An excerpt (“Prologue”) from the historical fiction novel The Experiment by Tony Bove
The flowering of the blues and rock in American music, which inspired a cultural revolution in the Sixties, began as a seed planted by High John the Conqueror, the dark prince of West Africa, the rolling stone who carried the traditions and spirits of his ancestors to the New World.
Music is an important part of the novel, so playlists are provided.
* * *
Screams of the captives pierced the thunder and tore a hole in the sky. Out of the hole, through dark swirling clouds, fell a thunder-stone, an otane.
Heijande, a jeli poet, singer, and a kora and djembe virtuoso, born into a Gonja clan, crouched in the bush in the merciless downpour to look at the stone hissing in the damp earth. A snake appeared in his path, bearing witness. Heijande knew what it meant. The otane had fallen to earth to stop him from making perhaps the biggest mistake of his life.
Down in the canyon, captured members of his clan continued screaming in agony as they stumbled, the right leg of one secured to the left leg of another by the same pair of fetters, and also fastened by chain neck to neck. Dagomba slave traders were dragging them down toward the river. They were victims of tribal warfare that had started ten years earlier, in 1714, that pitted the clans aligned with Asante on the Gold Coast against the Mossi Kingdom.
Heijande had been shadowing the traders with the hope of taking out the last armed trader at the rear of the miserable procession. He thought he could free at least one, and possibly two, of his clan. Shu Lia was closer to the front of the line, but it would be suicidal to attack there first. He could disrupt the procession from the rear and try to make his way to her.
Heijande felt the blood rush to his head and fingers. He knew it was a sign that he was too angry to do this properly. Anger against the traders was nothing new, and neither was bloodshed. But the thunder-stone had fallen. There must be a reason. He imagined the first step of the attack, and then imagined each step after that. He saw clearly that he would not succeed. Members of his clan would be put to death in retaliation. Shu Lia, the most beautiful, would be raped first, and they would make him watch.
The snake bearing witness was a sign from his most powerful ancestor. The stone would draw the ancestor’s power. It was still hot, but he clutched it to his chest, and rubbed his stomach with it to spread its warmth through his body. It was also a gesture of possession; he now possessed the otane. He began to sing and play on his kora the oldest song on Earth, from his Mesopotamian roots.
Heijande was nyonyose, a descendant of the earlier inhabitants of the upper Volta River region, the Dogon gina, which traced its ancestry back to Dyon and the Bela Mont clan. He learned the songs of his ancestors and would still sing them today, especially the song about keeping away from runaround Su, Erzulie’s wicked side who cavorted with other men, and the sad song of the Wanderer, who had brought the Dogon across the vast Sahara and Maghreb deserts to this region seven centuries earlier. Most of the Dogon had long since fled from the Mossi calvary or had quietly assimilated into Gonja clans, resisting all prevailing Muslim influences, wearing the sign of the fish head. Heijande wore the Dogon fish head painted on his right buttock, symmetrically opposed to the snake-like symbol of Aido-Hwedo on his left buttock.
As jeli for his people, Heijande sang the songs of his ancestors, a history of exploits and spiritual awakenings. As a descendant of griots, he was also a genealogist, and respected as a sorcerer. Heijande knew the songs that could empower and consecrate a thunder-stone and unlock its secrets.
Clutching the cow-skin covered calabash of his kora, he sang and played while crouching in the rain, the song of the three monkeys, loosely translated,
A stone in my path, now dark as the night
Unleashes my spirit to seek the light
With my eyes shut to evil, ears that hear only right,
And lips that are dumb to scandal, I sit in my silent might.
With stone in hand, he felt the power. He could sing a song that could change a scornful woman to feel desire for the object of her scorn. He could sing another that could stop a man’s mind long enough to see the beauty of any woman, no matter how ugly, and to fall in love with her. When a cousin had been ordained to marry a woman he did not like, not even one little bit, Heijande had filled his cousin with love for this woman, so that they would be happy together.
With stone in hand, his songs would grow even more powerful.
Crouched in hiding, Heijande now worried about the fate of the boy that had inadvertently betrayed the clan. Heijande had taught the boy the song about the three monkeys, how to see no evil, hear no evil, and sing no evil, in order to evade his captors. A Mossi warlord had beaten the song out of the boy and knew its secret. The evasion song had become more than useless; it had become a trap. Heijande had not had time to warn the clan, and they were singing it when the battle of the Upper Volta erupted, Asanti against Mossi. Singing did not protect them from being captured. Before long, Dagomba traders surrounded them.
The Dagomba, known as the parasites of battlefields, sold captives from both sides of the battle directly to the English on the coast, bypassing the Dutch at the eastern edge of the Bight of Benin. They traded for beads, cowrie shells, textiles, brandy, horses, and more recently, guns, which only increased the corruption and militancy of both sides.
Heijande had sung songs about the brown-skinned clans from the north, who had established gold mines centuries ago and enslaved many clans to work in the mines. He had sung songs to their Allah spirit. Now the white clans had come, spreading corruption, turning clans like the Dagomba into traders. Heijande had no song for these white clans that traded for his people, and then took his people away, across the vast ocean from which no one ever returned.
When the white clans come, the first thing they do is take away our songs. Then they bury our shrines, and force us to worship their spirits and ancestors. If we kill them, more of them arrive. It is as if by killing them, we multiply them.
Heijande set off along a trail to the ridge that paralleled the river. From the ridge his view encompassed an endless expanse of ravines, grassland, scrub, and dust, repeating itself like waves of an earthen ocean northeast to the wastes of the Maghreb. Heijande’s ancestors had come from the other side of the Maghreb, bringing musical instruments, dances, songs, masks representing the first human beings… and the story of creation. As a boy he wanted so very much to travel out there, through the Maghreb to the other side. He still imagined that distant relatives lived out there, beyond the wasteland, and that one day he would meet them. Perhaps they had survived the corruption.
The region was once fertile and rich with sheep and goats. Three centuries ago it had been cursed by Bida, the black snake spirit of the Soninke people, because he had been cheated out of his annual virgin sacrifice by the virgin’s angry fiancé. Love had triumphed, but drought brought an end to agriculture and gold mining. Brown-skinned traders from the north, in Tahert, still travelled down the same trail as his ancestors, through Sjilmasa in southern Morocco, then south and inland, running parallel with the coast, and southeast through Awdaghust and Kumbi Saleh. As a boy, Heijande, like most of his people, had adopted many Islamic customs and cuisines in order to be polite to these traders, and it was a kind trader who had shown Heijande how to make a l’ud, stretching thin strands of the gut of a tiger over rib bones. His practice with a l’ud gave him the confidence to master the kora.
That seemed so long ago. The screams of the captives now whispered in the wind from farther away. The powerful Asante king, Osei Tutu, had ties with the legendary John Konny on the coast, and the Dagomba would likely bring them to Konny. Heijande looked due east to a distant yellow-green uprising of misty savannah woodlands, undulating to a bumpy horizon of dark brown mountains. He turned to view the southwest terrain, the Volta River snaking through tropical rain forest, about a two-day run to the tiny huts and curls of smoke that outlined the village of Salaga, the slave-trade center, a node of Konny’s empire. Heijande’s world was encircled by mountains and rain forest, with the only escape possible to the Maghreb in the northeast, or to the west and the slave-trade centers.
Singing Worried Songs
History is written in the daytime by the victors, but actions occur at night, when the English, the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the Muslims sleep.
At night, the optimists of Heijande’s clan argue with the pessimists who want to prevent childbirth to extinguish the clan rather than face widespread, inevitable corruption.
At night, Heijande consults his ancestors. They are embodied in sacred stones placed at the feet of the shrine of the three monkeys, and are made immortal through song. They are fed, celebrated, danced to, and strummed into perfection by the kora. The white clans have what they call history, but it is a history of the dead. They allow only one ancestor to accompany them through life, the one they call Christ the Lord. They celebrate eating the flesh of this Christ, and many of Heijande’s clan fear that these white clans traded for slaves and took them off to sea in order to eat them.
At night, Heijande sings a living history, the story of how his people live for all time in the bosom of all that is natural. All of Heijande’s ancestors live with them and help them. Heijande songs bring their ancestors to life. His music has the power not only to heal, but to enliven everyone around him, to bring life into the world. He draws this power from within, with the help of his ancestors and with his fervent passion for the beautiful sweet-lipped Shu Lia, the muse of his songs.
Yes, history is written in the daytime but made at night. It was during the night that he had lost interest in Angula, his first wife, who no longer wanted him to travel and sing his songs for others. Sing them for us alone, and our children, to keep us safe. But the songs have no power unless you share them with others. We can’t keep our love with this music, we must spread it to others to help them love, to enrich not only our clan but all our clans. She did not understand.
And it was during the night that he’d left her bed for Shu Lia, who now interested him more than anything in the world. Shu Lia was kin to another jeli and had the potential to be one herself. It would be good for Heijande to mate with her.
Angula had screamed and shouted at him the next day, in front of the others, but it only made her appear vain. The others thought, does she not understand the power of Heijande’s music? Does she not appreciate that Heijande has taken on a second wife, kin to a jeli herself, to help with the chores?
All these thoughts lay hostage to his tired body and kept him worried all night, singing worried songs. Heijande finally fell asleep at dawn by the river, and woke up in the hottest part of the day in chains, tricked by his own exhaustion. Like his brethren, he was now a victim of this incomprehensible universe.
* * *
Black bony shapes crouched or lay flat between trees or leaned against their trunks, clinging to a scorched earth as chain gangs clinked and swirled around them, oblivious to their slow dying gasps escaping like steam from their mouths, a brownish steam of disease and starvation evaporating in the greenish gloom. In Salaga, knee-deep in the mud of the wonkan bawa, the bathing place of slaves, chained to a young Baobab tree with other captives, Heijande sang his songs, picked his kora strings with one hand and beat his djembe with the other, quietly, knowing he would attract more attention than if he did so loudly.
He sang in the Dagomba tongue the song of John Konny, how he had used the spirits of Legba to trick the Dutch commander of Fort Hollandia. Through many contacts Heijande had learned of John Konny, the powerful black merchant and monopolist of the slave trade at the coast. The Dagomba traders stopped to listen to Heijande; many of them knew versions of this story, and spoke of Konny as heroic. Heijande used the song as a trick to associate himself with Konny, to usurp some of Konny’s power and charisma, so that his captors would be pleased and his people in chains would be inspired. Heijande’s performance caught the attention of the burly Noi, commander of the traders, who had strict instructions to bring any original singers, musicians, or jeli to the English missionaries.
The story Heijande sung was how John Konny had ruthlessly cornered the slave trade with the Asante and the Aowin. Konny staged a coup in early 1714. The Dutch sent three shiploads of armed men. Konny himself had led the charge, in the disguise of a baboon, that killed thirty-six Dutchmen and captured the fort. Heijande’s song was all about Konny’s bravery, cunning, and the kind of trickery that comes only from high wisdom.
Heijande’s song was close to the truth. Ten years after the coup, Konny was still king of the slave trade in that region. Konny had once garroted a prisoner who had stolen silverware from a missionary family, then presented the man’s blood-drenched lifeless heart to the family as an offering, but kept the silverware for himself.
