Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
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In the slave yard, it sets a standard. Desperate folks demonstrating who is hardier, or more foolish. Who is braver, or abler at taking punishment. On slave ships, for their entertainment, crewmen have the African cargo practice it. Although popular on slave plantations, because of its costs to the labor pool, masters forcefully discourage the matches. Still, it persists as a strength and courage challenge where the parties take punches in their stomachs until only one remained standing. Who proposes the contest has also to risk value.
Who walks away took the winnings.
This time it was between a landlubber killing the six months while his vessel was refurbished, and a brash young slave.
Small and skinny for 17, John Boy was an Irish lad whose stomach muscles were made from two years at sea on a brigantine. That life of sailor labor had formed them hard as a pine board knots. Though he himself had never been tested, John Boy had seen the brutal respect contest many times. Winning techniques remained in his mind. As when to tense up, or twist ever so slightly in a fake flinch. How to fold fingers to make the hardest fist. Moreover, he had the general cunning of surviving among that pack of ruffians.
Strong for a 14-year-old field slave, Hoke Don was a mischief maker with a smart mouth. Popular among his stray-way boys and even some older Negroes, his jokes and clever observations got him into, and out of, many a steaming pot. With the promise of being an especially strong buck, he was at that age still forming muscles. Though whatever braved him to challenge somebody from the Master’s household, he had been born with it.
He never could control that mouth of his.
Everybody knew the story of how his mother had snubbed John Boy. “Don’t you smicker at me you likkle baccra boy!” she shamed him in the open Yard.
As usual in such situations, Hoke Don enjoyed some reflected renown from her defiance. The incident became the first topic every chance the boys got together in the Yard. They would take turns inventing further embarrassments for pushy John Boy. And if the poor fellow should happen by, the sudden scoffing and suppressed silence that greeted him was worse than straight out jeering.
One week, two weeks, three weeks of this abuse, and it seemed John Boy gave up and had abandoned the Yard altogether. Then one Tuesday evening he visited Mr. Jenkins, the store-keeper. Most probably to borrow some green tea for his sister, the Missus.
Just past dusk, the boys were in the Yard, idling by the animal pens. So it was no surprise that when John Boy stepped out into the open on his way back home, he would hear some offensive comments.
Still, no one expected that within easy earshot, in front of no less than a dozen of his boys, Hoke Don would loudly declare, “For less than a copper farthing, I’d whip dat Irish runt!”
That was how the silver florin came in.
Two days later, sun going down, the boys were at their usual in their corner of the Yard. All went quiet when John Boy appeared from behind the stockade gate, heading toward their group.
Determination glowered like a mask before him.
When he got near, the Irish lad drew a coin from his fobs. He held it out, grasped between thumb and forefinger, just as one would present a small dagger. He jabbed it into Hoke Don’s space, and said, “Dis ’ere’s value f’r ye if I’m ’umbled.”
His lips were wrinkled tight as a hen’s bottom-hole. His face was red as his hair. Keen noses could smell the sharp stink of his passion.
Not Hoke Don. He was too distracted. For to him the florin, so casually proffered by John Boy, was a fortune. In one way or another, money like that would help toward freedom.
So, daring for the ultimate dream, he took the silver bait.
A small gang of young slaves broke from after-dark routines to attend the illicit match. Only certain fellows of the Yard knew where the action was—down the beach in a coconut grove close enough to the compound. There, they could come and go swiftly and safely.
Breakers booming in the background, excited boys quickly built a brisk flaming fire. In the lively golden light, the pale part of the main event got stripped bare back.
Never with a shirt, the black one did not have to.
At first sight they seemed almost of same build—Hoke, smoother muscled, maybe slightly longer limbed.
A subtle difference was how under their coat of pallid skin, John Boy’s muscles stood out like ready soldiers. An experienced bettor would have noticed, too, his twitching smirk. The way his impatient tongue darted at the corners of a tight malicious mouth. Like a confident serpent’s would.
