We're excited to share the first three chapters of the new novel by B. Sharise Moore, Dr. Djinn's Odd Scholars. It's an amazing mix of Steamfunk, alternate history and magic realism you're sure to enjoy. Coming from MVmedia February 2021.
The Negro World
Four Lucky Winners to Tour Dr. Marvellus Djinn’s Colored Theme Park
April 1, 1920
Dr. Marvellus Djinn, internationally known Scholar of Sorcery, will award four exclusive passes to The Motherland, her theme park of magic and mythological creatures in Hampton, VA in June. In addition to the tour, the four winners will receive full financial support to attend Hampton Institute. The odd scholarships, as they’ve been called, will be awarded to four teens (ages 13-19) who prove victorious in competitions in the following categories: Strength, Ingenuity, Chemistry, and Magical Prowess. All interested young people should meet Dr. Djinn in the following cities: Altamonte Springs, FL (Mighty Biceps-Strength Competition May 2, 1920); Charleston, SC (Juvenile Ingenuity Competition May 5, 1920); Washington, DC (Boys Chemistry Competition May 10, 1920); and Charleston, SC (Dueling Crystal Balls-Magical Prowess Competition May 5, 1920). For more information on how to register, see page E5.
Strength is the Family Business
Altamonte Springs, FL 1920
“You beat Cairo once; you can beat him again. Still don’t look to me like the boy’s got it all up here.” Omen’s father, Ivan Crow, tapped his forehead. “Remember boy, strength is ninety percent mental.”
“I know Pop, I know.” Beads of sweat gathered at Omen’s temples. He snatched a red checkered kerchief from his back pocket and dabbed at his hairline.
This was the ritual every year: the same crowd ripe with excitement, the same split of loyalty down the middle, and the same bad blood. Omen’s father paced back and forth with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his overalls. Though there had always been twenty contestants, everyone knew the Crows and Armwoods were the only ones who mattered. The rivalry dated back to 1820 when Omen and Cairo’s great-great grandfathers found themselves at odds over a red-bone gal with green eyes on the plantation on Fort George Island. According to the old folks, the love triangle was settled over an arm-wrestling match. And ever since Omen’s great-great grandfather’s win, the scales had been slightly tipped in the Crow family’s favor.
In a mere thirty minutes, the gathering of a few strapping workers assembling the stage swelled to over one hundred onlookers. Everyone within a twenty-mile radius of Altamonte Springs was in attendance to see if Omen could redeem himself after last year’s defeat. His eyes roved over the audience of familiar faces. Sisters, brothers, wives, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, neighbors—they’d all made the trip to see this year’s Mighty Bicep Competition, the premier event to usher in the summer.
One by one, the competitors lined up for the announcement of the draw. Omen leaned against a curtain. A rumble of gator-mating calls traveled along the breeze from a patch of swamp across the clearing. His line of vision drifted to the crates and barrels enveloping the stage. Painted black, the red and green letters screamed the contents inside: Biceps Galore, Love at First Kiss, Far East Trinkets and Charms, Salves for Spirit Sicknesses, Back to Africa Talismans. An upright piano decorated with black and green symbols stood in the corner. The back wall had been covered with pictures of Marcus Garvey and clippings from The Negro World newspaper. Three iguanas moseyed around their cages on a table nearest the audience. Each lizard changed its color from red to black to green in unexpected synchronicity. For the first time ever, the Mighty Biceps Competition had partnered with a celebrity. He whistled to himself and turned to his competition. Cairo. From his calves as big around as tree trunks to his barrel chest, the boy looked burlier and more clueless than Omen remembered. The old folks of Altamonte Springs said the Armwood boys had never been babies. They were born big and stayed that way ‘til they died.
“Yup, he’s big alright, but don’t let that fool ya,” Uncle Dwight chimed in as if he’d been reading Omen’s mind. “It’s the skill that matters.” He mopped his protruding brow with a bandana.
For 365 days straight Omen had heard the boos and whispers. They’d stuck to him like a wart no one knew how to remove. Sometimes, the will skips a generation. Might be the mighty Crows are finally stepping aside for another family to take the crown. Ever seen that boy’s arms? They right scrawny. He ain’t got the genes. I’m tellin’ ya he’s a wee bit too small to challenge anybody. Ivan done trained the boy soft. I know Ole Fitzgerald is turnin’ over in his grave.
A shrill whistle pulled him back to the present. Standing before the crowd was a shirtless man in a red vest. Silver armbands choked the man’s forearms as his silk pants flapped in the breeze.
“Welcome one and all to the Annual Juvenile Mighty Biceps Arm Wrestling Competition! I am Professor Bartholomew Blue.” The crowd gave a hearty cheer. “Before I introduce our illustrious judge for today’s contest, I’d like to announce today’s competitors!”
Omen studied the man. His accent was difficult to place. West Indian perhaps? Last year he’d met a man from the Bahaman islands off the Floridian coast. Omen never forgot the ease of his words. Once they left the stranger’s lips, they floated on the wind like a magic carpet in the stories his younger sister liked to read. Professor Blue rattled off the names quickly; all were familiar: King Tyrone, Donnie Dumbbell, John the Menace, Duke the Rude, Big Glen. If a family had a boy who could beat a Crow or an Armwood, they had something good going.
“Allen the Outcast, Good Eatin’ Gilbert, Smashmouth Steve,” the man shouted among the cheers. “Chuck the Wailer, Hilliard the Wrench, and last, but certainly not least, Helena Hightower!”
Omen froze as his gaze swung to a girl with deep dimples and a long, onyx braid. Thickset and half his size, it didn’t take long to determine she was strong—and beautiful.
