Note to Readers: This novel, originally serialized in The Planet in 2016-17, is now available as a paperback with handsome cover art by the fabulous Jerry Wallace. You can order it online by going to this link:
Meanwhile, here's the first chapter.
Onyx, Jasper and the Yunwi Tsunsdi Or: What Part of "Steal Back the Cherokee Treasure" Do You Not Understand?"
CHAPTER ONE: Onyx
It was seven in the morning, 1981, and Onyx was in her narrow room in the cramped second-floor apartment, having the usual wardrobe malfunction.
It is said that no two snowflakes are alike. In Onyx’s drawer, the same seemed to be true of socks. How could they all be so tiny and so white, yet no two match? Onyx sifted through the drawer, then picked two out at random and put them on anyway.
Downstairs, Mama was singing around the diner – Aretha Franklin, R-e-s-p-e-c-t – pouring coffee for some old men in a booth. When Onyx came down in mismatched socks, Mama set down the coffee pot and gave her a kiss. Onyx objected to public kisses on principle, but Mama seemed so happy that Onyx didn’t have the heart to protest.
Mama was wearing tight, faded blue jeans, a red-and-white checked blouse that went with the curtains, and a spotless white bib apron. “Hey, baby,” she said. “Eggs?”
“Hey, Mama,” said Onyx. “Cereal’s fine.”
“Baby,” said Mama, with a grin so big it looked like she had 400 teeth, “any kid in
America can have cereal. You got a Mama that owns a diner and you are going to get the works. So shut up and eat.”
Mama pushed Onyx down on a stool at the counter and in short order presented her with:
Biscuits and gravy
And a note on the napkin that said, “I love you baby!”
Who could argue with that? But the fact remained, cereal would have been fine.
A man at the counter left, abandoning his newspaper, and Onyx hooked it before Mama could scoop it into the garbage. (Mama was in breakfast rush mode, zooming around the diner like an SST, picking things up and setting things down.) Onyx liked to read the funnies and figure out the word jumble. She was just starting to get interested in the crossword puzzle and Mama said that she was going to be a word nerd like her daddy.
Mama was leaning against the counter, talking to one of the old men drinking coffee.
“You gotta try the gravy,” she said. “It’s the way I learned it from my mama.”
“My doctor preaches about cholesterol,” said the old man.
“Change doctors,” Mama said. “Food is good for you.” She ladled gravy onto a biscuit and delivered it with a flourish to the booth. “On the house. Now, everybody help yourselves for a minute while I take this girl in the back and fix that awful hair!”
“No, Mama! No!” But Onyx flailed in vain. One minute she was sitting there doing the jumble peacefully, the next she was being carried off like Dorothy from Kansas by a tornado wearing blue jeans.
“You got to do that in front of people?” she said unhappily, as Mama yanked a comb through her hair in the private rest room in back.
Mama kept yanking. “You got to come downstairs looking like a carpet?” She was forming Onyx’s wiry black hair into three pigtails.
“I don’t want my hair like that,” Onyx protested. “I’m too old!”
“You are eleven, baby, and this is how you look cutest,” said Mama, securing the braids with elastic holders with plastic spheres that looked like bubblegum balls. “I wore my hair like this until I was in high school.”
“That was in the Middle Pleistocene. This is modern times! 1981! And nobody wears their hair like that anymore!”
Just for a moment, Mama’s face lost its cheer. “Maybe not at your school, baby.”
Instantly, Onyx decided to drop the issue. “Oh, it doesn’t matter today anyway,” she said airily. “Those celebrity photographers have stopped following us around by now.”
Mama snorted at the silly joke, but her smile returned. “Those pesky paparazzi!” she said. Mr. Harley, the photographer-slash-editor-slash-everything-else for the tiny newspaper serving the tiny town of Hemlock Hills, Alabama, had arrived unexpectedly in August when they had been busy fixing up the diner. They had both been covered with paint, dust, and sweat and had felt like hiding behind the counter, but the man had insisted, “You and your diner are big news around here and I got a deadline.”
