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Fire on the Mountainby Terry Bisson
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Presenting an alternative version of African American history, this novel explores what might have happened if John Browns 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry had been successful. Chronicling life in a thriving black nation founded by Brown in the former southeastern United States, this dramatic story opens 100 years later, just as Nova Africa is poised to celebrate its first landing of a spacecraft on Mars. The prosperous black state will soon be tested when the granddaughter of John Brown returns from Africa to reunite with her daughter and share with her a secret that will alter their lives forever.
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Fire on the Mountain
By Terry Bisson
PM PressCopyright © 2009 Terry Bisson
All rights reserved.
Yasmin Abraham Martin Odinga drove across the border at noon. The man and woman at the station looked at her Nova Africa plates and Sea Islands University sticker and waved her on through without even asking for papers. Yasmin figured she was probably the first stranger they had seen all morning. Laurel Gap was not a busy crossing, and most of the traffic, from the looks of the road and the trucks and the area, was church picnickers and relatives home for Sunday visits — all known to them. Mostly white folks on either side of the border through here. Mostly older. Even socialist mountains give up their young to the cities.
An hour later Yasmin was in the Valley, heading north, with the high, straight, timbered wall of the Blue Ridge to her right, clothed in its October reds and golds. She scanned the radio back and forth between country on A.M. and sacred on A.X., ignoring the talk shows, enjoying the high silvery singing. There was no danger of running across the Mars news, not on Sunday morning here in what Leon had often impatiently but always affectionately called "the Holy Land." She eased on up to 90, 100, 120, enjoying the smooth power of the big Egyptian car. She had a 200-klick run down the valley to Staunton and she couldn't shake the uncomfortable feeling that she was late.
She was looking forward to seeing her mother-in-law, Pearl. She was and she wasn't looking forward to seeing her daughter, Harriet.
She had something to tell them both, but it wasn't for them she was late. It was for the old man. She patted the ancient black leather doctor's bag beside her on the seat. In it were her great-grandfather's papers, which she was taking to Harper's Ferry to be read on the hundredth anniversary of John Brown's Attack, fifty years after they were written, according to the old doctor's very precise instructions. Except that it was October and she was three months late. She had been asked to stay an extra month in Africa to finish the Olduvai Project; a month had turned into three, and she had missed the Fourth of July Centennial. A fax had been sent to the museum director, but it wasn't the same. Now she was bringing the original, according to the old man's will, in the stiff old pill-smelling doctor's bag that had held them for the thirty-six years since he had died (the year she was born), hoping maybe that it would make it up to him.
It's hard to know how to please the dead.
Near Roanoke she was slowed, then stopped, by buffalo. There was no hurrying the great herds that paced the continent's grassy corridors, east to west; they always had the right-of-way across highways and even borders. These were heading south and west toward Cumberland Gap, where even the mountains would stand aside to let them pass.
There was more traffic on toward Staunton: dairy tankers deadheading home for the weekend, vans of early apple pickers from Quebec and Canada, Sunday go-to-meeting buses — even a few cars, mostly little inertial hummers. Things were changing since the Second Revolutionary War. She heard more singing and reached over to scan the radio up, but it was the Atlanta-Baltimore airship, the silver-and-orange John Brown, motoring grandly past in the lee of the mountain; it sounded so joyful that Yasmin raced it for a few klicks before falling back and letting it go, worrying about potholes. The roads in the U.S.S.A. were still unrebuilt, wide but rough, straight and shabby, like the long, low, worn-out mountains themselves. Appalachia, on either side of the border, was a well-worn part of the world.
