Dana says she lost an arm on her last trip, not to mention a year of her life. In the hospital she’d had to tell the police her husband Kevin was not responsible. They were unsure, but they could not see how he could have hurt her in the way she was hurt.
She wakes to see Kevin and is comforted by him. She asks what he told the police, and he says that he told them the truth. She knows he’d be locked up in a mental institution if that were the case; he says he said her arm was in a hole in the wall and he tried to help her free it but it was crushed. Both whisper to each other that they don’t know exactly what happened.
Dana becomes aware of trouble on her twenty-sixth birthday–June 9th, 1976. She and Kevin were tired, having moved to a house in Altadena from Los Angeles. They unpack books, but suddenly Dana becomes dizzy and nauseated. The room blurs and darkness and Kevin vanishes. She finds herself in a green wood near a rushing river. In the river she sees a child drowning, and her instincts kicks in. She swims to the child and drags him onto the shore.
A hysterical woman is there as well, and hits Dana, screaming that she is killing him. Dana pushes her away and delivers mouth-to-mouth. The boy, whose name is Rufus, begins to breathe. Suddenly a man, hostile and with a gun pointed at Dana, arrives. Dana is terrified, but then everything vanishes and she is back in her living room.
Kevin is startled, and wonders how she disappeared and ended up on the other side of the room. He asks her to tell him everything, and she tries to the best of her ability. He is confused, and says she was only gone for a few seconds. This stuns Dana. She asks if he believes her, and he says he has to, since he does not know how she’d disappear and then reappear elsewhere.
Dana is frightened, and says she does not feel safe because whatever just happened could happen again. The sensation is starting to recede, though, and she feels like she is pulling away from it.
Dana takes a shower and tries to calm down. She and Kevin consider going out, but she says now she wants to stay in, so they order food. However, the phenomenon happens again, and Dana finds herself on a bed with a canopy. A boy holds a smoking stick in front of him, lighting fire to draperies on the window. Dana immediately reacts, smothering the flames and throwing them out the window.
She hopes to vanish, but she is still there. This confuses her. The boy is a few years older than the child she’d seen last time, with reddish hair and a slight build. When he orders her to step away from him, she hears his accent is Southern. Dana is afraid of his father like the man by the river, but she tells the boy he will be the one in trouble because of the draperies.
The boy grows contrite and asks who she is. She asks him his name and he says ‘Rufus’, and the two realize that he remembered her from that day at the river–he is the same boy, now older. Rufus haltingly explains that before he was in the river he had seen Dana wearing pants like a man in a room with books. When he had tried to tell his mother she was angry. Rufus asks how she came here and she says she does not know, but she does not want him to think he can control the summoning.
She realizes that the boy is the reason for her journeys, maybe even the cause of them. When he talks he uses the word ‘nigger’, which surprises her. She asks him to refer to her as a black woman. This confuses him, but he agrees.
Dana asks if he’d foreseen her arrival this time, but he had not. He softly says he set fire to the stable one time because his father had sold a horse he’d wanted him to keep. His father had beaten him as well, and he shows her the marks. He wanted to put this fire out because he was afraid his father would kill him.
Dana realizes that he called her to an extent, even though he did not know what he was doing. She asks him about the whipping and he says his father whips him with the same whip he uses on horses and niggers. The word surprises her again, and after a few more questions, she learns they are in Baltimore in the year 1815. Everything is clearer now. This is the Weylin plantation, and his father is Tom Weylin.
The name reminds Dana of something. She asks Rufus if there is a young black girl around here, and he says yes–her name is Alice and she is his friend. She is free, not a slave. Dana thinks this boy may be one of her ancestors, because in the family records she had seen Grandmother Hagar, born in 1831, with parents Rufus Weylin and Alice Greenwood. She wonders how Alice married Rufus, or if it was marriage at all. She knew no details of Alice.
Looking at Rufus, she wonders how he could be related to her. She does see “some matching strangeness in us that may or may not have come from our being related” (29). She wonders what would have happened if she had not saved him. He comments that Dana looks a little like Alice’s mother.
Dana asks Rufus how many slaves are here and he says thirty-eight, and asks if she is one. She says no, and he says he knew that because she did not call him Master. He says she must in his father’s presence or she will get in trouble.
Rufus tells Dana that while he hadn’t seen her before the fire, he had heard her. She says she cannot stay here and ought to leave. She does not know when she will be summoned back. Rufus suggests she go to town, and then Alice’s mother’s house. She decides the latter is best, and Rufus helps her sneak out, excited. Outside they hide the drapes, and she tells him not to burn anything else.
Outside Dana is frightened and lonely. The night is still. She sees slave cabins in the distance and begins to walk. She suddenly hears dogs and plunges into the woods. It is difficult to navigate, and she realizes grimly that she is a city girl at heart. She follows a dirt path, afraid of animals and getting lost. The sound of horses scares her because she knows black people were assumed to be slaves and could not roam freely.
She decides to follow the white men she sees on the horses, though, and thankfully, they lead her to the cabin she hoped to find. A few dismount and kick the door down. A man and woman are pulled out, a child off to the side. The man is pleading, saying he had a pass, but they hit him and tie him to the tree. He is naked, and the men whip him harshly. He moans in pain. Dana has never seen anything like it and is utterly repulsed. Tears flow down her face and she holds back vomit.
