Alex Jennings’ writing has appeared in The Hunger Journal, The Peauxdunque Review, and Obsidian. His novel, The Ballad of Perilous Graves will be released in 2022. Born in Germany, he trotted the globe until settling in New Orleans. In the Before Times, he MCed a literary readings series called Dogfish. Alas.
Why do you write? What compels you to write? I'm compelled to write by the child I was. Growing up Black, Queer, misunderstood sometimes made me feel like the last kid on earth, so I write the stories that kid needed and were so hard to find: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror where the characters look like him, where the protagonists who triumped, perished, or merely survived thought like him, loved like him. I'm also inspired by my city, New Orleans. Moving here offered me a different perspective of Blackness, and how Black music and creativity have shaped the world.
What upcoming writing projects are you working on? Right now, my main focus is getting The Ballad of Perilous Graves ready for publication in 2022. I'm also working on a graphic novel project called God of the Depths, and a short story currently called "Them Doghead Boys." That one is a horror/noir piece set in my real-life neighborhood and using the legend of the rougarou. I think it represents a fascinating shift in my own voice and expression.
Describe your work in five words: Speculative, queer, Black, Black, and Black.
What are some of your artistic influences/inspirations? Octavia Butler is one of the biggest. Nisi Shawl, Sheree Renee Thomas, Champion Jack Dupree, James Booker, Ladee Hubbard, and Victor Lavalle.
The Hanging Judge
(From The Ballad of Perilous Graves)
Last May, a few weeks before school ended, Perry had awakened to find a note from Peaches on his bedroom nightstand: POOL AFTER SCHOOL, BABY! it read in her swooping scrawl that was neither print nor cursive.
It would be just the two of them, today—Brendy had dance lessons that afternoon—so as soon as school let out, Perry jumped on the 91 Sky Trolley, heading toward the natatorium in City Park. The windows had been fogged opaque by the tension between the air conditioning and the almost-Summer heat outside. Droplets of condensation beaded all over the car’s red exterior and made it look as if it were sweating from exertion. Inside, a trio of elderly ladies coming from the Tchoupitoulas Walmart squawked and gossiped, filling the car with their pressed-flower perfume.
The day before, Mr. Yaw had changed his approach to Perry’s piano lessons and given Perry a small keyboard to practice on. It was about the size of a shoebox and fit easily into Perry’s book sack. The idea was that he would take it out and practice his fingering and chords whenever he had the chance. That way, he could practice at home without his folks investing in a real piano before Perry’s aptitude for sorcery revealed itself.
Mr Yaw was a white man of medium build who stood just over six feet tall. The strangest thing about him, in Perry’s opinion, was his bearing. At times, he seemed stiff and formal, speaking from somewhere low in his throat, his voice squeezed tight as it traveled up and out.
“I’m not sure what the issue is, but this is what worked for me as a boy,” he’d said. “Having a way to practice idly until the motions became natural to me. Wasn’t long before I was lock-smithing on an amateur basis.”
Hearing that had made Perry hopeful. There was something about locks that he liked a lot. Being able to manipulate their interior mechanisms by playing this or that simple tune—even such modest magic would make Perry proud.
As the skycar scooted along above Esplanade Avenue, Perry sat with the keyboard balanced on his right knee and played chords with the volume off.
The trolly glided past the entrance to City Park with no stops before the turn on Orleans. It stopped a couple times after the turn, but Perry stayed on until it turned again, and descended to the street out front of Delgado Community College. Perry disembarked, ignoring the vibrations at his feet. Something about Delgado had always seemed weird to Perry, but nobody else had ever expressed a similar feeling, so he figured it was all in his head.
Perry crossed Orleans and headed into the park, his keyboard hanging from his left hand, swinging along with his arm. He loved the smell here. There was always a little algal must in the air, but instead of smelling musty and gross, it smelled alive, to Perry. The oaks and Magnolias joined hands over head as Perry followed the familiar asphalt path toward the pool. He walked on autopilot, thinking about how good it would feel to cut the water with his hot brown limbs, and how school was almost almost almost over.
That’s why it took him so long to realize that something was wrong. Perry slowed down his walking as he realized that the light was wrong. It was only 3:30, but out here, it looked as if night were about to fall. The sky was cloudless, but dim and exhausted, and the trees… the magnolias, oaks, the willows, the cypress trees all looked dead and bare, save for Spanish Moss that looked washed-out and dead. Perry thought of that scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her friends stumbled into the wrong part of the forest where the trees threw apples at them.
He made his way into a clearing before he stopped and turned, trying to get his bearings. He saw no landmarks he recognized, no signs the he was even in the park anymore. Beneath his feet, the asphalt bike path had given way to a beaten dirt track without Perry noticing. He was… he was lost.
In the distance, Perry saw a figure standing by what looked like a well. From here, it was hard to tell, but Perry thought it might be an older white man. “Hey!” Perry called. “Hey, excuse me!”
Something about the way the figure’s body responded made Perry think calling out had been a bad idea. Its body tensed, vibrating with attention like that of a pointer or a hound. Perry almost expected to hear a howl or bark.
Perry decided he should turn around, or at least halt his approach, but his body paid him no mind. It carried him closer to the figure, and closer still. He saw as he drew near that the figure was a man—or something like one. Barefoot, it wore judicial robes, with a grimy powdered wig that had slipped back on its skull to show its stubbly scalp. Its face seemed translucent white, and its skinny bare legs were dirty and scratched by brambles or stickers.