A hush fell over the crowd. Omen glanced at his father. “Since when they allow girls to compete?” He asked out of the side of his mouth and stuffed his thumbs under the bib of his overalls.
“They been hollerin’ ‘bout girls bein’ good as boys for a while now. Since Dr. Djinn is here, I reckon this gal,” Ivan motioned toward Helena, “is tryna get her hands on a scholarship,” he shrugged. “And who can blame her?”
Omen nodded. It made perfect sense.
“We took a vote the other day,” his father continued.
Omen folded his arms across his chest, eyes glued to Helena. “How’d you vote, Pop?”
Ivan Crow tossed a towel over his shoulder. “I voted ‘gainst it. Imagine if your mother had been demandin’ she wrestle gators and lift dumbbells? You might not have been born,” he cracked his knuckles above his head. “Never mind that though. Keep your eyes on the prize. That Dr. Djinn is a legend in her own right. You wait and see.” Omen’s father pulled a newspaper clipping from one of his pockets. “Your Uncle Dwight got a hold of this a few months back while wrestlin' gators down in the bayou. Take a gander.”
Omen unfolded the clipping and peered at the article.
The Times Picayune
Race Riot near Lake Pontchartrain Leads to Lynching
New Orleans, LA
August 9, 1919
A disturbance at an outdoor market led to a lynching on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain on Saturday afternoon. Eyewitnesses say a group of vendors had been selling their wares peacefully when a scuffle broke out. According to Laura Lafayette of 21 Rue Charles, “an irate colored woman refused to return the money of a white man who had bought one of her items and politely requested an exchange.” The gathering of vendors and customers then dissolved into chaos as the colored woman was carried off and hanged.
Diane LaFleur of Rue Dauphine indicated that she witnessed the quarrel and furthered that it was for good reason as the colored woman, since identified as Marvellus Djinn, “began chanting spells and hexes and foaming at the mouth with the intention of ridding New Orleans of its good white folks.” Madame LaFleur informed the Times Picayune that she hurried her family from the scene before the woman was carried off.
When authorities arrived to assess the damage, a single braid that looked to have come from the head of a colored had been left behind, but no remains or body had been found. Nothing more is known at this time as the NOPD continues its investigation.
Omen folded the article, handed it to his father, and turned his attention to the stage.
“On behalf of Dr. Djinn’s Motherland, the country’s first Colored Amusement Park, I present to you the Mentor of Magic, the Scholar of Sorcery, the Time Travelling Pedagogue herself, Dr. Marvellus Djinn!” he raised his arms with a flourish.
In an instant, the crowd split down the middle and Dr. Djinn entered like the prophet Moses parting the Red Sea. Omen watched as she twirled a cane with a gem encrusted handle like a majorette.
“Those are real ruby and emerald stones in that topper.” His father leaned in close. “She’s one of the richest Colored Women in the country. No man in his right mind would be okay with a woman having all that power. And them pants—I reckon it’s why she ain’t married.” He tugged at his beard.
Despite the Florida heat, Dr. Marvellus Djinn wore a green tuxedo with a matching top hat and tails. A black boa constrictor wound around her arms and its tongue slipped in and out of its mouth like flashes of pink lightning. She climbed the risers with outstretched arms.
“Thank you, Blue.” Dr. Djinn spun back to her audience. “Greetings one and all and welcome to this year’s Mighty Biceps Juvenile Arm-Wrestling Competition!”
Omen clapped along with the crowd’s whistles and chants.
“The Honorable Marcus Garvey says if you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life!” She spoke in a syncopated voice that matched her odd get-up. “I am Dr. Marvellus Djinn and today I offer one of you an Odd Scholarship which includes a fully-funded education at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and a once in a lifetime opportunity to tour my Motherland Magical Amusement Park!”
Again, came the shouts and whistles. Omen felt his heartbeat quicken.
“Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road!” she shouted.
Omen descended the risers and huddled with his team.
“This is it, Omen. You get that scholarship; you write your ticket. With a little education, I reckon we may be able to incorporate the family business. Push us into the big leagues,” Ivan Crow’s eyes shifted. “Now, this is where you make your mark. Give ‘em some leeway the first few seconds, feel ‘em out. Then, move in for the kill.”
Omen climbed the risers as his uncle thumped him between the shoulder blades.
The audience rushed forward, choking the edges of the stage as a group of men dressed similarly to Professor Blue stepped in to control the crowd.
“The rules are simple: two preliminary rounds, a semifinal, and a final. Best two out of three in each. The winner moves on to the next round. For the preliminary bouts, two matches will take place at once,” Dr. Djinn flashed a toothy grin.
Omen gazed at his first opponent. Allen the Outcast. As good a warm-up as any. Six-feet- two-inch frame. Solid build. Despite it all, Allen lacked confidence. To him, losing wasn’t a lesson; it was the end of the world. He wouldn’t last in the Strength Business. Everyone knew it.
Omen and Allen each took their seats on a pair of stools. He craned his neck to make out the other two competitors. Cairo sat across from Good Eatin’ Gilbert, the 300-pound hammer. Rolls of flesh strained against the gaps in Gilbert’s overalls. Don’t you go puttin' the cart before the horse! Omen’s father’s voice echoed inside his head. You beat him once. You’ll beat him again. It’s your time. Omen looked toward the heavens and mouthed a silent prayer.
“Let’s get ready now,” Professor Blue shouted over the excited crowd.
Omen and Allen set their elbows on the barrel, each flexing their fingers and rotating their wrists in preparation. They locked hands as Blue cupped his palm over theirs.
