Sunday, September 23, 2018
Eagle Longings in Contrast
Some days the sun beats down like it never will rain again, and everyone tastes flakes of rusty earth upon their tongues. My mother and I are hanging sheets we have just washed in the Rio Doce. I yawn into the sunlight.
“Shola,” my mother says. “Did I see you staring after Akin this morning when the men were headed to the fields? You must not watch him, or he will get strange ideas, and he is a good man but too impulsive. He may be trouble, Shola. Iranola is a better match for you.”
She speaks in a hushed tone in Yoruba, our language for secrets. Most of the slaves speak Bantu at Fazenda Carvalho. The masters speak only Portuguese and with their whips, not that they whip many of us in the big house—we are valuable and docile—but when they thrash our men, they make us watch.
“Iya, I did not even see Akin this morning,” I say, an automatic protest as I suppress the memory of how his muscles bristled and the glistening of his skin. Oh, how I could nestle in the crook of one of those thick arms surrounding me! And such a shining smile, though I often wonder why anyone should smile when setting off to harvest shriveled cane beneath a glaring sun and harsher overseer. Our work is long suffering, but it’s not as awful as theirs.
I am fifteen years-old. All my life I have belonged to Seu Francisco Carvalho and his family. I toil for them, and they treat me well, so I have never dreamed of fleeing. And even if I wished to run away, I never would. Families of escaped slaves are beaten, and my two goofy brothers, Tayo and Folu, are so young. Besides, Dona Maleficent favors my mother so the boys will work in the mill, not the fields. In the meantime, they do chores while we wash the rusty dirt from the sheets, towels, clothes, rugs, and curtains.
“I am not blind, Shola,” my mother says, recalling me to the present. “You need a good boy like Iranola, one who will not cause you trouble.”
Sometimes I wish I could disappear.
One starry night I met Iranola, who always wears a silly grin. I was returning from the house after scrubbing the patio, the same I am standing on now, and he was coming back from the sty, where he tends master’s fat porkers. A gentle creature, he has a way with animals. He stinks like them too. That night he rushed past without looking at me. I stamped my foot and pointed to the sky.
“Do you see that?”
He stopped at once.
“It’s pretty,” he said.
“Not my finger. In the sky? Do you recognize it?”
I was pointing at the harvest morning star, what we call the eagle star. I longed for him to reply, “That is Oshun, a beautiful woman shining in glittering yellow, a dress or a wide skirt. It doesn’t matter what she wears. She is the orixá of love, beauty, and sex.”
“That’s a star,” he said instead, and so I told him everything about her, how she rules over marriage, making babies, and the essence of a woman. I took my time to explain. When I finished he said, “It still surely looks just like a star, doesn’t it?”
In our world, family antecedents or characteristics dictate a child’s name. “Akin” means brave or heroic, and “Iranola” implies he is from a wealthy family, and maybe back in Africa he was. Also, Akin is a mulatto, but Iranola is all Yoruba. His children will never be free.
I was big for my age and have danced with the moon since I turned nine, another secret I was never allowed to tell other girls until it was obvious. I did not understand why I must be quiet, until Binta, a Bantu girl only a year older than I, disappeared. My mother would only say, “The Moon’s path is full of thorns.”
A few weeks later I overheard Bimpe, Iranola’s mother, our blabbermouth, telling Iya that Binta now lived in the Casa Cor de Rosa, and how Seu Francisco bragged to Dona Maleficent what a good price she had brought.
“They’ve ruined her,” Iya said. She spat and cursed.
I regard Iya now with my best imitation of her face then.
“I am not afraid of Akin’s trouble,” I tell her and catch an ember of fire in her eyes.
My sister Ifedayo—love becomes joy—appears. The last few days and nights they are tending Dona Maleficent, who has dengue fever.
“Iya, come quickly. She is much worse,” Ifedayo says, and mother follows her inside. I lean against a wall, watching the farm lulled by the sun into its sleepy rhythm. Iranola waves as he heads off to feed master’s pigs. I yawn again, and Mother rushes back to the porch.
“Don’t just stand there. Fetch some water!” she says.
