Selected Works, Volume One On Sale
Jerry Prager, author of Legends of the Morgeti vol 1 &2 has published selections of poetry and prose from three of his previously published books, his blog The Well Versed Heart and unpublished works. On Sale at Macondo Books, the Bookshelf, in Guelph and the Eden Mills Writers Fest.
D'Etre Raisins

No sour grapes these,

rather the withered sweetness
of seasons lengthened
to aged fruition
chewed introspectively.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Emancipation Week Creative Non-Fiction: 2. The Long Road Home

 Prologue: 

Sengbe Pieh

From 1839 to '41 they called me a murderer, called me a pirate, called us property, 
each of the 52 of us held by the American Courts because Ruiz and Montez
lied about where we were from, when their ship, the Amistad,
which we had seized between the Havana slave market and the plantation
where they were taking us - was stopped by the coast guard off of Long Island,
which is where Ruiz had sailed it, instead of taking us back to Sierra Leone where we
were born, where they'd enslaved us, where we had told them to return us.

The Americans arrested us, but Ruiz and Montez demanded us back as their slaves,
insisted they be allowed to return to Cuba, where they said we were all born,
except the coast guard claimed us as salvage; so the case went to court,
but then Spain wanted us; wanted Ruiz and Montez because slave trading
was against their laws; so President Van Buren though we should all be sent to Spain,
because of a 1795 treaty, only the Anti-Slavery Society of America said
we should be set free because slavery had been abolished in Connecticut
where we had landed and because it had been illegal to import slaves
into America since 1807. They weren't all Mende like me, but most were,
and they had risen with me when we took the ship, so some Americans thought
we should be tried for murder. We, who were all born in Africa, wanted to go home.

The anti-slavery society hired a lawyer to prove that since none of us
could speak Spanish, then none of could have been born in Cuba,
they proved Ruiz and Montez were lying, except no one knew what language
we did speak until a lawyer named Baldwin went down to the docks; shouted words
in our language until a man named James Covey answered him:
Covey had been to Sierra Leone, he spoke Mende, so Covey talked with us,
told the courts I was a landowner who grew rice near the Boom Kittam River.

After that, Mr. Baldwin and the anti-slavery society fought three trials for us,
in the last one, John Quincy Adams, the former president, joined our defence.
While all that happened, we were not free, but our friends got us teachers,
Reverend William Raymond and his wife, Eliza, who taught us English:
how to speak it, and how to write it. They taught us from the Bible, taught us
Christianity. We were animists. Each time a trial came we got better at saying who we
were and where we were from and why we should be allowed to go home.

In the end, the Supreme Court said it was sad that we had killed the crew,
but also said we had a right to free ourselves from those who had taken us,
so the judges set us free. Some Americans were angry and wanted to kill us,
but we were protected.
Mr. Lewis Tappan, of the Anti-Slavery Society, raised money
to send us home, then got us three more teachers like the Raymonds, and
put us on a ship for Sierra Leone. Reverend James Steel, “Mr. Steel, sir”,
we had to call him, was in charge of creating a Christian mission once we got
back to Sierra Leone; a couple from Barbados, Henry and Tamar Wilson,
and the Raymonds who had a baby girl, Jane, all came with us when we sailed for
Freetown. Once we got there though, we left “Mr. Steel, sir”
and the missionaries: we were free people in our own country,
but he hated us for leaving.

I hope to never see “Mr. Steel, Sir” again, though he has gone upriver to buy land.

The Wilsons are afraid to leave Freetown and won't go to my country because
there is slave war in our land and they now know from the English that the mission
can't protect them from being stolen by the Temne, the enemies of my people.
Mrs. Raymond lost Jane, their baby, as soon as we arrived but she and Reverend William
say they will go upriver when “Mr. Steele, sir” comes back: they think words
can save them, as words saved us in America, but the Temne care nothing for words
but the orders they give those they enslave, things will not go well for their mission.

Part 2

Reverend Steel

Freetown they call it, Sodom is more like it: every form of depravity and debauchery
of which humans partake, is partaken of here in daylight and in darkness:
every appetite, every carnal impulse, every crime against decency flourishes,
and does so, because of the most debased creed of them all: the slave trade,
forbidden under British law, the trade in human souls permeates West Africa.

Here on the coast, the English hold the worst at bay,
but it is the daily bread of life upriver, from whence I have just come,
having secured land for our mission from Chief Tucker, a man so thick with the thieves
of human trafficking that I felt defiled shaking his hand to seal the deal for the mission.

As soon as I returned to the coast, I discovered the rot had set in among us:
Tamar Wilson had already seen the truth of her own situation, having once been
a slave in Barbados, she knows that upriver she will be just one more black woman
for the slavers to gather up, and the thought of that, has undone her: I pity her,
the dread of the fate she escaped through Emancipation by the British,
has lain in wait for her these nine years since, and now she has made herself
unfit to serve as wife or missionary, and being unfit,
can no longer be compelled or encouraged to go upriver.

And Henry is no better, for he too knows what awaits him upriver, and worse,
for a man in love with his wife as much as he is, he knows what he has lost:
Because Freetown, for Henry Wilson, is a prison of grief and fear:
I hope I have convinced him that Tamar has abandoned him,
and that she is as lost to him as she now is to the mission;
as the mission itself is lost to all of us, as I suspect I was lost to the mission
through that handshake.

The Sengbe Pieh and the Mende have vanished, they have played us for fools,
took all the gifts we gave them;striped them from their backs as they did their shirts
the moment my prayer of thanksgiving for our safe arrival ended and they raced to shore
and groveled in their re-embracing the soil of Africa;
the half naked display of their tribal tattoos was a repudiation of civilization and sanity
since their enemies among the Tameni knew them for Mende immediately,
they were marked for re-enslavement before we were five minutes on the continent.

It is my intention to return to America with Henry Wilson,
to let Lewis Tappan and Reverend Pennington and the Anti-Slavery Society
know that this mission was doomed from the start, underfunded
and ill-equipped to face the dangers and madness of trying to teach
reading and writing or even Christianity in the heart of such incessant evil.

I cannot however, move the Raymonds to abandon their convictions,
even with Eliza grieving the daughter she lost, she still insists on
finding the Mende girls who vanished soon after our arrival,
she likewise feels compelled to stand by William and their believe in the sign
he was given from God in the Queen's Bush settlement:
together they burn like white fire and are bound to one another
in ways I could only hope to one day know in marriage or faith, and yet,
they are fragile and inconsequential to the dark powers at work upriver,
powers that will quench their holy ardour and devour their naivete.

I can't return with them, can't tell William let alone Eliza
that the three Mende girls, even if found, will be gathered up by the old women
of the tribe, forced to undergo the ritual cutting of their sexual parts,
and even then, the Tameni could still sweep the village for slaves
and every one of the Mende the Raymonds spent the last two years teaching
could end up back on ship headed for Cuba...

If nothing else good comes of me, or the rest of my life, let me at least return
to fight against the resettlement of escaped American slaves anywhere in West Africa.

It would be better they died in poverty in the wilds of Upper Canada
where the Raymonds first worked together then be led back to this place of horror,
where not even the strongest is strong enough to defend
the next strongest among them, let alone defend the weak.
Sengbe Pieh is the exemplar of that,
strong enough to lead the slave rising uprising on the Amistad,
strong enough to lead his people through the American court system,
strong enough to learn our language and our religion, but it took no more
than the first Tameni to glance at his naked torso, to see his Mende tattoos,
for Sengbe to shrink, and so they will they all wither,
one way or another, they will all vanish, as I myself will diminish
because I fled this cup of poison placed before me.

Part 3

Henry Wilson

I speak with Tamar earlier today, finding her on the shore, beyond the blockhouse
above the harbour into Freetown, though to say I speak with her,
says there was talking, when in truth she says nothing this morning:
looks at me when I call her name, then turns back to the sea,
the whole of my time standing in the grasses
breezing under the sun of Sierra Leone.

Her dress is torn, snagged, not ripped, and the fine stitch on the collar, fraying.
And if this be the shop in Connecticut, I am sewing the repairs but it is not
and she stands in the stirring of her soiled print saying nothing
but the look of her saying all her life's despair since coming here.
Not that she meets my eyes, or that I force my gaze into hers, she is far off and away
with her look, losing herself in the crossing home or in the mid space between
knowing and not knowing. Following her gaze, I lose myself there as well, lose myself
in the silence of not knowing what to say, thinking of Barbados and she but a girl
verging first womanhood all the rolling, quiet waves of yesterday,
and I, a boy on the edge of manhood, noticing first the beauty of her face and then
the eyes of her stolen childhood.

