Flash fiction by Usha Alexander
“I re-read your letter concerning your great-great-grandmother,” Sam said, opening a yellowed logbook upon his rosewood desk, the cargo manifest of a ship called Goodgrace, owned and captained by his great-grandfather Samuel Collins. Each page was encased in a plastic sleeve, which he turned delicately.
“My old grandma remembered her, the stories she told.” Brenda’s face was serious but not sad as she spoke. “She was probably just a teenager when she came over. She got pregnant on the ship and had her first baby soon after she landed. A boy.” Brenda peered sideways at the high, teak bookshelves surrounding her. "It took a lot of digging to learn the name of the ship."
Brenda wasn’t what the old man expected when he first received the letter requesting access to his family records; though, he’d been unaware of having any expectations until the moment she appeared. Statuesque, in a breezy white top and dark slacks, she stood with both hands clutching a faux-leather purse against her stomach. Her blackish hair diffused toward her shoulders in fuzzy ringlets, charmingly augmented with silver linings. He wondered how many white men—uninvited?—had interceded in generations past to render in her that walnut-brown skin, the indeterminate fall of her hair, surely a world apart from the African ancestress she’d come in search of.
“Impressive library for one family,” she remarked with awe.
“Yes.” He smiled, spread his arms, encouragingly. “Do feel free to have a look around.” He watched her step gingerly among the stacks, perusing the titles of ancient volumes, the pickled histories and cracked tomes gathered by generations of his Connecticut forebears. He admired the broad contours of her brow and cheek, arching and flexing when she paused to read, noting his Harvard diplomas on the wall, remarking on the age and historical value of his books. He could see that she was educated, if from a humble background. She’d probably attended a state school, maybe the first in her family to graduate college. Such things he’d learned to discern from the way a person walked, talked, dressed, smiled, since spending his retirement years as a volunteer physician at a clinic in New Haven.
“Here,” Sam said, inviting her to sit at his desk. He pointed to a page in the mouldering ledger. Brenda stopped and looked at him. He was surprised to see her formerly smooth brow now pinched with panic, as though he’d opened a page in her diary. He felt suddenly awkward, a voyeur pouring over her family secrets. But he determined to remain aloof. How could he, after all, take responsibility for the great errors of history?
“The Goodgrace made only two crossings before human cargo was outlawed.” He faltered, noticing for the first time how ridiculous was the ship’s name. “They’re listed here by sex and age. Sometimes an identifying detail or two.” He added, “Only about three-hundred slaves, in all. It never was the main family business.”
Brenda sat, primly, squinted a long while at the ledger, shoulders hunched, silent, drawing a finger slowly down each page.
He drummed his fingers upon his cheek. Why had he invited her to come? What had he hoped to gain from this awkward encounter with his legacy?
She gasped, her finger stopping under a scrawl: girl 15? tall comely enogh
Beads of sweat clustered upon the curve of Brenda’s nose. She closed her eyes and raised one hand to cover her open mouth, rested the other long forearm against the polished rosewood. Was she trembling?
Sam looked at Brenda, and then beyond her. He imagined her as a girl with dark black skin, shimmering with youth, imagined Captain Collins viewing her; taking her; selling her at auction. Counting his profits. Sam thought of his inheritance. He thought of his family, seeing it now enlarged by an unknown multitude of new and foreign characters, each one real as Captain Collins, as Brenda, as the tall, comely girl, who had toiled in the violence of bondage to the end of her days.
The image above is of a holding chamber at the old slave market in Zanzibar. Some two-hundred individuals were held in this space for a week at a time, without food or exit; fetid water filled the space between the shelves.