear of the dead tissue, gangrene might not set in. But soon Abeni knew that the infection had entered the girl’s blood before the maggots had done their work. The child shivered with her fever, moaning as the manacle moved against tender, grossly swollen flesh.
Abeni did not have her fetishes, but she chanted almost constantly, beseeching the gods to return them home. She also chanted and prayed for the child’s ankle to heal. She could tell that the girl was not convinced that Abeni had been initiated as a Queen Mother; she knew she appeared much too young for the rites. The elders chose her because she knew the lore and had found frequent favor with the gods. Nevertheless, she wondered if the child’s increasing infection was due to the honor being given her prematurely.
When the sailors came into the hold with their buckets of slop, Abeni leaned over to the girl, her large body already much smaller than three weeks earlier when they had been herded into the hold of the caravel. “Wake, child. Food.”
Abeni helped the girl into a sitting position, moving her left leg carefully, stopping when Monifa gasped in pain. The men gave each person a bowl of the watery mush, waited for them to consume it, the took back the bowl for the next serving for the next person. Monifa collapsed woozily against Abeni when the reek of the foreign men came close. The sailor offered the bowl and Monifa took it weakly and brought it to her lips. Abeni silently urged the girl had to swallow this meal. Nothing else would be given until the next day. She saw the child take the vile mush into her mouth, but she only held it there. Swallow, Abeni willed the girl silently. Swallow!
With an impatient snarl, the man holding the bucket struck the side of the child’s face. Mush went up her nose and the edges of the wooden bowl bit painfully into her cheeks. Helpless to control it any longer, the girl vomited yellow bile, spewing into the bowl, onto the legs of the man, and onto her own naked skin.
“Bah!” Disgusted, the crewman slapped the bowl away from her and dipped it into the bucket. He offered it to Abeni. Abeni did not reach for it. The sailor thrust the bowl at the woman again, but again Abeni ignored it. She turned instead to the sick girl next to her and resumed chanting in a soft sing-song.
Shrugging, the sailor offered the bowl to Bambidele, the man chained next to Abeni. Bambidele also refused the vomit-tainted mush. The sailor thrust it toward him again, but the man turned his head.
With a roar of Portuguese fury, the sailor stomped back to the ladder and out of the hold. His companions laughed, and continued serving the other captives. No other bowls were offered to the sick girl, Abeni, or Bambidele.
In the dark again, Abeni continued chanting until Monifa fell into a restless, fevered sleep. The Yoruba shaman rocked in place, murmuring under her breath.
“Curse them, and I will see that they cannot deliver us,” Bambidele murmured.
At first, Abeni was not certain what she had heard. “Curse them?”
“You are Queen Mother. You are familiar with Voudon?”
“It is forbidden. Voudon is not Yoruba.”
“But you know how to use it.” He said it quietly, firmly. He did not ask; he stated it as a fact.
“Yes,” said Abeni after a few moments.
“I shall take them. Give me three days.”
He could not have seen her nod in the pitch blackness, but she knew he understood her silent assent.
The next day Monifa’s fever was worse. She lay shivering, incoherent. Abeni could tell that the girl’s infection had poisoned her system; without healing herbs and a healing ritual, she would be lost, if she were not too far gone already. Abeni also knew that Bambidele had worked at his manacle all night, and that he was almost free of it. He, too, had lost flesh and no small amount of blood in his effort to free himself.
When the Portugese sailors came to distribute the daily meal, Bambidele hid his manacled foot. The light was dim enough to prevent the sailors from seeing the bloodstains on the wooden planking of the hold, but he did not risk them seeing that he was working to free himself.
They did not bother to feed Monifa. Instead, they called for another of their companions, who examined her. They conferred in their strange language, shrugged, and left.
“She needs healing!” Abeni hissed in frustration to Bambidele.
“She will not need healing for long,” he murmured back.