“On the count of three. One. Two. Three!” yelled the Professor.
Omen gazed into Allen’s eyes. Already, tiny lines of exertion had formed across the boy’s forehead. He counted to three silently, then tightened his grip, crushing the boy’s hand in his. Allen’s eyes grew from slits to saucers. Slam! Omen forced Allen’s arm to the barrel in record time.
The crowd went wild. A smile stretched across his face. The second game ended quicker than the first. Allen stared at the floor as Professor Blue held Omen’s arm high.
The preliminary bouts sped by in a blur. Cairo won easily. Then, King Tyrone took out John the Menace, two to nothing. Big Glen forced Chuck the Wailer to forfeit in a puddle of tears. Omen stood aside as Chuck’s father, Big Lung Bruce, led him down the dirt road in shame. After the commotion of Chuck’s exit, Donnie Dumbbell bested Hilliard Hard Hitter in a nail biter, two to one. But the biggest surprise of the day was Helena Hightower’s decisive win over Smashmouth Steve.
“Whatever you do, you best not lose to no girl,” Cairo’s father shouted for all to hear. “You’ll never live that down. Never.”
Steve’s dad, Bugsy Knuckles, wore a tight scowl as he steered Steve away from the crowd. By the end of the early rounds, four were left standing: Omen, Cairo, Donnie Dumbbell, and Helena Hightower. Dr. Djinn announced a fifteen-minute intermission and Omen and his corner headed to the family tent. Finally, he could breathe.
Uncle Ichabod was the first to greet him inside. “You got a clear path to that scholarship,” he said thickly, a long pipe bobbing between his lips. “Three more matches and it’s yours!” Omen held his breath to avoid the fumes of tobacco and liquor.
“Don’t get that boy all pumped up for a letdown.” Omen’s mother sauntered toward them. Her Southern drawl sat on the ears like molasses on a flapjack, sweet and slow.
“This ain’t no time for no woman to be interjecting philosophy,” Ichabod scoffed. “I know you as headstrong as they come Elle, but he don’t need to be hearin’ no negativity right now.”
“Ain’t nobody bein’ negative.” Omen’s mother folded her arms across her chest. “I’m only sayin’ ya’ll are giving him a reason to let his guard down.”
A shrill whistle brought the conversation to a halt.
“Lineage roll call!” Omen's father marched inside.
On cue, the Crow children formed a line. Omen’s six-year-old brother, Night, rattled off the history of an ancestor born in 1857, followed by his younger sister Sage. Finally, Omen brought up the rear. He closed his eyes before speaking in the loudest voice he could muster. “Fitzgerald Crow. Born 1850. Strong Man and Gator Wrestler. Fitzgerald Crow holds the record for besting the largest gator on record in Florida at 450 pounds and 10 feet. The prize was a three-inch tooth, the Crow family heirloom, passed down to the most deserving, skilled, and talented member of the Crow family line.” Omen pulled his shoulders back. The mention of his grandfather’s feat filled him with pride.
The Crow family erupted in applause.
“Well done.” Ivan gave each of his children a brisk nod as they hurried off. Then, Uncle Ichabod, Bub, and Cousin Owl formed a line alongside Ivan. They stood shoulder to shoulder, four men ranging in age from twenty to sixty. Ichabod retrieved a suede pouch from a knapsack and handed it to Ivan. Omen held his breath.
“No matter what happens today, Omen deserves this. Truth is, it was his long ago. Not when he won, but when he lost,” Ivan motioned for Omen to step forward.
Big Bub slapped him on the shoulder. “We’re proud of how you conducted yourself last year. It was a tough loss. But Cairo’s an Armwood; beating that clan ain’t never gonna be easy,” he said in a voice drier than an ashtray.
Uncle Nubs sucked on his gums. “Them Armwoods is somethin’ else,” he said with a heavy lisp. “We don’t like to give ‘em they due. But they right good at wrestlin’.”
Omen’s eyes swung to the pouch. With care, his father reached inside and pulled out the alligator tooth captured by Omen’s grandfather, Fitzgerald Crow, over fifty years ago. Now, the tooth dangled from a chain offset with two smooth chunks of turquoise. He could barely contain his excitement as his father slipped the prize over his head.
“What is strength?” Ivan grunted.
Omen took a deep breath. “Strength is the family business.”
Ivan turned to the Crow family. “What is strength?” he called again.
“Strength is the family business!” They shouted in unison.
“What is strength?”
“Strength is the family business!”
Ivan pumped his fist in the air. “Now, let’s win this thing!”
Dr. Djinn returned in all black with a bright green parrot perched on her shoulder. She tipped her hat to signal quiet. “We started with twenty, now we’re down to four. Give our boys—” she turned to wink in Helena’s direction. “—and girl a round of applause!” The crowd obliged with whistles and shouts. “And now, let’s meet our semi-finalists,” she paused for dramatic effect.
Omen held his breath. He’d much rather face Cairo in the final. That would make the victory sweeter.
“In bout one we have Cairo Armwood versus Helena Hightower and in bout two we have Omen Crow versus Donnie Dumbbell!”
Omen breathed a sigh of relief seconds before a commotion broke out across the stage.
“We protest!” Cairo and his corner yelled in unison. “We protest!”
The crowd settled into a hush.
Dr. Djinn’s eyes became slits. “You protest?’
“We do. Wrestlin’ a girl is ‘gainst everything we stand for.” Cairo’s father huffed in indignance.
“Well then, does this mean your son is forfeiting his semi-final match?” Dr. Djinn studied her nails.