* * *
I am Dr. Abraham. When you read this, in 1959, what I have to say will be illuminated by the light of history, or perhaps obscured by the mists of time. Decide for yourself. I write as an old man (it is 1909), but I experienced these events as a boy. I was ignorant and profoundly so, for I was not only a n'African and doubly a slave (for no child is free) but an unlettered twelve-year-old unaware even of how unaware I was: of how vast was the world that awaited my knowing. There was only beginning to stir within me that eagerness, my enemies would say greed, for knowledge that has since guided, my enemies would say misled, my exact half century of steps thereafter. Fifty years ago today, in 1859, I was barely beginning to hunger and I knew not what I hungered for, for hunger was the natural state of affairs in the Shenandoah. Whatever the bourgeois historians tell us, and they are still among us, some in Party garb; whatever lies they might polish and toss, the slave South was a poor land. P-O-O-R. Great-grandson, do you even know what poor means fifty years in the future, in your day of socialism, electricity, nitrogen-fed catfish, world peace, and mules so smart they would talk, if mules had anything in particular to say to us humans? In 1859 kids in Virginia and Caroline (called Carolina before Independence) didn't grow up, half of them — of us I mean; of "colored," which is what we were beginning to call ourselves, forgetting that we were Africans at all. We thought Africa was where the old folks went when they died, and why not? That was what the old folks told us. The Shenandoah Valley was poor even for the whites, for it had the slavery without the cotton. There were plenty of what people called "poor whites." Nobody ever said "poor colored"; that went without saying, like cold snow or wet rain. Ignorance was the unshakable standard. The average man or woman, black or white, was as unlettered as a fencepost and about as ashamed of the deficiency. I could, in fact, read (this was my sworn secret from all but Mama and Cricket, for she had "learned me" my letters in the hope that someone, somehow, someday might teach me to do what she couldn't — combine them into words. And she was right, the trick was done by a tinker from Lebanon who laid up in our livery stable in the winter of '57 while he healed his bone-sick horse. Arabs know two things, horses and letters, and he taught me enough of both to get by. I had to bite my tongue whenever my master (for I was as owned as the Arab's horse), Joachim Deihl, gave up on a medicine label in frustration. But a "colored" boy reading was not to be tolerated even by a relatively tolerant Pennsylvania German like Deihl. Yes, I fought with John Brown. Old Captain John Brown, and Tubman, too. In fact, I helped bury the Old Man, as I will tell. I could show you his grave, but we swore an oath, six of us, six thousand of us, so I won't. If General Tubman is the Mother of Our Country and Frederick Douglass the Father, our Dixie Bolivar, then bloody old Shenandoah Brown, the scourge of Kansas, the avenging angel of Osawatomie and the Swamp of the Swan, the terror of the Blue Ridge, is some kind of Godfather. Blood may be thicker than water, but politics is thicker than either, great-grandson, and I loved the old man. I count myself as much his kin as any of his actual sons, that brave abolitionist family band who were the boldest of all his soldiers, willing even at times to stand up to their Captain, a thing which I saw no other (except Kagi) ever do. No, I never rode into battle with Captain John Brown, for he was too old and I was too young; he was as old as I am now, and I was as young as your own child, if you have one. But I fetched him his potboiled chicory-cut coffee on many a frosty morning while he and Tubman consulted with Green and stern Kagi: then I watched him while he watched them ride off to war; then he would sit by the fire reading his Bible and his Mazzini while his coffee got cold, while I helped Doc Hunter make his rounds, but always keeping one eye on the Old Man as the Doc ordered.
Many a frosty morning. Fifty years ago.
The backs of my hands on this typewriter tell me that I'm sixty-two now, an old man myself: but I was fourteen on those frosty wartime mountain mornings, sixteen when he died, and twelve when it all started on the Fourth of July, 1859, and it wasn't frosty that morning.
* * *
Staunton was getting to be a big town. The three-county Red Star of the South Dairy Co-op and the smaller poultry- and catfish-processing plants were gradually luring the last of the small farmers down from the hills, and even a few of their children home from the Northern cities. The square ponds and dairies, the hillside orchards and flatland wheat stations up and down the valley were prospering. Yasmin only came to Virginia once a year, and even though she knew it was backward of her, she resented the changes that came with peace, socialism, and reconstruction: the new buildings, the treeless surbs, the smooth metalled streets. Staunton wasn't her hometown, it was Leon's and she resented the changes because he had never lived to see them; because they marked with architectural precision how long it had been since his spectacular, world-famous death. Five trips. Twenty seasons. Three new growstone overpasses. He was, this early autumn afternoon, four new morning schools, a hundred houses, and one new stadium dead.
It was ungenerous, Yasmin knew. After decades of underdevelopment and years of civil war, the U.S.A., now the U.S.S.A., deserved a little prosperity. Leon, especially, would have wanted it. Leon, who had always loved his countrymen, even from exile. Leon, who had always welcomed the new.
Pearl, Leon's old-fashioned mother, lived near the center of town in the neat, tiny "rep" house that had been built ninety-five years ago for her grandfather: part of the reparations for the n'Africans who had elected to stay north of the border, in the U.S.A., after the Independence War. Whether they had moved south to Nova Africa or not, all black people had been covered by the settlement. The little frame house was perfectly painted and trimmed. Pearl shared it with another widow, also in her sixties, "a white lady, deaf as a post but a church member," according to Pearl.
Pearl had been expecting her daughter-in-law since noon; she came to the screen door with flour on her hands and tears in her eyes. Yasmin always made her ring-mother cry, then usually cried herself, once a year like a short, welcome rainy season.
But this year was different, and even though Yasmin looked for them, her own tears wouldn't come.
Harriet was at the Center, Pearl said — working on Sunday, was that what socialism was all about, come on in? Not that Harriet would ever even consider going to church; she was like her Daddy that way, God Rest His Soul, sit down. This was the week for the Mars landing, and Pearl found it hard to listen to on the radio until they had their feet on the ground, if ground was what they called it there, even though she wished them well, and prayed for them every night. God didn't care what planet you were on; have some iced tea. Or even if you weren't on one at all. Sugar? So Pearl hoped Yasmin didn't mind if the radio was off.
