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  • Milton Davis

The Curious Cases of Martha Periwinkle

Here's a sneak peek from my latest Steamfunk project. Enjoy!



Martha Periwinkle wiped her brow as she paced among her baggage. The summer sun was relentless as always, defeating her white parasol. At least she wouldn’t miss the heat. She would rather be inside resting comfortably with the air chiller on full blast, but she couldn’t afford to miss the movers. Although summers in New York City could get hot, they would never match the oppressive combination of high temperature and humidity that dominated the south during the summer solstice.

She was about to retire to her empty home when she heard the heavy chug of the moving truck. The huge vehicle rumbled down Peachtree Street spewing steam from its stovepipe exhausts. The driver steered expertly between the steam cars and horse-drawn wagons, pulling up the curb with precise efficiency. An escort sat beside him, its head following the man as he climbed from the truck cab then sauntered to Martha, a clipboard clenched under his left arm.

“Ms. Periwinkle?” he said, his high-pitched voice a surprised coming from such a bulky man.

“Yes,” Martha replied. “You’re late.”

“Sorry, ma’am,” the man said. “Vernard Martin Moving Metal Men at your service. Atlanta traffic can be quite a challenge.”

“Indeed,” Martha replied. “Luckily I prepared for such a situation, so we have plenty of time for me to get to the skyport.”

Vernard pushed back his derby. “I have room for your baggage ma’am, but I don’t have room for you.”

“I’m aware of that,” Martha replied. “A friend is taking me the skyport.”

Vernard nodded as he took the clipboard from under his arm. He inspected Martha’s baggage, checking the list as he walked.

“Everything seems to be in order,” he said. “Can I get your signature?”

Martha extended her gloved hand and Vernard passed her the clipboard.

“Kind of warm to be wearing those, don’t you think?”

Martha glared at Vernard from under her glasses and the mover raised his hands in surrender.

“None of my business,” he said.

She handed him the clipboard.

“You have half the payment,” she said. “You’ll have the rest when I confirm my baggage has arrived safely.”

“It probably will,” Vernard said.

Martha’s eyes narrowed. “Probably?”

“Moving Metal Men are the best movers in Atlanta, probably the best in Freedonia,” Vernard said. “I can’t vouch for our American sister company.”

“You better pray they are just as good,” she replied. “Otherwise you won’t receive the remainder of your payment.”

Vernard frowned as he signaled the escort. The automaton climbed from the truck cab then lifted the first trunk with ease. It never ceased to amaze Martha how strong they were. It carried the trunk to the rear of the truck where Vernard waited. The man opened the gate and the escort loaded the trunk.

Martha was focused on the process when a sharp horn broke her trance. Stanley Johnson sat in his steam roadster fashionably dressed in his linen sack suit and straw hat, a wide smile on his sepia face. He exited the car then opened the passenger door for Martha.

“Thank you so much, Stan,” Martha said.

“No problem at all,” Stanley replied. “Only the best for my best lady.”

No sooner did she settle in did Stanley pull from the curb into traffic.

“So you’re going through with it,” he said.

“Yes I am,” Martha replied.

“I wish I could talk you out of it.”

“My mind is made. It has been for years. Our people in America need help, and I can help them.”

“Why does it have to be you?” Stanley asked.

“Why not?” Martha replied.

“If you stay I would . . .”

“You would what, Stan?” Martha asked. “Please don’t say anything you don’t want to say and I don’t want to hear.”

“You know I care about you, don’t you?” Stanley confessed.

“And I care about you,” Martha replied. “But I no more wish to marry you than you wish to ask me. So that’s settled.”

“It’s just that I worry about you,” Stanley said.

“Don’t,” Martha replied. “All the arrangements have been made. I’ll have thirteen students and a wonderful brownstone as a school. I’ll gain more students once the other families get a chance to see what I’m capable of. I’m told the people are anxious for their children to learn and can live in Freedonia. It will be nice to teach young people grateful for the opportunity.”

“I’m sure it is, but you must be careful,” Stanley said. “Relations are not good between our countries.”

“You know I don’t care for politics,” Martha said.

“You should,” Stanley replied. “They may look like us, but they are still Americans. Be careful, Martha. That’s all I ask.”

“I will,” Martha said.

“Promise me,” Stanley said.

