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Sold Down The River

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Inspired by the art of James V. Allen
By Gregg Hunter       

 

The night is still as I float down the murky waters of the Mississippi. I stare at the stars adoring the midwinter night’s sky while the moon’s radiant beams reveal the contours of the River’s snakelike path. The current is carrying me home, to a place I’ve long forgotten. I barely remember the way there or what home even looks like. I buried the memory long ago when I left the tiny cabin in the backwoods of Mississippi for the big cities up North. The chocolate in D.C. and the apple in New York tasted sweeter than the brackish water of the backwoods infested with filth and decay.

I left as a boy and am returning a man. Why am I returning to this place? When I left there was nothing there for me. I saw the same sad faces every day sitting on the corner huddled around the liquor store waiting for someone to drop change in their hats so they could purchase that day’s poison. Old and young alike drank the day away, old drinking to forget yesterday’s sorrows and young drinking to gather strength to talk to that night’s new lover.

I take a sip of water and close my eyes to rest. I have to steel myself for tomorrow’s disappointment at the sight of broken windows and shuttered homes, trash-littered streets and trashy women so desperate for a dollar they would suck anyone’s dick if offered even a dime. With eyes tightly shut I float down the river on dawn’s highway, hoping no thoughts crowd sleep’s sweet spirit out of my mind. Rest, I tell myself, rest easy, and when morning comes you’ll be alright.

Come home, come home. What is that, I muse. I swore I heard a voice, a whisper. Come home, come home. It’s faint, I can barely make out the words. Come home, COOOME HOOOOME!. Come home? What’s going on? Who’s there, I shout loudly as my echoes through the empty night. I wait feverishly, heart pounding in the night’s humid heat. Thirty seconds pass, then a minute, then two minutes. Silence answers my anxious reply to the voice calling to me in the night. The old folks used to tell stories when they were good and liquored up, stories to frighten to small children of ghosts that haunted the River. I remember sitting by the fire with my mother, father, sister and brother while Old Man Otis sang songs of old slaves whose spirits still swam in the River. The spirits would guide slaves who escaped from the sugar cane plantations up the river to the North. The spirits would comfort the slaves and calm their souls while terrifying slave catchers with horrifying shrieks that could be heard for miles.

As a child I had nightmares of those spirits but as a man I put away the terrors of childhood and recognized the stories for what they were: figments of a drunk man’s imagination that we indulged him in so he could shut up for the rest of the evening. Voodoo and spirits aren’t real, no ghosts haunt the River. Go back to sleep, I’m only dreami...

I closed my eyes and clenched my fists tightly as I prepared to enter into the light.

Suddenly a light appeared, a light of bright orange and red like the Sun. The light illumined the River and I could see the outlines of the trees and the swamp as clear as if it were day. In the middle of the light I saw a face, a face with big lips and big eyes that were slammed shut. The light revealed other faces, other lips and other eyes, eyes that even though they were closed seemed to stare me past my eyes and into my very soul. All at once, the faces whispered, “Come home, come home.”

The current carried me closer to them, closer to the light that lit up this midwinter night down the River. I froze with terror for fear of rocking the raft and falling into the alligator infested waters. I closed my eyes and clenched my fists tightly as I prepared to enter into the light. After a few seconds I opened my eyes and blackness embraced me. The light had vanished and all was calm as before. I shuddered for the night had grown chilly as a cool breeze blew over my sweaty face. Whew, that was something else, I pondered as I laid back down on the raft.

Splash! The raft jumped up out of the water and landed with a crash. What’s going on, the river was calm just a second ago. Did the raft hit a rock or something? I leaned over to peer over the side of the raft and froze in fear. A face was floating in the River. The River then began to turn red, red like blood. The redness came from the mouth of the face, blood leaking from the lips. What started as a small trickle gradually became a deluge and soon the whole River seemed to turn to blood. As the redness spread, more faces appeared in the River, faces young and old, male and female. Like the previous faces, their eyes were shut but somehow still seemed alive. Smiles seemed to flicker from the corner of their mouths.

No, no, no, this isn’t real, there is no such thing as ghosts or spirits. Old Man Otis was nothing more than a drunk. I continued staring at these faces bathed in red blood. As I began to turn away and try to dismiss these figments of my imagination, I saw from the corner of my eye a face open its eyes and look at me. I panicked and my soul felt like it jumped out of my own skin. The eyes danced and flickered as if fire consumed them, a fire of vengeance of retribution for a grievance that was never settled in life. Now in death the score can be settled and the long tortured soul can rest in peace. The face opened its blood soaked and gargled, “Come home, brother. Don’t you remember us?”

It is as if I am naked yet I am fully clothed. I quickly turn to right and see a line of faces adoring the wall, like masks. Some are smiling, others frowning, some laugh while others cry; fat, thin, young and old, the masks all share the same color: black.

