Almost all of Judah’s chapters have to be rewritten; this one needs to be switched to the present tense…
I wouldn’t say I’ve found a home in Weeksville, but at least I’ve got someplace to stay. Since the riots, a lot of folks are still camping out in the woods, staying out of sight until they figure out what to do next. Some folks are heading to Canada, others are thinking about heading west. Me, I got something like a job and a roof over my head. And for now, that’s enough.
Weeksville’s not a very big place, but people here got real big hearts. They see or hear of a black person in trouble, and they’ll do whatever they can to help. Soon as I arrived, this lady called to me from her front porch and asked if I wanted something to eat. I hadn’t eaten since noon the day before, so I was feeling pretty empty inside. Plus I’d spent the night in the woods—wasn’t easy getting to Weeksville after the riot, not when I was trying to keep off the road. Hard to see where you’re going when it’s pitch black outside, and there are no street lamps to light the way. So I went into the brush and found a fallen tree to rest by—moss and dead leaves made the ground soft enough to sleep on, but none of us got any rest that night. I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t exactly have company either. I could just tell there were people around me—black people running from the chaos downtown. We didn’t speak to each other, and we didn’t dare light a fire to keep ourselves warm. We just huddled there in the dark, waiting for daylight to come. Soon as the sky turned a little bit grey, I got up and got moving. Mrs. Claxton stopped me when I got to the outskirts of Weeksville.
“You hungry, son?”
The sun was high in the sky by that time, so I put my hand up to shield my eyes. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like a white woman. A tall white woman with a broom, sweeping the dust off her front porch. But this is Weeksville, and as far as I know, no white people live around here. I squinted my eyes and tried to get a closer look at her face. There are some black people who can “pass” for white. Even in Jamaica we had people like that. I guess I must have seemed either deaf or stupid, because the woman set her broom against the wall of the house and came down the steps towards me.
“I got biscuits just come out the oven. And hot coffee, too.” She reached the fence that separated her yard from the road, and put her hand on the gate latch. “Surely you have time for a quick bite to eat.” She paused and I realized she was as curious about me as I was about her. Her grey eyes swept over me quickly. “You got people here, or you just passing through?”
Before I could answer, she opened the gate and waited for me to enter the yard. I took a quick look at my rumpled clothes and tried to brush off some of the dirt and twigs that had stuck to me overnight.
“Never mind that,” she said, and put a hand on my arm to pull me inside. She closed the gate and then pointed to the right side of her house. “There’s a pump back there. You can wash up while I get your breakfast ready. You slept in the woods last night.”
This was an observation and not a question. I could tell by the flat sound of her voice, and the way she turned and went up the front steps without waiting for a reply. But I answered her just the same. “Yes, ma’am.”
She turned on the porch and looked at me then. I’m not sure why she stared at me like that, but I started to feel kind of ashamed. Despite her grey eyes, thin lips, and pale skin, something told me this woman was one of us. But black or white, I didn’t like taking charity from anyone.
“We’re not that formal around here. My name is Corina Claxton, but most folks call me Cora. What’s your name?”
“Judah.” She said it softly, like she was remembering something or someone else. “Go on and wash up, Judah. I’ll bring your food out in a minute.”
Once again, she didn’t wait for a reply. I said “thank you” to her back as she went in the front door. Then I went around the back of the house and tried to clean myself up.
I was still washing the sweat and grime off my face and hands when the back door opened. I blinked the cold water out of my eyes and accepted a cloth from a younger, browner, shyer version of the woman I had met out front. I thanked her for the cloth, and used it to dry myself off. The girl tried not to stare at me, but she was clearly as curious as her mother. Though she was tall, I figured the girl couldn’t have been more than thirteen or fourteen years old.
“Is Mrs. Claxton your mother?”
She nodded quickly, then took back the cloth and ran inside the house. I stood by the back door and waited. The yard was tidy, and looked as though it had been swept clean, like the front porch. An outhouse stood in one corner of the yard, and an open shed stood in the other. I could see carpentry tools hanging on the wall of the shed, but no one was working there now. I noticed an axe and several hunks of wood near the tool shed. When Mrs. Claxton appeared with my breakfast, I offered to chop the wood for her.
“That’s Felix’s job.” She handed me a plate that held three buttered biscuits and a hunk of cheese. Her daughter stood beside her holding a tin mug filled with steaming black coffee. “Get something in your belly first. Then you can worry about that wood.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I took the plate from her and bit into the first hot biscuit. I tried not to wolf down my food, but those biscuits tasted so good! Mrs. Claxton and her daughter stood right there and watched me eat. Every so often the mother would nudge her daughter, and the girl would offer me the mug of coffee. I would take a sip, thank her, and then hand her back the mug. We continued this way until all three biscuits were gone.
I wiped the crumbs from my mouth and thanked Mrs. Claxton for the food. For the first time, she smiled at me. “You’re welcome, Judah. This is my daughter, Megda. Felix is her twin brother, but he’s made himself scarce right now. Mr. Claxton went into town, but he should be back before too long.”
I said hello to Megda, then I nodded at the wood. “Can I chop that for you now?”
“Give your belly a moment to settle. Were you coming from Manhattan?”
“No, ma’am. Brooklyn. Downtown.”
She frowned and looked away from me. “I hear there was trouble last night.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I thought about Genna and the knife slid a bit deeper into my heart.
