Henry Porter wore good clothes for his Journey,
the best his wife could make from leftover cambric,
shoes stolen from the master. They bit his feet,
but if he took them off he feared he’d never get them on again.
He needed to look like a free man when he got there.
Still in a box in the jostling heat, nostrils to a board pried to a vent,
(a peephole, too, he’d hoped, but there was only black to see)
there was nothing to do but sleep and dream and weep.
Sometime the dreams were frantic, frantic loneliness an acid in his heart.
Freedom was near but unimaginable.
Anxiety roiled inside of him, a brew which corroded his stomach, whose fumes clamped his lungs and his throat.
When the salt-pork and corn bread were finished he dreamed of ice cream and eggs but the dreams made him sick.
He soiled himself and each time was ashamed.
He invented games tried to remember everything his mother ever told, every word he hadn’t understood,
every vegetable he’d ever eaten (which was easy: kale, okra, corn, carrots, beans, chard, yams, dandelion greens), remember everyone’s name who had ever been taken away.
The journey went that way.
When he got there, his suit was chalky with his salt, and soiled, the shoes waxy with blood.
The air smelled of a surfeit of mackerel.
Too tired to weep, too tired to look through the peephole and see what freedom looked like, he waited for the man to whom he’d shipped himself: Mister William Still, Undertaker, Philadelphia.
He repeated the last words he’d spoken to anyone: goodbye wife Clothilde, daughter Eliza, best friend Luke.
Goodbye, everyone, goodbye. When I can, I’ll come for you. I swear, I’ll come for you…..
Passage by Elizabeth Alexander, from “The Venus Hottentot”
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990 by permission of the University Press of Virginia.