At the turn of the 20th century, minstrel shows transform into vaudeville, which slides into moving pictures. Hunkering together in dark theatres, diverse audiences marvel at flickering images…
We’re thrilled to share the first chapter of Andrea Hairston’s alternate history adventure Redwood and Wildfire, winner of the 2011 Otherwise Award and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award. Redwood and Wildfire is available from Tordotcom Publishing on February 1.
At the turn of the 20th century, minstrel shows transform into vaudeville, which slides into moving pictures. Hunkering together in dark theatres, diverse audiences marvel at flickering images.
Redwood, an African American woman, and Aidan, a Seminole Irish man, journey from Georgia to Chicago, from haunted swampland to a “city of the future.” They are gifted performers and hoodoo conjurors, struggling to call up the wondrous world they imagine, not just on stage and screen, but on city streets, in front parlors, in wounded hearts. The power of hoodoo is the power of the community that believes in its capacities to heal.
Living in a system stacked against them, Redwood and Aidan’s power and talent are torment and joy. Their search for a place to be who they want to be is an exhilarating, painful, magical adventure.
Peach Grove, Georgia, 1898
“I can’t keep running.”
Christmas moonbeams snuck through a break in the live oak trees, and Redwood Phipps planted her eleven-year-old self in the cold silvery light. Long legs and all, she was bone tired. Big brother George, her teary cousins, and wild-eyed grown-ups were leapfrogging through grandmother oaks, much wider than they were tall and so tangled up in one another, could have been a square mile of one tree. A maze of moss-covered boughs going every which way at once tripped up any fool aiming for speed. Redwood pressed her feet into the muck and felt fat ole roots holding down the ground. She leaned against gnarled branches holding back the sky. Warm as an ember in the small of her back, little sister Iris cooed in her sleep and burped sweet baby breath. Redwood turned her face to the stars, shivered, and closed her eyes.
The wind picked up. Sharp oak leaves sliced at her arms. She wanted to conjure herself somewhere else and give her poor legs a rest. But she’d just have to drop back into this mad dash to nowhere. And why try for some other where and when, without Mama to catch her if she got lost, without anybody to believe.
Redwood sank down on a mossy bough and rubbed an angry calf.
All they’d been doing for days was run: down dusty roads, through cold swamp mud, over the dead stocks of winter oats. Since a week ago, must be. Mama woke her up in the middle of a sweet singing and dancing dream. Then they raced out into a nightmare. Red flames flared against the black sky, babies screamed, and pale nightriders pumped shotguns at shadows darting through the trees. A posse of white men were going buck mad all over colored Peach Grove.
Whose fault was that?
Yellow fever took Daddy to Glory this past summer. Otherwise the family wouldn’t have been running at all. That’s what George said. Redwood tried not to be mad at Daddy for leaving or at Mama for letting him go. When it was really your time, even a powerful conjure woman like Mama couldn’t cheat the boneyard baron from his due.
First it was just them running—Mama with baby Iris on her back and big brother George holding Redwood’s hand. Then two days ago, after the sun sank into mustardy mist, Miz Subie lurched out of the swamp grass, gray hair rioting ’cross her head, whiskers on her jaw twitching. “Demon posse going wild, and I was high and dry, out of harm’s way. Why you calling me into this swamp between a hoot and a holler?”
Redwood snorted as Mama and Miz Subie hid behind the domed roots of a cypress tree to argue. Posse tracking them wouldn’t get nowhere but lost. Mama’s hoodoo spells kept them safe. She had secret places nobody could hardly find. Miz Subie had that cataract eye—wasn’t too good at seeing in daylight, get lost in her own front yard. She never wanted to bother with gators or snakes or mosquitoes. Mama must’ve left a hoodoo trail Miz Subie could follow with her eyes closed. Had to follow, probably. Didn’t she teach Mama conjuring? Why all the fussing and cussing?
“Garnett Phipps, you can run through fire and not get burnt,” Miz Subie raised her voice loud enough for Redwood and George to hear, “but that won’t put it out!”
“What you asking me to do?” Mama shouted too. “Stay here and what?”
