Think about “quiet”, my friend. Is quiet like a mouse? Mice are cheeping fiends skittering across the floor on long nails, gnawing and pooping in the biscuit. Is quiet like death? I have seen death and it comes with a scream to flog a soul trying to wiggle out of hell. I say quiet is like tomorrow, a place I am going that never sends me a single word or whisper.
My name is Edward Herring, late of Liverpool, crimped by a ship’s clerk with a few shots of rum and now adrift on a leaky piss-smelling slaver. All of seventeen years and a handsome bloke, though my face is scarred by a few whacks with the colt from the midshipmen punks. As my tale begins, we were sailing west for Jamaica with a hold full of Guinea men branded with the ship’s mark and bolted left foot to right. Each morning they were marched up on the deck and set to work scraping it down while the sailors sponged and scrubbed their foul quarters with vinegar. Some of them moved slow; the bloody flux had killed eight of them. Our captives didn’t know it had killed ten of us as well; wrapped in blankets, chained to a cannonball and silently dropped off the stern. They just get pitched to the sharks but we all end up in the same place I suppose. When the black men finished their work, they were washed with buckets of sea water and made to dance to a wheezing accordion. The boatswain gave them a taste of the cat if they didn’t flap and jump enough. They see us flogged too for dropping a rope or not climbing fast enough or talking back to the midshipmen, who are just spoiled children dressed in fancy pants.
What do we know about these Africa men? We loaded their coffle at Old Calabar but the coast was not their country. This lot was a fine sifting of bankrupts, thieves, princes and soldiers marched hundreds of leagues then sold to our Captain as their fathers and grandfathers had been sold to the Portuguese and Arabs. They were deep jungle people, swarmed with dark spirits and dreams of hoodoos and banshees.
After the exercise all ten score were chained back in the hold. I brought them their gruel of fava beans and lard. Right off when we left Bonny I could tell they couldn’t stomach it, especially the young boys who look to be ten or twelve. I gave them some sips of my grog but it just made them puke. I put in a few extra peppers but it didn’t help and I watched one bony runt pass on right in front of my eyes. Forgive me, but I began to steal some boiled salt beef and bread for them. Their mates were dying and my mates were dying; it was all the same in the Lord’s eyes I figured. I would put meat in their hands and a spot of rum in their mouths and sing to them a little bit of my mother’s sweet and slow about the winds and the tide.
I found out one of them was a translator for the French at Whydah and could speak a little English. Some of them said they were great warriors of the Army of Smydrahhn who was a thousand foot serpent that was following our boat and would soon rescue his people. I told them that was quite a story, but I thought that monster was about as likely to show up as Moses on a flying carpet. I did tell them I was awful sorry how things had turned out and if it made them feel any better I didn’t think I would ever see my little village again neither. One of them who said he was King Ajabo gave me some leaves and said “Put them in your shirt to soothe the Great Snake.” A little fellow was crying and said his irons were too tight. God forgive me, I admit I loosed them.
That night was a Sunday and I was sleeping like the dead in my hammock, enjoying my eighteen inches of space, half drowning in the thick heat. A man would have to be worn out to sleep with fifty sailors in that room all snoring and groaning and spitting and breaking wind. I suddenly woke to a sweet silence, like an angel had put her hands over my ears and kissed me softly on the cheek. Seized with fear I looked around and saw my mates all pale and dead with great bite holes in their necks. I eased out of the hammock and opened the hatch in time to see a huge orange snake delicately consuming the Captain like a mess of pudding. He paused in his breakfast and licked the lake of blood off the deck with his ten-foot purple tongue. King Ajabo was at the helm steering us back for the Guinea current and commanded me to climb the rigging and unfurl the topsail. At that point I would have pulled out my own teeth if he asked me, and I did his bidding. As the sails caught the wind, I sat on the ropes watching the great Atlantic sea and wondering what other magic it held under its smooth green coat.
Scott W Younkin has published 2 stories in Short Fast and Deadly. He believes history is a story our children learn to tell.