The resulting front-page photo had made Mama cringe. “We look like we just got out of jail!” she’d said. But the diner had done a brisk business from the day they’d opened the doors, so Mama had concluded in a movie-star voice, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity, dahling.”
Now Onyx herself cringed just a little looking into the mirror at her round face surrounded by the trio of pigtails. One morning, maybe when they were a little more settled in here, she was going to stick to her guns and dump this do. Her head looked like a basketball with three spikes sticking out of it.
No, she thought, after she had collected the lunch her mother had packed her, the pigtails weren’t spikes: They were arrows pointing down at Onyx proclaiming to all: “Look, folks! There goes the BLACK KID! The only BLACK KID at Hemlock Hills Comprehensive!” They might as well have been neon.
But Onyx by nature was too practical to brood, and she found herself cheering up as she walked to school. One good thing about living above the diner was that you could walk anywhere in town in no time flat. Not that there were that many places to go, of course, but what there was, was all close by.
The diner was smack in the middle of the town square, and opposite was a little park with swings and seesaws and monkey bars. Surrounding that were the courthouse, a hardware store, a florist’s, a dime store where you could get candy if you had a little money, an arcade where you could go if you had a little more, some lawyers’ offices and places like that, of no interest at all, and a movie theater that only showed one movie at a time. On one side of the square, down a road that went nowhere else, was the school. Beyond that: a mountain.
There were mountains on the other sides of town, too. Hemlock Hills was located in the corner of Alabama where it met up with Georgia and Tennessee, and where the mountains are big and flat on top. If you liked a mountain view, Hemlock Hills was your kind of place. Onyx hadn’t decided yet whether she liked it or not. She came from Atlanta and was still more comfortable with skyscrapers in the distance.
But she had to admit it was a pretty little town. There was a national park nearby where the river went over a series of waterfalls, and resorts and scout camps, so the town kept itself spruced up to attract the tourist dollar. Several beautiful old houses had been converted to bed-and-breakfasts or antique stores, and every local business (including the diner) sold postcards depicting the local scenery. Onyx had sent one to her father with the message WISH YOU WERE HERE, because she had thought it sounded funny at the time. Now it didn’t.
Sometimes Onyx missed her father, but frankly she couldn’t even imagine him here. Mama in her blue jeans and checked shirts had made the transition from city to small town with flying colors, but Daddy in his natty suits and Italian shoes? He had looked natural enough in the old restaurant in Atlanta, greeting customers with a slap on the back (when any showed up) and saying things like, “Our special tonight is flounder en croute.” Daddy loved saying things like that, and it had always driven Mama up the wall.
“We’re throwing our money away on flounder,” she’d fretted. “This far inland, it costs too much and it’s not that good. Now, catfish …”
“Catfish!” Daddy had sniffed. “Your problem, Emerald, is you have a greasy spoon mentality. I want this place to have class.”
“Class! What I want this place to have is customers!” Mama had shot back.
Kids aren’t supposed to get involved in their parents’ arguments but it had soon gotten to the point that Onyx’s parents couldn’t say good morning without a fight, so Onyx had had plenty of opportunities to consider both sides of the question. Daddy was good at a lot of things – fixing electrical stuff, for example, and basketball – but about the restaurant, Onyx wished he’d just let Mama have her way.
Mama knew more about food than beavers knew about wood. When Mama went into a kitchen she just couldn’t help turning out stuff that other people just couldn’t help eating. Mama had been running her own restaurant when she’d met Daddy. Plus Mama had practically grown up in her mama’s small restaurant (called Grits), which Daddy had definitely considered a greasy spoon.
Meanwhile, Daddy, before he’d gone into business with Mama, had been a history teacher. Now, after the divorce, he was studying to be a lawyer but Mama said it would never happen. “He’s just showing off for …” she’d said, then remembered she wasn’t supposed to talk bad about Daddy and shut up. It didn’t matter, because by now Onyx knew Mama well enough to read her mind. What Mama meant was: “He’s just showing off for his new wife.”
