Cargo

“I re-read your letter concerning your great-great-grandmother, ” Sam said. He was standing, tall and slender and aged, his balding pate gleaming white under the museum-style track-lighting that hung above him. But he moved with a gentle grace as he bent over and placed a yellowed logbook upon his rosewood desk. It was a cargo manifest from a ship called the Good Grace , which had been owned and captained by his great-grandfather, Samuel Collins. Each page of the slim ledger was encased in a plastic sleeve, which he turned delicately. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to find what you’re looking for in here. But let me just see if I can locate the right volume, and then you’re welcome to take a look.”

“My old grandma remembered her, the stories she told.” Keisha said. Her face was serious but not sad as she spoke, peering sideways at the high, teak bookshelves surrounding her. “But it took a lot of digging to learn the name of the ship. ”

“Well you’ve clearly done a lot of research to reach this point,” Sam said with genuine admiration.

“You’re kind to be so helpful.” Keisha smiled uncertainly. Her voice was soft and high, self-consciously sweet. “I heard about the work you do, volunteering at that clinic for the poor. So that’s why I thought I could write to you.”

“Not at all,” Sam muttered, with a relaxed humility. He closed the book he’d been studying. “Well, nothing in this one on… on what you’re looking for. I do hope all your work leads to something useful in these stacks.” But as he reached for another one of the slender ledgers, his own words pricked him. Did he really hope she found notes of her ancestor’s abduction in his family’s treasured records?

“Impressive library for one family,” Keisha remarked with awe. She pointed at the floor-to-ceiling shelf behind Sam. “No windows. All books.”

“Yes,” Sam chuckled. “Sunlight is bad for these ancient papers and glues. A lot of these books had been left to rot in boxes up in the attic for nearly a century until my uncle added a modern wing to the old house—I say modern, but this library was finished in 1936.”

“I thought it might date from that era. It’s got that art deco look.”

Sam spread his arms, invitingly. “Do feel free to have a look around. ”

He watched Keisha 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 was glad she’d come, after all. Maybe it signified something that she was there, a righting of the scales. He admired the broad contours of her brow and cheek, arching and flexing when she paused to read, noting his Harvard diplomas upon the wall, remarking on the age and historical value of his books. He could see that she was educated, if from a humble background. 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, over a lifetime spent as a physician.

Keisha paused before a grainy portrait of a stately lady, grey hair neatly coiffed,
expression dour above a high, ruffled collar and black brooch. “Is this your grandma?”

“My great-aunt. The daughter of Captain Collins. Legend has it she was a formidable woman. Self-educated before women could go to college. All the books below the portrait were hers—the seed of this library.”

Keisha stared a long while in silence. Sam was transfixed by the sight of the two women, face-to-face. There was something ineffably alike in the stare, the delicately upturned eyes of one mirrored in the eyes gazing back.

“My great-grandma self-educated too, though she didn’t have no books. Law didn’t let her have books in her time,” Keisha said. Her voice was soft but gruff.

Sam startled at the changed register in Keisha’s speech. He looked down at the manifest on the desk. She wasn’t at all what the old man had expected when he first received the letter requesting access to his family records. But then, he’d not been aware of having any expectations until the moment she appeared on his doorstep that afternoon. 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. Sam 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 ancestor she’d come in search of.

After a moment, Keisha turned back toward him, her face placid and open, still surveying every detail of her surroundings. She kept her arms close at her side, hands still gripping her purse, as though she was afraid to touch anything, even by accident. From a careful distance, she studied the hummingbird design on a glass Tiffany lamp adorning a corner of the great desk, opposite where Sam stood. When she spoke again, her tone was light. “My grandma told me that her grandma was just a teenager when she came over. She got pregnant on the ship and had her first baby a few months after she landed. A girl . ”

Sam lifted another mouldering ledger from the shelf. He winced as the binding audibly cracked when he opened it, a warning against revealing its hidden histories. And there it was: a list of human cargo. A soft gasp escaped his lungs. But he was determined to remain aloof. How could he, after all, take responsibility for the great errors of history? “Here,” Sam said, inviting her to sit at his desk. He pointed to an open page. Keisha looked at him, her formerly smooth brow now pinched with panic, as though he’d opened a page in her diary. He felt suddenly abashed, a voyeur caught poring over her family secrets.

“The Good Grace made only two crossings with human cargo, before it was outlawed. ” Sam tried not to sound apologetic. But he faltered as he noticed, for the first time, the travesty of the ship’s name. He cleared his throat. “They’re listed here by sex and age. Sometimes an identifying detail or two. Only about three-hundred slaves, in all…. It never was the main family business.”

Keisha approached and sat primly. She squinted at the ledger, shoulders hunched, silent, drawing a finger slowly down the page.

 

Sam drummed his fingers upon his cheek. What was that he’d imagined about a righting of the scales? Why had he invited her to come? What had he hoped to gain from this awkward encounter with his legacy?

Keisha gasped, her finger stopping under a scrawl… girl 15? tall comely enough. Beads of sweat clustered upon the curve of Keisha’s nose. She closed her eyes and raised one hand to cover her open mouth, rested her other long forearm against the polished rosewood. Was she trembling?

Sam looked at Keisha, a strange sensation rising up from his chest and into his head. He wanted to say something, but his voice was emptied by the rushing of his heart. He looked past Keisha and saw a girl, her black skin shimmering with youth and vitality. He saw Samuel Collins. Viewing her; wanting her; taking her; selling her at auction. Counting his profits.

Keisha’s finger moved further down the page, taking in more unnamed lives. She turned the pages. She turned to look up at Sam, her lips pursed, her eyes hooded by her brow. Standing above her, Sam thought he could feel the heat radiating off her face. “Can I get some copies? ” she asked, her voice now deep and flat. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse.

Sam nodded, thinking of his inheritance. Thinking of hers.

Usha Alexander

Usha Alexander is the author of two novels: The Legend of Virinara and Only the Eyes Are Mine . She contributes a monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily . Her writing has also appeared in The Caravan , White Wall Review , Pangyrus , Scroll , Raiot , The Punch Magazine , and the The Best American Travel Stories 2007 . Previously, she’s worked as a scientist and a Silicon Valley professional. Find her on the web at ushaalexander.com .

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