With a devilish smile the face rose from the River and appeared before me. I could see the curls of the hair, the depths of the eyes deepened by centuries of death and decay. Blood dripped from cuts and bite marks that looked like dog’s and wild raccoon’s. The face floated ever closer until I stood face-to-face with the spirit of what must be one of Old Man Otis’ escaped slaves. The face whispered into my ear, “Come home, lost child, we’ve been waiting for you.”

What did the spirit mean that they’ve been waiting for me? I don’t know any of them, they’re dead. Why are they waiting for me? I grow more restless as the River carries me closer to home. My hands shake and body quivers as another shiver rolls down my spine. Bump,bump. The raft shifts a little on the River. What’s hitting the back of the raft, what new horror arises from the River on this dreadful night. I turn around and see a black mass behind me. It’s enormous and blocks out my view of all things behind. I feel as if the mass would swallow me whole and I’d never escape from its darkness. From the side I see oars moving back and forth but no oarsmen; I see a sail but no one atop the mast. The mass is a ship, a giant ship bound for port.

The ship slowly moves past me, but as it passes by the planks of wood fall off into the River. One by one, they fall into the water and reveal the cargo of the ship. A rotten smell wafts from the rotting ship, like spoiled meat left out in the hot summer sun. I peer into the depths of the ship, straining my eyes to see into the pitch black ship. A glimmer of moonlight flashes over the ship and I see the cargo that the ship holds.

My mouth gapes open and my heart nearly stops beating in my chest. Bodies lay atop bodies, a tangled mass of arms, legs and faces, black arms, black legs and black faces. Their naked bodies resemble an orgy as they lay strewn one atop another, dead flesh rubbing against dead flesh. Vomit rushes from my stomach to my mouth and I puke into the River at the sight and smell of the slave ship. With puke dribbling from my lips I look up and see the dead looking back at me. Their eyes eye me lustily and their faces betray their desire for me to join them. Their hands reach towards me as they slowly crawl towards the opening in the ship towards my raft.

I am rooted to my spot on my raft and cannot move. My brain sends signals to my limbs but they refuse to obey the commands. My body is unwilling and my spirit too weak to force my body into action. The dead, black slaves continue their slow crawl towards me, crooning, “Welcome, lost son, we’ve missed. Join us, join us, have some fun, the show has only just begun.”

They laugh maniacally between sounds as their bodies begin to twist and contort. Their faces twist upside down and their arms dangle at strangle angles. Their laughter and singing impregnates the barren night with sound, the sound of horror. The wind whips up the trees as cracks resembling the whip’s lash reverberate through the River. Every sound stings my soul and an unbearable pain rises up in my breast. The ship finally moves past my raft and then rose into the night sky to continue its journey. I hear a rumbling sound and then a great roar and splash from the River as 1000 ships emerge from the River’s depths. The armada fills the night sky as they heed the clarion call of a trumpet I cannot hear that plays a tune only the dead must know.

I stare in awe and terror at the strange sight of 1000 ships launched towards a place I do not know. Where do they go, I ponder, as they rise ever upward beyond the moon and the stars. My small raft continues floating as I marvel at the sight, floating home. A firefly flickers past my face and stops right in front of my eyes. The firefly’s light is strange, glowing silver like the moon than the normal yellow. I remember catching them in jars in my uncle’s backyard in Mississippi, all of us children running around trying to see who could catch the most. They use to light up the fields in the summer and we’d run ourselves ragged, exhausting ourselves to capture their light.

Another firefly flew before me, and another and another. Gradually, more of the creatures came and formed one giant firefly whose silver light shone like a star. The great firefly turned and flew off into the distance, but as it flew it left little stars in its wake. The stars hung in the air just a few feet above my head. They gave off warmth like a campfire and their heat warmed my still shivering body.

I feel the current slowing and the raft decreasing its speed. The wind starts to howl like wolves and the trees shake violently. Voices far in away in the night sing, “You’re home, lost son, you’re almost home,” while I faintly hear a hammer. Both sounds come from the same direction as the farthest star up ahead. With each second I draw closer to the light and the sounds grow all the more loud. The singing voice resembles Old Man Otis’ voice. He would sing when he would tell his tales, old songs that they used to sing on the plantation. I would sit silently while everyone else joined him in his drunken chorus and never cared to learn the words. I wish knew them now.

Look, looooook, do you see me? Who’s whispering now? The song and hammer grows louder but this new voice whispered into my ear. I don’t see anything, I shout into the night. Why don’t you see me? Look harder, the voice whispers in reply, a soft whisper barely audible over the sound of the song and hammer. I look up and see birds, a raven, a crow and a vulture flying overhead towards the light. Is that you want me to see, birds? Noooo. Come and seeeeee.