Children in the Dark
The English considered Konny to be excessively violent, but easy to manipulate for driving out the Dutch. Accustomed to abominable behavior in the far reaches of the Empire, Admiral William Faithfull, stationed in 1724 on the more-or-less permanently anchored British frigate Insoluble, didn’t think twice about Konny’s torching of villages and killing women and children. This is what the tribes did to each other in their own tribal wars, and what the Dutch and Portuguese had been doing for nearly a century.
And Faithfull had no patience for the Dutch. His father-in-law and mentor, Sir Christopher Myngs, had been honorably engaging his ship Victory in the Four Days Battle of 1666 between the English and the Dutch when his flotilla had been surrounded and he received lethal wounds, first through the cheek and then in the left shoulder, by musket balls fired by a Dutch coward, a sharpshooter, on the deck of the Ridderschap van Holland. No, the Dutch could not be trusted, even though the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought an end to their conflict.
Faithfull was there to enforce the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which had given Britain a thirty-year asiento, or contract, to supply an unlimited number of slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The triangular Atlantic trade was the most important and profitable trading route in the world. One out of every four ships that left Liverpool harbor carried manufactured trade goods to Africa, including guns from Faithfull’s son-in-law’s concern in Birmingham, to exchange for slaves to transport to the Americas, where they would sell the slaves and pick up a cargo of agricultural products, often produced with slave labor, for Britain. Indeed, nearly all the sugar produced in the plantations were exported to London by this route, to supply the highly lucrative coffee houses. The slave trade boosted employment especially in the copper and brass industries around Bristol and Liverpool, one of which was owned by Faithfull’s uncle. A merchant ship could make a substantial profit on each leg of the voyage, which was designed to take full advantage of prevailing winds and currents. Faithfull’s assignment was to ensure that these ships could conduct their trade by any means necessary.
Mumblingore and Cravingston, Anglican missionaries on station at the Gold Coast port, may have been aghast at the Konny situation but showed no interest in pursuing any other method of staying the course of the British Empire, except to hold court with Konny several times a week and keep him occupied with trivial matters. The two missionaries could be seen often, arm-in-arm like children in the dark, roaming about the port all day long with their periwigged heads so close together they seemed stuck in everlasting conference. Such imbeciles, thought Faithfull. What madness had settled in Canterbury to have sent these fine specimens of boorish incompetence! Two perfectly insignificant and incapable men of the cloth, rendered into existence by the high use of superstition and nonsense to promote the idea of civilization, the political organization of crowds. They had persisted with their beliefs and English customs in this port for several months, like gnats at the gnawing edge of a vast and dark wilderness, dull to the subtle influences of their surroundings like blind men in a large room…. All of that great land throbbing with life was like a great emptiness to them. The two understood nothing and cared for nothing except to pass the time with their moonlit ecstasies with captured native women and their shaded afternoon soliloquies made blithely insouciant by Dutch-imported opium. Faithfull had no use for them.
Ernest Mumblingore, as portly and contented as a butcher in the East End with an ostentatiously fat paunch under his black cappa clausa, moved about on very short legs as if rooting in a pig sty. The view through his darting, insidious brown eyes was of an inherited devastation, a clearing encroached upon on one side by a rampaging sea and by all other sides by thick forests hiding fateful complications of fantastic life, all erupting in an eloquent silence. There was no escape except by sea, either on the Admiral’s ship anchored in the half-moon-shaped bay, or on one one of the merchant ships that arrived every fortnight bringing English goods and hauling away slaves. And to his mind there was no salvation for these natives except by sea; to be taken away from this fetid wash of violence and terror into the bosom of the Christian plantation in the New World.
Indeed, thought Mumblingore, the Konny situation was inevitable. Had not the rulers of these thatch-hut kingdoms supplied slaves to Muslim traders in the north and Europeans on the coast for centuries? Whatever methods they were to employ to exterminate the native beliefs in evil spirits were methods they had inherited from the previous missionaries. According to accounts, one had reported back to the Archbishop castigating Admiral Faithfull as downright immoral and beastly, and then promptly committed suicide; the other had abandoned his post at the mouth of the Volta River and set off, babbling, to find some fantastical source of wisdom in the wastes of the Maghreb. Mumblingore’s reaction upon hearing this was to question the wisdom of pairing him up with someone as potentially subversive as Cravingston, but in time he came to know and like the man, if only for the entertainment of watching his judgmental convictions shatter in the face of depravity.
Richard Cravingston, all bony and angular, yellow-faced and pointy-eared, with eyes that sparkled like specs of mica, so awash within his black cappa clausa as to be drowning in it without his caul to hold his neck high, fidgeted constantly with a worried aspect. He acknowledged, ruefully, that whatever method had been employed by their pre-decessors, nothing had worked. All it did was give Konny a monopoly.
Cravingston saw the travesty right away, when he had accompanied the explorer John Atkins to Fort Hollandia on the Swallow in 1721, and had found the smartly dressed Konny in charge of the fort, cursing the Dutch and serving up meals of canky bread, cheese and palm wine with plates and silverware. Set around the walls of the circular chamber specially for dinner were more than thirty bashed-in heads of decapitated native warriors and Dutch soldiers, alternating black and white heads, still bleeding from all openings, many with their eyes still open, staring out in empty, hopeless vengeance. Yes, yes, it helps our side, Cravingston said, but at what cost? Dutch West India Company traders are slaughtered if they do not leave the area. These newcomers, these interlopers from Spain, from Tunis, we strong-arm them into trading with Konny. We give those blood-thirsty Dagomba chieftains a reason to collect more captives. What are we really doing here? We think we control this John Konny, but it is Konny that is controlling the port, not the British!
Squat on the western side of the Bight of Benin, the port was an opaque ring of earth encircled by jagged hills, bordering on a half-moon sheet of transparent blue water harboring three anchored ships with naked masts. The bottomless bay reflected a luminous sky. Cravingston had his counter-revelation one hot afternoon on the beach with one of the female captives Konny sent over periodically, ostensibly for a Christian conversion from their wicked ways. Konny was someone they could learn from. If the white race were to truly dig in, revel in this decadence, get to the very source of the African’s primitive, dark nature, he thought as he probed with his nose the sweat-creased passages of her brown fleshy buttocks and breathed her warm smell deeply, why, we would eventually bring out jewels, priceless artifacts of human heritage, astonishing secrets of powers latent within us all. Opium from the Malay, favored among the Dutch gentlemen when smoked with tobacco in a pipe, produced a vertiginous swoon but did not connect Cravingston with these Powers Within. Nevertheless it helped him immensely to drop all his pretenses, remove from his mind all thoughts of the plump wife back home sighing over needlework and her Bible, and lay about with slave women as dreamy, pliant pillows of flesh, sweet and committed to no other purpose than to serve his need.
Mumblingore had long ago steeled himself to passionate displays and all that prancing about naked on the beach in daylight; it was not his style. His passion was for economic power, the power to make people more reasonable and more comfortable to deal with, more pliant. As a missionary Mumblingore knew only one position, on top. Inside the thatched hut that served as a chapel for the port, an enslaved Asante princess lay prone beneath his sweaty girth, spouting gibberish English at each and every one of his clumsy thrusts, English words he had commanded her to use, “penis” and “vagina” and so on, until “lord” “god” and “almighty” brought him to a flustering, dripping climax. His idea: Tame the wild beast with civilized words.
“How is that working out for you, precisely?” It was that idiot Cravingston, popping in at precisely the wrong moment.
Embarrassed as he rolled his bulk off her and pulled up his breaches, Mumblingore could not find words that could justly describe this situation. “Just fine, I must say,” was all he could reply. He knew he was now in debt to his associate, as each was supposed to avoid witnessing this type of behavior by the other. He should not have engaged in this activity in this primitive chapel, of all places, and most likely at some point an unsavory favor would be asked of him in return.
But Cravingston showed no sign of caring. He had brought with him a thin little black fellow wrapped in the usual ragged, mud-smeared, hand-woven kente cloth. “This little devil the traders brought in could be useful, if we can get him to sing his song about Konny to Konny himself.”
Ah. The Konny situation. It had such… an immoral side to it that fascinated him. Mumblingore scratched his gurgling stomach. “I say, Cravingston, how could the Negroes idolize this slave trader, this John Konny? And he is one of them, is he not?”
“Savages. They have no concept of evil, no Devil,” smirked Cravingston. He was trying to coax Heijande to sing the Konny song.
Heijande knew enough of the English tongue to recognize “Devil” and “Konny” and tried to explain, No, not Devil, not evil. Making use of what he knew of English, he tried to explain that there is only the Trickster, and those who are tricked. He could tell that the missionaries did not comprehend, so he told them in his native tongue the fable of the Trickster, loosely translated,
Signifying monkey, stay up in your tree
You had better not monkey with me
Signifying monkey made Lion a fool
Challenged him that Elephants rule.
Lion took off looking for a fight
Elephant hiding in plain sight.
Elephant said to Lion in surprise,
You should pick on someone your own size.
Elephant stomped Lion in the grass
And monkey stuck his finger in that old lion’s ass.
While they didn’t understand the language, the missionaries roared with laughter as Heijande then disrobed, stood naked before them, and showed them the sign of Aido-Hwedo painted on his left buttock. To Heijande, it was all part of the performance.
As their laughter subsided in the wake of Heijande’s earnestness, the missionaries pondered what to do with him. Cravingston knew a bit of the Wolof language of Gambia. He tried to get Heijande to sing something spiritual, about his religion, but there was no word for religion. Heijande assumed he meant the power of his ancestor, so he showed them the stone he had carried in his palm throughout the ordeal of his capture, the stone he had blessed with a song. Heijande spoke rapidly in Wolof about having received his first stone from his ancestor, an old man who had outwitted death, and now lived among his clan as Binu, immortal, revealing himself whenever he pleases, usually as a snake wound around a covenant-stone. Music unlocks the stone’s power, the power of the ancestor within.
To demonstrate, Heijande picked up his kora, locked it in the crook of his arm, and announced in English that he would now sing his “Vibration Song” about the beginning of all life, the song of Aido-Hwedo, Nana-Buluku’s masculine partner, a snake in appearance. Writhing about like a snake and holding the stone tightly, he strummed a rhythm and sang in a wide tonal range, loosely translated,
Nummo taught the people to dance
The rhythm of resurrection
The Binu guide us back
through natural selection
Of Nana-Buluku’s companion we sung
Aido-Hwedo slithers through dung
Mountains, valleys, and rivers wide
On Aido-Hwedo we take a ride
At this point Heijande stopped and held out the stone. “Hmm,” mused Mumblingore, handling it. It was just a stone, but he could feel its warmth. “Good, good, good. Good vibrations, eh?”
Heijande went on singing, loosely translated,
Overburdened with animals and plants
Nana-Buluku feared the world’s collapse
Aido-Hwedo ate his own tail
Forming a loop so that nothing would fail
Nana-Buluku granted his wish
To live in the ocean just like the fish
But the ocean seethes and rumbles in fury
His food runs out, that’s the end of the story.