The Armwoods slapped their knees in mock laughter. “Never,” Cairo’s father growled. “It wouldn’t be wise for my son to wrestle a… girl,” he spat.
Omen glanced at Helena’s corner, a knot of copper-skinned, black-haired women. If they'd been at all bothered by this display of disrespect, none of them showed it.
“It wouldn’t be…wise?” Dr. Djinn snickered.
Cairo’s scowl crumbled. His father poked out his massive chest. “Arm wrestling is a man’s sport!” Mr. Armwood prattled on, tiny bits of spittle flying from his mouth.
“A man’s sport! A man’s sport!” mocked the parrot.
Dr. Djinn cocked her head to the side. “If I’m correct, your union recently voted on the inclusion of women and girls in arm wrestling and other strength competitions. How did your union vote, Mr. Armwood?”
Cairo's father's eyes flashed in anger. “They…they voted yes.”
“They voted yes! They voted yes!” The parrot strut from one of Dr. Djinn’s shoulders to the other.
She leaned forward. “I didn’t quite hear that.”
Again, Dr. Djinn’s parrot let out a piercing squawk. “Yes! They voted yes! They voted yes!” The parrot screeched as it puffed up its feathers before settling down.
Laughter spread through the gathering as Cairo lumbered across the stage. “I’m not arm wrestling a girl. I won’t do it!”
Dr. Djinn rolled her eyes. “Very well. I will grant you your wish. You will not have to wrestle a girl.”
“Not have to wrestle a girl! Not have to wrestle a girl!” the parrot squawked in turn.
Dr. Djinn turned on her heels. “Before we move on, are there any others who feel this way? Please, speak now.”
One by one, the men in Donnie Dumbbell’s corner raised their hands.
Dr. Djinn nodded. “Anyone else?”
“Anyone else?” the parrot shrieked. “Anyone else?”
Omen turned to his corner. Before his father could raise a hand, he pushed his arm down. “No!” He pulled on his chain, pleading with his eyes.
Ivan and Big Bub exchanged frowns, but honored Omen’s request.
Dr. Djinn faced the crowd. “It seems Omen Crow is the only competitor willing to take his chances against Helena Hightower.”
“Take his chances! Squawk! Take his chances!” the parrot declared.
“As the final judge of this tournament, I reserve the right to make an executive decision.” She formed a tent with her fingers. “Mr. Dumbbell and Mr. Armwood, by refusing to engage in competition with Miss Hightower, you hereby forfeit your rights to continue in the tournament.”
The Armwood and Dumbbell corners erupted in curses. Omen held his breath, waiting for a fist fight. But before any such thing could happen, the men were ushered away by Professor Blue and his silk pant wearing associates.
Dr. Djinn winked. “Good. And now we have our final match! Seats please!”
For the third time that day, Omen placed his elbows on the wooden barrel as shouts rippled through the crowd. He looked in Helena’s coal black eyes. He expected a fight.
They locked hands as Blue cupped his palm over theirs.
“On the count of three. One. Two. Three!” yelled the Professor.
Omen won in seconds. It almost felt too easy.
“Omen! Omen! Omen!” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his younger brother, Night, beginning a chant.
During the second match, he felt the girl’s grip tighten. Beads of sweat lined his temples. He’d never felt such pressure from a peer, not even Cairo. Still he fought back, tightening his hold on her sweaty hand. A moan escaped from her lips. In a flash, he felt his arm slam on the barrel.
Gasps echoed throughout the clearing. Omen sucked in air as the memory of last year flooded back in a giant wave. Sometimes, the will skips a generation. Might be the mighty Crows are finally stepping aside for another family to take the crown. He ain’t got the genes. Ivan done trained the boy soft. I know Old man Fitzgerald Crow is turning over in his grave.
Omen leaned over in his chair to catch his breath. When he opened his eyes, he saw the tooth dangling in front of him. His grandfather had wrestled a ten-foot gator and won. His grandfather. Those were the people he came from. Strength is the family business.
Omen bit his lip and set his elbow on the barrel. Professor Blue placed a palm over the two competitors’ hands for one last time.
“On three. One, two…”
Again, came the crushing force and Omen nearly pinned Helena’s arm in the opening seconds. Moments later, she regained the advantage. Seconds passed with neither competitor gaining ground. Omen held his breath. In his mind’s eye, he saw his grandfather pouncing on a gator and its thick tail thrashing back and forth. Sharp teeth poised to tear into his flesh. Omen swallowed hard, but the girl’s arm wouldn’t budge. Quickly, the tables turned, Omen felt his arm bending backward. Strength is the family business. The voices of doubt echoed in his head. Sometimes, the will skips a generation. He ain’t got the genes. With a roar from deep in his gut, he regained the edge and pinned the girl’s sturdy arm to the barrel. He jumped up as his chair went clattering to the floor.
The crowd roared. After a few moments of hysteria, Dr. Djinn waved her hands high and Professor Blue whistled for calm.
“It is my vision that the Odd Scholars will be the best of the best. The scholarships will be awarded to those who show sportsmanship and character at all times.”
“Squawk! Character at all times. Character at all times. Squawk!” the parrot chirped.
With that being said, this year’s Mighty Bicep Competition winner is—” Dr. Djinn held Omen’s hand up high. “Omen Crow!” She turned to Omen. “Congratulations young man. You are the winner of the Mighty Biceps Juvenile Arm-Wrestling Competition and my very first Odd Scholar!” She spun on her heels. “One down, three to go!”
