The sea drums softly along the ship, which bobs, a pallid hulk against a graying sky. You stand at the railing of a deck above a line of passengers, listening to friendly chatter in botched French and the unsteady slap of the waves. Behind the pooling mass of people boarding is the port; cranes shuttle shipping containers onto ships larger than this one—squat, sloping things, beetle-green and ponderous. Behind the port is Cotonou, streets frenetic with cars and cyclists, buildings clawing higher and higher, and behind them, shattered history, with edges sharp enough to draw blood.
Cotonou is a mirror, and like all mirrors, it tells an inverted truth. You believe, sometimes, you see the city in your face—the bright gleam of its sunshine in your cheeks, the warm weight of its bricks in your lips, the cool broadness of the Ouémé in your nose. You think that, but only sometimes. The air stings with petrol and salt, and the smell is familiar, but it is not the deepest, deathless kind of recognition; this is no Innisfree. The place reminds you of the Florida port you left from. That is where your memory ends. Mirrors are shallow things.
“Welcome, everyone!” Isabel calls. She stands a few yards away, looking down at the people below. She speaks in English—onboard, passengers and crew alike quickly lose their appreciation for foreignness. A cruise should feel like home, even if it isn’t. All efforts have been made to make the place comfortable and clean; morgues and kitchens are tucked neatly out of sight. Benjamin repeats the words in Spanish—Lucas, in Portuguese. “We’re glad to have you sailing with us today. We’ll be traveling from Benin across the Atlantic Ocean, to Hispaniola, then north, to Florida, and finally, back east, to England.”
Her voice can scarcely cut through the muggy morning air. Only a handful of those below look up at her. She continues anyway, one word bouncing after another in a well-rehearsed rhythm.
“Many of you have already made the first leg of the journey, traveling south from Europe to the Bight of Benin. These lands were once among the most notorious slave ports in Africa—to the point that many called this the Slave Coast. European traders, braving rampant and often lethal disease, would bring textiles, copper, guns, and jewelry to trade for slaves, often captives taken in wartime.”
The passengers seem sickly, you decide. Red-faced and puffing, clutching packets of handheld tissues. Oozing noses, rheumy eyes. Wrists and throats with bands of beads around them, glinting glassily. Some carry parasols to hide themselves from the sun, which turns the air thick and syrupy.
Your uniform itches, polyester white and turquoise, pinching at the wrists and ankles. It rubs you, rubs the dark skin sore. There is history in dark, sore skin.
The line begins to move as the passengers clamber aboard. When you look, there is a woman in line who wasn’t there before. You correct yourself. A woman you did not see before. She is thrashing, ankles and wrists glinting in sticky sunlight. She claws at the back of another woman in front of her, whose name, you recall, is Mrs. Hart. Mrs. Hart grumbles something about the climate as a fistful of yellow hair is pulled from her head and she slips into the ship.
The thrashing woman behind her hollers and screams, but the air is filled with a dozen languages wilting, failing, for the traders have lined them up like Babel and no one understands their neighbors. There will be a new language soon, built of hollow drumbeats and a bitter story, but for now they are voiceless, as red-faced, sickly-looking men mill about making preparations for the journey. Pale hands take this frightened woman, and she is cajoled into the hungry ship after Mrs. Hart. The man behind her, Mr. Hart, sneezes, glances back at Cotonou as if offended, and follows them in.
A man at the end of the line looks up at you. His face is open and afraid, but he has kept his spine erect, his shoulders broad and bold. You would like to warn him how little that bravery will matter in the days ahead. You meet his eyes, dark as rich soil, until he too slips through the hungry doors.
Beyond this queue is a hill, where cranes will stand in the centuries ahead, ferrying valuable cargo from one place to another. For now, instead, a king stands there, draped in a robe of deepest blue, embroidered with leopards. He wears a scarlet hat—a feathered plume sits atop it—and is surrounded by women who wear blue tunics over their skirts and rifles slung across their backs; their eyes are flinty and fierce. They stare down at the captive crowd. The king’s eyes drift up to meet yours, but you will not remember them. You will remember the necklace: beads of white and blue glass, worth pounds and pounds of bone and blood and misery, sugar-sweet.
By the time you look away, you are already at sea, and Africa is far behind you.