It took Bambidele four days. He freed himself the second day, but spent the rest of that day and the next freeing the other captives, whispering to them his plan. Abeni was relieved when the distribution of food on the third day went without incident. Bambidele refused to release the fevered teenage girl from her manacle, though. “She lies where they can see her, and they will know if she is freed,” he explained.
The fourth day’s distribution of mush also went without incident. Monifa was unconscious, and Abeni could tell from her breathing that she would die soon. The girl’s entire leg was swollen and blistered, and the swelling had begun to move into her groin and hips. From experience, Abeni knew that once it reached her torso, the girl’s suffering would end.
Hours passed. The noises above them stilled except for occasional footsteps and even less frequent calls among the sailors. It was time.
Bambidele rose, and in the darkness whispered for the others to take the irons that had held them. Some of the captives had rubbed the edges of the irons against other irons, sharpening them for better use as weapons. Bambidele gathered them around him. First he listened silently at the door for several moments, then he opened it.
Moonlight had never shone so brightly.
Abeni remained in the hold with Monifa and with the other ill captives while the healthiest of the Yoruba men and women did their work. Bambidele returned for her in less time than she expected. He freed Monifa at last, and carrying her small body in his arms he led Abeni out onto the deck.
The night was impossibly bright. The ship’s crew, about 40 men, had been stripped as naked as the Yoruba captives. Several had obvious broken bones; even more had bleeding gashes. Abeni stared at them coldly, seeing the stark fear that had replaced their cruelty.
None of the captives spoke the language of the sailors. Bambidele placed the dying girl gently on the deck. Behind Abeni the other ill and injured captives straggled from the hold to stand in a ring behind her and Bambidele.
Bambidele turned to Abeni. “Curse them,” he said.
Abeni had prepared herself for this moment. She raised her arms skyward and began a singsong chant. The Yoruba around her murmured uncertainly as they realized the words she sang were not Yoruban, but from the darker Voudon practice. Bambidele stood by silently as Abeni’s voice rose and fell in the night. Several of the Portuguese began moaning. Good, thought Abeni as she continued the ritual chant. They should be afraid.
Her first chant ended and Abeni turned to Bambidele. He handed her a wickedly curved long knife. Ritually, she cut herself on both wrists, the blood flowing freely down to cover the hilt. She approached the captain of the Portuguese. She cut his face on either cheek, then once across the width of his forehead. Several of the sailors sobbed aloud now.
Abeni caught the captain’s blood on the blade of the knife, then allowed it to drip into the mouth of the dying girl lying on the deck.
Several of the men propelled the four who had fed them every day to the front of the huddled group of sailors. Abeni had them face their companions across the body of the dying child, and she ritually carved each of their faces the same as the captain’s, again allowing their blood to feed the unconscious girl.
She began chanting again, this time swaying to her own music, her own blood dripping over the length of Monifa’s body. She whirled, and the captain’s throat bloomed red, his eyes wide, as he pitched forward. A Yoruban man caught his lifeless body before it fell onto Monifa, then tossed the corpse aside. One of the remaining four men lost control of his bowels and a second fell senseless to the deck. Contemptuously, Abeni slit their throats with two deft twists of her bloody wrists. She turned her attention to the two who remained.
One fell to his knees, apparently praying to whatever ineffectual gods he might have worshipped. Still chanting, Abeni dispatched him and moved to the fourth man. Her chanting increased in tempo and her pitch rose. She danced in front of him, not caring whether he could see her through the flood of blood washing into his eyes from his forehead.
A wind rose. Had she looked up, Abeni would have seen clouds obscuring the stars at a speed that defied nature. She was focused on her task and spared no time for the effects of the evil she called to this sea with the forbidden rite of Voudon. She felt the crackle of electricity in the air and knew that the gods answered her call. Her curse would be sanctioned by them.
At her direction, Bembidele again lifted the dying child into his arms. He followed Abeni among the mass of terrified sailors as she forced each to touch the girl’s eyes and mouth, and as she slashed each face in triple cuts, feeding their blood to the unconscious child. Those who resisted her received a fourth slash, across their throats, and were tossed aside. So did those who fainted or befouled themselves. Half the sailors remained.
