Ibo’s Landing? That’s the place where they bring the Ibos over in a slave ship and when they get here, they ain’t like it and so…they march right down in the river…back to Africa, but they ain’t able to get there. They gets drown. – Floyd White (1930)
Ain’t you heard about them? [They] rose up in the sky and turned themselves into buzzards and flew right back to Africa…Everybody knows about them. – Wallace Quarterman (1930)
It was when the pale men first came that we began to forget.
Something about their presence, their apathy, their unquenchable hunger—it chipped away at our remembering.
Igbos are a people of generational stories, each of us birthed with a tale tucked under our tongue, a fable etched into our back. For us, who know the danger of making a ghost of our forefathers, who lend our ancestors new breath with every story passed down, there are few things more ruinous than a memory shed.
Uzoma returned to the hut with a limp.
As she lay on the mat beside me, she pressed her legs so tightly together, as though she could flatten the shame growing between her thighs.
This was the third time her body had betrayed her over the span of six months.
Ike gwụrụ m, she managed.
I opened my mouth to tell her that I was tired too, that I too knew what it felt like for shame to make a home of this borrowed vessel we call a body. But before I could form the words, her eyes fluttered shut as her legs went slack.
While the village was still suspended in a dream, I awoke the following morning to a rooster’s call and Uzoma’s lingering scent. I walked down to the river, believing she had gone ahead of me for our morning wash.
Uzoma was not at the shore.
But there, at the river’s border, was her wrapper—the fabric folded neatly atop the still damp sand.
Like a retrieved memory, a boy who I had not before noticed emerged by my side. His small ears, broad nose, hollow eyes—they appeared to be lifted from my own face. The child pointed at the wrapper. He pointed at the river. He pointed at the sky. Then, with eyes enlarged and mouth agape, he spread his arms horizontally, waving them up and down as his fingers caressed the air.
Fly, he said. She fly.
The boy spoke in the language of the pale men. And yet, I understood.
Uzoma had remembered.
I buried my face in her wrapper, and wept.
I never again saw the boy.
Instead, I learned the monotonous routine of labor and loss. I befriended grief on many occasions. I smiled at the shapes the clouds drew. I discovered the pleasure of love’s touch. I mourned the pleasure of love’s touch. I cut off all my hair. I grew out my hair. I grew quiet. I kept to myself.
After all, when you watch death wrap its mantle around everything you hold dear, you begin to wonder if you are its harbinger. Perhaps death is right at your heel. Perhaps isolation is the only way to prevent its sting.
I poured out my lament into labor, became a better worker, performed my tasks with diligence, slept rarely, never cried when the pale men barged into my body, washed myself anew every morning, made sure to scrub off the sin too.
I only ever worked.
And yet, at the hour the ship docked, I was bathing in the river, finding rest, seeking remembrance.
I had never known intimacy like this before, never been so dangerously close to another, felt their skin kneading mine morning, noon, and night, like we could be one, like I could enter into their flesh, stick my head into their bruised arm, perhaps remain there for a day or two, and go completely unnoticed, even by them.
It was dark, and cold, and wet. I could smell all the stages of life—birth (and its blood), death (and its blood), the interim (and its blood). My back was flattened against the wooden deck, and even movement was a forgotten thing. Iron cuffs suffocated my bones, their sharp edges puncturing holes in my soul. There, I learned how foul air could taste, how soiled a soul could be.
Like this, we were packed in the ship: just enough space to breathe, just enough space to wish you couldn’t.
It was when the pale men led us onto the main deck, concerned we would have no utility if we suffocated to death, that I saw the boy again.
He was a young man now, but I could recognize that face—my face—anywhere. His mouth maintained the immovable curve of a crescent moon, but his voice carried the warmth of a cloud-veiled sun.
His soul nudged mine ever so slightly, and a question followed soon after.
My soul answered yes. The water called me then.
It was bright, and warm, and wet. My body was a cascading waterfall, but even fear was a forgotten thing. I saw them there in the water. I saw them all. With smiles on their souls, Spirits bruised yet glistening.
A familiar voice enveloped me, and my dearest Uzoma emerged. As the remnants of a celebration radiated from her Spirit, my heart became at once overjoyed. She spoke with more words than language could hold, bursting with tales untold.
Her soul embraced mine, and a question followed soon after.
My soul answered yes. The water took me then.
I become one with the ocean. I watch my skin dissolve into the water.
Air finds its way back to me, dust particles forming new flesh.
I grew wings.
The story etched into my back breathes again.
I returned home.
I unearth the story’s beginning.
Oh, how I remember.
Second place in The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction