I must admit my publishing is a totally selfish project. I chose to do so to sell my books and to have the opportunity to own my own business again. The majority of the books I publish are written by me; my anthologies are edited by me and a few friends and contain stories I’ve written. I do publish a few books not written by me and I plan to publish a few more, but even that effort is focused totally on what I do or do not like. I’m not a publisher that happens to be a writer; I’m a writer who happens to be a publisher.
That being said I’ve always believed that the only way we will see true diversity in publishing is when new publishing companies are established that have diversity in their DNA; companies that are created to serve the increasingly diverse readership and writing in speculative fiction. Only a company that lives and dies by diversity will bring the change we want to see in this industry.
Enter Bill Campbell and Rosarium Publishing. I met Bill at the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts at Spelman College in 2013. Since that day I’ve watched him build Rosarium Publishing to the publisher I imagined, a publisher that not only offers wide diversity in writers but also a diversity in subject matter and format.
Bill has accomplished much in three short years, and as a fellow publisher I’m more than impressed. Publishing ain’t easy. Now he’s attempting to take Rosarium Publishing to the next level, graduating from print on demand to offset printing. What does that mean? It means that Rosarium will be able to print larger runs, thereby offering better pricing to distributors who in turn supply his books to bookstores, libraries and other outlets. Which means more opportunities to purchase their great titles for you and I.
Crowdfunding is one of the best things that has happened to publishing. Writers and publishers can now go directly to the fans of their work and raise the money to create what the readers want to read. Rosarium Publishing has done the same, hoping to raise the money to raise their company to the next level. Here’s our opportunity to practice what we preach and support a publisher dedicated to giving us what we want. Join me in supporting Rosarium, and do so now. Crowdfunding campaigns have a short window of opportunity so the sooner you contribute the better. Let’s take an active part in making the future what we want it to be.
You can show your support for Rosarium Publishing by contributing to their Indigogo campaign;
Science Fiction is a genre in which all future possibilities can be and should be considered. But publishing, just like any other business, is iinfluenced by the opinions of those who controlled the industry and the perceived desires of the purchasing demographics. These opinions have greatly influenced what we see from black speculative writers via large publishers. Over the years it seems that science fiction from black writers has been delegated to those issues publishers believe their demographic will respond to. If you look at most published works by black writers, they deal with social issues particular to the ‘black experience’, i.e. racism. These stories usually deal with the black protagonist as the underdog struggling against an oppressive system or dealing with racism in a different form. Very few science fiction novels display black characters as people in powerful positions, and when they do the characters are not the main characters. And action/adventure science fiction, filled withe heroic characters accomplishing major world or galaxy changing events, is a virtual desert for black main characters.
Which is one of the reasons why Dark Universe exists. The concept began as a thread titled ‘A Dark Story. I posted a snippet of a deposed emperor being led to to stand trial before those who had overthrown him. The emperor was black and was the last of a line of emperors who had controlled a galactic empire for 1000 years. The thread expanded when other writers joined the mix, most notably Gene Peterson and Ronald Jones. As the thread continued I realized what usually happens when such threads begin: this needs to be an anthology.
And thus the work began. I felt that if we were going to have an anthology centered on a galactic empire founded and ruled by people of color we would need a sound foundation. Gene Peterson and I created a manifesto for the anthology, with Gene keeping the efforts alive as I meandered to different projects. It just so happened that the Dark Universe (DU) concept dovetailed perfectly into a project Gene was working on, a story centered around the space mercenary Pack Loren. Gene tweaked his concept, resulting in Pack becoming a major character in the evolving space opera.
It was important to both of us that this space opera have a distinct Afrocentric feel. All empires reflect the culture of its founders, and the Cassad Empire is no different. Although the seed of the empire was corporate in origin, its founders were a family whose ideas and centered around building a better and fairer world for people of the African Diaspora. That idea intensified after the collapse of the previous economic bloc centered galactic network due to the Dark Age, a time in which most technology is lost due to a mysterious EMP (electromagnetic pulse event) that crippled the settled planets. Cassidy, now known as Cassad, emerged from this cataclysm first lead by Ziara Cassad, from whom the planet was eventually renamed. It is here where the Empire begins and the culture takes on a distinctively Afrocentric tone. The inspiration of the Cassad’s 1000 year reign came from the Sayfawa dynasty of Kanem-Bornu, one of the longest ruling dynasties in the world.
As the project progressed we selected our writers. The DU anthology was not an open submission. We were building the foundation of what we hope will be a long running concept, so we chose writers were felt would bring the fire. These were writers we admired and respected for their science fiction writing skills. Ronald Jones, DaVaun Sanders, Balogun Ojetade, K. Ceres Wright and Penelope Flynn answered the call. We created a forum where we shared ideas and filled in the details of the empire to make sure our separate stories followed a general timeline yet retained their individual voices.
Finally, after three years of work, Dark Universe was released in December of 2o15. The timing was deliberate; we wanted to take advantage of the Star Wars movie release and the excitement it would generate. The results have been as we hoped. Dark Universe is an example how Afrocentric history can be meshed with science fiction futures without focusing on those issues that many publishers try to regulate their black writers. Dark Universe is exciting space opera science fiction that lays the foundation for future anthologies and novels that take place in this unique and amazing universe. We have many more stories to tell and we hope you join us on this fantastic journey. The e-book is available now; the paperback is coming soon. Welcome to the Dark Universe.
Changa entered the outskirts of Kilwa Milikiya under a noonday sun. The abandoned city was quiet, but Changa knew his men still lived. He’d seen signs along the way of felled trees and animal remains which meant they were following his orders. His feelings were confirmed as he neared the mosque; Yusef and the others emerged single file.
“I thought I told you to build a dhow, Yusef!” Changa shouted.
The big man jerked around so fast he almost fell.
“Kibwana! You’re alive!”
The baharia cheered as they ran to him. They lifted him off his feet, parading around the mosque three times before finally placing him down and smothering him with hugs. Yusef was the last to greet him.
“We thought you were dead!” he said. “We were sure Sayidana killed you.”
“As you can see that’s not the case.”
Yusef frowned. “Where is she?”
“She’s gone home as we should,” Changa said. “How are the dhow repairs coming?”
“There was no need for that,” a familiar voice said.
Niko walked up to Changa.
“My conscience would not let me rest,” he said. “I had to be with my brothers. I gathered a skeleton crew then set out a week after you. I see that it was more than guilt.”
Changa hugged Niko. “It’s good to see you.”
“Now we can leave this damned city!” Yusef said.
“Not yet,” Changa said. “You forgot why we came.”
Yusef raised his hands. “There is nothing here, bwana. They took everything with them!”
“Not quite,” Changa said. He looked about to get his bearing then set off at a trot. When he arrived at the third compound he entered the overgrown courtyard then walked up to the veranda.
“Does anyone have a shovel?” Changa asked.
Moments later a baharia arrived with a makeshift shovel. Changa dug through the sand and shell mix until he struck something hard. The others immediately set about digging, revealing a large mahogany box. It took the entire crew another hour to dig out the container. Changa broke the rusted lock with his sword hilt then opened the box. The container was filled with ivory and bags of gold dust.
“We are saved!” Yusef shouted.
The baharia broke out into a celebration dance. Changa sat and exhaled. He’d found what he came for. His business was spared. He looked up into the cloud stained sky then closed his eyes.
