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Lucifer Rex

His name was Rex. This I know for sure.

He walked from California to Florida. Walked, they tell me, then hopped a boat to Nassau. Strolled off the gangway in his white linen and his Panama hat, swinging his ebony cane and pointing his ebony shoes. He walked off the gangway and stood in the middle of the street to adjust his cuffs and pick up his gatorskin bag, and then he said his brother’s name.

That was how he found us. I was swinging my mahogany tail in the front yard, catching the breeze in the swing tied to the arm of the poinciana tree, shaking blood-red flowers all down round me. Momma was shut up in our bedroom. Her windows were tight closed, and she’d pulled our bed in the middle of the room and was laying down in the middle of that. May of ’26 was electric, nights light as morning, rumbling like hunger while people tried to sleep. The air was the kind of cloying that catches you through the windows even if you keep them open, the way I love them open. It didn’t have much chance, that air. Momma kept windows and shutters closed. She’s death afraid of lightning.

“Mind lightning don’t strike you dead, gal,” she’d say to me when there’s thunder and I’m sitting anywhere near a window, put by swinging under a tree. That year she had a point. Fires sparked daily in the barrens. One day a child hid from lightning under a pine tree and they found her the next, crucified to the ground, black scorch marks on her foot and hand. Smart men stopped going to sea; masts were lightning rods. If you watched the harbour on a lightning night you’d see little fires flame up on the horizon as boats were struck and burned.

Now Rex. He came walking up the hill, cool as evening, only a little dusty at the tips of his shoes and the foot of his cane, everywhere else clean and white as a bolt of lightning come to ground. His face was copper and his eyes were gold, and under his hat, which he lifted up when he saw me, ran a flare of white hair through all the rest of the black. Evelyn said my mother, who was laying in our bedroom, pining for my father, gave a little cry as he placed his hand on the front gate, and turned her head. She couldn’t see him, shut in the bedroom at the back of the house, but she yelped as though she couldn’t breathe and turned her head towards the front yard. Evelyn heard the cry, heard the ratatatat on the front door a moment after that, dropped her dishes (some of them broke) and let him in the door. He stepped into the inner gloom and his suit lit up the whole house.

He kissed her, Evelyn told me. Walked right past Evelyn, handed over his hat and his cane and strode on down the passage to where Momma stood hanging onto the doorjamb. He kissed her like she had no right to breathe. Damn near pulled her clothes right off, Evelyn said. Then they walked back into the room she came out of. I know that, because it was my room too. And I know nobody saw them till morning.

He was my father’s brother. Younger or older I don’t know, but he was the pretty one, copper where my father was tin. He’d left long ago to make his fortune in the great open land of the States. He slipped into Momma’s life like a foot slipping into a shoe. And he never moved away, stealing from shadows into light, when I stepped into a room.

In the morning, they came out of our bedroom together. My mother wore her hair loose, a way I’d never seen it before. The tails of Rex’s shirt hung down outside his trousers. They made him soft. He walked barefoot on the floor, and he smiled at me.

“You’re Anthia,” he said.

My mother never saw me.

“I’m Rex,” he said.

I said nothing back. I’d had to sleep in the bed my father died in because he’d taken up my space.

They ate the breakfast Evelyn cooked, but my mother never spoke. A little after breakfast Rex went back into the room and came out pressed and starched. He took up his hat and cane and left to walk to town. My mother twisted her hair up on her head and spent the afternoon rocking on the porch, watching the sun bake the land brown and dry. She left her legs apart and let her hand dangle between them a way I’d never seen before. When the thunder started, late in the day, she moved back into the bedroom with a walk that spoke of fullness, like mangoes growing fat on the tree.

Evelyn and I did the chores together. I went out to the swing. He met me there when he came back, late in the evening, just as the sun was going down behind the trees at the top of the hill. He lifted his hat and he smiled.

“Good evening, pretty girl,” he said.

