By Judith Joubert
Twelve year-old Diego ran past the men and dipped below the hatch before anyone saw him. The gun deck was darker than he remembered. The animal fat candles in the lamps cast a smaller light, and the outreaches of the deck remained in darkness – wet places where the luminous green eyes of rats were always on the look-out for the unguarded toes, fingers, and ears of the slaves. A phlegm-filled cough from a child’s throat, shallow restless water, and the sound that had woken him last night, the hitting against the side of the ship, only feebler and with longer intersperses. The candles meant to mask the human smells added the smell of unseasoned cooking to that of sweat, urine and faeces in the close air. There was also the absence of sounds: the chains chinking or dragging across the deck as the slaves moved. They were no longer packed in rows but were seated in heaps and groups, open spaces between them. Some stood about on listless legs, the black water covering their feet, anchoring them in the sewerage until they grew roots of their own. The offspring of their seed would never be haunted by memories of home.
“Boy,” Cudjoe’s chest whistled as he breathed. In his hand was a bone.
Diego stared at it, “Where did you get that?” he asked.
“They threw – it down. It’s mine.” It was as long as one of Cudjoe’s hands with two perfect depressions on top where the cartilage used to be. Probably one of Cortez’s bones – the pig they slaughtered before the storm started. The orphaned ship’s boy had named him Cortez – he used to stroke the coarse hair on the pig’s neck as it ate. With his small fists, the boy punched the quarter master’s legs as he slit the screaming pig’s throat. Bright red blood splashed on the deck, ran into pools and congealed. The rest of the day, the boy had sat next to the rail and cried. The sailors must have thrown the bone below after picking it clean to watch the slaves fight over it.
A strange odour escaped Cudjoe’s lips each time he breathed out, like mildewed sponge. “You’re sick,” Diego said, backing away from him.
“Everybody sick. The air – rotten,” the irises of Cudjoe’s eyes merged with the black skin next to it as he searched the full spaces around him for the other slaves. Diego could see only the white orbs of marble in his head and it reminded him of a story that Shorty told the sailors in the forecastle, a story about the walking dead, of how all those killed at sea walked the ocean floor on fleshless limbs, eyes without irises upturned, looking for the hulls of ships passing overhead. They climbed on board and ate the flesh of the living in search of the life they lost. Shorty himself had once seen such an empty ship drifting into port, not a living soul on board. But, Diego could never ask him about it (he was not supposed to be in the forecastle that day, hiding under a bunk and listening to the common sailors talk). Riff-raff, Senhora called them.
A hollow hammering was heard below them and Cudjoe sucked air into his slime-plastered lungs, “They’re fixing the galleon. We’re making for shore.” Diego felt the slaves’ dirty water seep through his shoes and stockings. He’d have to take them off and throw them overboard before anyone found out he’d been there.
“Shore?” Cudjoe asked, the fingers of his long hand touched his temple and moved away, palm up.
“Shore. Land,” Diego said.
“There land here?” Cudjoe leaned on the last bone of Cortez and rose to his feet.
Diego nodded, “We can’t see it yet, but it’s not far.”
Cudjoe pushed his back against a supporting pole, unable to straighten his abdomen. “You have to ask. Them let us out.”
Diego shook his head, “It’s better for you here, up there is rain and wind.” Diego realised that rain and wind above decks sounded better than disease and death below. “You’ll get in the way, they’re busy fixing.”
Cudjoe clutched the pole, the bone dangled against the wood, “We are worth – many cattle – to your father?”
“We don’t trade in cattle, we trade in gold,” Diego’s voice was small. His experience of Portugal was on a par with that of the slaves. What he knew of Portugal was what others had told him. His father described beautiful buildings of many storeys, cathedrals as big as palaces, music performances in opera houses, streets of cobbled stones and terraced walkways. Diego tried to imagine what life would be like without a fort, a place to go when neighbouring rajas and natives attacked. Papa said there was no need for a fort because nobody attacked Portugal and there were no natives, the Portuguese were native of Portugal. Diego had asked if the cobbled streets did not hurt the feet of the elephants. Senhora laughed and said silly boy there are no elephants in Portugal.
Again, Cudjoe’s white sclera shone in the dark as he peered at Diego, “Your father – can sell us – and get – much gold. Let us out – at night. Ask!” he pointed up at the hatchway with the bone. Diego turned about and his foot touched something soft. He recoiled when he saw a woman lie in the water on her side. It covered her one eye, her nose, her one breast, the fingers of the one arm slung over her hips. It slopped around her navel and her calves. “She dead,” Cudjoe said, sinking down with his back against the pole. Diego darted up the ladders before her flesh fell from her bones, before she joined the walking dead on the ocean floor, the whites of her eyes staring up as Cudjoe’s did when he said to ask if they could go up.
Judith worked as a proofreader at the newspapers for three years and has since been a writing housewife. Her writings have appeared in Vision Magazine, Ancient Paths Christian Literary Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper and Munyori Literary Journal. Her current project, a historical novel, has been approved for funding by the National Arts Council of South Africa. The local literary fair recently invited her to share her material on stage with the likes of award-winning authors such as Fred Khumalo, Yewande Omotoso and Harry Kalmer.