Patience de Verteuil made the sign of the cross as the steamship Steebeth pulled away from Invaders Bay. She was leaving Trinidad behind, setting out on an unexpected journey sparked by a letter her father received from an old friend, Harriet Tubman. She looked up to her father standing beside her, searching his strong brown face for any signs of doubt but there were none. They were on their way to America, to a city she never heard of until a few weeks ago; Nicodemus, Kansas.
She tugged at her father’s white cotton shirt and he looked down on her with smiling eyes.
“What is it, cheri?” he asked.
“Are you sure about this, papa?”
He squatted before her then hugged her with his thick arms. Papa was a big man, dwarfing her despite the growth spurt that came with her twelfth birthday. Other things had come as well, things that papa had a hard time explaining to her. He took her instead to Sister Rosa. She wished mama could have told her such things, but mama had died so long ago, Patience barely remembered her. There was a painting of her in their old house that Patience would stare at and imagine them having conversations about flowers, food and sometimes boys. The thought made her smile as papa hugged her.
“I’m sure,” he said. “Miss Tubman would not have sent for me if it wasn’t important.”
“So important that we must leave our home?”
Papa nodded. “Miss Tubman is a very special person. She has a great responsibility that she cannot bear alone. I and others must assist her.”
“Are the others from Trinidad, too?”
“No. They live in America. You will meet them when we arrive at Nicodemus, if not be-fore.”
“Do they have children?”
He swept Patience into his arms then sat her on the bulwark.
“My little bird is always chirping. Your questions will be answered soon enough. But now we’ll wave goodbye to our island and our friends!”
Patience waved with papa, but she could not act as if she was happy. She hoped that what-ever papa had to do for this Miss Tubman would be over soon and they could return home. The wind tugged at her bonnet so she waved with one hand.
“I’ll be home soon,” she whispered. “Very soon.”
They lingered on the deck until nightfall. There were very few children on the ship and all of those were white. Patience had no issue playing with them, but their parents wouldn’t allow it. She stayed close to papa instead, gazing out onto the waters. As an island girl the beach and the ocean were a daily part of her life, but never had she been so far out to sea that she could not see land. She felt so small in the midst of the ocean, so she clung to papa to feel important.
They took their supper and dinner on the deck. The Negro rooms on the steamer were near the steam engine, making them cramped, loud and hot. Papa did his best to get a better cabin but the white men on this ship weren’t nice like the ones sailing between the islands. At least the severs were Negroes as well. They brought them ham, potatoes and sweet tea.
Night arrived and the deck hands walked the deck, lighting the gas lamps for those enjoying the cool air. The excitement and apprehension of a new journey had worn away; Patience was restless.
“Papa,’ she said sweetly. “Can we play?”
Papa frowned. “This isn’t the place,” he replied. “They don’t know anything about bois. Somebody might think I’m trying to give you a whupping.”
Patience giggled. “Just a little bit, papa. Please?”
Papa thought for a moment, tapping his fingers on his chin.
“Okay, this one time,” he finally said. “Let’s go.”
They fast walked to the cabin, the engine’s voice louder the closer they came. It was almost deafening as they entered their room. At least whoever built this ship knew this would be a loud area and took the care to make the little cab-in soundproof, well at least soundproof enough to allow sleep. Papa reached under the bed then extracted a long narrow box covered in rich leather and accented with golden studs. Patience’s eyes widened with curiosity. She’d never see it before.
“What’s that, papa?”
Papa shoved it back quickly under the bed.
“Wrong box.” He reached under the bed again then pulled out the old batter box containing their bois.
“Here we are,” he announced.
“Papa, what was in that other box?’ Patience asked as they left the room.
“Nothing, just some old things from home,” he answered.
She followed papa out of the room then through the hallway.
“I’ve never seen it before,” she said.
“I hope you haven’t,” papa replied. “That would mean you’ve been going through my things and I know you know better than that.”
He turned and gave Patience a serious stare.
“No papa, I haven’t gone through your things,” she said, answering his quiet question.
He smiled again. “Good. Now let’s play.”
They emerged onto the deck then went to the stern. Papa opened the box then handed her her bois, a thin stick painted red and green. Papa took out his bois and Patience covered her mouth to muffle her giggle. Papa’s stick was a poor looking thing, but she knew its sting well. So did many of the other players in her town.