I mumbled something. I wasn’t used to being spoken to by men, not like that. I was used to comments about my long long hair, which was black and fuzzy with a flare of silver through it, but at eighteen, when I began to put it up, those stopped. I was used to comments about my skin, which very black men seemed to find beautiful, although the only place I thought mahogany brown looked good was under the polish of furniture and floors. I was used to comments about my looks, which my father found distasteful. But I wasn’t used to being spoken to like that by anyone at all.

“What you say?” he said, and leaned off, resting on his cane like a vaudeville dancer.

I shook my head and stopped the swing.

“Don’t be shame of your colour, Anthia,” he told me.

I didn’t say anything. How did he know what shamed me?

“Don’t be shame of anything,” he said. He leaned a little nearer. “How well you know your Bible?”

I knew what we chanted in church, that was about it. When the lessons were read my mind was normally somewhere else – on the way the light shone through the windows maybe, or on the graveyard outside.

“King Solomon would find you pretty. Go look it up,” he said, and smiled. His teeth flashed white like lightning against the brown of his skin. Then he turned and went inside.

“Your uncle Rex,” Evelyn whispered the next morning as she poured me my tea, “ain’t been home for nineteen years. Count.”

I counted, but it got me nowhere. June blazed hot with flowers. Evelyn told me it was because the trees were looking for water just like us. The drier they got, the more beautiful they became, blooming in spite of the drought. Every day I went out the tree blazed more. When I swung it shook down red poinciana flowers all around me.

I looked up King Solomon. I read the Song of Songs. I stood before the mirror to see if my breasts looked like young roes. I didn’t know what roes were.

Every night I grew more used to sleeping where my father died.

When the weather broke, thunder cracked my sleep open like an egg. I rose up like yolk floating to the surface of its white. I could hear the rain coming, could smell it even through the shutters of the house. I lay in my bed waiting for the wash of it to reach, smelling it and hearing it climbing the hill. When it slapped against the clapboard I got out of my bed and walked into the parlour, where I opened the big window and looked out on the watery night.

He met me there, sitting at my window, staring at the rain. The night was light with moon and cloud, and the rain was a sheet of tin. Water swam across the parlour floor, but I didn’t care. His naked feet splished in the wet.

“You like storms?” he asked me.

“Don’t you?” I asked. Don’t ask me how I knew that. I was the only one in my house who could bear them. My mother cowered under pillows; my father would drink himself fuzzy in that front room of his.

He smiled and turned away.

“Wait,” I said, and stood up from the chair. “Sit here,” I said.

“Where you ga sit?” he said. He crossed the room and took my place. “I like lightning.”

“Me too.” I sat on the windowsill and stuck my head outside, reached my face and arms into the rain for stormwater to bathe the dark off. I don’t know when I started to slip. The rain was kissing me, rolling down all over my hands and arms and face, and I was falling into water. Rex grabbed my waist and caught me.

As he touched me a jolt of current flashed from the sky, leaped from him into me. Something cracked and flared. I sat beside him, where he pulled me to safety, and we both looked out at the storm. The poincianas were blazing in a crown of fire, and I knew sure as living that my father was never dead.

When Rex came swinging his cane back up the hill the next evening I was waiting for him by the charblack stump of my tree. He stopped for me, and smiled his lightning smile. I opened my mouth to ask him a question, but it lodged in my gullet, just about in that hollow where my neck met my chest. His smile buzzed at me like lightning humming over ground, and he passed on by.

“Momma,” I called, but she ignored me.

That night thunder fell on the house like a hammer and smashed me. I wasn’t asleep. My question hung in the air around me, smothering me with its weight. I went into the parlour. I wanted to fall out the window again, wanted him to catch me, wanted him to give me the answer.

It was there, I know it. I could smell it: bitter smoke and singeing hair.

Rex sat at the window in the chair I’d given him, looking out at the storm. But when I asked him he never answered. His open eyes were silver now, and the palms of his hands were black.

about the author

Nicolette Bethel holds a degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge, and lives in Nassau, Bahamas, where she was born. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections, among them The Oxford and Cambridge May Anthologies; Review: Latin American Literature and Arts; The Amherst Review; The Caribbean Writer; and Calabash.