Judah’s Tale ~ Excerpts
If you just HAVE to know what happens to Judah and Genna, read on…if you don’t like teasers, then this isn’t the page for you! Below are five chapters from Judah’s Tale, the sequel to A Wish After Midnight.
Since the riots, a lot of folks are camping out in the woods, staying out of sight until they figure out what to do next. Some folks are heading to Canada, others are thinking about heading west. Me, I don’t really have a destination. For now, I just need to find a job and keep a roof over my head. Be still long enough to find the compass that points toward home.
Weeksville’s not a very big place, but people here got real big hearts. They see or hear of a black person in trouble, and they’ll do whatever they can to help. Soon as I reach the outskirts of Weeksville, this lady calls to me from her front porch and asks if I want something to eat. I haven’t eaten since noon the day before, so I’m feeling pretty empty inside. Plus I spent the night in the woods—wasn’t easy getting to Weeksville after the riot, not when I was trying to keep off the road. Hard to see where you’re going when it’s pitch black outside, and there are no street lamps to light the way. So I went into the brush and found a fallen tree to rest by—moss and dead leaves made the ground soft enough to sleep on, but none of us got any rest last night. I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t exactly have company either. I could just tell there were people around me—black people running from the chaos downtown. We didn’t speak to each other, and we didn’t dare light a fire to keep ourselves warm. We just huddled there in the dark, waiting for daylight to come. Soon as the sky turned a little bit grey, I got up and got moving.
“You hungry, son?”
The sun is high in the sky by now, so I put my hand up to shield my eyes. I’m not sure, but it looks like a white woman. A tall white woman with a broom, sweeping the dust off her front porch. But this is Weeksville, and as far as I know, no white people live around here. I squint my eyes and triy to get a closer look at her face. There are some black people who can “pass” for white. Even in Jamaica we had people like that. I guess I must seem either deaf or stupid, because the woman sets her broom against the wall of the house and comes down the steps towards me.
“I got biscuits just come out the oven. And hot coffee, too.” She reaches the fence that separates her yard from the road, and puts her hand on the gate latch. “Surely you have time for a quick bite to eat.” She pauses and I realize she is as curious about me as I am about her. Her grey eyes sweep over me quickly. “You got people here, or you just passing through?”
Before I can answer, she opens the gate and waits for me to enter the yard. I take a quick look at my rumpled clothes and try to brush off some of the dirt and twigs that stuck to me overnight.
“Never mind that,” she says, and puts a hand on my arm to pull me inside. She closes the gate and then points to the right side of her house. “There’s a pump back there. You can wash up while I get your breakfast ready. You slept in the woods last night.”
This is an observation and not a question. I can tell by the flat sound of her voice, and the way she turns and goes up the front steps without waiting for a reply. But I answer her just the same. “Yes, ma’am.”
She turns on the porch and looks at me then. I’m not sure why she stares at me like that, but I start to feel kind of ashamed. Despite her grey eyes, thin lips, and pale skin, something tells me this woman is one of us. But black or white, I don’t like taking charity from anyone.
“We’re not that formal around here. My name is Corina Claxton, but most folks call me Cora. What’s your name?”
“Judah.” She says it softly, like she is remembering something or someone else. “Go on and wash up, Judah. I’ll bring your food out in a minute.”
Once again, she doesn’t wait for a reply. I say “thank you” to her back as she goes in the front door. Then I go around the back of the house and try to clean myself up.
I am still washing the sweat and grime off my face and hands when the back door opens. I blink the cold water out of my eyes and accept a cloth from a younger, browner, shyer version of the woman I met out front. I thank her for the cloth, and use it to dry myself off. The girl tries not to stare at me, but she is clearly as curious as her mother. Though she’s tall, I figure the girl can’t be more than thirteen or fourteen years old.
“Is Mrs. Claxton your mother?”
She nods quickly, then takes back the cloth and runs inside the house. I stand by the back door and wait. The yard is tidy, and looks as though it has been swept clean, like the front porch. An outhouse stands in one corner of the yard, and an open shed stands in the other. I can see carpentry tools hanging on the wall of the shed, but no one is working there now. I notice an axe and several hunks of wood near the tool shed. When Mrs. Claxton appears with my breakfast, I offer to chop the wood for her.
“That’s Felix’s job.” She hands me a plate that holds three buttered biscuits and a hunk of cheese. Her daughter stands beside her holding a tin mug filled with steaming black coffee. “Get something in your belly first. Then you can worry about that wood.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I take the plate from her and bite into the first hot biscuit. I try not to wolf down my food, but those biscuits taste so good! Mrs. Claxton and her daughter stand right there and watch me eat. Every so often the mother nudges her daughter, and the girl offers me the mug of coffee. I take a sip, thank her, and then hand her back the mug. We continue this way until all three biscuits are gone.
I wipe the crumbs from my mouth and thank Mrs. Claxton for the food. For the first time, she smiles at me. “You’re welcome, Judah. This is my daughter, Megda. Felix is her twin brother, but he’s made himself scarce right now. Mr. Claxton went into town, but he should be back before too long.”
I say hello to Megda, then I nod at the wood. “Can I chop that for you now?”
“Give your belly a moment to settle. Were you coming from Manhattan?”
“No, ma’am. Brooklyn. Downtown.”
She frowns and looks away from me. “I hear there was trouble last night.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I think about Genna and the knife slids a bit deeper into my heart.
Mrs. Claxton watches me closely with her strange grey eyes. “You came to Weeksville alone?”
She stares at me a moment longer, then drops her eyes, saddened but satisfied. “You weren’t alone last night.” Again, she says this as though she already knows it to be true. This time I look away, and hope I won’t have to answer any more questions. My fingers start to itch, and I look over at the axe, wishing I had something to do—somewhere to pour the anger I feel bubbling inside of me.
