Narrated by the soul of an African slave woman, this is a searing debut novel about hope, redemption and the scars of history.
Narrated by the soul of an African slave woman, this is a searing debut novel about hope, redemption and the scars of history.
West India Docks, London, 1803
They dragged me from the ship, kicking and screaming.
I heard them enter the hold, heard them begin to search. The two voices grew louder as they approached the hole where Wind had hidden us. I held my hand over my mouth to stop the nausea, the other over my heart to calm its beating, felt the dead boy beside me, smelt him, cowered downwards, deeper, towards the spot where I could feel a little breeze coming through. I prayed then for freedom, for Wind, for our precious belly, for the dream that Wind had forced me to believe in. Then I heard someone walk off, heard his footsteps die away on the deck, heard the other follow. My heart lifted. Then he stopped, paused, as if he was having one last look around, sniffing the air, and turned right around, his footsteps became louder as he drew closer. He jerkily shoved the barrels aside, kicked the board covering the hole, bent down low, peered in – his eyes seemed to glitter.
‘In here,’ he called, ‘quick.’
He reached into the hole and grabbed hold of my arm, my dress, my ankle, pulled me feet first out of that hole. I shrieked, felt the pain as our precious belly dragged against the sides of the hole, knocking my head. I clung to the edges for dear life, felt the pain as he yanked harder at my ankle. Then he dropped it, came over to bend my fingers back, and I kept crying ‘No!’ as he loosened my grip, before dragging me out by my collar, along the deck, up the stairs, each step striking my belly, my head. I felt the splinters in my palms sting as I tried to resist, tried to get a grip, felt the cold night breeze on my face as they hauled me out on to the top deck, down the gangway, before smashing me, and our belly, against hard cobbled ground. The pain shot through me and I emptied my stomach of the little I had left in it.
It must have been the smell of the boy that led them to us; the gangrene had got him the day before.
Earlier, Wind had hung his head like it was too heavy for him to carry, when he realized he was too late. He took his cap off, kneeled and reached in to close the boy’s eyes gently, then prayed like the white sailors do. I placed my hand on his shoulder, tried to console him, but he shrugged it off, then turned to lift me into the barrel, but I wouldn’t let him. I grabbed his face between my hands, stared into his eyes, forced him to look into mine, placed his hand on our belly. And he finally understood. She was tender. I did not think she could take the rolling. He did not want to let me go, so I kissed him on his mouth, breathed my strength into him, like he had breathed his into me, and he promised with the twitch of his eyes to return, to come back with a sack and fetch me from the hole.
He took the young man first, a man he had found running from the British soldiers just before we set sail from the Island, Jamaica. He rolled him off the ship on to the docks like he was a barrel of rum, and he, the young man, disappeared into that London night, finally free from the plantation where he was born, swallowed among the black poor of the East End. Wind saw him safely on his way, left him in the hands of folk in Canning Town, and as promised turned right around to get me. There were three of us he had tried to save: the boy, the man, and me. Four including our belly.
Outside by the docks where they had thrown me, I tried to crawl away from the voices shouting above me, but the pain from my belly pierced me and my body convulsed with nausea but gave up nothing. I heard more voices surround me, and as I looked upwards from the cobbled ground, the crowd parted to reveal a man who descended upon me like a white-headed eagle, dressed in layers of black cloth, his hair as wiry and white as cotton. He held a flaming torch in his raised hand and a stick in the other. I cowered away from the devil, tried to crawl with one arm towards the dock waters, holding our precious belly with the other, but he would not let me. He shoved my shoulder hard with his stick. I fell backwards, landed flat against the hard cobbles. I looked up at the night sky, at their angry white faces peering down at me, and wondered why I had come to this hell.
‘Stowaway, sir. I saw the negro, James Jones, rolling a barrel off the ship, sir.’
‘Yes, sir – you know, the sea hand? They call him Wind. Tall, sir.’ ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’
‘I was coming out of the alehouse, saw him rolling an empty barrel off the ship and something about it seemed strange, so I went investigating, sir. Found her and a dead negro boy, sir.’
‘Where is the sea hand now?’ ‘Don’t know, Sir.’
‘Paul, send out a search party. Find this negro.’ ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Search the docks.’
‘They say he resides in the East End, sir. Maybe Canning Town.’ ‘Paul, send a few men to search there too.’
‘Sir, what do we do with the negro woman?’
‘Put her in the warehouse. We can deal with her later.’
And I felt a wetness soak my clothes, tried to look down at our precious belly to see if she was all right, but I could not. So I lay upon that cold ground, fighting to breathe, for the life within me was our hope, the only choice I had made since being taken from my homeland, for she was made in love, in hope, my lone flower. I heard the water lap against the quayside, the faint sound of the horses’ hooves, the squawk of a seagull above, and I breathed deep and hard and fought to stay alive.
Two hundred years Wind and I have roamed. Two hundred years we have waited by these docks, and in that time we have seen many changes, watched many beginnings.
I am their beginning, the womb whence they came. It was not out of choice that my children were separated, not out of choice I was joined with their fathers.