Giving pulse to it all, the breakers played smash and crash with the placid shore, and breezes tickled the coconut leaves to snicker and tremble.
The coin tossed for first go, then put down as a marker, they stood over it in punching range of each other. They swayed sideways and back and forth, checking reflexes, measuring the strain of muscles. In the light of the wavering flames, their shadows moved like frenzied giants.
Won by right of the toss, John Boy started off. He threw. Powerfully.
As if in disbelief, Hoke Don blinked as he took. Then, with deep-breathed resolution, he collected himself, re-focused towards his purpose. He wound up and delivered a solid shot.
John Boy flinched just right as he took, and his wrinkled mouth screwed up smaller, and grim.
Again his turn to give, he did.
The punch struck with a loud smack, and Hoke Don clearly bent at the knees, sagged backward two or three steps, then forward again to the mark. A bright wetness sparkled in his eyes. For many heartbeats, he seemed unable to draw full breath.
Close upon each other as they were, John Boy shared a fierce look with the staggering Hoke Don. Teeth bared, he taunted softly, “Still want der Irish runt?”
Hoke Don’s boys, ready to call “Yield!” for him, didn’t hear those words that doomed him. They saw him put up his left hand, beckon John Boy to prepare to take.
They saw Hoke Don swing a feeble punch into which John Boy seemed to lean so it might hit.
He, clearly the winner, Hoke Don’s boys now thought that John Boy would take up his silver florin and walk away with both pride and prize intact. They wished only to take care of their hurting man.
So when John Boy motioned to Hoke Don that he should ready up to take, they were surprised. Suddenly, as well, they were frightened. Sagging already, surely their man could not take another serious blow. They looked at John Boy, saw his scornful, prune-lipped smile. They reasoned that he was just going strike Hoke Don a slight one. A show-off token. A measure of respect.
Then, as Hoke Don scarcely finished motioning ready, John Boy delivered him a vicious punch to the stomach. So swift and forceful it was, the watching boys hardly saw it.
The result they did see was a gasping, broken Hoke Don. Arms hanging limp and useless, slowly folding from his waist as he tip-toed forward to fall flat on his slack face.
Crumpled to the ground in a heap, he lay there drooling next to the silver florin.
John Boy stooped and picked up his shirt. He threw it over his shoulder and casually walked off. Out of the ragged, reddening circle of the dying flames, heading toward the booming applause of night sea.
Young and strong as they were, bearing him on racing feet, the sweating boys are pushed and breathless. In urgent need of care, their champion lays limp and surprisingly heavy. Slung in this makeshift hammock of held coconut leaves, he’s in bad shape. “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” the worried boys urge themselves needlessly as they rush along. With no other thought of where to go, they are heading toward his mother’s hut.
They gently place their champion in front his home. Quite alert to their cowardice, they make noises enough to wake the mother. Then they skulk off to their own.
A mother’s frantic strength drags Hoke Don inside the shanty. Wet cloths cannot soothe his turning and moaning. No salve or balm she knows can quiet his squirming.
Her anguish is heavy, tight as a rock. It is unable to melt, form tears to ease the distress. The womb of her thoughts is a ruin of complicated pain. With each gentle caress of her fading man-child, she creates another cruel devastation.
For all of that long lonely night, Hoke Don passes blood. By his mouth. By his bottom hole. His face and body bloats up, unrecognizable, but for the eyes. Long gone is their mischievous glint. Now the glimmer in them is fear.
Thus attended by his mother’s grief, Hoke Don passes into the dawn. At which the silver florin releases from his slackened clutch.
Kelvin Christopher James is a Trinidadian-American writer living in Harlem. More information is available on his website: www.kelvinchristopherjames.com. “A Measure of Respect” is excerpted from James’s manuscript Web of Freedom, which is the second book in a saga titled The Remarkable Adventures of a Dahomean Prince. The first book is called The Sorcerer’s Drum.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.