Mumblingore turned to face Cravingston, annoyed. Spirituals, religion, what nonsense! He was interested in taming shrews; he wanted to hear the songs that drove women into lustful frenzies, and wanted to work these experiments on the nubile females newly captured and detained in Salaga, the ones who’ve not yet tasted the white man’s cock or felt his stinging lash, the ones pure enough to exhibit their true natures and fear their original demons — the only way, really. One must know the Devil’s power, know His effect on people, in order to counteract His influence.
The instructions from his minister were specific on this point: root out the Devil in His natural environment, get Him to shake His rattlers and wag His tail. Listen for dissonance in their music, and for anything that hinted of the diabolus in musica, the Devil’s Tritone. And keep a critical eye on Cravingston, whose ancestors included notable Anabaptists from the Low Countries with a tendency toward radicalism.
Of course it never occurred to Mumblingore until that moment that he’d been paired with this music historian not for any true reason, such as to dissect the native musical influences, but precisely because the man had Dutch ancestors, specifically Dutch ancestors associated with radicals. The minister wanted Mumblingore to help keep Cravingston’s meddlesome arguments from stifling the progress of music censorship by the Church and to keep all debate under the stiff thumb of the Archbishop.
“I say, Cravingston, you do insist that this… this strumming and screeching is somehow in the category of… music?”
“Yes indeed,” looking up from his notes. Cravingston was an expert on musical notation and the neuma system of dots and strokes placed above the text, first popularized by ninth century Roman Catholic monks. He also had studied the notation of Guido d’Arezzo, the eleventh century Italian Benedictine monk who added a four-line stave to neuma to begin to provide pitch instructions. All this had distilled down to the modern five-line stave, introduced in the fourteenth century, which coincided with the suppression of dissonance and disagreeable intervals such as the Devil’s Tritone. “If we are to consider the versified Psalms, the Christmas carols, and the Gregorian chants as music, and indeed they belong in that category, then why not these chants, be it as they are, indeed, spiritual incantations? Music is not bound to any certain pitch, and any sort of interval is possible, though not all lead to what we would consider harmonic. Still, there is no reason to require spiritual yearnings of this sort to have any recognizable melody,” and so on, and so forth.
Mumblingore was patient but eventually intervened. “Yes, yes, that’s all well and good, Cravingston, but how do you even know the beginnings and endings of these, these performances they consider songs? More importantly, how do you write them down?”
It was Cravingston’s turn to be patient. “Really, it is quite easy with our modern musical notation system. We can count the semitones between each of these utterances you call ‘screeches’ and transpose the intervals into familiar keys,” and so forth and so on.
“Well of course, Cravingston,” he scowled on each syllable, annoying the man, “but these songs of theirs are used to cast spells, and so forth. How are we to perform them? You see…” And so they argued on, rather politely.
Heijande recognized the call-and-response pattern of their conversation as the white clan’s version of storytelling, but there were no other members of their clan to join in, and they twittered back and forth like tingetange, the long-legged water birds. So when they asked Heijande about the songs that turn women to desire men, and how to perform them, Heijande demonstrated again with his kora the song of satisfaction, a true call-and-response with his voice calling and the strings of his kora responding, loosely translated,
On the seventh hour, of the seventh day,
Of the seventh year, the seventh son say:
“I was born for good luck, and I know you can see;
I have seven women taking care of me.
But nothing in the world can satisfy
One who keeps living while others die.”
Well, I wish I was a catfish
swimming in the deep blue sea
I would have all the good-looking women
fishing after me
“What the Devil?” whispered Mumblingore.
“It must be polyrhythmic,” noted Cravingston, “requiring at least two rhythms to be played concurrently, at least one of which is typically an irrational rhythm on the, whatever it is, the stringed instrument, and a downbeat that does not coincide. Where one of the parts involves an irrational rhythm, the resulting rhythm could be said to be an ‘irrational polyrhythm’ I would think.”
“What the Devil!” cursed Mumblingore.
Heijande stopped singing and playing his kora. “No, not Devil,” he said in English, and then in Wolof, “Hepi? Hip?” Meaning, “Do you see? Can you open your eyes?”
Mumblingore stared blankly back at him, and then spoke the question of the ages. “What is… hip?”
Ernest Mumblingore slept the relaxed sleep of a hypocrite without conviction. The mindless babbling of these natives was not unlike the sleep-inducing babble of some of his mystical Grand Lodge colleagues back home. So he could accommodate Cravingston’s notions of destiny and the literal Word of the Bible without chuckling in front of him; he could even tolerate Cravingston’s passionate screeching almost every night, as it did not keep him from dropping off into dreamland.
His dream was of, naturally, himself, trudging through the snowy streets of London, entranced by the echoing sound of the Christmas carol “Gaudete” spilling out of a cathedral.
The time of grace has come
What we have wished for
Songs of joy
Let us give back faithfully
At its steps he stood, listening and marveling at the great secrets of Alchemy encoded in the architecture, proving that science could be crafted to support organized religion. He would not go in, as he was on his way to the Goose and Gridiron Ale House to deliver the most sensational of his speeches, the best his peers had yet to hear.
He carried the torch of the revivalist Masons, who declared that the secrets of architecture were the only true relics of the faith of the patriarchs, before the Great Flood wiped out their early civilization. All other secrets and mysteries, including those of primitive Egypt, were but corrupt interpretations of the first primitive and true tradition.
At the makeshift pulpit in the ale house he thundered that God, Jesus Christ, and all the rest were theatrical productions, excuses to build grand cathedrals and monuments. (Here, here! Another round for everyone!) The sun is but a fiery furnace (Yes!), the moon a cold orb that rules the night’s tides (Indeed!), and the stars have no influence at all (None that we can see, m’lord!). We were not put on this Earth for some reason! (NO!) We simply grew here… like mushrooms.
John Locke, the hero of his youth, is now in the audience, now smiling at him, now beckoning to him to join the Social Contract. Essential Christian doctrine is belief in God and in Jesus as Messiah, yes, yes, but for Mumblingore this doctrine was also a practical political tool. Locke’s reasonableness was legendary. Locke could just stretch out his arms and encompass everyone in the audience, and you would know exactly what he meant, that we must tolerate all of their nonsense, no matter if they are Presbyterians, Independents, Arminians, Quakers, and even Anabaptists, as they were all reasonable men.
But not the atheists, the so-called free spirits, and certainly not the primitives. We are charged with the duty of introducing the primitives to the reasonable world of Christianity, and for entry to this world, many generations must first be put to work. The men before him are the pliant, workable assets, the tools for architecture, which holds power over us all. And he, Mumblingore, solid to the core, loyal to the elite group that was now calling itself the “Corporation”… He’s the man for the job.
He paused, and the Goose and Gridiron went back to work, ignoring him. The audience gulped their ale, and a peasant musician in the corner struck up a tune. Drinking was everyone’s favorite topic, so everyone joined in. Mumblingore felt defeated. Look at them, singing the peasant songs that make them happy. Peasant songs that were passed down orally, generation to generation, from the ancient times.
Mumblingore speculated. The primitives, what if they know of secrets that we the elite only pretend to know, and rely only on rituals to pass along? Signs and gestures considered Masonic have been found among the initiatory rites of some tribes and natives of Syria and India, interwoven with their religious philosophies, and in other forms in almost all parts of the world. Mumblingore had tried a few gestures of the Craft with these primitives, but not even Heijande, a griot, had recognized them.
Mumblingore wanted to tap the hidden side of human nature for powers that supposedly exist in all men. These powers were thought to be awakened only by those trained for many years in meditation and the occult sciences, but Mumblingore thought it could be approached, like anything and everything in life, with enough arrogance to quicken the pace. It’s right there in our heads, after all, is it not? Why can we not just dig into it, and use it?
His modern crusade is to retrieve these powers from the dusty cobwebbed depths of antiquity, as channeled through these primitives that have kept alive the rituals and knew how to tap into these secrets. He awoke mumbling “for we are brethren of the Rosie Cross…” until shaken awake by the sounds of village life.
* * *
Not so Richard Cravingston, no relaxed sleep for the closeted free spirit, nothing but the stink and torpor of an opium fever. Every night he wrestled with the covers under the mosquito net, unable to sleep, turning finally to his coveted Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by the hero of his youth, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton’s description of the universe in mechanistic terms was widely accepted by Deists such as Cravingston, partly because Newton believed the Bible to be the word of God, but supported the view that the Roman pontiff was the Antichrist from the Book of Revelations.
Cravingston would read his favorite passages, humming portions of Tartini’s scandalous “Devil’s Trill Sonata” that used the banned diabolus in musica, the Devil’s Tritone. According to Giuseppe Tartini himself, he had met the Devil in a dream, stranded at the crossroads, not knowing which direction to go. The Devil appeared, took his Stradivarius violin, tuned it, and played the sonata. Cravingston had learned it from Tartini himself, because the Church forbade the sonata and would have burned the scholarly composer at the stake if he had tried to publish it. If ever challenged for humming it, Cravingston would claim that he needed to know the enemy to better fight them. He fancied that one day he would finally meet the Devil and not sell his soul, not make that Faustian bargain. The music was merely a temptation to steel himself against.
Cravingston hummed and reread passages until a dream took him over. A chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” accompanied this same dream he had ever since arriving in the hothouse humid, blood-rich tropics, in which night was simply a dark version of the same putrid climate. He became Rotten John of Münster, 1534, the Dutch heretic John of Leyden, who had taken over the German city, proclaiming it the New Jerusalem with other Anabaptist radicals and members of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. They were out to abolish money and private property as well as religious persecution. They wanted all heresies legitimized, which would have seriously disrupted the political framework of the time.
Cravingston’s great-grandfather had participated with the local bishop in the siege of Münster, permitting no supplies to enter for over a year. The people were reduced to eating rats, grass, shoe leather, and even cobblestones before eventually resorting to cannibalism. Cravingston, in his dream as Rotten John of Leyden, unapologetically feasted on remaining supplies while his citizens suffered. He pranced about the city draped in robes and gold bracelets, executing any doubters and nailing pieces of their corpses up on posts, shouting “I yam the anti-CHRIST!” Those who agreed with him followed his every directive, even taking on additional wives. They all learned his newly reformed set of versified Psalms, which Leyden had based on John Calvin’s ideas that unison singing intensified a congregation’s sense of community.
Then Cravingston, in his dream as Leydon, presided over a black mass with devilish choruses of “oohs” and “aahs” simulating the pleasures of indiscriminate sex, of eating succulent flesh, of drinking blood. The cannibals’ singing so unnerved and enraged the bishop’s forces that, in the battle that ensued, those from the city who surrendered, including women and children, were considered possessed by the Devil and slaughtered immediately or left to die in the parched earth outside the city’s walls.
Cravingston as Leydon stared across the battlements into his great-grandfather’s eyes, and could feel the conviction in his throat. He wanted to speak. He wanted to say, in Leydon’s words, that for those truly free of spirit, no crime was a crime and no sin was a sin; that God’s grace enveloped all sinful practices, indeed especially those that allow the free spirit to remain free. He wanted to shout that he was already dead to the world and the flesh. But his great-grandfather was already climbing the battlements, the city was overrun by the bishop’s forces, and just as he realized he would be tortured and put to death, he saw his great-grandfather hammering nails into the cage that, he knew, would hold his burnt corpse on display in the city’s church tower.