I am remembering today the slave girl she is back then
and myself born to the island, son of a white man, my mother kidnapped
as a child, a half son of the plantation, but that is all the home of then,
unlike the here of today, the here, where my wife loses herself
looking for the America we chose the year of our freedom:
only she can't find home in an ocean across which we have lost everything.

She knows I am here; knows the way I am seeing her, remembering her,
knows I am seeing the lipstick and the lustful bruise of a man's hand on her neck,
she knows I can see the woman beneath the clothes who is my wife and giver
of her flesh, and like me, she knows neither of us understands how she
came to this, how I came today to say I am leaving her to Freetown, leaving
with Reverend Steel, broken by her and this place,
Sierra Leone, with its humidity and langour, with the heat burning carnal
into the senses, the why of how she is here today,
tasting the salt of the Ocean's caress, while sweat trickles the skin
of her breasts like a lover's kiss, or like  thrusts inside thighs
only I knew.

She is alive with it all, but all we were is no more within her,
no more a sacred joy rumbling dry thunder over jungle, there is now
only the lurid madness and the urgency of standing here on the bluff of Freetown
taking leave of her memory as I am taking leave of her,
while the mid-distance stretches time across eight months now inside this moment:
inside which we live our happiness, live our marriage and separation and then it is over,
and I am leaving, telling her I am going, hoping she will rouse herself from her stupour
and follow me - follow her memory out of this place, because I plead with her,
'come home Tamar', but leave, knowing she will not follow nor walk with me.

I feel her with my back, remaining, every step ripping my shame through my back for
going, for taking all her memories, for leaving her, having been leaving since I boarded
this ship, since the anchor is cast, since I look to the place
where I still see her following a man into Freetown, where I leave her
as empty as I am now full of our memories.

Our vows tatter and vanish in the sailing wind.

Part 4

Tamar Wilson

Henry does not know me anymore, though he knew me at first glance
the day we met in Barbados, newly arrived on the slave ship,
a terrified, lonely girl and he a child of the owner, born half-chained,
Henry could see my fear of dying in chains like my sister on the crossing.
He was desperate for life and learned whatever anyone would teach him.
Teaching him taught me to teach, he was my first pupil,
I taught him stories of my freedom in Africa; while he taught me
the ways and means of surviving the plantation.

When Emancipation came to the British colonies and we were freed,
we married and left for Connecticut, became slaves for Christ instead,
took the Living Word into ourselves and found a different kind of freedom
in service to those in need.

Henry took up the tailoring trade but I kept teaching,
taught free-born children how to read and write their way
through the chains of ignorance, how to escape the world
of their untutored minds and see meanings in the shadows cast
in hateful words from the mouths of neighbours.

But then the Amistad captives were given over to court custody;
the Raymonds were brought in to teach them enough language
to defend themselves when the trial came, so Reverend Pennington
took Henry and I to meet the Mende;
that's how we came to work for the American Anti-Slavery Society,
how we came to help Sengbe and the Mende once the courts said they were free.

I was going home too, I thought, though not to the place of my birth: but at least,
I was returning to Africa, but that too was a lie, for Africa taught me the truth
of my blood just as it taught Henry he would never escape the divide in his own veins.

Henry had was just enough memory of his own childhood to know
that what Reverend “Mister Steel, sir” was trying to do would fail
once we got to Africa: the Mende wouldn't stand for being half free,
we both knew they would leave us as soon as they landed.

That's why we parted with the Raymonds, or, more truthfully, that's why Henry parted
with William and Eliza: for me, the divide between the others and I wasn't as great as
that between my husband and I, because Henry had some African blood but had no
desire to ever be African, while I was born African, and so
had to find a way to become myself again, which put Henry and I at odds.


When Reverend Steel come back from buying land for the upriver mission,
he told us of the slave wars there, so I learned then my skin was still the wrong colour:
if I went up there, I'd be enslaved again and no one could stop it, and thus our marriage
broke: I can't leave Africa now that I am home and Henry cannot stay.
I have lost the ability to speak to him, even standing as he still is
knowing he loves me, and that I will always love him,
but though I can't go upriver, I can never go back to America, so
even though I am no longer welcome among what passes for polite society
here in Freetown, I'll stay anyway.

Henry needs to emancipate himself from me.

He knows I was a girl raised in the wanton circumstances of his father;
knows I became a woman who made a slave of her husband and trained him
to her needs. I don't like what I did to Henry, I played on the guilt
in the gulf in his blood: I don't like what I'm doing to him now:
he's a kind man, but I broke him to free him.

I have let an African merchant keep me, a coastal tribesman:
part of the remnant that once controlled this bay before the inland tribes
destroyed most of his people: he's a British subject now, though he's not a Christian
or a Muslim or even an anamist, I don't know what he is, beyond being a good lover;
though he has a wife and children and I have met them, most tribes are polygamous,
so he has kept that much of their beliefs.

But I won't be a wife again, he pays me to teach his children,
so while Steel calls me a prostitute, I'm just a teacher with a polygamous lover.

William and Eliza Raymond don't understand why I have done
what I have done: but of the five of us, they alone are true slaves to God, they alone
will be going upriver, and for what my prayers are now worth, my prayers
go with them, and with the Mende girls, and with Henry, who I know is still watching
the vanishing shore below the white sail I can almost no longer see.

Part 5

William Raymond

There can be no last will from me now, for I possess nothing,
not even access to a voice that others outside of me can hear:
I am holed up inside myself, and beyond these last thoughts,
yellow fever ravages my body and mind and will soon overrun
this last stand of my awareness:
the remainder of my life
revolves around you my God, and how I came to be in this agony,
so far from home, so far from Eliza, so near the graves of our children.

To be fair to you Lord, I brought this upon myself: I asked to be of service,
asked a God of sacrifice to use me to good purpose, especially that day
with Thomas Vipond in the Queen's Bush settlement, Eliza and I
already being used in the midst of our poverty to teach and serve the former slaves
who had become our neighbours there a little more than a year before.

I brought this upon myself the day after Lewis Tappan sent the letter asking us
to return to the States and take up the cause of the Amistad Mende
being held in court custody. I went to Vipond in the cabin he used
for his home and services. And while we prayed for a sign from you,
his dog became uneasy so Thomas let it out then returned to pray with me for a way
to raise funds so Eliza and I could leave the settlement. But then his dog
began to growl and bark, so Thomas opened the door and a wolf burst into his shanty,
which I finally managed to club senseless with a broken chair leg and then kill it.

I should have known how deadly that answered prayer was when I realized
that the bounty on the wolf's hide would allow us to fund our trip out of the settlement
as far as St. Catharines where our friends finances our way to Connecticut, allowing us
to answer your call, the call that eventually brought Eliza and dear Jane, our
later, doomed first child to Africa with the Mende. But you know all this Lord, I ramble
to stay ahead of my delirium I suppose.

She and I were two years married, eloped from her step mothers in Brantford,
made lean and of one body and flesh in the hardships of the Queen's Bush,
but none of that prepared us for what was ahead, after we befriended the beleaguered
Africans and taught them English to defend themselves before the courts.

The shape of the troubles ahead were there for those who had eyes to see, Lord,
but we had eyes only for the task at hand. It was only when we got the Mende
back to Sierra Leone, when we encountered the debauchery of Freetown and caught
our first glimpses of the degradation of humanity of the upriver slave trade,
that I thought again of the wolf, and pondered anew the meaning of its fate,
within the glimpses of the horrors we discovered upriver.

The death of Jane as soon as we arrived broke us, Eliza most of all,
and then when the Mende vanished within days of arriving, desperate
to get upriver to their loved ones without being recaptured
by Temne slavers who prowl Freetown like chain gangs, all five of us
in the Anti-Slavery Society's mission suddenly found ourselves facing
a threat more dangerous than any wolf let loose in a shanty,
because it was a moral threat, extending from human choice and it met us everywhere,
and none of the gentility of British Freetown could conceal it for long.

Even the Methodists looked on our plan with dread.
And then Steel came back from finding us land and left with Henry Wilson,
leaving Tamar to her fate, and leaving only Eliza and I and the three girls
from the Amistad to go upriver not even knowing where Sengbe and the others were.

