K. Farrell Dalrymple
The tatters we wear still hold the fishy fragrance of the ocean. Our pilgrimage began aboard skiffs that barely kept adrift traversing the Windward Passage. Now, on weary legs, we plod the valley of a strange land where we only know to follow the river. The force of the flood is sudden, stealing a lot of what little food and clothing we do carry. But due to God’s grace, we find strength to keep a firm embrace on our little ones.
The cave is nothing more than a shallow hole in a mountain of rock. It traps the night’s chill, offering meager shelter or protection from the whipping wind and rain. Each gust is a razor slashing our skin with a delayed burning sensation that lingers in our sinews, burrowing into our bones. Fatigued, we bundle like dirty laundry, shivering like damp cats. “A mish-mash of griot pork stuffed into a sandwich,” our village elder calls us, though, she notes, “we do not smell as tempting.” Empty stomachs, the image of food we do not have, and her teeth chattering sap all levity from the jest.
Thunder rumbles, a jolting reminder of our village gardens that one day became battlefields. An assassinated president, some say. Others blame the greed of an often unseen class living in mansions with towering white walls and shimmering floors and unfamiliar luxuries like air conditioning. We know very little of modern things or of foreign mercenaries rewarded handsomely to wreak havoc in a suffering land. We know more of kafe fields and mayi, of bannann groves and manyòk, of patat and types of fish in Twa Rivyè.
After persisting for hours, the storm eases. This alien land is unwelcoming. It hunts us with heavy rains and furious flooding and gives us nothing but a blanket of dark sky and still clouds to navigate the night. Survival must trump sense, however. Sense is a luxury we lost the morning machine gun fire startled us from bed.
Diffusing like gasses in the air, we unbundle, venturing from rocky safety to walk a road of unknown, leading to a future of uncertainty and the promise of something unlike the reality we flee.
We trek further inland, away from the river’s rage, but the orchestra of aphids is near deafening. The air is a coarse moist tongue dragging down our cheeks. We’ve disturbed the mosquitoes and it feels as though the swamp we’re crossing stings. Our feet are blocks caked in mud, each step more clunky, more uncertain than the last, but we are led by instinct - not by sight.
Where are we heading? Away. And in which direction? Any.
Our journey is the same. Our route is the same. Our destination, too, is the same. Someplace that slows our racing heartbeats, where we can cross the border to trade what joys and futures we may have left, so our children can grasp the fruit of opportunity and squeeze.
Those who journeyed before us returned with tales of families locked in cages and tent cities and kind white men demanding papers and green cards after they’d crossed borders. With no paper and no green card, the kind white men gave them facemasks, bottles of water, rubber slippers, and tickets back to hopelessness. But the ones in uniform, who gallop on horseback whirling whips, they warned, have a countenance of sheer hatred, and pour down blows on men and women and children alike, lashing back and forth, back and forth pausing only to catch their breath. Be swift as a cat, they said, and go with nine lives. It became a common saying among those of us who didn’t heed their warnings and left seeking what they’d left seeking before us but didn’t find.
Go with nine lives.
Because days get hotter. Roads get narrower, rockier, and mountainous. The sun hardens the ground we walk, eating away the soles of our shoes. Our burdens are light, yet grow ever heavier with each hill we climb, each body of water we cross. Like prunes, our skin shrivels under the heat. Our eyes glow yellow with jaundice. Unruly weather, biting hunger, and searing fever leaves us sweating like volcanoes oozing lava. Knowing there is little, we eat what we have sparingly – one bite, pass it along. Just one bite and pass it along each reminds the next.
Whenever and whatever Mother Nature provides makes our hearts flutter with thanks.
The old die. Children die. And our prayers become curses. Burying them in alien soil gives us time to pause, pay our respects, and challenge God for forsaking His flock on this journey northward.
“You cannot see His promise of peace is a lie until losing all worth holding onto,” a childless mother wails.
Hope for those of us strong enough to continue on means her truth and tears must fall upon deaf ears. Still, we know, the cot of despair that is hers today may very well become ours tomorrow.
It injures our spirits irreparably, leaving pieces of ourselves behind, knowing we will never return to them, and they will never return to us. Yet, we've grown too accustomed to making impossible sacrifices, and somehow, someway, find strength to push on until stumbling upon another caravan of battered and bewildered dark-skin people.