“I’m not asking you to do anything,” Subie replied. Redwood had never heard her sound so shaky. “If you’re going, go. Otherwise—you running these little ones ragged.”
Mama didn’t say much after that. She hugged and kissed Iris and Redwood and fixed them in her eyes, but when it come to George, he pretended he was too grown for Mama still loving him like her baby. “I’m sixteen New Year’s Day, 1899. A man now, ain’t I?” he said. “Why we been running in circles? What you plan to do now?” Mama glared at George, but he kept on. “Why can’t you tell me what’s what?”
“Can’t nobody tell you what’s what.” All the mad drained out of Mama’s eyes. “You got to figure that for yourself.” Mama hugged him hard, and he didn’t want to let her go. She pulled away. “Y’all watch over each other. You hear me?” She squeezed Redwood’s hand till it hurt. “Keep a look out, Subie. For my children. Keep a look out.” Then Mama took off on her own, mud up to her thighs, tiddies dripping milk, tears aching in her eyes.
“We goin’ catch up with your mama later,” Subie said. “She got hard business to take care of.”
“I could help,” Redwood said. “If she’s doing a tricky spell.”
Subie didn’t answer right off. “No. We need you to stay with us.”
Redwood wanted to run after Mama but knew better than to make a big fuss. Didn’t she have to sing to keep baby Iris from howling? Indeed, Redwood sang till they found Aunt Elisa who let Iris suck ’cause—
“Auntie be trying to wean your cousin, so drink me dry, gal.”
Two days gone by since then, the whole raggedy family on the run—Uncle Ladd, Aunt Elisa, the five cousins too—sniffling, stumbling, and ain’t nobody seen another sign of Mama, not Uncle Ladd who could track anything walking nor Miz Subie on the lookout for a hoodoo trail. Mama’s hard business was taking too long.
Redwood peered through scraggly oak leaves curling against the chill. At least no more red fires danced ’cross the black face of night. Redwood tasted the air, drawing it slowly ’cross her tongue: cold ashes, cold soot. Maybe the nightmare was over. Maybe nobody needed to be running in circles no more, and she could lie down and catch a good sleep. Maybe Mama would come take them home…
“What you doing? We gotta keep ahead of those nightriders, till it’s safe to go back. Get up.” George pulled her off the old oak bough. His arms were thick with muscle. He shook Redwood once, twice, and rattled her teeth the third time. “Follow me. Should I take Iris?”
“No.” Iris wailed if she wasn’t sucking on Aunt Elisa or riding Redwood’s back. Half an hour ago, despite bumping and jiggling through the woods, she got Iris to sleep singing. Why mess up that? In the moonlight, George found a way through the crisscross of boughs, but Redwood lagged behind. Each step, her feet throbbed and her legs wobbled. Wet, heavy air choked aching lungs, like she was breathing everybody’s sweat. Her heart banged against her chest.
“Take your sister’s hand, George, and keep a lookout.” Aunt Elisa talked like Mama for a moment.
Redwood could’ve bust out crying. Nobody was really like Mama. George reached out grubby fingers and pulled her along. His heart wasn’t in it. Redwood stopped again. She wasn’t running like them hound dogs who kept going even after their hearts stopped, even after they were dead.
“You feel something, sugar, the rest of us don’t?” Miz Subie placed a cool palm on Redwood’s hot brow and drew the fever, drew the weary right to her fingers. “A sign all right.” Her milky eye twitched. “You think you can help us find your mama now?”
The whole family stood ’round Redwood, gawking.
“You know how to track her,” George said.
“Can’t find Mama if she don’t want to be found.” Redwood wondered what trick they were playing on her. Grown-ups were always hoarding the truth and lying, even though they said that was sin. “She’ll find us, when she want to. I’m too tired.”
“Why you got to be so stubborn? Have your way every time?” George just wanted her to do what he wanted.
“I can’t run no more.” Redwood pouted.
“Garnett’s communing with… the angels,” Aunt Elisa said. “She’s too busy to find us. We got to find her.”