The Kleptomaniac Inventor
Charleston, SC 1920
After three grueling hours of demonstrations, the contestants finally reached the end of Charleston’s Juvenile Ingenuity Competition. A cluster of wooden tables covered with cogs, screws, and other mechanical instruments formed a circle under a pavilion in the middle of the marketplace. Brenda watched in silence as Dr. Djinn inspected her latest invention in the palm of her hand. No more than two inches in length, the contraption had a steel outer shell with a slender glass barrel inside. Minuscule wires looped around the bottom and an inch-long syringe poked from its end. Tiny copper buttons covered the barrel’s side. Brenda cracked her knuckles behind her back.
“Never seen anything like it,” Dr. Djinn said under her breath. “What's it made of?”
“Ninety-two percent inox. Copper, wire, and glass make up the remaining eight percent,” Brenda cleared her throat. “Inox is steel. It's lightweight and resistant to staining.”
Dr. Djinn looked in the direction of a tall man at her side with ink-black skin. He responded with a stiff nod. She turned back to Brenda. “Demonstrate.”
Brenda took the contraption out of the magician’s palm. “It's a siphoning mechanism.” Her eyes settled on a jar dangling from the man’s belt. Now and again, its contents would bubble and flash as if possessed by some unseen force. She motioned toward it. “May I use the jar?”
Gasps and chatter tore through the gathering. The man’s eyes grew wide. “Only a Taint,” he swallowed before continuing. “Only a Taint—someone with magic blood, can properly handle the contents of a Soul Jar—” he began.
“This is an ingenuity competition, Professor Blue.” Dr. Djinn rubbed her palms together. “If anything goes wrong, we can deal with it. Let’s see what she can do.”
The Professor stared at Dr. Djinn through narrowed eyes. “Very well.” He threw her a side-long glance. “But we must protect our potential Scholars at all costs. We both know what’s inside that Jar.” His West Indian lilt floated through the thick Charleston air as he lifted the clasp on his belt.
Brenda watched as he sat it on the table in front of her. The audience crept forward, tightening around them.
With the utmost care, Brenda balanced her invention between her thumb and index finger and mashed one of the buttons on its side. A tiny blue flame emanated from the syringe, gradually penetrating the glass. The Jar rattled and screeched. Out of the corner of her eye, Brenda could see Professor Blue reaching for it as Dr. Djinn blocked his efforts.
After the syringe cleanly broke through the glass, Brenda pushed another button. Instantly, the mucous like substance from the Soul Jar filled the glass barrel. With an additional push of a button, the syringe retracted. In seconds, the tiny opening in the Jar closed like a healed wound. Brenda reached for the glass barrel, now filled with demonic fluid.
“The barrel is heat and cold resistant. You can use it to inject or draw out poison or any substance you’d like.” She held the barrel up high. “I call it a Fire Needle.”
Dr. Djinn tipped her top hat, bright green like her tuxedo. “Well done, young lady.”
Resounding applause and whistles rippled through the crowd as Brenda replaced the barrel inside the Fire Needle with a click, injected the goo back into the Soul Jar, and pushed it back toward the Professor.
Blue reattached it to his belt loop and gave her a small smile. “Impressive.”
Dr. Djinn raised an arm up high, silencing the chatter.
“Thank you all for your inventions. Each of you has mesmerized, inspired, and surprised me this afternoon. After a one-hour intermission, I will announce the winner of the Juvenile Ingenuity Competition and our second Odd Scholarship.”
Back at her station, Brenda glanced at her stopwatch, reached for her briefcase, and dismantled her invention, piece by piece. A tiny woman squeezed through the crowd, hurrying toward her.
“A whole hour, Aunt Squeak!” Brenda huffed as the woman reached her side.
“Patience Beebee, patience.” Squeak rubbed her shoulder.
Brenda frowned at the invention, now a pile of tiny cogs and screws. “It shouldn’t take an hour to make a decision.”
“They want to make sure they choose well.” Squeak squeezed her shoulders. “The competition was top notch.”
Brenda turned back to her briefcase and mashed a button on its side. The case popped open to reveal a slew of flaps, snaps, buttons, and drawers. Tiny lights blinked on and off in a strange rhythm. Brenda unzipped a felt-lined pocket and scraped the parts of the Fire Needle inside.
“Your uncle loved that briefcase,” Aunt Squeak stared at the briefcase as if it were a loved one.
Brenda nodded; her eyes fastened to the pile of mechanical parts. She opened another drawer. Ultra-violet rays hummed from inside.
“Seeing you here and doing such a fantastic job—” Squeak dabbed at her eyes with a lacy kerchief.
“I know. I know. Uncle Rufus would be proud,” Brenda sighed.
Squeak stuffed the kerchief in her purse. “Sure would,” she sniffled. “You were fantastic Beebee! Imagine, a fully funded education at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute!” Her aunt pulled a newspaper clipping from her purse and gently unfolded the tiny squares. “Take a look…for extra motivation,” she grinned.
Brenda turned from the briefcase and peered at the clipping.
The Negro World
Dr. Marvellus Djinn, The Motherland, and Resistance
May 1, 1920
Though the grand opening of The Motherland is less than 60 days away, the national buzz surrounding it is a potent reminder of the intrigue of its creator, Dr. Marvellus Djinn.
The nation was introduced to Dr. Djinn when she worked as an assistant to the incomparable magician, Black Herman, in the early 1910s. After setting off on her own in 1915, she amassed a fortune selling tonics and talismans during her impressive traveling one-woman magic show. In 1916, she and fellow UNIA member, Professor Bartholomew Blue, discussed their ideas for The Motherland with H.D. Woodson, the brilliant Negro architect of several buildings in Washington, DC, including portions (and portals) of Union Station. The project broke ground with Woodson at the helm later that year. Djinn describes the park as a “simmering stew of myth, history, science, magic, and suspense.” Though she remains tight-lipped about the park’s Grand Menagerie and the creatures inside, she was more forthcoming about its dedication to invention and architecture.
