“Water,” a whisper breathed across the space of time. “Water.” There was the sight of his old chapped lips moving, the top dark and brown as earth, the bottom pink as a rose petal. Papa Noe was trying to tell him something, but Tom couldn’t place the words. They were sitting beneath an old oak by the river Eno. Papa Noe had been dozing against its trunk while little Tom splashed in the muddy water by the bank.
“Sparrow,” he called him, “come on a little closer now.”
“You want something Papa?”
The old man shook his head.
The old man shook again but gestured for Tom to come closer.
Since his mother died Tom followed Papa Noe round about everywhere. There wasn’t a door that Papa Noe passed through that wouldn’t greet Tom bout two seconds later. There wasn’t a path that Papa walked that wouldn’t feel the pattering feet of Tom scampering right behind. There wasn’t a tree Papa Noe greeted with a soft pat in passing that wouldn’t feel the small soft hand of Tom patting it just after. No one paid them much mind as Papa Noe was too old to work and Tom being under 12 was too young for it. Now they were sitting by that old oak, gazing out over the river. Papa had come there to rest with his back pressed against the rough bark. He had been tired often of late, and resting felt good especially when he had his young beaming companion.
Sparrows were small and brown and soft just like Tom, so he became Papa Noe’s little sparrow. Sparrows were always yearning and Tom was just as hungry. Papa Noe chuckled and patted him. “My hungry little bird,” he called him, “My hungry little boy.” Thing was Papa Noe didn’t have no food. He left the food to Mama Soe. All he had were his hands and his arms and his words. He had been working hard all his life but he still had his words, and the memories, a glittering basket full of memories.
Sometimes when he closed his thin papery eyes Papa Noe could still feel the hot moist wind moving through tropical trees, and could taste the fufu and mashed plantain upon his lips, baby lips, for he was not much older than Tom when he had been stolen. But one day, one day he promised he would steal himself back. There were some days when the old world felt realer than the real one.
“Sparrow,” he said to the boy, “Sparrow, move on a little closer.”
And Tom moved closer, placing his head upon Papa Noe’s boney chest. He could hear the slow rhythmic beat of a heart there.
“Did I ever tell you about …”
Some days it felt like all he was, was what he’d been.
“Did I ever tell you bout my beginning?”
He had of course a hundred times but Tom still shook his head and gazed up at the old man in wonderment.
Papa Noe closed his eyes and started to hum. Humming always helped when it came to traveling and traveling back through memory was sometimes tricky, because memory was such a fickle thing. Like the branches and roots of a gnarled tree it twisted and turned, folding in upon itself and folding back out, stretching towards both sky and earth with some roots revealed and some buried and hidden beneath the earth, gone forever.
His first memory was pale and dusty, filled with many hands and many faces and with the scent of incense and of decay, for his first memory was of being passed over the body of the dead. His people believed in rebirth and reincarnation, that a soul might be reborn in the body of a newborn child so that it could continue along the path of its destiny, learning and growing and teaching with each new life. With the passing of a great and influential relative Noe’s young body was then passed from hand to hand across the corpse so that some piece of the old spirit could pass on to the new infant and help him along his path. But he was too young to understand. All he knew, all he could grasp were the dark faces leering from above, the undulating landscape of the body stretched below, and the stench, the stench of decay.
But that wasn’t a good tale to share with a growing boy, especially not the Sparrow. The Sparrow would need something that glittered something that sparkled in the light. Perhaps he should describe the land from which he had come, that little village not far from the heart of Oyo with its capital at Oyo-Ile. He had only been to Oyo-Ile or as some called it Old Oyo, or Oyo-oro once. But even once could not be forgotten, for all roads seemed to lead to Old Oyo with its strong tall earthen defensive wall and not one but seventeen gates. It was the heart of an empire that had risen to wealth through trade and cavalry and subjugation. Subjugation was the most powerful coin of all for Oyo held sway over all of the kingdoms in Yorubaland, and even stretched its fingers out to control the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey. Oyo was the beating center of it all and the heart of Oyo was Oba’s palace and the Oja-oba market. On the one and only day his mother took him and the servants to the capital they had passed by the old palace on the way to the market to sell fruit and produce, earthen and metal pots, and beautiful beads that the women had made from clay. As they walked through the winding streets that brushed up against it Little Noe’s jaw dropped as if it was hooked on a broken hinge and would not close, for he had never seen a building so large and so majestic. The walls were made of brick and clay, but what walls! They and the graceful buildings behind them reached like giants stretching for story after story towards the sky. He had never in his life seen something so big, and he would never in his life see something so grand. Not even the slave fort where the white devils held him after the kidnapping, not even the wide ocean they would cross that stretched on like a salty, watery blue desert as far as the eye could see, no not even that. Nothing that white hands had ever made or ever shown him could match the magnificence of Oyo-Ile, or the colors, or the smells, or the site of so many faces smiling and laughing, arguing, bartering, and crying. There were endless streets, and endless houses, and endless stalls.
