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Poem: "The Terrible Fascinating Power" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "The Terrible Fascinating Power"
This is the freebie for the June 2013 Crowdfunding Creative Jam. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] elizabethconall, who wanted to read about "La Amistad  in space."  It also fills the Whipping/Flogging square in my card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest and the #7 Scintillate slot in the [community profile] rainbowfic Moonlight list.

"The Terrible Fascinating Power"

"This is not how I dreamed of seeing the stars,
said Henry Johnson, "with a collar around my neck,
locked in the hold of a slave ship like my ancestors."

Around him came the sounds of many languages,
the lilt of French and rumble of Russian,
sliding vowels of Chinese, guttural curl of German,
and still others he could not even recognize.
There were black people, brown people,
yellow and red and white all thrown together.

"Do not give up hope, American," said a voice.
"I am Netta of Sierra Leone. My ancestors, too,
were captured but they fought their way free again.
What have your ancestors to teach you now?"

That was the heart of the matter, of course --
most of the prisoners had no family lore
about how to cope with captivity,
how to know when to resist
and when to wait for a better chance,
how to forge alliances between slaves.

But Henry knew these things,
stories handed down from his grandparents
along with his coffee skin and curled hair.
He knew the history of La Amistad
and the genealogy of Kunta Kinte told in Roots.

Henry raised his voice in a favorite quote:
"Men chained together are brothers.
Talk to the man chained to you.
Teach him your words. Learn his.
We will destroy our enemies.
And we will be one village!"

There were over a hundred captives,
most of them young adults,
but also a handful of children
who proved indispensable
in spanning the many languages.
In time the prisoners learned
how to speak with each other.

The aliens who held them in bondage
were the color of blue clay,
their bodies strangely sludgy and thick.
They could be struck,
but neither bruised nor broken --
a fist or foot would simply sink in,
trapped by the malleable flesh.

"Don't hit the tar baby,"
Henry muttered to the other slaves
after making this discovery.

It cost him dearly,
because the offended overseer
hung Henry from the wall and
whipped him with a lash of crimson light
that left a cat's-cradle of cuts and burns
all down the dark length of his back.

He knew the marks would stay with him
the rest of his days, as had been the case
with his grandfather who had fallen prey
to a mob of Klansmen.
They were marks of duress,
marks of survival.

Henry screamed under the whip,
but he screamed Bible verses
and historic quotes, choked out lines
from the songs of his ancestors.

Other voices sang back at him,
English and Swahili and
what sounded like Yiddish of all things.
They were old songs,
full of hidden teeth and claws,
hackles rising under a master's hand,
no matter the time or the tongue
in which they had arisen.

The overseer whipped Henry
until the gadget's handle
sputtered and gave out in a stream of sparks
that left one final line of dots and dashes
burning across Henry's back.

Grumbling, the stubby alien
dumped Henry onto a bench
in a different space than he had been before.
It waggled the dead handle in his face
and then flung it contemptuously on the floor
at Henry's feet before trundling away.

The Israeli man beside Henry
propped him carefully on his side
and dabbed at the oozing wounds
with a scrap of cloth torn from one sleeve.
"You speak English, nu?" he asked.
Henry nodded, too hoarse from screaming
to spare the breath for words.

"I am Ezra. I have myself a little English.
I am a doctor, though that we may keep to ourselves;
our jailors do not know this," the man said.
"Henry," he rasped. "Steelworker. American."

"Yes, so the others say of you," Ezra said.
"Very strong, very fierce. That, you will need to survive."
His hands were gentle against the smouldering ruin
of Henry's back, and someone passed them
a bowl with a little water in it.

"Henry," called Netta, "find that whip thing
and kick it this way. The German next to me,
he is an engineer and he wants it."

Henry stirred himself for one last effort
and kicked the darkened hilt toward her.
It did not go far enough, but another slave
managed to get her toes on it and nudge it farther.
From one to another they passed the device
down to the eager engineer.
Henry hoped that whatever he could do with it
would be worth the trouble of getting it.

Macon took apart the whip-handle
and fashioned the parts into lockpicks
both mechanical and electronic.
The slaves slipped out of their shackles
and soon managed to ambush the guards.

Henry liberated a few heavy lengths of pipe.
He had a theory that the engulfing action
was at least partly involuntary, and sure enough,
the pipes left the aliens off-balance
until they could disgorge the foreign objects.

Netta stuck close to Macon,
helping him with some hasty project
that involved prying panels off the ship
to expose its wiring.
Together they succeeded in electrocuting
most of the aliens.

"The whip made me think," said Macon
as the bodies were being dragged away.
"They would punish with something they feared.
So I looked for ways to use that energy against them."
It had been disturbingly effective:
some of the bodies were partway melted.

The captives were free,
but they were still trapped on an alien ship
in the middle of space, with no idea
where they were or how to get anywhere safer.

"Now what do we do?" Henry wondered.
"I do not know," Ezra said. "Go think of something.
I am busy with this." He was rummaging
through confiscated goods in search of medical supplies.

When the few surviving aliens had been herded together,
Netta came to the door with a chair in one hand
and a little golden-skinned girl in the other.
"Chung-Cha," the child said. "I catch ..."
and she mimed a cage with her hands, "their words."
With that she parked herself in the chair
and would not be moved.

"She is the best learner of languages we have,"
Netta said to Henry.
"Well, that's one way to figure out
how the ship works," Henry said,
for the aliens were sure to be discussing that.

There were windows, here and there in the ship;
apparently even the aliens liked to look out
into the darkness and watch the stars scintillate.
Henry's lips skinned back from his teeth in a savage grin.
The people who had been captives were no longer imprisoned.
They might be stuck on an unknown course for now,
might die before they could find a safe harbor --
but if they died, at least they would die pursuing
the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom.

* * *


"None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free."
-- Pearl S. Buck

You can read about La Amistad and the Mende people of Sierra Leone online.

The "one village" quote comes from Roots.

Read a version of "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby."

The Ku Klux Klan is one of the uglier bits of American history, having ups and downs in popularity among white racists. It has a penchant for such hands-on terrorist activities as lynchings and whippings.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
From: technoshaman Date: June 26th, 2013 01:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Am reminded of G'Kar's words, "Though it take a thousand years, we will be free"... but your words take the next step, explain - in a very little space - the *how*. This... this is awesome. Thank you.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 26th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> Am reminded of G'Kar's words, "Though it take a thousand years, we will be free"... <<

I am flattered by the comparison ...

>> but your words take the next step, explain - in a very little space - the *how*. This... this is awesome. Thank you. <<

... but really, all I did was write forward based on several historic examples of attempted and successful slave revolts.
2 comments or Leave a comment