“I wanted to create a place that showcases the brilliance of innovation and the pride of our history,” Djinn told The Negro World. In partnership with the Hampton Institute, Djinn is constructing “an inventor’s playground with state-of-the-art equipment” inside the park’s replica of the Eastern Rift Mountains. The innovation lab will serve as an incubator for the ideas of young Negro inventors and scientists. Patents will be plentiful as well as the money needed to fund them. The innovation lab is set to open this fall.
“The Motherland is my way of giving Colored folks a much-needed escape from Jim Crow,” she said by phone on Monday. “This park is my resistance.”
The Motherland’s grand opening is set for June 15, 1920. For more information on discounted tickets for bonafide U.N.I.A members, see page C12.
A smile slid across Brenda’s face. She could already see herself inside the lab, rummaging through cogs, screws, and scrap metal inventing anything she wanted, with more tools at her disposal than she’d ever had.
“That scholarship is yours, Beebee.” Aunt Squeak chucked her under the chin. “Now, let’s look around.” Squeak pointed at a storefront and lowered her voice. “That’s a Two-headed woman’s shop.” Squeak jabbed her playfully in the arm. “Want a reading?”
Aunt Squeak was from the Low Country. Initially, she’d downplayed those roots for Brenda’s uncle, the big city man from Philadelphia she’d fallen in love with. Funny thing is her strangeness is what reeled him in. He would have married her regardless. Uncle Rufus had told Brenda as much many times before.
A shiver ran through Brenda’s thin frame despite the summer heat. “No thanks.”
“Well, suit yourself,” Squeak shrugged. She doubled back to meet her niece’s eyes. “Dr. Djinn is the best Colored magician the world has ever seen. It’s about time everyone knew your name, too. And fix that skirt!” Squeak fumbled with Brenda’s hemline and gave her a once over. She licked one of her thumbs, smoothed her dark eyebrows, and stifled a groan as her aunt tugged at the thick cornrows dusting her shoulders. Squeak squinted through the sunshine, admiring her handiwork. “Go on and have a look around,” she raised an eyebrow. “One hour. No funny business. We ain’t in Philly.”
Brenda forced a smile and a nod. “Yes, ma’am.” The moment Squeak turned her back and moseyed toward the two-headed woman’s shop, Brenda hiked up her skirt. She chuckled to herself as her aunt disappeared in the crowd.
“I hate when they do all that fussin’. Ain’t no need.” A voice called over her shoulder.
Brenda turned to face a girl with two bushy plaits on either side of her head. She recognized the girl right away as one of her competitors.
She stuck out a skinny arm. “I’m Constance.” She narrowed her eyes. “Seems to me you’re in the way of me getting one of those scholarships.”
What Constance didn’t know was her name didn’t matter one bit. From the moment Brenda saw that bushy hair, she knew she’d be calling her Plaits. Brenda cocked her head to the side. “Brenda from Philadelphia. And the only person I ever compete with is myself; you should try it.”
Plaits looked her up and down like she wanted a fight. And that’s when Brenda caught sight of the girl’s shoulder bag, beige, brand new, and almost as big as she was. One of the clasps to secure it shut had been left open and several crumpled bills peeked from inside. Bad move Plaits, bad move.
“Well, you sure did come a long way to go back empty handed.” Plaits ran her tongue across her bucked teeth.
“You think way too much of yourself,” Brenda snapped.
“How old are you?” Plaits sneered.
“Old enough,” Brenda countered.
“Yeah…when I saw you, I thought you were ‘bout twelve or thirteen. Couldn’t be no more than that.” Plaits placed a hand on one of her non-existent hips.
“Why do you care?”
Plaits chuckled. “You and your big city confidence. The bigger they are—”
“Leave me alone,” she said, annoyed.
“And if I don’t?” Plaits rolled her neck in a circle.
Brenda walked off, nudging Plaits just enough to brush her open satchel. With one deft movement, Brenda stuffed the bills in her pleated skirt pocket. The flawless exchange made her three dollars richer. Some people deserved what was coming to them and some were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Plaits was a little bit of both. Briefcase slung across her shoulder, she headed in the opposite direction, pushing her way through the thick crowd.
Cabbage Row had always been Aunt Squeak’s favorite place. The maze of tents, carts, and storefronts created playful shadows in the late afternoon. She’d visited Charleston every year for as long as she could remember. Brenda walked briskly past a pyramid of ripe peaches. A heavy-set vendor smiled in her direction.
“Peaches! Only a nickel! Fresh peaches!”
The moment the vendor turned her head, Brenda slipped between two tables and swiped a ripe one from the pile. It felt tender and fuzzy in her palm. She took a bite as she hurried on. A river of sticky liquid dripped into the crevices of her fingers. So good. Though she’d never admit it to Aunt Squeak, Cabbage Row had become one of her favorite places as well. Haggling customers, a cacophony of odors: flowers mixed with ripe fruit and raw meat fresh from the slaughter. She gazed at the long, flowy skirts spread out over wooden tables and carts covered with perfume bottles. Fish with their heads still attached stared at her from trays overflowing with ice. A tent caught Brenda’s attention. Emerald ferns sprouted from clay jars. Colorful glass bottles and bowls sat on wooden shelves. A squat container of gold mud sat beside a triangular tin filled to the brim with cobalt blue. The aroma of spiced sandalwood incense drifted beneath her nostrils. She wandered toward one of the shelves. A bottle with raised indentations caught her eye. Without so much as a thought, she reached for it, mesmerized. It felt like fire and ice in her hands. Her eyes narrowed. Why not? She felt lucky enough.
