Chapter 7 - Neptune's Honor
May 22, 1842
Neptune quivered with anticipation. Each year, at the first rumor of the drum fish�s arrival, every planter on the island would ready his boats for fishing. With his father Neptune, Sanders, Quamina and the other slaves selected for this special activity, he had already caulked, painted, and tarred the two Retreat boats for the season. This was the first fishing trip of the year, and both he and Lordy were invited to join them!
They had to wait for the high tide to go out, but not so far that they would be stranded in the creek, or �stuck in the cut� as his papa called it. Master Thomas Butler King had already left for Washington City, so Quamina received permission from Miss Anna Matilda to head out shortly before the last ebb tide. Prince, Neptune, Titus, Sanders and Marcus went to row with him, but Lordy and Neptune had convinced him to include them in this early fishing expedition.
Neptune inhaled deeply, filling his nostrils with the pungent scent of jasmine. White flowers were swaying in the breeze as they boarded their boat. Traveling through the murky green waters of the river and creeks, he pointed out to his brother Sanders that the marshes and mud floats, underwater only a few hours before, had emerged between the high grounds.
�Neptune, look down yonder at the island shrinking and growing away from us,� exclaimed Lordy, thrilled with the adventure of early season fishing. �But we can still see the cotton barn!� The cotton barn at Retreat, four stories tall, could be seen for many miles at sea. Some islanders told them that sailors used it as a navigational guide, along with the imposing St. Simons Island Lighthouse.
�I sees it, Mas� Lordy! My Pa sez dat on de high tides we travel much bedder dan oder times.� He was charged with excitement.
Neptune turned around and watched as their tangled, shadowy, wild wood-landed island disappeared behind them. He took in the forests of live oaks draped with Spanish moss, long-leafed pine trees, and cypress and cedar lining the shores. He imagined he could still smell the fragrance of the flowers Missus Anna Matilda had planted at Retreat. As the wide stretches of beach became a distant vision, he leaned against the side of the boat and joined the others singing as they rowed.
�Knee-bone when I call you
Knee-bone when I call you
H-a-nnn Knee-bone bend.
Bend my Knee-bone to the ground
Bend my Knee-bone to the ground
H-a-nnn Knee bone bend.
Knee-bone in the mornin�
H-a-nnn Knee-bone bend.
Knee-bone in the evenin�
The rowers sang in the odd African rhythmic cadence any group of slaves fell into no matter what the melody. When they were on their boats, the only rhythmic accompaniment would be their oars. Neptune loved this call and response singing, and had joyfully taught it to Lordy and the other King children. They sang some of these same songs on land, but the speed of the rowing version was always slower.
�Hey Neptune, how can y�all keep such good rhythm all the time?� asked Lordy. .
�We jes follow de heartbeat. Is yo� pulse an� its tempo,� explained Neptune with twinkling eyes.
Sanders joined in and asked him, �Doncha feel it, Mas� Lordy?�
Lordy chuckled. �I do when I�m with y�all,� he answered, adding his clear tenor voice to harmonize with the song
They rowed out to their favorite spot in the river. For the moment, all of them were united in purpose and free from the cares and distinctions of class. Neptune spotted about thirty other fishing boats riding sociably around, singing and sharing the fellowship provided by the ocean before them and the islands encircling them.
Young Neptune caught the first drum fish of the day! Soon all the fishermen brought in their share, for a total catch of nineteen fish.
As they rowed back toward Retreat Plantation, Quamina pointed out the sunset. Its flaring flames of gold and orange illuminated the marshlands, reflecting as a deep glowing red over the Frederica River.
�Dis remembahs me of de Ebo Landin�.� He turned to Neptune and Sanders with an expression of deep melancholy.
Lordy picked up on the sad inflection of his remark. �What happened, Quamina?� he asked.
Quamina lowered the oar and reached over to place his large hand on his young friend�s shoulder.
�It be a sad story, young Mas� Lordy.� He paused for a deep breath and continued.
�A boatload of black Ebos frum Nigeria, Africa git to S�n Simons almos� at darktime many a years ago. Rat here in dis rivah at Dunbar Creek, twelve ob my folks jump over de ship an� kill theirselves, drownin� in de watah. I jes a youngin� back den. I don� wanna go wif em.�
Lordy and Neptune were stunned. Neptune had heard about the Ebo Landing from his people, and the illegal practice of secretly bringing in African slaves and selling them on the island. His father told him that although slaves living in Georgia could be legally bought and sold, it had been against the law to import them from Africa for over fifty years. Still, Ebo blacks were forced onto boats in Africa and brought to Georgia, where they fetched high prices. Even knowing the story, he was completely astounded to learn that Quamina had been one of those slaves!
Lordy recovered his voice first. �But Quamina, did your people really prefer death to slavery? Would they rather kill themselves?� He shook his head in bewilderment. �And are you sorry you lived?�
The other slaves rowed in unison, humming quietly and never looking up from the water. Neptune shifted closer to Quamina to hear his answer. His heartbeat interfered with his ability to hear clearly.
�No, Mas� Lordy. I not be sorry I lib. I got good life here wif yo� family. But summa my people rader kill demselfs dan be undah bondage to oder men. Dey be chained up togetah, dey walk back in dat rivah, and dey sing �Da watah Spirit brot me an� da watah Spirit will take me home.��
He opened his mouth and his deep tenor voice echoed over the waters.
�Orimiri Omambala bu anyi bea.
Orimiri Omambala ka anyi ga ejina.�
He sang with dignity and authority as the rowers lowered their oars. Not a sound could be heard but his song, accompanied by the quiet ripples of the water.
After a long silence Neptune spoke up. �Pa, was you dere wif Mausa Quamina?� He could hardly force his lips to ask the question.
�No, son. I come to S�n Simons frum Africa �bout ten years latah. De Ebo Landin� happen� in 1803.� His father raised his sorrowful eyes and patted Neptune�s knee, smiling wistfully.
Lordy remained silent. He felt sick at heart for all the slaves. He never thought much about their feelings, believing only what he had had been told: that the slaves were protected and cared for by his family and other plantation owners. Surely they were better off under this system, he reasoned. But maybe he was living too closely to the situation to truly understand it.
As they pulled into the dock under the cover of darkness, Lordy experienced a real sense of loss and deception. Would he have the courage to die for his freedom? He glanced over at Neptune, watching him from under lowered eyelids. What about his best friend? What would he have done at Ebo Landing?
Neptune�s mind was racing as he helped secure the boat. Could he even begin to comprehend the Ebo�s refusal to live under bondage? Through his religious teachings, he knew that only God Himself was fit to be a master. But his Master and Missus were so kind to all of them and gave them everything they needed. Was freedom that important?
Carrying their share of the catch, the boys silently followed the men back to the house. Neptune glanced up to discover an owl smiling down at him. Just ahead of them in the forest�s clearing, both boys paused to watch as two deer silently leaped in tandem and raced around the corner, disappearing into the trees.
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