“The origins of Oyo like all good things start in myth and legend,” his mother told him as they walked smiling down at the look of wonder upon his young face. “It is said that it all began with Oranyan, the second prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of Ile-Ife. Oranyan like all good sons made an arrangement with his brother to raid against their northern neighbors for insulting their father Oba Oduduwa, the first Ooni of Ife.” Her voice was strong and melodic as she pulled him out of the way of a passing cart.
“But on the way to battle, the brothers quarreled. Their armies were split asunder and Oranyan was left alone. His army was too small to make a successful attack and so he wandered the southern shore in that space between ocean and land until he reached Bussa. There the local chief not only welcomed the lost prince and entertaining him with all that he had, he also provided a large snake with a magic charm tied tight round its neck. Have you ever seen such a snake?” she asked. Little Noe shook his head.
“It had a ring of gold just beneath its head as if it had tried to swallow a necklace. The chief instructed the lost prince to follow that snake for seven days and seven nights, walking where it slithered, stopping where it stopped, until finally it disappeared into the ground. Leaving all of his treasures in Ife and allowing another king to rule there in his place the young prince Oranyan did just as he was told. He followed the serpent for seven days and seven nights, only resting when the snake rested, only eating when the snake ate, until finally it came to rest upon the site of…”
“Ajaka Kano!” Noe finished for her, for he had heard the story before. She nodded.
“There the snake rested, bathing in the beauty of the land, and there upon the land that he had been lead to Oranyan founded his new kingdom of Oyo and became the first “Oba” king with the title of “Alaafin of Oyo” owner of the palace.”
Now they were there, walking upon this sacred land, and as their party wound its way through the endless stalls Little Noe kept a look out for snakes, for maybe one was the descendent of the great serpent that lead prince Oranyan for seven days and seven nights. His father would have called him passing foolish. But passing foolish was better than having no imagination at all.
His father was the headman of their village, and as his first wife Papa Noe’s mother dominated their small group of traveling companions and servants. She chose where to set up their stall and controlled all of the negotiations. This was a duty she often complained about but Noe knew she secretly loved it and would never have left such a task in another’s hands. Watching her was like watching a master at work. By the end of the day they were all sweaty and beaming, for they had not only sold all of their wares but had come away with some new ones. As her eldest son Noe was even allowed to buy a small pet monkey that he promptly named Juju. It had a thick cord tied around its neck as a leash and sat on his shoulder lovingly picking through his hair with its small thin very human fingers. Juju came to love nothing so much as grooming Noe as only a monkey can.
That was one of his best days, a day that would later return to haunt him painfully with its sweetness. For as he crossed the great wasteland of salt water, chained and trapped in the overcrowded hold of the great ship amongst so many bodies that were crying, and moaning, screaming and puking and dying, Papa Noe would yearn for nothing so much as to return to the morning he first stepped through the gates of Oyo-Ila to enter a land of wonders, with his sister skipping before them, and his shoulders protected by the fold of his mother’s arm. If only he had known that he would one day be like Juju with a metal shackle chained tight around his neck. If only he had known, he might have never left.
Now after a lifetime of enslavement in a foreign land, beneath a foreign sun, imprisoned by foreign souls the memory of that first day came back to him stronger than ever. The only memory that could all but match it in step, following close in behind, was that of his worst day.
It happened in their small village, round about 50 or 60 years in memory as far as Papa Noe could tell. On a night just after the first Ogun festival. The sound of singing rose in joy from behind the towering mud walls of their compound, as the midwives praised the gods and ancestors for the birth of their father the Odafin’s tenth son. Their father took the news calmly. He had been praying secretly for a daughter, as he only had one but already had nine sons. But as tradition dictated he uttered the customary words of thanks, paid and rewarded the midwives, then made his way through the complex to the birth chamber where his own mother waited to sing the name and the irk, birth poem, into the ear of the child and his first wife, Papa Noe’s own mother, lay with the new bundle in her arms. It was her third child, her second son, and exhausted and sweat drenched as she was still she glowed with the pride and joy of him.