Mrs. Claxton hands the plate and mug to her daughter, who takes the dishes and goes inside. Then she looks at me and wipes her hands on her apron as if to say, “We’re done with that conversation.” I quietly smother a sigh of relief and take a step towards the woodpile.
“Do as much as you like,” Mrs. Claxton says before opening the back door of her house. “If you get tired, there’s a pallet in that shed over there. Get some rest before you move on.”
I nod and take hold of the axe. I set the first hunk of wood on the old tree stump and swing the axe high above my head. Then I take a deep breath and bring it down with all the strength I have. Mrs. Claxton watches the two halves fall to the ground, then turns and goes inside.
I keep going until all the wood by the shed has been chopped. Then I carry it over to the back door, and stack the smaller pieces along the wall. Mrs. Claxton sends Megda out with a mug of water. I drink it thirstily, and realize my shirt is soaked through with sweat.
“Want some soap?” Megda is trying to be polite, but I know she is trying to tell me that I need to wash up again. “I think you’re about the same size as Felix. Mama?” Megda dashes inside and gets her mother’s permission before returning with a bar of soap and a dry cloth. “Here, use these. I’ll get you a clean shirt to put on once you’re done bathing.”
Mrs. Claxton comes back out and smiles approvingly at her daughter. To me she says, “Here, give me that shirt. I can put it to soak with the other clothes. You can come back for it tomorrow.”
I pause and look around the yard. There is nowhere to change except the outhouse. Mrs. Claxton only laughs at me. “Boy, please. Don’t tell me you’re shy? Hurry up and give me that filthy shirt so you can get yourself cleaned up.” She holds her hand out and waits for me to pass her my shirt.
I keep my eyes on the ground and slowly undo the buttons. Then I peel the shirt off and give it to her. I hope she will turn and go inside, but instead she watches me walk over to the water pump. Mrs. Claxton doesn’t make a sound when she sees the scars, but I can feel her piercing grey eyes on my back. I splash water on my chest and arms and rub the bar of soap into a lather.
Mrs. Claxton finally notices my embarrassment and looks away. She stands by the door, her back turned to give me some privacy. “You didn’t start off in Brooklyn.”
I rub the soap over my upper body, then use the tin cup I drank out of to pour clean water over myself. “No, ma’am.” I pick up the cloth Megda gave me and dry myself off. The hot summer sun beats down on my back, drying the ridged skin there.
“Well. If you need a place to stay, you’re welcome to stop here for a while, Judah. You don’t have to run any more.”
I want to be polite and agree with Mrs. Claxton, but we both know there are still a lot of things for black people to run from in this country.
“Will this do, Mama?” Megda appears at the back door holding one of her brother’s shirts. Mrs. Claxton takes the shirt and shoos her daughter back inside. She hands it to me, then turns around again so I can dress in private.
“The person you left in Brooklyn—” Mrs. Claxton pauses to see if I will finish her sentence.
Without any hesitation, I slip back into the old lie Genna and I had used before. “My sister.”
Mrs. Claxton nods once and checks to see that I am dressed before turning around to face me. “She wasn’t hurt? I mean, I hope…”
“We got separated during the riot. I thought I might find her here.” I don’t like lying to Mrs. Claxton, so I am relieved when a loud voice interrupts our conversation.
“Felix!” a tall, dark-skinned man hollers as he opens the front gate and strides across the yard. Megda hears her father’s voice and slips back outside to stand next to her mother.
“He’s not here, Lionel.” Mrs. Claxton looks happy to see her husband, but she also anticipates his angry response.
“Well, where is that blasted boy? That son of yours has a knack for disappearing whenever there’s work to be done.”
“Come inside and sit down, Lionel, there’s a fresh pot of coffee on the stove. I’m sure Felix will turn up before long.”
“I can’t stay, Cora. We need to clear a camp in the woods. Can’t leave those poor folks out there with no shelter at night but the stars. Who’s this?”
Before Mrs. Claxton can respond, I step forward and introduce myself. “My name is Judah. I’ll help set up the camp.” Mr. Claxton looks at me like I just insulted him. I take a step back and try again. “I mean, I’d like to help any way I can.” I glance at Mrs. Claxton and add, “Sir.”
Mr. Claxton’s face relaxes a bit, but he still looks mighty stern. He sizes me up and practically barks, “Well, can you swing an axe?”
To my surprise, Megda pipes up. “He just chopped all that wood, Papa.”
Mr. Claxton surveys the work I have done and seems satisfied. His face doesn’t soften, but his voice becomes more civil. “Come with me, then, if you’ve a mind to. We can use all the hands we can get.” He goes to the shed, takes another axe down from the wall and hands it to me. He turns briefly to his wife before heading out of the yard. “When that boy shows up, you tell him to wait here for me. I’ll deal with him when I get back.” Mrs. Claxton nods solemnly, then she and Megda follow us to the front gate and watch us walk away down the road.
“Here, baby, I brought you some clean towels…”
Mama’s breath goes back into her mouth, sharp, like a blade. She is staring at the scars on my back, not wanting to believe that they are real. I could look my mother in the eye simply by facing the mirror. But instead I wrap the towel around my body and keep my eyes on the water swirling down the drain.
Mama reaches out and touches my bare shoulder. Her fingertips are icy cold, and I jump in spite of myself. “Who did this to you?”
I have been back nearly a week, and Mama has been patient with me. I have put off answering her questions. I have kept my other life buried deep inside of me. The chaos of 9-11 makes it easy to change the subject. But I always knew I couldn’t hide the truth from her forever. The scars on my body won’t let me keep the past a secret.
