We didn’t intend no violence. No more than what was necessary, anyway- no more than what was enough so that we didn’t all get caught straight away. It was supposed to be difficult, but it was supposed to work, and we was all supposed to escape.
Turns out, I might as well be part of the soil for all I’m ever gonna move from this colony.
I’m kneeling with my hands tied behind my back in the same cramped-up cabin I has lived in all me life. Only now, it’s all abandoned. All abandoned- except for me, and Mr Jefferson, and the man with the whip.
Mr Jefferson barks an order. The air hisses behind me like a bad word, and I can almost tastes his barbed wire smile. I clench me jaw instinctively, my back tensing right up as if my spine’s been replaced with rods of lightning.
It won’t hurt, I tells myself, although I know too well that it will, it will. It won’t hurt. It won’t-
The whip bites down against the bare skin of my back.
Mama used to tell me about a beautiful country, a long way to the south of here. In that country there is no chains, no masters, and the people are free to pioneer their own lives. Ever since I was little, she’d stroke the dark stubble of my hair and tuck her dreams inside the velvety folds of my ears, whispering long into the night time. “Someday,” Mama would say to me, “someday, we gonna escape there. We gonna escape to the beautiful country.”
And then she’d take my face between her two hands, and she’d look straight into my eyes like she saw my future reflected back at her. “You gonna have a big role to play,” Mama told me, piecing her English together like shards of shattered glass. “You gonna be important. Understand?”
I’d nod- yes, Mama. I think I've always been too quick to do what others tells me.
Then, she’d repeat my name like an incantation, over and over and over. “Faizah. Fah-ee-zah.” It means triumphant, Mama told me. Triumphant, like the stars when they help the moon to her seat atop the charcoal sky. Triumphant, like the drops of rain when they finally reach the ocean. Triumphant, like the freed man’s song.
Faizah. Mama named me and hoped that someday – someday – I was destined to win.
Mr Jefferson renamed me Elizabeth and struck Mama across the face when he found out what Faizah meant.
The whip stings swift across my back once more, skin puckering as it meets it like a kiss. I cries out, my wrists chafing against the rope that binds them behind my back.
It hurts. It hurts so much.
Mr Jefferson stalks forwards and takes a fistful of my hair, tilting my head back so far I’m scared my neck is going to snap away in his hand. He bends down to look at me, his gaze cold as the winter’s snow-seamed curses. “Are you ready to tell me where my slaves have gone?”
I stay silent. The beautiful country. All of them are gone to the beautiful country, except for me. I am caught, but I always secretly thought I might be.
Mr Jefferson’s hand connects with my cheek, my skin spitting up a thin trickle of red. “Eighty of my slaves have escaped! Answer me!”
I shakes me head, flinching instinctively as the master’s hand raises once more. “Faizah,” I croaks, so quietly it might as well be wind. Faizah. Fah-ee-zah. I has to remember my name.
No matter what happens to me, everyone else was all still triumphant. If I can keep Mr Jefferson from learning where they’ve escaped to, then I’ll be triumphant, too.
Mr Jefferson bends forwards, his words slicked back like they’re coated in ice. “Again. Louder.”
“Faizah,” I says once more, raising my voice as much as I can muster. “Triumphant. We was triumphant.”
And I am brave.
Mr Jefferson’s face twists, his lips pulling back in a snarl. He signals to the man with the whip, and I squeezes my eyes tight shut.
There was a man that Mr Jefferson calls Peter, but who named himself Akinsanya by the time he’d lived through sixteen years. Akinsanya means 'bravery gets revenge' in his language, and it was him what helped Mama with the plans to escape to the beautiful country.
In the beginning hours of the morning, before any paid worker had arrived or our labour had begun, Mama and Akinsanya would sketch out our future in the dust that carpeted our creaky wooden flooring. We’d all watch- everyone in our cramped cabin- me, and Amadi, and old Basel, and even little Hanisi when she could keep her attention for long enough.
We was all supposed to escape together.