We were broken in your name before leaving Freetown Lord,
so that all that comes or does not come of the mission after I am gone,
will be yours to claim, for no human, least of all me, can now lay claim
to the survival of Kaw Mende. I am the last of mission, even Miss …
I can't recall her name now Lord, even she, who came back with Eliza and I
from America on our fundraising tour, even she died after Eliza lost
our second child, after Eliza lost her hope, lost her sanity among the rats...

how Eliza hated those rats... how many did I kill that one day,
one hundred and sixty four, poor Eliza, so great in spirit, so broken in hope after
the second baby died and the rats came and Sengbe Pieh returned to demand
we allow him to take the young women to his tribe so the female elders
could perform their ritual cliterectomies,
it broke her hope so I sent her home to my parents to save her mind...

How long have I been here without help, Lord, running the school,
protecting the girls, providing medical supplies, how long have I been dying,
how much longer can I retain this last remnant of my own mind?

Kaw Mende is yours, yellow fever will soon break down this barrier,
and my life and my works will be jettisoned in the black vomit.
Someone is caring for me. One of the girls I suppose.
They at least have been safe here.
We have done that much good, we also
bought several of the Amistad captives back from the slavers.
We did that much, several times, over and over and over we bought them back.
You answered my prayer with a wolf.
And this time... it is I that am being bludgeoned to death by disease.

Have mercy on Eliza, Lord,
grant her your peace,
grant her... grace...

Part 6

Eliza Raymond

They don't want me remembering, and they mean well, but if don't remember, I'll forget,
and if I forget, I will lose myself, as I lost the children, as I lost William, as we lost
some of those we had saved, as I lost my faith, my hope and some of my sanity;
so I remember because I don't want to forget who I am, who they were were,
what we set out to do, what we did, what we failed to do.

I remember lest I become - as Sengbe once said - a dog without a home,
lest I become a stray; lose my way, lose sight of all that is still true and holy and
untouched by the darkness into which we were drawn, as wide-eyed and innocent as
children who thought we knew what darkness was, but had never lived without lamps.
Sengbe... 'Cinque' of whom I once knew nothing, of whom I learned too much,
much that was good, much that was not, much that I never understood, much
that I will never let myself forget. He was our friend and our enemy, he was God sent
and Satan serving, he was humanity looking at itself in the mirror of slavery,
he was a simple man in a situation so complex it broke us all.

If I don't remember, I will lose myself to my hatred of Sengbe,
and I cannot do that to William's memory, to William's love for me.

They want me to remember his love, but not his loss,
they who have never lived without lamps.

They who are afraid of madness as if they might catch it
as William caught yellow fever and perished in its black vomit
when I wasn't there and couldn't tend him or die alongside him.

Sierre Leone…Africa itself... it had always been with me, it was there
when I was born in Nova Scotia, there among the abolitionists and blacks
of my childhood who spoke of Granville and Freetown as if they were mythical realms,
places of hope against hope, places where the great wrong could be made right,
no matter how wrong the wrong was or continued to go wrong, it could be driven off
with light, it would be as simple as darkness vanishing into light in a place where no
light had been shone for centuries.

Nova Scotia, how dear and safe and clear and bright it seems to me now, although,
even its shadows hide crimes and wrongs against Africans, but Nova Scotia
pales against the limitless glooms of West African slavery, against the succubus
feeding on the skull of that continent, feeding on women and children and men,
generation after generation after generation, century after century, an endless stream
of degradation, chains within chains, horrors passed down through families of slavers
and the enslaved, legacies of debauchery and transactions of despair.

Perhaps I should have listened to my step-mother, listened when Sally warned me off
William... Instead I eloped with him, married in St. Catherines and took up teaching
former slaves in the Queen's Bush Settlement where we had nothing but one another,
one another and the divine cause of giving from the bounty of education and faith
with which we had been blessed.

Those bleak winters were radiant with shared hardship,
what a joy to serve those who had only known forced service and suffering at the hands
of whites, what an honour to undo the burdens placed on them by others of our race,
by helping them carry the burdens of their fear and ignorance, helping them plant new
hopes, raise new generations.

And then the call came to help the slaves captured on the Amistad.
So we went to the States, and for the next two years we helped the captives
during the trial over who owned them...

They want me to forget: Sally would want me to remember. She remembered
everything. Memory was sacred to her, raised as she was among her father's people
on the Grand River, she listened to her Mohawk blood, and to the blood
of her white grandfather, Sir William Johnson. She knew her place in time.
I never forgot she wasn't my mother, but then she never asked me to...
she only warned me of falling in love with William...

I can almost remember my mother, Mary, Mary Best Ruggles. and what I remember
is losing her. I was four. My father worshiped her, not like his god, but for the evidence
of God she was in his life, and when she was gone, I was the evidence of what he'd lost,
and what remained.
Nova Scotia was... like living among her memories,
everywhere we went in Kings County was touched with her presence,
and her absence, for I was young when she died: and yet, for me, the colony was her,
she was in the woods and by the stream, she was in the flowers; she protected me
from within the clouds, made my world sacred, and when she was gone, she
went into the land itself, and though I missed her, I found her everywhere.

My father felt her loss everywhere, except in me.
And so we left, and for me, she was left, except... she's still there.

I need to go home, I need to go back to Nova Scotia, I don't belong here,
I'll die in Massachusetts if I stay, I'll die with William's family.
Except I know he wouldn't want me to die on them.

His brother Charles brings me tea, and listens,
he's not even a man yet, and yet he lets me talk, he listens...
how very kind he is.

The Raymonds all have such deep kindness in them,
but they have always lived in a world with lamps,
they don't want to know of the black vomit and how yellow fever kills,
they don't want to know of the rats and how they came by the thousands to the mission,
they don't want to know the horrors of life upriver, the old women who
convinced Sengbe to lead the young women out; they don't want to know how the
Amistad Mende were recaptured by slavers, and how we had to buy them back, again
and again and again, they don't want to know how I endured after Jane, no more than a
baby - their granddaughter died when we first arrived, and then their next heir too.

They only know I broke;
they want to remember William as a servant of God's
but they don't want to know how dark the place was in which he served,
and though they hate slavery, and accept that he died fighting against it
only to be struck down by an act of God:
they love their son, and cherish him still, but only Charles listens to my despair,
only Charles hears, and Ari by letter because he lives among the Indians and
black loyalists near Lake Simcoe and has since he was 18, but even Ari only knows
what we knew in the Queen's Bush: because Ari has lived without food, without pay,
so Ari understands, but even he never lived without light, even if he sometimes
couldn't afford the fuel to feed his lamps and lives too close to the edge
of want as we did in our service, but Charles listens because he loved William,
he listens to my despair because of his love for his brother;
because of his love for me.

How grotesque that Amistad should mean friendship in Spanish,
our friendship with the slaves of Amistad was the cross on which were broken,
a ship that was named friendship in a demonic jest, a ship on which slaves found
their freedom through murder, then made their defense in the courts of the world
because John Quincy Adams argued that they, like all humanity, had a claim to
the friendship of the free in the cause of liberty.

And so they were freed, and we sailed
with them back to Sierre Leone and Freetown with Henry and Tamar Wilson and
James Steel, only Tamar never left Freetown, none of which I can tell the Raymonds,
not even to Charles... I can only speak to Charles of the Boom Kittam River up which
we went into horror upon horror in the name of friendship.

There is always blood to be paid for blood, starting with our daughter,
and then our second child, who was born and died within days at the mission.

William vomited up his blood no longer red but black as death when I wasn't there.
And for what? Who gave us the cup we drank in that hell, who poured it,
what good did any of it do... in the end ?

I want to die in Nova Scotia, not here,
the Raymonds don't need my death to add to their sufferings.

I want to go home, find my mother,
pick her scent out from among the wildflowers of the Annapolis Valley,
A scent of her I learned from an untouched dresser drawer
left by my father, the scent of her all that remained.

I want to go home and smell the clean, salt water decay of the Bay of Fundy.

The apple orchards will be in bloom and I can pick a bouquet...

This is not the way she would want me to die.

Epilogue: 

Sengbe Pieh

It is a long road I have been on all these years,
a long time since I've come to Kaw Mende,
long since all those who helped us after the Amistad
have gone home or died, like William Raymond, who
died the way only whites die in west Africa, from the fever
we don't get, for it is in born in our blood when we are born,
and dies in our blood as we grow.