Only upon awakening in a pool of sweat did he realize he had finally indeed fallen asleep and only dreamed all this, but still, he felt compel-led to assume the position and pray. “My God, You and I, as You know, we have an agreement. You will forget about my transgressions on the Dark Continent if I cease to question Your Judgment, Your Will. I must survive, and yes, carry out the insatiable demands of those closer to You who know better than I. But survive I must. That is all I ask of You.”
The day thusly consecrated, he set out with his native songster to gather up Mumblingore and take them all to John Konny. What does it matter, thought Cravingston, that Konny’s tactics are so bloody? Konny is useful.
Drums pounded a powerful rhythm, the signature rhythm of John Konny, and his Yoruban slave choir sung more tales of his greatness, as the two missionaries and Heijande headed up to Fort Hollandia. Black corpses, many of them dismembered and beheaded, lined the walk up to the gates. Heijande recognized some of them as Mossi, some Gonja, and some Asante, but none from his community. Mumblingore studiously avoided looking at them and held his breath as they passed, while Cravingston whispered “Münster” to himself, over and over. Gorged flies buzzed lazily about and around their feast of blood.
Just outside the wide door, Cravingston turned to face Heijande, hand on his arm. “This is evil. Yes?”
Heijande pretended to look glum, knowing the white missionary wouldn’t understand. There is only the Trickster, and those who are tricked. Konny is a Trickster in touch with bad magic, and he uses it, but even bad Tricksters can be turned to do good. The white clans, on the other hand, are purely evil, because they either know nothing about how they have orchestrated this empire of trade, or don’t care. The white clans have no magic, and Heijande couldn’t see how they could be turned to do any good.
Inside the innermost chamber of the fort, all was as cool and quiet as a chapel. John Konny, decked out in a starched uniform lent to him by Admiral Faithfull, lounged in a gigantic wooden chair made for a giant. He wore the standard military coat fitted to his figure at the upper body, tight at the waist — a justaucorps, a flattering piece of clothing for a heavily muscled black man. His vest was made from a colorful brocaded silk, which contrasted nicely with the large turned back cuffs of the justaucorps facings of the vest fabric, while the coat was made from a plain fabric. The vest was nearly as long as the coat, maybe only an inch shorter, tight fitting in the waist as well, and with long, tubular shaped narrow sleeves without any cuffs. The effect was as if an entire trunk-load of civilized finery had fallen onto a gorilla. John Konny was calm, cool, towering even in a sitting position in that giant chair, with all the power in the fort within his grasp. His broad face smiled mis-chievously, revealing an uneven row of yellow molars and a single gold front tooth. He wore an officer’s smallsword, a light one-handed sword designed for thrusting but mostly decorative, lacking a distinct cutting edge. Or so it seemed at first; Mumblingore noticed blood dripping from its point. Against the wall leaned a Birmingham-made musket.
Heijande involuntarily gasped; the beautiful Shu Lia was entwined about his legs, stripped of the colorful kaba across her bosom and the expressive asee ntoma around her hips. Naked, incredibly desirable yet piously vulnerable, her limbs gleaming ebony with ivory undersides, her breasts heaving, her forehead perspiring. Contradictory impulses flooded Heijande’s body, anger and love, lust and pity, the impulse to attack, the instinct to defend and retreat, and all this rooted him on the spot and made him unable to move.
The rolling tones of John Konny’s deep charcoal voice filled the chamber effortlessly. “Ah yes, my friends from England, and how are you today? You have brought me someone, I see.” Konny enunciated distinctly, with soft precision, with calculated confidence in the presence of white men, even a bit scornful in mirth, and unaffectedly condescending, as if from his throne he could survey a landscape of human folly and these two missionaries were just a small part of it.
“A singer. We’ve brought you a singer,” said Cravingston, “who has a song about you, which I think you will enjoy.”
“A singer! Let me see, come closer.”
Heijande moved closer, and Shu Lia finally saw him. Her heart poured out on the floor through her eyes and she could not look up at him.
Heijande’s contradictory impulses flattened into pure sympathy for the woman he now loved. He grew resolute, steady, sure of himself, and with concentration and deep breathing, he drew on the power within himself. He could see what would happen, and he could draw on his will to influence it.
“Please allow me to introduce myself,” Konny said from his chair, without getting up or extending his hand. In his resolute eyes and through his restrained manner, one could see a man accustomed to battle, travel, escape. “John Konny, chief of this port and all lands around it,” he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm, as if the floor of his chamber was but a miniature version of his domain. “As you can see, I am a man of wealth and taste.”
Heijande felt the power within him as a lion in full crouch, ready to spring. He wanted to appear to be from outside the area, so he spoke evenly, almost noncommittally, in Yoruban. “I am honored to be in your presence, John Konny. You are well respected in every kingdom and village I have traveled through. Your exploits are well known, and your courage impresses everyone. I am Heijande, a Dogon, of the Wanderer clan of Dyon and the Bela Mont, and I have travelled a great distance, from the Cliffs of Bandiagara, to find my sister.” He then gestured at Shu Lia. “It appears that you have placed her in bondage.”
“But she is fine! Ha ha ha ha!” Konny’s booming laughter bounced off the walls, escaped the fort and rose up to the sky to make the stars twinkle. Konny then also spoke in Yoruban. “My young beauty, you are fine, are you not? Do you not want to stay with me? I will not eat you! Ha ha ha ha!” His teeth flashed and his eyes glittered with animal lust, his dark face creased in a truculent smile, the frank audacious smile of a man who has walked barefoot in these jungles well-armed and noiseless.
Shu Lia hissed softly in Yoruban, a curse. “Fa me nwa.” You have taken me as cheap and easy as the snail.
“Oh no no no!” laughed Konny. He spread his arms wide, as if to encircle everyone in the chamber, from the quietly seething Heijande to the dejected Shu Lia to the bewildered Mumblingore and Cravingston, and spoke in English. “Come and drink with me. We’re in a world full of trouble, heh heh, and I’m on a drinking spree.” Sure enough, he produced a jug of the finest English brandy from behind the chair, and passed it to Heijande, who refused to drink it and passed it to Mumblingore, who drank heartily.
“You are a jeli, a guewel, a griot,” Konny spoke suddenly, sharply, to Heijande, using every word he knew for it. There was a long silence. “I know about griots,” Konny said to the others, in English, and looked back at Heijande. “The griot knows many traditional songs, knows them perfectly. You carry a kora, so you are a worldly griot. Yes! A griot can tease out the power of these songs like grease from a lion’s teeth.” Then he snarled at Heijande. “Is that not right, griot?”
Heijande spoke not a word and gazed only into Shu Lia’s intent eyes.
“You don’t want our friends to know, eh? Tell me,” Konny addressed the missionaries, “does our friend have a sacred stone?”
“Why, yes,” said Mumblingore, nearly trembling with fear.
“He sings to it,” said Cravingston, a bit too enthusiastically.
“So, my brave friend,” Konny turned back to Heijande, and spoke in Yoruban, “I am jatigi, from a family of warrior-kings. By tradition our families are inseparable. I have the power to summon Legba, the One who guards the threshold to the spirit world, and interpret any of the songs you sing, and use that power to my advantage.”
“Ahonnee pa nkasa,” barked Heijande quickly in Yoruban. Its literal translation is precious beads make no noise, but what it means is, empty barrels make the most noise. Konny knew exactly what he meant.
“Why should I not kill you? I want your stone,” Konny thundered in English. “I will kill you, just for that stone. And feed you to my Mossi warriors.”
“You would not know how to use it,” sang Heijande in rapid English, sotto voce, surprising everyone. He sang with his power, directed at Konny, in a way that he knew would penetrate the warrior’s reserve and make him sick.
“Hmm.” Konny appeared lost in thought or lost at sea. Some crazy energy seemed to flow through him. Stifling a rising nausea, he hissed through his teeth. “Since you know how to speak English, I could let them,” pointing at the missionaries, as if that would be even more disagreeable than death itself, “have their way with you. You would be more fortunate to allow me to torture you, and then be eaten alive by my Mossi warriors.” He gathered his strength to fight off the nausea and snarled, “You will hand over the stone and tell me its secrets!”
Heijande sang again with power, another Yoruban proverb. “Nipa tire nye bofere na yeapaa mu ahwe dea ewo mu.” The human mind is not like the papaya fruit to be split open to see what is on the inside.
Konny laughed and settled in his chair, but the nausea grew in intensity and gathered around a point in his stomach, as if he’d been penetrated by a spear. “He sings proverbs in English,” Konny grunted. “What kind of griot is this?”
Heijande again was firm. “If I show you the stone, and sing its power, would you let her go?”
Konny sensed a way out without confrontation, a way to banish everyone from his presence so that he could deal with his unreasonable stomach. “But how would you demonstrate this power? And why should I give up my beautiful flower?” Konny’s fingers laced Shu Lia’s neck as if he were about to strangle her; and as he stroked her hair he grabbed a fistful, and began to pull it like an anchor out of the storm of his nausea.
Heijande sought Shu Lia’s eyes again in a silent plea, and when he connected, he sent these thoughts to her: in this world there are only Tricksters, and those who are Tricked. Then he turned back to Konny and said, in Yoruban, “I can make her fall in love with anyone, even with the fat English missionary.”
Konny laughed again, and answered in Yoruban. “This woman? Your own sister? I want to see that!”
From the fold of his kente, Heijande produced the stone. The spirit of his ancestor. He knew a song he could sing that would give her the proper instructions, in code. His kora strumming complemented his voice as he sung it, and a hush fell over everyone in the chamber, an overwhelming anticipation, a shared hallucination that is a part of any performance.
Shu Lia, taking her cue, swooned into a puddle on the floor, and when she rose again, as the drumming quickened, her face grew soft and pliable, gentle and smiling, and then wickedly smiling as she swept over to Mumblingore and, sighing and moaning, she parted his black cappa clausa and reached into the folds of his yellow breeches. Mumblingore quickly hardened, swooned, and lost his balance, only to be propped up by the sparkling-eyed Cravingston who could not believe what he was seeing. She pretended to fondle Mumblingore’s rigid member, now in full salute, and darted her eyes to see if Konny was looking. Heijande gave a great shout and kora flourish to end his song, and turning to the missionary, started another song. Shu Lia froze in position, her eyes imploringly searching the missionary’s and her mouth wide open.
As Mumblingore looked down, he began to hallucinate. Her eyes had turned blazing red in an uncontrolled rage, her face had contorted in anger, and her mouth had grown sharp incisors. Mumblingore’s stiff member quickly wilted, and he backed away from her.
“Enough! Take her away!” Konny shouted in English, loudly enough for his guards outside to hear. As they came in, he shouted again, “Put her in chains!”
The Asantes who’d become Konny’s guards were gentle but firm, and devoted to Konny. The Dagomba, who would eventually receive her, would not be gentle, and would ignore any message from Konny to treat her nicely. Heijande knew he had very little time, but he had to finish his trick over Konny.
Konny glared at Heijande in stony silence, nausea creeping up his chest. Cravingston wrung his hands looking like he was about to intercede in Shu Lia’s behalf, then shrunk back into himself, away from confrontation.
Konny broke the silence and spoke in Yoruban. “I want to learn your songs. I will spare your life if you will teach me.”
