This month, the State of Black Science Fiction collective of authors, artists, filmmakers and animators who create works of Speculative Fiction for and about people of Afrikan descent, are celebrating Black History Month with Blacktastic short works of Historical Fiction!
First up is Paradigm, by Nila N. Brown:
Canal Street * New York City, 1898
Ten-year old Leona Edwards took in as much of the busy street as she could, mindful of the non-stop pedestrians going in every direction. She had never been out of Alabama before, and New York City was fussier than any street in Tuskegee. The horseless carriages making their way up Canal Street were certainly a sight to see with their loud, mechanized sputtering.
“Leona!” a voice called out from the other side of the street. She turned around and smiled as her cousin, Harriett, ran over carrying violets.
“Where did you get those?” Leona asked.
“From that man,” Harriet replied, pointing to a white man in a dark suit and a bowler now making his way toward them. “The one with the scrunchy beard.”
Leona shifted uneasily. “Why did he give you those?”
“He said they were for you,” Harriett said as she turned around to face him. “Hey, Mister! This is my cousin, Leona.”
“Hello, pretty little gal!” the man said with a wide smile, but Leona recoiled. She could hear his clumsy attempt at an accent that didn’t sound natural. He was definitely southern, and they needed to get away.
“We have to go, sir,” she said, grabbing Harriett by the hand and pulling her past him. “Good day!”
“Don’t you like flowers?” he asked. “A pretty little gal should have flowers to match her pretty little pinafore.”
Leona looked over her shoulder to see him watching them. Scared, she pulled Harriett across the street.
The man waved, and then grimaced before disappearing into the crowd.
“Leona!” Harriett huffed, trying to catch her breath. “Slow down!”
“He’s bad news!” Leona said, glancing around. She snatched the violets from Harriett and threw them down. “Stay away from that man!”
Harriett adjusted her large pink hair bow. “Oh, Leona, this isn’t the south! People in New York are very nice!”
Leona ignored her. Harriett might not have understood, but she knew all too well the potential danger. “Let’s go back to your house.”
The girls continued up the street until they were at the corner. “Oh look!” Harriett exclaimed, pointing to a five-and-dime. “Let’s look through the stereoscope!”
“What’s that?” Leona asked.
“You can look at pictures in it,” Harriett replied, taking Leona by the arm and crossing the busy street. “It’s fun!”
Relaxing somewhat, Leona took a deep breath and nodded, going into the store and spending the next half hour looking at funny pictures through the strange contraption. After having malted milks, the girls headed back to Harriett’s house.
A whistle blew very loudly in the distance, signaling the start of the lunch shift at the nearby shirtwaist factory. The streets soon filled with women workers making their way to some of the food carts lining the street.
But Leona was staring up at the large, white clouds as they slowly floated across the blue sky. She smiled; remembering the last time she and her sister, Hattie Mae, watched them take funny shapes under the huge magnolia tree in her mother’s yard.
As she watched, a shape began to form. At first it appeared round like a giant ball, but as she continued watching, two eyes formed, and then turned downward in what looked like an evil glare. Suddenly, a mouth formed and to her horror, it opened wider, showing huge, jagged teeth.
She took a step back, and as she did, a horse and buggy turned the corner and was racing in her direction, but she continued staring at the sky, her heart beating with a foreboding that she hadn’t felt before.
Suddenly, she was pushed down hard onto the cobblestone street. She sprang to her feet just as the horse, its eyes seemingly glowing red, closed in on her.
“Leona!” Harriett cried as she pushed Leona down again. Frightened, she rolled over, looking down the street just in time to see the horse and buggy turn the corner and disappear from sight. She tried to stand up as a tall man ran over to her, gently picking her up.
“Are you alright?” he asked, as he stood her up and held her shoulders.
“I’m fine, sir,” she replied, dusting her dress off and looking up at the sky. The angry cloud was gone. How strange.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Someone pushed me down, and then my cousin pushed me.” She tried to pull herself free, but the man wouldn’t let go. “Let me go!”
“No,” he said gently, “don’t look.”
She angrily pulled away, dusting off her dress as she turned around. “Harriett Sue Edwards! Why did you push me?”
A crowd had formed on the sidewalk. Confused, Leona stared at them, wondering what they were looking at. Some had handkerchiefs over their mouths, some were pointing, and some were crying. Then she looked down. All she could make out was a pink bow on top of a mass of dark hair now drenched in blood.
Two weeks later * Grand Central Terminal * Manhattan
As the train neared its stop at the huge station, Ida B. Wells looked out of the window at the patrons standing on the platform. She was glad to see so many Negroes moving about freely, but she knew that this was deceptive. It only took one accusation; just one bumped shoulder; just one foot stepped on. She shook the thought from her mind. There was work to be done, and she had to be in Washington, DC in three days to speak to President McKinley about the lynching problem in America.
She disembarked as the train stopped and the steps were lowered. As she made her way down the platform, she was stopped by a young man quite familiar to her. It had been a long time since she had seen him.