There are three fingers of water in a glass bottle on the sill.
"Take this, Iya. I will fetch more by the river."
"Bring a lot, Shola."
"I will. I promise."
She shakes her head.
“The poor thing won’t last the night unless the fever breaks.”
By the well Akin stands with the other men. He is the most handsome, tallest, and strongest too, even though he is also nearly the youngest. Our gazes lock, and he sidles up beside me.
“Oh, Akin,” I say, feigning disinterest. “I didn’t even notice you.”
“Quiet,” he says. “Did you ever hear of Cumbe?”
It is a word we do not usually say, but somewhere in the interior, across the endless water, Kalunga, lies a mocambo, a free village without white people and whips, named Cumbe.
“No,” I tell him.
“I want to take you there with me. We will start a family and someday a tribe of our own. We will be free, Shola. Do you want to be free?”
My heart races. It was all I ever wanted to be free and belong to this wonderful man.
He smiles a fence of gleaming white.
“Because you are so pretty. And I am also handsome. You will be a good mother for my sons.”
“But you do love me?”
“I want you to be mine.”
The briefest second passes before I acquiesce.
“I’ll come with you,” I tell him, and he lifts me off my feet, planting his lips upon mine. He seizes my tongue and sucks it like a starving baby suckling. Then his tongue passes through my teeth, digging into my mouth, as if he wants to lick my tonsils. He wants me to suck back but I cannot even breathe.
“You must never even look at another man,” he says once I am returned to the ground.
“I won’t. I promise.”
A nervous silence ensues. Several of the other field hands pass by, and one beats his chest. I feel his gaze traverse my body, but he speaks to Akin instead.
“Akin! Akin! You are our hero!”
My man beats his chest in return and flexes his biceps.
“Yes, I am!” he says.
The field hands clap and sing a song praising him as they depart. We are left alone.
“When should we run?” I ask him.
“Tomorrow night. After the moon sets, wait for me by the stone bridge. I will be nearby in the fields.”
“What about the dogs?”
When slaves flee, our master sets teams of ferocious dogs after us, along with hunters. Nine times out of ten the fugitives return, badly bitten, their skin shaped into bloody clumps by cats o' nine tails.
“Look at me,” he says. “No, no. Harder. Do you see how I am? I am not afraid of dogs. I can tear them apart.”
“But their teeth—”
“I have teeth too!”
His chest pumps. He is pure muscle from shoulders to abdomen and further… All along his legs lie muscles, drive, and a latent power that could awaken Exu himself. My logic melts.
“I will be there,” I say, and he nods and leaves me, headed back to the fields.
I pump the water from the well and return with a big bucket to the house. As I pass by, the doctor is speaking with my master. Lately, the doctor comes every day.
“But it is a matter of life or death,” Seu Francisco says. “When the harvest comes I will have money to pay you.”
“Can’t you give some small token as a guarantee? It doesn’t have to be much.”
“I have no money.”
“It’s no problem. I will visit Dona Maleficent now. I trust you will find something.”
I waited for them to enter, but they urged me forward, lingering behind. The doctor coughed, my master grunted, and both laughed. I shivered as an icicle sutured my spine.
“She will need a thorough examination,” he said.
“Of course,” said Seu Francisco. “There are others too, but this one is prime.”
Dona Maleficent’s room stinks of disease. The curtains are drawn, and a single kerosene lamp burns on a night stand. She lies in a soaked sheet, eyes unseeing, pale and exhausted, resigned to death.
I set the water on a table by the door. One of my aunts wets a towel and lays it upon our senhora’s forehead. The doctor brushes her away and fishes in his case for leeches, which he applies to her forearms and thighs. He examines her chest. Her breath comes in gasps, punctuated by trembling.
She is dying. It won’t be long.
“She is much better,” the doctor pronounces. “By tomorrow she will be well.”
Seu Francisco smiles, and they talk a while about leeches and caring for them once they fall off.
“Don’t worry,” Seu Francisco tells him. “I will explain what they must do in simple words.”
The doctor clears his throat.
“That small token?”
