Iron Tides Heavy on Our Tongues
Well, Bluff Creek splits off near the middle of St. Simons Island. The smaller half winds toward Glynn Haven, the other empties out around Jekyll Island, and right at the fork you’ll find Dunbar Creek. Once a vast marshland, it’s lush, unassuming, begs you to stop by, rest a little, come dip your feet in the water; it’s okay, I won’t bite. Unmarked, except by those who steer clear, is the Igbo Landing. Spirits stir in these waters, they never like to stay in one place for too long. Fishermen keep their rods away so as not to disturb them. They say the spirits have been flying 6,000 miles home since 1803. When they return, you can tell by the way the winds still and water whispers.
Do their backs tire? All that flying back and forth? Do they regret it? Did they see what transpired on this land; what they escaped? As the water filled their lungs and they tried to keep from thrashing about, they must have thought of home. Of amala and palm wine sweet against their tongues. Though, not all of them could ignore their weighted bodies sinking further into the marshes. Not everyone could think of fresh yam and clear skies while the corners of their vision started to seep with black.
You see, not all of them wanted to go through with it. Some could not see the soft hands emerging from marsh waters to caress their sunken cheeks and soothe their tired eyes. Or see their homes materializing in a hazy mirage before them. Some might have stopped, even thrown themselves to the ground to avoid it. But it would not stop their procession, so better to keep marching than be dragged through the dirt. They had to go, and to keep their minds off of the going, they shut their eyes, joining the rest in song, chant, mantra, Orimiri, Orimiri, Orimiri take us home. They had not closed their eyes for months. Even with their lids drawn shut, they merely peered into a dim room.
For months, sordid terrors haunted them night after night as they lay in a bed of piss and human waste. Immobile, able to only breathe in damp wood and decaying flesh, they knew then that they were no longer human. Not person, nor animal, nor object, for even possessions required gentle touch. Each day, when the crew opened the hatch to drag out another diseased body, for a moment they could see the sky stretched out before them. Color held no meaning, what difference did it make, blue or orange or yellow? Stare long enough into darkness and every color will bow and dance.
When there was no way to see time pass, some settled on qualities of the dark. It’s awfully purple now. There’s red coming to greet me. There was no today or this afternoon, the present took it all hostage and shaped it into Now. They forsook the past and plucked the future from their minds so all that remained was what happened above and to either side of them. In the brief moment that Now granted some relief with brilliant, colorless sky, they could also taste the air, sharp with fish and salt. It almost reminded them of home.
When the door opened, some of them collapsed inside themselves, choking on tears and mucus gathered thick on the backs of their throats. Many shrieked and moaned, their voices abandoned on the shores of another life. The sky became the only thing tethering their hollowed souls to the husks in chains. But now, toeing the edge of the swamp, they could open their palms to feel the muggy wind calling for them.
The last time the door opened, they were carried out and brought to deck. Bodies that were no longer their own creaked with the unfamiliarity of movement. They could hear noise recognized as language, see lips moving, and knew it was directed toward them, but whispers from the sky echoed more clearly. Its voice rang in their ears as the captors forced the survivors into another, smaller boat. They remained sitting in the hollows of the wooden vessel; it would be a much shorter journey to shore. Aching for reprieve, they looked upward again. The ringing grew so loud that it enveloped their senses and for the first time in these new husks, they closed their eyes and breathed deeply.
With skin taut against their ribcages, the wind rattled through their lungs. They thought that, perhaps, if they breathed enough, it might just expel the nightmarish tar still lodged in their swollen stomachs. And when they breathed in so deeply that they broke out in a fit of bronchial coughing, they realized it would require much more to flatten their guts. Their arms finally unwound from around their shins, leaving crescent-shaped indents behind.
Here sat dozens of bodies so shaken that their only resistance to folding in was the weight of chains keeping their limbs splayed. Passing whispers from above beckoned them to stand, their iron cuffs assured to be lighter. So they rose, and they cried out, echoing the very winds moving through them. Their nightly visions, once hidden deep within the tar, surfaced like tangy bile in their throats and evaporated into a dust that clung to the roofs of their mouths.
