Th' Opressor's Wrong
Once that sun sets, the stars come out, and the Englishmen get quiet. The wind makes the sails swell a gentle cascading rhythm with the waves. During the night, I am well. I am free.
"Up, apes," the monstrosity of a man shouts from the top of the stairs. I have not revealed that I speak and understand English.
English was mandatory in my home. "No, son," my father would correct. "It is pronounced Free-dum. Write it out, f-r-e-e-d-o-m." He would smile at me while his gentle hands guided my clumsy fingers. "We will leave our home, Chichi," he would whisper. "We will leave, and - make sure your 'o' closes at the top - and you will see the land of plenty. There will be grain and milk, and you will be full."
The last light of dawn fell to the contours of his face and made laurels of his greying temples. "I will be there with you, Chichi. Now, pronounce it like Dr. Wellesly."
We would sit in the dark corner of our home, lit only by a single candle, a candle my father traded two chickens for, and we would trace the letters of the Declaration until I could no longer stay awake.
I remember I dreamed about rolling rows of wheat and the clearest blue skies that night.
"Up, dirty, uncivilized apes!" the man shouts again. He has his riding crop, and my brothers have started praying to Anansi. I say nothing to them and look past the man to the receding sun. It is time for us to clean.
"You will marry a woman, and she will expect you to clean up after yourself, Chichi," my mother said as she thrust our broom into my hands. She died the following week from a cough. Dr. Wellesly was able to at least make her comfortable.
But, I, young and insolent, didn't listen to her, and I ran out the front door and out to the bees. I spoiled my dinner, eating my fill from honeycomb and the sweet taste of youth. Maduenu found me in the brush, and we laid together that night. She would not leave with me, and I knew she knew that. She also knew that I was not long for this old world. She had to have known.
"You, boy," says Professor Connell as emerge. He is of Irish decent. His accent gives him away. "Come here."
I do as I am told. That is how I have avoided the crop, and how I will avoid the death of servitude.
He puts an arm around my shoulders and walks me into his cabin. "You," he begins as he unbuttons his overcoat, "understand us well enough, yes? I mean, well enough for an… infidel."
I look behind me, back toward my brothers.
"No, no, don't worry about them. Don't worry about any of them. I won't say anything." He sits and unlaces his shoes.
"Can you speak English, too? You don't have that savage look about you. English schools? Apprendez-vous Frances?"
"Oui, je parle Frances, et l'Anglais."
"Oh! Wonderful!" he smiles. In that moment, I am reminded of my father's smile. Warm, revealing. He sits on his chair. "The water always upsets my stomach."
"This is my first time on a boat, sir."
He chuckles. "Well, make sure it's your last." He picks up his quill and ink bottle. "Do you know what I'm doing?"
"No," I admit.
"I," he pauses, "am writing up your papers. I need a man of your… character."
My papers, he said. What does this signify? Do I ask him? "Sir, how does this affect me?"
He chuckles again. He seems fond of chuckling. "What's your name, boy?"
He snorts. "Okay, forgive me. Spell it out for me."
"Okay, now what name do you want?"
"You're going to the greatest country on the globe! You can rename yourself, choose an Anglo name!"
"I'm... not sure..."
"You can always change your name back, just as long as you're free."
"Peculiar twist of phrase, sir."
"So, I will not be free?"
"Well," he sighs. "In a manner of speaking. You will be more free than the wildmen below." He looks out the window of the cabin. "Those men, I'm not sure will be so lucky." He meets my eyes. "Lucky as you, Chetachi. Do you mind if I call you Chichi?"
I am too young to remember. "You will be called Chetachi." My father poured oil over my head. "You will carry the meaning with you."
I was too young then to know what he meant. I was too young then when they ripped me from my bed, the men I had grown up with and adored. I was too young when those men stuck my father through with their knives. I am still too young to understand.
"You can name me Abraham, Levi, Shadrach. You can name me whatever you desire."
He squints, and writes my new name onto the scroll. "You will inherit a new lineage," he says as he blots the paper. "Boats are not great places for penmanship."
I do not know whether I should shake his hand or not.
"Now," he announces. "Come and thank me. You're free, Elgin. Make me proud."
We pull into a dirty harbor, loud with the shouts and screams of men. I hear a familiar sound, the sound of men sobbing. A whip cracks, and anger hidden within the frightened yelps pierces my skull. The price of man, worthy of more than the barbs of barbarity and certainly more than a cow, is posted for all an affront to God.
We're shuffled off the gangplank, and Professor Connell grabs me by the arm. "They're going to go into that line. You're coming with me." He pats his breast pocket.
"What happens in that line, Professor?"
"You needn't worry about that. It is temporary, fleeting, and you will be well cared for."
"And they won't?"
He turns to me, and I see something else flash across his face. "Pay no mind, just as long as you're free," he grumbles. "And, it would benefit you to remember that."
I glance back to the boat and wonder why it was I was taken from my home by the same men I trusted, who were there at my baptism, who claimed to be my friends.
Home is far from here, and now, now, I am lost in the land of the free.