Seu Francisco drags me by the hair out of the room. Iya looks up, eyes flashing, and Ifedayo’s do too, hers expressing the pain I am feeling, as if she feels it herself. I am taken into the master’s bedroom.
“You need to see this,” he says, and tears open my dress. I cup one hand across my breasts and the other across my toto. “What do you think of that?”
The doctor touches my upturned nipple clinically, a fierce lust in his eyes.
“By the prophet’s beard,” he says, amused.
“Please, no.” My voice is the smallest protest.
Seu Francisco slaps me across the cheek and shoves me away. My cheek burns and body tenses, but I know better than to fight. I huddle in the corner, covering myself.
“Keep your mouth shut,” Seu Francisco growls and turns to the doctor. “Would you like to see more?”
“No, I am satisfied,” he says. “If I don’t want her, I’ll send her to Cor da Rosa.”
“So, you will return tomorrow?”
“Yes,” the doctor says. “By then your wife will be fine. I will collect my leeches and this tiny treasure too.”
They clomp each other on the back, shake hands, and leave. When my sister and mother enter, I stop my tears and keep quiet. Not only am I afraid of Seu Francisco, but I’m also worried what my mother or Akin might do to avenge me, if they knew the destiny those two white demons have planned. Besides, I still have plans of my own. I am leaving tomorrow night with Akin. Soon I will be free.
I will tell of my orixá now, Oxumaré, the trickster, who rules the rainbow and the snake. When he dances, he traces rainbows in the air, gifts to the heavens and the earth. He is about mystery, art, and motion, and I do not resemble him, for I love things of substance, that which needs no explanation like the ecstasy of water on a parched throat, a shooting star sent by Oxalá across the heavens, or the way newborns cling to their mothers. I like what is real, but Oxumaré loves playing games and making puzzles. He came to me. I did not go to him.
The overseer is drunk, and most of the men are at Cor da Rosa, because Seu Francisco is celebrating, confident Dona Maleficent will recover. The leeches are fat, but when I last see her, she is paler than ever, and her breathing is labored. I still believe she will soon be dead.
Our master is Christian and would kill us if he knew we practiced worshiping our gods, even if it were to help Dona Maleficent, so that night we gather secretly at the terreiro, a place where we make promises and beckon to the orixás. It is a stone building where cane is stored, but the harvest has been poor, so it is empty. Inside, we have drums and smoke. I never talk to Naade, our guide, or our Pai Santo, Abaiade, a slave who was once flogged to death after escaping, but reborn the same night I entered the world. I love and respect all the orixás, but I never ask for promises. All I do is dance, sing, and try to be one with all.
Oxumaré had other plans. He is together with me, closer than ever before. No, I am not possessed, but he watches me, scrutinizing, wondering how he can play some dangerous game, while all around me words swirl and colors dance. My people appeal to Omulu, who cures fevers and vanquishes epidemics, but my contrary mind is not with them. If Dona Maleficent is cured, Seu Francisco will give me to the doctor, and I will never see Akin again.
But I do not want her to die! She is the reason my brothers will not work in the fields, so she must live, but not get better yet.
This is a trick, I tell myself, but my voice is not mine. This is what I do.
“No,” I say, but I mean yes. Yes. YES.
Dance with me then.
* * * * *
The next morning while I sweep the patio, the doctor comes, but Dona Maleficent is worse. The leeches are dead. Seu Francisco is furious.
He shoves the doctor against the wall. The little man blanches and mumbles gibberish. Seu Francisco knocks him to the floor.
“My wife is dying, and you are a useless turd.”
Our master throws the leeches at him.
“Take your fucking blood worms and leave.”
Seu Francisco is halfway to the door when the doctor calls him.
“Tomorrow, she will be better,” he says.
“I am done listening to you.”
“Senhor Carvalho, I have done my best for your wife. She will improve. Trust me.”
Seu Francisco rubs his chin and looks away.
“I prayed for her in the chapel,” the doctor says. “God is on our side, just as always.”
I keep sweeping, half imagining rainbows left behind in my strokes.
See, you are an artist, I tell myself, but again not in my voice.
