In those first nights, I could not stop myself from screaming. I made the sounds only half consciously, with only half of my mind. Perhaps I needed to know that I still owned a voice. A body. Life.
A scream into the night was nothing unusual in this strange and terrible place, the belly of the São José slave ship. Our floating cemetery. Madness waited like a leopard to devour me, as it did the others. Herded into a horrifying darkness, we lay in the hundreds. Naked and crammed one by the next like kindling wood. Fetid air assaulted us at every turn with the pungency of sickness and waste. Death.
Shrieking and moaning filled the space, of those begging for mercy, and those begging for death. I, Ayomide, the most piteous wretch of all the captives, vowed to myself that I would not fear death. After all, I much deserved it. I would take it myself, on this ship, never to live as a slave. I only prayed that it be merciful. A treacherous death was a curse far worse than the demise itself. A bad death, Iku Oro, doomed a spirit to a restless eternity. Still, I was no fool. I was already ensnared in treachery.
I passed the hours clinging to my memories, locking in all the sweetness that survived the rot of my mind. Brightest and most haunting of these were of my first and only child, my son, Olusola. My heart churned with fear and longing for my baby. Only weeks before my capture, he was still curled safe in my womb and my life was simple on my clan’s compound. I was the daughter of the chief and wife of his second-in-command, the only bride who did not have to leave her family behind for her husband’s.
The entire village hummed with anticipation of Olusola’s birth. The weavers were preparing their richest cloths, to be made into the finest celebration clothes. Great mounds of yams and cassavas lined our hut’s door, offerings to the little wise one of the diviner’s prophecies. It was a joyful time, yet some mysterious trouble lurked in the midst.
I rose early one morning, just as I had any other, and ambled with my enormous belly to the courtyard to prepare breakfast for my husband, Taiwo. The air was already rich with the aroma of supper. I found my mother hard at work pounding yams for the evening meal.
“Good morning, Mama,” I greeted. My mother smiled her wide gap-toothed smile.
“And good morning to you, my dear.” She stopped her work to set a gaze on me. “Ayo, if you do not give birth soon you are going to pop!” she said, chuckling until her plump body trembled. “That little prince will soon be here to run this entire place!” She gave my belly a gentle pat before returning to her yams.
“Oh Ma, I wish he would come tonight,” I whined.
Her round face turned to me again, this time with worry in her eyes. It was worry I had seen before, but she refused to discuss.
“Let him come only when the gods choose. They will give him their protection.” She dabbed at the sheen of sweat covering her brown face.
I knew my mother’s fret had something to do with the diviner’s readings. It was customary in our lineage that a child’s destiny be read seven days after his birth, but for reasons that only the men of our village seemed to know, the diviners were consulted almost each day. Stranger still, my father and the other men warned us day and night not to cross the boundary of our village. They forbade women and children from fetching herbs, or even water, past the forest’s edge. When I had summoned enough nerve to ask my father for the reason, he answered me shortly.
“Evil elements hover around us,” he said, smoothing a weary hand over his head of gray hair. The secrecy only made me more desperate for the truth. I took the opportunity that morning to try my mother again, as I had many times before.
“Mama, I want to go for a walk today, eh? Stretch my legs and get a change of view for once,” I said quickly. She read my intent immediately.
“Ayo, please! Let us not. I will hear no more of it and you know that Taiwo will not allow it either! Why must you stress an old woman so early in the morning?”
“Mama, what is out there that is so bad it must be held secret? You want to know for yourself. I can see it in your eyes,” I ventured.
My mother kept her eyes on her mortar and pestle.
“I do not know and I do not need to know,” she answered. “We trust in the men who will keep us safe, do you hear me?”
I saw in my mother’s face that my time was getting short, still I pushed.
“Why must we always follow blindly, like children? We are strong women, wise as these men. Can we not handle the truth?”
“A good daughter, like a good wife, obeys. And that is all you need to know.” My mother glared at me with a sharp shake of her head.
“And speaking of a good wife, take this to your husband.” Mama dipped a bowl into one of her blackened copper pots and packed it full with a heaping portion of stew.