“Thank you, Belay for your teaching and wisdom. Thank you Sayidana for your gift.”
He opened his eyes, jumped to his feet, then danced with his men.
I hope you enjoyed Changa’s adventure. The Gate is one of many stories included in the prequel anthology ‘Before the Safari’ by yours truly. It’s available now in e-book format, so get yourself a copy and read about Changa, Panya, The Tuareg, Mikaili and Amir Zakee before they became crew mates. You’ll be glad you did. 🙂
Changa remained awake long after Sayidana slept, worry and guilt refusing him rest. His decision to come the tainted island revealed his inexperience. Maybe if he had studied his situation long he could have found another way to redeem his losses. But he had chosen what he thought would be a quick way to alieve his debts. His life and the lives of his crew were in danger now. Belay’s sons were right; he was not fit to be a merchant. When…if they returned to Mombasa he would sell the business to the sons then hire himself out. A man should know his place, the saying goes. Changa had discovered his.
He finally slept. A warm breeze rustled the coconut canopies, the occasional call of an animal in the distance breaking the silence. Changa was awakened by a gentle touch to his cheek. He opened his eyes to Sayidana hovering over him. She straddled him, her nude body almost touching him.
“It has been so long since a man has touched me,” she said, her voice echoing in his head. “You can have me, if you wish.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her body against his. Changa reacted instinctively, his arms embracing her waist and pulling her close. She nuzzled against his neck, nipping his skin with her teeth.
The shrill cry pierced his ears. It was Sayidana’s voice screaming from a distance, yet she lay atop him.
“Changa! It’s not me! Free yourself!”
The gentle grip around his neck became a painful hold. He felt pain as the thing pretending to be Sayidana bit into his neck with a snarl. Changa gripped the thing’s neck then forced its head away. He rolled until he was on top, pushing it further away. It thrashed under him, its face transforming into that of a bird-like visage. With a cry it shoved Changa away. Changa scrambled to his feet, ready to defend himself. The being continued to transform into a giant bird, resembling the money eagles of the interior. It jumped upward then with a snap of its wings ascended into the dark sky. It let out another blood chilling cry as it flew north.
Changa’s neck wound burned like fire as he swayed then fell to the ground. The real Sayidana rushed to him.
“What…what was that?” Changa said, his energy waning with each second.
“It was the inpundulu,” Sayidana said. She squatted beside Changa, her hands working furiously.
“When the inpundulu is weak it must feed,” Sayidana said. “If its master cannot feed it, it fends for itself. It prefers human blood.”
Changa fell to his back, the burning more intense.
“Yes,” Sayidana replied.
Something cool pressed against his wound and the burning subsided.
“You are lucky. The inpundulu wasn’t able to inject a full dose of venom. This poultice will take most of it away. I’m afraid some had entered your system. You’ll be weak for some time. We’ll stay here until you’ll ready to travel.”
Changa could only nod. He closed his eyes and let the darkness take him.
When Changa awoke his energy had returned. Sayidana sat beside him preparing a meal of coconuts and bananas. It was noon, the warm sun shining from overhead, its heat coaxing the moisture from the forest which gathered on his skin. He grunted as he sat up; Sayidana turned toward him then smiled.
“Good,” she said. “I was beginning to worry.”
“How long did I sleep?” Changa asked.
“Two days,” she replied. “One more day and I would have had to continue without you.”
She handed Changa the fruit and he ate voraciously.
“I thought you said you could not do it alone.”
“I can’t,” Sayidana replied. “I was going back to the city. Your big friend seems a worthy companion.”
“Yusef? He’s good enough. Not as good as me, but he’ll do.”
“You are a man with pride,” Sayidana commented.
“You must be to be a merchant,” he replied.
“And a warrior,” Sayidana said.
“Pride can kill the best warrior,” Changa replied.
Sayidana smiled. “Then I chose the right person. Come, we must be on our way.”
They finished their meals then continued their trek. They worked their way down into the valley then crossed the broad yet shallow river. The climb up the opposite slopes was taxing but they continued without rest. As they emerged from the vale a large compound rose over the trees a short distance away.
“That’s the gate,” Sayidana said. “We must hurry to reach it before dark.”
“Why before dark?” Changa asked.
“If we are not within those walls before dark we are doomed. There is much worse than nyani and inpundulu protecting the gate.”
They ran the entire distance, Changa’s attention vacillating between the looming compound and the setting sun. As they neared the compound’s door the sound of breaking branches reached his ears. A nauseous pang welled in his stomach; he pulled his sword and a throwing knife then turned toward the sound.
Sayidana stopped at the gate. She approached Changa, a puzzled look on her face.
“There is something coming,” she said. “It feels different. I do not know this threat.”
“I do,” Changa replied. “Go inside.”
“What is it?” Sayidana asked.
“Something from my past,” Changa said.
The tebo burst into the clearing in the form of a massive gorilla, dragging a small tree in its right hand. It slammed the tree against the ground as it grunted and bared its large fangs. Changa swayed from side to side, bracing himself for the charge.
“Changa!” Sayidana called out. “I can help!”
“No you can’t!” Changa shouted back. “Get inside!”
The tebo roared then charged, the tree rose over its head. Changa roared back then sprinted toward the beast, his eyes on the descending tree. He waited until the last moment before leaping to his right, throwing his knife as he dodged the tree club. The tebo howled as the knife struck its neck and the tree slammed into the dirt. Changa rolled on his shoulder to his feet then ran at the beast again, another throwing knife and sword at the ready. The gorilla-beast yanked the knife from its throat, flinging it into the woods. Changa threw another knife; the beast smacked it away. The distraction gave Changa enough time to hack the back of the creature’s left leg, severing its hamstring. The creature struck out, its huge hand crashing into Changa. His sword flew from his hand as he rose from the ground, landing in the forest’s edge. Changa blinked in pain, trying to regain his eyesight when the tebo grabbed his arm then lifted him high. Changa reacted, snatching a dagger from his belt then plunging it into the beast’s hand. Changa fell; the tebo shook its injured hand as it staggered backwards. Changa clambered to his feet, limping to his sword. He followed the tebo, determined to end the fight. He took a deep breath then ran at the tebo again. With a yell he jumped, smashing into the tebo’s chest. Gripping the beast’s hair with his free hand, he pulled himself upward until he looked into the tebo’s malevolent eyes. The tebo’s arms wrapped around Changa, but before the beast could crush him Changa plunged his sword into the beast’s throat. A garbled cry seeped from the tebo’s mouth, its fetid breath washing over Changa’s face. Changa pushed his sword deeper until it protruded from the back of the tebo’s neck. He twisted the handle then yanked it free. The tebo’s head jerked back, its arms falling limp as it fell backwards onto its back taking Changa down with it.
Changa lay on the dead creatures torso for a moment as the pain in his ribs subsided. He sheathed his sword then rolled off the tebo, barely landing on his feet. When he looked up Sayidana gazed at him, a slight smile on her face.
“You are hard to kill,” she said.
A sharp cry from above caught their attention. They looked up to see the inpundulu circling, dark clouds spreading from its wings.
“Inside! Hurry!” Sayidana said.