Raymond did not like the man
I came to be when I came home after America, though he knew how long
I would suffer from being home, for my home was no longer home, my home
was a village of ghosts, a place of the dead and the stolen, there was no wife
no child no parent, no friend left. All that was left was my tribe.

The old women told me to bring them the girls from the mission,
Eliza stopped me: she was hard as iron, as soft as a mothers' tears,
she moved like a panther, wild, and as deadly as holy beauty:
she stood me down, stood down the old ones and their old ways,
she thought I was a bad man for doing what the old women wanted,
my people thought I was a bad man for not doing what the old women asked,
so I had no home after that, I had no God and lived in fear of the Tamne obeah-men,
I moved up and down the river like a boat, I took wives, I took my pleasure,
I spread my seed in the womb of the river knowing it would be carried off.

I sold my enemies into slavery, thought that would be revenge
for what they'd done to me, I fucked the wife of one, but felt shame
as she was carried into captivity. I killed another man's child in front of him,
did unto others as had been done to me, so I was not even at home in my own skin,
I was never the Christian the Americans wanted me to be, not the Muslim
the old women wanted, not the man I was before I had been enslaved.

William Raymond could see inside of me, saw the man I had become,
saw the victim I had been, saw how I had become my own enemy,
but then he died, and the titi girls grew up and they knew a man
I had forgotten, they said to me “come home, Sengbe, come to Kaw Mende.”

They tell me to loose my vex, tell me that “William and Eliza would want
me to sabi that no matter how old, or how long it took,
I would remember when I was a bobo and my mama and papa
was still my living world, they tell me the Raymond's said
that I would remember mercy, would remember my wakka with God,
that I would be their brother again like I had been
when I freed them from their chains in the hold of the Amistad;
I would be the man they knew me as then, the hero man,
that was the man the Raymonds said I would remember myself to be.

I let them young woman sing their new song for me, unlock the water of my heart,
I let them set me free, and I came again to Kaw Mende, now grown old,
once again their padi, not ever again going up and down the river
like a boat got no place to land, in fear of the poisons of the Tamne obeah men.

I am terrible sometimes, got no hope for mercy, got no right for kindness,
got nothing but forgiveness to ask of them I sent long gone into slavery.
So I do the work of mercy, I help the new missionaries in the school,
I sit in the sun and remember that once upon a time John Quincy Adams
set me free by the power of his words, by the telling of story
in the right place at the right time with the right words,
words I was taught to write, words I was taught to speak,
words that carry so much beauty sometimes
I start to believe I might one day be forgiven.

I don't expect much, but maybe I've enslaved myself
to the drudgery of Kaw Mende
to make amends,
but if there is misery in that, it is my misery,
my penance, my way of living in peace
with the spirits of my people,
both Mende, and Temne,
for my enemy is no longer my enemy,
and my hatred is no longer my hatred.

My place in history needed a better ending,
and for now, this will be the best I can do.

Let them say I died making amends
in the name of my lost wife and children,
in the name of those I enslaved,
the child I killed in front of his father,
the man's wife I raped and then sold,
for I was once a rice farmer,
and worked the long days of my youth
before they were stolen from me;
I understand how a man reaps what he sows,
so let me die here sowing good.

Let me die here
with titi girls now grown women who remember the hero I was,
long ago, let me die with the friends I have.

Emancipation Week Creative Non-Fiction: 1. Echoes in the Timbers

Part One

Margaret Buckingham 

I haven't been inside these walls since 1854;
it was a real home then,
one Charlotte Beaver
was proud of ...
good to me she was,
always said my name the German way though:
'Margrit'.
My mama named me Margaret:
the only name I had from birth
til I married Mister Buckingham
in Upper Canada in 1829,
a year before our first child, Temperance,
come to us.
Buckingham was the only name
my husband had from birth too, til coming here, 'cept,
once here, he made it his last name,
his 'past name' he called it, gave himself a new name,
a first name, didn't seem to matter though,
folks all called him Buckingham
til the day he disappeared, 'cepting me, to me,
he was MisterBuckingham,
though I was always Maggie to him.
Mister Buckingham come from a proud line,
broken to the wheel of a cruel man,
a field worker the whole of his chained life,
his mother and sisters badly used, then sold off,
never seen again,
his father whipped dead for protesting their sale;
his older brother murdered by patrolers after running off;
his younger brothers the only ones left after he come away;
an escape he never forgot or forgave himself for having made
the longer he looked back on leaving them...
When my husband first took me as his wife,
he took the modesty I had been allowed to keep
by the goodness of those who'd owned me,
while I traced the whip scars from his neck
to the backs of his thighs like some writing
I might have read if my fingers
had the knowledge of the language,
a story for every lash,
but there was no reading his wounds
beyond what a wife might imagine;
he never spoke of them neither:
his was a different slavery,
as my body knew none of those welts.
Mister Buckingham could be fearful to me and the children,
fearful to strangers,
fearful to those who did good by him,
and there was a lot of folks did good by him,
especially once we come to Puslinch,
but he was a repentant man, a tender man,
a man who taught me the ways of myself, a man
who thanked the local whites for being the kind of folk
they were and for their forgiveness of him,
folks who had hated slavery from the outside
as much as he had hated it from inside...

When I first come away from Maryland,
I left my mother and sister,
ran from a mistress who'd never laid a hand or a whip on me;
left, because my mother, grandmother and sister
knew nothing of the world beyond the laundry
that was our life, we knew five streets in one neighbourhood
of Baltimore; but nothing of what lay beyond those corners,
didn't even have memories of where in Africa
we'd come from, or when we'd been enslaved,
more than a hundred years before was our guess;
my great-grandmother having died giving birth
to my grandmother
who was sold as a girl to the family that owned us ever after.

I wanted my own unborn children to know more than that,
so I ran; ran from the laundry; ran from family,
ran from the woman who'd owned me the thirty years
I'd been in the world;
ran to one of the free black churches in Baltimore;
and folks there helped me run further,
got me across Lake Ontario on a ship;
got a job in Upper Canada doing the only thing I knew how,
washing for white folk.

The African Methodists
had a church started in Toronto:
most congregants was escaped slaves,
which is where I met and married Mister Buckingham;
had our daughters Temperance and Emera, then our son Adam
before coming to Puslinch, where we moved onto land
near John Wetherald's.

John and a lot of whites
like the Beavers in Puslinch
was good to escaped slaves. 'though the township
was too close to America for the comfort of most who'd come away.

What struck me first about elsewhere,
long before reaching freedom,
was the smells:
everything had been lye soaps and starch, scents
of the drying line in the sun, wet wool and cottons,
the burn of the coal heater and pipe tobacco,
pipes we smoked on the porch behind the main house
when the washing was folded
and night was coming down on us,
my family four generations deep in my sister's child,
all of us in the starlight; casting shadows into
the apple orchard beyond, the fragrance
of the dark as rich as cider.

Those days come to me in pieces,
like a quilt falling apart at the stitches...
I never seen nor heard from my mother, grandmother,
sister or niece, since the day I come away,
though Mr. Wetherald got me news,
and mixed news it was after my old mistress died
and her son's wife took over the house and sold off
my mother and sister to some family in Delaware,
there being too many mouths for them to feed
on the money they had.

I will say for him - for the son of my mistress - for
my half brother, that I was the first of my family
not to mother a child by one of them,
even my niece was his, but it seems that having that girl
done him some good, so he never took me, and I suppose
his wife making him keep only
my grandmother and niece
was a mercy decided on between him and her
over the sin within him and his coloured kin,
least that was the comfort
I took from the split of what was his family and mine.

After Mister Buckingham was murdered in 1850,
I moved in with my daughter Temperance
and her husband Sam Bush:
lived in a shanty owned by Nicholas and Charlotte,
not this place, but a shack on the back lot of where these logs
first stood, further south from here, close to Morriston.

The Beavers was German with some French in them
from somewheres called the Alsace:
least ways Old Peter and his sons spoke three languages
with their English too...
They wasn't much better off than me or mine though.

There was plenty of Germans in south Puslinch back then,
religious too they was... Beavers used to be Lutheran
before and after some war in Europe that lasted 30 years,
though they was Quakers when I first knew them.

Some preacher named Joseph Harlacher,
who knew Mrs. Charlotte from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
got sent up to preach in Canada in 1841
by something just started,
calling itself the Evangelical Association,
Harlacher come to Puslinch looking for Mrs. Charlotte;
arrived around supper time...she got so excited
she invited everyone to hear him preach...
folks started showing up from all over the township;
had themselves a high, holy time of it here,
but the Beavers went back to Quaking after that,
though they was Lutherans again by the time I died.

