It was the shouting that pulled Omolara back from the edge of sleep. A woman’s voice, pleading and cajoling; a young girl, clawing breathlessly for words; men’s voices, harsh and mocking; a cacophony of chaos invading her tiptoed steps into restfulness through the broken window of the shack.
She covered her baby’s ears – needlessly, because a 10 day-old that has just been fed will sleep through a hurricane, but this was her first child and she wasn’t to know – and squinted through the dirty pane. She recognised the screaming woman; she slept in the shack adjoining her own. The girl wailing in terror was her daughter, maybe 12 or 13 years old. She was flailing against a burly man who was trying to tie her arms behind her back. Another stood by, whip in hand and a cigarette hanging precariously from his lips.
The mother lurched forward, scratching and spitting at the man holding her daughter. There was a loud crack, accompanied by a curse. The woman fell to the ground. The man drew laconically on his cigarette.
Omolara felt a slight pressure on her shoulder as an older woman joined her at the window. It was “Mama”, as all the young women in the shack called her. Too old now for hard manual work, she had been permitted to stay on the farm in return for looking after the newly-born babies when their mothers were sent back into the fields.
“What’s happening, Mama?” she murmured, although inside she already knew what was going on and did not want to acknowledge it.
“It’s time for Ebele to be sent away,” said the older woman. “She’s almost a woman now. Another master will pay well for her.”
“She will be good for breeding.”
“Good for breeding.” The words ricocheted in Omolara’s memory. She saw herself, standing half-naked on the dockside platform as the men ogled and pawed her, pretending that their scrupulous examination was only as it would be for any other farm animal. “A fine young one,” the auctioneer had shouted. “This one will be good for breeding.”
“And I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding her a good strong bull,” he added, leering at her exposed breasts, which were not yet revealing the presence of the child that was to emerge some seven months later.
Outside, the shouting died down as Ebele was dragged away, still thrashing and calling out for help. Her mother lay disjointed on the ground with her arms and legs splayed, as though death had taken her already. She was sobbing – deep, seemingly endless, howls of anguish that pierced Omolara’s heart. They were like no sounds a human could make. Some of the other women gathered around, trying to comfort, but the wailing continued.
“Will she see her again?” asked Omolara, again fearing the answer.
The older woman paused. “She may be lucky. Ebele’s a pretty girl. Maybe the master will keep her for a while. Or he might let one of the men have her. Then she can come back for visits.”
Omolara shuddered. She had already learned that her owner saw it as his right to relieve his stress with his female assets and that those he did not choose, or had discarded, were often passed on to the foreman and his lieutenants. The numerous paler-skinned children around the farm were testament to that.
“I don’t think that will be, though,” Mama added. “She will be worth more at the market if she is still pure.”
Omolara lay back on the cot and gazed at her tiny daughter. What would she look like when she was 12 or 13? Would she be pretty enough to be favoured by the master, she wondered, or would she be discarded at the market, sold off to the highest bidder, along with the other stock?
She thought of her husband, of his look of defiance as he was chained at his hands and feet and hauled off to another part of the ship that had brought them both to this humid and heartless land. Although they had crossed the Atlantic only yards apart, she had never seen his face again.
Where was he now? Had he ever received the message that she had tried to send, whispered from prisoner to prisoner through the ship? The message that he was to be father to her child.
Eyes closed, she tried to conjure his face before her, but could not. It was though the memory of him, of the five months they had shared before their king had sold them, was resignedly erasing itself. Soon it would be gone forever, as if it had never been. This was her life now. This would be her daughter’s life. Life itself had been the only gift her mother could bestow upon her and it had been despoiled from the moment she had given her first cry.
Omolara licked her fingers and held them to the child’s mouth, feeling the warmth of her breath drying the saliva. A tear slipped from her eye and landed on the baby’s cheek. Unsure whether she was crying for herself or for the child, she closed her hand over her daughter’s mouth and held it there, gently but firmly, until the warm air ceased to brush her palm.
She pulled the tiny body to her chest. She knew that tomorrow, for her, there would be punishment and pain but for now she closed her eyes and begged for sleep, to dream of her little girl’s soul now enjoying the freedom that she herself would never again know.
Rob McIvor lives in south-east London with his family, two unruly cats and a disproportionate number of bicycles, on which he composes great works of literature that are, unfortunately, forgotten by the time he gets home. Twitter @rob_mcivor.
Image: Zulmaury Saavedra