Papa grasped his stick on both ends then raised it to the guard position. Patience did the same. They began to step in time before Papa began to sing, his rich baritone filling the night air.
Your son in de grave already,
Your son in de grave already,
Take a towel and ban you belly,
Today is your son’s burial,
Today is your r son’s burial,
Tomorrow is a grand funeral…
Papa slid his hands together at the stick’s base then struck down on her slowly, setting the pace. They exchanged blows and they danced in time. Patience joined her father singing in harmony, her falsetto voice light and playful.
Your son in de grave already,
Your son in de grave already,
Take a towel and ban your belly.
Today is the grand funeral,
Today is the grand funeral,
Next time it’s the grand burial!
“What the hell is this?”
Two white men dressed in tailored suits emerged into their light. One was a tall, ruddy man wearing a bowler and smoking a pipe, the other a somewhat shorter and wider. Papa looked at Patience and she quickly came to his side. There was something odd about the two, some-thing threatening. It took Patience a few moments to figure it out. It was their eyes.
“They were doing some kind of dancing thing with those sticks,” the tall man said.
“You know how they are,” the shorter man said. “Always dancing and singing about something.”
The tall man took his pipe out then pointed at Papa. “Y’all go on ahead now. We need some entertainment on this tub.”
“We were just finishing, sir,” Papa said.
“You heard the man!” the shorter man barked.
“Now, now Jim, this ain’t Mississippi,” the man said. “These niggers here ain’t used to our ways. Listen how they’re talking. Y’all from Jamaica?”
“Trinidad, sir,” Papa replied. Patience heard the anger in papa’s voice.
The tall man walked up to Patience then grasped her bois. She began to pull away but Pa-pa shook his head. She let it go.
The man examined the stick, holding it like a fencing sword. He looked at Papa with a sly grin.
“Let’s give it a go,” he said.
Papa nodded. The man took a formal fencing stance; Papa gripped his sticks. The man began prancing about then stopped.
“No, this isn’t right,” the man said. He looked at Patience.
“Gal, sing that little song.”
Patience looked at Papa and he nodded. Why was he being so nice to these people, she thought.
She sang. The man hopped about, poking at Papa while Papa blocked. She was shocked when Papa actually let the man prod him once or twice, but then she saw the frustration building in his face. He nodded at her and she grinned. She sang faster.
“This is fun!” the tall man exclaimed.
Papa moved close to the tall man then pre-tended to stumble. His hands slid together at the end of his bois and he swung hard. The tall man was quick, raising Patience’s bois to block Papa blow. But Papa’s bois smashed against her bois, driving it into the tall man’s head. Both sticks smashed against the man’s forehead. The tall man’s eyes went wide then closed as he collapsed to the deck.
“Mr. Jenkins!” Jim reached the tall man just as he crashed into the deck.
Papa knelt beside Jim, his face filled with mock concern. Patience covered her mouth with her hand, holding back the laugh that threatened to burst free.
“I’m so sorry,” Papa said. “Sometimes my feet get tied up. You should take him to the ship’s medical facility. They can take care of him.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Jim replied. “Help me lift him.”
Papa and Jim lifted Mr. Jenkins to a sit-ting position then Jim lifted the man onto his shoulder. The stout man was stronger than he looked, walking away with his unconscious friend with ease. He turned then glared at Papa.
“You better watch yourself, boy,” he snarled. “Because I will.”
Papa smiled then raised his stick.
Patience waited until the two men were far away before dropping her hand then squealing with laughter. Papa smiled then held his finger to his lips.
“You should have done that sooner,” Patience said.
Papa shook his head. “I’m a bad example for you, little one. This might cause us trouble.”
He picked up her bois then handed it to her.
“Things will be different in America,” he said. “Whites and Negroes are not as friendly to each other there as they are in Trinidad. Many whites act as if Negroes are still slaves. They expect us to give way to them.”
“Then we will hit them with our bois!” Patience said.
“No we won’t,” Papa said. “Once we get to Nicodemus we can let down our guard. Until then we will have to be careful. Do you under-stand?”
“Good. Now let’s go to the cabin and get some sleep.”