Changa and Sayidana ran to the entrance. Changa grasped the handle then jerked the door open, surprised it was unbolted. They entered as a barrage of lighting descended from the black clouds, pummeling the stone structure. The walls shuddered as Changa and Sayidana ran down the wide corridor in darkness. Another deluge of lightening hammered the building. The walls transformed, the grey stone emitting a faint blue light illuminating the corridor.
“The inpundulu is opening the gate. We must hurry!”
The long corridor led to a wide cylindrical room. In the center of the room the granite floor shimmered like the surface of a lake, its color the same as the walls. The surface began splashing violently. A human like head emerged; pitch black with eyes that burned like the sun. It rose from the liquid like surface, the figure of a man made of blackness and stars.
“Sayidana,” it said. “I should have killed you.”
Changa stood motionless as Sayidana walked onto the wavering surface. Her clothes and head wrap merged into her skin as she became like the man standing before.
“Yes, you should have,” she replied.
They attacked each other, the force of their clashed creating a shock wave that flattened Changa onto his back. He scrambled back onto his feet then watched as the travelers battled each other with an alacrity that made them seem as blurs. Then they stopped, the male being grasping Sayidana by the throat as he lifted her off her feet.
“I will finish you this time,” he said.
Changa threw his knife. He acted on instinct; sure his mortal blade would make no difference in this celestial battle. But he was wrong. The blade bit into his shoulder and he dropped Sayidana, turning his attention to Changa. He yanked the blade from his shoulder.
“What are you…?”
Sayidana appeared behind the man. She grasped his head then twisted it hard. The crack echoed in the chamber; the man slumped then fell into the waves. His form dispersed, tainting the water, then retracted, pooling around Sayidana’s feet before being absorbed by her. Changa’s throwing knife floated by her feet.
Sayidana picked up the knife then strolled to Changa as she transformed into the woman that he knew. Changa stepped away, his hand going to his sword hilt. It was a foolish move; he doubted if he could protect himself from what he just witnessed.
Sayidana extended the knife to him. Everything about her was the same except her eyes. The cloudy film that once blocked them was gone. Her sepia eyes regarded him.
“You were right,” she said. “You were enough.”
The building shook, then the ceiling behind them collapsed. The inpundulu struck the simmering stone the slowly sank into the shrinking pool.
“You must leave,” Sayidana said. “The gate is closing.”
Changa took his knife from Sayidana.
“I believe there was much you did not tell me,” he said. “I’m beginning to believe you are the one to be feared.”
Sayidana smiled. “It doesn’t matter now. He is dead and I will go home.”
She grasped Changa’s face between her hands then kissed him softly. Changa felt a surge of desire that dissipated as quickly as it appeared. He could tell without looking that his wounds were healed.
“There is a compound three streets west of the mosque,” Sayidana said. “If you pull up the floors in the veranda you will find what you seek.”
The building shook again.
“Time for you to leave, Changa. I hope you live a long life. Maybe I’ll see you again in my travels.”
“I am no traveler,” Changa said.
Sayidana smirked. “You could be.”
She turned then followed the pool as it shrank to a small circle. Sayidana faded as the circle disappeared. The compound walls became translucent, the surrounding hills and forest becoming visible to Changa. And then it was all gone. Changa stood in the middle of an open field. There was no sign that the building ever existed.
“I could be?” he whispered. Changa knelt where the building had once stood. He touched his hand to the ground and the grasses shimmered like the floor of the compound. He jerked his hand away as he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I am Changa Diop, merchant of Mombasa.”
He stared at the space a moment longer, then turned and walked away.
There was movement at the door. Changa and the others leapt to their feet, weapons at the ready. The doors swung open and a woman entered, her wet clothing clinging to her body. She leaned against a thick carved staff, her head covered with a plain head wrap. She as she looked about Changa noticed her eyes. A milky white veil covered both orbs; the woman was blind, yet she looked about as if she could see her surroundings. She coughed, and then pulled herself straight.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Changa signaled for his men to keep their place. He approached the woman warily.
“I am Changa Diop from Mombasa,” he said.
“And the others?” she asked.
“My crew,” Changa replied.
“You should not be here,” she said. “He will come for you soon.”
“Our dhow has been destroyed,” Changa said. “We won’t be leaving soon. Was this your doing?”
“No,” the woman replied. “He has sent his herald.”
Changa looked puzzled. “His herald? Do you mean the nyani?”
The woman shook her head. “No. They are an annoyance, a side effect of his power. The inpundulu is his herald and his warning.”
“We have encountered no other creature,” Changa said.
“Yes you have,” the woman said. “You think this storm is natural? It’s not. It is the inpundulu.”
“And who are you?” Changa finally asked.
“Sayidana,” she answered.
Changa lowered his sword. “Why is it that no one remains in Kilwa Milikiya except you?”
“I have not always been here,” she said. “Like you I have traveled from afar.”
“Where did you come from?” Changa asked.
Sayidana looked away. “Far away.”
“Sofala? Pemba? Mogadishu?”
Sayidana smirked. “Much farther.”
The sounds of the storm subsided.
“Listen to me, Changa. The one who claims this land is coming soon. If you and your men are here when he arrives he will kill you all. But with your help we can stop him and we all will have a chance to return home.”
“So be it,” Changa said. He turned to Yusef.
“When the storm clears survey the dhow and salvage what you can,” Changa said. “We’ll have to cut trees to repair the dhow. I’m going with Sayidana.”
“That is not wise,” Yusef said. “She may be the cause of our misfortunes.”
Changa glanced at the woman. “I don’t think so. I believe she is just as much victim as we are, but for a different reason. I plan to find out what that reason is.”
Yusef’s eyes said what he could not.
“If I don’t return by the time the dhow is repaired, take them home,” Changa said.
Changa turned to Sayidana before Yusef could reply.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“How many of your men are coming with us,” Sayidana asked.
“Only me,” Changa replied.
He grasped Sayidana’s arm then lead her out the mosque. She jerked her arm away.
“I need all of you!” she said.
“You’ll get only me,” Changa replied. “If I take my men with us I’m sure some of them will die. I didn’t bring them here for that to happen.”
“The two of us cannot stop him,” Sayidana insisted.
“I’m sure you haven’t survived this long alone without some skills,” Changa said. “And I am not easy to kill.”
Sayidana’s eyes seemed to glow with her sour mood. Changa braced himself for some type of attack, but the glow subsided.
“Let us go then. I hope for your sake and mine that we will be enough.”
Changa nodded. “We’ll have to be.”
The storm waned as Changa and Sayidana made their way north from the city. It did not dissipated or travel west as most storms do. Instead it traveled the same direction Changa and Sayidana traveled.
“The inpundulu returns to its lair,” Sayidana said. “It thinks it has done its duty.”
“Will we see it again?” Changa asked.
“Most likely yes,” Sayidana replied. “But not in this form.”
They crossed from the ruined city into the surrounding forest. There was a narrow trail leading into the bush which Sayidana followed. Changa trailed close behind, his eyes studying the foliage as they passed.
“Are we going to its lair?”
“Yes. The inpundulu’s lair is His citadel and his gate. We must stop him before he enters his citadel, before He can possess his full power.”
“So we will wait outside to confront him,” Changa said.
“No. He will enter from within through the gate,” Sayidana said.
“From inside through the gate?” Changa was confused. “How can he enter the citadel without passing through the outside? Is there a tunnel leading from the shore?”