“Tonic’s been in my family for years.” A voice drifted over the tinkle of wind chimes.
Brenda froze. Damn. She’d never been this close to being caught. “What’s in it?” she asked, turning the bottle over in her trembling hands.
“Ginger, milkweed, and mint. Brings peace to an anxious mind,” the voice answered.
Brenda turned to face the stranger. Where she expected a face, she saw nothing but hair. Long, twisting braids adorned with silver beads. Layers of black skirts covered her from waist to ankle. She wore a white blouse, thin enough to rustle in the stingy breeze. The braids covered the left side of the girl’s face like a veil. Her single visible eye was large and dark brown. Brenda blinked. The girl couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than her, if that.
She returned Brenda's stare with a bone deep gaze. It felt like she could see her birth, the thoughts in her skull, and all her fears stenciled inside a single breath. Uneasy, Brenda shifted her weight, stepped backward, and nearly knocked over a shelf. Nearly a dozen tins and bottles rattled on their shelves, tilting at dangerous angles, all threatening to tumble to the ground. The girl dove forward in time to save a rainbow-colored substance in an expensive-looking crystal vial. Brenda jostled a tin filled with glitter and two other bottles in her arms before placing each back on the shelf. Cheeks hot with embarrassment, she turned to leave.
“Want a reading? Might aid what’s troublin’ you,” the girl called out.
“You don’t know anything about me,” Brenda spat over her shoulder.
“I don’t. But what if I could show you who you’ll be in ten years, ten days? Who you mighta been in the past?” She bowed. “Hi Brenda, I’m Clair. Follow me.”
Brenda stood as still as a statue. She hadn’t given her name. Half terrified, half curious, she followed the girl toward a table and chair in the back of the tent. She motioned for Brenda to sit, then pulled a wooden bowl toward her. Brenda adjusted her briefcase still dangling across her middle and sat. Inside the bowl, she saw a tooth, two shiny pennies, a flamingo feather, and a chunk of bark from a palmetto tree. Clair filled the bowl with water. As the water rippled, an image formed. Brenda recognized it immediately: trees with pink blossoms, a tall bell tower, horse-drawn carriages. Philadelphia. Center City.
Brenda pulled her eyes away from the image as Clair fell into a trance. Brenda’s eyes darted around the room. She wanted to run but couldn’t move. An unknown force kept her glued to her seat.
“Look,” Clair said in a gargled whisper.
Brenda swallowed hard, heart slamming against her chest. She saw herself standing beside her Uncle Rufus in his antique shop on Lombard Street. She could see it all: the crow’s feet clawing at the edges of his gray eyes, the deep dimples in his cheeks, and a white halo of hair stretching from ear to ear. Her favorite uncle had a smile as easy as a breeze. He pushed his tortoiseshell frames up the bridge of his nose. Brenda inhaled deeply. Sure enough, the familiar scent met her nostrils: mothballs, pine cleaner, and furniture polish.
“Be careful with that spring, Beebee. You’re too heavy handed,” Uncle Rufus warned.
Rufus’ Rare Antiques wasn’t your run of the mill antique shop. Each artifact had a story her uncle sought to preserve. Oak armoires, Victorian lamps, and books surrounded them.
Brenda focused on the tiny rods, springs, and wheels spread before her.
“Come on now. It’s your birthday. You know what happens,” Uncle Rufus coaxed.
Brenda watched herself inside the memory. “I know,” she heard herself say.
The packages began arriving on her tenth birthday. They came wrapped in old newspaper, with no return address, and written in a curious cursive script. It wasn’t long before Uncle Rufus became obsessed. Brenda had no idea why Benjamin Banneker had chosen her, the great, great, great niece he’d never known, to construct inventions he hadn’t lived to complete.
“Well, open it!” Uncle Rufus leaned over her shoulder.
Brenda turned the cylindrical box over in her hands. It looked different from the first she’d received six years ago. This one was made of segmented cherry wood while the others had been metal, locked, and with the same cylindrical shape. She surveyed the tiny squares, each labeled with a letter or symbol.
“Uncle Rufus, when was Uncle Benjamin born?” Brenda chewed on her lip.
“November 9, 1731,” Rufus paused. “But that clue unlocked the last one. I don’t think it will be that easy.”
Brenda cleaned the lens on her magnifying glass with a cloth. “Where’s the almanac?”
Uncle Rufus turned to a nearby shelf and pulled the book from its resting place. “Be careful with it. Those pages are older than us both.”
Quickly, she rifled through the pages, checking for clues, and combing through the index. After thirty fruitless minutes, she put down the almanac with a grunt.
“Maybe we’re overthinking. Look, there’s seven panels.” Rufus pointed at the box. “Try almanac.”
Brenda did as she was told. A subtle click sounded. Two pieces of parchment slid from the wooden cylinder. The larger revealed a blueprint for a pair of intricate eyeglasses made of tiny wires, copper scraps, glass panels, and cogs.
“He trusts you from the grave, BeeBee!” Uncle Rufus grasped her by the shoulders.
The smaller parchment featured words written in the same cursive script.
An eye for an eye.
Brenda blinked back tears as the memory melted into the pennies, feather, bark, and tooth. Her lip quivered. “That was the last time I saw him alive. He was so happy.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks.