“Genna, who did this to you?”
I shiver as cool air slips inside the open door. “I can’t tell you, Mama.” It’s the truth, but Mama doesn’t understand.
“Why not?” Mama pushes the knife back out of her mouth. It is aimed right at me, but I know who Mama really wants to hurt.
“You wouldn’t believe me, Mama. You wouldn’t understand.”
Mama stares at me for a long time, her eyes hard and unforgiving. Then she sits down on the toilet lid and sighs heavily. “Genna, baby, this world ain’t what it used to be. People are flying airplanes into skyscrapers. A week ago I would never have believed that could happen, but now I know different. Try me, Genna. Please. I need to know what’s happened to you.”
I sit down on the edge of the tub and stare at my bare toes. Mama reaches out and touches my locks. “Your hair has grown so quickly.”
I feel my mother’s fingers in my hair. She is touching my locks so gently, with such tender admiration, that I start to cry. Mama puts her hands on my shoulders and pulls me onto her lap. I am too old and too big to be held like this, but I let Mama rock me just like she used to when I was a little girl.
“You don’t have to hide anything from me anymore, Genna. I didn’t do right by you, I know that. And I’m so sorry, baby. But we’ve got to be honest with each other from now on. ’Cause I can’t lose you again. And I can’t keep you safe unless you trust me. Okay?” Mama brushes the tears from my eyes and I nod silently. Then she takes a deep breath and says, “It wasn’t that boy, was it? That Rasta?”
I jump up off Mama’s lap. “No! Mama—how could you think that? Judah would never hurt me. He saved me—he saved my life, Mama!”
“Okay, baby, calm down. Please, Genna—I had to ask. He went missing about the same time as you—we all figured you were together, but I didn’t know if you’d gone willingly. I thought maybe he forced you to—”
“Judah didn’t force me to do anything!”
“Okay, okay, I believe you, baby. Whatever you say. Just tell me who hurt you like that.”
I don’t want to get too close to Mama, so I press myself into the corner by the sink. I don’t know how to tell this story, but I am so tired of holding it in. And Mama’s right—what happened on Tuesday proves that just about anything’s possible. I take a deep breath and decide to just say everything at once, even if it doesn’t make sense. “I went back in time, Mama. To 1863. I went to the garden that night after you—after we had that fight. And I made a wish in the fountain, and I got sent back in time. Judah came to the garden looking for me, and he got sent back, too, but we couldn’t find each other for a long while. We were slaves, Mama. And I don’t know who beat me like that, but Judah got whipped, too—it happened all the time back then, because black people weren’t real people, we were property, white folks owned us, and they could treat us any old way. I was lucky—I met people, good people who helped me, and then I found Judah and the riots started and then I got shot and that sent me back here.”
For a long time Mama doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me with that knot between her eyes. Mama looks at me like I am a stranger, like I am some alien from outer space. Mama looks at me like I’m crazy, but I can tell she is fighting something inside herself. She knows I am not a stranger or an alien—I am her daughter. And I am not lying. Something inside her knows that I am telling the truth. But how could this be true? Mama presses her eyes shut, then she opens her eyes and shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know what to say, Genna.”
I pull the towel tighter around me to help me hold onto the truth. Mama gets up from the toilet, takes off her robe, and offers it to me. I take it from her and put it on. It is the same old, thin robe Mama has always worn, but right now having it on makes me feel warmer than standing in the sun. Mama gives me a small, silent smile, then she leaves the bathroom and goes into the kitchen. I hear her filling up the kettle with water, then I hear the clicking of the burner and the soft whoosh as the flame leaps up. I avoid the mirror hanging over the sink and follow Mama into the kitchen.
She is sitting at the table, her face buried in her hands. I stand in the doorway for a long while, not sure what to say or do. When the water is about to boil, I go over to the stove and turn off the gas before the kettle starts its shrill whistle. Then I pull out a chair and sit down next to Mama. I put my hand on her arm but she doesn’t respond. Mama is weeping quietly behind her hands.
“Don’t cry, Mama. Please, don’t cry. I’m okay now, I’m back. It’s going to be okay now.”
Mama pulls her hands away from her face and looks at me. This is the first lie I have told. We both know it’s not going to be okay.
“I’m so sorry, Genna. I’m sorry that I hit you that night. I’m sorry I didn’t go after you when you ran out of the house. It’s all my fault…”
“It’s nobody’s fault, Mama, it just happened. I don’t know why, but it did.”
I get up and tear a paper towel off the roll. I hand it to Mama so she can dry her eyes, then I start making us both a cup of tea. I can feel Mama’s eyes on my back. Her robe is threadbare, but I know she is wondering what other scars are hidden underneath. “What was it like—being there—in the past?”
Mama’s throat is hoarse and dry. I hand her a mug of hot tea, and sit down across from her. “Brooklyn was so different, Mama. I could hardly believe my eyes.”
“Tell me about it.” Mama sips her tea and waits for me to speak. I decide to start at the beginning, with being found in the ash dump by Lester and Charlie, then being rescued by Sam Jenkins. Mama listens to me with the slightest smile, like she is a child and I am telling her a bedtime story. Whenever I stop, she asks me questions and urges me to go on. I hardly have a chance to drink my tea, and it is cold by the time I tell Mama about the draft riots and the terrifying night I got sent back to this century.
When I stop talking, Mama keeps on watching me with that strange smile on her lips. I lower my eyes and wonder if I was wrong to tell her the truth. I didn’t tell Mama the entire story, but I feel like now I have more room inside. In a strange way, talking about Mattie, and Martha, and Judah makes them seem not so far away.
Mama pushes her empty mug away and gently touches my arm. “You must miss them, your friends. It sounds like you never got to say goodbye.”