Sayidana smiled. “You do not understand, and I’m not sure I can explain it.”
Sayidana stopped by a coconut tree. A pile of coconuts lay at the base of the tree. Sayidana went to the tree then sat. She arranged the coconuts so they touched.
“What do see, Changa?”
Changa folded his arms. “I see coconuts.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure!” Changa replied.
Sayidana grinned. “Even though these are all coconuts, they are not the same. Some are bigger, some are smaller. If we were to cut them open we would discover that some are sweeter than others, and a few may be rotten.”
“What does this have to do with ‘Him’ and you?” Changa asked.
“The world you live in is not the only one, Changa,” Sayidana said. “Like these coconuts, there are others, many others. Some are very similar to this world, so similar it would be hard to tell them apart. Some are sweeter, yet some are rotten.”
Changa’s eyes narrowed. He wanted to dismiss Sayidana’s words but his experiences proved to him that many things existed beyond the senses.
“Just like these coconuts touch, these worlds touch too,” Sayidana continued. “These points of contacts are called gates. There are some who have the ability to travel through these gates. He is one of those who can; so am I.”
“So when you told me you were from far away…” Changa began.
“I meant I am from another world,” Sayidana finished. “We are travelers.”
Sayidana stood then continued walking down the path. Changa followed, pushing away the questions flooding his mind. He knew better than to seek deeper answers. All he needed to know was what to do to keep his men safe and leave Kilwa Milikiya.
“Sayidana is not my true name,” the woman continued. “It is what I call myself here. My world is very different from yours.”
“So why did you leave?” Changa asked.
“I had no choice,” Sayidana answered. “Travelers are driven to travel. We are born with wanderlust. Passing through worlds also exposes us to different abilities. Some of us use them to help others, some to help themselves. And then there are those who stay silent, content to travel and observe.”
“Does this adversary of yours have a name as well?” Changa asked.
“He does, but you could not pronounce it,” Sayidana said. “Besides, some say to speak His name is to summon his wrath. We travelers have our own superstitions.”
They crested a steep hill overlooking a deep valley sliced by a narrow river.
“We will rest here tonight,” Sayidana said. “It is a safe place and easy to defend.”
“We should probably sleep in shifts,” Changa suggested.
“That won’t be necessary,” Sayidana said. “You and your men killed the nyani and the inpundulu must rest to regain its strength. Tonight will be peaceful. Our days ahead will be much more interesting.”
The two spent the remainder of the day procuring supplies from the market. When they returned they loaded supplies on the dhows then shared a meal with the men on the docks. Changa didn’t return to his counting room that night; instead he slept on deck with his crews, savoring the open air and the clear skies. There was a time in his life long ago when his view was that of a stone room to a small cell. His days were filled with training; when he wasn’t training he was fighting for his life. Since the day he fled his homeland twenty years ago his life had been one struggle after another. To lie on his back and gaze at the stars was truly a gift, a blessing he owed to Belay.
Niko’s doubts intruded on his musing. The baharia was always a contrary one, but for some reason his doubts seemed to linger on Changa’s mind. Changa had seen many strange and wonderful things in his life and he knew that nothing was beyond possibility. Kilwa Milikiya may be a myth, but he had to try. He had no choice.
* * *
Changa and Yusef stood at the bow of the Kazuri as it sailed into the harbor of Kilwa Milikiya. An unnatural stillness ruled the scene, the roaring waves lapping the landing beach the only sound. Sturdy docks lay empty as were the hard packed roads leading from the shore into the stone city. No seagulls hovered overhead, the undulating fronds of palms trees the only motion. From a distance the warehouses seemed recent, but as they sailed closer the buildings revealed their neglect.
“This is not natural,” Yusef said.
Changa didn’t reply. He studied the shore, seeking a good place to land.
“There,” he said, pointing to a stretch of beach closest to the warehouses.
The navigator steered the dhow to the landing; the baharia dropped the anchor in deeper water.
“Let’s get the boats and go ashore,” Changa ordered.
Yusef hesitated and Changa glared.
“We are here,” he said. “We will get what we came for and we will leave. Don’t let Niko’s words haunt you, rafiki.”
Changa and the landing crew boarded the boats and rowed to the empty beach. Once aground they headed to the nearest warehouse. The white stone was barely visible, covered by thick vines as nature reclaimed what men had abandoned. Changa hacked away the vines blocking the warehouse entrance with his machete. Stale humid air filled his nostrils as he entered the abandoned structure. The others followed, their swords at the ready.
“We’ll start here,” he said. “Make sure you search every corner.”
For two hours they rummaged through the rotted furniture and decaying palm leaves but found nothing. They finally gave up, leaving the building, dirty, sweaty and empty handed.
Changa spotted Yusef and the other baharia coming from the warehouse opposite the docks. Yusef wiped his bald head with the palm of his hand then grimace.
“There is nothing here,” Yusef said. “I think bwana Belay was wrong.”
“Maybe,” Changa replied. “Let’s search the city. A few merchants may have left behind valuables in their homes.”
Yusef sniffed. “I doubt it. Swahili are very thorough and very greedy.”
“We have the time,” Changa said. “We might as well.”
They followed the road into the stone town. Like most Swahili cities the mosque occupied the center, and Kilwa’s mosque was an impressive site despite years of neglect. The main structure rose four stories high, the crown ringed by elaborately carved ramparts. The minarets climbed even higher, their copper domes green from exposure and neglect. Changa saw movement near the top of the mosques and minarets.
“At least something lives,” he said.
“Those birds are large,” Yusef replied. “Vultures?”
The creatures leapt into the air simultaneously then circled the minarets, their cries echoing through the empty city.
“Those do not sound like any bird I know,” Changa said. “They sound like…nyani.”
“That’s impossible!” Yusef said. “Nyani don’t have wings!”
The flock flew toward them descending as they came closer. As their features became clear Changa’s eyes went wide.
“They are nyani!” he shouted. “Run!”
The baharia sprinted for the nearest building. Changa was the first to reach the home, shoving open the door with his shoulder. He ran back into the open, waving his men to him.
“Quickly!” he shouted. “Inside!”
The men ran into the building. The flying nyani descended on the last two men, knocking them to the ground. Changa rushed to rescue them, sword in one hand, throwing knife in the other. He threw the knife; it struck one nyani in the head, knocking him off the closest man. With his sword he cleaved another nyani in two. Yusef appeared by his side, swinging his sword wildly. Together they drove the flying primates away far enough for two other baharia to grab their injured comrades and drag them into the building. Yusef and Changa stepped backwards, fending off the beasts until they were able to join their men in the building.
The primate attacked the house, tearing at the palm frond roof and beating at the doors Changa and his men prepared themselves for the onslaught when the attack suddenly ceased, replaced by the rumble of a coming storm. Changa inched his way to the door then slowly opened it. A sky that once showed no sign of ill weather was now black with swirling clouds.
“We should not be here!” Yusef said. “This city is cursed!”
Changa looked at his friend and his men.
“Back to the dhow,” he said. “We’re leaving.”
Changa was answered by thunder. The nyani screeched and the rumble shook the house.
Changa dared to open the door. The nyani were gone. A sudden gust of wind pushed Changa back into the house.
“It seems we’re not going anywhere,” Changa commented.