“During the day, you should all remember that the passengers’ needs come first. Whatever they need, you’ll provide it. That’s your first priority, no matter what other responsibilities you’re trying to keep up with,” George says, standing at the front of the tiny break room. He is a big man, tall and round and bristly, with skin that seems sallow under fluorescent light. Most of the ‘Employees Only’ rooms do not have portholes—the rooms are located belowdecks, near the center of the vessel. Even on cruise ships, there are unpleasant truths, and passengers prefer lines of sight to the sea and sky whenever possible to distract them from that fact. You easily obtained the only cabin with a window, despite this being your first voyage on the ship. Unlike the passengers, the rest of the crew doesn’t seem to look up much from their tasks, especially not at the ocean, as if to avoid seeing something they wish not to.
“Learn names, whenever possible,” George says, again. He taps his lanyard, which is emblazoned with his own name in a font designed to resemble handwriting. He’s strung something silver on the string—it glints when he moves. “Passengers like feeling like they are known! Offer information only when asked, and make sure you let them know before you tell them something that might be disturbing. We want everyone to feel safe—the ride is always a little difficult for some folks. We want to be open to everyone’s sensitivities.”
An educational cruise—a gimmick that many, it seems, are willing to indulge. You peel yourself from the wall, ready to return to your work, when Isabel comes over with a well-practiced smile and something in her fist.
“We wanted to mention, since you’re new, a little tradition of ours.” She hands you the contents of her closed hand—a dime with a hole punched through it, strung on thread. “We like to say they keep bad spirits away,” she says with a laugh. She lifts her pant leg; another dime flashes cheerily from a ribbon strung around her ankle.
“A little joke,” her smile says.
“I am lying,” her eyes say.
“Time to get back to work,” George chides, and the dime on his lanyard glints. You excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and flush the trinket. You remember enough to beware gifts that shine in pale hands. When you are washing your hands you see the man from the line in the mirror. There are tears running down his face. He is speaking, words piling out one after the other, but there is no sound to accompany them, and even if you could read lips, you do not speak the language. You shake your head at him, trying to gesture some intention, but there is not enough room in the tiny cabin. You rap your knuckle on the door, accidentally, and he flinches, sighs. He wipes wetness from his cheeks and presses his fingers to your lips. Seawater slicks your tongue, and when you leave the bathroom, you guzzle an entire bottle of water trying to get rid of the aftertaste.
“It really is quite terrible, all this history,” Mrs. Hart says to her husband at breakfast on the lido deck, three days later. “We never learned it! How were we to know? Just terrible.” Her fingers, nails painted deep scarlet and large, dark flowers floating on their glossy surface, twine with the stem of her glass. Sticky orange rims the bottom; she sips slowly. “I envy young folks—they learn so much more nowadays.”
“Too much.” Mr. Hart shakes his head, scoops egg and hollandaise into his mouth. “Kids don’t need to hear all this stuff—it’s too much for them.”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Hart says, and finishes the drink. “I think children are more resilient than we give them credit for. Refill, please.” You take the glass. Her eyes skate around yours without making contact. She fingers a piece of toast—Mr. Hart opens his mouth to reply, though you are already walking away, back to the breakfast counter. The food there glistens under heat lamps, nested in greenery dotted with forlorn bits of egg. The smell of it mingles with the sea.
Borrowed hunger rumbles in your belly—when you turn, you see the woman, standing at the edge of the deck. She is dark against the sky. You could describe her, the state she is in, but that would do neither of you any good. Suffice it to say she is in hell, she is hungry, she does not speak. A breeze tickles your cheek, and she sways, wincing as the cold of it stings her. She eyes the food. You think of making her a plate, but then the mimosa is handed back to you, cold and sweating. You take it, and she is gone when you turn. You are still hungry, a dry nausea scraping at your insides. A hole, whose bottom you cannot see.
The ship features a recreation of a slave ship’s hold. The cruise prides itself on it. It is not a good recreation, if the metric is realism. The line for it travels halfway down the ship.
“This is entirely optional. We’ll keep the lights on, and give everyone a button. As soon as you push it, a light will flash on that panel there, and someone will come to release you.” Lucas and Benjamin repeat Isabel’s words, taking care to ensure that everyone assembled understands. You take up the position by the panel, distributing buttons and bilboes. It will be your responsibility to release anyone who asks. You had tried to help Isabel by the front, but you could smell the room beyond the door, even if no one else could. Sickness and filth—you ran to the bathroom and vomited. In the mirror, the hungry woman glared at you, disappointed. The passengers come to you in pairs—excited, frightened, curious. Mrs. Hart smiles at you as you clamp the padded shackle around her husband’s ankle. She takes his hand as you fasten the other end around hers. You turn the key and lock the bilboe, and they shuffle into the room, ducking their heads so they don’t knock against the ceiling.
