Tahmina Hussain grew Read more [...]
Short Story Category: 15 Minutes
April 13th 1807
I was hiding in the closet with a sock stuffed in my mouth. Short shallow rapid breathing. I tried with great difficulty to not make a single sound. They were like lions cleverly preying strategically on an unsuspecting plump gazelle. Peering through the slight crack, I watched on as the bright flames of the torchlights glared through the windows, resonating against the pitch-black sky. I sat, frozen, aghast. They had found me.
I was alone. I had sent Dora, my daughter, away to my mother in Angola earlier that week. It was the day after the chief had warned us about the rampages and kidnappings in the town meeting. The warning had sent us all into a panicked frenzy, not knowing what to do or where to go.
It was not long before they forced themselves into my home. A parade of elephants. Setting alight to everything in their pathway. The men grinned leeringly, belittling our very existence as my great-grandfather’s portrait was eaten by the red flames. A portrait worshipped by my father, and his. My fate was inescapable.
My body shook uncontrollably. Every inch of me was covered in clammy, cold sweat. I was cornered, a weak, little mouse with no further place to run.
Exposed. I was pounced upon and dragged by my clothes, lacking control like a dress mannequin. I felt helpless, like a vulnerable child.
The ringleader gave out orders; his origins exposed by his accent, and his great wealth by the numerous gold teeth which filled his mouth, and gleamed against his night-coloured skin. His menacing eyes, black like oil, stared intently at me, as he studied my face.
They dragged me outside; my garments dismembered by the friction, before being pinned to the dry grey ground, which was starved of moisture. I stared up at my home, a place where I had once used to seek solace from the animalistic world, it had left me; now consumed by hellfire. I tried with great strength to blank out the fear which had engulfed my veins, like poison angrily streaming in.
He stared intently at me and smiled, nodding at me, wanting me to scream, as he wrapped his large hands tightly around my neck, and choked me for his entertainment. I was his circus animal.
‘You thought we were going to let you escape?’ His nostrils flared as he spoke, and his bellowing laughter echoed into the night. The others laughed, too, like hyenas.
Covered in mud, blood and sweat I struggled to free myself, I was their prisoner now. My anger was now replaced only by immense fear. Their blows rained upon me as my vision blurred, and I was slipping, slipping away. A figure stood over me holding what appeared to be a child’s baseball bat angled towards my head. Pain. Nothing but pain, as the world turned black.
I was woken by the ocean outside, which banged violently against the metal walls. Blank faces and silent eyes met mine; others, just like me, only visible by the slight light which streamed through tiny windows in the metal walls that surrounded us. Boys and girls, men and women, all naked, all different shades of black; from honey to charcoal, we had filled the metal container to the brim, shackled together by heavy rusty chains.
The humid air was incessantly heavy with the stench of sour sweat, vomit and stale urine. It suffocated me and taunted me, but also seduced me, beckoning me to reunite with my ancestors.
Days blurred into nights, as the pile of bodies in the corner grew; pairs of eyes stared blankly up towards heaven in the gaps of light between the metal panels. There was no other way to escape, unless it was to take your last breath.
I still ached. Every muscle burning like my home. At times it was the silence that had frightened me more; the fear of the unknown, although I dared not speak. Instead, there we sat in the enclosed metal container and stared at each other blankly, with the sound of confused children crying endlessly. Each day was slipping by, out of our reach. We were lifeless black dolls, mourning our previous lives.
With only mouldy bread, and water twice a day to suffice, I was now a gaunt skeleton, my coffee tinted skin hung loosely where my physical strength had once resided. I was survived only by the hope of seeing Dora once more.
June 25th 1807
His name was Sheriff Peter James Harrison. However, I had to refer to him as Master, and Master only. I was stripped of my birth name, the last remaining link to my origin, and given a new name, my slave name, Fugra.
‘Africans are uncivilised, barbarous miscreants, descendants of Lucifer, and are in need to be chastised’, he would sneer, forcing us to mirror this speech on a daily basis, as if it were a sort of national anthem.
All together there were six of us. Christopher-Kyalo was the oldest slave in the house, he had been passed down from the Master’s father, who had kidnapped Christopher and his seventeen-year-old son Ajamu during an excursion in Zambia. Master’s Father had needed some objects to vent his anger on. Tabitha and Harriet were stationed in the kitchen. They were merely teenagers of thirteen years, stolen of their youth, which was now replaced with confusion and pain displayed in their wide, glossy innocent eyes. From four o’clock in the morning, to ten o’clock at night, they carried out the domestic duties of a housewife; from cooking meals, to cleaning. Daniel was the fourth addition, he was thirty-four years old, and in his past life he had owned a beautiful farm in the east of Sudan with his pregnant wife, who had unfortunately met her end during the pillage of their farm. At six months of pregnancy, she was hurled off three flights of stone stairs by the local slave catcher, both child and mother died on impact. Daniel’s duty was to ensure the Master’s numerous horse- drawn carriages were kempt. The next addition to the slave domestic was Andrew, the boy of merely seven years who had arrived a week before me. Andrew had not spoken at all since his arrival, no matter what, he remained mute; like life’s anguish had already stolen this child’s voice.
