Read The Penalty Online

Authors: Mal Peet

The Penalty (2 page)

 

I
T WAS NOT
long before we started dying. I think some of the Other People made themselves die. They closed their eyes and would not eat or drink. Then the emptying sickness began. The stink was terrible. The white men covered their faces with cloth when they went down to carry the bodies out.

I survived because after five days I was taken out of the belly of the ship. A white man, the one who cooked the food, befriended me. His name was Billywells. He called me Little Macaque. I slept inside the shack at the back of the ship where he worked, and in the morning and just before darkness I crawled among our people with the food tubs and the water barrel and the cup. The white men did not like to do this because of the heat and the stink, and because they were afraid, even though our people were chained together and one could not move unless all the others moved at the same time.

Because I was on the roof of the ship I saw what happened to our dead bodies. They were thrown into the sea, naked as they were born and with no ceremonies. Sometimes, even though their spirits had left them, they would not go down but would lie in the water with their faces to the sky. On days of no wind, they would stay against the walls of the ship, like logs that gathered together at the slow places on our river.

Some of the white men died too, when the emptying sickness moved among them. But with them it was different. The body was sewn tight into strong cloth to protect it, and gifts of iron were put in with it. The other white men came together around the body and did ceremonies of worship and chanting. So when it was put in the sea it went down under the water and did not come back up. I thought that was where the white ancestors lived, at the bottom of the sea.

The way our bodies were treated filled me with so much fear and worry that it was like having a snake living in me. I knew that one of the men down in the belly of the ship was a
pai
, a priest. I spoke with him, whispering. I asked him if the spirits of those put in the sea would be able to find their way home.

He said, “No, they will not.”

“Can you not help them, Pai?”

He said, “I am not your pai here. I have no powers here.”

There were tears running from his eyes.

Two days later at watering time he spoke to me again, saying, “I have been dreaming. Put your ear against my mouth.”

I did, and he said, “The white men are taking us to their country, which I cannot picture. When you get there you must speak to the ancestors so that they know where we are and can fetch us.”

This made me shake. I said, “I do not understand, Pai. How can I speak to the ancestors? I do not know how. I am not from a wise family. Can you not do this?”

He turned his head away from me. I could see all the bones beneath his skin.

“No,” he said. “I have seen that I will not be there. You must do it. I will teach you how.”

 

I
THOUGHT
I would live this death for ever. Wander this water desert for ever. A numbness soaked into me so that I thought I was going ghost. Sometimes I looked at my hands, my feet, and wondered with not much interest who they belonged to.

In my first life, when I had a home, I learned from my mother the skill of making a carrying fire. While my father and uncles prepared the big boat I would pick the slowest and strongest embers from our cooking fire and wrap them in leaves. First a little dry litter to feed them, then wrappings of oily leaves, then wrappings of the thick green leaves that could not burn. Tie the bundle in a clever way with twisted fibres. The fire would sleep in there for a long time. When we had travelled far upriver and it was time to rest and eat, we would open the bundle and wake the fire with our breath.

The pai had given me a carrying fire. His teachings. That is why I did not go ghost. That is why I went through death and came out the other side.

One morning I was woken up not by the cold or by the poke of Billywells’s foot but by a great clamour of shouting. The white men were very excited. Some danced on the floor of the ship with their arms around each other. Some made a criss-cross sign on the front of their bodies.

At first I thought it was just another shadow of rain cloud on the edge of the sea. Then I saw that it did not drift and change. It was land. This land.

There was wind and little sweeps of rain on our backs, and the bellies of the sails were full. By the middle of the day I could see hills and trees. That night, the ship rested for the first time. There was land ahead and to the side of it, and when the moon rose I saw a pale line where the water ended. That night too, Billywells brought a barrel to the middle of the ship and pierced it, and it leaked drink into the white men’s cups. I hid in the cooking shack when they got fierce and noisy, but Billywells came to me and poured some of the drink into my mouth. It was wet fire, and I thought he was killing me because he had no more use for me. I fought and spat but some of it burned down into me and my stomach rose up against my ribs. This made Billywells happy, and he rubbed my head and went away shouting.

We did not land in that place. The ship sailed close to the shore for two more days. I could smell the trees. And we came at last to a world of stone. A long rampart of stone and wood rose out of the water, almost as high as the walls of the ship. From the top of this rampart a great space stretched away, and the ground was also stone. This space was full of people and all sorts of loud work, and I did not know whether it was a joy or a terror to see that most of the people were black like us, although they wore clothes like the white men. Things I did not know the names of were heaped all around, and there were strange four-legged animals wearing baskets on the sides of their bodies. Also houses of stone. One of them was very big, bigger than any house I had ever seen, with a great gate in it like an open mouth. Then came a grey cliff that reached up to the sky. And I saw that there was a crooked road climbing the cliff, and people and the basket animals were going up and down it in lines like leaf ants in the forest.

When our men and women were brought out of the belly of the ship, some of them moaned in fear when they saw where they were. But many were too weak even to cry out, and some had the big-eye sickness and could see nothing. Many had legs that would not unfold and they had to be carried from the ship on hammocks hung between two poles. Black people did the carrying, and some of us tried to speak with them, but they would not answer. Some of them were weeping. I still had strength because I had not been chained and because of the extra food that Billywells had given me. So I was made to carry a man in my arms down onto the hot stone earth. He was taller than me and bigger, but he was like bent sticks with a head. He weighed almost nothing, but I staggered and almost dropped him. My legs had forgotten how to walk on level ground.

We were taken into the mouth of the big house. Other people were in there already, among the shadows, and when they saw us they sang and mourned.

