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I get pushed along with my partner, trying not to run into others. I don't fight though, I knew this day would come. I just walk onto the petrifyingly scary ship that I will be stuck on for the next month or so. Tears run down my deeply colored face as the Americans cuff my hands and ankles. No no no this can't be my life. My mind screams but my mouth stays shut. I approach the opening door that seems to be a mouth that will swallow me when I step inside. I begin to hyperventilate and I stop dead in my tracks. Such horrible stories I've heard about this boat, and to know I’ll never be coming back. I hear a loud crack that follows with an excruciating sting across my back. I cry out.
“Get moving!” One of the nameless white faces yell.
“Come on, it'll be worse if you don't.” The woman I'm cuffed with whispers. I scramble to my feet and walk quickly. I was whipped. I walk into the dreaded darkness and bid my goodbyes to the beautiful sun. I walk into the boat and see automatically that it will be a very bad journey. The spaces only about an inch and a half wide and a few inches short of six feet tall. It was also hot and the journey was only just beginning. My eyes fill again. Breathe, I tell myself sharply. It’ll do you no good to cry.
After we are all seated, the women begin to quietly mumble amongst themselves.
“Hey,” whispers the woman next to me, “seeming that we’re going to be together for a while, what’s your name and how old are you?” She seems really nice so I don’t mind talking to her.
“I’m Charlette and I’m fifteen.” I answer.
“I’m Mary Anne, eighteen.” Mary Anne smiles a bit wearily. Oh, she looked a little older than that. Maybe her mid twenties or so. After that, nobody talked very much out of whatever it may be. Fear? Heat? Exhaustion? All of it at once? I know I was mostly scared.
When dinner came, everyone ate and then went to bed. I have a feeling that's how this whole trip will go, that thought makes sleep easier. I was right for maybe four days.
There are no bathrooms whatsoever so when you have to go, you go. The smell wasn’t bothersome until day five. I woke up and stretched out as much as I was able in the small space, and drawing in a deep breath, I threw up. Mary Anne startled and rubbed my back in a motherly fashion. I feel bad for doing what I did, it's not like my puke will help the smell at all. “Hey, you okay?” Mary Anne asks cautiously. I begin to cry.
“I don’t know.” I say. Mary Anne hugs me sympathetically. Than a white man comes in. I brush away my tears as quickly as possible as to not look weak. All of the women quiet their voices.
“All right ladies,” he says loudly, “It’s a nice day and you should all get some exercise.” We all look at each other, wondering if he’s serious. Could he be? We’re all restless and long for fresh air. I hadn’t heard of us being able to be above deck ever, it was like some sort of miracle. I get very fidgety as we walk one by one into the shining sunlight. The closer I get, the more I can taste it. Next thing I know, there I am. Staring at the beautiful blue sky that I thought would be impossible to ever see again.
My joy dies almost as quickly as it had come. Two women that are chained together walk as quickly as they can to the boats edge. Pusing their way through the crowd of women, and the white men notice to late, because already one of them is over board and the other follows suit and both have plunged into the water by the time the whites get there. We all begin to get ushered quickly back under deck. No I can’t go back under there. I have only been outside for five minutes. As I go back under, the smell of the waste hits me and about knocks me down.
Mary Anne and I are back to our spots and I’m trying to breath as little as possible. Than our food is served. It smells far to bad to eat anything. “No thank you.” I say quietly. I know that surly if I eat I will puke again. The white man raises his eyebrows, “Eat. Now.”
“I’m not hungry.” I answer. Mary Anne looks at me worriedly.
“Charlette. Please just take it.”
“Listen to your friend, now EAT!” He shouts. All of the quiet chattering is gone now and all eyes are on me. I make myself as small as possible.
“No.” I say quieter than ever.
“Okay. Elijah!” Shouts the man. Another man arrives who I’m guessing must be Elijah, he’s holding a large bowl with steam coming out of the top. “This one isn’t going to eat for us.” Mr. Elijah, who’s not smiling, brings the bowl over to the other man.
“Here you go Tom.” Says Elijah without much enthusiasm, giving the man who is Tom a pair of clamps. Tom takes them and puts it into the bowl. When they come out again, there is a hot coal in between them. My eyes dart around wildly as I look for an escape. There’s nowhere for you to run. My brain says. You got yourself into this.
“No.” I whimper out loud “No, no, no. Please?” My eyes tear up as Tom brings the hot coal to my face. I can already feel it's infuriating heat, but as it touches my lips I screech louder than the boat’s whistle. You can hear the sizzle of the flesh to the embers. I can feel my lips melting. Mary Anne looks at me terror struck with her hands over her mouth and tears in her eyes. I’m crying, and as the awful man takes the coal away, I get hysterical. My lips are a burning, melted sensation. I saw this happen maybe four times since the journey began but was never able to tell completely what it felt like.