I took the food yet kept my persistence.
“Have you asked father why the diviners are—”
“Oponu!” she yelled, striking her wooden spoon hard against the lip of the pot. This impatient gesture was quite common from my mother when it came to me. I was the only daughter born amongst her three sons, and according to her, the most defiant and stubborn of all.
“Ayo, you have been this way since you were a girl,” she said sourly, sucking air in through her teeth. “Do not bring the chief into this. Your father is holding court with the Oba. He will return tonight, with good tidings from his majesty for the baby, I am sure. Do not worry him over this when he returns. The command is for our own good!” Mama clapped her hands together and returned to her cooking. It was yet another familiar gesture that had put an end to my questioning. I resolved to find an answer in my husband.
My husband Taiwo counted himself a stern, manly man. Slight in stature, he walked with heavy steps throughout our village as if announcing his might with each footfall. Yet behind the walls of our hut, he was easy to love and easy to sway. Father had chosen him for me not long after my first moon blood, not knowing that we had already chosen one another years before that. Taiwo’s love for me was so fervent that on our wedding night he deflowered me in one burst, placing the seed into me that was our precious Olusola.
That evening, I fed Taiwo his favorite meal and served him a gourd of endless palm wine. He swilled until his eyelids drooped. Between the kisses I planted along his handsome face, and in my sweetest voice, I asked my husband the forbidden question. Finally, he told me.
“You must not tell your father,” he slurred. To this I nodded.
“The king has chosen an irreversible destiny, and his transgressions have become ours. His destiny is intertwined with his people.”
“What does that mean, Taiwo? What has the Oba done?”
Taiwo took a deep gulp of his wine.
“The king has done the bidding of slavers. Bad men from a far-off tribe. War inched too closely to his kingdom and in his cowardice he made a fool’s deal. The gods will see to it that his deeds against brethren be returned full fold. The diviners warn of white men coming that feed on African flesh. These godless men will gobble warriors and children alike, and they have mighty boats that swell with their prey.”
Terror sliced through my body and my heart began to race.
“No!” I yelled. “I do not accept that! Certainly destiny can be changed if we appease the Gods, right?”
Taiwo stared at me sadly and shook his head slowly, no.
“The king must protect us! We are good people, Taiwo, have we not earned mercy?”
“Quiet!” He muffled my mouth with his palm. “You see, Ayo, this is why your father does not want you women to know. You will infect us with your fear and emotion. This is a man’s concern alone. We will do what we must when it comes to it.”
I pushed his hand away.
“The chief himself says that to lie down resigned to fate is madness!” I said, slapping my fist upon our mat.
My rage sent a rumble through me and a pain surged through my womb. I knew in that moment that something wicked was on its way, something that could not be stopped.
My birthing pains did not end and Olusola was born before supper the next day. I pushed what Taiwo had told me aside to make way for my new joy. Our son was warm and light as a cloud in my arms. His eyes were such a striking ebony that they looked like black suns caught in glass. When Taiwo went with the men to celebrate, I spent hours breathing my son in. The sweet smell of his skin made me soon forget my agony.
“On the deck! On the deck!” A crewman’s booming voice snatched my boy’s face from me and tore me from my haven. It brought my awareness back to the foul ship.
The command meant we captives were due for rations and a sloshing of sea water on the upper decks. The promise of sunlight and food above was scarcely worth the journey. Every step I took demanded great effort and sent pain lancing through my body. The knots of the slaver’s cat-o’-nine-tails had snaked around my limbs and burrowed themselves deeply into my flesh. I had taken, I heard a crewman warn another, more lashes than a wench could bear. The pails of seawater that they tossed on us were always a brutal shock against my wounds.
On the deck, our overseers served our paltry rations in wooden bowls. I lifted a small piece of bread to my mouth. When I was certain that no eye was upon me, I let the bread pass over my lips and fall to the floor. In a matter of time, I would starve myself back to the ancestor realm.
“I know what you are trying to do,” a voice whispered in my mother tongue.
