Freeborn of Badagry I

Something didn’t feel right. Taking one last sip of her syllabub, Rhoda excused herself from the company of old Mrs. Beckley and Mrs. McKinney who chattered about the newborns in the county. A feeling, strange as a snowy spring, was starting to trouble her. “I fear I shall have to leave now. The ladies might have need of me.” Rhoda returned Mrs. Beckley’s wrinkled frown with a promise to return soon and wove her way through the felicitating crowd. The Hammonds, a new family who moved to Canterbury, had organized a tea party in their home and had invited neighbors. Although Rhoda didn’t quite fit as a neighbor, her sewing shop made her friends with many including the newly settled family. At a far corner of the drawing room, the host’s daughter played the pianoforte with a dexterity that stirred applauds. Cups in hands, small bites of muffins and cheese in mouth, everyone discussed politics, gossip or blather.

Pretending to admire the fresco portraits hanging on paneled walls, Rhoda gathered herself together. Why did she feel so distracted? Her thoughts, like an untrained pony, pulled in a hundred directions. She moved from one stately portrait owning a fineness only a skilled artist could possess, up the stairs. It wasn’t proper to saunter past the drawing room in another’s home, but she did, enjoying the excellent strokes and curves of each painting. If she weren’t already a seamstress, she would have fancied herself with a dream to become rich as the revered Adelaide.

Rhoda paused by the portrait of a woman with immaculate, bright eyes, curly hair, dark as cherry. Those eyes reminded her of her motherꟷthe way they glistened like shells on a seashore and bore into you like they knew you through and through. The woman however had perfect dentition unlike her mother who had a gap-toothed smile. Rhoda rubbed hard palms against her eyes, stifling an urge to cry. How long had it been since she was whisked off the shores of Badagry? Like an unraveling panorama, her past played in a reel of unwelcomed events. She recalled the burning tinge of branding iron on her skin, the grip of her master’s hands on her neck, and how she gave up all that she had for a hope she never truly received. Wincing, she scratched her chemise like it could scathe the shameful experience off her memory.

Rhoda lifted her hands, reaching for the portrait as though it would mean reaching her mother, and at that moment, heard a name. “Akeem”. She froze. Bah, her past wasn’t calling to her through the towering walls of a patron’s home. She listened more closely, wondering whose voice she heard and discovered it came from the study by the wall she stood. She pulled closer, pressing her ear to the wall ornamented with flower-patterned wallpapers.

“That old fool thinks he can outwit us,” A sharp grunt of disapproval.

“He is slick as a fox. The men delivered the Dane guns and umbrellas, but he sold only two hundred slaves.”

Akeem? Old fool? Slave trader? Like a daunting jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of information juggled over her mind in a saccade that left her dizzy. But just before she could come to terms with the realization, she heard, “kill” and footsteps approach. She turned towards the stairs from which she had come and just then, ran into Henry. “Oh, you must forgive my manners. This home has such lovely paintings, and I must say I got quite enthralled by them.”

Taking her hand, Henry, a good friend and patron of her shop, helped her down the stairs. Since they met in their little Presbyterian church and had become friends, Rhoda had found their conversations about prayer and the word comforting, and although she didn’t tell him all about her life, she also found him a good friend. “I was looking everywhere for you. I wondered if you had deserted me already.” His green eyes danced with a knowing Rhoda wondered she could ever acknowledge. Pulling at his cravat, he whispered, “Do you go by the name ‘Gloria’? For I admire the glow of your pristine skin.”

Smacking his coat with gloved hands, Rhoda managed a chuckle. “I must have missed a great deal, busying myself with the paintings.” She caught a flicker of concern on Henry’s plump face when she started to stutter. “I think I might have to take my leave early.”

“Are you alright? Did you eat something bad?”

Rhoda dismissed his concerns with a wave and continued to the rest of the party. However, as she moved from one to another who gave lengthy descriptions of a gown or a petticoat they would like to sew, only one thing stayed in mindꟷAkeem in Africa.

Following the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in England, merchants who had benefited from the trade still sought clandestine ways to continue the practice in the West Indies. It was then no surprise to Rhoda that the new family, the Hammonds, had connections to the ugly business. What surprised her was how her stepfather, Akeem, still sold his people for trinkets and baubles.

Rhoda gulped back a sob, embittered. Hadn’t that man eaten more than his distended beer belly could take? She collapsed onto her settee, unable to shake off the troubling thoughts about Africa. The day had winded up with unending tumbles of inquiries and demands than she could manage. Once she had owned nothing more than a tote bag, but now she was reputed the fifth most famous seamstress in Canterbury. Her growing success, however, could not replace the longing for home. Maybe for her mother, but never Akeem. Bile glided up her throat at the picture of his unkempt stubble, his overwhelming backside and prideful voice, a register shy of a chimpanzee’s bellow. He would never be a father to her.

