This story is about the African slave trade and contains graphic humiliation and violence.
One day a blue-eyed devil came and took me away.
He showed up in strange clothing, covered from neck to ankles in layers of stiff cloth. He dabbed his face with a square of fabric as he spoke to the village men gathered round. His skin was pale like the belly of a pig and spotted with red. It was the dry season and it was unbearably hot. Loose clothing was common when simply walking during the day was a chore. He looked very out of place.
‘Do not be seen’, a voice whispered to me. ‘Do not let the devil see.’
I’ve spoken to the Goddess before, and I knew to heed Her words. I turned quickly but a man near the pale, splotchy-skinned man called my name. The village chief, who I could not ignore.
“Iyanu! Come here, girl.”
When the blue-eyed devil first led me to the ship, I thought it was for a better life. The village chief told me it was an honor. He said it would be good for me to go and wouldn’t I like to explore? He said since I didn’t have parents, I could make my own fate. He smiled at me showing teeth.
I’m not sure anymore who the devil truly was.
I was stripped and chained before I made it on the ship. My ankles rattled as I shuffled forward, connected to women in front and behind me. We were led downward, deep in the boat, where we had to duck our heads to gain entry. Where the smell and darkness made me vomit.
I called out for the Goddess, but I did not hear her voice.
The first day I tried to hold my bladder. Tried to not debase myself as only infants and the sick do. But finally I wet myself where I sat chained to the floor. Shame heated my face, in the same way my hot urine heated the backs of my thighs. I told myself it would not happen again, that soon I would be out of this large boat and able to see the sky.
In darkness I lost track of the days.
In filth I lost feelings of shame.
Each night, or perhaps it was day, men came down to mop our waste. And with the same hands they gave us food; beans or yams packed inside a wet casing. Once I decided I would not eat, that I would waste away and ascend to see the Goddess. Perhaps my next life would be richer. A woman near me was on the third day of refusing to eat, she was defiant and she was strong. At the next feeding the pale men came down with whips. They beat her until she lost consciousness. Her skin split and her blood splashed my skin. Her screams echoed in the tight space.
The next day she ate, and so did I.
Moments ran into hours that ran into weeks. Or months. The women around me began to waste away, their skin hung loosely on their bones. The faces that peered into the darkness were gaunt and lifeless. And then, all at once, they began to die. Fever was the beginning, moaning and vomiting. Delusion came next; the women screaming and thrashing, breaking nails and clawing at walls. Curled in balls of pain, they slept and did not awaken. Bodies were carried out every mealtime now. I think they died of despair alongside the fever.
I no longer spoke to the Goddess.
When sickness latched on to me, I did not fight it. I panted from my mouth and smiled like a wild thing. I closed my eyes when the pressure in my head became too much, and I dreamed. I dreamed of sunlight kissing my skin, splashing in the ocean, and hot food. I dreamed of singing and joy. I dreamed of chains and a blue-eyed man who grabbed my ankles and dragged me below the surface of the water.
I dreamed of the chief as he smiled in my face and sold me.
Screaming woke me. My throat was rough and dry, but the screaming was not mine. From above deck came shouting and chaos, the words of the pale men that I did not understand. The planks above groaned and boomed, the wood around us creaking in anger. We rocked and swayed violently below the deck, my dizziness from fever doubling my vision. And with a crack of lightning, wood splintered and water came rushing in.
Understanding dawned and I settled in, still chained to the floor. From the gaping hole in the side of the ship, I could see the sunlight streaming through the waves. The commotion around me dimmed; just me and the ocean rushing in to greet me. The water rose and swallowed me whole. The cold was jarring and numbing all at once. Soothing my hot skin, washing away the filth and stink. Slowly I began to fade, the last of the bubbles passing my smiling lips.
And then I saw Her.
Surrounded by thousands of fish She flowed through the water. Her powerful tail pumped toward me, her hair billowing behind her in thousands of colors. She smiled, and I felt the warm rays of sunlight kiss my face.
‘My child, my Iyanuoluwa. I have come for you.’
My heart broke and mended. My Goddess. Yemaya. She heard. With the last of my strength I held out my arms.
When She embraced me, I knew I was free.