“We should go to the mosque,” Yusef suggested. “This house will do little to protect us from the coming storm.”
Changa looked incredulous. “So you wish to go to the name’s den?”
“Allah will protect us,” Yusef said.
Thunder shook the house and rain crashed against the roof as if dumped from a well bucket. The ragged thatch ceiling gave way and the baharia were drenched.
“To the mosque!” Changa said.
The baharia splashed toward the mosque. They were almost there when an ear-piercing screech cut through the storm. Changa grimaced as he hunched and cupped his hands over his ears.
“Look!” Yusef shouted.
The dark clouds rippled above them. Changa thought he caught a glimpse of something moving through the clouds but his view was obscured by the torrential rain. The undulating clouds made a path toward their dhow. It swirled above the craft, spinning faster and faster.
“No,” Changa whispered.
Bolts of lightning showered the ship, blasting the mast and deck.
“No!” Changa shouted.
Flames erupted throughout the dhow despite the rain. In moments the entire ship was engulfed in raging flames. The baharia stood stunned. Their only way home had been destroyed before their eyes. Changa’s shock was brief. His mission had changed. Instead of coming to Kilwa to save his business, he had doomed it. He had to save his men and himself.
“Go,” Changa said to his men. “Go!”
They ran to the mosque. Changa was the first to reach the doors, shoving them wide open. The winged nyani huddled in the center of the building. They howled at the baharia, bearing their sharp teeth. The baharia charged into the beasts, releasing their anger on them. In moment the beasts lay slaughtered. The men dragged the dead beasts from the building, tossing them into the streets. Their bodies seemed to anger the storm. It became more intense, the thunder and lightning battering the holy site. The walls and the roof of the mosque were much stronger; they held against the unnatural onslaught.
Changa slumped against the wall. Yusef sat beside him, crossing his legs.
“What will we do kibwana?” he asked.
Changa looked at his friend, his face grim.
“When the storm ceases will go the beach and access the damage to the dhow,” he said. “We’ll rebuild it.”
“I’m not talking about the dhow,” Yusef replied. “I’m talking about this.”
He waved his thick arms around.
“None of this is natural. “Flying nyani, a storm attacking our dhow; this is sorcery!”
“You are probably right,” Changa said. He’d had his share of otherworldly encounters and this was very familiar. He tried to deny it, hoping the original reason for his safari would resurface, but this was no longer about finding a lost wealth. It was about survival.
Mombasa slumbered under a sliver of a moon, the eastern monsoons blowing a warm wind across the waters. The beaches were empty save the dhows, the baharia that sailed them either gone to their homes in the stone town or country town or sleeping below their decks. The stone warehouses bordering the beach landings were empty as well, all save one small warehouse near the water’s edge. In a cramped room on the second floor a wax candle burn on a writing table, illuminating the space with its wavering light. A heavy set man sat at the table, reading numbers scribbled on the yellowed pages of his journal. He turned the pages with one hand while scratching his bearded chin with the other.
Changa closed the journal then leaned back, raising his chair onto the back legs.
“Belay, you taught me many things, but not everything,” he whispered.
The day Changa learned his mentor Belay had bequeath his shipping business to the young BaKonga was a joyous day. Never before had a Swahili merchant done such a thing. It was well known among the other merchants that Belay favored Changa and treated him as a son. But to deny his blood sons the business for a non-Swahili was unheard of.
Changa’s joy soon became worry. Many of Belay’s old business partners were not happy with his choice and refused to do business with Changa. He still retained the ivory trade, but other business disappeared. He could barely pay his men and his bills, let alone afford the basic necessities for himself. Belay’s true sons circled him like scavengers, ready to pounce in and take the business if he failed. Changa was determined not to do so.
Still, he could not continue as he was doing. He needed to find new customers and he needed to find a new source of revenue. Creditors were out of the question.
Changa pulled open the desk drawer then removed a map, spreading it on the table. It was a map of the coast with each Swahili city-state marked. His eyes rested on one particular island to the south, close to the mainland city of Sofala and the Kilwa Sultanates.
“Kilwa Malikiya,” Changa said. “Could you be the answer to my troubles?”
Belay had talked often of the island. The legend said it was one of the few Swahili cities ruled by a woman, her name lost in the annals of time. It was said that she was the first to trade with the Benematapa, gathering a vast treasure of gold and ivory. After the mysterious queen died her son gained control of the island. His reign lasted only ten years. The people of Kilwa Malikiya abruptly abandoned their island, founding the cities that now made up the Kilwa Sultanate. No one knew why they left, but the rumor was that they left all their possessions behind.
Changa took out his instruments, confirming the route to the island. Belay’s map was the only map that revealed the location of the island. It was an heirloom passed down through his family and the last item the old merchant gave to Changa before his death.
Changa yawned. The night was finally getting to him. He would sleep, his mind finally made up. In the morning they would sail for Kilwa Malikiya.
Changa met his crews with the sunrise. The mabaharia went about their normal maintenance duties, with Yusef yelling at them every step of the way.
“Yusef!” Changa called out. “Gather the men.”
Yusef waved then hurried about as fast as his large bulk would allow. Moments later the men stood before Changa, curious looks gracing their faces.
“I don’t have to tell you that my business has not been well,” Changa said. “Many of Belay’s friends have chosen not to do business with me. Because of this I must forge new relationships. But that does not help us now. The dhows must be maintained and we all must eat.”
“What must we do, Kibwana?” Yusef said. “We will starve before we leave you.”
The looks on the others faces told Changa that they did not agree with his bulky friend.
“There is a place that may hold the answer to our dilemma,” Changa said. “Kilwa Malikiya.”
One of the baharia stepped forward, a short man as broad as he was tall.
“What’s on your mind, Niko?” Changa asked.
“Every man here has heard of Kilwa Malikiya, bwana,” he said. “It is not real. It is a myth.”
Changa reached into his bag then took out Belay’s map.
“I was given this map by Bwana Belay before he died. It is a map that shows the location of Kilwa Malikiya. I plotted a route to the island last night.”
The men gathered around him, staring at the map. Niko shook his head.
“Many maps are wrong, bwana,” he said. “Just because this one shows the island does not mean it exists.”
Changa nodded as he rolled up the map. “I’m not asking anyone to come with me. I plan to set sail this afternoon. I would love to have my crew around me, but I will not ask you to risk your lives on a safari that may not bear fruit. Each man makes his own decision.”
“They say other things about Kilwa Milikiya as well, bwana,” Niko said.
“If you believe the city is a myth, why would believe anything else said about it?” Changa asked.
“I am with you kibwana!” Yusef announced.
Changa grinned. “Thank you, Yusef.”
One by one the baharia joined Changa and Yusef. Soon only Niko stood opposite them.
“I can’t,” he said. “I will not follow a myth.”
Changa approached Niko then placed a friendly hand on his shoulder.
“I understand, Niko. Go be with your family. There will be a place for you with my crew when we return.”
“I hope that you do,” Niko said.
Niko walked away, peering back at the others until he merged into the Mombasa crowds.
“Yusef, you will come with me to the market. We must gather supplies for the journey,” Changa said.
“The rest of you prepare the dhow. We set sail as soon as Yusef and I return.”
Changa visited his counting room before they visited the market. He opened his chest then frowned. There was enough for supplies to take them to and from the island. If there was no treasure on Kilwa Malikiya he would be ruined.