For the first time, the captors appeared frightened, as if gazing into the gaping mouths of beasts. Yet those very beasts were lucid, more so than they had been since they opened their eyes in these new bodies. The captors saw then what they had seen among each color in darkness, what they continued to see, visions of death and rot projecting from their pupils. A shadowed mirage of half-drowned bodies crawled toward the captors. The horde of shadows had no faces, instead, black dust tightly bound to form a smooth surface. But their chins, all of them, levered up and down with screams made deafening because of its silence.
Perhaps the captors also saw how the enslaved and their vision-shadows so wished to tear into the paralyzed, blue-faced sellers standing before them. To dig into their skin and peel it off, allowing the captors to watch as a red river pooled over their own bodies. That way, they might know a fraction of what the chained husks had known for the entirety of their new lives. The captors, overwhelmed by foggy visions creeping toward them, jumped overboard. Some would rather run than bear the full weight of that which they had committed.
The air stilled as their boat hit shore. One after another, they sunk their feet into sand, at once a relief from sea water pouring into half-closed sores. Still unused to stable ground, they remained frozen. Shaking knees rippled through the chains, the chorus of iron harmonizing with the tides; each could taste warm metal running thick on their tongues. For one group that stood closest to a marshy, wooded area, wind buzzed through the leaves just loudly enough to catch their attention. They turned their heads, attentive to the airy voice that had already saved them; and though it got no louder than cricket legs rubbing together, it continued to buzz and sigh, buzz and sigh until they recognized that it was calling for them. One of them wet their cracked lips and breathed, Orimiri Omambala ka anyi ga ejina: the water spirit of Oma Mbala will take us home.
When one turned, the rest followed suit. Sand fell from between their toes as they moved toward the marshes. Left foot, the tide came in; right foot, it washed back out. They kept their sights ahead, knowing the rest of the group couldn’t see them going. Rolling waves and rolling chains had already lulled them into a trance that kept them planted until shaken awake. Only then would the new captors realize that there was a group missing. By then the others would have retreated back into themselves, allowing the husks to live in their stead.
Their bodies heaved as they struggled to walk but she called for them, and so they went. Because they knew their weary bones would soon be healed of fissures, that they would no longer feel their diaphragms caving in with each painful sob that remained lodged in the tar, they went. And though not all of them had wanted to go through with it, they had to go; and to keep their minds off of the going they shut their eyes, joining the rest in chanting Orimiri, Orimiri, Orimiri take us home. Moss hiccupped beneath their feet too large, too dark, too strong as they continued on. Guided by Oma Mbala, they soon entered a humid clearing, swampy woods severed by a wide creek.
Algae rose to the surface, bobbing lazily as the enslaved looked on. They kept their sights ahead, even as their spines folded and their fingers curled, clawing at their cheeks in an attempt to stop hot tears from pooling in their palms. Perhaps, because they wailed so deeply that their bodies began to convulse, they expelled the bulging tar from their stomachs. Momentarily forgetting the buzzing that called them, they stamped their feet in hysteria. Rolling waves echoed through the clearing. They coughed up their chant, shouting it into the ground through hazy vision. The buzzing stopped; now she simply sighed. She sighed in time with their broken, open-mouthed cries to take them home. Finally, one of them moved forward, propelling the others to follow. As if sculpted for them, the bank sloped gently into the creek, allowing for easy passage.
As they took their first steps into the swamp, it seemed to know their intention, for the water hardly shuddered as they walked in. It was a group of about ten, the flesh around their ankles swollen and bloody from the rusted iron binding them together. The lining in their throats were cut and scarred, mimicking their blooming backs. Slowly, they waded in, their bodies so close that they could feel quaking breath sinking into their infected scars.
It was colder than they expected, their skin grew tight. Their lungs strained, forcing breaths out as if a card stuck in the spokes of a spinning wheel. Upon return, they would have time to recover. Underwater, the body became lighter, more buoyant. They could raise their arms and legs, cooling algae clung to their wounds, the skin on their backs gathered forming a base for the wings that would carry them home. The one in front approached the middle of the creek, eyes closed, head raised. With another step there was a slip, and a scream, and a gurgle, and soon, wind sighing heavily through the leaves. The water did not once budge.
A Nigerian-American from Chicago, Bisola Sosan has an M.S. in Architecture from the University of Cincinnati and a B.A. in Writing from Northwestern University. Her work centers Black characters in worlds full of magic and mythos. She currently works in museum education and programming. Her thesis project on Toni Morrison's Beloved in conversation with philosopher Gaston Bachelard can be found on OhioLink.