Mrs. Claxton watched me closely with her strange grey eyes. “You came to Weeksville alone?”
She stared at me a moment longer, then dropped her eyes, saddened but satisfied. “You weren’t alone last night.” Again, she said this as though she already knew it to be true. This time I looked away, and hoped I wouldn’t have to answer any more questions. My fingers started to itch, and I looked over at the axe, wishing I had something to do—somewhere to pour the anger I felt bubbling inside of me.
Mrs. Claxton handed the plate and mug to her daughter, who took the dishes and went inside. Then she looked at me and wiped her hands on her apron as if to say, “We’re done with that conversation.” I quietly smothered a sigh of relief and took a step towards the woodpile.
“Do as much as you like,” Mrs. Claxton said before opening the back door of her house. “If you get tired, there’s a pallet in that shed over there. Get some rest before you move on.”
I nodded and took hold of the axe. I set the first hunk of wood on the old tree stump and swung the axe high above my head. Then I took a deep breath and brought it down with all the strength I had. Mrs. Claxton watched the two halves fall to the ground, then turned and went inside.
I kept going until all the wood by the shed had been chopped. Then I carried it over to the back door, and stacked the smaller pieces along the wall. Mrs. Claxton sent Megda out with a mug of water. I drank it thirstily, and realized my shirt was soaked through with sweat.
“Want some soap?” Megda was trying to be polite, but I knew she was trying to tell me I needed to wash up again. “I think you’re about the same size as Felix. Mama?” Megda dashed inside and got her mother’s permission before returning with a bar of soap and a dry cloth. “Here, use these. I’ll get you a clean shirt to put on once you’re done bathing.”
Mrs. Claxton came back out and smiled approvingly at her daughter. To me she said, “Here, give me that shirt. I can put it to soak with the other clothes. You can come back for it tomorrow.”
I paused and looked around the yard. There was nowhere to change except the outhouse. Mrs. Claxton only laughed at me. “Boy, please. Don’t tell me you’re shy? Hurry up and give me that filthy shirt so you can get yourself cleaned up.” She held her hand out and waited for me to pass her my shirt.
I kept my eyes on the ground and slowly undid the buttons. Then I peeled the shirt off and gave it to her. I hoped she would turn and go inside, but instead she watched me walk over to the water pump. Mrs. Claxton didn’t make a sound when she saw the scars, but I could feel her piercing grey eyes on my back. I splashed water on my chest and arms and rubbed the bar of soap into a lather.
Mrs. Claxton finally noticed my embarrassment and looked away. She stood by the door, her back turned to give me some privacy. “You didn’t start off in Brooklyn.”
I rubbed the soap over my upper body, then used the tin cup I had drunk out of to pour clean water over myself. “No, ma’am.” I picked up the cloth Megda had given me and dried myself off. The hot summer sun beat down on my back, drying the ridged skin there.
“Well. If you need a place to stay, you’re welcome to stop here for a while, Judah. You don’t have to run any more.”
I wanted to be polite and agree with Mrs. Claxton, but we both knew there were still a lot of things for black people to run from in this country.
“Will this do, Mama?” Megda appeared at the back door holding one of her brother’s shirts. Mrs. Claxton took the shirt and shooed her daughter back inside. She handed it to me, then turned around again so I could dress in private.
“The person you left in Brooklyn—” Mrs. Claxton paused to see if I would finish her sentence.
Without any hesitation, I slipped back into the old lie Genna and I had used before. “My sister.”
Mrs. Claxton nodded once and checked to see that I was dressed before turning around to face me. “She wasn’t hurt? I mean, I hope…”
“We got separated during the riot. I thought I might find her here.” I didn’t like lying to Mrs. Claxton, so I was relieved when a loud voice interrupted our conversation.
“Felix!” a tall, dark-skinned man hollered as he opened the front gate and strode across the yard. Megda heard her father’s voice and slipped back outside to stand next to her mother.
“He’s not here, Lionel.” Mrs. Claxton looked happy to see her husband, but she also anticipated his angry response.
“Well, where is that blasted boy? That son of yours has a knack for disappearing whenever there’s work to be done.”
“Come inside and sit down, Lionel, there’s a fresh pot of coffee on the stove. I’m sure Felix will turn up before long.”
“I can’t stay, Cora. We need to clear a camp in the woods. Can’t leave those poor folks out there with no shelter at night but the stars. Who’s this?”
Before Mrs. Claxton could respond, I stepped forward and introduced myself. “My name is Judah. I’ll help set up the camp.” Mr. Claxton looked at me like I’d just insulted him. I took a step back and tried again. “I mean, I’d like to help any way I can.” I glanced at Mrs. Claxton and added, “Sir.”
Mr. Claxton’s face relaxed a bit, but he still looked mighty stern. He looked me up and down. “Can you swing an axe?”
Megda piped up. “He just chopped all that wood, Papa.”
Mr. Claxton surveyed the work I had done and seemed satisfied. “Come with me, then, if you’ve a mind to. We can use all the hands we can get.” He went to the shed, took another axe down from the wall and handed it to me. He turned briefly to his wife before heading out of the yard. “When that boy shows up, you tell him to wait here for me. I’ll deal with him when I get back.” Mrs. Claxton nodded solemnly, then followed us to the front gate and watched us walk away down the road.