I’ve got about 20 chapters of the sequel written so far–as soon as I finished A Wish After Midnight back in ’03, I started writing Judah’s Tale. I was still in that space—still immersed in that historical moment, and in the lives of my characters. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and caring for my father, who was dying of cancer; as his care demanded more and more of my time, I gradually stopped writing and then stored the project altogether. There’s a lot of work to do on these chapters, but I figured maybe posting some online would inspire me to polish them up. This is Chapter 6. The chapters alternate in terms of point of view, starting with Judah (who’s stuck in the past), then switching to Genna, who’s back in the present (2001). Looks like I’m having some formatting issues, so try to just imagine where the italics go!
“Here, baby, I brought you some clean towels…”
Mama’s breath goes back into her mouth, sharp, like a blade. She is staring at the scars on my back, not wanting to believe that they are real, but fearing that they are. I could look my mother in the eye simply by facing the mirror. But instead I wrap the towel around my body and keep my eyes on the water swirling down the drain.
Mama reaches out and touches my bare shoulder. Her fingertips are icy cold, and I jump in spite of myself. “Who did this to you?”
I have been back nearly a week, and Mama has been patient with me. I have put off answering her questions. I have kept my other life buried deep inside of me. The chaos of 9-11 makes it easy to change the subject. But I always knew I couldn’t hide the truth from her forever. The scars on my body won’t let me keep the past a secret.
“Genna, who did this to you?”
I shiver as cool air slips inside the open door. “I can’t tell you, Mama.” It’s the truth, but Mama doesn’t understand.
“Why not?” Mama pushes the knife back out of her mouth. It is aimed right at me, but I know who Mama really wants to hurt.
“You wouldn’t believe me, Mama. You wouldn’t understand.”
Mama stares at me for a long time, her eyes hard and unforgiving. Then she sits down on the toilet lid and sighs heavily. “Genna, baby, this world ain’t what it used to be. People are flying airplanes into skyscrapers. A week ago I would never have believed that could happen, but now I know different. Try me, Genna. Please. I need to know what’s happened to you.”
I sit down on the edge of the tub and stare at my bare toes. Mama reaches out and touches my locks. “Your hair has grown so quickly.”
I feel my mother’s fingers in my hair. She is touching my locks so gently, with such tender admiration, that I start to cry. Mama puts her hands on my shoulders and pulls me onto her lap. I am too old and too big to be held like this, but I let Mama rock me just like she used to when I was a little girl.
“You don’t have to hide anything from me anymore, Genna. I didn’t do right by you, I know that. And I’m so sorry, baby. But we’ve got to be honest with each other from now on. ’Cause I can’t lose you again. And I can’t keep you safe unless you trust me. Okay?” Mama brushes the tears from my eyes and I nod silently. Then she takes a deep breath and says, “It wasn’t that boy, was it? That Rasta?”
I jump up off Mama’s lap. “No! Mama—how could you think that? Judah would never hurt me. He saved me—he saved my life, Mama!”
“Okay, baby, calm down. Please, Genna—I had to ask. He went missing about the same time as you—we all figured you were together, but I didn’t know if you’d gone willingly. I thought maybe he forced you to—”
“Judah didn’t force me to do anything!”
“Okay, okay, I believe you, baby. Whatever you say. Just tell me who hurt you like that.”
I don’t want to get too close to Mama, so I press myself into the corner by the sink. I don’t know how to tell this story, but I am so tired of holding it in. And Mama’s right—what happened on Tuesday proves that just about anything’s possible. I take a deep breath and decide to just say everything at once, even if it doesn’t make sense. “I went back in time, Mama. To 1863. I went to the garden that night after you—after we had that fight. And I made a wish in the fountain, and I got sent back in time. Judah came to the garden looking for me, and he got sent back, too, but we couldn’t find each other for a long while. We were slaves, Mama. And I don’t know who beat me like that, but Judah got whipped, too—it happened all the time back then, because black people weren’t real people, we were property, white folks owned us, and they could treat us any old way. I was lucky—I met people, good people who helped me, and then I found Judah and the riots started and then I got shot and that sent me back here.”