The woman is also crying. Dana knows that these are slave patrols, gangs of young men charged with maintaining order among slaves. One patroller punches the woman in the face and she collapses. They leave, thankfully not coming across Dana, but dragging the man off behind them.
Dana rushes over to the unconscious woman and calls to the child. It is Alice, one of her ancestors. Alice is slender and pretty. Dana gives the woman water and she revives. Dana says she is a freewoman, but the woman says she is a runaway and will get her in trouble. Dana assures her she will not and asks her not to turn her away. She says she was not going to.
Dana starts to wonder how long she will be here this time. Will she have to go north? She tells them she knows Rufus.
She asks Alice if Tom Weylin owns her husband, and she sadly says yes. The woman asks Dana where she is from; she lies and says New York, and that she is going back to her husband.
Dana steps outside to grab the blanket that was left there and is startled to come across a white man, one of the patrollers come back. When she demands to know who he is he scoffs at her manners and says he will teach her a lesson. She runs back to the cabin, but the woman begs her not to go in.
The man grabs her and throws her to the ground. She struggles, and considers puncturing his eyes but cannot bring herself to do it. She scratches him but it is not enough. Angry, he lunges for her and she knows she will be raped. She grabs a stick and hits him as hard as she can and he collapses. She blacks out.
When she wakes Kevin is there and she is safe. She says she needs sleep, and refuses to go to the hospital.
The next day Kevin is relieved to see her still there. She tells him what happened, including the fact that it was Maryland 1815 and that the people there are her ancestors. He has trouble believing it but says it must be the truth. He gives her a switchblade and says it may help the next time.
They wonder about her posing to be a free black, knowing how hard it would be to forge the documents. They consider making her a pass, and talk about the various ways to escape north.
Kevin speculates that she returns home is when her own life is in danger, and she is called there when Rufus’s life is. Dana is frustrated, and does not think she can survive all the dangers in that time period. Kevin counsels her to be more aware of her strength and endurance. She sighs that she may even have wanted to kill someone, which makes her uncomfortable.
He does not know what to say, and tells her to keep coming home.
Octavia Butler begins her novel in a jarring fashion: her heroine, Dana, is in a hospital with her arm recently amputated and her confused husband Kevin at her side after he was just questioned by police. This is the present moment, 1976, and also the end of Dana’s story. She will go back to tell the story of what led up to this strange moment, jumping back and forth between past and present. There is thus “time travel” in both the narrative structure itself as well as the content of the novel; it is a perfect amalgam of science fiction and historical fiction. It is also a neo-slave narrative, providing insight into the nature of slavery and antebellum society through the story of a specific character’s journey, much like Toni Morrison does in Beloved. Dana’s journey is thus both fantastical and reminiscent of an actual journey many of her ancestors had to take–the Middle Passage.
Butler has said that the origins of this novel are found in a conversation she had with a young man in the 1960s Civil Right Movement, who commented that their ancestors were race traitors through their quiescence to slavery. Similarly, Dana comes from that time period. She is a modern woman, fully cognizant and assertive of her rights. She speaks her mind, is married to a white man, pursues her own goals, and does not allow people to talk down to her. However, while Dana does not express the views Butler’s peer did, she will have much to learn through the course of her journeys back to the early 1800s.
The distinctions between past, present, future, and history are collapsed in this novel. Dana must save her ancestor's life in order to make sure she is born. Scholar David LaCroix observes how African American writers are often concerned with temporality, linking time, desire, and agency together. Dana begins her journey privileging her 20th century reality, or present, and tries to apply that framework to the past in order to survive. Obviously there are physical and cognitive differences between past and present, but there should not be an ethical one. The present is both implied by and implicated in the past; the novel “reaffirms the relationship between past, present, and future, [and] also upholds the distinctiveness of each of these temporal horizons.”
When Dana initially travels back, she refers to herself as an actor or observer; however, she soon realizes she will have to become part of the time period to survive. She has to adjust her own personal narrative, her demeanor, her intellect, the carriage of her body, and more to meld into her new world. LaCroix writes that Butler shows how “Dana believes she is most safe when she is most in danger” because she cannot always forebear from maintaining a separation of past and present. While Dana comes to see that she has to be part of the world, she also realizes that she is losing her actual sense of self, which is certainly a stark reality of slavery. As LaCroix points out, the most obvious way we can see Dana becoming inured to her surroundings is her sensitivity to violence. In this first section, the mere sight of a gun in her face sends her back home. As the novel progresses, it will take a lot more than that to return her to 1976. Even being whipped does not work.
Dana’s goal is to influence Rufus for the better and maintain her sense of self in 1815. However, both of these prove to be fruitless goals, for Rufus will become a racist and sexist jerk and she will lose some of herself. She will also, of course, gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between the past and the present. It is no coincidence that the novel is set in 1976, and the day that Dana’s journeys stop is July 4th, 1976: this is country’s bicentennial, a year that was supposed to convey how far we’d come and how glorious our past was, but that also revealed just how slowly we’d moved in regards to racism.