Yusef entered the room.
“Kibwana, are you ready?” he said.
Changa closed the chest then lifted it.
“Yes, Yusef. I’m ready.”
Talk about a long time coming. This story begins 7 years ago at the National Black Arts Festival. I had just released Meji Book One and I was checking out the artwork with my wife, hoping to find a painting or African artifact to purchase.As I was looking about I came across some of the best paintings I’d ever seen in my life. Not only were they amazing, they were Sword and Soul. I’m talking about black people in amazing castles with regal clothing and postures and everything. As I looked with awe the artist approached. His name was Andrea Rushing. I told him how much I loved his worked then told him about my books. The connection was instant; there was no doubt in our minds that we would work together. Andrea was ready to start immediately, but I had already commissioned work for my upcoming projects. And honestly, I couldn’t afford him. As a matter of fact I promised I would write a series of books specifically for his work.
Then life got in the way. I had my head buried in project after project, neglecting my promise. At some point I began working on the background to this story, adding more and more details along the way. Andrea began his own art studio, sharing his amazing talents with others in San Diego. I finally lifted my head long enough to commission Andrea for the cover artwork for Griots: Sisters of the Spear. He showed up and showed out.
Projects came and projects went but still no book. But this year I decided it was time to tie up loose ends and complete all the projects that had been waiting in the wings. So I pulled out all my notes, contacted Andrea and said in so many words, ‘Let’s do this.’
The Damel’s Man tells the story of two men of vastly different backgrounds that become powerful friends and create an empire. It’s a story that explores a unique situation that occurred in many ancient kingdoms, one where some of the lowliest people became the most powerful and held the future of such kingdoms in their hands. For those familiar to my work this series will be on the level of Meji One and Meji Two, but takes place in an entirely different world. The story will not only be told in words, it will be illustrated by Andrea’s skilled hands. As a matter of fact, the story incorporates many of Andrea’s sword and soul images, painting that when seen in sequence tell an exciting story on their own. The story is planned to be told over four books, at least that’s the plan. The background developed over the years might lend itself to more volumes. Not only will Andrea do the cover images, he will also draw interior images. The result will be a series that we hope will take Sword and Soul to another level, an epic fantasy series that will read as good as it looks.
If all works as planned the first novel should be available late 2016/early 2017. This is the collaboration I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. Stay tuned.
Eleven years ago I set out to become a writer. It was a very personal decision, a decision made to fulfill a lifelong dream and to present science fiction and fantasy characters that look like me. Not too long after I began that journey I encountered groups of creators that had the same vision as I did, all of them pursuing their dreams for personal and professional reasons. As time passed there was a few of us that began to draw attention for various reasons. During this time an incident occurred that in hindsight I’m not very proud of but at the same time made me more focused on what I do and how I approach it. A certain fellow writer was taking every opportunity to attack independent writers, the quality of their work and their relevance to what we were attempting to achieve as black creators. I stepped up to defend independent writers, which that writer took as a personal attack. During the public debate I received a personal e-mail asking me why I was taking this stance personally; that this writer respected my work and that I would be best served by disassociating myself from the other independent writers I supported. I explained to this writer that I would always support independent writers and publishing because that’s what I am and what I do. I also explained that if I had not done what I did, he would not be sharing complements while condemning the process I follow.
As we plan the first State of Black Science Fiction Convention, I think back on that conversation. The Black Creative Renaissance we are experiencing today is fueled mainly by those same independent creators I was urged to disavow years ago. Many of them are now breaking into the ‘mainstream’ fields after proving their skills for years as independents. The black independent creators have created the critical mass of comic books and novels that provide the consistency needed to build a genre and a following. It was last year during DragonCon when I felt the paradigm shift. For the first time since I’d attended cons people were approaching me that were already aware of my work and the work of other independent black creators; some I were familiar with, some not. The acknowledgement came not only from the readers, it also came from black writers and artists that cracked the mainstream glass ceiling. They too had noticed the change, especially the fact that there was now a market where they could write stories that had a special resonance with black people. I also saw the effect on mainstream publishers as well. A number approached me to consider submitting stories to them, while others were reaching out to black writers and releasing book covers with black people prominently displayed on the covers, something that was considered professional taboo only a few years ago. The well of creativity and freedom released by this new focus had been groundbreaking and market changing.
So this is a blog giving praise and recognition to black independent speculative fiction creators. Your hard work and perseverance has benefited us all by growing our audience and telling the type of stories few would ever imagine in our industry just a few years ago. As a writer I’m proud to be part of your ranks, and as a reader I am happy for the stories and artwork you’ve created that show us in a positive and powerful light. Keep doing what you do exactly how you do it and lets continue to create the change we wished to see.
Michael felt warmth radiating from his wood paneled bedroom wall and sprang from his bed. The smell of bacon wafted into his room as he hurried into the jeans and sweat shirt he set out the night before, wrestled on his tennis shoes and trotted through the narrow hallway into the kitchen. Mamma stood before the stove, one hand holding the black iron skillet in place while the other scrambled a pair of eggs in a pool of bacon grease.
“What you doing up so early, boy?” she asked without looking. Michael sat at the dinette, folding his eager hands under his chin.
“You going to Grandma’s?” he asked.
Mamma scraped the scrambled eggs onto a plate. “I go out there every Saturday morning. You know that.”
Michael played with the napkin holder, rocking his head from side to side. “Can I go?”
Mamma was reaching for the grits but stopped, placing her small hands on her broad hips. “Now why in the world do you want to go with me?”
“Because I want to go hunting.”
Mama rolled her eyes. “You and that gun. I told your daddy not to buy you that thing unless he was ready to go hunting with you. His tired behind ain’t been out with you yet.”
She scooped a spoonful of grits on the plate to join the eggs and bacon. “You know you can’t go by yourself and your daddy ain’t waking up any time soon.”
Michael smothered his grits with pepper. “Uncle Willy will take me.”
“How you know he’s going hunting today? This close to harvest time he’s probably got chores.”
Michael piled his eggs on top of his grits with the pepper and crumbled the bacon in his hands. “I called him last night and he said he was going.”
Mama turned around and looked at him, her eyes wide. “You did what?” She shook her head. “Lord, lord, what I’m gonna do with you?”
She began to make her own plate then stopped. “What about that book report you supposed to be working on? You finished it yet?”
“No? Then how you expect to go with me if you got homework to do?”
“I’ll finish it as soon as I get home mama, I promise.”
Mama turned to look at Michael.
“What you writing about?”
Michael spread apple jelly on his toast.
“I’m supposed to write about my hero. I’m thinking about Frederick Douglass.”
Michael finished his plate before Mama sat down.
“I guess you can go,” she said. “But we ain’t leaving until I’m ready to leave, you hear me?”
“And I want to see that book report after church tomorrow.”
Michael jumped from the table and ran to Mama and daddy’s room to get the .22. He hoarded his lawn cutting money all summer to buy it as a birthday present to himself. It was a Springfield/Savage .22 semi-automatic long rifle, the perfect gun for squirrel and rabbit hunting, so the salesclerk at Sears said. Michael pushed the door open quietly and crept to the closet beside the bed. Daddy was stretched out on top of the covers in his boxer shorts and t-shirt, snoring through his thick moustache. The closet door creaked when Michael slid it aside and Daddy’s hand came up to scratch his sideburns. Michael froze until he stopped scratching then slid the door wide open. The gun was hidden behind Mama’s Sunday dresses. He took it out then went to Daddy’s loose change drawer where he kept the bullets. There was a brand new pack of one hundred shells that felt like money in his hands.