Daddy had married Therese the day the divorce was final. Therese, besides being drop-dead beautiful, was a highly-paid attorney.
Onyx had arrived in front of the school, which was about a tenth the size of the one she’d attended in Atlanta, and realized that she was killing time looking around at the town because she wasn’t all that eager to go in. But the school buses were pulling away and the first bell was ringing, so with a sigh she started in the door.
Just then she heard brakes shriek behind her. She looked around to see a huge white Cadillac jerk to a halt right in front of the open school doors. Both front and back doors opened at one time, emitting a chorus of shrill female voices and a smell of perfume so strong Onyx could almost see little clouds of flowers flying through the air.
“Now, don’t you forget your lunch, Jasper Johnson Jones!” cried one soprano. “You got your books, honey?” shrieked another. And: “Come back here and give me a kiss, you heartbreakin’ cad!” And, in direct contradiction: “Now, Jasper, you go on! You’re goin’ to be late!”
There were loud smacking noises and more feminine shrieks, and finally a small figure with a book bag was ejected from the back seat like a cork out of a bottle. The doors slammed shut and the Cadillac roared off, the horn blowing a final farewell and a hand with long red fingernails reaching out of the front passenger window to wave a lacy white handkerchief.
“Hey,” said Onyx.
Jasper Jones, a kid in Onyx’s class, jumped a little at her voice, then looked furtively around to see who else had seen. Noticing with relief that nobody else had, he said “Hey” back. “Is something the matter?” he said as Onyx kept staring.
“I was just trying to count the lipstick marks on your face,” said Onyx. “Man, how many mamas you got?”
Jasper got a Kleenex out and wiped at his cheeks. “The usual number,” he said grimly, and went inside, still wiping. Onyx followed.
The truth was, Onyx had told a little white lie. It wasn’t the lipstick stains that had interested her; it was just that after several weeks of school she still hadn’t gotten used to the daily sight of Jasper Johnson Jones.
Looking at Jasper, you would have sworn it was Halloween. In a school where all the kids wore blue jeans or shorts, Jasper Johnson Jones wore full American Indian regalia – a buckskin shirt and trousers with fringe so long you’d think he’d trip over it, with moccasins on his feet and, on his head, a band with a feather in it.
What made the costume odder, thought Onyx, following him into the sixth-grade classroom, was that Jasper Johnson Jones was possibly the whitest boy in America. He had hair the color of skim milk and his eyebrows were invisible. His skin was so pale you could see the veins underneath it, and a little bit of cherry-colored lipstick he had missed with his Kleenex stood out like a bloodstain in the snow. The only color to him was his blue eyes, which were magnified by his thick glasses so that they popped out at you like planets.
Onyx walked into the classroom, separating from the sea of white faces the few kids whose names she’d learned. She didn’t have any friends yet but she was determined to be friendly. “Hey, Dakota,” she said to Dakota Akins, a big apelike boy with a reputation as a bully. He grunted, whether in surprise or greeting it was hard to say. Or possibly it was just a gas pain.
“Hey,” said Onyx to a fat girl named Margie Cloud.
“Umph,” said Margie, eyeing Onyx’s lunch bag. She was the kind of girl who was always after everybody else’s Twinkies.
“Hey,” said Onyx to everybody in general. There were snuffles and coughs and a syllable here and there. A boy named Timothy Freeman seemed to smile at her but he had new braces so it didn’t mean anything. He was always contorting his mouth this way and that, trying to get used to all that metal in his mouth. Everybody else just stared.
Onyx wasn’t shy and she wasn’t overly sensitive, which was lucky because if she were she’d have dissolved into a puddle of goo the first day of school. For one thing, all the kids in this itty-bitty town had known each other since they were born, maybe before. Almost all of them were related, and every one of them was white. That first day, everybody had looked at Onyx like she had antennae, webbed feet, and a long curly tail. They had stared at her until she had felt like getting up, tap-dancing, and taking a bow.