“Now eat.” Tom spits in my face. Now the smell won’t be the only problem, but not hurting my lips, which are already beginning to swell. I grab a hand full of beans and begin to eat hurriedly. Next I scoop up some corn and finish that. The white man seems satisfied by this and walks away. When he is out of sight, Mary Anne pulls me into a hug and I cry on her shoulder for a long while.
“Shhh.” She says quietly. My mother was taken from me when I was a little girl, but I imagine what Mary Anne is doing is what a mother would do. Later, the man Elijah comes back with a small piece of ice. He hands it to me quickly and without a word walks away. I sit there for a minute wondering whether to throw it or use it. In the end I decided that using the ice would do more than throwing it. It stung a bit at first but the longer I held it there, the number and colder it felt. It was beyond relieving and made sleep that night less painful.
The next morning I woke up and my lips were charred and cracking. I could hardly move them. Mary Anne said that she felt sick to her stomach. I think it’s just sea sickness but later she begins to throw up uncontrollably. I pat her back trying not to puke myself. I mumble words of comfort as best I can out of my swollen lips. When she stops finally, Mary Anne begins to cry. I pull her into a hug. I’m glad that I’m chained with her. Over the past week we’ve become sisters.
Mary Anne eats knowing she will throw up later, but will avoid being burned. I begin to start to really worry about the poor thing, she pukes up everything that gets put into her body and then some. This is the third day of it and when she isn’t throwing up, she is shaking and crying. It’s not helping her get strong at all. Also the puke stench is getting worse than the waste is. The white men do nothing to help her. There are few, like Elijah, who will walk by and look sympathetically but keep moving along with their day.
After another three days, Mary Anne is hardly moving except to puke or harshly shudder. I begin to not feel so well either but I have to be strong for her. “Charlette...I really don’t feel good. Not like the ‘I don’t feel good I’m sick’ but worse...like death bad.”
“Shh, I know, I know” I whisper softly. She’s going to die. Mary Anne, my best friend is going to die. My eyes fill up as this plants itself into my mind. You’ve done everything you can do.
My mind says. You can’t fix her. As if reading my mind, Mary Anne grabs my hand.
“Charlette...it is not your fault. Do you hear me? This is not your fault.” We both have tears running down our faces.
“B-but-” I start. Mary Anne shakes her head very feebly.
“It is not your fault, you have done what you could for me and I wish I could repay half of it.” Her voice cracks.
“Mary Anne please don’t leave me, your my best friend.” She smiles wearily and hugs me.
“Charlette, if I could stay with you I would, I truly would.
But I guess God has different plans and please promise me you’ll trust them. No matter what, promise me you’ll continue to fight. I believe in you and you inspire me. I’m so sorry Charlette, I’m so sorry.” She throws up again and when she’s done, she stops moving completely. No shaking, no noise.
My eyes widen and I begin to hyperventilate. “Mary Anne? Mary Anne?” I shake her a little bit. No no no no no, I hear myself saying in my mind until I say it out loud. I hug the lifeless body. Some of the women stare at me pitifully. Others glance and turn back to their conversation as if everything is okay.
A white man comes along to collect Mary Anne’s body and get me a new woman to be shackled with. I don’t want someone new. I want Mary Anne. My heart has been shattered and there is no way of fixing it. I have small tears running down my cheeks as I come face to face with another woman who can’t be more than twenty three years old. She has curly shoulder length hair, golden brown eyes, coffee skin, and a big pregnant belly. I begin to feel a little pity for this woman, my new partner. She is going to go to this new land and have a baby and within two years have to give it up. We get cuffed and than seated. As the men walk away I hear one mumbling to the other, “Rotten animals stinking the place up.”
My lips curl in disgust. I want to shout that it’s only because they are too lazy to clean it up. I don’t though because I feel I’ve had enough pain for today.
“Hi, I’m Patti.” Says the woman next to me. I look at her and she smiles at me gently. “You don’t have to talk if you want.”
“No, it’s alright.” I answer. “My name is Charlette. I’m fifteen.” Patti smiles at the fact that I’m talking.
“I’m twenty,” she says back. “Would you tell me whats wrong? I would like to help.” I look down wondering whether or not I want to trust her. After a moment of consideration, I decide Patti seems sweet and trustworthy enough.
“The girl I was with before you was my friend, and she got sick and I couldn’t help her.” I say thickly, eyes filling. Patti opens her mouth, closes it and looks at me sadly.
“I know how hard that can be Charlette. I’m sorry.” I turn away so that she can’t see the fury in my face. How could she know? But then I remember. I turn back,
“I’m sorry too,” I say. “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.” Patti looks down at her bulging stomach for a second, looks back with tears running down her face.
“Thank you.” She says quieter than a mouse. I smile very wearily and Patti, with tears streaking her face, answers with the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen. I’ve decided that no one will ever be able to replace Mary Anne, but I think Patti is going to be a good friend to have.
The next day we are able to go outside again. I breath in the fresh air and absorb all the sun I can. Since Mary Anne died, I’ve been fretting that the same could happen to me and I take value in everything that I get to do.