“Eh?” I muttered.
I turned weakly to find a girl kneeling beside me cradling her ration bowl on her knees.
“You want to know how to die,” she whispered again. “A good death.” She held my gaze intently. I shuddered. Who was this girl in possession of my secrets?
“Well, it will not work that way,” she continued, leaning closer to me, her lips nearly touching my ear.
I appraised her in a moment’s pause. Telltale incisions across her cheek. She was beautiful with fine features and large brown eyes that somehow still had life behind them. She could not have been more than fifteen years old. My eyes stopped at her ankle where three small cowrie shells dangled on a thin cord. It was clear to me how they had missed the eye of the slave hunters. They must be enchanted, the mark of a witch.
“What manner of charm is this?” I whispered roughly, gesturing my head to the shells. “Are you a witch-o? If you are a witch then why have you not used your sorcery to free us?” I demanded. “Or was it your witchcraft that brought us here in the first place?
The girl stole a cautious glance over her shoulder.
“Eh! Eh! Shut your mouth!” she spat back. “This hell is not my witchcraft, foolish woman. This is the curse of Aole.”
“I am no fool!” I snapped. “You are speaking to the daughter of a chief.” My heart sank. The more I remembered, the more I needed to forget.
“Well, I am a seer, a healer. The daughter of a priestess,” she announced. “And I may have something for you, if you will allow it. My name is Aja, what is yours?” She gave me a slight smile.
“Call me Ayo.”
“Tell me, Ayo, if your father knew that you were planning to die without fighting, would he not turn over in his grave disgraced? To starve yourself and leave the others is a selfish death, a bad death still.”
“I have already disgraced my father. Besides, there is nothing I can do, least of all for myself. Look, I am weak and you are right, I do want to die. In peace. Why have you come to bother me out of all the others? Please, Aja, do not disturb me again.”
“Even if I know how to help you find the redemption you seek? Ayo, I know your baby was lost.”
Olusola. A spark of fire dared to rise in my heart.
“Madwoman! What morbid pleasure do you get from torturing me?” I hissed. If I could, I would have wrung my hands around her throat for filling her mouth with my nightmare.
“I speak no lies, Ayo. You know I do not,” she said.
Down, down past my ache, a greater part of me trusted her. It was the part desperate for any grain of salvation she could help me find.
“All right,” I managed through my anguish.
“All right,” Aja repeated with another smile.
“And you, why are you helping me? What is it that you want?” I asked.
“Grace,” she said. I felt the weight of her own agony. “You must make your petition to Olokun, the Father Mother Water. A plea for mercy.”
I felt a jolt at the mention of that name, Olokun. Many tales had been told of the Owner of the Oceans, the Father Mother Water whose Kingdom sits at the bottom of the sea. Her waters nourished just as sure as they drowned, and within her dwelled the mysteries of the universe, as deep as her hallowed black depths. Olokun’s wealth was so great that it was unknowable, and many came to her for blessings of abundance. A petition granted by this powerful deity was bountiful, yes, but it always came at a price.
“You must stand in her presence if you want to be redeemed,” Aja continued. “The river, the sea, and the womb waters are sister spirits. The same spirit that held your child in your womb, and nourished you in your village, will give you what you ask. But changing a fate such as yours is work. The veil between the human world and Olokun’s Kingdom is not torn easily. It will require something great.”
“I will do anything. Just tell me,” I begged.
“It will take your heart. You must appease Olokun with your heart,” Aja said.
“What is the meaning of that? How can I do such a thing?”
“You will know the meaning if she allows you into her Kingdom.” Aja taught me sacred words to offer to Olokun in my prayers, words that could sway Her to take me into the deep. For seven days and seven nights I recited every single one of them with all of my grieving heart. On the eighth day, she whispered to me, “Ayo, I believe you are ready.” Then she closed her eyes for so long, I thought she had fallen asleep. When finally I opened my mouth to call her by name, I felt it. A deep, wide presence filled me inside, and immediately I knew what it was. A flashing current charged over my head and down the soles of my feet, swallowing and pulling me down with it, where I did not know.
