John the Revelator
I was born in a storm. My mother said the thunder was so loud she flinched when it struck, strobes of lightning and slam-dancing winds and volleys of rain for hours until it blew itself out and sloped off like a spent beast.
'I knew you were a boy,' she said. 'Heartburn. Sure sign of a man in your life.'
My name is John Devine. I was christened after the beloved disciple, the brother of James the Great. Our Lord called them the sons of thunder.
'John was Jesus' favourite,' my mother told me. 'The patron saint of printers and tanners and typesetters.'
When she got started on this, it could go on for hours. We were out walking the fields at the back of our house. I was still in short trousers. My mother strode ahead, hell bent on where she was going, and I had to trot to keep up.
'He was the only one to stay awake in the garden while Our Lord sweated blood,' she said. 'After the crucifixion, the emperor brought him to Rome to be flogged and beaten and thrown in a cauldron of boiling oil. They tried to poison him with wine, but the poison rose to the surface in the shape of a snake. In the end they banished him to Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation.'
She took out her handkerchief and dribbled on it.
'The only apostle to escape martyrdom.'
And she wiped my face. The smell was like when you lick yourself, a compound of saliva and tissue and skin. I tried to pull away, but she wouldn't let go until she was satisfied I was clean.
'He died in the year a hundred and one. People believed that once a year his grave gave off a smell that could heal the sick. Just before John passed away, his followers carried him into the assembly at the church of Ephesus and asked him how to live. You know what he said?'
She stuffed the tissue up her sleeve.
'Little children, love one another.'
'It's enough to be going on with.'
Said my mother, I was still an infant when we moved from the caravan near Ballo strand to a house a couple of miles outside Kilcody. Her mother and father willed it to her when they died. It was always so cold there you could see your breath hang in the air. Vines of ivy crawled across the pebble-dashed walls; weeds strangled the few sticks of rhubarb. There was a sandpit out the back, broken toys and mustard minarets of turd, an orange clothesline dripping laundry.
Every day after school I dragged my schoolbag home like it was a younger brother, let myself into the house and snapped on all the downstairs lights. There was a cactus on our kitchen windowsill, swollen green fingers and prickly white spines. Beside that was Haircut Charlie, the clown's head for planting seeds in, grass growing out of the tiny holes in his skull. A sacred-heart lamp glowed atop the mantelpiece. The floor was new blue linoleum with black patterns. One time a pipe under the sink leaked and we had to tear up the old stuff and underneath was crawling with bulbous pea-green slugs and brown fungus, like deformed bonsai trees.
My mother was still at work when I got home. She cleaned people's houses, and sometimes she took in clothes to be washed or mended. She said you could tell a lot about a person from their dirty laundry.
I'd sit over my homework at the kitchen table, anticipating the squeak of the gate, the parched bark of her cough. If she were late I'd start to worry that she'd been taken, and I'd be sent to an orphanage or made to live with her friend Mrs Nagle or someone else old. But she always came home, shrugging out of her coat and saying she was choking for a cup of tea and a fag.
After the kettle went on she set the fire, placing bits of Zip under the briquettes, blue and orange flames licking at her fingers. Then she hefted the big pot onto the cooker.
'What's for dinner?'
Excerpted from John the Revelator by Peter Murphy, copyright @ 2009. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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