As Odafin, chief and spiritual leader, their father was a figure of power and authority, it was up to him to provide the palm wine and kola in thanks to the ancestors and to whisper the name of his new born son. Passing it on first to his own mother, a woman now long past old age, he then leaning down until he stood but an inch from his wife he whispered a single word into her ear, the name that had been chosen after much consultation with the elders and divination. Thankfully it worked as well for a girl as for a boy.
Then his own mother, the child’s paternal grandmother stepped forward and did her duty as well, she whispered the name and the irk to the newborn son like a secret, a present that had now been unwrapped, so that he would come to know himself and be set along the proper path within their family, their society, history and the world.
He was to be Adebisi, multiple crowned, descendant of royalty.
Papa Noe had received his own name in just such a ceremony, and had heard the irk, the birth poem, sung into his newborn ear. He had come to know himself and his place in the world long before the time of memory, and it had all been ripped from him. But not on that day.
At sunrise Odafin and Little Noe, as first son his heir, gave the necessary sacrifice to the egugun, a great ancestral mask that represented the visible embodiment of their family’s power, in thanks. Then they went to the house of the gods, the ile-Orisha, where the visual embodiment of each god was enshrined and gave thanks there as well.
A week later his mother went back to her own families compound to share the birth there with those she had first known, and Little Noe was left to his own devices. Its not that he was alone, there were plenty of servants, siblings, and even other wives around, but Little Noe was left without a true watcher.
His father was too busy with the affairs of being Odafin, to look after the antics of one single child. He already had eleven and was on the road to obtaining more. As a new Odafin, inheriting the title upon the death of his own father, he was to take on additional wives and expand his compound as befit his civic status. When he was finally to die over 30 years later he had sired by all accounts 26 children and over 102 grandchildren. Many of whom were later stolen away. Siring them and keeping them was a difficult task only layered above the responsibility he had over the rest of their clan, their village, and the Orisha themselves. For as spiritual leader it was his task to carefully care and minister to the imposing images of important God’s in the large room that served as the compounds ile-ere. All of whom’s faces were lost and had to be re-carved multiple times as the family became refugees, fleeing the destruction of their village in slaves raids that crashed like waves upon them. It was therefore not surprising that even with the revenue from ancestral land and entitlements of office Little Noe’s father often felt weighted. There had not been a raid in many months but still he was busy.
Little Noe’s other aunties, or mothers, the multiple wives of his father, often kept a good eye out, watching after one another’s children, or at least the children of the other wife that they liked and enjoyed. It was not uncommon for little Noe to be called upon, punished, or scolded by all around. He would come later to see that it was the women’s own form of caring, a way of showing loyalty to one another in seeing that the offspring of another did not do what children are want to do and accidentally kill themselves. But why, he could never comprehend, did caring have to be so painful? Sadly non of the women were watching out after him and his sister that day, for they were all busy with their own offspring and their own affairs. Multiple wives co-existing together can often knit strong bonds of friendship or unravel into animosity, depending on the day and the women. That day was not a good day.
Then lastly there were the servants, slaves in honesty for they were not paid, but slaves that looked as they looked, spoke as they spoke, were poorer then them yes, but slaves that could rise up even to, though rarely, intermarry within the family. Now that Papa Noe had seen another kind of slavery, slavery that was based on skin, on race, slavery that questioned whether a man was really a man and refused to treat him as such he had come to question that other kind. If he ever lived to be free he would never keep another slave under the yoke of his own authority. But when he was young he had known no better, and he had not questioned, he had not yet learned to question. He had told the servants to leave them alone that day, and being the heir, though still a child, they could not disobey.
It was deadly hot and so as heir-apparent and leader Papa Noe lead a small band of other children out of the compound and a ways through the narrow lanes and brush to play at a small watering hole at the edge of their village. The water felt cool and refreshing against their skin, and they were soon splashing and wrestling in its shallows, playing make believe games and declaring themselves the hero’s of old folk tales and myths. They were making so much noise that they did not hear the approach until it was too late.
Generally when all of the adults were busy or out laboring with a difficult harvest. The children were assembled together and told to set a look out to climb up into a tall tree and give warning if there if they caught sight of assailants or kidnappers about, for the kidnapping of children from neighboring villages was becoming common. They were easier to control and therefore easier to sell. But on this day their look out was so hot that after barely an hour he came down to splash and play in the water with all the rest and no one noticed.