My role was to tend to the Master’s every need, from domestic chores to his personal requests. If I refused, I was punished. He owned many whips, all different strengths and sizes, all the best quality. He displayed them in a locked, glass encasement in the dining room and showed them with pride to his prestigious dinner guests. From the beginning he wanted to make his authority clear. He had arranged for me and the other house slaves to watch as he punished Andrew, who had been caught stealing a slice of bread from the kitchen. Although my eyes remained shut, the sound of the whip continuously beating against the unripe flesh still echoes in my nightmares late at night. I wake abruptly, covered in cold sweat. Shivering.
The heavy, humid air was suffocating as I fanned the Master. After an hour, my muscles ached making it difficult to maintain the motion of the fan. Another hour and my shoulders screamed. As he drifted off to sleep, the temptation to rest myself was overpowering. Many times, I would stop and observe him; his skin was almost translucent in the dark room. Frown lines were imprinted on his forehead, and a few stray grey strands bedded in his full muddy brown hair. When he stirred, fear flapped the fan faster than ever.
Days were monotonous and it was difficult to stay optimistic. I was curious about this new country so different to Africa and I often found myself staring at the pale people. Every Sunday, we were forced to a place called the church where all six of us sat at the back, listening to a man named a priest talk about a magical mortal who lived above the clouds and watched over us. I found great comfort in the idea of a being watching over me; it gave me hope.
As a mother myself, it was a natural instinct to protect the slave boy we had watched being tortured. He had remained quiet. Even with me. As if the spirit had been beaten out of him before it had even had a chance to develop. It was his daily duty, along with two other house slaves to gather sugar crops from the Sheriff’s plantation, whilst they burnt in the scorching Colombian heat. They departed at six in the morning to return at eight in the evening. Wearing only shorts, his face was forever covered in dirt and almost unrecognisable.
When I was ordered to prepare the Sheriff’s food along with Tabitha and Harriet, I would acquire a few scraps of bread and hide them in my apron, and at the end of each day, I let him devour them.
Each day, I washed his tattered black shorts along with my own clothes and scrubbed him down with a cloth whilst he stood there, a tiny skeleton shivering in the cold evening air. Smiling gleefully, he took great pleasure in listening to my lullabies about the animals at the city zoo which I had sung to Dora every night whilst tucking her into bed. I could see parts of Dora within him. The pain of being apart from her was sometimes unbearable, and many late nights I found myself sitting outside on the ground, staring at the stars, longing to see her face and braid her luscious curly locks once more.
Christopher-Kyalo, one of the oldest members in the house, said that some slaves had tried to escape earlier that year. Unfortunately, they were caught and received severe punishment from the Sheriff. Upon meeting Christopher, he had furiously told me to call him Kyalo, his birth name, and refused to be called Christopher, his slave name. That given name enforced a sense of inferiority against the pale people and degraded his African heritage. As Kyalo was fairly old, the Sheriff dismissed him as a mad man, and ignored his heated outbursts. One morning, to my horror, he lifted his chemise to reveal gigantic, ash-coloured scars embedded on his back. Years of disfigurement from scores of Masters he had refused to obey.
When the Sheriff went into town for business every day at eight a.m., Kyalo would sit on the patio, in the warm morning heat, and acquaint me with stories about his life. Many days, he would tell me stories about his youngest son, Ajamu, who was seventeen when they arrived at the Sheriff’s estate late one January. Growing deeply nostalgic for their past life, Ajamu, along with three other slave boys, had planned to flee from the estate and return to Africa. They had chosen a day when a ship was due to depart from the dock to their mother land. Fortunately, they had managed to smuggle themselves into the Sheriff’s car, which was escorted by the Sheriff’s slave driver. As they made their way to the dock, ready to board the ship, they were immediately swarmed by police holding batons, and beaten to pulps. The boys were then held like animals in an overcrowded prison cell for many hours. After being claimed, they were forced to return to the estate.
The furious sheriff decided to make a point to other slaves who might have planned on following in their footsteps. He gathered a large audience of fellow townsfolk, his own slaves and the slaves of his companions. They all watched as Ajamu and the three other slave boys were led to a platform and beheaded one by one.
Kyalo’s eyes were always glassy with tears when he spoke of Ajamu. He would stare up at the skies with a wounded smile. “My warrior” he would exclaim, his voice trembled as he spoke.