I was Independent myself, told the census man
as much in '51, kept my beliefs to myself since my mistress
read Moses demanding Pharaoh let his “people go”
while giving us religion one Sunday before I come away:
that verse split the seam of belief in me for good ...

I liked the Quakers: the Society of Friends
they called themselves in full,
some of who, locally, was Germans, like the Beavers,
while others was Irish, Welsh and English;
the oldest being my neighbour John Wetherald,
who knew Old Hickory himself,
Old Hickory being Elias Hicks,
the man who caused what the Quakers called
their Great Separation.

Hicks lived in Wilmington, Delaware
along with John's brother Thomas
and father Joseph
and between them they knew just about every anti-slaver
there was to know, Quaker or not.

Wetherald, the Beavers, Howitts and others were all friends
to local coloureds and those passing through
on their way to the Queen's Bush Settlement,
a days walk northwest of Guelph.
So many self-freed slaves come this way,
by the late '40's so say there was more than a thousand
squatting and clearing farms up there.

The Queen's Bush was land no one could own
by squatting though,
it was meant to be sold for the good of the Church of England,
the church of Upper Canada, but the Anglicans hated slavery,
so they never complained about the squatters,
though later, the land was divided
and sold by the government; so
most of the squatters left 'cause few could afford
to buy what they'd worked.

There only ever was a handful of blacks around here,
here being Puslinch township, not the here
in the Valley of the Grand
where these rooms are now, but back then,
here was also where
parts of my life was lived, not long before I died,
seeing as the Beavers had used me as their washwoman.

My family was one of just seven coloured families
living in Puslinch. Beyond us, near by Wetherald...
where we first lived, was Old Jane Nelson and her line.
Ben Bowlen, who died frozen to death beside his ox
in the winter of '42 left kin;
there was also a big family of Waldens
who had their own share of sorrows,
their Rachel being murdered over in Rockwood
by a drunk named George Harris;
Rach was no more than seventeen
when she was found beaten to death.

They hung poor George
in Guelph, but proper, through the courts,
once they judged him guilty on evidence,
him going to the gallows reconciled to his Maker;
repentant for the drunken ways that led to him killing the girl,
them both living man and life for.

There was also the Rames, Claude himself
was a white man from Charleston
who fled with his family of freed children,
after his wife, Aurora, his former slave died.
Other than them,
there was a few other unmarried coloured folk around,
like Sam Banks,
who some called lazy, but
he really just wanted the life of the lilies of the field,
neither labouring nor toiling
once he escaped his master's whip,
and then there was Jeremiah Collins
(who asked me to marry him
the day before they found me dead.)

There was some white folks in Puslinch that hated us, some
that especially hated those of us who was able
to pass for white, like my Em,
but slavery was gone for good in the British Empire
with the Emancipation Act of 1833,
so that was a freedom's worth of difference
to anyone born a slave like me,
besides, those who hated us weren't much loved
by anyone here, white or black.

John Wetherald and other Puslinch folks was Quakers
the first anniversary of Emancipation Day,
I wasn't in the township then, but they say the Day
was celebrated under this roof too, because it wasn't
just Quakers celebrating here:
it was Methodists and Presbyterians, Anglicans and
Lutherans as well - there was lots of folks in Puslinch
who saw to it that enslaved folks
got as far away from their masters as made them feel safe.

And it wasn't just Puslinch whites who helped: up in Guelph,
there was a man named William Groat,
part white,
African and Indian; born free to loyalists
down at the head of the Lake by Burlington Bay,
related to Tuscarora on the Six Nations reserve,
the ones who first took escaped slaves up the Grand River
to the Queen's Bush before there was roads to walk there.
Groat taught us freedom was finding your true self,
but then the Groats was griots, had the old tales
in their bones to keep themselves true.

One of the men who caused the roads to be planked
from Lake Ontario north
was a Scot named Thomas Sandilands:
he run a store out of a stone building
on the market square in Guelph.

Like the Beavers, Sandilands come to the County
in 1832 but was part of George Brown's
Anti-Slavery Society in the 1850's;
in all that time between, he worked with John Wetherald,
though we never called ourselves conductors
or station masters or anything railroad,
we was neighbours was all, helpful to strangers,
and everything went good 'til 1850,
when the Americans passed their second
Fugitive Slave Act.

Mister Buckingham got so wild
about that change, there was no stopping him
from going back to find his brothers …

Wetherald's people say he was hung by patrolers,
left on a tree where the Friends couldn't get him,
so they never was sure it was him,
but I knew he was dead,
told the census taker the year after
that I was a widow and no one said I wasn't.

After that, I'd stay some nights with Temperance,
and some with Emera and her David King,
a grandmother to newborns...

but without Mister Buckingham, I... lost my way,
'til I turned up dead out back of Archie Little's Inn,
six days before Christmas, the day after Jerry Collins
asked me to marry him that early winter of '54.


Part Two

Nicholas Beaver

I knew Margrit nearly 25 years when she was found dead...
my brother Pete und me served on the jury that Doc Howitt
empaneled to find the cause. Towards the end,
Margrit had seemed haunted
alone with her ghosts among the sheets und clothes,
so maybe she'd died on purpose,
but that was one of the things we needed to learn.
Margrit used to have... 'rituals' she'd do while laundering,
it was the way she had of remembering those she'd left
when she 'come away' as she called it, but
once Buckingham was gone,
she was like a clothes line breaking;
everything falling in the dirt
und her not having the strength to wash it again.
Buckingham had been her great comfort, but when he died,
he left a hole too big for even their children's children to fill.

After news was found by John Wetherald
about her Maryland kin
she started drinking, und though some folks
thought she gave herself
to some of the newly-freed men passing through Puslinch
on their way north, I never believed such stories,
even after her last days with Jerry Collins was told
during the inquest:
Collins himself never made such a claim,
and he'd wanted to marry her,
but I think no man but Buckingham
knew the pleasures of her bed
all the days of her life.
John Wetherald taught us by example that we was one people,
but what troubled most of the former slaves
we knew back then was the fears und shames
they was trained in by their old masters.

John had a great patience for the newly freed
und no one needed patience more than Buckingham,
yet when the Fugitive Slave Act was re-enacted in the States,
to see Buckingham's grief was hard for those who knew him,
und no one doubted he would go back for his brothers
but not return.

That Slave Act killed John Wetherald too I believe,
though he was already old in 1850.
Turning America into a slave prison was too much
for his good heart;
und it broke him when he had to tell Margrit
what he'd learned had happened to Buckingham,
und then about the sale of her family.

In the end, for those of us on the inquest jury,
all we really had to worry over was whether Jerry Collins
had killed Margrit Buckingham; whether she'd killed herself,
or whether it might have been a tongue swallowing fit
(since she was known to have those on nights
when the moon was rising,
which had been the case the last night of her life.)
For all of us who knew her, on or off the jury,
the day of her inquest was a trial we all faced,
and a quiet Christmas it made for each of us
when all was said and done.

Part 3

Margaret

Jeremiah Collins was no man to equal Mister Buckingham,
he lacked the burning righteousness that kept my husband
true to his wounds.

Jerry was toolike me, mixed-blood;
too well treated by his father - his former master,
too guilty for having fled and left family,
too humbled by men like my husband,
whose sufferings was crimes.

Jerry, like me too, was a man of sorrows, not angers.
We never hated them who owned us,
just hated the idea of being owned by our flesh and blood;
it's what he and I talked about most
that last day: being owned by kin.

I barely knew Jerry, only ever saw him five or six times...
first met him after New Years 1854, then not again til that June
when he turned up at my daughter Em's sick with fever...
He knew Em and David, because Jerry,
being a digger of wells,
had dug one for them.
I nursed him back to health,
and when he was better
Jerry said he'd buy me a dress for tending him.

I didn't see him after that 'til the day before I died,
which is when he proposed... he was a funny man,
a sad man too, but a good man; and
well digging ain't for the lazy neither,
he'd been scarred by it,
his sick fever dreams was full of digging terrors,
some as old as his boyhood
when he was first put to the task of digging for water,
dangling down a hole,
a rope round his waist,
the only task he'd ever had,
digging wells for other folk.

Would I have married him?