It was only as Noe looked up laughing, face splattered and soaked with muddy water that he caught sight of movement in the trees yards from where they were standing. Now movement can be many things from man to beast. Small movements, other than poisonous snakes, are not of much import but large movements are. And what shifted through the trees appeared to be large, worse he caught at the corners of his eyes slight rustles that indicated there were more of them. He gave a shout but by then it was too late, they were surrounded and there was not an adult within hearing distance.
The children fled, splashing through the water as though they were being chased by hounds. But non of them got very far before they were bound and gagged and pulled by the kidnappers into the depths of the forest. The kidnappers were each strong and tall, there were nine in total for the six children they had caught. Noe could tell from the look of them, and the markings scared across their face that they did not come from any of the neighboring villages, or even their tribe, they were utter strangers. Even their language was different though it shared a base with theirs, so he could understand bits and pieces of what they said as the children were carried struggling through the bush. When they struggled too much they were slapped, or hit, or beaten to quite them before setting out once more. Thus he saw his own sister beaten, and thus she got a bloody lip and a bruised cheek, she who despite all the son’s had been their father’s favorite. When at first she was born, when at first her body was lifted on high and the birth poem was whispered into her ear Noe had burned with jealousy, and for many years later he had kept that fire stoked. But such a flame was hard to keep going, for in truth she was such a wonderful child. Ayo won over everyone she met, not only with her grace, cleverness, and her openness, but with her soft hunger for physical warmth. Wherever she was and whoever she was next to she always liked to lean up against them, to feel them next to her. At night she would often climb into his pallet just to be held. And he as older brother would hold her gently as they drifted off to sleep with their mother dozing in a pallet but fee away. As they drifted their heads would often be so close that upon the touch of skull to skull they would share the same dream. She whom he had once hated he had come to love as only a brother could love, and now he saw her beaten.
After hours of hurried journey carrying the heavy and bound children their captors finally rested for refreshment while the children whimpered. It was only a day later that they were at last unbound while guards watched over them through the night and for calls of nature. Day followed day, night followed night. They were going far beyond lands that Noe had ever known, far beyond the edge of the world. And the further they went the heavier the weight upon him, for try as he might he could not memorize every twist and turn of their path, which would be essential for when he broke free and stole him and his sister back. By the fifth day his sister and the other five children had stopped crying, they had been drained dry.
They passed many strange villages and met others along their path. But his calls for help evoked no response and only resulted in him being tied once more and gagged. The only comfort that was to be found was late at night, for the captors taking pity upon them allowed he and his sister to sleep side by side, and so it was they held each other through the night and bathed one another with their tears.
In ones and twos the children were sold until the day of greatest sorrow arrived and Noe’s sister was torn from him. In vain they screamed, in vain they cried. Still she was pulled from him and into the arms of her buyer, and Noe was left in a state of distraction to excruciating to describe. He was alone, surrounded by hundreds of bodies, and yet alone. Through all the years, all the trials, adventures and journeys, he was never to stop feeling alone after that moment until he met young Mama Soe 15 years and countless miles later.
Noe himself was sold not long after his sister. And then was sold 6 months later to another, who sold him to another man who brought him to the great water. There is no other way to describe it, the first sight he had of water stretching from eye to eye as far as he could see in either direction. Was it a river or great lake that had no end? The inhabitance that sprawled like a man made beast by that water was larger than any Noe had ever seen. Not as grand as Oyo-Ile but wider, smellier, and dirtier, filled with countless people and above it all loomed a great fort.
Memories of the fort had long since faded from him. There are some nightmares it is best not to revisit. What came back to him after all that time was the feeling of darkness, as if being locked in the bottom of a giant’s well, and the pressing bodies around him. The death and the sadness, for here he had lost all but the smallest glimmer of hope of ever seeing home again.
Time is as fluid within nightmares as within dream, there is no way to know how long you are in it while you are there, because everything is now, everything is present. And so Noe could never say how long he was help in the bowls of the nightmare for all he could hold tight to was the beat of the sun upon his back and feeling of air, finally blessed fresh air as they were let out of their cells and let towards a waiting ship. Many of those captured were scared dumb by the prospect of walking up the gangplank for they believed that the pale figures before them were the spirits of the dead, that they had been sold to ghosts, who would surely eat them in the bowls of the giant wooden beast they sailed for it was known that all who entered such ships were never seen or heard from again. Noe, just a child, barely 12 believed as they believed that as the ship pulled anchor they were being stolen from the land of the living, and sailing into the land of the dead.
In all of the years since he had thought about it long and hard. He needed to steal himself back. He needed … His eyes opened, “Sparrow?” he rasped. He had intended to tell the boy the story but had dozed beneath the branches of the tree, lost track of himself, and forgotten to utter a single word but, “Sparrow?”