Heijande realized his trick was at hand. He bowed, gracefully, and smiled sheepishly at Konny. “I need some time to prepare, master,” he said in Yoruban, and motioned with his djembe. “The djembe skin is too dry and I must prepare the kora for the more powerful songs. It is the practice of my clan to make a sacrifice of blood and millet porridge at a Binu shrine and to dance with Awa masks, and this may take until tomorrow to complete.”
“There is plenty of blood here!” shouted Konny in Yoruban, “plenty of sacrifices have already been made. My fort is the only shrine anywhere. This is where it is done!”
“But the masks, master, I still need the Awa masks.”
“And what is their purpose?”
“The dance of the masks appeases the spiritual forces disturbed by the death of Nommo. The purpose is to lead souls of the deceased to their final resting place in the family altars and to consecrate their passage to the ranks of the ancestors.”
Konny had heard of this Nommo worship among the Dogon. Something queer about their spirits disturbed him, as if they knew about larger and more dangerous creatures than any of the ones Konny had known in the jungles and beaches of his land. He could taste the nausea, now seeping up into his throat, stinging with bile. He’d had enough of this meeting and wanted these people gone so that he could sip his papaya juice and relax. He cleared his throat and spoke to Heijande in Yoruban. “Very well, you will teach me tomorrow. Go then, prepare your instruments and sacrifice, make your masks. If you need human flesh, there is plenty to find, even some that is fresh!”
He then motioned to Mumblingore and Cravingston and spoke in English. “Let this one be for now. You can have him back when I’m through with him.” Then, in a flourish, Konny laughed and laughed at some joke in his mind. “Musicians! They are all so alike, always preparing their instruments! What can you do with them?” His smile suggested mirth, but his piercing eyes revealed his catlike hunger and exposed his most evil intentions, while his stomach let out a low grumble.
At that, Heijande was led out of the chamber by Konny’s guards and deposited in an antechamber. So far, Heijande’s trick had succeeded and he still had his thunder-stone. Now all he needed were pieces of stiff tree bark to work into the shapes for his masks, the pressed juice of indigo plants for the blue coloring, and cowrie shells, beads, and bones for decoration.
Konny had put one guard at the entrance. The Asante guard was fierce but not smart. He grew weary of trying to understand Heijande’s instructions, and so he agreed to take Heijande into the bush to get the materials. Heijande’s rituals before cutting tree bark and pressing the indigo plants, and the various instructions for preparing the bath for the pressed indigo, so stupefied the guard that Heijande was able to disarm him and flee into the dense forest, which embraced him as a mother would her son.
Swallowing the Stone
“Perhaps the little wog could have told us something about his people and where they came from. We could have gone out there to find his village.”
“Oh yes, Cravingston, let us go running off to find the source of the Nile and the Mountains of the Moon,” snorted Mumblingore. “Ethiopia is where they came from, clear on the other side of this dark continent. Padre Páez and the Spanish have been there for fifty years now, and they have all been converted, even the Jesuits have a representative there.”
“I am sorry if I…”
“No, no, what angers me is that we let that stone slip through our fingers.”
“But what if it is true, that the stone has no power by itself, that you need the little wog to do his song-and-dance routine.”
“But of course it is true, Cravingston. The power is right here, in your head, but you need the stone, you see. This is the rock! To unlock it.”
“I do not see.”
“The rock focuses the mind, it concentrates the mind’s power, like our prayer bead. I believe we can use it to bring about that epiphany we all speak of, the one moment, however fleeting, that we can achieve union with God and glimpse the reality of salvation… In any case we must have it.”
And so, on direct orders from the missionaries, all captured blacks bound for the soon-to-depart Perseverance were searched for stones, pebbles, or small rocks. Of course the missionaries were mightily relieved to find out from the Perseverance captain, Randolph Newman, a solid-built Jew in good standing whose family had been invited back to England during the Cromwell years, that the ship’s officers routinely confiscated all objects be they religious, commercial, or of any possible utility for aggression of any kind. Even wooden combs, masks, and tiny sticks. The ship, out of Liverpool, was about to embark for America with five hundred captives.
“Some of the captives have been known to swallow stones that are precious to them,” the Captain had told the missionaries, “like the ones you seek. They usually die during the voyage. Their stomachs swell and burst, and they succumb in great agony, I must say. But I cannot say why. Stupid savages. They must know that even if they survive the voyage, they will not survive having their stomachs cut open to retrieve the stones.”
“Well, this one is a prince,” lied Cravingston, hoping to increase the Captain’s interest. “He is connected to John Konny, and well, you know, we do not want to infuriate Konny.”
Captain Newman was less than impressed. He had no time for petty tyrants; his kin in America were establishing a Jewish colony in the marshy frontier of New Jersey, and he was eager to get on with the next leg of his journey, which would bring him to a point on the new continent, Charleston Bay, that was only a few days sail from the mouth of the Delaware, and then only a day’s ride to the colony. Newman’s great-uncle had settled there fifty years earlier, when the two proprietors of New Jersey at that time, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton, were enticing new settlers by granting small parcels of land and religious freedom. He had received word from his cousin that all was not well; that Lord Cornbury, the governor of the royal colony, had been recalled for taking bribes and speculating on land, and that the governors of New York were imposing their authority, infuriating the farming community. Captain Newman had it in mind to resign his commission upon arrival in Philadelphia, retrieve his back pay of two hundred pounds sterling, and take a few slaves with him to join his cousin. In any case, Captain Newman promised to spread the word among the crew.
* * *
Heijande had been beside himself, quivering with rage, when he saw Shu Lia and the others of his clan dragged in chains down the gangplank to a longboat that would take them out to the anchored ship. As night fell, he realized that he must calm himself, or he would never be receptive to a sign from his ancestor. Without a sign he would have no plan. Heijande stood at the cross paths near the foot of the wharf, completely naked so that he would be hidden by the darkness itself; only the luminescent strings of his kora reflected any hint of light. He was on Legba’s hallowed ground, and it was Legba he sought, in the darkest hour of the night.
Trickster god, messenger of and spokesman for the other orishas, Legba was known as the guardian at the gates between the worlds, a messenger between the human and the divine. His nature can be generous or cruel, as they are aspects of the same emotion, susceptible to the aspects of the humans that seek him out. When John Konny spoke of Legba, he meant the dark aspect, Kafou Legba, the malevolent Trickster who diverts humans from their true paths. Heijande sought his bright aspect, Eshu Legba, the Trickster who interprets all languages and teaches valuable lessons, who is intelligent and, always, not what he seems.
A old black man in filthy rags approached, sprinkling the path with water from a gourd, and came right up to Heijande in the darkness. He appeared weak, but his voice was deep and strong. He spoke to Heijande by name, in Yoruban. “You have the gift of the griot. You have been chosen.”
“Eshu! I have my ancestor.” Heijande showed the old man the sacred stone in the palm of his hand. “I will sneak onto the white clan’s ship, and sing a song to confuse them, so that I can rescue Shu Lia.”
“You will not succeed,” said the old man patiently. “You are just a griot; your stone, just an ancestor’s power. But if you do what I tell you, if you follow what may be your true destiny, you will become much more. A legend! Your stone will have legendary power. There are sacrifices you must make. Do not be distracted by love for one woman. You must learn to love everyone and to not love anyone. You are alone in your power, and you must use it, or lose it. Now: play your kora.”
Heijande obliged the spirit messenger and plucked the strings of the kora. Forthrightly, the old man took it from him. Before Heijande could even protest, the old man adjusted the swatches of animal skin that bound its bridge to the two hardwood handles underneath the neck, tuning the kora in a way Heijande had not heard before. Then the old man handed it back to Heijande, who started nervously plucking its strings.
A stone in my path, now dark as the night…
“You must prepare yourself for a long journey, across Oshun, the deep waters that feed and harbor Aido-Hwedo.” The old man pointed west, beyond the ship, into a gloomier darkness worried by winds from the north. “But be careful, the white clan searches everyone. You must carry the stone in your stomach to bring your ancestor’s power to the far shores.”
“Àdóìsí loògùn” replied Heijande; loosely translated, one who rolls with the stone, or rolling stone.
The old man smiled. “You will be a rolling stone, but your stomach will not swell, and you will not die in agony as others have. And when you reach the far shores of the land of the white clan, you will pass through the whites unnoticed, your stone undisturbed. You will trick the white clan into setting you free, and you will then be able to regurgitate the stone without being disemboweled.
“You will become a legend, and your stone will carry great power among the people there. But you must have courage. Aido-Hwedo is often angry from hunger, and Oshun pitches and tosses any ship that crosses over her. My sweet Mamarou has prepared this for you, to keep your stomach from swelling.” The old man held out pieces of jalap root, which gave off a pleasant, earthy odor.
There was no question. Heijande would have sacrificed his life to free Shu Lia and his clan. Eshu Legba promised he would survive; he could trick the white captors with the power of his stone and keep them all alive. Still, he could not bring himself to swallow the stone. “Chew a bit of the jalap root first.” Heijande obliged and chewed the earthy root, and his mouth and tongue were suddenly bathed in senselessness, numb to everything. The old man helped him, and the stone slipped down his gullet. He nearly gagged as he bent over, but the old man held him firmly. It stayed down, and he felt a warm glow in his stomach.
“Now you can play the kora and the white clan will like its sound,” said the old man, his frail body already beginning to dissipate into darkness. “Play the hootchie-kootchie…” he said with only his gleaming teeth and lips in a smile, all that was left, and then even the smile disappeared.
The Hootchie Kootchie Man
Crouched in the bush, Heijande watched with interest as seamen scampered about the wharf, dancing to airs, jigs and reels scratched with great diligence and pain on a protesting violin by the ship’s Captain. Before long the chief mate, belching after a slug from a hearty jug of Jamaica’s finest rum, launched into a lengthy ballad at the Captain’s approval; a tribute to the very instrument, the violin, that adorned his mournful voice. “The Twa Sisters” also known as “The Wind and Rain” is the story of a miller who finds a drowned woman in a stream, and turns her body into a violin; roughly translated,
Made finger pegs of her long finger bones,
Oh the dreadful wind and rain
Made a fiddle bow with her long curly hair,
Oh the dreadful wind and rain
And the only tune that fiddle would play
Was a-cryin’ dreadful wind and rain
The Captain bellowed the coda, sang from the point of view of the violin’s purchaser,
Now pay the miller for his pain,
And let him be gone in the Devil’s name.
Laughter all around the wharf, the Captain laughing loudest and longest. There is that Devil again. Heijande thought it must be a talisman of the power of music in white clans; they sing of their instruments as coming from their ancestor, the Devil. Another thought was forming, a stronger thought, a revelation from his ancestor in the stone, as translated through Eshu Legba: that Heijande could trick the white people and impersonate one of their griots, their storytellers. He could learn their songs and be accepted into their clans. The old man had said they would like the sound of the kora.
Swept into the moment, drawing power from the stone in his stomach, Heijande strolled up to the wharf naked, carrying his kora and djembe. The crew were in a good drunken mood or they probably would have tossed Heijande into the water. They all had a good laugh over the naked wog with his homespun instruments.
“Come to jam wiv us, ‘ave ye?”