“Tell me where you were running to!” shouts Mr Jefferson, his breath hot on my face. I can feel his hate running down my face alongside the blood, painting my dark skin scarlet. He smiles tightly, visibly restraining himself. There’s a vein at the top of his left temple that’s throbbing in and out in an almost hypnotic rhythm. “Tell me,” says Mr Jefferson, his voice stiff, “or I won’t ask you again.”
You’d think that not asking again would be a good thing, but I know from experience that it just means more violence.
“Tell me,” says Mr Jefferson. “Tell me!”
I shakes my head. The triumphant do not surrender.
I would rather die than lead this man to my people.
Mr Jefferson spits in my face, and I jerks back instinctively. My back arches into the man’s basting whip, and I howl with a despair that claws its way up from the pit of my stomach. I wonders whether I seem more animal or girl, as my scream rips into the air with all the hollow horror as if I’d come across it somewhere in hell.
There’s blood in my ears, and the wind is sticking to my skin like a knife to the gut, peeling away every layer of flesh as if my soul is preparing to surge straight out and dance towards infinity.
I thinks that I am dying.
I remembers the moon, the night we tried for our escape. It dangled in the sky on its invisible string, curved in under the weight of our secrets.
There was no fog to hide our hopes in.
I was supposeds to slip from the cabin first, run to the two overseers and check that they weren’t asleep. If they dozed, Akinsanya and his boys would tie them with the soiled bedsheets we was all too used to sleeping on. If they was awake, I’d point to the manor house where Mr Jefferson lives and shout something about how I’d seen a fire, hot and deadly and eating its way through the master’s quarters.
I’d be the distraction, as Mama and the other most nimble of us crept to wake the other slaves from other cabins, incite them to join our grab at freedom. And then Akinsanya would knock down the two overseers from behind, and we would catch up with the others and then we’d all cross into the beautiful country together, where Mr Jefferson could never hope to find us.
It didn’t work like that.
Like I said, there was no fog at all that night. Any fire could be proved or disproved in a moment. There was no fire, and the overseers realised this the minute I attempted the fallacy.
The whip is like a familiar friend, leaving lingering wounds like farewell gifts.
The whip is a friend that always comes back to visit soon enough.
“Are you quite sure,” asks Mr Jefferson, “that you will not co-operate with us?” He clicks his fingers and the whipping stops. I think that all the stopping and starting is what makes the pain so much worse, really. If it was just one, long cycle of pain, perhaps I could get accustomed to it.
I doesn’t have the strength to shake my head, but Mr Jefferson knows my answer. The hatred in my eyes is enough, I thinks. I imagines it is black as the smouldering enmity that cheers the innocent onto the gallows, my tears bitter and falling not as mere water but as I supposes you’d expect tragedy to have tumbled with Lucifer down from Heaven.
Mr Jefferson curls his lip. The whip falls.
I screams. I bleeds.
Again and again and again and again and again and again and again.
The largest of the two overseers bared his teeth and raised his hand, and from where I stood I remembers it blocking out the stars. Or maybe it just blocked out all my dreams. Perhaps there is little difference.
I remembers crying out in presumptive pain, the sound shrivelling and dying off when no blow struck my body. And I remembers blinking back tears and watching Akinsanya take the hit in my place, his body crumpling to the ground almost gracefully, like a leaf in the wind.
He shouted at me to go, to run, but my legs had forgotten what it means to move.
And I remembers screaming loud enough to topple mountains from their roots; screaming and screaming, loud enough for the world to collapse on top of us or thunder outwards at my whim.
I sanked to my knees, and I never saw Akinsanya move again.
The overseer that had struck him grabbed at my wrist, his colleague moving to attempt to deal with Mama and all the other slaves, who had used Akinsanya’s death as the distraction they needed, and begun the long run out of the colony. Maybe everyone is still running now, or maybe they’ve already reached the beautiful country.
I hopes that it is truly as beautiful as in our fantasies.
