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John Crow’s Devil

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The long-awaited paperback reissue of the acclaimed Jamaican author’s debut novel.

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Excerpt from John Crow’s Devil

The Prologue: The End

No living thing flew over the village of Gibbeah, neither fowl, nor dove, nor crow. Yet few looked above, terrified should an omen come in a shriek or flutter. Nothing flew but dust. It slipped through window blades, door cracks, and the lifting clay of rooftops. Dust coated house and ground, shed and tree, machine and vehicle with a blanket of gray. Dust hid blood, but not remembrance.

Apostle York took three days to decide. He had locked himself in the office as his man waited by the door. Clarence touched his face often without thought, running his fingers over scratches hardened by clotted blood. The Apostle’s man was still in church clothes: his one black suit and gray shirt with tan buttons that matched his skin, save for his lips, which would have been pink had they not been beaten purple three days ago. Clarence shifted from one leg to the other and squeezed his knuckles to prevent trembling, but it was no use.

“Clarence,” the Apostle called from behind the door. “Pile them up. Pile them all up. Right where the roads meet. Pile them up and burn them.”

Men, women, and children, all dead, were left in the road. Those who scurried home with their lives imprisoned themselves behind doors. There were five bodies on Brillo Road; the sixth lay with a broken neck in a ditch where the bridge used to be. Clarence limped, cursing the hop and drag of his feet. At the crossroads he stopped.

“All man who can hear me!” he shouted. “Time now to do the Lord’s work. The Apostle callin you.”

Faces gathered at windows but doors remained shut. Some would look at Clarence, but most studied the sky. Clarence looked above once and squeezed his knuckles again. A dove had flown straight into his face, splitting his bottom lip and almost scratching out his left eye. He felt as if more would come at that very moment, but the Apostle had given him strength.

“I talkin to every man who can stand. Heed the word or you goin get lick with friggery worse than any bird.”

Birds. They came back in a rush; in screams and screeches and wounds cut fresh by claws. “You know what my Apostle can do.”

Clarence knew the houses where men hid. He hopped and dragged to each one and hammered into the door.

“Sunset,” he said.

Three days before, when noon was most white, the village had killed Hector Bligh. Reckoning came swift, before they were even done. God’s white fury swept down on them with beaks and claws and the beat of a thousand wings.

But there were things the villagers feared more than birds. One by one they came out and the men threw the bodies on the bonfire.

“This was judgment,” said Apostle York. He had emerged from the office after the fire was lit. The Apostle’s face had no scratch. “Judgment!” he shouted over the brilliance of the pyre and the crackle and pop of burning flesh. “Judgment,” he said again in morning devotion, noon devotion, evening devotion, night mass, penitence prayer, children’s prayer, women’s prayer, blood atonement, prayer for the saints, and the School of Boy Prophets. From that day, the incident was never to be spoken of lest God again unleash his wrath on Gibbeah.

The building had begun a week before the killing. With chopped down trees the villagers made a fence all around Gibbeah’s boundary. Then they surrounded it in barbed wire. Every city of righteousness had a wall, said the Apostle. This was God’s way of keeping holiness in and iniquity out. Sooner than expected, the fence was finished. It wouldn’t be long before nature hid wood and wire in the deceit of leaves, vines, and flowers. Soon Gibbeah would disappear from the map of men. Soon all would be spared from recollection but Lucinda.

She had also spent three days in a room, but her door was locked from the outside. Lucinda panicked whenever she trapped fingers in her gorgon hair. Her eyes popped from jet skin. She had believed the Apostle, for love and God had punished her for sin. Before she went mad there were two faces in the mirror, neither of them hers. After Hector Bligh’s death there were three. Bligh’s eyes snaked her. They tormented her in dreams. She screamed at him in the tiny room below the church’s steeple. The room stank of bird flesh. In a fit of rage brought on by the fever that madness carried, she struck the mirror and shattered it. But in each broken piece was another face. Three faces became ten, then a hundred and a thousand and still more. A million eyes that saw everything and judged like God. She could do nothing but scream. By day her room was dark, but at night she moved back and forth in the light, a gaunt silhouette one instant, a ragged chiaroscuro the next.

Human ash became dust. What dust would not cover, wind swept away. Gibbeah built a wall that sealed the village from memory. But within her walls Lucinda would not forget. His ghost lived with her now, his voice mimicked her cries, and his eyes saw her secret skin. The Apostle had called Hector Bligh a disgrace, abomination, and Antichrist. She called him the Rum Preacher.

Chapter 1: The Rum Preacher

Make we tell you bout the Rum Preacher. Even if you never live anywhere near them parts, you must did hear bout the Rum Preacher. After six years, false story and true story rub together so much that both start shine. People think that everything shoot to Hell after the Devil take hold of Lillamae Perkins, but if you did know Pastor Hector Bligh of the Holy Sepulchral Full Gospel Church of St. Thomas Apostolic, you would know him was on the road to Hell long before that.

Before Pastor Bligh come to Gibbeah nobody ever see a man of God drink. Some people say Second Book of John, verse one to eleven, say that Jesus turn water into wine, so him must did drink wine too. Three man who sit down outside the bar all day say that him is man after all and man have right to get drunk just as him have right to scratch him balls when him want to scratch him balls or beat him woman when she don’t act right.

Bligh drink like drinking goin out of style. All Saturday night when him should be readying himself for church, him down the bar drinking liquor and talking out people business. And when the time come to do the preaching, him don’t know what to say. We never see preaching like this yet. When Bligh drunk all you hear is mumble. When Bligh dry him sound like that mad captain in that Moby Dick picture that show at the Majestic. The preacher before him did have fire. Hector Bligh have nothing but ice. Maybe is fi we fault cause country people take things as them be, as if white man goin beat we if we change them.