It's a fool's question now:
maybe I had the heartache of being alone
those three years since Mister Buckingham'd gone, but
it was too many sheets, too many shrouds, too many ghosts,
too much snow and the earth and woods white
with the billowings of winter;
it was me lost in tobacco smoke around the wood stove
in the general store...
the slow burn of whiskey heating up inside me...
swirling in the knowledge of all the generations
of the same two families inside me:
it was the long drift of my aching thoughts;
and then it was that fence,
not knowing where Jerry was,
lost in the cold out back of the Inn,
talking to myself about who knows what,
while I hiked my skirts to climb the rails...
only that black cloud come down too hard for me
to know whether I could have lived as his wife, or not...

Part Four
Nicholas 
It was Doc Howitt examined Margrit's body
after she'd been found
by the fence with her skirts up next morning...

The Doc's father, Quaker Howitt,
first come to Upper Canada
on the same ship as John Wetherald, he und John
was good friends ever after, though the Howitts
was Methodists,
even had a church named after them.
Which is to say, that Doc Howitt
was not looking to bury a coloured woman
without knowing the true cause of her dying,
so we talked to anyone who knew anything
that might have helped us.
Und of course, we had to start with the earliest account
we had of her last afternoon. On the stand,
Margrit's son-in-law, Sam Bush,
blamed himself for drinking and wrangling with Collins
before Margrit come home from her washing work.

Sam told us, that when she got to the shanty,
Jerry said he would take her to the store and pay for things...
so they left Sam as the sun was setting,
saying if they didn't return they would go to
David King's - her other son-in-law's...
which was the last Sam saw of her.
When asked by Doc Howitt, Sam said he thought
there was nothing improper in her behaviour with Collins,
but did think the two were on their way to buy whiskey.

Peter Hoffman,
who lived on my brother Peter's land,
testified that he'd come home
und found Margrit und Jerry at his place
saying they was drying out
from getting wet in the deep snow,
und that both of them was merry with drink,
though neither was drinking.
Jerry told Hoffman that he und Margrit
was going to marry, Hoffman said that she said
next to nothing; but seemed in good spirits.
By the time they left, it was almost dark.

They walked to Morriston through the snow, arrived
at McEdward's store around six...
Jerry was hired to unload some sacks,
so Margrit spent time talking to Mrs. McEdward's
in the kitchen; to her, Margrit seemed sober
und in good spirits, which was the same evidence all the folks
who came und went from the store gave about what she did
while waiting for Jerry to finish unloading. When he was done,
Collins bought Margrit a small bottle
of whiskey und said he wanted to take her home,
only she didn't want to go...

No one knew exactly when Jerry left the store
but folks said he gave up trying to get her to leave
after she'd borrowed a pipe und some tobacco
und sat around the wood stove smoking by herself
not talking much with the men, one of who was playing a
fiddle, while she sat sipping her whiskey, though she did dance
one dance with Jackson Dale, the blacksmith, a Morriston man
who soon after left for home.

Jerry by then had got himself a room at Little's Inn,
then come back to look for her, couldn't find her,
und so went to his room und stayed there, thinking
Margrit had walked home without him.
No one saw or heard Margrit after she'd left the store after 8,
other than Annie McCrae, who worked for Little
und maybe heard some whispering out by the shed
between 8 und 9, but she didn't look to see who it was,
und so no one saw Margrit alive again.

Archie Little said he saw Collins go to bed,
but Margrit never entered his tavern, perhaps on account
of her having been cut off from drinking too much there
the week before.

After that, no one knew nothing
'cept the two men who'd found her body in the snow out back
of the Inn near the shed next morning,
her skirts hiked up...
so maybe she'd intended on sleeping the night
in the shed, only left its shelter… for whatever reason,
died falling from the fence on her way back to it.

Part Five

Margaret

The truth is, Jerry Collins made me weak with needs
I wasn't sure I wanted to have, though heaven knows
I thought having them might save me.
...the more I remember it,
the more I see myself hunkered at the wood stove, smoking
and thinking: trying to work it through, knowing I had a fit
coming on - I could always feel them coming, there was a chill
on my neck, a tingle of the hairs...
they always came, warning signs, then my sight would get
so it seemed like
there was nothing but a lace sheet between me and the world,
me and my past...
me and my desires, like the desire for the son of my mistress
and the real reason I come away
because I knew he would never know me
as freely as he wanted to know me, as freely as I wanted
to know him, even knowing he was my white father's son by
my mother, my half brother, the father of my sister's child.

Not sure I remember dancing,
not sure when I got up and left the store,
not sure where I was going or why,
looking for Jerry's my only guess...
the rising moonlight was no more than sickle bright,
casting shadows on the winter around me...
asking Mister Buckingham's forgiveness
the whispering I guess Annie heard
...the rest was snow, softness...
like falling into the laundry pile as a girl...
I never felt the cold, or knew my dying
as something that should've - or could've - been fought...

Part Six

Nicholas

At home - here in this room - after the inquest,
talking to Charlotte,
we both knew the causes of Margrit's death:
they was all the things slavery und escape
had overwrought in a woman who'd lost too much
for her to hang on to the few things she loved that was left:
her family, friends, und neighbours.

Old Jane Nelson who wasn't old, was a former slave
living on John Wetherald's place before he died,
she told Charlotte after Margrit's death,
that when Margrit first come of age:
the cycles of the moon
und her own blood flow
opened some door in her she couldn't close,
und though Margrit lived among women
who took a sensible view of their natural ways,
as a child of the laundry, as Old Jane told it to my wife,
the first time her flow come, Margrit fainted,
afraid of what her mistress might say,
afraid she'd be sent away, which was the one cruelty
Margrit's mistress allowed herself,
the threat of selling the family off,
a threat that the old mistress never carried out;
since they was all related to her,
from Margrit's grandmother to Margrit herself.

According to Old Jane, ever since,
Margrit had been subject to fits
on the rising of the new moon,
she'd swallow her tongue;
then need someone to keep her from choking on it.

The only thing was, there no way of knowing
if a fit had caused her to freeze to death that night,
but Doc Howitt thought it the most likely cause,
though he couldn't prove it,
so we'd ruled her death the result of 'causes not known'...
Margrit Buckingham was loved, und did a chore well
that needed doing right, but slavery
destroyed something inside her:
escaping her family had destroyed most of the rest of her.

Eleven years after her death, slavery was pulled down,
but it didn't die, not then, not since.
Not in my time,  not in yours,
slavery is more than hatred of another race,
because, in every age, slavery is grown out of
the root of all evil, the love of money
is how Saint Paul put it: slavery gives some men
an advantage over other men, und from that one fact
grows a world that owes all its power, root und branch,
to the misery of others.

Epilogue

Jerry Collins

I was given the name Jeremiah when I was born and since then
almost no one's called me nothing but Jerry.
The inquest into Margaret's death
was one of the times when I was called Jeremiah.
Margaret called me Jerry; I can still hear the way she said it.
Collins was the name of my master,
my father, the man I never wanted to be.

As Peter Hoffman and Sam Bush told Doc Howitt and the jury,
I wanted to marry Margaret, after that, everyone in three counties and
sweet Jesus in heaven knew I wanted to marry her,
but that's something I've no shame for wanting.
What mattered most, was folks knew
I'd done Margaret no harm,
and that was a mercy:
I'd grown up watching coloured men
lynched for crimes they hadn't committed.
I could've known all kinds of terrors from whites,
but the whites in Puslinch was all Quakers and Methodists,
Presbyterians and Lutherans:
the only thing my neighbours wanted from the inquest,
was that it ask questions that needed answering about how
Margaret come to be dead... so the more questions they asked,
and the longer the jury spent trying to find out what folks knew
or didn't know, the further Margaret and I got
from the world we was born to...
her death mattered and so did my life.

People wanted to know why she died, though she
was just a coloured woman living on land cleared no more
than twenty years before. I was never more thankful for those
I called my neighbours than I was that day:
Margaret got her due,
and they gave me an honest hearing.

I never left Puslinch like Sam and Temperance,
or David and Em King done soon after.

It ain't that Temperance or Em was ashamed of their mother:
any more than Margaret's sons was,
Temperance left because she lost both parents too soon apart.
She and Sam and their children headed for Ohio,
though we lost trace of them after the Civil War.