We were there for many days. We slept on dry grass and we had coverings at night. White men came and looked closely at us and gave us bitter medicines. Also food, not only the filthy porridge but strange fruits and bird meat and a kind of bread. Most of us lived. We learned to walk again, growing stronger.

And when we were strong enough to bear it, the white men burned a mark on the front of our shoulders with a red-hot iron.

 

T
HE DAY CAME
when we were taken up the crooked road that climbed the cliff. We were all joined together by a chain and this made the walking difficult. Stones bit our feet. On one side of the road there was only airy nothingness and a great fall which filled me with a kind of drifting sickness when I looked at it. We climbed so high that we were level with the great black birds that sailed across the face of the rock, turning their grey heads to look at us.

When we reached the top of the cliff many of us cried out in fear and wonder. Because we found ourselves in a great city of stone houses that filled our sight, and they were magical colours, and some had towers that were taller than the masts of the death ship. And what marvelled me was that light burned from many of the windows, so bright that I could not look. I thought these houses must have their own suns prisoned inside them. This was the first time I saw glass, a thing I came to love. Sheets of nothing that you can touch, and see through without being seen. Like the thin invisible wall you step through if you die.

And the towering city of coloured stone was full of people. Black people like us, and white people. It took some time for me to understand that the white people who had no legs, who floated in great robes, were women, because the robes covered their breasts. As we climbed the last steps, the sky filled with the sound of bells and many people came towards us, calling out in their languages and pointing. They surrounded us like a cloud of bright-coloured flies when we were led along the hot stone road between the houses. We were almost naked. We had been given small aprons of cloth which hardly covered our sexual parts, and the women stared at us, hiding the lower parts of their faces behind little screens like painted palm leaves. And I saw that there were black women who did the same, and who wore long robes like the whites, and my mind struggled to understand this.

In a great sloping space between the houses we were chained to a wall by our necks and hands and feet. There was a roof of dry grass above our heads, shading us from the sun who was in a cruel mood. We were all croaking our thirst, and after some time we were given water. Things were done to us. Many people came to touch us, our arms, our legs, our sexual parts. A man pushed my head back and forced my mouth open and looked into it. When he had gone, the bitter taste of his fingers lasted a long time.

Then a white man and a black man stood in front of us. The black man beat a blood-red drum and the white man held a long black stick in the air. His face was covered in sweat so that it looked like a mask of polished wood with black eyeholes. The crowd became silent. He spoke to them in a great voice, then came close to us. He laid his stick on the shoulder of the first man chained to the wall, and when he did so many of the white people in the crowd called out and lifted their arms. There was much shouting and sometimes laughter like barking. Then there was a quietness, the black man struck his drum, and the white man made marks on a paper.

I was the fourth in the line, and when the stick touched me all the eyes of all the people also touched me. It was the first time in my life so many people had looked at me, and the power of their looking made me tremble so much I thought my legs would fail and I would fall and choke on the iron collar that clutched my throat. Then it was over and the white man made his marks on the paper and moved his stick to the man chained next to me.

When we had all been touched and shouted at, the white man went among the crowd, leaving the man with the drum close to us. He looked at me and spoke quietly in a language I did not understand.

Then he looked more closely at me and used a different language, wonderfully my own. “Loma person? From the great river?”

I nodded, feeling my heart grow big as prayer. I saw now that behind the drum and beneath the white man clothes there was a boy not much older than myself.

He said, “You belong now to Colonel d’Oliviera. It could be worse.”

I was silenced because I understood his words but not his meaning.

“His place is two days’ boat from here.”

Still I could find nothing to say. He looked to see where the white man with the stick was, then turned his face back to me. “Who is your ancestor?”

I answered, “Achache.”

“The Dancer,” he said.

“And the Magician.”

He looked at the ground between us then lifted his face. “It would be best if you forgot him. Worship is useless here. We are beyond reach. Not even great Maco knows where we are. I have seen things which teach me this. Soon you will see them too.”

I licked my lips. I could not tell him about the pai and the burden of his knowledge that I carried.

He said, “The white shits call this place El Mundo Nuevo, the New World. And they are right. There is nothing old and good here. Listen to me: be who they say you are and try not to die. That is all you can do.”

“What is your name?” I asked him.

But before he could answer, the white man with the stick came towards us calling, “Jaquito! Jaquito!”

The boy bared his teeth at me, a smile that was not a smile.

“That is what they call me,” he said, and turned away and played a summons on his drum.

And then we stood in our chains and watched the whippings. We mourned and groaned because we had never seen such a thing done to men. Each one was tied to a rack like the ones we dried our nets on, back in the real life. Each one screamed and prayed when the first lashes struck him and then fell silent because – I thought – he had died. Blood ran down to the ground, and the skin on each back peeled away like the bark of the coloba tree.

 

I
WAS ONE
of six men bought by Colonel d’Oliviera that day. One of the others was called Abela and he was also from the great river, although not from my village. We were taken to a yard with iron bars over the windows, where we slept. The next morning a white man came. His hair was greased tight to his skull and tied at the back with a cord made of skin. His nose was long and red and hooked, like a fish hawk’s beak. His eyes worried me. They looked like he had been weeping tears of blood. And I had seen him before. The day before. He had stood at the front of the crowd when we were sold.

The black man who had watched over us in the night jumped up when he saw the white man and stood straight as a spear, so I thought that this was the colonel who owned me. It was not. It was Captain Morro. The overseer. A word I did not know then, but one I grew to know very well, and hate. He came close and looked at us. He had a smell that was sweet but also rotten. I knew this smell from the death ship. Rum.

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