“I’m here Grandpa.” The small round face lifted and appeared above creased with worry. Papa Noe smiled up at it through his wide toothless mouth. What was it he had been thinking? The story had just been background to this larger thought. Something essential had been buzzing through him. Something about being clean, he needed to cleanse himself before he stole his body back. He needed to wash himself with a piece of ocean blue as the waves they sailed across in that ship of death.
They sometimes brought the slaves up on deck to get a glimpse of stark blue sky and water, and forced them to dance to move and strengthen their limbs. One chained to the next their limbs would rise and fall in grotesque motion as the crew watched on with eyes nearly as dead as the souls of the slaves they kept. All except little Noe. Noe was too small to be much of a danger of suicide or rebellion and became a short of ship pet. Little Noe knew how to sing in his frail high beautiful voice, songs of the gods, songs of beauty, songs of sadness and joy, songs of the sky, all of the songs his mother had once taught him. They crew couldn’t understand the words and yet it was beautiful to hear and so they let him stay up above deck and sleep beneath the open sky. They would even throw him scraps of food and smile down at him as the pet they liked, as the bounty they were shipping off for sale, as one of the sons they had left back in their land of whiteness.
For in their heart of hearts the white devils still saw themselves as men, good men, fathers and sons and husbands who were about a task that was a job and nothing more. They beat, and tortured, and laughed at, and raped, and abused the Africans to make them less than men in their own eyes. Because if they were men then this task was evil and the slavers were breaking the laws of God for gold. If the Africans were men then the crew were selling their eternal souls for a marginal profit in the here and now. But if the moaning bodies beneath deck were animals like the beasts in the field then this task was not evil, it was just following the natural order within a world that they themselves had built, that the strong sell the weak, and the weak work for the benefit of those above. So the crew made each slave an animal in order to assuage their own souls.
But everyone loves a child, and Noe was beautiful to behold with his heart shaped face and wide young eyes. So they lavished upon Little Noe the small bits of warmth and nurturing that they were saving up for their families back home. And with each parcel of food and smile they gave him they felt the better for it, for it proved that they were indeed the men and not the animals upon this ship of death. They weighed their kindness to him against all of the cruelty and inhumanity they lavished upon those below and tried to convince themselves that they were not lacking, that they had not lost their souls.
In rain and sun Little Noe sat upon the deck singing his songs of home, learning the crew’s savage tongue, and staring out over the water. As the boat rocked beneath him he wondered how many tears were needed to fill such an empty wet desert, and he knew somehow that there was magic in the water, that this same water that was dragging him so far away was the key to bringing him back home.
Now as he lay dying beneath an old oak tree by a river on the Willy Pearce Mangum Plantation in Bahama North Carolina, in a body racked with age, he stared out at the muddy waters of the Eno and wondered how many tears it would take to cleanse his soul.
“Water,” he croaked.
For a moment little Tom just stared. Part of him new that this moment and this request were important, and part of him was scared to go.
“Water,” Papa Noe repeated and Tom ran off wild eyed and came back not long after with an old wooden bucket brimming with water. Scared and not knowing what to do he poured it over Papa Noe’s head. Streams of fresh river water ran down the old man’s face as he chuckled. But there was something wrong. It was missing the salt that he had tasted upon the deck of the ship as ocean water sprayed against his young face. There was magic in the salt water and he needed that magic now, if he was to go back, if he was to find his way home.
“Salt,” he begged the child. And off little Tom ran as the breath became hard and sharp in Papa Noe’s chest. Life and time were unraveling before him. There wasn’t much left and he knew somehow that the boy would never return.
But then suddenly there was a rustling from some bushes beside him and the child approached across the riverbank.
“Sparrow?” Papa Noe asked.
“I failed you,” Old Tom muttered in a voice cracked with pain. “I went to the kitchens to get the salt but they wouldn’t give it. ‘Salt’s expensive,’ Cook said, ‘the master ain’t going to give salt to the likes of you,’ and shoed me away. I tried. I begged. And I tried to steal it.” The tree swayed in a soft breeze. The birds continued to sing. Tears started to drip down the boy’s face and splash upon Papa Noe’s old wrinkled brow and lips. They tasted just as thick and full as the ocean water that had once sprayed him so many years before. He smiled.
“Can you forgive me?” Tom asked. “I failed. Can you forgive me?”
But all Papa Noe could manage was, “salt.”
By Odysseus Blackbird