“Ya got strings and drums, wot’s the pecker for, beatin’ or pluckin’?”
“Yo, wha’s the difference betwixt a dead wog drummer and a dead snake?”
“I dunno, wot?”
“The snake had a show to go to.”
Much laughter, and so forth and so on, until Heijande began strumming his kora and singing, roughly translated,
I rub my root, my luck is true,
Heijande Konner gonna mess with you
Make you lead me by the hand
So the world will know the hootchie-kootchie man
Sure enough, Captain Randolph Newman thought the performance exquisite. “Let’s install this boy in the galley,” he said to his chief mate, “to work as a steward and sing for our suppers. What’s your name, eh? Hi-jon-de something?”
“‘High John de Conker’ is what I heard ‘em sing,” piped up a member of the crew.
“Okay then, High John de Conquer! You will sing for us anytime we want, yes? Otherwise we will put you in chains, yes?”
“Yes!” shouted Heijande in English, proud and courageous now that his trick had worked.
Some of the captured natives, chained together near the wharf in readiness for passage on longboats to the ship, had heard the naked griot charm the white captors with his music, and had seen him gather all his strength and courage to speak so proudly to them. Now the griot was draped in the white man’s clothes and walked about freely with the crew. They began to whisper the griot’s name, High John de Conquer, and spread it with reverence.
* * *
Heijande spent the rest of the night sitting pensively in the deserted pantry next to the galley as the crew slept, wearing a starched white steward’s uniform. As the false dawn appeared in the heart of the jungle to the east, Heijande set out below deck to find his clan and Shu Lia. Hundreds of naked black bodies lay flat on their backs chained together, the women and children shrieking and the wounded moaning, and all heaving and drawing breath with excruciating pain, like dying animals. They stared in wonder at the griot who now wore the white clan’s uniform.
Heijande spoke quietly to Ashin, a member of his clan lying on his side, chained by neck and ankle, spoon-wise, to men front and back in a row of twenty across the deck. Ashin feared the worst, that they were all bound for a place called America, where the white clans would eat their flesh, make the flags for their ship from their skins, and crush their bones to make powder for their muskets. He told Heijande about a foiled plot to burn the ship before it could hoist anchor and leave the port. Many of the younger women had been taken to the seamen’s quarters to be tied up and raped, which in many ways was preferable to being chained to others in a pile below deck. The plan was for one of the women to free the others and start the fire in the seamen’s quarters. But one woman, singled out by an officer, had betrayed them, and the man would not speak her name, though he knew her.
Heijande shuddered to think it must have been a woman from his clan. When he looked up to the foredeck, he saw an officer escorting a black women in a handsome English dress up to the officer’s quarters. The woman was Angula, his wife, and Heijande burned with shame.
Ashin also told Heijande that he’d seen Shu Lia taken in the night by a seaman. Ashin could barely lift his arm but he grabbed Heijande’s arm with a renewed vigor. He seemed not to know Heijande, or to see Heijande in a new way, though they were from the same clan. “High John de Conquer! We do not want to go to the far shore, the America lands, to be food for the white clans! Help us!”
“You must endure, my friend,” spoke Heijande quietly, his shame subsiding. “We must live through this. Eshu Legba promised me we will live with others just like us, on the far shore, if we can survive the journey. We will not be eaten if we keep our spirits with us. They will protect us.”
“High John de Conquer! You carry the stone of your ancestor in your belly!”
“You are a hero! Even Aido-Hwedo, the sea serpent, respects you. We will live through this journey, but you… you will sacrifice your life for our safety!”
“Yes,” assured Heijande, but with a look of concern. He took a moment to chew a bit more of the jalapa root he carried with him, as his stomach churned and thumped like the foamy waves pounding the shore in the gathering dawn.
Ninety Pounds Sterling
Captain Newton had seen much waste in his experience in the slave trade. He’d seen slaves literally packed on top of each other below deck; and consequently, from ill air, confinement, and scanty or unwholesome provision, disease occurred to such an extent that only half survived to the end of the voyage, and in a very unmarketable condition. Rather than pack them all into the holds of the Perseverance, the captain sent his crew through the ranks and removed any men that were already flawed and unmarketable; any men that suffered too many bruises or bad limbs. He kept all women and children, of course, unless the women were pregnant. By casting off the weaker ones, he allowed the stronger ones sufficient room and reasonable provisions, along with kind treatment.
Nevertheless, as Cravingston noted, the slaves were chained together by hands and feet and laid flat, without any room to turn over. The two missionaries stumbled over hot bodies heaving with exhaustion, looking for their singer with the magic stone. However, as Mumblingore had pointed out earlier in a protest that Cravingston had no doubt mistaken for sheer laziness, they all looked the same, unless one looked closely. Mumblingore flashed Masonic gestures at the natives without a flicker of recognition. He knew it was hopeless, and ohh! The horrid smell! Such a horrendous greeting to the nostrils, such a loathsome stench. And Cravingston, that idiot, seemed to like it.
Aft, an officer was flogging a slave that was held fast by two seamen and laid across the windlass with his feet tied. The Captain pointed at the spectacle from the poop and explained to the missionaries that the slave had tried to organize the women to start a revolt. Mumblingore thought this was an excellent moment to propose abandoning this search and moving on. “It is no use.”
“What a bloody shame,” Cravingston whined, looking rather longingly at one of the captured women whose chains pressed across her naked breasts. “We have this impulse to help these people…”
“Nonsense,” piped up Mumblingore in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm, overcompensating for his partner’s weakness in front of the Captain. “They live in Original Sin, and we are here to root it out. To root out the Devil. They need our authority, and they need to learn humility. They cannot continue to live like this!” He gestured back toward land. “Indeed, this is a fine continent, yes, full of some of the same mysteries that, in Europe, we have long-ago tamed!”
He was referring to Cravingston’s ancestors, and Cravingston didn’t like it one bit. His connection to the Münster revolt through his great-grandfather must be recorded somewhere, in the rectory’s storage area in Canterbury, where Mumblingore would certainly have had access to it. Cravingston looked back at the shore to hide his fit of pique. “Yes, we are all so civilized now. A thousand years of progress. We are rational, reasonable, enlightened! And we are here to, wot, let us pretend it does not exist, right? Like an elephant right in your drawing room? Selling human beings for profit! If we were not here, would any of this even be happening? Each slave costs, wot, a guinee to five crown?” He turned to the Captain, ignoring Mumblingore’s pleading look, “A-and you sell each one in America for, wot,” he sneered at him, “Ninety pounds sterling?”
The Captain didn’t answer, just looked away, toward the business of getting underway. He had no time for theological discussions.
Mumblingore whispered to Cravingston, in an effort to calm him down, “You do realize that a guinee is now twenty-one shill-”
“Oh stop it,” snapped Cravingston, “that happened over twenty years ago.” And the capriciousness of it all struck him silent, how the seemingly random forces of politics on the world stage had conspired in such irrational ways to arbitrarily control minute distinctions of value such as that of a guinee, which now determined the actual value of a black person’s actual life. Was it all, simply, to reduce the price of sugar in the London coffeehouses?
A black steward showed up at that moment to bring the Captain’s order of Scotch whiskey for the cast-off salute. The steward was well dressed but anyone could tell he was inexperienced, and the officers gave him a wide berth as he fumbled moves to pour the liquor. The steward cast his eye about the poop and expected a reprisal at any moment for his fumbling, but the missionaries did not recognize Heijande in the steward’s garb.
And just as Mumblingore leaned forward to poke Cravingston to get him to stop talking, chief mate Anderson appeared on the quarter deck and hailed the Captain, grappling with a seaman by the scruff of his neck, who in turn held on dearly to the wrangled arm of a badly bruised and battered Shu Lia. The steward dropped the tray of whiskey, and the Captain swore at him.
“Seaman Ó Leannáin, sir!” the chief mate shouted up at the Captain, pronouncing it “Lennon,” and then shouted directly at the seaman’s yellow hatchet face and shifty eyes. “Freddie Lennon, they call you, is that right?”
Seaman Lennon stopped rough-housing and nodded. “Beggin’ yer pardon sir, the officers ‘ave already picked all the plump ones, sir, ‘ow ‘bout some mercy for the crew, sir?” He stood with one arm akimbo and one still gripping the girl. He was a man well acquainted with the brig, a man who’d been kicked, cuffed, slashed, and had his nose broken more than once. And yet he smiled. He knew his value as a seaman, experienced with the powerful dark forces of nature. A man who knows no other way of life; a lifelong prisoner of the sea.
The chief mate shouted up to his captain in irritation. “He had this nigger woman tied up to his bunk all night, sir. I think half the crew had a go at her, sir.”
The Captain, doubly annoyed that such a display would occur in front of these missionaries of the Crown, barked his order to the chief mate. “Confine seaman Lennon to quarters, Mr. Anderson.” Then his voice turned surly. “And put that woman back in the hold, in chains. We shove off in twenty minutes.”
Cravingston glared at the Captain and then at Mumblingore, who simply shrugged. They argued amongst themselves as they left the ship and the pier, and the Captain was relieved. Missionaries and politicians, kings and princes, they could all go to the devil. He’d long ago abandoned the idea that any god, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, watched over and cared for humans and their petty plots and grievances.
* * *
Heijande crept away from the cabin door and circled around and down to the quarterdeck as if returning to the galley, but stopped to look out on the quarterdeck. Chief mate Anderson and Freddie Lennon were quarreling and Shu Lia hung limp in the chief mate’s grip. She looked ready to give up her life, and Heijande’s heart travelled out to her. Just then the Captain’s bell sounded; the quarrel abruptly ended, and seaman Lennon sullenly retreated as Anderson handed off the crumpled heap of Shu Lia to the second mate.
The chief mate grabbed Heijande by the arm and dragged him back up to the poop deck. The Captain wanted him to get his kora and play with the violinists for the ceremonial castoff. He joined the musicians around the Captain on the poop, and as the heave-hos and haul-aways were sounded bow to stern, the captives were brought up to the main deck in chains, murmuring, wailing, and blinking nervously in the morning sun. Any that could not walk in chains were cut loose and cast into the sea, to swim back if they could; the Captain tolerated a loss of up to twenty percent if it would mean a safer, healthier passage for the rest of them.
As the ship floated free of its moorings in glassy waters, Captain Randolph Newman looked out at the amassed captives and into their bewildered eyes without flinching, and in a booming voice addressed them: “Listen up!” He motioned to the musicians to start up a slow, stately rhythm in a 12/4/4 waltz, and began to sing in a black man’s drawl he’d picked up on his last voyage across, a song that he hoped, with the grace of his singing, would conquer any last resistance, would ease their fears and make them compliant.
It was a song that visualized his hopeful future with his kin in the newly developed woods of New Jersey, a place where he could kick back on his rocking chair and count his money. He sang to the uncomprehending captives about how, in America, they’d get food to eat, sing about Jesus, and drink wine all day. In America, everybody’s as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree, Captain Newman sang. Climb aboard with me, little wog, and sail away, across the ocean to the Charleston Bay.