The strength of the wind forced a few huge raindrops to slap against the faces of the Portuguese sailors. In the distance thunder and lightning clamored for attention. Satisfied with the attention of the gods, Abeni prepared for the last of the ritual. Her severed arteries still pumped blood over the hilt of the long knife and she felt herself weakening from her loss. Undaunted, her chanting grew stronger, but now she seated herself on the deck facing the remaining Portuguese. Bambidele lay Monifa’s body before her.
Abeni dreaded what she would have to do next. Steeling herself without losing the rhythm of her song, she raised the knife high above her head. Now arterial blood streamed the length of her arms, dripping onto her breasts, belly, and crossed legs.
With a final cry, she plunged the knife downward, striking Monifa’s thin chest almost exactly in the center. As the iron blade stopped the child’s heart, lightning struck a tall mast of the ship and thunder shook all of the people aboard to the core.
Abeni no longer chanted. The curse was in place, and the gods would decide fitting punishment.
One of the sailors cried out, pointing to the tall mast. The crow’s nest, in flames, crashed to the deck. More of the white men cried out. Three started for the flames but a gesture from Bambidele sent six Yoruba to stop them. “The gods have decreed it,” Bambidele said.
The wind grew to gale force, fanning the flames. Rain fell only in huge, hesitant drops, flung sideways. The sails on the ship would not be furled before the fury of this storm.
The deck burned through, and the flames fell into the hold where the Yoruba had been kept. With another gesture from Bambidele, the Yoruba men tossed the corpses of the dead sailors into the inferno below.
Then the Yoruba began sacrificing the living sailors as well.
The fire burned on below deck, but the rain finally came and extinguished the fire above. The ship slid lower and lower in the sea, until the seawater drowned the last spark of the fire.
Abeni looked at her fellow freed captives. She felt light-headed, but heard the gods clearly as they spoke to her. At their request, she instructed the Yoruba to enter the water with their legs together. The first to obey her cried out in surprise, then flipped over the side, swimming in delight in the newly becalmed sea.
Smiles and laughter from the sea prompted the others over the side in the same way. Soon nearly two hundred Yoruba swam, dove, and played in the waves delighting in their new abilities. Only Abeni and Bambidele remained aboard with Monifa’s body.
“We, too, shall join them.” Abeni told Bambidele.
“And the child?”
“The child was sacrificed to give us a new life.”
“Will she become like the rest?”
“No. The gods have decreed that she shall steer the ship beneath the waves.”
Abeni looked up. The sails still held the wind, despite the water sloshing gently over the deck. “The ship will continue to sail,” she said. “Its curse will not die.”
Bambidele was silent. Finally, he asked, “And who will encounter the curse? We shall live in the sea, giving birth to new generations of Yoruba with fish tails and gills. We are blessed by the gods, not cursed.”
Abeni nodded toward the charred hole in the deck, where seawater was beginning to find its way above the cinders. “They are cursed forever,” she said. “They, and their kind, and their kin.” Where they encounter this ship, steered by Monifa of the Yoruba, they will feel the wrath of the curse, and will share the fate of those men.”
Bambidele nodded. “But if the ship is sailing the bottom of the sea, how will anyone encounter it?”
“They will encounter it from above. When a ship casts its shadow on Monifa’s ship, Monifa will call it under the waves, just like this one is being called.”
Water nearly surrounded them on the deck. “It is our time,” Abeni said. “I am weak, and will need help.”
Bambidele stood, then stooped to pull her upright. She leaned heavily against him. He helped her to the edge of the water, then lowered her carefully over the side. He felt vitality return to her, and to confirm it she lifted her face and smiled.
“Now you,” she said as she swam a few feet away from the ship.
He carefully kept his legs together as he slid over the side. Then with a sudden laugh he flipped into the water, displaying his flukes to the disappearing stars and the lightening sky.
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