For a long time Mama doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me with that knot between her eyes. Mama looks at me like I am a stranger, like I am some alien from outer space. Mama looks at me like I’m crazy, but I can tell she is fighting something inside herself. She knows I am not a stranger or an alien—I am her daughter. And I am not lying. Something inside her knows that I am telling the truth. But how could this be true? Mama presses her eyes shut, then she opens her eyes and shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know what to say, Genna.”
I pull the towel tighter around me to help me hold onto the truth. Mama gets up from the toilet, takes off her robe, and offers it to me. I take it from her and put it on. It is the same old, thin robe Mama has always worn, but right now having it on makes me feel warmer than standing in the sun. Mama gives me a small, silent smile, then she leaves the bathroom and goes into the kitchen. I hear her filling up the kettle with water, then I hear the clicking of the burner and the soft whoosh as the flame leaps up. I avoid the mirror hanging over the sink and follow Mama into the kitchen.
She is sitting at the table, her face buried in her hands. I stand in the doorway for a long while, not sure what to say or do. When the water is about to boil, I go over to the stove and turn off the gas before the kettle starts its shrill whistle. Then I pull out a chair and sit down next to Mama. I put my hand on her arm but she doesn’t respond. Mama is weeping quietly behind her hands.
“Don’t cry, Mama. Please, don’t cry. I’m okay now, I’m back. It’s going to be okay now.”
Mama pulls her hands away from her face and looks at me. This is the first lie I have told. We both know it’s not going to be okay.
“I’m so sorry, Genna. I’m sorry that I hit you that night. I’m sorry I didn’t go after you when you ran out of the house. It’s all my fault…”
“It’s nobody’s fault, Mama, it just happened. I don’t know why, but it did.”
I get up and tear a paper towel off the roll. I hand it to Mama so she can dry her eyes, then I start making us both a cup of tea. I can feel Mama’s eyes on my back. Her robe is threadbare, but I know she is wondering what other scars are hidden underneath. “What was it like—being there—in the past?”
Mama’s throat is hoarse and dry. I hand her a mug of hot tea, and sit down across from her. “Brooklyn was so different, Mama. I could hardly believe my eyes.”
“Tell me about it.” Mama sips her tea and waits for me to speak. I decide to start at the beginning, with being found in the ash dump by Lester and Charlie, then being rescued by Sam Jenkins. Mama listens to me with the slightest smile, like she is a child and I am telling her a bedtime story. Whenever I stop, she asks me questions and urges me to go on. I hardly have a chance to drink my tea, and it is cold by the time I tell Mama about the draft riots and the terrifying night I got sent back to this century.
When I stop talking, Mama keeps on watching me with that strange smile on her lips. I lower my eyes and wonder if I was wrong to tell her the truth. I didn’t tell Mama the entire story, but I feel like now I have more room inside. In a strange way, talking about Mattie, and Martha, and Judah makes them seem not so far away.
Mama pushes her empty mug away and gently touches my arm. “You must miss them, your friends. It sounds like you never got to say goodbye.”
I blink fast and fight back the tears that gather in my eyes. “I’ll see them again someday.” I realize too late that this is the wrong thing to say to Mama. The knot tightens between her eyes again and her voice becomes sharp with panic.
“What do you mean, see them again? You can’t see them again, they’re gone—you’re gone! You’re here, where you belong.”
Mama pauses and waits for me to agree with her, but I can’t. I avoid her eyes. I don’t want to see how afraid she is, and I don’t want her to see how determined I am to go back.
“You stay out of that garden, you hear me? Genna?” Mama waits for me to answer, but I still don’t say a word. She softens her voice and tries again. “Genna, baby, I need you. You and Tyjuan, you’re all I’ve got left. And it’s not safe anymore—we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We’ve got to stay together. Right?”
Mama’s eyes are pleading with me, and her fingers are wrapped tight around my arm. I nod but keep my eyes on the cold tea at the bottom of my mug. Mama needs more of an assurance than this, but there is nothing more I can offer.
“It’s over, Genna. This terrible thing that happened to you—it’s over. There’s nothing you can do now. Just leave it alone, please. Let’s just try to go back to the way things were.”
Mama knows as well as I do that things won’t ever be the same. But then I think, maybe this is Mama’s dream, maybe I should accept hers the way she has tried to accept mine. My story may not make sense to her, but Mama isn’t trying to convince me that it isn’t real. So I just smile at Mama the best I can, and inside I tell myself that what happened to me isn’t over—not for good, not yet.