In the dark air, mosquitoes whined, hungry with the promise of blood. They emerged just before the overhead canopy of leaves and bamboo shoots become a grayer shade of green. Black clouds of mosquitoes had hovered above the river where Alzobi and the others on the coffle had bathed earlier that evening. That was the only way to tell that nightfall had arrived—the prick of mosquitoes and the subtle darkening around them. It had been difficult to see anything of the sky ever since they’d entered the forest. Everywhere the gaze landed, there were only more shades of green and brown: the twisted vines; the leaves small as a baby’s foot and giant as antelopes; the towering wedge-shaped tree roots speckled with fungi and mold.
It was a wonder that without sun, moon, or stars, Paa Kwesi and his guards knew where to steer them along those humid red-earthed trails. They never paused to consider the way when the trails divided into twos and threes in a blink and when they seemed to circle back onto themselves.
All sense of time became confused in the forest. It was probably a few evenings into the march when Alzobi decided to mark the days by nipping her forearm with her teeth. She needed to know how long it would take to get back to Ejisu Market, where Paa Kwesi had bought them. She tried not to think about how she might get lost and of how, after thirteen sore spots on her arm, they’d come across only three villages, each of which had been eager to purchase them.
She tried to think instead of losing her husband, Oremi, forever. The leaders of each of the villages had picked him first, admiring his long limbs and the statuesque face. Their dialect was different from hers, but she could make out what they said: he would make a beautiful husband to a woman they had in mind. She felt her breath coming tight when she thought of some other woman’s hands on Oremi, or Oremi cradled between legs that weren’t hers. She knew it would happen anyway should he take another wife, but she always imagined that that wouldn’t occur until after her breasts had slumped from weaning seventy-seven children.
She was thankful that Paa Kwesi hadn’t sold Oremi at those forest villages. It was the only gratitude she’d admit to the man; if he hadn’t bought them in the first place, she would never have to contemplate risking all of their lives to escape. He planned to sell Oremi anyway as soon as they reached the coast, because he thought Oremi would fetch a higher price. He told them that the mysterious red-skinned men who traded on the coast would buy them all, send them across a river wider than they could imagine, and make them farm. No one seemed to believe any of it. Alzobi almost laughed aloud at the thought of Oremi and her farming. She had never touched a farming tool and knew that Oremi probably hadn’t either; that’s what slaves were for. And why would the red men go through so much trouble and pay so much for farmers? Alzobi was more inclined to believe the rumor circulating through the coffle, which made her want to hurry with her escape plan: that the red men were cannibals who feasted on black skin.
That night, while the others slapped mosquitoes to death on their skin around Paa Kwesi’s campfire, Alzobi made a knife. She knew she should fill herself on the slop the guards laughingly called food, to give herself energy, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. At home, she never had to do anything that displeased her. For as long as she could remember, she’d gotten the meatiest part of the chicken, goat, beef, or game, and the smoothest fufu. Never had she taken garri plain. Garri was meant to coat food and give it texture, not serve as a full meal. Such food was meant for slaves.
They may bind my wrists and ankles, shave away my hair and eyebrows, sell and buy me, she thought, but never will I be a slave—someone without origin and without the name my father gave me.
She watched as Paa Kwesi drank his daily liquor from his calabash. It trickled down his chin and splattered across his belly. Her makeshift knife, a sliver of bamboo, was slick from her saliva. While she pretended to grind it like a chewing stick, she was sharpening it with her four front teeth—pointed teeth that had already left four holes in one of the guard’s hands. Teeth that had been sharpened during her childhood for decoration, not for use as weapons.
Somewhere across the fire, where the male captives were kept, she was sure Oremi was eating too quickly. He always rushed his food when he was excited or nervous, and that evening, she’d whistled to him to confirm that the attack was to happen. He’d wanted to be the one to kill Paa Kwesi, but he and the men were constantly shackled, even while they bathed. Each evening, some of the women were untied to cook and to rub the stinking, blistered feet of Paa Kwesi and his guards. Paa Kwesi had chosen Alzobi for himself. She grimaced at his patches of calluses, wishing she had some of her grandmother’s magic, which could have poisoned him with just a caress.
The women thought her escape plan, which she’d whispered to them as they were bathing the day before, was foolish. Even with her strength, built from years of doing the taboo of hunting with boys, they thought Paa Kwesi could overpower her, but it was too late to turn back. She’d been showing him her tongue and wiggling her behind at him for the past few days. The night before while rubbing his feet, she tried to put her plan to action. The sight of him—his pocked face, the swollen belly that should have flattened after so many marches along the trade paths—was too repulsive to even imagine Oremi’s face as her toes found and pressed the hard lump between his legs. He lifted his head groggily but dropped it back to the ground. What she thought were groans were actually his snoring. He’d drunk too much of his gin.