The whip stops for a minute- a reprieve, at last. I falls forwards gasping, the dirt floor cool against my face like a funeral casket. My gaze slackens and shifts until I meets Mr Jefferson’s eyes with my own. He stands right over me, so he could stamp down and crush my skull if he wanted to. I has a theory that he’s got the devil inside of him, locked away inside his ribcage and obscured behind all those velvety waistcoats and silky shirts.
He spits on the same ground that comforts me, drives the saliva into dust with his heel.
“What are you looking at, nigger?” he ask me softly, as if my name is whatever he chooses. As if my name don't spell out the victory that Akinsanya died for and Mama ran for and I am tied here receiving the blame for.
Faizah. Fah-ee-zah. Triumphant.
I’m barely in control of my own body anymore, drool mincing from the corners of my mouth and mixing with the dirt and Mr Jefferson’s. It is an effort to keep on meeting his eyes, to keep reminding myself on why I do not and will not give up.
Mr Jefferson will never know the name of the beautiful country, where Mama and Amadi and old Basel and little Hanisi and all the rest live now. Not, at least, from my lips- bruised and raw with screaming and aged ancient with salted sorrow.
“Look away, you stupid bitch,” says Mr Jefferson, his voice still tinged quiet with an eerie calm. It rises, suddenly- all at once, like he can’t control it- the same way he won’t ever control me. “Look away!”
I doesn’t expect it as he darts forwards, his fingers scratching and clawing at my face. I wriggles wildly, twisting and convulsing like I’m someone possessed, but the man with the whip steadies my shoulders and holds me still. Mr Jefferson’s fingers close around my right eye, wrenching and pulling and wrestling as I see a roaring hellfire melt away into an empty, hollow darkness that blazes against the tender brown of my skin.
Now Akinsanya is dead, and Mama is lost to me, and I am-
My mouth gapes wide as if I’m screaming, but no real sound comes out. It’s like a scene from one of them photographs- just like real life, but without all the colour that comes with living. I’m opening and closing my mouth like I’ve forgotten the words to one of the work songs; the only semblance of a tune is in the black-and-white screech that eventually curls through my lips so weak it might be smoke.
“It doesn’t do,” Mr Jefferson he tell me, his voice rough and empty like sand, “it doesn’t do for slaves to look their master in the eye.”
He roars as if he’s trying to contest all them choirs up in Heaven, and as he forces my head back down to eat at the dirt, I feel him grinning through his rage. “I don’t even need to know where the rest of you have run to,” he decides, tapping his toe against the floor. “I can always just buy new slaves, although replacing eighty will be a ridiculous amount of money to spend.”
And I am reckless. I am brave.
“Faizah,” I reminds Mr Jefferson softly, still cradling my head and my eye that no longer sees. Fah-zee-ah. I tilt my head back, talk to the man with the whip. “Faizah.” It’s like a victory chant, like an anthem. Fah-zee-ah.
Mama and Anansi and Basel and Hanisi and them has all escaped, and we has been triumphant.
I am not going to give my Mama up. Never am I going to tell Mr Jefferson about the beautiful country. I am just as much a hero as the military leaders that rides their horses and shoots their guns at the front of every battle.
I am my people’s hero, because I will keep my people’s secrets.
Maybe I will die. I think that I wants to die. I think that I is going to die, as Mr Jefferson clenches his fist in rage and readies to strike against my skull. Maybe when I’m dead I’ll go to my own version of the beautiful country, where there are no chains to enslave me and no whip to flail my flesh from my bone.
Just as in life, I will never tell my people’s secrets when I am dead, either.
I hold my breath. Mr Jefferson is going to strike soon. I can feel it. I can senses it. I tells myself that I ain't scared, but that’s just as effective as telling a blind man that he ain't blind.
I’m scared. I’m terrified.
But I am still triumphant.
I whispers my name like a war cry.
Faizah. Fah-zee-ah. Faizah. Fah-zee-ah. Faizah. Fah-zee-