The Women Who Were Blind
My bloodline descended from the Women Who Were Blind. After making the sail from Africa, the ones who didn’t sacrifice themselves to the sea, or escape in the Great Flight, adapted. Now settled on a plot between the Gulf and the dense trees, they wrestled to let go of the voyage. Having seen too much horror on the bottoms of those ships, they searched for a way to forget. In the late nights, when their captors weren’t watching, they would sneak out into the tallest stalks and take turns pressing their thumbs into one another’s eyes until it all went dark. It is easier to forget what you cannot see. It is harder to sell what is already damaged. So when the Women Who Were Blind bore girl children, they saved them the trouble. Called it a rite of passage. They would wait until they were old enough to walk. Then they took them out past the fields where the runaways hung like chandeliers in a grand forest ballroom. There, under the starlight, they showed their daughters all the sky’s diamonds and then pressed until there was no more moon. The Women Who Were Blind called it mercy.
Over the next few nights, the Women Who Were Blind would hold their new daughters’ hands and walk them through the forest, teaching them how to hear ahead and feel their feet anew. When they tripped, they would scoop them up and put them on their strong backs. The girls would weep. Then the Women Who Were Blind would sing them a hymn of the last drinking gourd they saw, until they were sound asleep.
Follow the drinking gourd
One woman, the one they called Fumbe, had a voice so enchanting, she could sing the galaxy smaller, make the ocean the sky’s envy. She had received mercy early and now found herself with pregnancy put in her belly by the shadows and the stables. She would rub the sphere sprouting and sing it that drinking gourd song until the kicking quickened in her belly with hope. The other blind women around her would place their hands on her belly and wait for signs of joy. They would imagine her womb held the Messiah or Moses—some man to lead them far away from there. As her belly swelled, Fumbe tried not to entertain thoughts of another girl. She thought her hands too weak to do what would have to be done.
When the ninth month dawned, Fumbe waded out into the Gulf until she was waist-high. The Women Who Were Blind surrounded her, gripping their feet into the silt.
They cried out for Yemaya to lessen the pain. When Yemaya heard them, she rushed to Fumbe. Her hands cradling Fumbe’s belly. The ebb and flow whispering Push. Fumbe’s water broke and she was one with the sea. Her child swimming forth with every thrust. The Women Who Were Blind braced her arms as she squatted and felt the newness fish from between her legs. Then the Women Who Were Blind scooped the child from the waters and held her high in the air, offering her up to the goddess. By now it was night and the songs of the cicada ushered them into praises for Yemaya’s grace. Yemaya’s golden-scaled tail caught the kiss of moonlight as she grasped the child and swam circles around Fumbe. The water danced and her chains chimed a welcome song in motion. She held the child for a moment before she placed it warm against Fumbe’s chest. Then she offered a kiss and swam down into the sea, leaving a ripple of light behind her. At the first hold, Fumbe felt the braille of the child’s face: a perfect nose, high cheeks, two eyes wide open to the moon. She glided her hand around its full belly and healthy legs until she felt nothing more. Then she held her daughter tight and wailed. She knew then her name must be Eshe, for all the life she would have to take was here in her arms.
Eshe bloomed early. Around six months, she said her first word as clear as rain: water. While strapped to her mother’s chest in the fields, Eshe would pull at her mother’s shirt until Fumbe would douse Eshe’s head and arms from her canteen. The heat was unbearable and even Eshe had figured out the only thing that gave any reprieve. When the workday was over, and Fumbe had stumbled back to her shanty exhausted, Eshe would lay beside her and babble while playing with her mother’s lips, nose, eyes—now patched over. Eshe was the light of Fumbe’s day, in all her wonder and curiosity. Until the day she turned two.
Now that Eshe was old enough to own her steps, the Women Who Were Blind urged Fumbe that the time of mercy was upon her. So one evening, after the workday, the women lined the edge of the field as they had done so many times before. The air was thick and sticky. The Women Who Were Blind held their daughters’ hands, with sight and with mercy. Those daughters still able to see were led out into the forest. Fumbe gripped tight to Eshe’s hand and hesitantly pulled her along. The trees heightened, and the form of familiar fruit became more visible in the distance. Fumbe knelt before Eshe, fighting off the tears. She pointed up and told her of the stars and the Big Dipper. Then she promised Eshe the next part would keep them together forever. Eshe looked around and heard the screams of the other girls, but it was too late. Fumbe had hold of her head and began to tremble. The shrieks of the mercy echoed through the trees as Fumbe pressed harder and harder until there was no moon. Then she held Eshe tight against her chest. The two of them sat among the thicket, consumed by their own tears. Eshe cried herself to sleep, and Fumbe placed her on her back. When she tried to sing, she was muted by pain. Instead, she felt her way back to the group in silence.