Martha sighed. “I promise. Now can you make this thing go any faster? I have an airship to catch.”

Stanley frowned. “Hang on!”

He pushed the throttle and the steam car picked up speed. Martha smiled. She enjoyed moving fast, whether it was riding in a steam car, riding a horse, or building her career. In her short 32 years of life she’d accomplished all there was to do in the educational field, earning her PhD in education and reaching the level of one of the top professors at Atlanta University. There were rumors of her being considered for Dean, but the current dean, Professor Xavier Turnipseed, was relatively young in leadership years and Martha was not the patient type. It was then the idea of going to America and opening a girls’ academy blossomed in her fertile mind. Once conceived, there was no turning back. She’d traveled throughout the country several times looking for the perfect spot and found it in New York City.

As they neared the skyport Martha noticed a commotion that brought a frown to her comely face. A few yards closer revealed what she suspected. She punched Stanley as hard as she could on his shoulder.

“Ow!” Stanley rubbed his shoulder with his free hand. “Why did you do that?”

“If you weren’t driving I’d have punched you across the jaw. I told you not to tell anyone.”

Stanley cut his eyes at Martha as he continued to rub his shoulder.

“There’s no way I was going to allow one of Atlanta’s best and brightest to leave without a proper farewell.”

Martha was about to respond with an unpleasant retort until she recognized two people standing in front the crowd. Her anger melted away.

“You told my parents? How did you get them to come?”

“I told them you were about to do something stupid and they were the only people who could talk you out of it. That and I paid for their train ride.”

Martha’s anger returned, and she punched Stanley again.

Stanley scowled. “Punch me one more time and I’m wrecking this car.”

Martha grinned. “It’s only because I want to see my parents that I won’t.”

The small crowd cheered as Stanley pulled up to the curb. Martha smiled and waded into the collection of colleagues, former students and friends. She worked her way through them quickly then went to her parents, hugging both tight. Both were immaculately dressed, daddy in his three piece suit and Mama in white dress with teal trim and a matching teal hat.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I’ve missed you so much!”

“Apparently not that much,” her father said. “You were going to fly off to America without visiting us?”

Martha kissed her father’s cheek and a smile emerged from his sour countenance. Daniel Periwinkle carried a gruff exterior, but everyone who knew him well was privileged by his gentle soul, especially his children.

“Yes, daddy,” Martha replied. “I knew you would try to stop me.”

“Damn right I would!” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Martha turned from her father and hugged her mother. Carlotta Pearson Periwinkle was the opposite of her husband, genteel on the outside but hard as iron inside. It was she that Martha most resembled, in manner as well as looks.

“Mama, what do you think?” she whispered.

“You’re going to do what you’re going to do,” mama replied. “You always have. You’re my daughter.”

“She gets that from you,” her father complained.

“Yes, she does,” her mother replied. “We raised her well.”

Martha turned back to her father then kissed his cheek again. He fought back a smile.

“You’re going no matter what I say, aren’t you?”

“It’s too late not to,” Martha said. “Everything’s been arranged. Once I get settled I’ll send for you both to visit.”

Her father grunted. “There ain’t no way I’m going to that place! They ain’t got no respect for Negroes up there.”

“You could come and teach them, like you did in the war.”

“The war changed us. It didn’t change them.”

Martha felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see Stanley pointing to his watch.

“Sorry to interrupt, but your flight is leaving soon,” he said.

Martha grabbed her parents’ hands.

“Walk with me to departure, will you?”

Her mother squeezed her hand then pulled her close.

“Of course we will.”

They strolled off as the others waved their goodbyes. Mama and daddy accompanied her to the waiting area. They found three seats together and sat. The skyport bustled about them, Freedonians rushing to their flights that would take them to the far corners of the world. It was an exciting time for the young nation, but also a challenging time. The other nations of the world were taking notice, and that was not necessarily a good thing. Freedonia’s relationship with the various West African kingdoms and its alliance with New Haiti caused complications for European countries trying to expand their influence in Africa and South America. There were rumors that they were behind the tense relationship with America, but Martha and every Freedonian knew that outside interference wasn’t needed to stir that pot.

“I have something for you,” her mother said. She reached into her bag and took out a leather-bound Bible.

“Thank you, mama!” she said. “Now I have two.”