I blink fast and fight back the tears that gather in my eyes. “I’ll see them again someday.” I realize too late that this is the wrong thing to say to Mama. The knot tightens between her eyes again and her voice becomes sharp with panic.
“What do you mean, see them again? You can’t see them again, they’re gone—you’re gone! You’re here, where you belong.”
Mama pauses and waits for me to agree with her, but I can’t. I avoid her eyes. I don’t want to see how afraid she is, and I don’t want her to see how determined I am to go back.
“You stay out of that garden, you hear me? Genna?” Mama waits for me to answer, but I still don’t say a word. She softens her voice and tries again. “Genna, baby, I need you. You and Tyjuan, you’re all I’ve got left. And it’s not safe anymore—we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We’ve got to stay together. Right?”
Mama’s eyes are pleading with me, and her fingers are wrapped tight around my arm. I nod but keep my eyes on the cold tea at the bottom of my mug. Mama needs more of an assurance than this, but there is nothing more I can offer.
“It’s over, Genna. This terrible thing that happened to you—it’s over. There’s nothing you can do now. Just leave it alone, please. Let’s just try to go back to the way things were.”
Mama knows as well as I do that things won’t ever be the same. But then I think, maybe this is Mama’s dream, maybe I should accept hers the way she has tried to accept mine. My story may not make sense to her, but Mama isn’t trying to convince me that it isn’t real. So I just smile at Mama the best I can, and inside I tell myself that what happened to me isn’t over—not for good, not yet.
The next morning Mrs. Claxton comes out to the workshop and gives me a small, thin book. “This was written by a great man, Judah. He’ll be coming to Weeksville soon to speak at the next meeting of the African Civilization Society. I don’t think he’s one of your people, but he spent some years of his life in Jamaica. I thought it might interest you.”
I take the book from Mrs. Claxton and quickly glance at the name of the author: Henry Highland Garnet. I thank her for it, then tuck it away with the rest of my belongings. It is mid-morning, and I am helping Mr. Claxton finish a dining table and six chairs. The order has to be delivered by noon, so I don’t have time to talk. Mr. Claxton’s so busy he doesn’t even look up to acknowledge his wife.
An hour later, Mr. Claxton puts his large, calloused hand on my shoulder. “You’re a good worker, Judah.” We stand before the loaded wagon, admiring the table and chairs. Then Mr. Claxton looks up at the sky. The large white clouds overhead have grey underbellies. “Better get these delivered before the rain comes.”
Mr. Claxton doesn’t invite me to go with him. Instead, I do as I am expected and grab the broom that stands in the corner. I begin sweeping up the shavings and sawdust while Mr. Claxton gets up on the wagon and slaps the reins lightly to urge his horse on.
When I can no longer hear the tread of hooves on the road, I set the broom aside and reach for the book Mrs. Claxton gave me. I open the cover and look at the portrait of Henry Highland Garnet.
“You work here?”
Startled, I quickly close the book and put it behind me on the worktable. I reach for the broom once more and try to look like I really do work for Mr. Claxton. “The boss won’t be back for an hour or so. You here about an order?” I ask this because it seems like the right thing to say. I can’t think of another reason for this girl and her little brother to be here. I know they’re siblings because they looked exactly alike. The girl looks about fourteen or fifteen, and though he looks like he’s about ten years old, the boy burrows shyly against his sister. His eyes are frightened, but curious as well. While his sister talks to me, the boy’s eyes roam all over the workshop.
“Name’s Mattie. This here’s my brother, Money. Genna tell you ’bout me?”
I stop sweeping and stare at my strange visitors. Mattie glances around the workshop with disdain. Her arms are folded tight across her chest. Mattie. The girl Genna met at the orphanage here in Weeksville. I nod at her, and Mattie smiles like she’s proud. Like she knew she would be right.
“Folks say you’re here looking for your sister. Say you lost her in the riot.”
I nod again and continue sweeping. There is something unnerving about Mattie’s bright eyes. I keep my own eyes on the pile of sawdust forming before my broom.
“I know Genna ain’t your sister.” Mattie waits a moment for me to respond. She is trying to threaten me with the truth, but I won’t be intimidated by this girl. I keep on sweeping like she’s not even there.
Mattie waits a bit longer, then walks past me and begins inspecting the workshop. Her brother stays by her side, saying nothing but drinking in everything with his eyes. When Mattie picks up the book I laid upon the table, Money stoops down and snatches up a curly wood shaving before I can reach it with my broom. He holds it tenderly between his palms, as if it were a butterfly.
Mattie is struggling to read the title of the book. She knows the letters, but she can’t put together all the words. Mattie looks up and sees me watching her. She tosses the book aside like it doesn’t really matter. Then she checks the yard to make sure that no one else is around.
“She ain’t dead, is she.” Mattie says her words with confidence, like she doesn’t need me to confirm what she already knows to be true.
I stop sweeping this time and look at Mattie long and hard. I wonder what Genna told her about our journey into the past. I wonder if she can be trusted with the truth.
“She gone back to where she come from?”
I nod and scan Mattie’s face for some kind of sign.
“That’s where you from, too?”
I nod once more, not sure it is safe to be admitting this to anyone. But Mattie knew Genna when she first arrived in this world. Mattie was there to help Genna when I couldn’t even help myself. In a strange way, I feel like I owe her the truth.
Mattie turns away suddenly and goes over to a rocking chair that’s waiting to be repaired. “Your hair ain’t neat like hers. Esther say you look a mess. She say you could look more civilized if you just comb your hair and wipe the evil out your eye.” Mattie looks over at me and waits to see how I’ll respond. I don’t know who this Esther is, but she needs to mind her business. That’s one thing about living in such a small community—everybody feels like they got a right to talk about everybody else.