Michael strode into the kitchen, carrying the rifle the way Daddy taught him. Mama looked up from her cup of coffee and grinned despite herself.
“You look like your Uncle Bo when he was your age,” she said. She got up from the table and headed for the room. “Guess I better get ready. The day ain’t getting no longer.”
Michael washed his plate then went to the den. He laid his gun down on the floor and turned on the TV to watch cartoons. He’d almost forgotten about going with Mama when she came into the den.
“Cut that mess off and let’s go,” she said.
Michael scrambled to his feet, grabbing the gun and the bullets.
“Now remember what I said. We don’t leave ‘til I’m ready.”
“And if your Uncle Willy can’t take you hunting, you don’t go.”
“All right then, let’s go.”
Michael trailed Mama out the door into the carport and into the ’67 sky blue Malibu. It moments they were zooming through the neighborhood down the steep hills between the little water oaks the city planted to beautify the landscape. Mama worked her way through the side streets and short cuts with the seriousness of a NASCAR driver, reaching Macon Road, the two lane highway that ran right to Grandma’s farm. The sky was a crisp autumn blue, empty of the gray haze that sagged low during the summer. The morning sun spread its light across the pine infested hills. It felt like hunting season and Michael was excited. He watched the familiar landmarks flash by from his back seat window until he saw the solitary shack that signaled the farm wasn’t far way. Mama finally slowed down as the roadside mailboxes came into view. She steered off the pave highway and onto the dirt road. She was creeping as they approached the railroad crossing. Only the section crossing the road was visible, the rest blocked by a tangle of scrub pines and honeysuckle vines.
Mama turned left after crossing the tracks. She drove through a gauntlet of blackberry vines that made Michael mouth water as he remembered blackberry pie and ice cream. They turned right at the hog pens and the house appeared, flanked by the corn and peas fields. Mama drove down the road to the rear of the house, parking between the house and the shed. Michael jumped out of the car before Mama came to a complete stop, his impatient eyes searching for Uncle Willy. His euphoria was checked by a jerk of his arm that almost lifted him off his feet.
“Boy, don’t you ever jump out that car like that again!” Mama’s face was get-me-a-switch angry.
“Don’t go hitting that boy,” a much older female voice growled. Grandma stood at the screen door of the back patio. Michael blessed her for saving him from what was surely going to be a whupping or at least a pinch on the arm. She eased down the concrete stairs, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Did you see what he did?” Mama said.
“He ain’t hurt. You’ll know better the next time, wont’ you Michael?”
Michael followed Mama and Grandma up the stairs. Since he’d made Mama mad, he sat beside the women on an old folding chair and took his share of butterbeans from the bushel and began shelling. He kept his eyes low and peeled while they talked; waiting for the right moment to ask the question that was burning to get out of his throat.
Mama stopped talking as she grabbed another handful of beans. Michael cleared his throat and looked up at Grandma.
“Grandma, is Uncle Willy here?”
“Shoot boy, Willy went hunting right about sun up. He won’t be back until dark.”
Michael slumped over like he’d been hit by a brick. He looked at Mama with pleading eyes.
“I told you no hunting by yourself with that gun,” she reminded him.
“I’ll take him.” Grandpa shuffled in from the kitchen, his hands deep in his overalls pockets. He smiled at Michael, flashing his gold tooth, and Michael was filled with dread.
“You feel like hunting, daddy?” Mama asked. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I don’t want to go hunting no more,” Michael whispered.
“I feel fine,” Grand replied, pulling his right hand out of his pocket. Michael watched the gnarled, scarred appendage rise to the old man’s bald head. It was hideous, like something from the freak show at the fair. When he was small he was always careful to avoid touching or being touched by that hand and its mirror twin. He thought when he was older he’d get over the fear, but it was still clinging to him as real as ever.
“I don’t want to go hunting no more,” he said louder.
“Is it all right?” Mamma asked Grandma.
Grandma concentrated on the peas. “The doctor said he needed to get some exercise.”
“I don’t want to go no more!” Michael shouted.
“Boy, can’t you see grown folks talking?” Mamma nailed him still with her stare then returned to her conversation.
“Well, Papa, I guess it’s all right, but you keep a close eye on him. He can get wild sometimes.”
“What you mean you guess it’s all right?” Grandpa said. “I’ll take this boy anywhere I want to. Come on, boy. Let’s go hunting.”
Michael watched the back of Grandpa’s head and he bounced down the stairs. He looked at mamma in desperation.
“What you waiting on? Go on, now.”
Michael turned and followed Grandpa down the stairs. He could do this; he was twelve going on thirteen with two hairs on his chest and the start of a moustache on his upper lip. His confidence had almost returned until he caught a glimpse of those hands pull out a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco. He jumped past Grandpa and trotted to the car to get his .22.
“What you gonna kill with that? Time?”
Michael ignored the comment, holding the gun towards the ground like his Daddy taught him and making sure the safety was on.
“Squirrels and rabbits, sir,” he said.
Grandpa laughed like a wet growl. “Can’t kill no squirrels with that thing. Ain’t gonna do nothing but make them mad. I should’ve brought my shotgun.”
Grandpa started walking and Michael followed, afraid to say where he wanted to hunt. They followed a trail branching off the dirt road which cut between the barn and the old mule stables.
“No, can’t kill nothing with that thing,” Grandpa continued. “Can’t kill it right, I mean. You shoot a squirrel with that and it’ll be running around mad, hurting and hiding. A shotgun will put it down just like that.”
Grandpa stopped walking and Michael almost ran into him.
“See this?” he asked, pointing at a dent between his right thumb and finger. “Shot a squirrel one time and thought he was dead. I guess I should of asked him before I went to picking him up. Damn thing took hold to me right here like a beaver trap. Took a half an hour to get it loose, and it was dead half that time.”
Michael looked at the spot and grimaced, imagining how painful that must have felt. Suddenly the scar and the hand were gone, sinking deep into Grandpa’s pocket.
They walked to the second hog pen where the trail ended, the air heavy with the stink of swamp mud and hog droppings. Before them was the turnip green field, the fall planting full and ready for harvest. Grandpa walked into the field and over to the barbed wire fence separating the field from the woods. Michael hadn’t planned on going into those trees. It was a tangle of pines, oaks and muscadine vines that seemed perpetually dark as it repulsed the sun’s attempts to penetrate its core. Blind obedience only went so far.
“Grandpa, are we going in there?”
“You want to shoot squirrels, don’t you?”
Michael reluctantly nodded his head.
“Well this is the best spot for them; at least it was a while back. Come over here and hold this wire down for me.”
Michael sat the gun down on the opposite side of the fence then grabbed the wire carefully, pushing down with his weight. Grandpa stepped over, his hand gripping Michael’s shoulder for support. Michael closed his eyes, keeping his head away from the hand.
“Got to be careful,” Grandpa said as he grunted his way over the fence. Once he and Michael were settled he showed his left hand.