Yasmin didn't mind. She sat at the kitchen table and sipped that unchanging-as-the-mountains sweet Virginia iced tea that she had never been able to bring herself to tell Pearl she couldn't stand, listening to Pearl talk while she rolled out pie dough for the social at the church. What would God and Jesus do without their pies? Yasmin wondered. They would neither of them ever have to find out. War, slavery, revolution, civil war, socialist reconstruction, nothing slacked the flow of chess, apple, pecan, and banana cream pies from the Appalachians. Pearl gave Yasmin the bowl to lick as if to remind her that, even at thirty-six, her boy's girl was still a kid to her.
Yasmin loved the tiny little woman with her seamed glowing face, tiny mahogany hands ghosted with flour, white hair like a veil, tied up; loved her in that way women never get to love their own mothers because there is not enough unsaid, and too much said, between them.
Still. She decided not to tell Pearl her news. She would tell Harriet first. That was only fair.
The house felt stuffy and, as always, too filled with junk. Walking through the tiny rooms, Yasmin found the usual holograms of Douglass, Tubman, and Jesus oppressive; the familiar P.A.S.A. cosmonaut photo, with Leon mugging at the end of the row, had finally stopped tearing at her heart and now only tugged at it like a child pulling a sleeve.
She clicked on the vid, and, at the sight of stars, as quickly clicked it off.
She decided to get her gifts out of the car.
Back in the kitchen, she helped Pearl tidy up and explained that she was only staying for the night. She had to leave first thing in the morning to take her great-grandfather's papers to Harper's Ferry, as specified in his will. Yes, she would be back to watch the Mars landing. Promise. Meanwhile, this was for Pearl. And she gave her ring-mother a helping basket from Arusha, showing her how it would grow or shrink, shaping itself to fit whatever was put into it.
"Wait till Katie Dee sees this," Pearl said. "She's deaf as a post, but she loves baskets."
"I didn't forget her. I brought her a scarf," Yasmin said, realizing even as she said it that it was scarves, not baskets that her ring-mother loved. Why did she always get the little things backward? "But wait till you see what I brought Harriet." She patted the flat little box on the table, not even aware that she was listening for them until she heard the clatter of feet on the porch, shouted goodbyes, and Harriet burst through the door. Twelve last summer, still all legs and hands and feet. Bearing in her face like an undimmed ancient treasure her daddy's God-damn big brown eyes.
* * *
On the Fourth of July, 1859, I was with old Deihl, winding up the Boonesborough Pike north of the Potomac, carrying a load of cedar posts to a cattleman in trade for a horse that was said to be lamed, but healed, but testy. Deihl owned a livery stable and speculated in "bad" horses. It was just before dawn on the Fourth of July. It wasn't our Independence Day then, great-grandson, like it is now, it was only theirs; but even "colored" boys like firecrackers, and I was busy figuring where I could get a few later that day. Old Deihl was snoring on the wagon seat as we passed a line of men in single file walking south, toward Harper's Ferry. They were all wrapped in cloaks, unusual for even a cool July morning, under which I caught — for a twelve-year-old misses nothing — the gleam of guns. At first I thought they were slave catchers with which the Shenandoah was well supplied in those days, but several were Africans like myself; also, there was something strange about a crew so big. I counted thirty. In the back walked an old man in a slightly comical peaked hat with ear flaps, stranger still on a July morn; and beside him, in a long wool scarf, a n'African woman carrying a tow sack by the neck like a chicken, only swinging slow and heavy, as if it had gold inside. All of the men in file looked away nervously as they passed, except one, who smiled shyly and saluted me with two fingers. It's that little sad salute that I remember, after these fifty years. Though he seemed like a man to me then, at twelve, he was probably only a boy himself, maybe seventeen. He was white; I figure he was one of those who died, maybe gentle Coppoc or wild young Will Leeman; and I think he knew in his heart, for I am convinced boys know these things better than men, that he was marching off to die, and marching anyway — for what did he salute in me that morning, a skinny n'African kid on a jolting wagon seat: a brotherly soul? I was and still am at sixty-two. Maybe he was saying goodbye to all the things boys love: the things the rest of us take a whole lifetime saying goodbye to. But he went resolutely on, as they all did. Old Kate, Deihl's fifty-dollar wagon mule (he'd bought her for five) plodded steadily on up the pike, laying a rich, plunderous mule fart every hundred steps. Deihl snored on, put to sleep by them, as always. I've often thought that if I could have figured out a way to bottle mule farts and sell them back in the hills to old men, I could have stayed out of medicine altogether (and made several doctors I could mention happy, as well as myself but that's another story). The woman, of course, was Tubman, with her big Allen & Thurber's .41 revolver, the very one that's in the Independence Museum in Charleston today. The old man was Brown in his Kansas war hat, given to him by a chief of the Ottawas, I forget his name. The rifles were all Sharps, as the Virginia militia was to find out the hard way. For though they were outnumbered, Brown's men had better weapons than any of the enemy they were to face over the next few years. At least in the beginning ...
Excerpted from Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson. Copyright © 2009 Terry Bisson. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Terry Bisson is the host of SF in SF, a popular science-fiction reading-series. He is the author of several books, including The Cat’s Pajamas, Greetings & Other Stories, and Numbers Don’t Lie. He lives in San Francisco.
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