That night, she hoped he’d stay awake. As he caught her gaze and lumbered towards her, she slipped the bamboo piece from beneath her thigh and held it ready. The largest animal that she’d ever killed was a ram. She’d seen the men do it before, so she knew just where to press her knife. She’d dragged it across the vein throbbing at the animal’s throat, had felt the warm blood gushing. It had sickened her somewhat, hearing its last wet gasps, and for a second she almost admitted that the men of her community were right: that it wasn’t a woman’s place to hunt. Even then, though, the killing was an act of generosity. The blood had reaffirmed her family’s connection to their ancestors, and she had fed five households. Human blood was another matter. In that moment, though, the repercussions outweighed being made a slave.
She held on to that thought as she trained her eyes on the pearly handled weapon Paa Kwesi kept at his waist. He called it “pistol.” She reminded herself to grab it after jamming the bamboo into his neck. But she didn’t estimate just how heavy the man weighed—the solid fat could have easily made three of her. The impact of his stomach hitting hers knocked away her breath and along with it, the bamboo stick from her hand. He was so heavy that she could move none of her body below her neck. She could feel his large rough hand between her legs, and she felt a surge of panic. Maybe everyone had been right. Maybe this was the wrong plan.
As he fumbled with her cloth, she screamed Oremi’s name and scratched at Paa Kwesi’s face with one hand while scraping through the dirt for her stick. As Paa Kwesi averted his face from her nails, she caught sight of his earlobe, hanging thick and dark in the firelight. She snapped her head forward and clung to it with her teeth until warm, salty blood filled her mouth. She could hear his howls, but his hand was still between her legs. She’d never let any man take her by force, so he’d have to kill her first. And she would gladly be reborn even as one of the forest mosquitoes, if it meant she’d get to bite him over and over again.
blues for wounded laughter
jaki shelton green
i first saw him at the two skate for one rate tuesday night skate party with cousin adele me in shimmering pastels and chocolate brown ski parka aunt frida talking bout adele you need to get your cousin jade outta this house meet some of them dread heads they nice men don’t mean women nothing but respect show good times all the time i twirl with chaka khan purple beats and the funk of earth wind and fire every man the color of winter reminds me of other dances other nights that have no place on calendars a lover a blues tune stuck beneath my tongue an unholy night that conjures paul curly fro law student wet smile that pleasures my ears but hands like wood trying to tear history out of my womb trying to drink past a stretch of night that abandons him on his own shores of father mother prisoner buried alive beneath the diminishing light of his mothers eyes her sprawling death the only sound he can hear when he lies awake in my arms but his hands needed to have their say strike the hush in his fathers fist rearrange the bones beneath my chest write blood sonnets flunk bar exams cook up a ceremony of apology waiting for visitations of his mothers sprawling death his fathers airborne fist i marched to his love his fire his tears i marched to his mothers breathless gasp the stack of broken bones bruised lips shifting wombs saved by the history that flowed through him paul turned the gun away from me that night and wrapped his pain in gun powder so blue i thought his hands were breathing an echo that aroused his mother loosened her screaming her ghost thighs quivering receiving him back beyond a womb of silence tonight my lungs yearn to forget the taste of broken glass yearn to regret two years of standing holding my breath behind shower curtains locked doors my feet have a plan of their own teasing the ice tearing laughter out of my stitched throat luther vandross making my hips rise wade through around beneath couples caught up in their own dreams illusions he is skating beside me feet rooted like the trees of his south american forest smiling warrior polished hands so smooth i can hear the rivers of his childhood his hands his heart’s wealth let me be your wind tonight his shoulders whisper i answer yes to the locks of hair already cruising my bones we tango past the stars rising from the ice past butterflies all the way to a path of drums candles frankincense a house of plenty tongues i make good on the prophecy of an elder lock out smells of blue gun smoke take back my own nights of honey smeared poetry and stained dawns tonight i will not be afraid to reach over close the window light a fire.
Kimberly S. Morris
your brutality rots my soul. i am unsullied
fear bound with chains of blame
sharecropping for shame
i serve you well master
but now I’m tired.
think i’ll ride that Underground Train
taking a deep breath
i am a Haitian Revolution.
shedding shoes of silence i run on
nodding to my spirit
i go on. rather breathe black death
than breed bloody silence.
gone are the blotchy mauve stains of
pain streaked across my face
your fists no longer have a resting place
on my cheeks. knodding to my spirit
I trod on. to freedom.
(…as sweet liberty whispers to me,
I lynch your memory on the boughs of eternity).
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
airmail letter deconstructed
"dear mama, hope you are well and enjoying the best of health"
He touched me
but what I can't seem to recall
is giving him an invitation
to my inner thighs
my restricted area
Thoughts of school
and My Little Pony
but not sex.
So he decided
what my body needed.
While I lay sleeping
he penetrated me
No desire to see what happens
after ten years of living.
No father to console
his little girl
to busy wondering
why he never thought of it
or how someone beat him to the prize.
Didn't wonder for long
his turn came sooner instead of never.
Little girls are made of sugar
and everything nice.
seal not tampered with or broken.
Adults trusted for their wisdom.
Children admired for their silence.
Little girls must grow up.
Don't know what survivor means
but I am one.
before my first menstruation.
Children are told that monsters
don't lurk under beds
but I know better.