Isabel lines them up in rows; the fluorescent lights make it easy to see. The room is filled with people chattering. A child begins to cry—Isabel unfastens him and his mother, who takes him out of the room, quietly scolding him about the educational opportunity they will be missing. With a last farewell, Isabel shuts the door.
Five minutes—the exhibition lasts for five minutes. After the first minute a light turns on on the panel in front of you. Someone wants to escape. You stare at the blinking red dot. The smell of the sea fills your nostrils. Men shout in a language you don’t understand then, even though it is the only one you speak, now.
Looking out of a porthole beside you, you notice the sun setting, turning the water gold. The sea was beautiful, even then. You cannot fathom what that means, for any of it—that hell sailed forth on such a lovely, lovely thing.
By the time five minutes are up, the entire panel is flashing at you. When Isabel sees this, she comes to scold you, but her gaze drifts past you to the ocean beyond, and she flinches. Wordlessly, she turns to open the door. Screams pour out, and she begins unfastening people. Mrs. Hart emerges and meets your gaze for the first time.
“I understand,” her lips say. “I am sorry.”
“I am lying,” her eyes say.
She staggers away, holding her husband. You tuck the key for the shackles into your pocket, just in case.
One night, there is a stillness on the air and in the sea, and you cannot sleep. You rise and walk the halls, meeting no one. The ship is quiet.
You come to the lido deck, where the moon paints shadows across every surface. She is there, waiting. You do not think she is waiting for you. She stands, thin and blue in the light, on the railing, looking out towards the sea. You go to stand beside her because her balance seems precarious, but she does not fall. She holds her arms close and stares down at the sea.
You ask her what she is looking for, and she flinches at the words coming from your dark mouth, for the sound is not her language. You stop speaking, and she raises one hand to her ear: a directive. Resting your elbows on the railing, you hold your breath and listen.
The sea, black and shimmering in its stillness, whispers like a ghost at the side of the ship. It moves like a living thing, though it is not. It offers aid and it offers harm, and it will never rest. A dime to keep bad spirits away, how doubly ignorant. You are borne on the backs of ghosts.
The whispers grow and distinguish into a broader sound, a warmer one. Drums, in the night, drawing closer. An instrument, sweet and nimble. It has a name; it is kora. Then voices, singing a language intact, a song not scrabbled together from a dozen others.
Below you, a circle of people dances upon the sea. They wear clothes of emerald and saffron and lapis lazuli. A man called griot stands atop the waves, strumming his instrument. His eyes are closed; his head nods in rhythm as he sings. In the circle, women stomp their feet and men clap their hands. They kick up spray—the moonlight glows on them and in them, and waves encircle them, glowing green like glass. The sea welcomes all ghosts.
You hear the woman breathe a name for her people—Mandinka. Then, with a step, she slips into moonlight and is gone, without even a splash.
The woman joins the circle. She glows, now—her face is full and her clothes are colorful. She is welcomed by the dancers, wearing a bright headscarf, and you watch as she raises her hands to the sky, as the ghostly sea closes over them, as the silver moonlight is tinted blue-green and they all sink beneath foamy waves.
But there—another song, more spirits. These are different, the clothes, the music. Not Mandinka, but someone else, someone else with a name—Yoruba, who spin their way across and above and below the ocean. Then another, and another: Igbo, Chamba, Fon, until the night is crowded with them, until the sea is covered, millions of souls, each with a name and a people, in the past and the present and the future. The named, who never left, and the ghosts who found a way back.
You watch them until dawn comes and you are left with only yourself, the nameless living.
One night, there is a storm. Thunder rumbles above and even the great mass of the ship begins to creak and protest the proddings of the sea. You wake on the floor, in the dark. Your ankle hurts, rubbed raw and pinched. Your quarters are cramped and overwarm—you cannot even stand to reach the light switch. You can only wait for lightning to flash, listen to the soft breathing beside you.
A strike—it glints off the shackle around your ankle, that links you to the one beside you. His eyes shine—he is the one from the line, from the mirror, made gaunt. When he sees you, he does not try to speak. Instead, his knuckles clatter against the floor in a feeble rhythm. You reach into your pocket. You pull out the key, reach for your ankles.
When the rusted thing clatters away from the two of you, revealing scabbed and oozing skin, the man begins to shake. You wrap your arms around him—he is warm—as he weeps, silently.
Your voice is parched; you begin to sing. The words are unfamiliar to you, the words were lost, but you sing, and slowly, he answers you. You sing, and he drums his knuckles on the floor, because that is what he can muster—a faint but steady rhythm. Nameless songs on nameless tongues on La Amistad, Aurore, Desire, Zong.
“I am still alive,” his knuckles say.