When her comments fail to get a rise out of me, Mattie comes close again and changes her tone. “You gon’ find her?”
“I don’t know how.”
“You gon’ try?”
Mattie practically spits those words at me. I don’t appreciate being grilled by a complete stranger, but I keep my anger in check. This ignorant girl doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with. But there is a part of me that feels like I deserve her contempt. Just then the back door to the house opens and Megda heads toward the workshop with my lunch. She smiles warmly at my visitors, but receives only a shy grin from the boy and a cold stare from Mattie in return. Megda sets the covered plate on the table, nods quickly at me, then leaves without saying a word. Mattie watches her, hands on hips, her eyes slit like blades.
“I guess maybe you too busy to look for Genna.”
I wait until Megda has gone back inside. Then I take a deep breath and press flat the spike of anger on my tongue. “Mattie, you don’t understand. Genna’s not lost—she’s not hiding someplace around here. She’s gone, Mattie—to a place where I can’t go.”
Again Mattie’s eyes condemn me. I look down at her brother, holding that thin curl of wood like it’s the most precious thing in the world. “You know how we make those, Money?”
The boy looks up at his sister, and she nods to let him know it’s okay to respond. “No, sir,” he says quietly.
“My name’s Judah, not sir. Come over here and I’ll show you how.” Money looks at his sister and waits for her nod before coming and standing next to me. I put an old block of wood on the table and take the corkscrew off the wall. I place his hands on…
Mattie watches me working with her little brother, and her eyes soften somewhat. One of her hands leaves her hip and creeps up around her mouth. Finally she folds her arms across her chest and blurts out, “I can help.”
I let Money’s hands turn the corkscrew and stare at her. When she sees my confusion, Mattie goes on. “Not with that. I can help you find a way to get Genna back. I know somebody—a African. You can ask him what to do. Some a them Africans, they knows how to fly. Esther calls it black magic, but Genna always used to say black ain’t bad, it’s just different. Seems to me like you need a different kinda magic if you gon’ find her again.”
I look at Mattie and realize I was wrong. She’s not ignorant at all. “This African—he lives here in Weeksville?”
“Outside—’bout a mile past the Henson farm. He got a drum and a three-legged dog. You can hear him beatin’ on it most nights. The drum, not the dog.” Mattie waits to see my smile, then reaches out and touches her brother’s arm.
“C’mon, Money. We gotta go.” Mattie waits for her brother to join her and they both head out of the workshop. Before she passes through the door Mattie turns and looks at me. Her eyes flicker from my face to the plate Megda left for me. “I be back.” Mattie’s words sound like both a promise and a threat. I smile in spite of myself, glad Genna has such a devoted friend in this world.
We don’t normally eat this late in the evening, but Mrs. Claxton wouldn’t dream of sending her guest to bed on an empty stomach. Rev. Garnet is spending the night with us in Brooklyn and even after delivering a three-hour lecture at tonight’s meeting of the African Civilization Society, he still has a lot more to say. Megda is supposed to be clearing the table, but she can’t stop thinking about Rev. Garnet’s narrow escape during the draft riots. “The mob came right to your door?” she asks, her eyes open wide.
Rev. Garnet sits at the head of the table, as solemn and stately as he had been in the pulpit earlier this evening. “They would have, my dear—they marched right up the block calling for me by name. I shudder to think what the blood-thirsty fiends might have done had my family and I been discovered.”
Mrs. Claxton stops pouring the coffee and sinks into her seat. “Had you already fled? Where did you go?”
“Not far—there wasn’t time. Were it not for the consideration and compassion of our white neighbors, we might have shared the fate of the other martyrs. And our home would surely have been plundered had my daughter not had the forethought to take an axe to the brass plate on the front door.”
Mrs. Claxton’s pale face flushes with rage. “It’s not enough that they hunt us like animals. The brutes must also take the fruit of our labor—the proof of our striving! Hardly a month off the boat and they feel entitled to all that we have paid for with our blood, sweat, and tears!”
“Cora—” Mr. Claxton softly checks his wife’s rage. Embarrassed, she rises and goes into the kitchen. Megda hesitates then decides her proper place is not at the table with the men, but with her mother.
Rev. Garnet puts a hand on Mr. Claxton’s arm, but speaks loud enough for Mrs. Claxton to hear. “It’s alright, Lionel. Her indignation is fully warranted. Even the angels in heaven beat their breasts over the suffering of our people. Why, I saw with my own eyes the mutilation of a colored man whose only crime was the color of his skin. A fiend in human form took a knife and cut his prey’s flesh into shreds, asking ‘Who wants some nigger meat?’ And the shameless rowdies, they clamored for it, even coming to blows as if a dead man’s flesh were worth more than gold.”
I look up and see Megda standing in the doorway, horrified but transfixed by the terrible tale. Mr. Claxton follows my gaze and clears his throat to stop Rev. Garnet from going on. “Megda, why don’t you go on up to bed,” he suggests, but it is really a command. Mrs. Claxton comes up and puts an arm around her daughter’s shoulders. Megda jumps, startled by her mother’s touch, then allows herself to be led upstairs.
Rev. Garnet tucks his thumbs into the front pockets of his silk vest. “You’ve made good use of the funds set aside for the victims, Lionel.”
Mr. Claxton only gives a grim nod. “We’ve built temporary housing for almost all of the refugees. Cora and the other church ladies have supplied warm blankets, clothes, and victuals, of course. Those who choose to remain here in Weeksville will receive all the assistance they need in finding work, shelter, and schooling for their children. Your white merchants were more than generous.”