“You promised to pay me,” the doctor says. “I have to buy new leeches now.”
Seu Francisco does not even glance at me.
“Come collect her tomorrow,” he says and shuts the door, leaving me outside with the doctor. He approaches me, so close his stench wrinkles my nose.
“You will enjoy living with me,” he promises. “I know you Africans fuck like bunny rabbits. You will be my little heifer. My studs will keep you bred, and your children will make me rich.”
I lowered my head, the way I am supposed to do.
“You don’t say much, do you? Are you stupid or just shy?”
I shake my head. My tears are welling, but I must not let him see.
“It’s just fine if you are shy. You will learn to scream in time.”
He pulls me close, his hands busy on my body, his firmness against my belly, but Ifedayo’s appearance saves me.
“Shola, you are supposed to be working,” she says, grabbing my broom from where I left it against a column. She swings it over my head, and I fall back. “Iya wants you right now. And you better run, because she is so angry!”
I fly off the patio into the house, but my mother is just sitting beside a raving Dona Maleficent, cradling one hand. Her face is healthier, and it is strange hearing our chants coming from a white woman’s throat, but I recognize our voice in hers and Oxumaré’s too.
Tonight, you must go to Cumbe. Or you will die.
That night I wait for Iya to sleep before I tell her goodbye. She lies there beaming, apparently careless, and I wonder about her dreams, how she always sees the good in the world. My aunt once told me my mother watched father beaten to death without once averting her gaze. He and four others had rebelled after the Muslim uprising of 1835. (Oxalá, the greatest of all orixás, is also Allah.) I kiss her once on the forehead and sneak away. Her voice arrests me at the door.
“You are a good daughter, Shola. May all the orixás protect you.”
An hour later I am by the stone bridge, holding a tiny bag of my belongings: a spare dress, a few colorful stones, a curious bone, a seashell I once traded for, and a hemp rope. When the moon sets, the stars are blazing like a symphony of will-o’-the-wisps.
Akin does not come. My mother was right about him.
I stand by the road choosing how I am to die. If I return to the farm, the doctor will take me away, breed me, and sell my children, but if I walk down the road, the dogs will tear me to shreds when they catch me in the morning. I take a few steps and finally let the stored tears crest and roll down my cheeks. On the other side of the bridge, I pause and glance back towards the farm. Someone is coming down the road, but it is so dark I cannot tell who it is.
Of course, it must be Akin. He has come to save me after all. He is just late. I hide off the road, thinking of surprising him. He will get an earful from me.
But it is Iranola. I burst from my spot and confront him. Stunned, his orbs are like two full moons.
“Where is Akin?”
“He is supposed to take me beyond Kalunga to Cumbe.”
“Dona Maleficent’s fever broke,” he says. “The master’s house is a drunken riot. Some of the slaves are there too. Akin was drinking cachaça with Seu Francisco.”
I cross my arms.
“I won’t go back,” I tell him.
“I can’t take you anyhow,” he says. “I am escaping to Cumbe myself. I am too proud to be a slave.”
“You’re not afraid?”
“It doesn’t matter. It is my will to go. The voice of freedom sings in my head. My orixá does not let me sleep anymore.”
“How will you find your way?”
He chuckles, and I can barely contain my annoyance.
“I will walk away and let my path find me.”
I look skyward and roll my eyes, but he does not see. He is walking down the road.
Akin is so handsome. He is strong and tall. I belong to him. I am sure he will love and protect me. I only have to wait.
Iranola does not realize I am hurrying after him. When he pauses a few minutes later at a fork in the road, I confront him again.
“I thought you were waiting for Akin,” he said.
“I have decided to wait for him in Cumbe. So I guess I will go along with you.”
He produces a sweetsop, opens it, and hands me half. It is so luscious and soft, and I am starving. We walk in the starlight, eating fruit and spitting seeds. We walk all night long.
By noon, I have been sleepwalking for hours. Sometimes Iranola guides me, but most often I plod on behind him, watching his back. Storm clouds are gathering on every horizon. The sky is pregnant with electricity and ozone.
