Table of Contents
ALSO BY MARLON JAMES
John Crow’s Devil
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2009 by Marlon James
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy
of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada
The author gratefully acknowledges permission to reprint the first lines of the poem
“Inheritance” by Christine Gelineau, which appeared in her collection
(Ashland, Ohio: Ashland Poetry Press, 2006).
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
James, Marlon, date.
The book of night women / Marlon James.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01131-7
1. Slaves—Fiction. 2. Jamaica—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses
at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for
changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does
not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To the railroad of bones
woman they give
Sugbon kini a le fi be eni ti ikooko pa iya re je?
PEOPLE THINK BLOOD RED, BUT BLOOD Don’T GOT no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red. Not when the midwife know that the mother shed too much blood, and she who don’t reach fourteen birthday yet speak curse ’pon the chile and the papa, and then she drop down dead like old horse. Not when blood spurt from the skin, or spring from the axe, the cat-o’-nine, the whip, the cane and the blackjack and every day in slave life is a day that colour red. It soon come to pass when red no different from white or blue or black or nothing. Two black legs spread wide and a mother mouth screaming. A weak womb done kill one life to birth another. A black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see. I goin’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her.
Two thing you should know if you want to know her. As soon as Lilith born the womens regard her with fear and trembling because of them green eyes that light up the room, but not like sunlight. Nobody did want the young’un and the overseer Jack Wilkins had to make special arrangement for a niggerwoman to take care of the child, for the mens and womens did content to just leave her in the bush and make the land take her back. Another thing. Girl like Lilith don’t born with green eye because God feel to be extra kind to nigger girl. This much was for sure, Lilith be the only girl to grow up in a hut calling a woman mother and a man father but she didn’t look like neither.
That woman. That girl. People recall when she was still a little pickney on the Montpelier Estate, them few years when a nigger not black, playing rounders with boys. She swing the club, clap the ball clear ’cross the field and make one run to all four base and beat the boys but couldn’t understand when the wet nurse slap her and say that a good girl was supposed to make manchild win. Lilith cuss and ask if manchild can’t win if girl don’t lose and she get another slap. Some take as sign when at seven Lilith tell them same boys that is ’cause they have worm between them legs why they can’t run fast like she and the girl get a swift kick from a passing niggerwoman who tell her that there be a grave already dug for the uppity. Lilith cuss under her tongue and say, Is you must go to grave since you already stink like dead puppy. Then there was the time when she get a well-deserved thumping for telling a white playmate from Coulibre Estate that she be a damn fool for saying that sky wet when everybody know it dry ’cept for when rain fall. White pickney and black pickney play all the time when they little, as if they be combolo, one and the same. But Lilith too spirited. Too spirited for a nigger girl black like pitch with legs too smooth for a slave and hair too woolly and lips too thick like fruit and eyes that seem robbed from white lady. A slave woman fate write before she born, but Lilith didn’t grow up regarding them things for she live with Circe, the only nigger at Montpelier Estate who didn’t work.
People say that Montpelier Estate was so huge that you could tell you’re there as soon as the wind start blowing to the east. In 1785, the year of many death but one birth, the overseer judge Circe too weak to do field labour. He give her a new hut that make from wood, not mud like what common nigger live in. He give her a man to live with in the Bible way. He also give her Lilith, which was just as well since plenty people knew that there was nothing Tantalus could do for a woman, much less breed niggerkin. Circe sleep in a bed while Tantalus and Lilith make do with the floor. Tantalus go near that bed only once and he have a scar below him left eye to show for it.
The hut door was to the north, the kitchen to the south, the red armchair that come from the overseer Jack Wilkins’ house to the east and the bed to the west. Circe shoulder thick and broad like man, her legs bow a little and her breasts strong and wide. But she short. All over her head, grey hair pop up like little flowers. A straw hat with a pink ribbon be on her head that she never take off, and when she go to sleep the hat cover her face. Circe didn’t take too kindly to mothering. Some say that this was on account of who Lilith papa be, but word loose like wind on Montpelier Estate.
By the time Lilith commence her fourteenth year, Circe grow tired of Tantalus the mad nigger. She come from church one Sunday afternoon and sit down in the armchair only to feel wetness soak through her dress. Piss, to be sure, for Tantalus didn’t got no cum. Circe go for her cast-iron pot and beat him out of the house. Since that time, nobody put clothes on that nigger and the overseer tie him to a breadfruit tree like an old dog. Lilith, after washing Circe good blue frock down by the river near the ratoon fields, come home to see Tantalus tie up under the tree and bawling and grunting and hissing and whinnying and grabbing him cocky in a indecent way and it make her feel like she was the most meanest thing in the world to have such a pappy.
Niggers already done make a song ’bout Tantalus the mad nigger. Lilith scared that soon the song was goin’ pick up a new verse ’bout her. Already she too tall and too loud and the other pickneys says she too big to play even though Lilith still feel like little girl. Lilith look around the dusty patch and it small now. You titty big like yam, a niggerboy tell her when they playing. And you balls little like cherry, she say to him. The little boy punch her and she jump ’pon him like wild dog and nobody could pull her off until they beat her hand to let go of him balls.
Commencing also be this—the white pickneys reach the age when they become white and nigger become black and they don’t play together no more. Lilith know one in particular, the girl from Coulibre who use to grab her hair and call her black sheep and always want to go on quest past the ratoon fields, which was forbidden. The same girl Lilith call donkey cause she laugh like a hee-haw. Plenty time Lilith say, Let we be the wickedest pirates! And the girl would say, Aye! and she lead the white girl astray to plunder the booty, cherry or plum or banana. They would tie cloth over one eye and be Henry Morgan and Black-beard. And they talk secret-like so the boys wouldn’t know. The white girl call her lank chicken and Lilith call her rank goat and they scream and laugh, and the girl take Lilith hand and neither think it uncanny. Then one day the girl come to the plantation dress up in bonnet like her mama and bawl out, Mama, pray tell why is that nigger addressing me? Lilith get a slap for that from a thin house niggerwoman who smell of mint and lemongrass. Lilith don’t go near the great house after that and the white girl stop coming to Montpelier altogether.
Lilith think she is still girl but even Circe tell her otherwise. This was an evening not long after she throw Tantalus out of the hut.
—Look ’pon you, Circe say as she lean back in her red armchair and fan ’way mosquito.—Worthless and good for nothing. Sake o’ you, man start hitch up round here like pee-pee cluck-cluck.
Outside cricket was chirping like they agree and inside the hotness wouldn’t leave the room.
—Word be that is you they come to, Mama.
—Wha’ you just say in me earshole? Word from who?
Lilith don’t answer.
—You soon start takin’ man, Circe say.
—Me not takin’ nothing but the word of God, Mama.
Two thing happen in Lilith fourteenth year. One day she was out in the yard romping when all of a sudden she feel wet, wet, wet. Blood slip from her like whisper and run down her leg. She scream and two boy laugh. Lilith run to the hut where Circe was dismissing a coloured gentleman who wasn’t from Montpelier Estate. As soon as she see Circe her mouth shut up and she couldn’t do nothing but mumble.