Miz Subie scowled, but her rough palms on Redwood’s cheeks pressed strength right into her. “George is right. Garnett don’t hide from you. We follow you, chile. Go how fast you go. We counting on you.” Everybody nodded, even George. Subie wasn’t one to sneak in the back door. She just spoke plain and true.
“Angels.” Redwood sighed. What did the angels want with Mama? “Well…”
“Play some music, Ladd,” Subie said. “You know the gal like that.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” Uncle Ladd asked, looking ’round the shadows.
“Why she say play, if she don’t mean it?” Aunt Elisa was ’bout to be through with everybody. So Uncle Ladd strummed his ratty banjo. He couldn’t play worth a damn, and George had wondered why he’d dragged the ole thing along when they were on the run, life and death. Ladd kept strumming till he found Joy to the World. Redwood was done pouting then. She started singing loud. Nobody hushed her.
Aidan Cooper heard the Christmas music and stumbled to a halt.
And heaven and nature sing!
Thick strands of sweaty black hair obscured his line of sight. A hoot owl screeched, and he almost dropped the heavy burden that dug into his shoulder. He tried to breathe blood into constricted muscles. The alligator pouch dangling on his belt was caught between his thighs. He danced it free, juggling all that remained of Garnett Phipps’s body. Not an hour ago, he’d cut her down from a Georgia pine that didn’t burn when she did. He’d wrapped her in the white cloth his Aunt Caitlin used for bedsheets.
Thinking on her flesh crackling and boiling away, Aidan gagged. A foul stink leaked through the layers of rough cotton. Despite the powerful roots and herbs he’d gathered, Aidan smelled dried semen and spit, burnt hair, charred bones, and all Miz Garnett’s screams; and those upstanding men, Christians, hooting and hollering, having a rip-roaring, good ole time. All still ringing in Aidan’s ears, in his bones.
“Do right,” Miz Garnett whispered—a spear right through his heart.
“How?” Aidan spoke out loud to a ghost. Eighteen and going out his mind, he ought to know better. He ought to know something.
Take her to somewhere before it’s too late!
“It’s already too late.” Aidan told ancestors talking at him on the wind. “I saw Miz Garnett’s face go up in flames.” He wanted to fall over and not get up. His heart throbbed, like he’d been run through for sure. “What good is anything now?” He couldn’t just leave Miz Garnett on somebody’s doorstep. How awful for anyone to find her that way. “Well, I couldn’t leave her hanging in that pine tree, could I?”
The fellow banging at the banjo on Joy to the World played more wrong notes than right, but he didn’t lose the tune altogether. The music calmed Aidan’s heart. He cleared his sinuses and spit mucous and blood at the sandy ground. Longleaf pine needles gouged his bare arms. The night was unusually chill, near to freezing, and he was drenched in cold sweat, shivering in a north wind. Without meaning to, he was running again. Not heading anywhere in particular, he just couldn’t stand still. Miz Garnett was lighter when he was on the move. Bay branches smacked his face, but the scratches on his cheek barely registered. He was lost in a spell.
The church loomed out of the dark. The clean white oak gleaming in moonbeams startled Aidan back to hisself. Eighty-five years ago, after sweating and groaning all day in the fields, slaves built this house of the Lord by starlight. When the very first prayer meeting in the new church came to a rousing end, half these devout slaves, filled with the spirit of the Holy Ghost, took their freedom into the swamps and on to Florida, to live and die with the Seminoles. Paddy rollers chasing behind them got struck down by lightning, and their hound dogs got fried too. Overseer aimed to torch the church but set fire to his ownself—man run ’round for hours, burning everybody he touch, and nobody could put him out. They say, he still be burning in Hell. Even if this was a tall tale, the angry God of the Baptists made Aidan nervous. He was a sinner for sure, and no Hail Marys would help him here. God, Jesus, and the heavenly host had seen Aidan crouched up in that hunting perch doing squat, while Miz Garnett… while those men…
The door to the church was half-open, and Aidan nudged it the rest of the way. Plain wooden pews and altar were bathed in a silvery glow coming in a window that was as clear as fresh air. Aidan couldn’t remember this church ever being empty on Christmas Eve before. Squinting down the aisle, he saw a mouse run from a crèche in front of the altar. Black bead eyes flashed a fleck of light. A carved wooden Mary cradled baby Jesus and smiled at Aidan. A few donkeys and sheep stared at him expectantly. One of the wise men dressed in a Seminole patchwork coat had a broken leg and was tipped on his side. Indian ancestors had their eye on him for sure.
