Birth of a Rebel

Toussainaté hunched over a boiling pot of corn mush, kept cool in the unforgiving summer only by the thatch on her roof and the wind that whispered through her open door. Preparing a meager dinner for her family, who labored in the shadows of Caucasus’s floating cities, she pondered the dream she had the night before. One unlike any she remembered in her six long decades of servitude.

“Rise…” The kindly Mansa had whispered, floating in the air above her on an unfamiliar world. His words rustled the tall grasses. “Remember where we came from. Remember Awkar. Soon, we will return.”

The elder was perturbed. Life on the world beneath the world had accustomed her to bondage. Hers was an existence in shadows. Feelings long laid dormant in her began bubbling back to the surface. What they suffered here was wrong. Unnatural. Not how life had always been for their people. Even though her mother, and her mother’s great-grandmother before her had only known bowed heads, and lives worn threadbare in the fields, they always sensed a balance that demanded redressing. Their scars were not deserved. Their status not the correct order of things. Like her ancestors, Toussainaté watched the confident and lax thin-noses—the pale skins comfortable in marble castles—and longed for the day that she too ascended to the skies. Yet, as she buried her grandmother and then her mother, as she heard the tales of countless prior generations who shared the same dream to no effect, her hope had slowly but surely died—as the hope of all slaves eventually did.

                Until of course, her changing dreams. Until the sense that they danced on a precipice and over its edge dangled freedom.

                “You must be the ones,” The Mansa lectured at night, “The elders will lead us back to the light.”

                But how could she fight? She wondered, flexing her arthritic fingers. Painfully she made the table as the sun set, ladling steaming goop into bowls for her son, Goran, his wife Nesa, their child Goran II and the grandniece—Binti—that they took in after her parents passed. Indeed, what rebellion could she lead, so old and passed her prime. Even in youth, she was not predisposed towards physicality, preferring instead to watch the stars and wonder at the world that birthed them so long ago. She wondered which twinkling star they hailed from. She was better suited towards secretly teaching herself letters in the dead of night—indeed her ability to read was her greatest pride—than she was at fomenting discord and plotting overthrow.

                “You must teach them,” The Mansa pleaded, gray eyes full of fire, “They must learn again how to be their own.”

                But she remembered not who they were. Collective knowledge of their old world had been lost in the cold travel of slaveships, burned out of their people long ago by ice. What little they had remembered, what few traditions the first Awkarans had fought to preserve in the early days, were distorted by the passing of time and the efforts of thin-noses who would deny them their history.

                “You Darks don’t need culture!” The first foremen sneered, “Y’all need work! Labor to hold your slack-asses to the fire!” And so they cracked the whip at those who moved too slowly. They hanged until death those who refused and dreamed of freedom.

                “I will remind you,” The Mansa consoled, “Of who we were. I will teach you… what we must do to become that people once more.”

                She sat by the stove, warming by its hearth—even in summer months her old bones still felt the occasional chill—and waited for her family to return. She saw them trudging back up the hill, caked in sweat and dirt and blood. It was a hard conversation that awaited them that night and Toussainaté anticipated much resistance. After centuries, her people had learned this was simply the way things were. The pale flourished off the labor of the brown and the black. They did not question and most certainly did not resist. Yet, the forgotten Mansa promised her:

“We are coming. The first of us, the eldest, the ancestors of your ancestors. We are coming and we will remember: our old world, our old rights, the masters we were and will be again. You must prepare your children, and their children, for what arrives. Freedom, my dear Toussainaté, freedom. That is the message I spread among you.”

Her son clomped through the open doorway, back muscled but bent, eyes strong but clouded. She saw the yoke on her people settled hard on his shoulders. One that sat for the first time a little more lightly on her own. It was a hard discussion before them, but one long overdue. One about freedom that was long left wanting. She embraced him, patted her adolescent grandson and grandniece on their close cropped heads.

“Sit, my children! Eat!” She pulled out every chair, though the movement pained her, though her hands shook. “We have much to discuss.”

“What is it Mother?” Goran sighed, “It has been a long day. All I want is to eat, and then to sleep. Then to wake again and work. What else is there?”

Nesa kicked him not so gently on his shin, scowling with a look that screamed pay more respect to your mother. Goran was immediately contrite.

“Forgive me, Mom. I gripe over hardships you know too well. What is it you want to tell us?”

Toussainaté’s eyes twinkled as the Mansa’s words returned to her, the tale she was born to tell her family swelled through her, nascent embers of the rebellion to come. “I bear a message from dreams, my son, my adopted daughter, my grandchildren, of a change to come. A wind blows, one that will lift our fate from these shadows and back into the sun.”

She paused, waiting for a response. None challenged her. They merely waited, though whether it was with anticipation or bemusement she could not say. Still, it was her fate to continue on.

“The reign of the thin-noses… the Mansa has told me. Soon, it will be at an end.”