“I am lying,” his eyes say.
You arrive at Hispaniola on a Saturday. A fever takes you and you remain in your tiny cabin, watching the porthole, which faces a green island piled with white buildings. Slick and sweating, you imagine walking the place, amongst the people who had made it their home. You imagine the mountains, camps where thieves had lived—people with the audacity to steal their own flesh and fight to protect the burgled goods.
You imagine the fields, and as you lie in bed, a strange, slow ache starts in your stomach, your back, your arms and legs. You writhe as the feeling grows, swells in you like a living thing, some strange labor pain. You try to put a voice to it, but there is something in your throat, something hard and sharp and sweet. You wonder vaguely if this is what it is to die. Someone enters your field of vision. A man wearing a top hat rests a hand on your shoulder, eyes hidden behind dark glasses. You think at first he is a white doctor—but no, it is paint on his face, and the paint is stark white, like bone.
“It could be,” he says in a low and nasal voice. Smoke drifts from his lips, filling the room with its heavy smell. “Death, I mean. Life is possible too. Fucking painful, though.” You are not surprised when you turn and see his hand is skeletal.
You lie there, four hundred years and more staring you in the face, and you wonder how anyone could have lived through all of it. And you realize the answer, amidst the pain and the horror and the singing. They did not have a choice. You will not give yourself one, either.
Baron Samedi sighs. “Sorry bastard.”
All over your body, the skin breaks, and greenish yellow stalks push through you—long, sticky leaves descend and make a field of you. They grow, from your heart, your throat, your lungs. They grow, and you can taste the sweetness of them on your lips. They grow, and you curse all of them, the kings and cowards and the greedy and indifferent.
When the cane is ready, the man from the line, from the storm, returns. He looks down at you and his hands are calloused now, but his eyes are still the same, always the same—you see everything that has been taken in those eyes, goddamnit—and he lifts his knife and begins to cut. You are left a sprawling mess of roots and entrails. You turn to the window, and on the pier is Mrs. Hart, sipping rum from a glass clasped between those painted fingers of hers, listening to the evening lecturer.
Then the cane begins to grow again, and you are lost to the cycle for so long. The cane grows, and the beautiful man comes to cut it again. At times, he drives the stalks back through your limbs, so that new cuttings can take root—his masters will tolerate no decrease in production. He bears marks too, now—his job is no less agonizing. You weep, sometimes, but he does not. He no longer has the luxury. When your throat is clear enough, though, you sing, and then he answers you, and at least you aren’t alone in this.
Night comes, and you are sprawled and torn, when a spider approaches on gentle legs. He carries a bowl of mashed yams with one of his slender legs, a needle and thread with others. He begins to stitch you back together with silk that shines like moonlight on the sea. With his free limbs, he begins to feed you from the bowl. This, you remember. And that is something, at the least.
“The pattern will not be the same as before,” Anansi says, weaving a clever pattern as he coaxes bits of you back together, knitting flesh to bone, tying it all together with fishing twine. “But it will be strong.”
You sit up in bed when he is gone, and your new seams shine.
It is night again when you finally rise, and Hispaniola is far behind you. You go to the deck and it is silent. You are nearing Florida. The ship will continue on, past this, carrying Mrs. Hart to the end, to England, to the profitable conclusion, a satisfying climax. You will not see that. This is your stop.
He’s waiting for you, of course, the man from the line. You take his hand and are somehow surprised when it is solid. His hands are rough now, but so are yours, after all.
“You are alive,” his voice says.
“You are alive,” his eyes say.
You watch as the shore comes into sight. A red, remembered soil, and lights shimmering across the water. You breathe familiar air tinged with the buried dreamings of the sea and a distant, oft-forgotten history. Somewhere below you, ghosts are dancing in their graves. Nameless, stolen people on Elisabeth, Clotilde, Henrietta Marie. The land itself is stolen. But the taking must turn, at some point, to possession. How much of your blood must be spilt on a land before you belong to it?
Enough, you decide. There has been enough. So you look at him as the shore approaches, and you speak words that you believe, perhaps for the first time.
“Haunted Home” by Conrad Loyer and the artwork titled Ocean Dance by Sam Hsieh appeared in Issue 41 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Conrad Loyer is a writer and undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has been previously published in cul-de-sac and Westwind. He writes about magic on the margins and queer, Black adventure.
Sam Hsieh is a sculptor, painter, designer, and aspiring architect. Her work explores deteriorating structures, bodies, and realities within the built environment. Influenced heavily by architecture and aging bodies, she constructs a framework that focuses on the decomposition and decay of ephemeral materials.