“Ms. Wells?” he said, inclining his hat.
“Hello, Matthew,” she replied, smiling. “What brings you here?”
“Dr. Du Bois asked me to come and fetch you,” he replied.
Ida’s brow arched. Dr. Du Bois was brilliant, but arrogant, stuffy, and distant. She didn’t like him, and the feeling was mutual. However, the fact that he was sending for her meant something, and she would see what it was before refusing. It was the least she could do.
“What’s this all about?” she asked. “I thought he took a teaching job in Atlanta.”
Matthew took her bag from her. “You’ll have to ask Dr. Du Bois, Ms. Wells.”
She nodded and the two of them made it out to 42nd Street and got into a waiting buggy. The pace of the carriage picking up, they soon made their way to Upper Manhattan, where Dr. Du Bois owned a large brownstone on 143rd Street. Matthew helped her down and then up the stairs to a row house with flower boxes in the window. Before they could knock, a maid opened the door.
“Ms. Ida B. Wells to see Dr. Du Bois,” Matthew announced.
Before the maid could speak, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was standing at the top of the stairs.
“Ms. Wells,” Dr. Du Bois said. “It’s lovely to see you again.”
“Likewise,” she replied. “How have you been? I thought you were in Atlanta.”
“That will be all, Matthew,” he said to the young man, who handed lady Ida’s bag to the maid and nodded before heading down the hallway. “I was on my way back, but Jedidiah Adams of the Philadelphia Freemasons contacted me and requested a meeting. I’ve been here for about three weeks now.”
“It must be something urgent to take you off of your routine,” she said.
“Indeed,” he replied gruffly. “I must say that I’m in need of your assistance on a matter of the utmost importance.”
Ida resisted the urge to roll her eyes. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get used to how longwinded he was, but was nonetheless intrigued. For him to want her help meant that he was desperate, or everyone else had said ‘no.’ They made their way down the hallway and knocked on the door. A young girl opened it, smiling softly at Dr. Du Bois.
“Hello, Leona,” he said. “This is Ms. Ida B. Wells. Ms. Wells, Leona Edwards.”
Leona curtsied politely. “How do you do, Ma’am?”
“I’m very well, Leona,” Ida replied. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Run along and join your parents, my dear,” he said. Leona nodded and went into a back room as he ushered Ida to the parlor. She sat down while he poured tea for them.
“What can I do for you, Dr. Du Bois?” Ida asked. “I have to be in Washington, and I like my routine just as you like yours.”
“This is an unusual situation,” he said, “but I know that you love a good mystery and this is right up your alley.”
“What do you mean?”
He briefly described the events leading up to and after Harriett’s death, but Ida wasn’t fooled; there was something he was leaving out. He would probably get to it, but he seemed too busy hearing himself talk.
“This is all very interesting,” she said as he finished. “But deaths like this happen all the time, especially in New York. Why am I here?”
He took a deep breath. “We’re here because that little girl’s life is in danger. I know this will sound strange, but Jedidiah brought an old Creole woman from New Orleans calling herself ‘PreMarie’ to see me. She told me that she had a vision, and that Leona was going to be killed. She said that I had to prevent it.”
“Did she tell you why?” she asked.
“She refused to divulge any pertinent details,” he replied. “Some white man from the south whom Leona called ‘Scrunchy Beard’ tried to give her violets, but she refused. His false accent bothered her, so they ran off, stopped at a store, and were on their way home when someone pushed Leona into the street in front of a runaway horse and buggy. Harriett then pushed her out of the way before being run over and killed.”
Ida sat back, sipping her tea. “How unfortunate, but what’s the significance of this?”
Dr. Du Bois crossed his arms, a serious look on his face. “PreMarie revealed this two days before it happened. She also said that Leona would see an evil image in the sky that would distract her from the traffic. I’m a man of faith and don’t believe in such things, but this cannot be ignored.”
Ida sat the cup down. “If Leona was the one who was supposed to die, why didn’t she?”
“In the vision, Leona was alone,” he replied. “Harriett followed along at the last minute and it apparently changed the outcome. After the funeral, someone tried to break into Harriett Edwards’ home, but the intruder was discovered and escaped before he could harm her. Under the cloak of darkness, Jedidiah brought them here.”
He took a deep breath before continuing. “PreMarie also said that this strange character came from the future.”
This time Ida laughed. “That’s not possible, William! Someone is playing games with you!” She stood up. “I must be in Washington so I’ll bid you good day!”
“Ida,” he said, standing up. “You and I don’t get along; we never have, but if I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t have brought you here.”
Ida stopped and took in his stance. There was something in the depths of his eyes that gave her pause. He was serious – and afraid. President McKinley could wait. This needed tending to.
“What’s so important about this girl?” she asked.
“PreMarie would only say that through Leona, a catastrophic event will occur, and the face of the Negro race in America will change and have an impact on the world. She said that this Scrunchy Beard person has to die. The lives of our people may very well depend on this moment in time.”
