Written by Addie Barnett
Everything went wrong that day. The day our little community was robbed of its freedom.
They came upon us in groups of a dozen–suddenly seeing twelve guns trained on you makes a person want to do crazy things. Even if that person has never done something like that before.
It’s been ten years since my brother died to protect me from the pasty faces of the Frenchmen and their pallid hands clutching at their firearms. My brother jumped in front of me. This is the only reason I am still here. Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t. Sometimes, I wish I were with him, not alone, working my hands until they blister and the skin flakes off.
It’s 1879, and they are still here looking at me, waiting for me to slip up and fall so they can get rid of me without a fuss. Escape from this coconut plantation is impossible. I have seen more than a dozen shot while trying to run–no one has succeeded. So, you can be certain that when one of them came to me telling me that I can be free, I waited for the other boot to fall.
“I know you don’t believe me,” he said, “but I have found a way.”
“Why would someone like you help someone like me? Out of the goodness of your heart?” I snorted. “Get lost.”
Hope is a strange thing. Just when you thought you lost it forever, it creeps back into your soul and makes you do stupid things.
He came back, again and again, no matter how many times I turned him away.
He said his name was Pierre and he wanted to help me. He did not believe in his country’s cause; he had never agreed to enslave innocents, let alone kill them for no reason and be rewarded with a medal for it.
“Merde.” He muttered with a tiny smile playing at the corner of his lips. “I know you have no reason to trust me.” He handed me a piece of paper with a few words scribbled on it. “But, please, read what is written on this paper. I think you will not regret giving me the benefit of the doubt.”
I should not have trusted him–he was one of my captors after all–but hope had lingered in my soul and exploded when he left. I’ll be damned if they would take me without a fight, I had thought to myself after seeing Pierre give other pieces of paper to other slaves like me.
Docks. 30th. 8pm.
So, on the 30th, I decided to give hope one last shot and make a run for it. Even now I do not know where I mustered the courage to sneak out of the barracks we slept in, bunched up like a stack of leaves, and run between the coconut trees, my eyes searching frantically for the shimmer that accompanied the metal of a gun. The guards were grouped together at a campfire, laughing and talking in their strange language. I could distinguish a few words–esclave, bébé, blasphème–disgust dripping from their voices like the venom from a snake’s teeth. They did not see or hear me and I did not want to be seen or heard.
Only when I reached the docks and saw him standing beside a boat in which another woman coddled a baby, did I understand what was happening. Blasphème.
“You came.” The lantern swaying from his hand illuminated his face, casting an eerie glow on his lopsided smile. “I didn’t think you would.”
“Why are you taking me?” I asked, peering at the bébé.
“Please–we need help.”
I could see the pity in his eyes.
“They told me you had experience with children. He…he has been running a fever. If we do not leave this wretched island, he won’t survive.”
“What is his name?” I rest my hands on my hips, my decision already made.
“Good French name.” I pointed out, taking delight in the shame flaming his cheeks.
My delight faded away as tears started slipping from his green eyes.
“She-she is my life. I love her with all my heart, but they will never allow me to marry her. Not now, nor in a hundred years. We have to leave. But we don’t know what to do with Rabelais. He is sick. It’s a miracle he has stopped crying. Please, I beg of you.”
“What’s her name?”
“Nguyễn Huyền Thư.”
I jumped in the boat and touched the forehead of the baby, wincing at the heat flaming out.
“He needs a doctor.”
“We know.” His mother handed me her child. “Please. I do not know what is wrong.”
I undressed the baby, motioning to Pierre to shine his lantern so that I could check the condition of the baby. When I freed one of his arms, I noticed a red rash spreading all over his skin.
“Your son has scarlet fever. If we hasten, he should be fine. He doesn’t seem to be in a grave condition yet.”
Both exhaled loudly. Pierre undid the rope of the boat and jumped in.
“Thank you.” He said, hugging me.
“You’re my ticket out.” I muttered, hiding away the joy I felt that I was able to help someone out.
That my misfortune–of losing my brother and the child I had out of wedlock–had turned out to be helpful for someone in need.