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Portia May

United Kingdom

Elephant’s Breath

April 8, 2016

I darted past a bollard, skipping over the many tethers straining against it. The thrashing of berths and barges sent spurts of salt water across the jetty, splattering the throng of sea folk and townspeople here to barter and exchange goods. Sailors perched precariously on shoddy gangplanks as they toted their wares – occasionally some exotic artefact (or perhaps a good price) would pique the interest of a passer-by, enough to part them with their hard earned pennies. The jetty was awash with people; Circumnavigators striding across their native turf with wearied smiles, or frowns; fishmongers making fresh offers known in booming voices, and; townspeople staring agog.

There. Having forced my way through the crowd I caught my first glimpse. It resembled some towering wasteland, crawling in men - slavers. The unmistakeable stench nearly forced me back, crashing into me like the waves slamming against the planks beneath my feet. One man threw down the gangplank - the procession was about to start. The deck became a hub of activity, with some disappearing into the hold and out of my view - then they reemerged. Out they came, followed by and bearing all exotic things so foreign to my eyes. in their hands were boxes of spices, all the colours with which painters have tried to express the plains and savannahs of Africa. Faint wisps of their flavour contrasted with the stench yet to be placed. The slavers had taken away violence and the commonplace, guns and potatoes, and come back with luxuriant materials, gold dust and parts of seemingly mythical creatures. Ostrich feathers lay in a heap, elegantly catching the pale light, next to piles of bright cloths soon to be sported by aristocracy - reams of taffeta and damask. Then came the wilted stars of the show. Thick iron chains seemed to be all that held up those dejected people - their dark skin could hardly be seen amongst the sores and grime. It was difficult to comprehend that these people whom we treated like scum came from the same divine land as the opulent fabrics and treasures we so helplessly covet.

Their bodies reeked of sweat and excrements, of dark and confined spaces, posing an unpleasant contrast to the giddy scents of cinnamon and cloves - as they drew closer I saw a man’s lip curl at the bitter familiarity. Their legs shook as though they hadn't used them for weeks; with a start i realised that that could easily be the case. I watched them approach the unreliable gangplank. I held my breath. With a shove the first steps were taken - I didn’t take a breath until they had all - implausibly - made it across. A thuggish slaver strode across, revelling in his comparative ease, and shouted something undecipherable. The eyes of the slaves and the slavers were interchangeable - some were drained of recognisable humanity, and others had never had any in the first place. One of the latter took an armful of red fabric and slung it across the watery gap.

A time ago a purported traveller had told me a fable from across the oceans, of the Elephants. These aged creatures trod on through the heat of the Savannahs for decades, as if on a journey. He told me of how haunting an elephant’s last breath was - a culmination of all the hardships thrown upon it throughout the elongated duration of its life, suddenly expelled, as if the beast had given up and passed the burden on to those around it. He said that he still carried with him a small chunk of an elephant’s hardship, and looking into his eyes I believed him.

Suddenly the line shifted as the legs of a seemingly dilapidated man buckled. As he sunk, my eyes were locked with his. He was so close i could see the arrhythmic rise and fall of his chest as he wheezed and hacked. Something passed between us in a language i couldn't quite understand, a feeling i wasn't quite used to, and then he sighed, and his chest didn't rise again. 

A slaver grunted and unattached the collar from the body, the line returned to its former shape with the methodical ease of a well-practised action, and focus was returned to the unloading of the goods. Whilst i was distracted a cart had arrived, and the men set about filling it with their cargo. Soon the job was done, the whip was cracked, and the cart began to move.

I reached out - my fingers brushing the fine material as the coach trundled up the hill, then I turned, and went down on my way.

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