Dr. Marvellus Djinn's Odd Scholars: Chapters 1 - 3
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 exclusive passes to The Motherland, her theme park of magic and mythological creatures in Hampton, VA in June. In addition to the tour, the winners will receive full financial support to attend Hampton Institute.
The odd scholarships 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 who are interested 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.
One Strength is the Family Business
Altamonte Springs, FL 1920
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 begin the summer.
“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 dispute 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.
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. Altamonte’s old folks 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 and a shirtless man in a red vest stood before the crowd. Silver armbands choked his 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 and before I introduce our illustrious judge for today’s contest, I’d like to announce the competitors!”
His accent was difficult to place. West Indian perhaps? Last year he’d met a man from the Bahaman islands off Florida's 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.
As one of the previous year’s finalists, he and Cairo’s names were the first to be called. After Cairo posed for the audience, Omen flashed a grin and waved to the cheering crowd.
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?”
It made perfect sense. He wasn’t the only one who wanted the chance to see the world beyond Altamonte. There was so much more to life than gators and swamps. He’d promised himself when the opportunity came, he’d snatch it up.
“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 mama 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.” He pulled a newspaper clipping from one of his pockets. “Your Uncle Dwight got a hold of this a few months back while handlin’ business 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 crowd dissolved into chaos as the Colored woman was carried off and hanged.”
Diane LaFleur of Rue Dauphine, who witnessed the quarrel, 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.”
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 The Motherland, the country’s first Colored Amusement Park, I present to you the Mentor of Magic, the Scholar of Sorcery 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, Professor Blue.” She spun back to her audience. “Greetings one and all and welcome to this year’s Mighty Biceps Juvenile Arm-Wrestling Competition!”
Omen joined 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 magical amusement park! Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road!”
Quickly, the contestants descended the risers and huddled with their teams.
“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 returned to the stage as his uncle thumped him between the shoulder blades. His heartbeat quickened. This was it. He figured he was about ninety minutes away from redemption. Somehow, he summoned calm as the audience rushed forward, choking the edges of the stage. A group of men dressed similarly to Professor Blue stepped in to secure the area.
The rules were simple: two preliminary rounds, a semifinal, and a final. Best two out of three in each. The winner would move on to the next round. For the preliminary bouts, two matches would take place at once. Omen took a look 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 had never been all that sure of himself and it showed. To him, losing wasn’t a lesson; it was the end of the world. Losses came with the territory. It's the response to the loss that makes a champion. Allen wouldn’t last in the Strength Business. Everyone knew it.
The two boys took their seats on a pair of stools. Omen 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!"
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 in the air.
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. “Two 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’ y’all are giving him a reason to let his guard down. And I’ll interject philosophy wherever my son is concerned any time I’d like, Ichabod.”
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.” He 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 his 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 and stood back to admire his son with a smile.
“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.”
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 chaos broke out.
“We protest!” Cairo and his corner yelled in unison. “We protest!”
The crowd settled into a hush.
Dr. Djinn’s eyes narrowed into slits. “You protest?’
“We do. Wrestlin’ a girl is ‘gainst everything we stand for,” Cairo’s father huffed.
The crowd stirred in the late afternoon heat. Whispers of agreement rocked the gathering as they stood, on edge.
“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 leaned forward, placing her weight on her cane, and lacing her fingers around its topper. “Correct me if I'm wrong, but 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 cupped a hand over her ear. “I didn’t quite catch 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 looked out into the crowd. “Anyone else?”
“Anyone else?” the parrot shrieked. “Anyone else?”
Omen turned to his corner. Beating a girl in the final bout wasn’t ideal. In fact, his victory might be questioned due to the “quality” of the match. Still, there was nothing he wanted more than to win, regardless of his opponent. He'd trained 364 days for this very moment. Before his father could raise a hand, he gripped his chain inside his fist and pleaded with his eyes. “No!” he hissed.
Ivan and Big Bub exchanged a frown, but honored his 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 angry curses. Omen held his breath, waiting for an all-out brawl. 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!”
Omen won in seconds. It was 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, the girl’s grip tightened. 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, his arm slammed 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 watched 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—” She held his hand up high. “Omen Crow! 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!”
Two 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, gears, 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—someone with magic blood, can properly handle the contents of a Soul Jar—”
“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 heavy 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, she balanced her invention between her thumb and index finger and pressed 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 a subtle click, the syringe retracted and 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 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 and hurried 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 said. “The competition is top notch.”
Brenda turned back to her briefcase and pushed 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. After she unzipped a felt-lined pocket, she scraped the parts of the Fire Needle inside.
“Your uncle loved that briefcase.” Aunt Squeak stared at the contraption with a longing in her eyes.
Brenda kept her eyes fastened to the pile of mechanical parts. She opened another drawer soaked inultra-violet rays.
“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.”
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 Bona fide UNIA 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.” She jabbed her playfully in the arm. “Want a reading?”
Her aunt 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. “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 fist. 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 middle, 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.