When I was a girl, I didn’t know people stole people. I used to sneak away from my village and go to the edge of the ocean, my ocean. I was very young and a little foolish then and thought that vast body of water belonged to me. A big, knotty tree with twisted branches stood alone on a hill, where it watched over my village on one side and the water on the other. My favorite spot was a cove hidden among tall boulders. I went there whenever I could. All kinds of reptiles, insects, and sea plants clung to rocks, slipped into cracks, or hid in shadows to get away from the sun and wind pounding the beach. Sometimes, I took the small creatures home, but usually, I left them on the beach so they’d be there when I came back.
Even when I was supposed to be tending chickens, cooking, or watching my brother, I would sneak down to the water. Sometimes I could only stay a minute, but sometimes I stayed for hours, digging my toes into the cool grains of the sand. Warm sea wind brushed my cheeks. Blue water hurried to the shore and curled into white, foamy ringlets that pulled the sand toward the bottom of the ocean. When the sand drew away with the water, I dug my toes in further, because I could feel it sliding under my feet, trying to take me with it, too. But I just knew I was going to stay on that land forever. I grabbed that sand with my toes like they were the roots of a tree, and I stayed right there. Funny how my little toes were stronger than that whole big ocean. I didn’t move but a tiny bit.
In the mornings, the sun was hot on my shoulders. In the afternoons, it was my forehead and chest that tingled in the heat. Sun shining down on my body, I watched the water get higher or lower, so slow I couldn’t see it changing. Bubbly water hid thin strips of sand, but if I kept watching, shellfish I hadn’t seen moments before scurried over the sand, trying to keep up with the ocean and abandoning smooth and shiny, pink or silver or green or blue or rainbow-speckled pebbles.
The biggest part, the part that touched the far away sky, had hundreds of white crests—smaller and smaller in the distance. In the coves, the water calmed into soft ripples, like ribs, rising and falling in regular breaths. On the open beach, little waves ran up to the bank, hit the rocks, and then splashed into white sprays. Any movement or sound in one part of the ocean swelled up or hushed down in another.
Sometimes when I got too warm, I’d slip into the cool water, real slow, to give it a chance to know I was there. Then I’d let the ocean pull me in, lift me up, push me down, just like I was part of it, a most powerful and peaceful feeling. Afterwards, I’d sneak back home, salty and wet, my hair sparkling with sand.
That time in my life is gone forever. So much has happened since then, but I will never forget the ocean near my village.
One day, I was sitting on the tallest rock near the cove when I saw the water looking like it was gasping for breath, pulling itself down, hard. I thought a storm was coming, but the sky was clear. Far away, I saw a boat, getting bigger as it came, churning up waves.
Before the boat reached shore, I hid between some rocks. I stayed there for a long time, listening to harsh shouting, sorrow-filled wailing, boots pounding, helpless gagging, and metal scraping against stone. Finally, when the sky was dark and the horrible noises had stopped, I crawled to the top of the hill to hide in the twisted tree. It glowed in the moonlight, quiet and still, like nothing ever changed. But just as my fingers touched the trunk’s solid bark, someone grabbed me and threw me to the ground. My head hit a shallow root.
Hands, lots of hands, grabbed my arms and my legs and my neck. Then one pair of hands, black hands, crushed my chest so hard I couldn’t breathe. That tall man, whose hands those were, hissed ugly things in my ear and dragged me over tangles of gnarly roots, down the hill, and across rocks and sand. Then he forced me into a small boat filled with people tied up with ropes and chains. The boat rocked and bumped along the coast, and when the sun came up, I saw a huge white building on the edge of the water. The boat stopped, and the man pulled me out.
I had lots of pretty red beads in my hair, but nothing I thought the man wanted, so I thought he would take me back to the tree. He didn’t. When we got inside the big building, he pushed me down onto a stone floor covered with damp, foul-smelling dirt. A horde of crying, screaming, shouting people pressed in on me as they tried to move. One small window, way up high, cut a sliver of dust-filled light through air that smelled like decay itself. I could hardly breathe. I didn’t try to talk to anyone. I just cried.
Many days later, all of us children, and a lot of women and men too, had to walk, or crawl, through a gate, across the sand, and up onto a much bigger boat than the one that had carried me already so far from home. Someone shoved me down a ladder and onto a platform of splintery wood. I tried to sit up but banged my head against the floorboard above me.
The boat began to sway. Splinters dug into my legs and hands. Rats crawled over my feet. I forced my tears away and called out for help. I called again. The only answers were echoing pleas. Nearby, someone was sobbing. When I reached toward the sound, I dragged someone else’s hand with mine. My wrist and a girl’s were chained together. We tried to speak to each other. I couldn’t understand her; she couldn’t understand me. I felt completely alone.
I didn’t know the word “slave” back then, but I knew I had no chance to be free again. No home. No mother and father, no big sisters and baby brother, no dances and drums, no lessons from the village elders, and friends to laugh with, no grinding grain with the women and other girls, no chickens clucking and running at my feet, no big, twisted tree. No cool, mighty ocean.
I used to grieve for my old life, sometimes wished I was dead. On the boat, I knew what the white men were doing to the women and the boys, so I kept watch, every moment, for my turn. But I was lucky, then. It was Massa who tainted the woman I was meant to be. While he was in my cabin, I more felt fear than I had ever imagined. After he left, I felt so much anger I couldn’t believe it was me feeling that way. I was angry to my soul. But as time went on, I learned to live with my anger. I wasn’t going to let nobody destroy me. Nobody. I made a new life for myself.
But when young Massa hurt my baby, Coreen, oh, God!
I cried when she looked at her image on the surface of a pond and then reached in with violent slaps to fracture her reflection. When she started throwing rocks at the face she saw, I fell to my knees. I knew what she was feeling. I knew Coreen was exploding with helpless hate. From the day she was born, there was never a thing I could do to protect her, but after that man defiled her, I took her into my arms and rocked her and talked to her, just as I had done when she was a sad little girl. “Anger can tear you up,” I said this time, “but if you’re fighting mad, it can give you strength and keep you going.