“I can’t breathe!” I screamed to Aja.
Aja only nodded sagely. “Shh shh. Let her take you,” she said with calm.
I drew in a deep breath, shut my eyes, and submitted. The cries of the ship fell silent. Then Aja’s face, gone. Time seemed to have stopped. I felt as if I was traveling into a dream, only it was more real than anything I had felt since I arrived. With each passing instant I was sinking … deeper and deeper into a watery darkness. My prayers had been heard. They had broken the veil.
In the underworld I was weightless and smooth as a stone, fluid like the sea itself. I breathed as it breathed, at the rhythm of its cool black current. A wide column of light streamed in as if a great white bolt of sun had reached all the way to the navel of the sea. The illumination revealed a world of wonder. Glorious life-forms flitted around me, a breathtaking mosaic of sharp reds, yellows and blues. Among them were peculiar threads, glowing with a golden blue hue, of seemingly unending length. They swirled and undulated along the mystical labyrinth that made up Olokun’s Kingdom.
A great flurry of teal and silver fishes sprang up before me and then transformed into the image of a beautiful man-woman. Olokun. I gasped in awe, unable to utter sound. Olokun was as beautiful as she was fearsome. Lightning crackled in her eyes and her face held the luster of pearls and gold. A massive green sea snake lay coiled around her neck and in her hand she held a staff like a serpent’s tongue.
I stood before her and tried to take courage. I could not afford to be frightened. Olokun only glared back at me, through me. What a hideous sight I must have been. Swollen body, covered in the filth of the ship, months of torture distorting my once beautiful dark brown face.
“Well, do you have nothing to say, my child? You have asked to be summoned here,” she said finally.
I opened my mouth and breathed out a trail of silver bubbles. Olokun laughed and the ocean rumbled.
“You do not need your human ways down here, beloved. Use your heart to speak what your voice cannot. Why have you come?”
I closed my eyes and obeyed.
“I have come to beg you for your grace. I have come to petition you for a change of fate.” I felt my shame rising up.
“Are you certain you want that kind of power?”
“Yes. Very certain,” I answered.
“And what do you believe must be changed?” Olokun asked.
I swallowed hard.
“A bad death. I need grace from Iku Oro. Not just for myself and the others on the ship. I beg you for your grace for my family, most importantly, for my son, Olusola,” I said and clenched my jaw before I could utter the words that had to come next.
“I murdered my child.”
My mind went to that terrible night that my life ended and my heart turned to stone.
As our celebration fires burned down to a thin trickle of smoke, the evil that the diviners warned of had descended upon us.
Taiwo roused me awake in the dead of night.
“Get up! Ayo, get up now and put on some clothes, something’s going on outside.” He left our hut to inspect and returned seconds later in a whirlwind. “Slave hunters!” he cried. They had come like locusts in the night, with fire and spear and the white man’s musket.
“Where is my mother? Where is my mother!” I screamed.
“Go now, Ayo! Take the baby and hide yourself!” he commanded. These were the last words my husband said to me. He tucked Olusola into my arms before running into the battle. I knew that I would never see him again, like I would never see my mother or father.
I ran so fast, moving like light into the forest. Swift behind were men barking in strange languages, their weapons exploding. I hid behind a silk-cotton tree, breathless, and pulled Olusola’s swaddling aside. His perfect sleeping face still held traces of red from the sacred camwood Father used to scrub blessings over him. Merely a few feet away, I heard twigs cracking under the kidnapper’s feet. My heart pounded, tok tok tok, louder than any drum. And then a thought came to me so fiercely that it split me in two and sent my soul out of my body.
“Not my son. Never my son!” I heard myself declare aloud. The despicable thing, I must do it. It is the only way. I placed Olusola’s tiny hand on my heart.
“Please, feel my love,” I begged him through tears with all that I had. I prayed that he would remember me as his good mother, not the beast of a woman that I would become in the next moment. I pressed Olusola’s face into my bosom. Never will I forget his warm breath gasping into my chest. It shall burn there eternally. The more he cried and the closer the men drew, the harder I pressed. The moment my precious boy went slack in my arms, I felt their whip tear across my back and I was seized. I wept and wept under Olokun’s looming gaze.