Ida took a deep breath. “Alright, I’ll help you. What must we do?”
“I thought to have the Freemasons search for him, but it occurred to me that this won’t be necessary. This ‘Scrunchy Beard’ has shown that he will come for Leona. We will move them and then set a trap and dispatch this foul person post haste.”
“Where will they be taken?” she asked.
“They’ll be moved to the uncle’s home in broad daylight,” he replied. “Once this character is dispatched, Jedidiah will escort the girl and her family back to Tuskegee and remain there until further notice.”
“And then what?” she asked. “How are we supposed to keep this girl alive?”
He took her by the arm. “We’ll find a way. Perhaps we could form a committee that would serve as both a way to champion the advancement of the Negro race, and serve as a secret society to protect the girl now, as she matures into an adult, and to her next generation until this event takes place.”
Ida smiled brightly. If Leona was this important, then she would see to her survival. Whatever happened, she would help see her live.
Two days later
The buggy carrying Sylvester, Rose, and Leona Edwards arrived at Samuel Edwards’ home in the early evening hour just before dinner. The family got out of the carriage and was greeted by Sam and his wife, Sarah Mae.
In the shadows down the street, Scrunchy Beard, juggling a silver and gold mechanized ball, quietly observed them entering the house, and then disappeared into the dusky twilight.
After midnight, a window on the far back wall in the kitchen slowly opened; a tall, thin man sliding through quickly and quietly. Pausing to make sure he wasn’t heard, he took off his shoes, and slowly made his way from the kitchen to the hallway, and then quietly up the stairs. He had seen Leona in the back window watering flowers earlier, so he knew where to go.
Onward he crept, pulling a thin silver rope from his pocket. He paused, listening intensely, and then crept on until he was at the door where Leona was sleeping. Ever so slowly, he turned the knob and peered in, seeing a small figure in bed. He crouched down, closing the door and crept closer until he was at her bedside.
He smirked; his hands tightening around the rope. “Hello, pretty little gal,” he whispered.
Suddenly, the figure in the bed sat up. “Well, hello to you too!” Ida yelled.
Stunned, Scrunchy Beard stood up and stumbled backwards as Jedidiah leaped from the closet and grabbed from behind, holding him in a vice-like grip around the neck while Ida turned on the gaslight. Dr. Du Bois, Sam, and Matthew quickly entered the room, helping to subdue him.
“Who are you and who sent you?” Dr. Du Bois yelled.
Scrunchy Beard, gasping for breath, snarled, “More will come from my time! She will die!”
“Search him!” Ida commanded, and Sam went through his pockets, pulling out the ball, and handing it to Dr. Du Bois.
“That’s mine!” he yelled.
“What is this for?” Dr. Du Bois asked.
Scrunchy Beard sneered. “Go to hell!”
“You first!” Dr. Du Bois said, nodding as Jedidiah pulled the assassin down to the floor, snapping his neck.
Ida quickly got out of the bed. “That was close!”
“You did just fine, my dear,” Dr. Du Bois replied as Jedidiah stood up. “Do you know where to hide him?”
“Yes, sir,” Jedidiah replied. “He’ll never be found.”
Dr. Du Bois gazed at the ball. “This is a strange object.”
“You should destroy it,” Matthew said. “He said more of them will come.”
“Or we could hold onto it and see what it can do,” Dr. Du Bois replied. “Who knows? It might be useful.”
“What will we do when they come?” Sam asked.
“We’ll be ready for them,” Ida replied. “We’ll get this organization off the ground and protect Leona and her family for however long it takes until this event happens.”
Dr. Du Bois nodded, while Jedidiah and Matthew wrapped Scrunchy Beard’s body in a tarp and carried it out to a waiting buggy, riding off into the New York night.
December 1, 1955 * Dexter Ave. and Montgomery St. * Montgomery, Alabama
A young seamstress boarded the #2857 bus after a long day’s work. There was a chill in the air, and she was glad the bus was on time. She looked out of the window, smiling at two little girls walking hand-in-hand down the street. It made her remember the stories that her mother, Leona, had told her about the summer she spent in New York with her cousin, Harriett. Growing up, her parents were always so protective of her and her brother, Sylvester, and keep a close eye on them. At first she thought it was because of the Klan, but over the years, she and Sylvester figured there was more to the story; mainly because of the many Freemason “step uncles” visiting over the years, but no one would discuss it.
Mother always had a look of profound sadness in her eyes whenever she talked about Harriett, but always stopped whenever she got to the part about the pretty violets. She could never finish the story.
After awhile, the bus became crowded, and the driver began to notice that there were several white people standing. He stopped the bus and went to the back, demanding that she and three other riders got up. Not today, she thought. Not today.
“Are you going to stand up?” he asked angrily.
“No, I’m not,” she replied.
“Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.”
“You may do that,” she replied.
Within a few minutes, the police arrived and escorted her off the bus.
“What’s your name, gal?” the officer gruffly asked.
Head held high, she looked him in the eye as she replied, “Mrs. Rosa Parks.”