The summer days grew longer, and the nights grew shorter. During spare times when the Sheriff was away, I found myself in his library. I was curiously drawn towards The Bible, as the pale people kept referring to it. Although it took immense effort to interpret the words, I slowly grew familiar with the writing, and took pleasure in reading the many tales within, such as ‘The Great Flood’, and ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’. At church, I had learnt that the pale people believed these stories to be true. I grew fond of the characters it talked about and the prospect of a better life after death. I believed that in the new life I would be reunited with my dear Dora.
The Sheriff’s wife, Miss Angela, lived with her mother, and rarely visited him. Twenty years younger than him, she was a china doll, with large, ocean-blue eyes and supple cheeks which she painted with pink rouge. She also had beautiful blonde locks, which shone like a million butter lilies when she removed her bonnet. Although the Sheriff hardly displayed emotions, his affection towards her was hinted at by his preparations for her visits. We were always ordered to produce a flawless banquet which consisted of three large, succulent, stuffed chickens, and a russet savoury pig, surrounded by pies and ripe sugar plums tied with sweet smelling flowers.
Miss Angela was always curiously sympathetic towards all the slaves. Helpless against the Sheriff’s harsh system, she tried to make everyone comfortable in her presence. I was caught reading The Bible during her recent visit, she questioned me about my curiosity. On her next visit she presented me with a Bible bound by luxurious leather.
Our friendship blossomed like a white lily in spring time. Although the stark contrast in skin colour, Miss Angela spoke to me as if I were her equal. She lacked the pretentiousness and evil that the Master had plentiful of. We were like school girls trying to make sense of the cruel world that overwhelmed us.
July 18th 1807
Day by day the mid-July heat grew unbearable as my resentment towards Miss Angela deepened. Although our friendship had grown, the others became quite inquisitive and suspicious, questioning her motives: ‘she’s still one of them’, ‘step out of line, and she will surely rid of you’, ‘she is spying on us, you will lead us into an early grave’, the house slaves would assert. These conversations had fed into my worries, and I began to distance myself from her, ridden with fear and guilt that if I were to say the wrong thing, I would lead my new family into a trap.
She had noticed my behaviour and brought upon herself to talk to me. ‘How are you, Fugra?’ she asked, her swimming pool eyes smiling at me warmly. ‘Good, my lady,’ I replied, and carried on with my duties pretending to be absorbed in the tedious task.
July 25th 1807
A week had passed, and my tiredness had developed into frustration and anger. I had finally been persuaded that Miss Angela was not who I wanted her to be. My anger clawed through, eventually finding its way out into an outburst with the woman herself. I was surely in trouble.
I was worried that my outburst would put me, or worse, the others, in great danger; when he came back from business. I paced frantically, trying to collect my thoughts; a way out.
She had found me. Smiling sincerely, she placed one hand on my back in a comforting manner. ‘I understand that you are suspicious of me, Fugra.’ She smiled again, this time softly, as her skin gleamed red in the baking sunlight. ‘I have no ill intentions’, she hesitated. ‘I am on your side.’
I paused and examined her face. ‘On your side.’ I retraced those words in my mind questioning the meaning behind the statement. The red rouge on her lips was melting off, whilst her blonde hair, loose from her bonnet, danced erratically in the humid wind.
She hesitated once more. ‘Fugra do you believe in love?’ she asked. I was taken back by her abstract question, and stared blankly confused.
‘Love?’ I replied muddled and undecided how to respond.
I had only known love once. This was when my daughter was born. I was fourteen; she captivated me instantly with her sweet smile and innocent gurgles. When I first held her she was mine. The emptiness that had once consumed me had vanished. I had not known love from the man that I had made her with, no, to him I was just another disappointment that failed to give him the boy he had hoped for.
She carried on. ‘Before Peter, I knew of love.’ She refused to meet my eyes and stared into the distance, possibly deciding what to say and what not to say. ‘I was twenty-three years old, a fool. My grandfather had invited me to accompany him during his trip to Africa, the callous man wanted me to see the savages in their habitat.
‘What was a girl to do?’ She questioned, her eyes searching me for reassurance. ‘It was my only chance to see another part of the world, so I agreed.’ She breathed heavily, as the veins in her eyes turned pink, pink like the candyfloss you would find at the Tilobury Circus back home.
‘We had stayed for almost a month. My days had consisted of staying in the mansion alone, whilst my grandfather attended meetings held by prestigious slave owners. Of course, being a woman myself I was never allowed to go.’
She breathed again deeply, and the pink veins in her eyes turned red like her rouge. She was holding back her tears, struggling she continued. ‘I had become familiar with the slave there… his name was Zoya.’ She paused. ‘We fell… in love.’ Her voice cracked in her throat. It had sounded like a confession to herself, rather than to me.