Across the Mighty Ocean
The Perseverance creaked and shuddered in the strong steady breeze off the land, and its sails held as much of the propelling power as they could, slicing through the Bight of Benin on a westerly passage that hugged the coast. Heijande, alone on the foredeck in his steward’s uniform, felt as if he were standing on a floating rock as the coast moved from left to right. As long as he could see the coast, he was not afraid of this new land called America. Perhaps it would even be closer in distance to the Maghreb, the land of his ancestors, and this voyage would get him closer to his goal.
But then the ship dropped south out of the reeking armpit of West Africa at Cape Three Points to traverse the swells of the Gulf of Guinea. As the African coastline shrank to the horizon, Heijande shivered. He would not be closer to the land of his ancestors; the captain and his white clan were taunting Oshun by venturing out into its vast reaches, out of sight of land, and Heijande could only think that Oshun would respond with fury.
The stone glowed hot in his belly. His ancestor was angry. Heijande furiously chewed the jalapa root. Shu Lia’s violation, and his wife’s betrayal of the revolt, had occurred while Heijande had been tricking the white crew with his music. Did Eshu Legba really mean for him to make this journey? The white clan despised them and their beliefs. They did not fear Oshun and her prince Aido-Hwedo, squirming in his dark depths, seeking the red monkeys that carry the bars of iron for his sustenance. The white clan carried an iron strength in their unbelief; to them, day is simply day, night is night, and Oshun is water, nothing more. They understood only the things they could see, and despised everything else.
Heijande furiously chewed the jalapa root as his ancestor’s anger pounded through his chest. He would go to this land of the white clan, this land of unbelief, where the dead do not speak, where every man thinks himself wise without any help from ancestors. He would use his charms and his songs to protect his people, with Shu Lia by his side.
Days passed, and Heijande went about his duties gracefully by day and stole food, fresh water, and spices from the pantry at night to deliver to his clan in chains in the cramped hold, to force into mouths that had chewed only soaked and boiled corn. Under white wings the Perseverance skimmed low over a sea of blue mantle shot with gold. Cries and groans of the captives in the hold swirled aloft into a marbled sky of indifferent clouds.
The ship picked up the Equatorial current from the south, passing east of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks to avoid the currents that would have driven the ship into the archipelago’s stony embrace. The rocks, pinnacles of one of the Earth’s longest underwater mountain range, appeared as a jagged white outline rising sharply out of the sea. Heijande thought them to be the speckled humps of the serpent Aido-Hwedo, angry at man’s defiance of nature, churning the waters and blocking any further progress west.
Equatorial countercurrents laid the ship slowly over, with reduced sail, yielding in angle but obstinate against the cold white curls of black waves. While still in sight of the rocks a heavy squall rode in, and the ship drove to and fro, reeling and rocking in pain, rolling hesitatingly over burdened waves and slicing through the invisible violence of the winds, then suddenly pitching headlong into dark smooth hollows only to struggle upwards again over snowy ridges of running seas. The captives below deck were thrown to the side and lay heaped on the top of each other, their fetters rendering many of them helpless.
As seamen scattered to their posts on the pitching deck to attend to the sails, and the officers hung on to the aft poop railing with the Captain, Heijande scampered past them into the officer’s quarters, bouncing off the ladder and smashing against the bulkhead. He found Shu Lia chained to the bunk stays in the second mate’s cabin. She would not look him in the eye as he wrenched and pulled at the chains to no avail.
They were discovered before anything could be done. As the ship tossed back and forth from one belligerent wave to the next, chief mate Anderson brought Shu Lia and Heijande down to a corner of the quarterdeck out of sight of the aft poop and the Captain, to confront the second mate.
Seaman Lennon spied the scene below and scampered down from the boom of the top sail.
The ensuing argument of the two officers and seaman Lennon was abruptly dampened by a heavy spray, and the ship leapt obliquely through an enormous wave. And yet another: a big foaming sea rose up and made for the ship in a madman’s rush, roaring wildly. Some of the crew shouted and scrambled up the rigging, while others, convulsively catching their breath, held on where they stood.
Lennon grabbed Shu Lia’s left arm, and one of the officers grabbed her right arm. Hanging suspended between them, nearly split apart by the forces of nature and greed, she stopped screaming and wriggling and opened her eyes to the storm. The listing ship gave her a clear view of the white tips of the serpent of the sea, and the rocks due west, bathed in a cold sunshine streaking from the heavens. Heijande saw her stop her struggling and hold her head erect, spreadeagled in the wind like a goddess figurehead, held back by the chains of mortal men.
The coming wave towered over the ship like a wall of green glass topped with snow and rolled over its bow in a smashing confusion, filling the ships decks. Deadeyes of the rigging churned through the great sheet of bursting froth. The ship trembled and lurched violently to windward, tearing itself from the deadly grasp of that wave, and the whole immense volume of water, lifted by the deck, was thrown across to starboard, sweeping all of them off their feet. Heijande held on tight to the quarterdeck rail as the officers and seaman Lennon scrambled for footing. The storm looted the ship’s deck in a senseless, destructive fury, tearing trysails out of their gaskets, smothering the foredeck and sweeping away anything not locked down. The seas seemed to rush from all sides like an unruly mob to keep the ship from progressing, as if the ocean itself was a spirit that commanded it to yield or perish.
“Square the main yard!” The screeching yell from the Captain on the aft poop was nearly drowned out by the ocean’s roar. “Haul, men! Lay on your backs and haul!”
Hanging on to the railing, Heijande, gagged by the wind and nearly dragged off by the rushing streams, could barely make out through sweeping sprays the two officers with their elbows crocked in the ladder to the aft poop deck, and the seaman flat on his stomach at their feet with one arm on the base of the ladder and the other gripping Shu Lia. A vicious thrust of wind in an outburst of unchained fury suffocated Heijande, and with eyes shut he tightened his hold. An insidious fatigue settled on and benumbed him, and he felt cold and stiff in every limb. In a momentary hallucination of swift visions he beheld his life, all his memories, all of the people he knew, and everything that he would ever know in his lifetime. He could not move to save his life or any other life.
Another wave toppled over the ship, and seaman Lennon lost his grip on Shu Lia. Her eyes met Heijande’s, and in that instant, before Heijande could reach out and grab her, he knew her destiny. She was his muse, his shining light, the very reason he had developed his powers; he could not conceive of life without her. But here was that very instant in which he knew the precarious illusion of life, of human strength and weakness. We are tossed and then carried away by the very nature that embraces us, that gives us life. The white clan’s notions of good and evil, of individual humans separate from this very nature, were obstinate shouts of anger in the face of the inevitable. Oshun would have her vengeance; Aido-Hwedo would have his sustenance. The white clan’s arrogance would ensure that they would lose the most beautiful treasure in their possession, the most precious gift of nature, as a sacrifice for their greed.
And in that instant, as he gathered all his strength to resist the wind, as he lunged forward with the stone glowing hot in his belly, across the quarterdeck, he saw it in her eyes, that wan look of her clan when all hope is lost. As her eyes flashed in submission, Shu Lia let her body be carried off the deck in that immense, thick stream of water, to disappear into the flashing gray-green turmoil and uproar of the sea. In one moment’s space, one moment’s final fall from grace, Heijande could not reach her. He grasped thick air, a pounding blast of a wave, and the shock constricted his throat. He went limp; he wanted to be swept away to join her in the turbulent seas, but the stone in his belly burned hot, and his will to live prevailed. He grabbed the railing and looked for her on the leeward side.
Shu Lia was gone.
“Steady the foreyards!” The Captain could be heard crying from the aft poop, and the officers lurched aft to join him while Lennon crept slowly up the quarterdeck. Heijande saw that the seaman never looked back. None of them cared to see what had happened to her, or to him. “Steady them as best you can!” yelled the Captain. “We will hoist a hand, or drown amidst this stormy sea!”
Another great wave crashed across the bow and spread out in foamy whirlpools on both sides of the deck, and yet another wave loomed. The ship ran along with it for a moment, riding its snowy crest like a thief with a woman’s purse, a purse stuffed with suffering human beings. Loud cracks were heard as the ship rolled over its crest, and then swung upright. “She clears herself! She is steering,” cried the helmsman. Through a sudden clear sunshine the Perseverance ran blindly, creaking and slovenly, spewing out foaming water gorged with debris, fleeing for its survival.
All had returned to normal. The chief mate went swiftly about carrying out the Captain’s orders and the second mate organized the foredeck crew. Seaman Lennon scampered up the rigging, occasionally stealing a glance back to the quarterdeck.
No mention was made of Shu Lia. Captain Newman was in no mood for more surprises. As the captives were relieved from their pressure on each other and arranged again in the spooning position in the hold, it was found that fifteen of them had been smothered or crushed to death in the storm. The Captain was considerably vexed over the sudden loss of such marketable captives. Shu Lia had been counted as among the dead, and no one argued the count as the remaining corpses were thrown overboard.
Heijande trembled at the quarterdeck railing, burnt by her eyes as if by fire, blind in grief and senseless ire. Her beauty had been ravaged and his people were now cursed; he was cursed. He could not save her. Across the choppy black sea, perhaps only ten miles, churned the white peaks of the the sea serpent.
He cursed Aido-Hwedo’s hunger and then caught himself, realizing at once that this anger was the white clan’s defiance of Oshun, the white clan’s burden, not his. His grief would never leave him and his descendants would not escape the curse, but his purpose only grew solid as the stone in his belly glowed hot. The ancestors had spoken of a time lost to their history, seven generations of capture and slavery, of wickedness and corruption, of revolt and escape, as the Dogon tribes crossed the great Maghreb. They had hidden, in their thoughts, the songs and dances they had learned from the amphibious ones, the Nommo. And now, Heijande knew, he finally knew, what Legba wanted of him.
The stone, the rolling stone, would inspire songs and dances that would help his people survive over the next seven generations of the curse of servitude and ignorance. Heijande would sing new songs, casting spells that would enable his people to sleep-walk, so that while they lived through horror, they could still dream.
Even now, as he walked erect in his steward’s uniform steadfast through the hold among his captured clan in chains, boldly carrying extra food for them, they were starting to call him Heijande Konner. Repeated over several days and nights, it became “High John de Conquer”.
As High John the Conqueror, the dark prince of West Africa, he would be enslaved as one of them, and help them find shelter when the mighty serpent quakes the Earth. For it would happen, he told them, if they were not vigilant:
Aido-Hwedo will grow hungry, much hungrier than ever before, now that we can no longer feed its loa, celebrate it, dance to it, sing along with it, and strum it to perfection. The great serpent will begin to eat its own tail, and its writhing will be so terrible that the Earth will tilt, and then slip into the sea. But we will awaken from our sleep-walk before this happens. In seven generations our people will awaken and begin again to feed and celebrate its loa and prevent this catastrophe. This is what my ancestor tells me.
Angula his wife, back in chains in the hold with her clan, pleaded with her eyes, and Heijande reached out to her. They embraced despite her disgrace, and in the days of calm sailing that followed, as the ship caught warm southerly breezes, Heijande forgave her misguided, self-serving attempt at freedom. He could no longer afford to be judgmental. His people needed him, and she had learned the secrets of Mamarou’s herbs and spices. Together they would nourish their clan. The stone had infused him with the power of his ancestor and had made his spirit immortal. He was at peace with himself and his role. Legba had given him the courage to trick his way through this New World, and plant the roots of a new, powerful music.