“Indeed they were. Most were appalled by the riots—ashamed, even. Our beleaguered race could not ask for better allies.”
I open my mouth to speak, then change my mind. Rev. Garnet smiles, sensing a challenge. “You have a different opinion of our white benefactors?”
I was not raised to challenge my elders and don’t want to offend the Claxtons’ guest, so I hold my tongue. Felix snickers and says, “Judah’s shy.” A stern look from his father wipes the smirk off Felix’s face.
Mr. Claxton looks straight at me. “Humility has its place, Judah. But you’re free to speak your mind here.”
I clear my throat and try to make sure my logic is sound. “Sir,” I say to Rev. Garnet, “wasn’t it the wealth of our white sympathizers that infuriated the Irish? Rich Republicans used money to buy their way out of the war. Seems to me money’s just a substitute for real action and true conviction.”
Rev. Garnet looks at me for a moment, then glances at Mr. Claxton and says, “You were right, Lionel. Your new apprentice has surprising depth.”
“Still waters run deep.” Mr. Claxton looks at Felix. “Judah may not run his mouth all the time, but his mind is always working. He reads a great deal also.”
Rev. Garnet now takes an interest in me. “You think we ought not to accept the aid of our friends?”
“The constitution of the African Civilization Society stresses the importance of self-reliance, sir.”
“Indeed it does, Judah. But the colored race cannot afford to refuse the generosity of like-minded citizens. Four million of our people still toil under the lash without hope of just compensation for their labor. The financial support of our white sympathizers is, I’m afraid, indispensable. Once this war ends and slavery is abolished, then we can focus on generating our own wealth.”
But the war won’t end until 1865, and most freed slaves will never get their forty acres and a mule. I want to say this out loud but know I can’t. Instead I ask, “Do you think the war will end soon?”
“Now that colored troops have joined the fray, I’m sure victory will be swift. If I could, I’d shoulder a rifle and march off to war myself!” Rev. Garnet adopts a loud, patriotic voice and thrusts his fist into the air. “Give me liberty or give me death!”
“Who first said that, Felix?” Mr. Claxton drills his eyes into his son’s reddening face.
Felix darts his eyes at me as Rev. Garnet frowns with disappointment. “Uh—I guess it was…uh…”
Finally I put Felix out of his misery. “Patrick Henry said it in 1775.”
Both Mr. Claxton and Rev. Garnet give me looks of approval. Felix seethes silently.
“All patriots know the full price of freedom. And true Christians know, as did our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that there is no hope for redemption without the shedding of blood.”
Felix clasps his hands behind his head and tips his chair back from the table. “I’m ready to spill some blood.”
“Your own, no doubt, the way you handle a gun.” Mr. Claxton’s contempt for his son has never been more obvious. I glance at Felix and realize for the first time how much he hates his father. Rev. Garnet tries to change the subject.
“I pray the war will end before you reach the age of enlistment, son. For now, you should focus on your studies. When I was your age, there were many obstacles to an education that we have since fought to clear from your path.”
Felix slumps sullenly. “It’s hard to focus on facts and figures when there’s a war going on. I want to fight!”
“A well-developed mind is as dangerous as a loaded gun, Felix. Why do you think whites have fought so mightily to withhold knowledge from colored people? Why, thirty years ago I could hardly find a school that would accept colored students. I went to New Hampshire, to the Noyes Academy, and the local whites hitched a team of oxen to the school building and dragged it off its foundation. Then they set it on fire and threatened to turn their cannons on us!”
“What did you do?” asks Felix.
Rev. Garnet winks and makes his hand into a gun. “I fired a warning shot into the mob, and we fled the town once night fell. Eventually I went upstate and graduated from Oneida Institute.”
I think of my classmates in 2001. Many of them would cheer if their school burned down. “Do you think things have really changed since then?” I ask Rev. Garnet.
“We’re fighting to create change, Judah. The Negro has made great strides, but there is still a long way to go.”
“Do you really think they’ll allow colored men from these parts to take up arms?” Mr. Claxton asks.
“They must if the Union is to be preserved,” Rev. Garnet replies.
Felix perks up now that we’re talking about the war again. “Look at the 54th—even President Lincoln praised them for their courage in battle down in South Carolina.”
“They lost, Felix,” I remind him.
“Yeah, but I bet they took a whole lotta Rebs with ’em!”
I’m so busy rolling my eyes at Felix I don’t see Rev. Garnet turn to me. “What about you, son?” he asks.
“You’re a smart, sturdy young man. Are you ready to stand up and fight for the cause of freedom?”
All eyes are on me, but there are so many words crowding my brain that I can hardly see. I blink and try to focus on something simple, yes or no, but not a single word comes out. I want to ask Rev. Garnet a hundred different questions, but I’m afraid to say them out loud. I am afraid of losing the approval I so often see in Mr. Claxton’s eyes.
“I…I should see to the animals. Excuse me.” I push my chair back from the table and flee to the barn, my face burning with shame.
Now that the nights have turned cold, I sleep on a pallet in the barn. My head is too full for sleep tonight, however, so I check on the horses and then go out back to search for answers among the stars. It is hard to believe this is the same night sky that guided me north just a few months ago. North to freedom. North to Genna. I wonder how many stars she can see at night. New York’s bright city lights make them vanish almost. Here in Weeksville, the stars have no competition yet somehow, standing beneath a million of them, I feel more alone than ever. Does Genna even think about me? Or did she slip back into the future and back into her old life? Maybe all she thinks about is going to college and building a new life without me.
Rev. Garnet’s voice breaks up my pity party. “Mind if I smoke?”
My heart speeds up a bit, but I shake my head and watch as the reverend lights the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe. He takes a few puffs to get it going, then takes a long draw and blows the smoke up into the sky. “Lionel tells me you were born in Jamaica.”