She looked at me with eyes full of despair. ‘He was the one,’ she smiled forlornly, ‘he had shown me what love was.’ She laughed melancholically to herself.
Her voice changed, now climaxing with sudden excitement, ‘He told me these stories, these brilliant beautiful stories that thrilled me. His voice was sweet like silky coca, comforting, reassuring me that beauty remained within this world.
‘He was beautiful.’ She stopped, as if she was in pain. ‘His almond eyes gleamed as he spoke of his travels to different parts of Africa, as he described the masses of unique people he had met along the journey.
‘Oh God was he soft, so soft!’ Rivers of pain streamed down her eyes. ‘Such a soft man, in this world full of hard-faced men, who thrive off demeaning those they find inferior,’ she muttered, as if speaking to herself.
I stood amazed, dumb-founded.
‘My grandfather had found out about our bond, and decided to exterminate it… Quietly and violently.’ She looked down at the ground, as if searching for the words there. She hesitated again. ‘It was the middle of July, the day was coming to an end, as the sun turned red ready to retire for the day. Grandfather had plotted revenge. He called to me to come outside.’
She recounted the events, as if they were taking place in that very moment. Her eyes were huge with anguishing excitement. ‘… “You stupid, silly girl,” he slurred. His breath smelt of strong Buffalo whiskey. The red sky was now almost black with menace. “Look at what you have done.” he had looked at me sneering with disgust. “Look,” he pointed. There lay Zoya, hands and feet tied, dead, naked on the ground, like an animal ready to be skinned for fashion, for its skin.’ She cried now without hesitation, shaking uncontrollably.
July 31st 1807
The hottest day of the year was upon us. It had almost been a week since Miss Angela’s confession. She had now visited the house more often. I could not understand why, as when she came she would only converse with the slaves, and rarely noticed her husband.
It came to my attention how Master would observe her closely, watching her every move from a distance; he had become suspicious.
That day we had decided to discuss The Bible further, as Master had not yet arrived.
She began, ‘“I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless,” Isiah 13:11,’ announcing it proudly. Her breathing doubled like she had stopped crying. It seemed that the statement had reassured her of something.
‘How would you punish the world for its evil?’ I replied almost haughtily. ‘We are merely women, our opinions are like cobwebs gathering on old furniture. We are simply an irrelevant nuisance to this male dominated world.’
She looked at me in silence, offended.
She replied eventually, quite simply, ‘Do not worry, my dear, God has his way,’ she replied smiling gleefully, as if we both had just shared an exciting secret between us.
August 7th 1807
The thunderstorms had just started that week. It was three o’clock in the morning, but I had not slept a wink. The violent crackling, banging and pattering against the dull tin roof prevented me from retiring for the night. It slapped branches violently in the distance, as the thunder growled like an angry monster.
At midnight, I had been summoned to the Master’s quarters, his giant walls and extravagant tall ceilings had always overwhelmed my tiny skeleton.
An hour later I was dismissed. I sat upright, now in the slave quarter, where I belonged. My body remained sore, but it was not as painful as it had been upon the very first encounter. I had grown accustomed to his abuse.
Dora’s face was slowly diminishing from my memories, it panicked me. I found myself crying despairingly during the night, struggling to piece together an image of her.
August 13th 1807
Miss Angela had not visited since that last day in July. I had started to miss her weekly visits. I had suspected that the world had kept her busy. Too busy for these irrelevant slaves.
The thunderstorms became increasingly violent with each day. That morning four towering trees lay dead on the ground; they were now too old to defend themselves against the torturous storms.
The clock struck six later that evening. The sky had turned red, as the sun had begun to retire.
The Master had not returned for dinnertime, which was quite rare, but we took his absence as a generous gift from God.
As the thunderstorm rose from its day of slumber, the doors started to bang angrily. The red sky turned to gather the black clouds that surrounded it, as flashes of light also spread across it. I could feel dampness around me.
Miss Angela appeared in front of me, her soft skin was almost purple, and she grinned like a blood thirsty animal. ‘I’m free now,’ she announced and smiled gleefully.
I held the stack of shirts that I had been folding to my chest, bewildered by her sudden dishevelled presence.
‘What do you mean, Miss Angela?’
She took my hand and led me outside. I felt like a school child.
Salty drops from the sky fell on my tongue, as goosebumps rose on my arms.
There he lay naked with the dirt. His pale blue body translucent in the dark evening; like a chicken, ready to be roasted on top of a wood-fire. His hands and legs were tied tightly. Purple rings appeared on his skin, hovering around where the ropes were, as blood pushed to supply the areas that were short of it. Master.
‘I told you God has his way’.
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