Lillamae.

Lillamae Perkins. Is was two years since the morning her father wake up but just for a minute to see him bed all red and blood gushing like spring from where him penis used to hang. Nobody never see what happen, but everybody see Lillamae, outside her gate looking like them obeah her, with one hand holding the knife and the other hand holding the bloody cocky. She eat green pawpaw to kill out the baby. Two years later, Sunday come and Pastor Bligh was him usual drunk self. Him fling himself into the Pastor seat by the pulpit like him would crash on the floor if him did miss. Lillamae goin up to the altar to have them drive out her sin and iniquity, even though Preacher never call nobody yet.

Everybody hear she.

“Lawd Jesus Christ! Lawd Jesus Christ! Consuming Fire! Consuming Fire! LAAAAAAAAAWD!!!”

Lillamae Perkins fling herself pon the ground. Her leg turn into scissors, she swing them open, then close, then open, and everybody could see her fishy which never cover up with no panty. Then she see Lucinda, who scream out to Holy Jesus Christ.

“Wha Jesus goin do fi you, river-whore? Satan watching you from you start mix tea,” Lillamae say. People screaming and running, and tripping and crushing and more screaming, cause when she open her mouth is a man voice come out. Then she see the Pastor and all Hell break loose. Five deacon rush the altar. Churchgoer and sinner both call them “The Five.”

“One idiot, two drunkard, one sick-fowl, and one who beat woman. Now who is who? Who is who?” is what she say. The Five circle her, wrestle her, but nobody could pin down Lillamae. She slip from one like grease and claw through another one face. She kick a deacon in him seed bag and five man become four. Lillamae beat up all of them. She crick the second man neck, break all of the third man finger, punch asthma back into the fourth man chest, and blind the last deacon in him left eye.

Nobody know where the knife come from. Some people say she jump, some people say she fly. When demon take you, you can do anything. All people see is when she leap after the Pastor with the knife and him hold out him hand like him was goin catch her and she stab right through him left hand middle and him stuck on the wall like Holy Jesus crucified.

“Fool. You should a do this two years ago when we was one. Now we is one and seven,” was all she say. Pastor Bligh bawling and screaming, but nobody goin cross a girl with eight demon in her. Then she scream and run out of the church.

Two day pass and nobody can find Lillamae. Then Wednesday, a little boy find her body sailing down Two Virgins River. Pastor Bligh did drunk when him bury her. After that plenty people stop come to church.

* * *

Coming home from the bar, Pastor Bligh made his way up the road, teetering like a drunken colossus. But the fire dug holes in his gut and sent flame down his thighs screaming, Let me out! He moved over to the side of the road and released himself, bursting a black circle on the pavement with a torrent of yellow piss. The sun teased him from behind and suddenly there was lightness to the morning. He had learned long ago never to trust happiness. But something came over him, bringing both pleasure and a slight fear. A silliness that made him fall in love with pink-striped skies and opalescent dew bubbles and chickens crowing themselves awake. Bligh was still very much drunk. His pants were around his ankles and when he moved he tripped, fell backwards on the base of his skull, and knocked himself out.

A church sister saw him first. She had come out to water her hibiscus and thought a mad man or a drunkard had fallen dead in the road. She inched toward him, afraid that he was merely asleep and would awake at that very second to rape her with calloused hands and dirty fingernails. But when she saw Pastor Bligh’s face, the woman frowned, disgusted and unsurprised. “Disgrace” she said. And yet she was relieved by Pastor Bligh’s behavior, as were many in the village. So tormented was he by his own sin that he could never convict them of theirs. But as she summed him up from head to foot, her view came to a halt midway. There looking at her was his dark penis and balls, sprawled as carelessly as he was, bracketed by his thighs and the open ends of his shirt. She forgot his arms; the right spread open and the left under his back. She forgot his face, gaunt and gray, his mouth open and pooling with drool. She forgot his shoes, dirty, brown, and mostly covered by pants that strangled his ankles. There was only the thing, lifeless between two legs yet as monstrous as a serpent in Genesis. Her dark face went white, even pink, as she rushed back to her house. For several minutes he was unconscious. Minutes that horrified old women and scandalized children who passed by on the way to school. Lucinda, who never witnessed the incident, would nonetheless report of it in the first person in that tone she reserved for special heresies.

After the pee-pee incident, the concerned citizens of the village, namely Lucinda, had had enough.

“Him goin mistake him chair for a toilet next Sunday, just watch,” said one observer, but as he was not a member of the church no one heard, anticipated, or dreaded it. In short, that person was not Lucinda, who had begun a letter-writing campaign to have Pastor Bligh removed. Lucinda remembered very little schooling other than the Bible, so her words often packed more Hellfire and damnation than she intended. She wrote to every church she knew, even the archdiocese, despite Pastor Bligh being no Catholic. Bligh answered to nobody but God, and Jesus wasn’t saying anything that Lucinda wanted to hear.

Nobody answered Lucinda’s letters. She would never curse God, but reminded Him that this was why she also prayed to someone else. Then the Majestic Cinema started showing Sunday matinees at 10:00 and chopped the halved congregation to a quarter. The Pastor now drank day and night. He was spiraling downward and would have taken the village with him were it not for the other, who lead them instead to a light blacker than the thickest darkness.

He came like a thief on a night colored silver. He came on two wheels, the muffler puffing a mist that made children cough in their sleep. As his motorcycle coursed up Brillo Road it left a serpentine trail of dust. There were no witnesses to his coming, save for an owl, the moon, and the Devil.



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