Thursday, December 01, 2005

Going Home

Every night this week, Tambacounda ate yams and chicken with his family and best friends, laughing and telling stories around the campfire while watching shooting stars descend on their coastal cousins in Dakar. Not once did he awake trembling in sweaty terror, sneaking through the dark alleys of Boston, making his way to the harbor where he hoped to stow away on a ship headed for the Indies before his master or the slave bounty hunters could find him.

Sometimes in his dreams of his home--before the long, horrid sail under the snapping Union Jack he glimpsed from his shackled berth under the hatch—he led his ass down a forest trail loaded with firewood for his village. Last night he sat by a stream watching a large fish in a deep pool below the waterfall where they bathed and swam and washed their clothes. The scales were so bright, so silvery, rimmed in black.

This morning he felt very tired; it took many cups of strong British tea to settle his dreams and return his mind to Tortuga, his new home since smuggling himself out of Trinidad with an Orinoco named Tumeremo. Tambacounda enjoyed the warm sun and soft earth and sweet scents of Tortuga; it was more like his first home than New England, and he took great sustenance in his regained freedom to wander and be idle or joyful.

His new friends from Appalachia and Clochair and Kowloon told most interesting stories of their journeys with Union Jack, but especially of their tribes and villages and clans. Sometimes they sang strange songs—not in English—and danced to very different rhythms than those he knew. There eyes and hearts were far away at these times, and the others kept silent, remembering loved ones far away.

The children of Tortuga mirrored the diversity of their parent fugitives: red-haired, blue-eyed Indians; freckled, straight-haired Negroes; tall, thin, frizzy-haired Chinese. Mostly they chased goats and ran and swam and climbed trees for fruit, but the free-ranging youngsters also learned to read the words stamped or branded on coins, casks and boxes of contraband pilfered from British ships and warehouses by their seafaring fathers. While their parents’ hearts often ached for homes long left behind, to the newborn natives of the enclave, Tortuga was a safe, merry, prosperous community.

Tambacounda and the other Africans were the only Tortugans who’d been slaves; the others were runaway indentured servants or escaped convicts imprisoned for debts or for fighting or murdering British who cheated them of their wages or lands. Only a couple of the Irish—whose English was very hard to understand—had ever actually seen England, but everyone agreed it was full of wicked people, sick with greed and arrogance. Tambacounda would gladly kill every one of them before letting them take him back to his master in Vermont. He felt good when he and his mates slit the throats of British soldiers and sailors while commandeering merchant ships flying Union Jack.

Mostly, though, Tambacounda liked the way Tortugans shared with each other, feasting, playing, and watching over the children. It was different from his childhood: here there were many stories of people, animals and how the world came to be like it is; there were no black enemies or kings, and unlike New England, no governors or judges or reverends. Tortugan disagreements were settled by talking with all his neighbors—sometimes all day and all night—until an understanding was reached and fair amends determined. Everyone felt good to put things back in order. Tortuga had no jails.


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