Em and David moved away, no one knows where.
If Margaret had gone back to the shanty with me that night
who knows what would have changed, for her or me, she just
didn't want to go is all...
Margaret never left the store because she had the freedom
to stay until closing... sitting by the wood stove was how she
practiced her Independence that day; on another day, she might
have chose different.

She was what an Irishman at her funeral called
a Deirdre of the Sorrows,
a well of sorrow so deep and sweet,
and me being a well digger,
and having been in places so dark and hard on a man's fear,
I understood the dreams that would come with her fits,
and when they'd come, independence was nothing but an idea
flying from her mind as fast as her past catching up to her.

When we put her in the ground,
Nicholas Beaver come up to me,
which got me seeing that he had lost something too,
and that's when I saw the long view of my life,
from the time I was born the son of a master raised different
from other slaves, to the man I'd become
when Margaret nursed me back to life,
born anew by water cloth and the heart of her kind care...

I remembered her all the days of my life, the day I married,
the day my son was born, the day I could no longer dig wells
and worked for the township digging post holes,
work that never after brought back the terrors
that had begun when I was a boy
dangled into a dry well that first time,
sent to work the bottom til I found water,
til I found the joy and fear of my life.

Every thing I thought unchangeable in me,
had changed forever because of Margaret,
because of her freedom, because I'd done
what Moses would've wanted: I let her go,
left her smoking a pipe around McEdward's stove,
talking small talk
the way a free woman can,
dancing because she felt like dancing,
saying nothing more when she had nothing more to say,
knowing as I did that the new moon was already rising,
and the wild blood of her broken heart was stirring in her eyes
like she was readying herself...
least ways, that's the way I've come to remember leaving her
that night in the store: I let her go, then she walked off
and let herself go,
died while I slept not far from where she fell over that fence,
fell into dreams from which she never woke,
freed from sorrow, bound for glory, and raised from the dead
by the Son of Man who spoke to her bones,
breathed new life into them,
then sent her off with those she'd lost... newly found.

Freedom always overthrows death;
echoes down history like the voices in this place
celebratin' Emancipation Day
as free as they was in 1834
on the anniversary of the passing of that Act of freedom;
the day Margaret was reborn in the light of a new tomorrow.
Freedom don't come from man, it comes from God,
and death got no say in the matter neither.
Freedom's got songs it sings to every generation,
got refrains so old, nothing can stop them being heard.
Freedom's got echoes that drive a flower into blooming;
echoes that stir the mud into birth, echoes
that walked me out the door of that store;
echoes that let her let go.
Freedom is an echo of the beginning,
like the life of the trees
still sounding in the timbers of these walls.
Hear that?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

excerpt from Those Who Return

My novel 'hero' fancies himself a poet, and so does his Cajun-Creole 'heroine',
here's one he wrote for her in Those Who Return: May to August 1977, the third book of Evolution's Children 1965-2035

Eucalyptus Leaves
Eucalyptus leaves quiver,
whisper over the cicada rhythms of the heat
to the unheard thrum of her Panama's brim,
shading her face with shimmer.
Kohl-drawn lines
frame her green eyes,
shape the intensity
with which she reads a book
held by an elegant hand.
The naked lines of her arms and legs,
folded in the chair, expose the fragile power
of her resting form, poised on a finished paragraph,
her eyes diverting to mid-distance, to thought,
following some theory to her own conclusions;
the delicate modesty of her bikini,
top and bottom, conceal just enough
for memory to find its fond way
into the sun-bathed nuances
of her blazing glory.
She came over to the chair where he was sitting, straddled his legs and took his face into her hands, sighed, moved hair out of his eyes, and asked, “How did you know that I'd come to my own conclusions about a theory in that book?”

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Echoes in the Timbers Published

Seven monologues on the 1854 death of a former fugitive slave in Puslinch Ontario.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Howling Algiers

You were one of the children of forgotten Lou'sian:
stories never told until told to me:
black, white and brown, high yellow, Asian,
Chocktaw, Creek and Houmas,
sanctuary dwellers in warehouse Algiers,
when abandonment was a neighbourhood,
and you and your friends were
refugees of the atomic age, escapees
from decaying nuclear bonds,
abused, berated, shattered and bereft;
led across the Mississippi River
by a daemon genius for flight.
Some of you never returned, some did.
Only you and another know when it began, and yet,
for a time, one extended Summer of Love ago, you all lived as one
in the Naiad mysts of melancholic wharves.

You made your ways through boarded windows
past unpunched time-clocks; unturned calendars of working days:
you dragged tables, chairs, beds and blankets through the nights,
created a kitchen in candlelight no one passing ever saw;
learned to separate shadows from darkness, defying despair,
hunting dumpsters for reusables,
edibles for large pots, just enough for all;
everyone grateful, much of the time,
however little there was,
the lot of you sworn off stealing because theft
is unforgivable in America, as declared by the founders,
you and Leland, as a danger to Haven.

Otherwise, boys almost men sold themselves to uptown cadillacs
for cum-blown rides and buggery in rooms;
women... girls, escaped from ponytails and dolls,
were taken in every hole by hard men, or by lonely ones,
you who knew love and could face hate outside,
returned with food, medicines and sundries:
with scars and secrets sometimes shared,
long odds you all beat, beating time together
in a place you still call Havre, Bìfēnggǎng, Cheh Ah Pah, and Attuko,
Haven of Lou'sian's children.

Like Jimmy Little Rat, for whom no crack was too small,
stealth of shadows; diffidence of cats,
vanished into a sewer and never came back.

Like Linda the Red and Billy the Knife, took one another
as husband and wife then rode the junk train in their veins
til they had to be left where someone else could find them,
untraceable to the warehouse; while only those
who carried and spy boy'd for them cared that Linda and Billy were dead,
though a newsman who knew of Haven had word
slipped his way, of families in Slaughter, front pages there
of William Roberts III and his Creek wife, Linda Tuskineah
of lives before heroin.

And then there was Pedro,
claiming ancestry from an Amazon Riverboat gambler :
a kid you all thought lived in a time and place that never was: a headspace
that got him knifed for sleighting one five-card hand too many,
the reason you all thought he staggered down Patterson alone with a stiletto-opened back,
not yet seventeen; a headspace that left him dead on the Levee,
eyes open on the River of his dreams,
left by you kids for the cops, the only time he was ever caught.

The oldest of you was twenty, the youngest, twelve, Kitty,
tubercular, runaway from Slidell, carried by the child whores
on a board though hurricane debris, coughing black blood
to a roofless church, where wailing, unseeing, plaster-eyed nuns
received her like a sacrament; thereafter kept Haven in their prayer,
and Kitty. Seven years later, a newly frocked priest
gave up his collar for her good graces;
the two still work the hallucinatory streets,
lay missionaries to the offspring of Babylon Inc.

Children of forgotten Lou'sian, you scavenged yourselves
out of the abandoned wilderness, blew teliko winds
on brass fittings and pipes, drummed buckets and cans;
strummed strung-wire screwed onto resonators,
wailed joy and ache in a warehouse cellar,
while the working world ignored you, never heard you.

Down there was a miraculous dry hole,
cobble floors painted with your rage and redemptions,
resounding halls scrawled with your couplets and epitaphs;
jacknife-cut into ancient beams and timber posts,
carved into the clay brick walls, inner-mind reliefs of one another;
together in arrays, twos and threes; fours and others at once
loving, pleasing, despairing, in need of kindness;
cooking, cleaning, shedding family codes for personal reasons,
baggage busted open, remade under one rule:
Protect Haven and those who seek it!
chiseled onto the lintel over the cellar door.

Protect it, like Ginny, The Lupo did, daughter of a mafia don.
Ginny could talk her way out of anything but a run-in
with a wop-hating cracker from Gretna who beat her so badly
she spent months recovering in the care of those who knew her best
while the cracker went on with his business outside,
went on until Ginny could speak again, after which, he was found
with a bullet in his brain, hanging on a lamppost on Tolliss
near the Crescent City Bridge. Ginny was gone,
but came back to say goodbye, bringing food and blankets and wine
time after time. The Lupo never forgets her friends, and never will.

Friends like Saint Odile, the daughter of a Spiritual Church preacher from Thibodaux,
who had sex with anyone in the group if loneliness was breaking them,
til she got pregnant and carried the child full term,
gave birth to a son she named Jonah, born in a round heating duct
Jimmy Little Rat called The Whale,
although Saint Odile re-named it Birthplace
so that's what it was for other mothers.
Odile herself went home with Jonah,
left him for her father with the Ladies Auxiliary.
The rumour's always told, how she's a cook on oil platforms,
shipping out of Beaumont, Texas; there's another told,
that she keeps leaving kids for the Reverend,
'though no one knows why, 'several went asking;
only no one found her, until we did, and you met Jonah again,
realized his father was Leland, who co-founded Haven with you.