You people and yer goddamn jungle music, it said. No home-training…! Its voice was raspy and ragged, like it had shouted itself hoarse at a Saints game.
Perry had stopped walking now, but his approach seemed to have sped up. He was still roughly twenty-five yard from the Judge, but he could hear it whisper, just the same. Him, he told himself, it’s a him. It’s not a it, but he knew that wasn’t true.
Just a-drummin and a-hollerin. And ya dirty things up and vandalize. Paint yer little mess all over the statues and the walls.
Perry hadn’t painted anything, but terror broke against his breast and spread across his core, a gelid web. A hollow tremor ran through him as he realized that the Judge wore a noose around his neck. Its frayed edge hung down like a necktie or a severed tongue. Its face wasn’t just unnaturally pale, it was made up like a mime. Its cheeks were comically rouged. At first, Perry thought the Judge wore dark lipstick, but it seemed more like it had ingested something rotten and thrown it back up. A ragged black stain ringed its mouth and ran down its chin.
It stood next to a well. It was a broad, stone-built structure that rose to the Judge’s waist. As he drew near, Perry became certain that it was the well pulling on him, not the Judge, and certainly not his own two feet. What if it kept dragging him and dragging him until Perry went over the side, and—?
Two large rough sacks lay at the Judge’s dirty feet. Had they been there before?
“We wanna integrate! We want equality!” now its voice was high and mocking. But ya live like scum, like animals. Dirtying up wherever ya go.
This was a dream. Perry had fallen asleep on the skycar and he was having a nightmare.
Moving jerkily, like a poorly operated marionette, The Hanging Judge stooped to grab one of the large bags lying on the dead grass and heaved it over the lip of the well. Then, it grabbed two more, one in each hand, and threw them in, as well. Perry realized now that the bags were big enough and lumpy enough to hold human bodies or remains—not full-grown people, but kids, at least. Boys.
It’s only right. I only do what I got a right ta do.
Now he was about five feet away from the Judge. Perry hung suspended before him, his arms stretched to either side. The worst thing about the Judge was not its ratty disheveled wig or his torn and dirty robes—not even the pallor of its face or the rust-brown substance that stained its hands. It was the eyes. The eyes were very human—bloodshot, utterly insane, but human. As if this were no evil spirit or malevolent haint. This was a man, who barely saw Perry, but hated him just the same.
Eyes locked on Perry’s, The Hanging Judge reached into its robes and withdrew an object. Without looking away from Perry, it tossed the thing into the well.
A foul exhalation rushed from the well, the dark dirty smell of human shit. A thrum ran through the ground beneath Perry’s feet, and the well trembled, belched a tongue of flame. Acrid smoke poured out into the air, rising in a column, up, up into the dimming sky. Just looking at it made Perry’s eyes water. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks.
Something about the rising smoke seemed wrong to Perry, and gradually, he realized what it was. There were faces and bodies in the smoke. Distended and pulled out of shape as they rose into the sky and dispersed, became nothing. One face rolled its eyes in Perry’s direction as it went, its mouth pulled into a moan or a scream of anguish.
Perry cut his gaze from the smoke back to the Judge, as if that would relieve his terror. The Judge was bigger now. Before, it had been the size of a normal man—under six feet, Perry was sure. Now, it was seven feet if he was an inch, its dirty blackened teeth clenched as it glowered at Perry.
You don’t need to know who I am, it said. That ain’t none of yore concern. All you need ta know is that if I burnt ya alive right here and now, wouldn’t nobody in the world miss yer black ass.
“Don’t!” Perry shouted. “Don’t burn me! Please!”
Ask nice, said the Judge. Beg!
“Please!” Perry wailed. “I didn’t do nothing! I’m not a vandal or—! I didn’t do nothing wrong!”
Too late! Too late! Crowed the Judge. Yer mine! Miiiiiiiine!
Perry forced himself awake to find the trolley headed back Uptown. It reached Carrollton and turned left from Orleans, gliding back toward Esplanade. Perry had missed his stop. The old ladies were gone now—so was everyone else. He was alone in the trolley except for the driver. His keyboard had fallen from his lap and lay at his feet, smashed irrevocably. It didn’t matter. It had done him no good.
The next day, Perry asked his parents to transfer him to a different school—one where he could focus on STEM—and discontinue his keyboard lessons.
He couldn’t explain his reasoning to anyone else—maybe because it wasn’t a matter of reason. He knew that if he told Peaches about his dream—he resigned himself to call it that, though he was dead certain it had not been a dream—that she would have gone looking for the Hanging Judge, intent on teaching it a painful lesson. Perry didn’t think The Judge could best Peaches in combat, but that seemed beside the point. The episode had opened a fissure in him, a wound that refused to heal. Sometimes Perry would find his attention wandering toward the memory, playing along it like fingers along a scar—except it wasn’t a scar, it was still red, and raw, and it hurt.
It would do no good to beat the Hanging Judge even if Peaches could get her hands on it. The Judge simply was. It was a fact of life, and the sooner Perry learned to live with the fact of it, the sooner the pain of it would become dull and bearable.
More than a year later, he still felt this way, and he’d never told a soul.