Uzo, my firstborn, was a round and healthy baby who giggled when I tickled him under his chin. Eze, my husband, was proud. We were happy in our small village, surrounded by the lush green bush, which shaded us from the African sun. We woke to the sound of the cockerel, and each morning I rose from the mat where we lay to clang my pot on top of an open fire and fetch water from the stream as Uzo slept peacefully on my back.
Eze, my husband, was a kind man whom I grew to love. I was sixteen, he much older. I remember the day he came to carry wine, and I became his wife. That day we heard the oja flute in the distance and it soared like an excited bird in flight, before being joined by the rhythm of the ogene gong and the beating of the drums drawing nearer. My mother fretted, but my friends poked their heads out of the hut, eager to see what was happening, and reported back happily on their first impressions of Eze and his family. I sat while my aunts added my final adornments. I could hear so much fanfare outside that my spirits soared and when, some time later, I finally handed Eze the cup to drink from, he took it in such a gentle manner that I was happy with my parents’ choice.
I thought . . . Well, I thought many things. Back then, my future was young with fresh virgin cheeks. I thought I would grow old. I thought our lives would be entwined for ever, that I would wake each morning to Eze’s smile, and the warmth of our baby between us. That I would rise each morning to clang my pot on top of the open fire, stir the food to feed my husband and send him on his way to labour in the far fields with, as he would say, my ‘sweet cooking’ wrapped in banana leaves, securely placed in the pouch by his side. I thought I would die in our small village surrounded by the green bush, not far from my father’s land, and the people who loved me. I could not see into the future, nor could I have imagined what it held. I did not know how the disease of others would infect my life. It killed me. I was twenty-five.
Wind and I have never known that kind of happiness – there was never enough time – or laughter, or peace, or words. You see, at first he could not speak my language, nor I his, for although his skin was black like mine, he came from their land.
But we held on, Wind and I, from the moment we locked eyes. There was comfort in his gaze, a strength I needed that day as I walked unsteadily on to that ungodly ship with its huge wooden spears that rose into the heavens and the layers of white cloth at its feet. My back was in pain from the weight of the shackles at my neck and wrists, as I prayed for my son Uzo I had left in the shrine. I looked up and there was Wind, scaling down the pole with such agility. His black face seemed strange among their ghostly ones. I wondered how and why he could betray us so. Then he looked up, right at me, and our eyes met and he willed me on, willed me to fight. I could not look away. He held my gaze as I descended into that hell, giving me strength. I never let go.
That was the last day I ever saw Africa while alive.
It was a simple decision that changed my life – to go to the near field to collect yams to feed my family. The harvest was good and there were more yams to dig out than usual that day, so we returned home later, and on our way back I insisted on stopping at the shrine to thank the Goddess Ani for my blessings: for Eze, my husband, for Uzo, my son, and for the abundance of yams harvested that day. The others, my sisters-in-law, went on ahead. Uzo was dozing; I could feel his heartbeat, his warmth, against the middle of my back. It was a simple decision and my world, our world, was changed for ever. As I knelt and made my offerings, I heard a rustle in the bush, looked up to see three strange men creeping towards me. I screamed for I knew in that moment that I had made a mistake. I did the only thing I could do to save my child. I threw him towards the boundaries of the shrine, in among the deities, shielded from the sun by its thatched roof. And as they dragged me away screaming I prayed for the others to hear me, for them to come quickly and at least find my baby Uzo, lest the bush rats or snakes should do him harm, lest the priest should find him and think him a sacrifice, a dedication, make him Osu – an outcast among his people. I prayed directly to Chukwu, the supreme God, creator of all, to save me, save my child, for I could not trust the Goddess Ani any more.
Now, two hundred years later, we – Wind and I – sit and stand among the people of these docks, follow them inland, into front rooms, into supermarkets and malls, into big dance halls with strange names and strange ways. I watch the people of London speed past; they make me dizzy with their haste. I catch their energy, hear their jumbled sounds, and pick up ends of conversations, which I chew and then swallow. This keeps me young, younger than the day I died.
We wait here, joined by the same destiny that stole us from our lands, the death we shared, and the daughter he put in me. I think she was a girl – I always think of her as a girl. I did not see her properly; they took her away too quickly. But I remember her smell, like ginger, and the half-moon on the side of her face, like her father, and the steam that rose from her little body as they opened the warehouse doors and hurried her away into the cold. They say she did not make it further inland to the East End but was shipped out to the Islands, or maybe to the Americas, to Brazil, to Nova Scotia, to Virginia, to . . . We do not know.
My heart cries out for the two, Uzo, my baby boy, and my baby girl, taken from me that morning while I lay dying over there among the barrels of sugar, spices and tobacco, the feel of the cold hard floor against my back.
Each day I search for them, look for them, hunt for them. I did not choose to leave them. I am and will always be their mother, their African mother. Sometimes I hear them cry for me and each day I look, from here to Virginia, to Barbados, to Haiti, to Cuba, to Jamaica, and back again to the Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin, and further inwards to my homeland. But every day I return to these London docks, hoping they will, she will, remember and return. And in between, I watch people. I sit and stand among them, watching their beginnings and sometimes their ends.
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