The next night, Fumbe rubbed Eshe’s head and promised the worst was over. Fumbe told Eshe that she had so many things to show her now. Eshe, patched about the eyes, stumbled as Fumbe pulled her out into a clearing a stone’s throw away from the birthing place. Fumbe instructed her to listen. There was a way to hear direction just by how the wind blew through the trees. She told her to hear the rustle of the bushes; the small animals only hid west of the plantation. Fumbe ran her bare feet through the blades of grass until she found where the dirt bore its naked soil and the footprints of decades of women radiated warmth. She squeezed Eshe’s hand, and just as quickly, Eshe’s tiny palm squeezed back, before they both released and her child was free to discover her own air. The chill of her mother’s absent guidance made her fearful at first. Eshe, in the way a foal stumbles before finding balance, toddled from tree to tree trying to get her bearings. Fumbe listened as branch breaks quickened with Eshe’s growing confidence. The stumbling fall was usually soon to follow. But no cry ensued as Eshe felt for moss on the freedom side of the trees or as she used the willows’ weeping branches to guide her through the canopy to the score of her own laughter. For a moment all was silent. Fumbe lost her daughter to the wind. The owl’s hoo. Then Eshe’s distant mouthing of the word water just outside of her mother’s reach. Yemaya’s voice echoed as far as the sugar fields. Fumbe called Eshe back to her, but before she could grab hold of an arm, she heard Eshe’s footsteps in the silt. Fumbe stumbled, heart pounding panic as she called out for Eshe’s hand but instead heard her chant for water grow the distance between them. Fumbe swung wildly around until she began to run in the direction of Eshe’s footsteps. She ran toward the faint splash. Just then, a rock found her about the ankle. Fumbe tumbled and hit her head hard on the earth.
When she came to, the Women Who Were Blind had collected Fumbe and brought her back to the shanty. She reached out for Eshe’s hand but felt a hollow nothingness. The Women Who Were Blind said that Eshe found the water. That she must’ve gone out too far, just wanting to feel the rush of cool. They handed her the portion of Eshe’s clothes they found snagged on the rocks. Eshe was gone. Fumbe mourned for three days before the anger set in.
On the morning of the fourth day, Sunday, she sought out someone to blame. As all were donning their cleanest rags, Fumbe was tying the last remnant of her daughter around her head as a declaration of war. As the church bell rang, she snuck out past the plantation grounds to the sea. She stood there on the coast, demanding that Yemaya show herself.
“Give me back my daughter!” she screamed. “How could you do this to me? What kind of god are you?”
Fumbe’s fury woke the goddess from her slumber. Without warning, a large wave rose up and crashed into the earth, knocking Fumbe to her knees. Then the waters swirled into the image of Yemaya, her seven skirts dancing in the deep blue waters. Her cowry shells chiming in the wind.
“My child, why do you wake me with unjust indignation? And who are you to question my hand?” Yemaya pushed back like a steady wave.
“Give me my Eshe! How dare you take her from me!” Fumbe argued back.
“How dare I? How do you love what you refuse to see? Did I not hold your belly and lessen the pain? And what then did you do with this blessing? Take the stars from your own child’s eyes? Turn yours from your own daughter’s face? Did I not give her to you whole?” Yemaya approached with tears welling in her eyes.
“But you don’t know what we have been forced to see,” explained Fumbe.
Yemaya’s anger now grew in place of her compassion. Her tears built into a wave that crashed into the shore, knocking Fumbe backward.
“Enough! Was I not there when the waters turned to blood? When the ships cut through me? Have I not felt your pain since the beginning? Am I not a mother too?” Yemaya scolded.
Fumbe cowered at the growing power of the goddess. “Then why take her and increase my suffering?”
Fumbe’s anger broke. The tears began to stream down her face. She remembered Eshe’s voice calling for her on their first visit to the woods, when her eyes were wide and the stars were still endless.
Yemaya calmed the sea and drew close. She held Fumbe’s face in her hands. Fumbe had never been this close to a god before. Yemaya’s eyes stared a hole straight through her, she could feel it. They must’ve held galaxies twisting and turning. Alternate endings. Second chances. And without another word, Yemaya saw it: the fear that had taken root in the back of Fumbe’s mind. The one that risked everything to exist. The same fear that haunted the Middle Passage, that considered jumping from the side of the boat but never committed. And Yemaya knew, the way she always does, that Fumbe still had virtue left.
“Fumbe,” she asked tenderly, “what will you do to have your child back?”
Then Yemaya commanded an electric eel from her hand. She offered Fumbe the path to get Eshe back. It would require a brave sacrifice. She must allow the eel to wrap around her neck in surrender. Death was certain in Fumbe’s mind, but life without Eshe was unbearable. There was one last condition: Fumbe and her descendants must never again turn their sight from their children or their village. Fumbe was hesitant. She wasn’t sure if she could face what lay behind her, but she knew no future would come from holding on to the past. She nodded her head and agreed.
With that, Yemaya commanded the eel to tangle itself around Fumbe’s collar. It swam in figure eights until a searing pain burned through the back of her head. The sting leveled her to the ground. A bright light flashed before her eyes, and she was sure it was the end. Then she saw the sea stretched out before her. A large wave rolled in carrying the body of Eshe. It set her against the shore before calming. Fumbe saw Eshe clearly. Then she realized the taste of silt in her mouth. The pain struck her facedown, but somehow she could see Eshe rise from behind her. She felt her eyes, only to feel them still patched over. It was then that Yemaya’s condition was clear. Two bulging new eyes had been burned into the nape of her neck. These never closed. Eshe came to her mother, and they embraced. Fumbe examined Eshe, only to find a second set of eyes already crafted in her neck. Every child born to that village, from that day on, was granted this gift. And so it is that every woman who dons this skin cannot run into the dark but must see the world in all its brilliant violence and horrifying beauty, lest their children lie at the bottom of the Gulf forever.
BLACK CHAMELEON. Copyright © 2023 by Deborah Mouton.