The Slave Castle of Elmina

We were led into the Condemned Men’s Cell
and as the guide moved to seal the door
a woman in the group screamed and ran
out into the light of the courtyard shouting
that she’d felt something in there flying
back and forth between the stone walls
and sure enough when we quieted down
we could hear its faint cries and sense
its frantic little bird heart rattling in its cage of bones

so we all stood still in the musty darkness
as the guide described the last days
of rebellious slaves – how the soldiers
would put five or six of them in and not open
the door again until they were all dead
and I thought for a moment of that last man
waiting there with the bodies of his friends
(or, more terribly, strangers) arranged
in a row beside him – waiting –

but soon the guide reopened the door
and we stepped out carefully,
checking the soles of our shoes
for feathers, except one man
who waited motionlessly
until he could hear the bird well enough
to find it and cup it in his hands,
carry it out into the courtyard and send it
scrambling into the sky

and the next night over Chinese food
a friend asked me what I thought of
The Slave Castle of Elmina
and I shudder now because
all I could describe (before returning
to egg noodles and the clinking
of silverware on porcelain plates)
was the bird, the man’s soft hands,
the woman screaming out into the sun.


—Elmina, Central Region, Ghana






First published in The Antigonish Review #154, then collected in my chapbook Child of Saturday.

Read more poems from Child of Saturday.

Read more poems from The Other Side of Ourselves.