I come out de river

12 Apr

Shilombish holitopa ma!
Ishmminti pulla cha
Hatak ilbusha pia ha
Is pi yukpalashke
-Amazing Grace
I was born of man and woman
but came out of the river
Daddy said I was fiery,
called me homalosa , but
the soldiers just called me nigger.

They told us they were federal escorts
for safe passage with assured provisions
but rancid swine quivering in larvae
bloated bleached flour fit only
for the condemned
was what was delivered.

Papa searched the wagon for the ware
fit to bribe the ferryman, for he too was a
soldier, now. Mama feared he’d find no tribute worthy
to shield their eyes from her glory that
was her curse; onyx eyes to match her brow,
aniline lips to match coffee bean skin.
He implored them and they took his mother’s
candelabra and basket purse.

Like feeble oxen we were prodded to the rear.
Mama didn’t look back to the wagon, Papa was
all she ever had. But Papa dared, and his eyes
lured the others to horde our lifethings on the shore.
I clung to Mama’s dress, and hid behind Papa’s shoulder.
At sixteen I was fit to be taken by the uniforms aboard.

We thought the ferry would get us there sooner
and safer, too many to count where they stood
in the snow. But as we numbered still too many
mothers silent prayed that the boat would keep afloat.

And then one rich man was ushered on. Many acres
in marriage he’d acquired. He sent his beautiful wife ahead of
him, to prove we were civilized Indians.
She left bedizened with lace, diamonds,
and almond shaped eyes with freckled light skin.
He used to laugh, saying only her eyes were savage, but her
land was noble.
To our surprise, room was made for his wagon.

And then, before we knew it, I saw them
come for my parents. Papa looked up
like we do to elders. Mama leaned in,
I think she saw her father.
The ferry shook and moaned as she
ruptured from within.

My selfish eyes wanted to look about, but my soul was not
foreign to this. Still, I could hear the wails
of blanketed women, ashore, on board.
My heart paced, suddenly hearing the prayers
of men, and seeing boney nails behind them.

Dreamlike, all being stopped. I heard nothing.
I saw nothing. I felt nothing, but Papa. He undid the rope
that tied us together to keep me to him,
away from uniformed savagery.

In my ear he spoke my mother’s language, in
the other she spoke his. He said, “she has come too far
to me to lose her, I go now with her.” She said, I have come
so long losing everything but us, we go for you.” He said,
“she came to me by the water, you go the same way. Live and
know our names.”

and in a violent water vacuum, they were gone.

So, in the midst of ice and snow, my drenched
body labored to breathe ashore. A grandmother snuck behind
and cloaked me in her best quilt, leaving her shoulders
naked to the prickly army issued blue throw.
She pulled me close, but I had to catch up,
keep walking, find our place and reclaim what was ours.

As I parted, I fell. My legs were waterborne and frozen.
A soldier picked me up by my sleeve, gathered in his hand.
“Who are you nigger girl? You a half-breed? An Injun Nigger?
You an Injun slave? What good is an Injun slave? Like a dog having fleas!”
He laughed at me as my parents’ words resounded like trumpets within.
“Where’d you come from? Where do you belong?” He shoved me along.

Finally my heart found its beat, my lungs air, my voice words
“I come out de river.
A long way here and much furder to go.
No papers for me because I belong to no one.
I come out de river.”

Copyright Asani Charles 2008

Audio file of I come out de river


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