“You’re far from home, then.”
“Yes, sir.” I look up and try to remember the way the stars looked when I lived on the mountain with Pappy.
“I take it you don’t believe we can win this war.”
I should be able to defend my position, but I can’t let the reverend know that I have seen the future. “It’s just that…I’m not sure this war has an end, sir. We’re caught in a long, bloody battle, but I think there will be more to come. Even if all the slaves are eventually set free, that won’t change the way we’re treated in this country. Prejudice will still exist—bigotry, hatred. And some slaves will remain slaves even after their chains are gone.”
“The process of education has already begun, Judah. The American Missionary Association is sending teachers into the South to uplift our degraded brethren.”
I hear the music in my ears but say only the words out loud. “‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.’”
Rev. Garnet nods appreciatively. “Wise words. Are they yours?”
I shake my head and wonder what Rev. Garnet would think of a man like Bob Marley. “My countryman wrote those words. Some call him a poet—or a prophet.”
“No man can see the future, Judah. Only the Almighty knows what lies ahead. But He expects us to rise up and meet our destiny. And the destiny of our people is to be free.”
“In Africa—not here.”
Rev. Garnet clamps his lips down on his pipe and scrutinizes me. “Emigration is only part of the solution, Judah. We cannot plan a future overseas when so many of our brethren are still enslaved here. Africa is our ancestral home, but many of us remember no home other than this land.”
I don’t want to sound defiant so I keep my voice low. “And the missionaries you spoke of a minute ago, will they teach the former slaves the truth about Africa? Or will they teach our people to be ashamed of ‘the Dark Continent’?”
“The truth is not as simple as black and white, Judah. The soul-thieves must be forced out of our homeland, and only the best men of our race can ensure that Africa takes its rightful place in the world. But this country was built on our backs. We cannot walk away from the land that shaped us and which we have helped to shape. To stake our claim we must be recognized as citizens—civilized, educated, industrious citizens.”
I say nothing but think of the three amendments to the Constitution that will follow the end of the Civil War. Slavery will end, black people will be granted citizenship, and black men will gain the right to vote. Then I think of the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and facilities that are separate but not equal. I think of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X—what would they say at this moment?
Rev. Garnet mistakes my silence for confusion. “It is a complex situation, Judah, and even men of my age cannot agree on the remedy.”
I pause. It would be easy to let Rev. Garnet think that I am just a confused teenager. But I am not confused. I feel like I know too much. Yet there is one question that’s been weighing on my mind. “Why do you want to be part of a country that doesn’t want you?” I ask him.
Rev. Garnet ponders the question for a moment and then replies, “Because I am a Christian, Judah. I believe in forgiveness and redemption. Slavery has not only cursed the colored race—it has left its mark on our enslavers as well. But those who emerge from the furnace of affliction shall be purified by the refiner’s fire. It could be that God’s plan is unfolding as intended. It must be so! We have spent our time in the wilderness but we will emerge triumphant. And America will be a better place for our suffering. It will not have been in vain.”
I fight the urge to suck my teeth, but Rev. Garnet still sees the scornful twist of my lips. He pulls the pipe from his mouth and frowns. “Do you think I have never felt a murderous rage against whites burning inside my soul? I once walked up and down Broadway with a knife clasped in my hand, hoping to meet the slave catchers who had torn my family apart. If friends hadn’t persuaded me to go into hiding…only God knows what I might have done. My leg may be made of wood, but my heart is made of pulsing flesh and blood—just like yours, Judah. It has been bruised and battered, but it beats within me still. And where there’s life…”
“There’s hope?” I ask, not bothering to hide my doubt.
He nods and takes another draw from his pipe. “You’ve been hurt, son, I know you have. You’ve lost someone you loved, and you don’t believe justice will ever be served.” He looks at me for confirmation but I keep my eyes on the stars, up where the tears can’t fall. “I see in you the same restlessness I felt as a youth. You feel stifled here—even a country this vast is too small for your ambition.”
I come back to earth and look at the reverend. “You felt that way, too?”
He pulls the pipe from his mouth and chuckles. “I’m a man of the world, Judah. I’ve been to England, Scotland, Jamaica, and I was heading to Liberia when war broke out here. I was thirteen when I went to Cuba.”
“I was just a cabin boy, but I realized then that the world was much bigger than I had ever imagined. And I knew then that my life could serve a greater purpose if I had the courage to cross the sea. Our people are a global people, Judah. We tend to lose sight of that, consumed as we are by internal strife here at home.”
“This isn’t home. Not for me.”
“You could return to Jamaica one day. God’s work awaits us everywhere.” He pauses, then turns to me. “I’m sure you think you know your own heart, son, but I wonder if you’ve truly examined the source of your discontent.”
I take a moment to consider Rev. Garnet’s words, but they feel like a riddle I can’t quite solve. “What do you mean?” I ask.
“You say you have nothing to fight for, yet if that were true, you’d be on a ship already bound for Africa or the West Indies. Instead, you’re here in Weeksville. Why is that, Judah?”
I tilt my head up to the stars again. Why am I here? Because I still have hope that Genna will return? Or because I’m too afraid to strike out on my own?
The reverend comes closer and puts his hand on my shoulder. I look down at the scuffs on my shoes, then remember I no longer have a heavy curtain of hair to shield my face. My tears fall softly into the dust at my feet.
“Son, we are bound to this country and this righteous battle not because of the soil or the flag. We are bound by blood to those who yearn to be free. We stay and we fight for them.”