There are white men guarding the boats edges so we are able to be out for an hour. A half hour later though, the white men aren’t able to stop another two women from trying to commit their own deaths. As they try to push their way to the edge of the boat, the man Tom comes up behind the both of them with a whip. I cover my eyes in a flash, and than hear the crack of the whip and a woman scream. Than Tom starts shouting horrific things at the poor women. One word for every blow. Patti pulls me into a hug and I hide in her arms until it’s over.
In the next few days I begin to get sick. Really sick. I fear that I’ve caught what Mary Anne had. I try to keep as far from Patti as possible, which was a struggle given that our space was only about an inch and a half away from each other.
“Charlette, please let me see what I can do.” Patti asks a bit irritably, for I won’t even let her touch my forehead.
“No, I don’t want you to get sick,” I answer after throwing up everything I have in me. Patti’s eyes soften,
“Oh, so that’s what this is about.” she says calmly. “I’ve already gotten over the sickness, okay? It shouldn’t affect me so badly now that my body has been exposed to it.” Her saying that she has had it and survived makes me angry. Why couldn’t Mary Anne have made it? Why did she have to die? I feel the tears coming, but than I puke again. Patti rubs my back like Mary Anne did. The tears come. “Shhh.” Patti says pulling me into a hug. “I know, and I’m so sorry about Mary Anne.” She says gently. I begin to cry even harder, Patti would make the most amazing mom, but where we’re headed, she isn’t going to have the chance.
“Patti I’m sorry too, I can't even imagine...” I weep. She must have known what I meant because in that moment, our roles switched. She began to wail into my shoulder. Some of the women around us looked pitiful, others annoyed, but I didn’t care.
“Oh Charlette, I wanted to be a mother so badly. I thought my husband and I were safe and that we were far enough inland to be not be bothered. When they came, Carson tried fending them off but two of the men began to whip him and carried me off. I-I don’t even know if he’s still alive.” Patti tells me. “When I knew I was going to have a baby I was overjoyed. Carson started preparing all of the baby furnisher and toys right away.” she smiles. “I was knitting clothes and blankets...Then they came.” She finishes with fire in her eyes and we both just cry and comfort each other.
The next day, I feel even worse. I’ve begun to shudder so much it hurts. Patti holds me to the wall of the boat until the shaking stops. I eat small handfuls of food because I don’t want to be burned again. I throw up every five to ten minutes, and my back feels like it’s getting jabbed with needles each time. My throat burns because all I have left to puke up is bile. Please God let this be done with, I silently pray.
“Patti it hurts!” I croak into her shoulder.
“Shh, I know it does.” She answers in her sweet and gentle way. “Do what Mary Anne told you to do. Keep fighting.” This keeps me going, knowing that I have to make it for Mary Anne and me both. I puke again and cry harder. “You’re okay Charlette, your okay.” I’m not okay, my brain says I’m going to get dehydrated and die just like Mary Anne- SHUT UP!! I can’t allow myself to think like this. It’s going to do me no good. Please God let this pass.
After dinner is done I go to bed right away at Patti’s request. It is probably a little past midnight when I wake up with a gut wrenching stomach ache. I groan out loud and begin to dry heave until it comes out in stomach fluid and what tastes like blood. I’ve awoken some of the women around me including Patti. She rubs my back in a soothing way and whispers comforting and encouraging things into my ear. I finish with a pounding head, burning throat, and throbbing stomach. “I don’t want to do this Patti, I don’t want to do this anymore. Let me die, there’s nothing to live for after this...” I whimper.
“Oh Charlette, if your ready than let go, you’ve been so strong for so long. I understand if you want to go.” She says with a voice like silk. I drift off into a deep sleep…
I wake up screaming. My husband startles next to me. “Shhh, shhh. It was a dream. It was only a bad dream.” It wasn’t though, it actually happened. Yes it may have been years ago, but it happened.
I woke up on that awful ship the next morning beginning to feel better. I survived, was what I had thought. Within the next two weeks, we had arrived at a port in Louisiana and were sold off. I never saw Patti again. I was a slave on a few different plantations for the next fifteen years before a very kind master passed and set me and many others free. I got married to one of the other slaves that became free. We moved up to New York to make things better for us to start a family.
What I said on the boat, “There’s nothing to live for after this.” I think about it sometimes and smile at how wrong I was. I’m raising two beautiful growing daughters, Mary Anne and Patti. I’m married to a wonderful hardworking man, Ted. I’m a free black woman in 1826 and won’t ever have to worry about the worst ever again.
I’m beyond blessed and I thank God every day for it. The trip on that boat still haunts me, and some nights so does my work as a slave. Whenever I have dreams like this, I make a list of all that I have to be thankful for, and when this doesn’t work, I hide in Ted’s arms until I feel better. Sometimes, my past helps me through hard times, because it helps me remember that it could always be a lot worse.