Floating further forward, I see a great building rising from the River. A giant steeple pierces the night sky and a winged creature stands atop it pointing towards heaven. As I approach the building, stairs arise from the River and lead up to a temple supported by white marble columns. A black door stands in the center of the temple and slowly begins to open. The firefly from before flies in front of it, waiting for me to arrive at the steps. The raft stops as it comes into contact with the stairs, marble stairs that glow in the moonlight and in the light of the firefly, a radiant, silver light.

Uneasily and with trepidation I take my first step gingerly onto the stairway and ascend to the door. Welcome, the firefly says, welcome home. Although I have never seen this building before, it seems strangely familiar. Another shiver runs down my spine and my heart beats faster as I enter into the temple through the door, walking past the firefly and into the darkness.

Above me a light flickers and then grows brighter. More lights appear and reveal a long hallway that seems to go on forever. I begin to walk down this hallway, each step echoing through the long chamber as I progress. The walls are a dark hue of blue with a little bid of red in the middle. I walk briskly, desperate to see what lies at the end of the hallway. I know this isn’t home yet it feels like I’ve been here my whole life.

As I walk through the hallway I feel as if someone is staring at me. I feel their eyes bore into me, looking into the depths of my innermost being and seeing my bare soul. It is as if I am naked yet I am fully clothed. I quickly turn to right and see a line of faces adoring the wall, like masks. Some are smiling, others frowning, some laugh while others cry; fat, thin, young and old, the masks all share the same color: black. Black masks, black faces, this must be a theater and not just a temple I say to myself. I reach out touch a mask and try one on but as I extend my hand, the masks recede into the wall.

Taken aback, I continue on to the end of the hallway. Another door stands before me and a handprint is in the place of a doorknob. I kneel down and place my hand in the print and it fits perfectly, as if it were made for my hand. I push the door open. The marble floor meets sand and I step out onto the temple courtyard. I am enveloped in darkness and cannot see. I stumble along blindly, grasping for anything to hold onto.

The ghosts from the River swirl around me and I frantically beat them back but to no avail. They rush through me and I feel every lash of the whip they felt, every tear shed from watching their family get ripped apart time and again.

I bump into something wooden and hold onto it tightly. I feel something sticky on it and my hands feel strange. Immediately light begins to appear in the distance like the Sun rising. As my eyes adjust to the rising light, I stumble towards it. I fall on my face and sand enters my dry mouth. As I prepare to rise to my feet again, I see blood on my hands. Am I bleeding? Where did this blood come from, whose is it? I look around and see that I am surrounded by crosses and all of them are streaked with blood. I am in the center of what looks like a theater, like Rome’s great Colosseum in which many a battle was staged. The theater is shaped like a circle and the crosses are all around the circle. As I peer forward, the top of the circle opens up into a path and crosses line the path.

I hear voices from the crowd and cries from the crows, ravens and vultures that circle above them, the same birds from the River. They all say, “Come and see, brother, come and see!” The ghosts from the River swirl around me and I frantically beat them back but to no avail. They rush through me and I feel every lash of the whip they felt, every tear shed from watching their family get ripped apart time and again. Every shriek from another night spent with the master I hear, every foot chopped off for attempting to run away I can see clearly. Their black faces, their black bodies, their black spirits push me forward to the path of the crosses and they make me look at them.

I see a black body on each cross, but I cannot make out the face. I hear nails driven into someone and I hear a man’s voice crying out in agony. I can barely make out the words, they come from a land foreign to me, but a language which I can recall from a place that I once knew. The birds fly ahead and take their rest on the cross, the vulture at the top flanked by the crow on the right side and the raven on the left. My heart pounds like a drum’s rhythmic beat while the ghosts pound on great kettle drums a steady, slow beat. As I come closer to the cross their beat picks up and grows faster. Faster and faster they play and closer and closer I come.

I can make out the body and the face of the man. I see the nails in the feet covered in blood, shit and water all running down the man’s legs. I see the hole in the side pierced by the iron spear where they flow freely from, leaking out of the black body. I see the streaks of the whip on the stomach and chest, the places where the nails, chips and bones of the whip dug into the black body and ripped out the black flesh, exposing the entrails. I see the chest heaving struggling breath as the black body scratches its back on the unforgiving wood that restricts movement. I see the outstretched hands pierced by iron nails. The ghost that drives the nail home looks me dead in the eyes and to my horror, it is my face. I look around at all the crosses on the path and a great wail escapes from my lips. “Look at him, look at him, LOOOOOK AT HIIIIIIIIIIM!”, the ghosts cry out and the birds shriek at me. I look at the man on the cross before me and I see my black body on that cross crucified. A crown of thorns adorns my head and an inscription rests above the cross and I read the lines written in blood, my blood, as tears run down my eyes.

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