It had kind of puzzled her. Why would anybody stare at a perfectly ordinary black girl when they had Jasper Johnson Jones to stare at? But they were used to Jasper and Onyx was new in town.
Things were finally settling down now. The kids were getting used to Onyx, and also she had developed some coping tactics. Her theory of getting along was: Study hard and play sports. High grades kept the teachers off your back, and if you were good at ball the kids picked you for their teams even if they otherwise hated your guts.
Her theory of popularity was: Forget it. This was Hemlock Hills, Alabama.
Ms. Blevins, the teacher, called the roll and the long school day started. First there was math, which was Onyx’s worst subject. She thought how nice it would be if they could have it later in the day when her brain was working. They always started by checking homework out loud, which earlier had made Onyx nervous because she worried she’d gotten the answers wrong. But most of the kids in the class did worse than she did, and Dakota Akins could always be counted on not to have done anything at all.
“Tiffany,” said Ms. Blevins, “What is the answer to problem 3?”
A girl with blond hair said, “42?”
Ms. Blevins frowned. “Onyx?”
“36.5,” said Onyx, trying to sound confident.
“Right,” said Ms. Blevins, and Onyx allowed herself to breathe. “Question 4, Dakota?”
“Ain’t got it,” said Dakota.
“Did you do your homework, Dakota?” said the teacher.
Ms. Blevins sighed and made a note in her grade book. “Jasper?”
There was a glint as a sunbeam from the window caught Jasper’s glasses. He was looking guiltily up from a book he had hidden under his backpack.
“Is that your math book, Jasper?”
“No, ma’am.” Jasper Johnson Jones was always scrupulously polite. “It is called The Trail of Tears. It is a book about the injustices done to my people.”
“Jasper.” Ms. Blevins’ lips were pale and her eyes bulged. She looked dangerous. “What is the answer to problem 4?”
Jasper pulled a paper from beneath the book. “68.75, ma’am.”
“Thank you. Close the book. It will help you in history but we are now on math. Margie, what is the answer to problem 5?”
And so on, until, at last it was time to move on to history. Only it wasn’t the kind of history that Jasper’s book was about, it was Europe in the Middle Ages, with castles and knights and kings and queens. Jasper continued sneak-reading about the Cherokee, Onyx noticed, but she herself paid attention. She liked history a lot more than math.
“This period is also called the Dark Ages,” said Ms. Blevins. “That’s because there was so little learning going on.” Again she sighed, and Onyx wondered if she was comparing the Dark Ages in her mind to math period. “For almost a thousand years, people lived just the way their parents had before them, never thinking of new ways to do things.”
The Dark Ages. That made Onyx think of the months following her parents’ breakup, when sometimes Mama couldn’t make herself get out of bed. It had always seemed to be night and cold, and Mama had always seemed to be wearing a ragged bathrobe, and they had never seemed to eat anything but burned toast with gloppy stuff on it.
The restaurant in Atlanta had closed up by then so Mama hadn’t had any work to do. Nor had she seemed to want to do anything. They’d been living in a tiny apartment Mama had found after she and Daddy had sold the house, and when they’d moved in Mama had said how nice it could be with a little paint and some pictures. But she hadn’t painted and she hadn’t hung pictures, and the apartment hadn’t been nice.
That was when Onyx had gotten used to doing her homework without anybody telling her to and getting up in the morning without Mama calling her. Mama hadn’t seemed able to do much of anything in those days. She had spent a lot of time in bed but her eyes had always looked as if she never slept.
Now the greasy little apartment was just a bad memory and usually Onyx only thought of it when she smelled burned toast. They had the diner now and Mama was Mama again, a ball of energy in a blouse that matched the curtains, cooking killer food and singing Aretha. They had emerged from the Dark Ages and landed smack in the middle of Hemlock Hills, Alabama, which looked pretty good by comparison. Usually.
To be continued ...