And yet, Heijande could not put away his anger toward the white clan. He could feel the power of the stone in his gut. He knew that with a curse, he could hurt this seaman Lennon and all his descendants. His old friend Ashin watched as Heijande tightened his stomach, crouched low, and, plucking the strings of the kora, the strings of truth, sang quietly a song that cast a spell on Freddie Lennon and all his descendants, that they would travel the seas all their lives, lose their loved ones without mercy, and never feel at home in the world.
In the quiet gloom of the aftermath of this song, in the creaking hold as the ship swayed under warm evening breezes and steered toward the New World, Ashin quietly sung his own song of respect for Heijande, High John de Conquer. “Your power!” Ashin whispered in Heijande’s ears. “You will keep Shu Lia alive, with your songs! She will be honored by our children and our children’s children.”
* * *
In the early light of an uncertain dawn, the ship dropped anchor in Charleston Bay. Longboats were already in the water to greet it. The Perseverance would be there only a fortnight to trade the captives wholesale for provisions, cotton, sugar, and coffee. Captain Newman was anxious to sail up the coast to Delaware Bay and exchange his command for a well-deserved retirement in New Jersey. So anxious, in fact, that he’d forgotten his pledge to free the musical steward; despite Heijande’s prancing about like a trained monkey, spilling drinks to the amusement of the officers and grinning like a mascot, the Captain had Heijande’s uniform stripped and turned him naked out for sale, to compensate for at least one of the lost captives.
Heijande cursed the Captain in a silent song that he knew would be heard one day, perhaps in two hundred years. Until it was heard the Captain would suffer a bad-tempered spirit that would roam his woods. Decades later the family would be terrorized by this spirit, which they would call the Jersey Devil.
On the return journey to England, Freddie Lennon leaned against the rail on the weather side of the ship, looking eastward towards the invisible coast of Europe. On the line of the horizon there would sometimes appear the brief stain of another ship, a breath on a distant mirror, to remind him that they were not as alone out in this vast void of ocean as it would seem. The ship was just a corpuscle in a nourishing bloodstream, a member of a vast fleet sent forth by men of enterprise and vision, engaged in the greatest commercial venture the world had ever seen, changing the course of history, bringing death and degradation and profits on a scale hitherto undreamed of. Sight of land, of England, would take away all his self-confidence, would reduce him in stature and set him once again back on the margin of existence. On the land he was just another loiterer, piss-poor and irrelevant. Only on this ship, set amidst a vast ocean, with only infinity at the horizons… only then did he feel himself at the center of the world. And yet, it was always toward land that they sailed, land they so much longed for, signifying the end of exile. Land that would land him right back on the dung heap.
Seven Generations of Sleepwalking
To his people, High John de Conqueror had dropped all pretenses now that the journey was over. With reverence and respect, his chained clansmen had left him some slack in the chain as they were shoved into the longboats, and had then surrounded him in the boat and on shore before the massive auction block in the town square.
In the blinding morning sun and in a roar of unfinished business, each captive was shaken loose of chains and taken off to be branded. By the time High John was chosen, the most powerful landowners had taken their pick and only the weakest and least intelligent white men were doing the bidding.
Chosen by a small landowner north of Charleston, High John toiled in the bleak, troubled landscape, a slave just like the others, as wretched as any of them. But he grinned as he worked the fields, singing to the work, using the rhythm of the song to power the body gracefully through the hard, physical labor. By his example the others applied themselves and worked in rhythm, making it possible to forget where they were and what they were doing. They heard the power in High John’s singing, but some of them were afraid. High John posed an inexplicable threat to the order of things, and the white master needed no provocation to beat them.
Back from the fields, High John talked about the white people, how they all looked fat. “Always eating, eating. We are but skin and bone, always hungry, but according to them we were once cannibals! They are bloated from the fat of the land, with flabby chins down to their sternums and eyes clamped shut with congealed grease. But we know how to trick them for the crumbs that fall from their tables. You see, we got one mind for the boss to see, and we got another mind for what I know is me!”
Some of the other slaves couldn’t handle this talk. Known to be a rolling stone, High John was set upon by the others to have his stomach cut open and the stone removed. But High John convulsed and heaved, he wriggled and danced on one leg, he slipped away from them and began to vibrate and shine like a gilded splinter, until he stopped all movement, and vomited the stone into the palm of his hand.
The women were attracted to his wriggling and dancing. They defended High John and protected him and his stone. Legends grew about the rolling stone, the dark prince from West Africa known as High John the Conqueror, who had brought life across the ocean in the belly of the white man’s ship. His gift of laughter always signaled chaos or disorder.
One legend had it that he won his freedom through trickery, by pretending to love the daughter of the white Mister Charlie. To dissuade his daughter and have some fun at High John’s expense, Mister Charlie pretended that John could take his daughter, but only if he completed a number of impossible tasks. John had to clear sixty acres of land in half a day, and then sow and reap the sixty acres with corn in the other half a day. The daughter furnished John with a magical axe and plow to get these impossible tasks done, but warned John that her father meant to kill him after he performed them. In a whirlwind, John completed the tasks, and a shocked Mister Charlie allowed him to spend one night with his daughter, hoping she would be afraid of his prowess. But she adored him, and was soon fast asleep in utter complacency. The original backdoor man, John snuck away from the daughter’s bed, and stole Mister Charlie’s own horses to escape, and although a raging Mister Charlie came looking for him, High John could not be found. They say he disappeared by shape-shifting.
The stories spread. His descendants were strong with the spirit of Legba. Harvard “Doctor” John became a well regarded Mississippi Delta root doctor and was the great- great-grandfather of the legendary voodoo queen Mama Roux. Yale “Mojo” George led a group of slaves to escape into the northern swamps of Florida, where he founded a utopia of blacks and redskins living together harmoniously until they were massacred by white settlers. His brother Princeton “Pitchfork” John-Quincy fought alongside Nat Turner in the slave rebellion. Other descendants of the High John blood line organized the Maroons for the revolution in Haiti. Penn “Hoodoo” Ulysses awakened the Deep South musicians to what would eventually be called jez grew. The singing pastor Dartmouth “Ragtime” Rutherford was defiled in lectures by the newly formed Negro Baptist church as the very epitome of the Devil.
Songs were written about High John the Conqueror, who always had words of wisdom for every soul he met. His name became synonymous with the root of Ipomoea jalapa, which he had used to nurse his stomach from carrying the stone. Typically used in sexual spells of various sorts and considered lucky for gambling, the root acquired its sexual magical reputation because, when dried, it resembles the testicles of a dark skinned man.
And through it all, the spirit of Heijande, as High John, crept out over the land. Way back when he first arrived on American soil, he knew that the greatest song he could ever sing would be to live his way of life.
By 1890, the slave religions had been persecuted to near extinction in the hills of Mississippi along the great Delta. The spirits had burrowed deep within the Negro Christian dogma to keep themselves alive. Legba had taken on the disguise of Saint Peter, and Erzulie masqueraded as the Virgin Mary.
Cornell “Stackalee” Woodrow, strong with the Esau Legba spirit, strolled over to the Jesus side of town and into a card game to end all card games, wearing a princely New Orleans outfit of fine tweed, starched collars, a diamond stickpin, black oxfords, and a nine-gallon white Stetson hat with a silver trident pinned to its brim. Claiming to be a direct descendent of High John the Conqueror, he announced to no one in particular that he was in search of the magic called jes grew, a type of music that was the key to the treasures of their shared primeval past.
Billy Dee Lyon was not amused. He was a principled man, a religious man, a carpenter by trade with a sickly wife and two beautiful daughters, and the host of the white man’s card game every Saturday night. Billy Dee served the men whiskey from his own still, stacked the chips and card decks, procured a fresh batch of backwoods girls for them, kept watch at the door for the sheriff’s deputies, and cleaned up after they left. The white men called him Billy the Lion, or just “boy” despite his age.
News had spread about Cornell before he even arrived. The black man was so bold as to present himself, all starched and perfumed, at the white man’s gambling table as nobody’s fool, no white man’s boy, tougher than the devil. Billy Dee had tried to stop him but Cornell swept him aside. But as Cornell took a seat, the white men frowned and stopped the game. One of the white men laughed at Cornell and took a liking to his white Stetson hat.
Billy saw an opportunity, and challenged Cornell to a one-on-one. Lose, and Cornell would have to go, and leave behind his hat. Win, and Cornell could stay and play with the white men.
The game commenced. When Billy pulled the Queen of Spades to Cornell’s Jack of Hearts, Cornell thought it was a trick and pulled out a knife.
“You betrayed us,” Cornell spat at Billy. “You’ve become one of them,” he gestured at the white men. “You are nothing but a sacrificial animal. You strap yourself to their wheel, and wait for a freedom that never comes. You don’t feel the power of your blood, your ancestral heritage. All you feel is the darkness that surrounds your soul.”
And then Stackalee cut Billy Dee Lyon down.
* * *
“This is the new thing that’s happening, the work we spoke about before.” Cornell Woodrow placed the refurbished cornet horn-down on the lamp table. “It jes grew from our little seed, planted right here in New Orleans, the new music, the new dances. It’s gonna sweep the world and lift all of us, sister, right up and out of our misery. It’s the work I speak of, and don’t speak of. You know it when you hear it, you know it when you dance to it.”
The sweet mulatto whore nursed her Baby Louis as she listened, her eyes a mile wide and inviting for an army of Cornells, black men of stature, with outfits as good as any white man, with the intelligence to choose professions way above farming and laboring, with the cunning to win big in a world stacked against them. Cornell smiled at her son; already Louis exhibited the signs of greatness, grasping hands that knew no boundaries, a powerful shrieking scream he could summon when she couldn’t satisfy his huge appetite for tit. “Got another one just like it, out in West Texas,” he says, his single gold tooth glistening in the parlor gaslight like a miniature gas lamp. “And my cousin is doing the work up north, in the Delta. They’s gonna be High Johns a’conquering ever which way.”
Talk of other children didn’t bother her. She glanced at the cornet, a powerful totem shining on the table, a key to a different future for her Baby Louis.
Cornell smiled and tipped his hat, but his eyes were a warning: keep the cornet for your child, don’t let me find it some day in a hock shop. She knew he would be gone within the hour, dancing his way out of the parlor and off the porch and into a waiting carriage, and off into the night just a few steps ahead of the sheriff’s deputies coming to close the place down. Too much of that kickin’ piano music, she was told, too much barrelhousin’, too loud for the neighborhood. Whatever. Cornell had supplied the musicians, and the bulls wanted to know where Cornell had gone, but they also guessed that she would not know, so they left her and her suckling baby alone. They would close the house down, but it would reopen again in a few months, here or in some other place nearby.
And that was the world her baby, Louis Armstrong, would grow up into. Because the only way a Negro man could live in good standing, without incurring the wrath of the white man, was to be a religious preacher or a blues musician. The two occupations were as contrary by ideology as any could be; the one sings of God and the other of the sinful, devilish ways of the world. Armstrong would transcend these contradictions to become the most respected musician in America. His vocal phrasing would be copied by every jazz singer, and his solo breaks would become the foundation for all sax and guitar riffs though the next two centuries.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Tony Bove. All rights reserved.