“When I was about your Uncle Willy’s age I worked for a white man named Mr. Elias Burnside in his sawmill. It was hard work back then because a colored man did whatever the boss man said do, even if it wasn’t your job. Well, one day I was putting up a fence like this one on Mr. Burnside farm and before I knew it I was up to my ankles in fire ants. Boy, I got to jumping around and screaming and tore my hand up on that bob wire. Took me a long time to get this hand back straight.”
Michael climbed over the fence. The woods towered before them in black silence, its stillness a final warning to all intruders. Michael eyes went to Grandpa, waiting for him to lead the way. Instead Grandpa reached into his pocket, pulled out a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco and leaned against the fence post.
“We stay here and wait,” Grandpa said. “They’ll come to us.”
Michael never dreamed a more terrible fate. In front of him were the scariest woods on the farm and beside him was Grandpa. He sat with the rifle across his lap as he watched Grandpa massage his hands. They must hurt all the time, he thought. Maybe he was used to it; the pain was there but had become a part of Grandpa’s life like receding gray hair on his head.
“Why you rubbing your hands, Grandpa?” he asked.
“They get to itching sometimes,” he answered.
“You got arthritis?”
Grandpa tilted his head up and stared at Michael. “What? Shoot boy ain’t nothing wrong with me but old age. These hands are fine.”
He moved close to Michael and turned his right hand up, pointing at thick yellow circles on his palms below each finger.
“This comes from hard work, boy. I got these trophies swinging an axe longer than you been alive.”
He turned his hand over and placed his finger on a faint line near his pinky finger.
“This line here? I got this when your mamma was born. We didn’t have no hospital for colored folks back then, so the midwife comes over from Midland to help deliver her. Your grandma was going through an awful time, so I slipped in the room and told her to bite on my hand till she felt better. Lord Almighty that woman can bite!”
Grandpa chuckled. Michael stared at Grandpa’s hands, trying to make up a story about every indention, line, scar and curve. They began a game of show and tell, Michael asking and Grandpa telling as the sun passed over them between cotton clouds.
“Where did those come from?” Michael pointed to the twin scars ringing Grandpa’s wrists. The glow that had been building in the old man’s face fled; he straightened and walked away along the fence.
“Grandpa, wait!” Michael jumped to his feet and grabbed his rifle, running until he caught up. Grandpa hummed, his eyes focused somewhere up ahead. Michael grabbed his arm.
“Come on, Grandpa. Let’s go back to the house.”
Grandpa jerked his arm away. “You want to know how I got them scars, don’t you?”
Michael dropped his head. “Yes, sir.”
“Come on with me then,” Grandpa said. They walked in silence past the peas to the watermelons. Grandpa picked a small melon then walked over to a wide tree stumped and eased himself down. He pulled out his pocket knife and began slicing. Michael sat beside him and Grandpa handed him a glistening red wedge.
“Remember when I told you I worked at Mr. Burnside’s mill? Well, I was looking to buy me some land for a farm and old Burnside heard about it. One day he calls me into his office and offers me this land you’re sitting on for five hundred dollars. At first I thought he was playing with me, but old Burnside had a habit of doing things for people he liked, white or colored. So I jumped for the deal like a frog to water, giving him a hundred straight out and working out a deal for the other four.”
Michael listened as he munched on his melon slice. He imagined Grandpa as a young man, tall and strong like Uncle Willy, pulling logs and plowing fields while fussing at Mama for doing something she wasn’t supposed to do. The distance between them melted away; the old man with the crippled hands became a real person, father of Mama and Uncle Willy, husband and provider for Grandma.
“Well,” Grandpa continued, “I took to clearing that land every evening after work, sometimes with my brothers but most the time by myself. One evening I was alone chopping wood when I see a truck rolling up. By the time I figured out what’s going on it was too late to run. Three white men got out of that truck and the biggest one had a shotgun.”
“What the hell you doing on this land, boy?” he says.
“This here’s my land,” I says.
“You lying,” the little one says. “We sold this land to Tom Burnside, so unless you’re out here waiting on him, you best be getting on, nigger.”
“Now I was so mad I couldn’t think straight. ‘Mr. Burnside sold me this land,’ I yelled.” “I paid for it fair and square.”
“The big man turned red as fire.”
“That son-of-a-bitch!” he says. He turned to the short one and says, I told you not to sell it to that old fool! Everybody knows Tom is crazy.”
‘The short man got this evil grin on his face. ‘Ain’t no problem,’ he said. ‘This boy’s gonna our land back to us, ain’t you, boy?”
Grandpa bit into his melon, taking his time to chew. “Now if I hadn’t spent so much time clearing and chopping I would have gave it back. But my sweat was in the ground. It belonged to me.
“This is my land and I’m keeping it,’ I says.”
“The big man starts grinning like the devil’s son. ‘You’ll give it back sooner or later, ‘he said. I tried to run but they wrestled my down and knocked me out. When I woke up I was hanging by my wrists from a big old oak tree. The big man had a long piece of rope wrapped around his hands and as soon as he saw I was awake he started tearing into me. I wanted to holler so loud the angels would come down to get me, but when I opened my mouth Amazing Grace came out. I sang that song louder than I ever had in church and I meant it more, too. I tell you boy, the Lord must have heard Grandpa because by the time I stopped singing that song them white men was gone. They left me hanging there, swinging back and forth like a broke branch until about dark. That’s when my brother showed up looking for me and cut me down.”
Michael’s hands twisted the stock of his rifle, the veins showing in his forearms. “What did you do to those white men, Grandpa?”
Grandpa looked at Michael with a melancholy smile.
“Nothing. Couldn’t do a thing. See, back then the law kept a colored man from being strong on the outside, so you had to be strong in here.” He patted Michael’s chest with his hand and Michael didn’t mind.
“No, I didn’t do nothing to them, but I cut that damn oak tree down!” Grandpa looked as his wrists, turning his hands back and forth.
“That’s how I got these here scars, and that’s how this fine sitting stump came to be.”
Grandpa struggled to his feet. “Come on, boy. It’s about time we be getting back. Them squirrels looking at us and laughing.”
“Okay, Grandpa,” Michael said. He grasped Grandpa’s hand and pulled himself up. They stood for a moment, his young smooth hand in Grandpa’s leathery scarred grip, then they let go and headed for the house.
Mama was putting a bunch of collars into the car trunk when Michael and Grandpa walked up.
“So where are all the squirrels?” she asked.
“In the woods,” Grandpa replied. “That’s all right, though. We’ll get them next time, right Michael?”
“Yes, sir, we sure will.”
“Get in the car, baby,” Mama said.
Michael emptied the .22 and placed it in the trunk beside the collards. He sat on the passenger side as Mama hugged Grandpa’s neck.
“Bye, Daddy. I love you.”
Grandpa grunted and walked towards the house. Mama climbed in car with a smile.
“That man is something else,” she said.
Mama started the car and they drove away down the road. Michael turned to see Grandpa waving goodbye. He smiled and waved back until Grandpa disappeared in distance and dust.
“Mama, I ain’t writing about Frederick Douglass,” Michael said.
“Who you writing about?” she asked.
“I’m writing about Grandpa,” Michael replied.
Mama turned to look at Michael, her eyes glistening as she smiled at him.
“Lord have mercy,” she said. “Lord have mercy.”