The dogs are approaching, along with their cacophony of exultation and promise of fangs. Iranola smiles over his shoulder.
“You must be so afraid,” he says.
“I am never afraid.”
I glare at him.
“You are crazy then. Those dogs would eat you alive.”
We hurry on a while more. They are gaining on us. We both start to trot. I am just as fast as he.
“Fine,” I mutter between breaths. “I am afraid of the dogs.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
“You just said I should be.”
He laughs like the fool he is and gives me a twisted grin.
“I have fed those dogs for years,” he says. “They will never hurt me. And I won’t let them hurt you.”
“I thought you only fed the pigs.” I am gasping for breath now.
“It doesn’t matter. All the animals talk. They tell each other secrets.” He does not speak for a moment. “I am only afraid of the hunters, but they usually stay far behind, letting the beasts do their dirty work, and now I am no longer afraid of them. Not at all.”
My chest hurts. I have to stop, but before I can, he seizes my hand and we plunge off the road, through parched chaparral, a hundred meters of scrub until ahead of us a wide stream of slow water rolls.
“Kalunga,” he says.
The barking is nearer than ever. A few fat raindrops fall, and then the sky opens like a faucet.
“I can’t swim,” I shout.
“You don’t have to,” he says. “I have built a raft.”
He pulls it from its hiding place. Astonished, I am without words for the first time since I have known him, and I wonder now, if I ever have known him. Questions bombard me, a downpour just like the rain, but I am mute until we are halfway across the river.
“How did you have a raft?” I ask him. “You’ve been able to escape? Why didn’t you go before?”
Instead of answering, he guides us with his oar. We are approaching a shoal around an island. A custard apple tree growing there is loaded with fruit. Its beach is bleeding. Transfixed, I watch a moment, and then the storm is spent. When he answers my question, I have forgotten I asked it.
“Do you know what this is?” he says, pointing at the water.
“You told me it’s Kalunga. It’s just a muddy red river.”
“Ah, like a star is just a star!”
I cannot resist spearing him with my eyes, but they betray me, because I am crying. We catch the current on the far side of the stream, just beyond the island. The river moves faster here.
When I look up again, he is smiling, so content and mockingly wise I could punch him.
“Did you think I had forgotten that night?”
He sets his oar upon the raft and takes my hand.
“This river divides my life, Shola. Back in Africa, they say if you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. I intend to go very far indeed. Will you come with me, Shola?”
I see his silly face above me and know he will never be strong, tall, or even serious. Nor will he ever lead men or be heroic. I still smell pigs when he is nearby, but I am certain, unlike Akin, Iranola cares about me, so I tell him yes. Yes. YES.
His kiss is slow, tender, and too shy. A year later, when we first make love, he is the same way, respectful and tentative. I want to be crushed. I want to scream, but whenever I do, he stops and asks if he is hurting me.
Seven years later, we own herds of beasts near Rio Preto. The praça is crowded, and I am wearing a fancy dress, as I wait for my mother, brothers, and sisters. We purchased them through a slave trader, the same we used for our own manumissions. Iranola holds our daughter, Ana Carolina. Her real name is Ifelayo—love is peace. She is the best person in the world. My mother cries when he passes her into her arms.
That night I ask my mother about Akin.
“Iya, is he still strong and tall? Is he handsome?”
“Oh, yes,” she tells me. “And well off too, at least for a slave. He betrayed the other field hands. They were hiding machetes, ready to revolt and free us, but Alom told Seu Francisco, so after the hangings, he made him the new overseer of Fazenda Carvalho. You were right about him. He was successful.”
She waits for me to say the same about Iranola, but he does nothing by himself. In Africa, they say, you learn to chop down trees by chopping them down. That is what we do every day. They also say dogs don’t love bones over meat; it’s just that no one gives them meat. I am like those dogs, always hungry, yet ever filled to the brim.
“I am so glad Iranola was lucky enough to find me,” I tell her. “He needed someone to tell him what to do.”
Then I lie back on the tall grass, my mother beside me, and we gaze upon the stars. In a few minutes the moon rises and bathes us in its sweet silver light.