I lift my head and wipe my face with the back of my arm. I would fight for Genna, but she’s no longer here. “I’ve already been to war,” I tell him. “I’ve seen white soldiers killing each other, lying dead in the mud, weeping over their lost friends. I’ve been in a Union camp and been called ‘nigger’ by the very men who are supposed to be fighting to set us free. They don’t care about us.”
“Does it matter? Will you stand by and let the Confederate scoundrels win this war?”
“You don’t understand.” I shrug hopelessly and turn away but Rev. Garnet grabs my shoulder and pulls me back.
“You think you are alone, Judah, but you’re not. You’re part of something much larger than yourself, son. Together we can shape the future! We can prove, once and for all, that we are MEN!”
The reverend’s hand falls away from my shoulder. He looks at me intently and somehow I manage to hold his gaze. I decide in that moment that I will tell him the truth, no matter what the consequences may be.
“Have you killed before, Judah?”
I start to nod then realize I need to say the words out loud. “Yes, sir. I have.”
I don’t know what I expected Rev. Garnet to do, but the pride in his eyes unnerves me. A slight smile lifts his lips, and he nods with understanding. Then he turns to the vast night sky and quietly sucks on his pipe.
I want to make a full confession. I want at least one person in this world to know why I took a man’s life. But part of me is still ashamed—too ashamed to try and claim that I had no choice. I did have a choice. But I didn’t think I could live another day as a slave, and so I took a life to save my own.
At last the reverend turns to me and says, “It is no sin to take up arms in defense of liberty.”
I frown. “But the bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
“A slave cannot obey God’s commandments. His desire to be virtuous and true is thwarted at every turn by demons who masquerade as Christians. It is the duty of every child of God to clear the path that leads to the cross, to redemption, to Christ. He who would impede the progress of any freedom-seeker must be struck down. God commands it.”
These are almost the exact words I read in the pamphlet Mrs. Claxton gave to me. Rev. Garnet spoke them twenty years ago in an address to the enslaved. “Let your motto be resistance…”
“Our cause is a righteous one, Judah. You will not be condemned for what you have done. Is that what you fear?”
I look up at the countless stars, knowing more than six hundred thousand men will die before this war ends two years from now. I remember the deafening boom of shells exploding overhead and the final, breathless gasp that told me Carter was dead. “I thought it would be harder, taking a man’s life. I thought I would have to fight against myself, against all I believe—all I was taught.” I look down at my hands—the same hands that crushed Carter’s throat, showing no mercy. “Soldiers kill. They follow orders and do as they’re told without thinking twice. They can’t afford to waver or feel regret. On the battlefield it’s kill or be killed. I can’t go back to that. I don’t want to know—” I stop. Rev. Garnet waits a moment, then prompts me to go on.
“Know what, Judah?”
I don’t want to tell Rev. Garnet about my father. And I can’t tell him about my ’hood back in Brooklyn where some kids pick up a gun and go wild in the street like they’re playing a video game. I can’t tell him about those cops—trained to serve and protect—who pump lead into black men who’ve done nothing wrong. So I just say, “I don’t want to know that side of myself, sir.” ’Cause maybe it’s something inside all of us. Maybe the urge to kill is always there, just waiting for a chance to come out. And what better chance than a war against whites?
Rev. Garnet says nothing for a very long time. I tell myself that if he had lost all respect for me, he would have walked away. But he just puffs on his pipe and after a while I grow comfortable with the silence between us. Finally, Rev. Garnet pulls the pipe from his mouth and turns to me. “You know, Judah, there are many different ways to serve.”
I hope he’s not talking about the military. I already know how black folks “serve” white soldiers by washing their clothes, digging their latrines, cooking their food, and burying the dead. I wait for Rev. Garnet to explain what he means.
“There is a circuit—it’s less active now than before the war began, but I’m sure I could find you a sympathetic audience.”
This time I really am confused. Circuit? And why would I need an audience? Rev. Garnet realizes he’s getting ahead of himself and leaving me far behind. He backs up and tries again.
“Public testimonials are one of the most effective tools in the anti-slavery struggle. No one can sway hearts and minds better than an actual slave—a woman or man who knows from experience the horrors of slavery. You want to contribute to the cause of freedom, but you don’t want to take up arms. Perhaps God has another plan for you, Judah.”
I think quickly, trying to assemble the pieces of this puzzle. “You want me to—to tell people what I did?” I can’t imagine telling a room full of white folks that I killed my overseer with my bare hands.
Rev. Garnet offers something between a shrug and a nod. “Your story will have to be…tailored, shall we say, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of our white friends. But your story neither began nor ended with that encounter. Did it.”
I shake my head. My story. I hardly know where it began, and I have no idea how it will end. I look at Rev. Garnet and say, “I was born free.”
Rev. Garnet’s eyes begin to sparkle like the stars overhead. He pulls the pipe from his mouth and taps it lightly against the side of the barn. The ashes glow for just a moment before the reverend grinds them into the ground with his heel. “I’ll see that you get a journal. Take some time, recall and record as much as you can of your descent into slavery and your eventual escape. I’ll make some inquiries and see about setting up an engagement with two or three other speakers.”
This is all so new to me, I’m not sure how I feel. Excited, but also afraid. I think of the court scenes I have seen on TV: a witness puts his hand on the Bible and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. “Sir, if I am going to testify…I have to tell the truth.”
Rev. Garnet becomes stern. “I fully expect you to be honest, Judah. Misleading the public does not help our cause in the least.”
“But you said my story would have to be—”
“Tailored, not falsified. That is a significant distinction. For now, focus on writing everything down. Once I’ve read your story, I’ll help you decide how best to relate your experience to an abolitionist audience.” Rev. Garnet holds out his hand. I grasp it within my own and after one firm shake let the reverend go back inside. I look up at the stars but already my head is filling up with all the words that will map out my incredible journey.