Pulling off her shoes, Rhoda remembered how her mother would call her by her native name, Remilekun, the distinct lilt of the Yoruba Language stressed in every syllable. Wistful longings clutched her inside, so she broke into a sob. Although she had been taken captive as a child, the years had untouched her memories of running by the Badagry Sea, eating Mama’s favourite amala and ewedu and listening to gossip in the wee hours of festive seasons.

“Oh, Mama,” A heavy feeling lodged within Rhoda’s chest, so she took a sip from a cup of water by her side. How long had she hoped to see her mother again? When she met the Lord at the far ends of Barbados, she had prayed for an escape, for her manumission, to be reunited with her mother and had grown weary of waiting. She muffled a sob at the mistakes of her past, how she had thought the Lord too slow and had hastened His timing. Had the Lord truly forgotten all she had done? Was she white as snow though her past was too awful to be told? Henry came to mind and her full, berry-shaped lips parted in a mockful smirk. If only he knew her past, he would never becloud his sensibilities with idiotic wishes.

I love you with a great love.

Rhoda heard the voice deep within, a reassurance that came whenever the past rapped at her heart with the vehemence of a rancorous ex. Once she had been betrothed to lust and had done her flesh’s bidding, now she was married to the Lord and would accept His love to her heart’s fill. Remembering the threat to Akeem’s life, Rhoda knew she had to also extend forgiveness to him, just as the Lord had done to her. “And Lord, be gracious to me. Let me see my mother again.”

Seeking ways to save Akeem meant recovering the relics of her past. Rhoda strove to focus on what the Lord would have her do but hurt clouded her mind like morning mist over the Hampshire Woods. Whens she first moved to Canterbury, she had formed the habit of traipsing through the quaint forest, stretched one end of the town, making silent prayers. Those prayers from the Psalms, had given her comfort when she recalled how Akeem’s men had shoved her into a cell and had treated her like one of their captives. Remembering Akeem’s indifferent tone when he instructed that she also be sold, Rhoda wished she hadn’t overheard the conversation at the tea party. She would have preferred receiving news of Akeem’s death. Wrapping her hands around her neck, she chided herself for thinking evil. But why would God require that she helped the very man who made her life miserable?

As a child, Rhoda had despised her mother’s re-marriage to Akeem and had hated her mother for it. Though she had only faint memories of her father who had died few months before her sixth birthday, she knew Akeem resembled nothing of him. Akeem was selfish, demanding and never treated her like his own. Perhaps it was his possessing several wives that ingrained him with the mindset of entitlement. How her mother endured his obnoxiousness, Rhoda could never understand. She also could never forget the night he had tried to violate her as he did many young girls. She had sworn at him and had threatened to expose his despicable acts to the entire village, her tongue swifter than a warrior’s sword. Her defiance hence led to her capture.

Rhoda assessed a gown with elaborate multi-layered sleeves and delicate embroidery encircling the bust. She had sewn it for a ball. As with many of her dresses, someone had seen the design and had requested the exact replica. With no festivities in view, and thus, less demands for clothes, Rhoda fought reason to not be on the next ship to Africa. She knew God was calling her there, but it was difficult to obey. What if her mother was perhaps already late? Pain gnawed her inside at the thought of the possibility. She had lived most of her adulthood, running away from her past, pretending that her life was only shaped by the moment. What use would it be to see Akeem, to be back in Africa if she wouldn’t see her mother?

The doorbell jingled and Margaret, a pestering chatterbox, appeared, a heap of clothes hugged to her chest.

“No, do not ask that I leave just yet.” Margaret dumped the clothes by a sewing machine and rounded a corner of Rhoda’s shop in search of threads. Her mouth fluttered with the rapidity of a singing robin’s beak as she spoke about a quarrel between two families. “I am not trying to be a gossip. I only hope Mrs. Paddington may perhaps see how nosey she could be. Bless her. Do you think so too?”

Rhoda gave no affirmation. The last thing she wanted was getting roped in gossip.

Margaret appeared from the changing room where she had been to try one of the clothes she had brought for amends. “Whatever is the matter?” She folded her hands garbed in massive feather sleeves.”If I had half the success of your business I would never be sat with such despondent look.”

“You have more success than I do, being friends with nearly all in the county.” Rhoda stood to make herself and Margaret cups of tea from across the room. Although Margaret wore her out sometimes with her insistent gossips, Rhoda found her a useful company. “What do you say? Shall I take a break from work and leave the shop in your stead?”

“Oh, I shall be most delighted to be of any help as you require.” Margaret squealed, head bobbing in excitement as Rhoda laid down rules and offered a sum. “Assuredly, I shall stick no needle to a dress lest I ruin the good works you have done.”

Rhoda sipped from her cup of tea, relishing its warmth. Tomorrow she would be in Liverpool, anticipating also the warmth of Africa.

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