Clair pushed the braids covering her left eye aside. To Brenda’s surprise, she wore a jet- black eye patch with silver sequins sewn on its surface.
Brenda covered her mouth. “How?”
“An accident when I was two.” Clair pointed to her absent eye. “A woman wanted revenge against my mama. I was the target.”
“I’m sorry,” Brenda mouthed.
Clair’s lips curled into a smile as she threw her head back in laughter. “Just kidding!” she winked and lifted the patch to reveal another brown eye framed by long lashes.
“Caught pink-eye a few years ago. Wore a patch so my eye could heal. It also kept Big Mama’s herbs and ointment in place,” Clair shrugged. “Got used to it. Besides, the patch goes well with the ambiance,” she gestured around the tent. “Mystery sells.”
“What I saw—was that—?” Brenda frowned.
“I’m a bonafide Sage, that’s for sure,” Clair chuckled. “Sometimes you gotta add a little extra to draw folks in—did you ever make the glasses in that memory?”
Brenda’s mouth upturned into a smile. “Sure did.”
“There you are!”
Brenda whirled around to see her Aunt Squeak wearing a stern look.
“I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“Aunt Squeak…I!” Brenda stammered.
“Never mind that now!” She thrust a finger at her wristwatch. “We have three minutes to get back to the pavilion. You had better come on here gal!”
Brenda turned back to Clair. “Thank you. Take this, please.” She reached inside her pocket and pulled out three crumpled bills.
Clair accepted the bills with a small smile. “Somethin’ tells me I’ll see you again.”
The two girls exchanged a nod before Brenda darted out of the tent.
Together, they rushed between bustling shoppers, carts, and tables. Brenda followed close as her aunt squeezed her tiny frame between tents and around poles. Stomach growling, she resisted the urge to swipe another peach from the big-bellied vendor and continued on. Nearly out of breath, Brenda dashed toward the gathering.
“Go on BeeBee, I’ll catch up! You get up there!” Squeak sputtered through heavy gasps.
Brenda nodded and pushed through the crowd beyond the pavilion’s edge. By the time she reached the center, the contestants were standing behind their tables with their inventions displayed in front of them. From the looks of it, Dr. Djinn hadn’t revealed the winner yet. Instead, the Professor stood in the center, his West Indian accent coating the air like honey on a wooden dipper.
“Equipped with state-of-the-art amusement rides, a safari of creatures you’ve never seen before, and an ancient library, The Motherland is like nothing the world has ever seen!” Professor Blue exclaimed with the flair of a showman. The crowd applauded.
Brenda tip-toed around Professor Blue, flung open her briefcase, and quickly re-assembled her invention. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Plaits smirk in her direction. Brenda thought of the three dollars she’d lifted from her open satchel and shook her head before returning the look with a smile.
“Welcome back to the Annual Junior Ingenuity Competition!” The crowd parted as Dr. Djinn strolled to Professor Blue’s side. A brown ferret wearing a tiny top hat peaked over her shoulder. “The competition was stiff.” Brenda held her breath as Dr. Djinn approached each table. “Each of these young people showed tremendous creativity and intelligence beyond their years.”
“Well, beyond,” Professor Blue chimed in.
Dr. Djinn spun around to face her audience. “But there was one particular invention that was fashioned with such intricacy that we could not stop raving about it.”
“Impressive indeed,” Professor Blue’s bald head bobbed up and down in agreement.
Brenda held her breath as Dr. Djinn removed her hat. “Please put your hands together to congratulate…” she paused for effect. “Brenda Banneker, our second Odd Scholar!”
A Cure for Bigotry
Washington, DC 1920
Thelonious lowered his voice. “They say she killed a man…maybe two.”
“Well, I can think of a lot of reasons why someone might kill someone in the South. Namely, self-defense.” Elliot removed his protective goggles and turned his attention back to a beaker filled with smoke.
Arthur squeezed his nostrils closed with his fingers and hurried past Thelonious’s station. “That’s true. Stuff happens down there.”
“Down there?” Moses scoffed. “Stuff happens to Colored folks everywhere. It’s just out in the open in the South.”
Thelonious pulled a crumpled newspaper article from his shirt pocket.
The Negro World
Who is Dr. Marvellus Djinn?
September 1, 1919
Storming the world in the early 1910s, Dr. Marvellus Djinn is most famously known for her inclusion in the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair. There, she shocked the world as the first Colored magician to successfully extract souls from cadavers and store them outside of the body. Her pavilion at the fair was one of the most widely attended and talked about for years to come. While traveling to Harlem in 1916, she attended one of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s lectures. In May 1917, Dr. Djinn became one of the original members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. As a bonafide member of the U.N.I.A, she used her talents to spread the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s teachings throughout the United States and Canada. In 1917, she and fellow UNIA member Professor Bartholomew Blue, a Jamaican native and one of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s closest confidantes, dreamed up The Motherland, a magical theme park for Negroes and a replica of mother Africa herself in Hampton, VA. Djinn has thwarted all efforts by those in power to destroy her. From launching a successful campaign for the funding of the multi-million-dollar park to surviving a lynching, she is worthy of our support. The Motherland will open to the public on June 15, 1920 in Hampton, VA. As a proud sponsor of the park, U.N.I.A members will receive half price admission during the month of June for its grand opening. (See page F 12 for more information)
Arthur shrugged. “So what?”
Thelonious slapped his forehead and pointed at one of the last sentences in the article. “She survived a lynching! Did you read that?”
Elliot stroked his chin. “Wish I could bottle up whatever courage she had and make it into a cure.”