Aidan lurched past pews worn smooth by devout behinds and headed toward the crèche. He laid his burden down gently, despite the tremble in his muscles. He wanted to say some words, speak a prayer, but didn’t know what he believed. Singers joined the banjo on Joy to the World, coming closer now. Aidan scattered a bundle of sweet bay branches and violet orchids ’cross Miz Garnett’s body.
Outside the window, twelve riders in dark robes tore through the night, pounding the ground, raising a thick haze of dust. The singers and banjo player went silent. Aidan slid his daddy’s hunting knife out the scabbard on his thigh. The horses were wall-eyed and sweaty, tongues lolling and frothy. One rider’s pale face blurred in the shadows as they disappeared. Aidan hugged hisself and bent over Miz Garnett’s body trying not to scream or weep or break apart. The musicians started in again. A child singer soloed, and Joy to the World approached the church.
And wonders of his love…
A young gal stood in the doorway and sang her heart out. The music tore at Aidan’s gut. He dashed behind the altar. A blur of grown-ups rushed by the gal to Garnett’s body. Someone wailed and covered any noise Aidan made struggling out the back.
“Subie, the child led us right to her mama,” Miz Garnett’s sister, Elisa Glover said, her voice cracking. Must have been Ladd banging on the banjo beside her.
Clouds crossed the moon as Aidan sprinted to the trees. Subie, a dark woman in her sixties with a milky eye and wrinkled gnarled fingers, stood in the doorway, her hands on the singer’s shoulder. Aidan couldn’t make out the young one—her face swam in shadows. Taller than Subie, most likely it was Garnett’s gal. Aidan was covered in shadows too. Still and all, Subie spied him with that blind eye. She nodded once to him and ushered the gal into the church. Aidan raced on. Banging through brush, he didn’t feel hisself. But even deep in the old oaks, he felt the family grieving as the child sang a verse of Joy to the World Aidan didn’t know.
Everybody was hollering on top of Redwood’s singing.
“Garnett’s in Heaven…” Aunt Elisa faltered, “communing with the angels.”
“She’s dead,” Miz Subie talked over her.
Redwood didn’t want to believe it. An acrid smell filled the church, like green pinewood burning. She felt as if scorched roots were coming apart beneath her feet, tearing through dirt, spraying bugs and mucky old leaves in the air. If she hadn’t been singing, she’d have fallen over or worse. She clung to each note, longer than she should, louder than the pounding hooves drumming the road. Miz Subie didn’t lie. Mama was dead and gone and never coming back. Redwood didn’t know how she could stand it. She shook Miz Subie’s cold, heavy hand off her shoulder. Singing loud helped her walk the aisle between the pews and push past her cousins, aunt, and uncle to George. He couldn’t holler no more and stood at the crèche, staring at orchids on dusty white cloth wrapped ’round all that was left of Mama.
Redwood took George’s hand. He squeezed hard. On her back, Iris fussed. Redwood was full of tears too, howling through Joy to the World louder than a baby, for Mama going off with the angels and leaving them behind.
“You singing like her!” George shook so, till he almost knocked Redwood down. “Just like Mama.”
Hope burned through the hurt and held Redwood up. Everybody always said she was the spitting image of Mama. Sounded and acted like her too. So Mama wasn’t all the way dead—Redwood was a spell she left behind. Spells only worked if you filled your heart, did them proper, and believed. So right then and there, she decided, no matter what, to sing, dance, and conjure up a storm, just like Garnett Phipps. It was what she wanted to do anyhow, but now she had to do it. For Mama’s sake. Redwood’s voice broke into wrong notes and lost words, wailing and sobbing out of tune, for she didn’t know how long, but then she got a good breath and sang on:
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as, the curse is found
Excerpted from Redwood and Wildfire, copyright © 2022 by Andrea Hairston.