“I understand if you choose to strike me down right now,” I said to the goddess. “I know that I am an atrocity. Just please, I ask you to ease Olusola’s way to into the ancestor realm, and let him go well. Please, change his fate and bless him in his next life. It was me who severed my child’s destiny, I took his life and now he will wander aimlessly.”
Olokun struck her staff against the seafloor.
“I assure you, Ayomide, you are not clever enough to sever a destiny and you are not an atrocity. The only atrocity lies in your necessity to kill.” At this, she placed her watery palms upon my face, and I knew a peace I had never imagined.
“Balance must be restored among all living things,” Olokun continued. “If I grant you this petition, a good death for both of you, your family, and those above on the ship, then you and your boy shall live in my Kingdom, here beneath the waves. You will dwell as a guide for the other souls to come, those who also must cross my great water. Will you accept this?”
“You will bring Olusola back?” I exclaimed.
“He is already back.” Olokun gestured my attention to the strange threads that danced among us.
“Threads of Life.” Olokun answered my question before I could ask it. “These threads are the life force that run through all living things. They are threads on which a soul takes its predestined journey. Through my Kingdom, these souls have come to follow the trail of their destiny. Will it rise to the ancestor realm? Or will it be buried in the chaos it created?”
“Yes,” I said. “That is my fear. The chaos.”
“Fear not. Your love has saved you. Your thread is the same as the soul you call Olusola. He is an extension of you. The dead give birth to the living. The living give birth to the dead. Your son was Abiku, a spirit predestined to die before he grew into a boy, and he accepted his fate. He came to get but a taste of this earth. “
“Where is he?” I asked, nearly bursting.
“Call him to you, he knows you,” Olokun said.
“Olusola! Olusola!” I called desperately. I felt my son before his thread curled itself around my shoulders. He felt older this time, and I felt his assurance pouring into my heart.
“Olusola!” I yelled with elation. My boy was free.
“A pact is a pact,” Olokun reminded, and I knew it was time to return above for the others, if only for a short time.
“I will whisper for you on the wind,” Olokun said before I found myself back on the ship.
No one seemed to have noticed my enchanted departure. I peered through the darkness and called out to Aja. “It is done,” I said to her.
Days grew into a month after my journey to Olokun. And then another. I was tempted at times to believe it had all been a dream. Aja assured me it had not. Then one day on the upper deck, a mighty wind swept over us. I could sense in my bones that it was Olokun’s whisper. No sooner did I have the inclination than there came a thunderous splitting of wood. Our overseer leaped up in alarm. The São José had snapped against a cliff. Pounding of feet sounded about the decks, panicked commands, and then sobs and moans of fear.
“Get the slaves back to their holds! Slaves to the kennels!”
There was no use for the command. Olokun’s relentless waters struck the ship with fury and gushed into every crevice of the vessel it could reach. The doomed São José was descending rapidly. Crewmen and captives alike grew more crazed and desperate as the timber of its colossal hull crumbled further into the sea. With Olokun’s breath, manacles were split and the irons fell from the necks, arms, and legs of captives. Scrambling bodies careened into each other, some shoving themselves overboard. The Father Mother Water had granted my petition.
“Shipwreck! Shipwreck! Hoist the ballast, aye! Hoist the ballast!”
The sea rose up before our eyes, and reclaimed the last of us, rinsing us clean of the filth of this world. Death took us gently. We were no longer living, yet nor were we corpses. We were taking our sojourn to the ancestor realm. I felt nothing but joy and peace as that floating dungeon was swallowed up into Olokun’s abyss. A thousand voices rose like music on the ocean, greeting the new ancestors.
Author’s Note: This work of fiction was inspired by a true story. The São José Paquete Africa was a slave ship from the Kingdom of Portugal that sank in 1794. Few other former slave ships have been found, but the São José is the first and only shipwreck discovered.