The other Summer of Love was for those who sought
Peace with flowers in their hair, while your summer of love
was lived full bore down Haven Lane
while wharves rotted, pilings reflected oil tanker streams of down river sheen;
and ocean going ships in brackish water and reeds,
where the coral snake rhyme came handy:
Red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, friend of Jack.”
Your Summer of Love came before Jonah's father,
Leland, was lynched.
Leland whose only crime was doing his best
for those who needed him:
lynched for being black, for loving you, someone lighter,
you, Aurore, who never forgets, and who afterward walked the streets
because heroin almost took you the night Billy and Linda died,
when others who loved you got you home,
so time could reconcile you with your parents,
so you could find love again, eventually meet me,
which is when time and spirit
found a realm in which you could know Leland again,
if only in passing, a place and night
in which he saw you and you saw him, as did Jonah;
so now we all understand that death has no dominion
and Haven never ends.

For those of you still alive, the memories never die,
for those of you among the dead, you're still inside the living,
and for those of you whose minds broke, or silenced;
you too, are never forgotten,
remembered across decades,
the living yet hoping
to one day lead you all back
in the name of the one
who was hung on a tree,
in the name of Leland, the heart of Haven
still howling Algiers while the urban stars and our unborn generations
are given free passage and a berth
to the new heaven and earth.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In the town where I came of age

1.

In the town where I came of age within the landscape I still know as home,
granite, lakes and pines, I look out on a corner that knows me, though
some of its storefronts are several times removed from those I passed
in snowstorm, sunshine and heat, in the cavalcades of colour
as defined by the autumnal brochures of my youth.

The church hall of my theatrical past, and of the dances of my loneliness,
is there on the hill out the cafe window.

The bridge, over which I sometimes pondered plunging into, in my not
so wonderful life, begat contemplations of how long I would last
in the cold waters of the river's open ice, just down the street, just out of sight.

I am decades away from that almost man, the no longer boy; the broken child
making his inchoate way into a future of heartache he would not have survived
if the crystal snow had foretold his future: his fortune, glimpsed in the narrow waters
of the otherwise frozen river, would have ensured his death then and there.

Blessed are they who cannot see what is to come.
What is bearable in part, could never be borne as a whole.

Like fairy tale breadcrumbs left on a forest floor eaten by birds and rodents;
carried off by insects, and turned sodden with rain to disintegrate before the return,
the way home, has an innocence, a naivetè that makes hope possible,

so that, here in this cafe window, more than forty years on, the miracle of breadcrumbs
keeps marking the trail of my passage with the remaining innocence of my hope,
gladly carrying me beyond the forest, beyond the desert, beyond the salt plain and
the mountains, beyond the swamp, the rivers, the lakes, the pines:
a pilgrim's progress to a faith stripped of pride, prejudice, and jaundiced I;
a faith that consists of the distillations of love out of thin air and thick, the ever willing
ability to trust my heart more than my mind, with just enough vision
of what might be coming, to believe in every new starting again and every continuance,
every grace and insight, every collapsing centre of every expanding care
around every bend in this unforeseen road beyond this corner where I sit,
because outside the door, the last period that will one day punctuate
the conclusion of my long sentence has been known
since well before I arrived here
trailing breadcrumbs.

2.

It is no secret to me, that the boy inside never grew up,
no secret the teenager within, has an unrealistic idea of romance,
and dreams of ever more rarefied manifestations of devotion and service.

The young man I was never stood a chance of maturing in due season,
like this horde of teens and pre-teens in the diner, lining up to pay their bills:
the long haired girls in their riding boots and their perfect complexions,
the red-cheeked boys and their collective posing, too cool as a sum
to allow their insecurities to individualize: they are young and full
of their own fragile immortalities, but if seen as themselves, each alone,
they come apart at the seams into awkward anxieties, desperate to conform,
to fit in, and yet stand out.

They are the peers of my youth two generations later, like the ones
who thought me so much braver, so much more willing to go out on a limb,
as if I was not a damaged child making up constructive rebellions, not making it
up as I went. Despite what they thought, it wasn't confidence that made me other,
it was the secrets inside me, and no doubt, among these adolescents lining up
to pay for their lunches, there are a few a least partially like me, though the rest
are happily aging into the roles assigned them, with the provisos in their own minds,
that they will do it better, and so they should, but mostly won't, for all generations
are born to replace those that gave rise to them, unless now, in the coming age
of a rapidly changing climate, they alter the future in ways beyond all generations
that preceded them.

Some of these paying up and leaving this eatery, will die along the way,
have their names and dates etched into yearbooks; into the hearts and minds of their peers,
some lost, accidentally forgotten by best friends some drunken night, a night
of random choice remembered by the survivors forever, a choice that alters everything.
Others will perish in all the other sundry ways in which youth fails to become age,
because good fortune fails, because sickness or random occurrence or suicide
removes them from the stage.

It is humanity's lot to come and go, individually, and as a species.

There is only care and consideration, or their absence, to mark our passage,
the broken and the unbroken alike, we all end in the grave, or the ash urn or spread
on the winds, or lost at sea, or vanished into who knows where, though we each measure
our lives in love, or in its absence.

So let the young be naive, and the old be wise, let those whose innocence is taken
and those who retain some of the same all of their lives, remember:
we are creators and destroyers, we manufacture hope and despair, we grow families and friends
or fail to. So if you find yourselves, or your sons and your daughters, or those of others,
on the routine cusp of eternity, patiently - or impatiently - lined up to pay for their time here,
consider them with kindness, for we all carry a secret we don't always admit, to ourselves or others.

3.

In a place I lived only through high school and slightly beyond,
but where my family still lives, a place to which I have returned to
over the decades for holidays and visits, I study faces for evidence
of those I once knew, most of the names are gone, and familiarity
does not place many faces, however much some seem like ones
I once knew.

Humanity only has so many variations of features with which to work,
and so at best I recognize possible and probable former friends and acquaintances,
without knowing almost anyone, just those vaguely reminding me
of people I may have known, mistaken identities and assumptions,
the partial memories of a jumbled puzzle.

There are too many decades, there is too much absence, too little prequel to my original arrival
followed by comings and goings, too many elsewheres, too many possibilities that faces
could be known from some other place altogether, and that they too are visitors, tourists
in a tourist town with long or short associations to the place.

My family would know, my mother, my brother, my sister: they are my continuity,
the custodians of my old who's who.

I am, of course, sometimes remembered, since my face and hair and body shape
are all unchanged, and thus, to those who are from here; who once knew me,
I am a face in context. They know my name, though more often than not, I don't know theirs,
unless I once knew them well. Most names for me, are echoes of memories, resonance
without substance: re-introduction, at best, provides only memories for the next time we meet,
some have stories with anecdotal triggers, deep reverberations
that cause an eruption of recollection, either from personal connections, or from shared circumstances:
of the we were in it together variety, either events from my student council presidency,
or from the two neighbourhoods in which I lived, or the swimming hole,
or hockey and soccer teams, because there was a life here, some of which even I
remember better than others.

The landscape, the streetscape, the landmarks of my first arrival here
alter more slowly than the people, except when they don't. Buildings are demolished,
new ones built, even the granite shield is now subject to dynamiting developers,
so that, where once there were forests on rock outcroppings, ubiquitous malls
rubber stamped by town planners across the province like bacteria spreading their wastes
on agar agar plates, now decimate the character of localized places I knew,
eradicating idiosyncrasies of less formulaic ages.

The landscape, the streetscape, the landmarks also age like people, they grow old and die,
albeit more slowly, they deteriorate, collapse and disappear altogether, while nature stakes
it's own inexorable claims on every demense.
Humanity is mist on a lake turning to clouds, and one way or another
we are a species on the verge of oblivion or evolution, we are a process, not a stasis,
so that, here, in this place where I came of age among people
I rarely recognize anymore, the temporal shifts
reveal transformations as unfoldings, not into flatlines,
but into still other folds within the folds;
what is hidden for a time, can be seen in a heartbeat between breaths;
revealed and concealed as wavelengths of life's momentum.



Jan 8-10 2016 Huntsville/Elora