'You were a holy terror,' she said, mashing her fag into the seashell at her feet. 'When I put you on the tit, I bled. Then you got in a knot with the colic and wouldn't let me sleep a wink. No sooner fed than you had to be winded. Then you'd poss up, and you'd be hungry again, so I'd feed you a second time, and as soon as I'd put you down to sleep you'd dirty your nappy, so I'd have to take you back up, and you'd be wide awake and hungry all over again. You had me vexed, son.'
For weeks she didn't get to finish a cup of tea or sit down to a proper meal. She barely spoke, and when she did it was through a veil of exhaustion, with a two-second satellite delay. Bad thoughts came. Fear for this tiny thing in her care, all kinds of wicked shadows snarling and pawing at the door. Some nights her moods got so moribund she harboured thoughts of putting a pillow over my head so as to get it over with quick.
'What stopped you?'
'You weren't baptised yet.'
Night after night I wailed my beetroot head off, and my mother walked the floor and patted my back in time with the songs playing on the local radio station, her walking, me bawling. One night, maybe three or four in the morning, the news came on. The man reading the headlines said the Met Office had issued a storm warning: gale-force winds, possible flooding. People were advised to stop home except for emergencies.
I went on caterwauling, and my mother rocked me in the crook of her shoulder, breathing my newborn smell. She held me to her breast and murmured into my pink cockleshell ear, 'It's an ill wind, son.'
And for no other reason than to drown out my squalling, she began to sing, the first thing that came into her head. As soon as I heard that sound, I fell silent. The song died in her mouth and she stared, stunned, as my eyelids came down and my body went limp. She laid me in my crib, checked my breath with her compact.
'At last,' she sighed, and crawled into bed.
It was the queerest thing, said my mother, but ever after that, I slept peacefully, ten hours a night. Provided she sang.
And I believed her, because a mother's word is gospel to her son.
Excerpted from John the Revelator by Peter Murphy, copyright @ 2009. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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