“Not like this one,” mama said. “It belonged to your great-grandmother.”

Martha cradled the tome against her chest as tears came to her eyes. Mama Bessie’s Bible was a family treasure. Her mother trusting it to her was a serious matter.

“Mama Bessie clung to the Lord during hard times,” Mama said. “I suspect your time in America may be difficult as well.”

“Not as difficult as hers,” Martha replied. “Nothing I do will be because of her sacrifice.”

“Indeed,” Daddy said. “You make sure you remember everything we taught you. Everything. Some things that Book won’t protect you from.”

Martha made a fist. Her father did the same and they touched them together.

“Last call for the New York flight!” the scheduler called out.

Martha stood and gave her parents one last hug before boarding.

“I’ll miss you both so much!” she said.

“Write us as soon as you get settled,” Mama replied.

“I will.”

Martha gave her parents one last wave goodbye before joining the passenger line for her flight. They strolled through the boarding gate, their tickets checked and stamped by a man and woman smartly dressed in their navy blue Skyport uniforms. From the gate they followed their flight attendants to their airship, climbing the stairs into the cabin. Martha had requested a window seat and was happy that one was available. Her seating companion, an elderly white woman with a welcoming grin, stood to let her by.

“A nice day for traveling,” the woman said.

“Yes indeed,” Martha replied.

No sooner did Martha settle into her seat did the woman extend her hand. Martha took it and they shook.

“Evelyn Braithwhite,’ the woman introduced herself.

“Martha Periwinkle,” Martha replied.

“So what takes you to America, Martha?”

“I’m starting a school in New York City,” Martha replied.

“Really? That’s interesting,” Evelyn said.

“Why so?” Martha asked.

“I wouldn’t think Americans, especially New Yorkers, would take to a Negro woman teaching them.”

“It’s a school for Negro girls,” Martha said.

The woman’s expression relaxed. “Oh, I see. American Negroes could learn a thing or two from you Freedonians. You’re so industrious.”

Martha smiled, but inside she cringed. This was going to be a long trip. Martha quickly took Mama Bessie’s Bible from her bag and pretended to read.

“So I guess you’ll be teaching domestic skills to the girls,” the woman said.

Martha looked up from her book.

“No,” she replied. “I’m teaching literature, math, history and the sciences.”

The woman laughed. “Whatever would a Negro girl do with such knowledge?”

Martha’s mood became sour.

“Where do you hail from, Miss Evelyn?”

“I’m an American,” she said. “I live in Ohio, but my family originally lived in the Alabama territory in Freedonia before the revolt.”

That explained the attitude.

“So the reason for your visit to Freedonia?”

The woman’s expression became harsh.

“To visit the land that was stolen from my people.”

Martha lost her decorum, rolling her eyes.

“Your family has a right to their land like everyone else,” she said. “All they have to do is become Freedonian citizens and pledge to honor the laws of the nation.”

“That will never happen!” the woman growled. “There is only one way to get our land back.”

“You tried that and lost,” Martha said.

The woman was about to say something else but Martha pulled the attendant cord. A flight attendant arrived immediately, a handsome brown man with engaging eyes.

“Is there a problem ma’am?” he asked.

“I’d like to change seats,” Martha said. “This one is unacceptable.”

Martha cut her eyes at the American and the flight attendant nodded.

“I think we have a few empty seats closer to the captain’s cabin,” the attendant said. “Please gather your things and follow me.”

Martha placed her Bible back into her bag then exited her seat.

“Have a good flight,” she said to Evelyn. She couldn’t abandon her manners, even when the person she spoke to didn’t deserve respect.

Evelyn grunted then looked away.

The attendant led Martha to the empty seat.

“I apologize,” the attendant said. “We try our best not to seat Americans and Freedonians together. For the most part there are no incidents, but one can never be overly cautious.”

“I understand,” Martha said.

She settled into her new seat just before the airship took flight. It took her a moment to shake off the conversation with the woman, but soon she settled into her Bible and her tension eased away. She was taking a chance setting up a school in American’s most notorious city, but she truly felt this was where her skills were needed the most. She took off her gloves and ran her hands over the worn leather book cover. If Mama Bessie could survive a revolution, so could she. She put on her gloves, turned to the New Testaments, and began to read.

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