Patience smiled as Papa placed his arm around her as they strolled to the lower deck en-trance. Though they traveled to a new country, she felt safe. Papa would never let anything hap-pen to her.
She woke the next day to a clear sky and pleasant breeze. After a quick breakfast she fol-lowed Papa onto the deck with books and pencils under her arms.
“Papa, why do I have to study? Can’t we wait until we’re in America?”
Papa frowned at her. “And what would you rather do?”
“Sleep and practice with my bois!” she said.
Papa held up her math book. “This is stronger than any bois. An educated mind is the best weapon. The first thing we’ll do when we get to Nicodemus is get you enrolled in school. There are black colleges in America where you can earn a degree then return to Trinidad to help our people.”
Papa was always thinking ahead, but at that moment Patience wasn’t interested in helping her people. She wanted to play.
Days strolled by, Patience and Papa occupying themselves with lessons for her and bois practice. It was important she keep up her schooling, he always said. Education was the key to liberation, physical and mental. There were black colleges in America where she could gain a degree then maybe one day be a doctor or a lawyer.
Despite his best efforts Patience became bored. She took to exploring the steamship, at least the places where she was allowed. The white people could go anywhere on the ship at any time; the black people were restricted to certain decks and only allowed on the top deck when the white people decided to leave. If America was anything like the ship, she would hate it. She hoped whatever Papa had to do for Miss Tubman didn’t last long. The sooner they returned to Trinidad, the better.
It was night, the black sky peppered with a million stars. A cool breeze blew across the low undulating waves, adding crispness to the air. Patience played on deck near the stern, swinging her bois at imaginary opponents while humming.
“Where your daddy at, gal?”
Patience turned to see one of the men her father beat a week ago. The man walked briskly, a nefarious grin on his face. She tucked her bois under her arm then fled for their cabin.
“Papa! Papa! That man is coming to get you!”
Patience grabbed the door handle then snatched the door open. A blast of hot air struck her and knocked her to the floor. She looked into the room and saw a sight that seemed from Hell. The room blazed, the fire consuming everything inside. In the center of the fire stood Papa, fighting savagely against two creatures that seemed made from the fire.
Patience tried to enter the room but a hand grabbed her then dragged her away.
“What’s wrong with you, gal?” the white man said. “You trying to kill yourself? Your daddy’s done for!”
Patience whacked the man across the shins with her bois. He fell on his back howling.
When Patience looked around her father stood before her. Smoke wafted from his charred clothes and skin. He managed to smile through his obvious pain as he handed her his special bois box.
“Give this to Miss Harriet,” he said. “Tell her I said He’s closer than we thought.”
Patience took the box then dropped it. She grabbed at Papa’s hand but he jerked away.
“No baby girl,” he said. “I have to finish this, or a lot of people are going to die.”
He leaned over then kissed her forehead.
“I love you Patience, and I’ll always be with you. Remember that.”
A strange howl came from the burning room. Papa raised his bois then jumped back into the flames.
“No! Papa! No!”
The white man grabbed her again. This time she let him drag her away, her eyes locked on Papa as he fought the flame apparitions. The man stopped dragging her.
“The fire’s down there!” he shouted.
A score of men with water buckets rushed by them. The man continued dragging her until they reached the deck. The passengers swarmed to the life boats, the captain and the crew at-tempting to keep order as much as possible while getting the boats loaded then lowered into the sea. The man scooped Patience up into his arms then headed for the nearest boat. A stern crew-man stopped him before he could climb aboard.
“Women and children first,” he said.
“Can’t you see I have a child?” the man said.
“Put the child in the boat with the others,” the crewman said. “You wait your turn.”
“She’ll be lost without me!” the man said.
The crewman took a billy club from his belt.
“Put the girl in the boat then step back,” he said.
An elderly woman clothed in an evening gown climbed from the boat.
“I’ll take her,” she said. “What’s her name?”
The man’s face turned red.
“I thought so,” the crewman said. “Get away from this boat.”
He jabbed his club in the man’s chest, pushing him away from the life boat.
The elderly woman cradled Patience as she climbed back into the boat.
“What’s your name, gal?” she asked.
Patience didn’t reply. He voice was taken away by her last vision of her father, the flames consuming him as the apparitions shuddered from his bois blows. Papa was dead. She knew it in her heart. She closed her eyes and hoped never to open them again.