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I circle the ship with the sharks, slipping between dark waves. The water is layered with cold currents, sea creatures, and a ship that slices through it with cargo holds full of stolen people. I swim underneath the swells, away from the gaze of men and just out of the reach of jaws.
The hull of the vessel is a shadow above me, and as I follow the line of the keel, my chest tightens, hot rage building against my rib cage. I spin away as fish flit around me, stretching my fingers up toward watery sunbeams. It has been weeks since I have felt the burn of a midday sun. I miss basking in its light, letting the heat soak into my bones. Closing my eyes, I reach for a memory that twists and coils like smoke. I’m sitting on red-brown earth under the dappled shade of a mahogany tree, splashes of sun on my hot skin. Eagerly, I grasp for more, but as usual, the vision fades.
My stomach churns with disappointment as sharp as red coral. Every time, the loss feels the same, as if a part of me is within reach, only to dissolve like mist on the tops of the waves.
I turn in the water, a shiver of skin and coils, of hair and scales that flash like buried treasure. Embracing the current, I let trails of seaweed run through my hands, feel the wisps of memories fade away. I pause for a moment as the shoal once again spirals around me, glittering yellow with delicate stripes of pink, letting the beauty of the fish soothe me.
Diving down, I head farther away from the ship. I know I’ll need to go back, but for now I close my eyes against the velvet slip of the water, its coolness sliding along my skin. This part of the sea is darker, and I welcome being cloaked in an enfolding gloom.
Below me, an eel slinks through the depths, its muscular body only slightly blacker than the water surrounding it.
Go, I tell the creature, and in one inky slither it moves away from me. I sink deeper. Enough for the cold to seep into my bones. Enough for the glint of my tail to be swallowed by the dark.
I feel the pull of a current, and for a moment, I consider letting it take me, but then I remember the ship and I tip my face toward the surface, toward the sun and the domain of humans who breathe air. I swim up once again, my task fresh in my mind as I see the wooden hull of the ship plowing through the ocean. I’m reluctant to drift too close in case I am seen by humankind; instead I lurk in the midnight shade of the sea, the bellies of the great whites gleaming above me. They glide closer, flat obsidian eyes and teeth ready. I shudder, turning away from their large bodies as they track the ship, even though I am doing the same as they are. We both seek those that enter our domain.
As the creak of the ship echoes in the deep, I stroke the gold chain that hangs heavy around my neck, its links cold against my sink. My fingers move over the sapphire that gleams in the murk.
And then, there it is, the water crashing and hissing with the force of a body entering. Bubbles rise and pop, leaving only the descent of splayed limbs and crimson-stained skin. I swim faster as a shark darts forward. Blood curls in the sea, red ribbons unspooling in the deep. Pushing my way upward, I try to ignore the copper tang in the water as I swim between the gray-and-white creatures.
Wait, I command them as the body sinks. They circle impatiently, black eyes flashing. I turn to the person, catching a glimpse of their unseeing eyes and an open mouth, bruised and swollen.
A woman, her skin a dark brown in the water. Black tufts of hair wave in the current, revealing more wounds on the side of her face. She spins slowly, and something in the line of her body speaks to me. There was no easy death here, I think, closing my eyes briefly. But then there never is.
As I take hold of a hand the same size as mine, rage swells at the thought of another death that the sea will hide. The woman’s body knocks against me as I hold her close, closer, until her hair intertwines. Cupping her chin, I look at her face and pause.
The tilt of her mouth is familiar, with generous lips framed by full cheeks. Her hair floats free from rows of the kọ‘lẹ´sẹ‘ style, black tendrils that I want to touch, to neaten. I look again and a memory stirs. She reminds me of . . . I try to focus, to tease the edges out, but it will not come and the sharks glide closer. They will only listen to me for so long.
My gaze rakes over the woman once more, but the feeling of familiarity has passed. I let it go and remind myself that it doesn’t matter. It is better this way, I think, echoing the words of Yemoja. To not remember who I was before. Leaning closer, I focus on the small glow that emanates from the woman’s chest, just above her heart. I reach for the swirl of gold that grows brighter as it breaks free from her body. When my fingertips touch the essence, I close my eyes in preparation.
“Mo gbà yín. Ní àpéjọ, ìwọ yóò rí ìbùkún nípasẹ‘ẹ Ìyá Yemoja tí yóo ṣe ìrọ‘rùn ìrìn àjò rẹ. Kí Olodumare mú ọ dé ilé ní àìléwu àti àláfíà,” I say, and then repeat the prayer that will glean the woman’s soul. “I welcome you. Gathered, you will be blessed by Mother Yemoja, who will ease your journey. May Olodumare take you home to safety and peace. Come forth.”
The warmth of the woman’s life floods my mind. I see her as a child, laughing when she winds her arms around the neck of her mother. Then she’s older, eyes alight with a different kind of love as she holds out a bowl of rice and peppered catfish. With shining dark skin and a wide smile, the man before her is beautiful. I feel her heart lift as he takes the food and their fingers brush. Later, she’s tilling a small field next to a village. Fingers sprinkling seeds into the grooves she’s created in the earth, as she sings a song to Oko, the orisa of crops. Her voice is sweet and high, rising with the heat of the day. And then she’s holding a baby with the same grin as hers. She presses her face into the folds of the girl’s neck, inhaling the child’s milky scent. I smile, feeling all the jubilation she has felt and the love that fills her soul.
When I open my eyes, the woman’s essence hovers in the cradle of my fingers. I focus on the joy in her memories as I coax forth her soul, guiding it toward the sapphire of my necklace. The stone absorbs her essence, growing warm against the hollow of my throat. I hold the images of the woman’s life in my mind and wonder if the village she came from still stands. If her people continue to wait for her, checking the horizon every day to see if she will return.
Tatters of her wrapper drift in the water, a faded orange that was once as bright as the midafternoon sun. I look down at the hand still in mine, with its torn pale nails and jagged scars. She will receive Yemoja’s blessing before she returns to Olodumare; it is the one thing I am able to do for her.
May you be at peace, sister. Yemoja will ease your journey back home.
Releasing the woman’s fingers, I turn away, not watching as her body sinks into the depths.
A daughter, a wife, a mother.
My tears join the salt of the sea.