A Choir of Ill Children

A Choir of Ill Children

4.1 17
by Tom Piccirilli
     
 

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This lyrical tale of evil, loss, and redemption is a stunning addition to the Southern gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.

A Choir of Ill Children is the startling story of Kingdom Come, a decaying, swamp backwater that draws the lost, ill-fated, and damned.

Since his mother’s disappearance and his father’s suicide,

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Overview

This lyrical tale of evil, loss, and redemption is a stunning addition to the Southern gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.

A Choir of Ill Children is the startling story of Kingdom Come, a decaying, swamp backwater that draws the lost, ill-fated, and damned.

Since his mother’s disappearance and his father’s suicide, Thomas has cared for his three brothers—conjoined triplets with separate bodies but one shared brain—and the town’s only industry, the Mill.

Because of his family’s prominence, Thomas is feared and respected by the superstitious swamp folk. Granny witches cast hexes while Thomas’s childhood sweetheart drifts through his life like a vengeful ghost and his best friend, a reverend suffering from the power of tongues, is overcome with this curse as he tries to warn of impending menace. All Thomas learns is that “the carnival is coming.”

Torn by responsibility and rage, Thomas must face his tormented past as well as the mysterious forces surging toward the town he loves and despises.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A gothic noir that mates Flannery O’Connor with Stephen King.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Publishers Weekly
In this compelling Southern Gothic, Piccirilli (whose 2002 novel The Night Class has grabbed the Stoker for Best Novel) presents a searing portrait of twisted souls trapped in a wasteland. Thomas, the wealthiest inhabitant of the swamp-infested county of Kingdom Come, a bastion of superstition and ignorance where he's simultaneously reviled and revered, lives with his brothers, conjoined triplets sharing a single brain who act as a sort of Delphic oracle. Thomas also shares a platonic relationship with his wife Maggie: the two were married by his best friend Drub, a black preacher with a penchant for nudity and prophecy. Into this jambalaya intrudes a northern film student (who falls in love with one of the triplets), a sexually precocious young girl from the swamps and a "dog kicker" who terrorizes Kingdom Come. When the local granny witches become agitated and accuse Thomas of neglecting his duties to the land, you can just bet there's plenty of trouble ahead. Piccirilli masterfully increases the tension by playing with stereotypes and manipulating the flaws of his subjects' characters, creating a world where what happens on the outside is a pale reflection of what goes on inside. As such, the novel will appeal both to genre fans and to readers of Flannery O'Connor and even of William Faulkner. James Lee Burke and Harry Crews devotees should also take note. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Who'd want to miss a rat-ridden backwater southern swamp novel with triplets joined at the frontal lobe to one massive ten-pound brain, each brother with his own identity and yet using the one brain to carry on psychic spitspat with each other? Three throats, three bodies to be fed, but only one voice, with each triplet speaking one syllable or word at a time: malicious Sebastian, regretful Jonah, and lovewild Cole, who nonetheless at times speaks hideously. Dodi Coots, daughter of conjure woman Velma Coots, has been traded to the family in return for older brother Thomas's digging screwworms out of the ears of Velma's cows. Dodi sleeps at the foot of the triplets' bed and cares for their bedpans and other needs-all rather Faulknerian? Caretaker Thomas tells their story. The triplets and Thomas own The Mill and are the richest folks in Pott County's Kingdom Come, where they're cursed and revered; however, their father suicided into The Mill's machinery-or did he?-rather than face life in their "gorgeous antediluvian mansion," as it's described by Sarah, a young filmmaker making a student production about the triplets with her cameraman Fred. In the eyes of God, Thomas was truly married to Maggie, with whom he has never shared a kiss, at age nine, by Drabs Bibbler, a black boy now Thomas's best friend. Drabs has the gift and epileptic curse of tongues, which always comes over him after twenty minutes with Thomas. Drabs, now 29 with five bastard kids, walks around naked and loves Maggie, while Jonah loves Sarah. And you won't want to miss the flaming silver dead kid who walks around with skimmer dragonflies and mosquitoes on his eyes and mouth. Or the attic, always a nice place for the deadto snooze. You'll want to know where the brothers' lost mother is-and it'll remind you of "A Rose for Emily." Lyrical, ghastly, first-class horror.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780553587197
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/01/2004
Edition description:
Reissue
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
668,191
Product dimensions:
4.22(w) x 6.88(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

We move in spasms.

My brothers because they are conjoined at the frontal lobe, and me—because for me there is no other way to continue moving. They have three throats and three bodies, three intertwined minds and many feelings, but only one voice. They even have a lover, Dodi Coots, who sleeps at the foot of their king-size bed with the back of her hand brushing Sebastian's ankle. Her breath is tinged with bourbon and chocolate, a few strands of hair wafting against the corners of her mouth.

She does for them now what I always did for them—empties their bedpans, feeds each separate mouth, helps them into their fresh pajamas, gives them sponge baths, and assists them in brushing their own teeth, which remain white and perfect from what I can see.

They dream, sweating with their immense brow furrowed, and they tell me their fantasies in whispers. Each mouth forms a different syllable, framing an independent idea, with an individual limit of emotion. Sebastian is full of malice, Jonah with regret, and Cole speaks of love and nothing but love, no matter how hideous his words. They murdered a six-year-old child, or so they said. They're vague about it. On occasion they make it sound like they killed him, and at other times it seems they only discovered him. I can find no body or evidence, no reports of a missing kid, while I listen to their murmured descriptions every night, and still Cole speaks of love.

It's happened before. I once found a dead boy in the swamp.

My brothers face one another with no need to move their lips, conversing inside the single massive bald head and fractured mind. Silently they argue and debate and agree, lying on the bed, nostrils flaring and their hands sometimes flapping. Since birth they've stared into each other's eyes, sharing the same blood flow and coursing neurochemicals. They have only one epiphysis cerebri, also known as the pineal gland, which was called the "third eye" by ancient peoples who believed it to have mystical properties.

This impedes their mammoth brain's capability to produce the hormone melatonin, which regulates daily body rhythms, most notably the circadian rhythm of the day / night cycle. Their points of view are skewed by the endless intimacy and proximity. Only inches from one another's noses, breathing the mutually stale air, unable to see much of anything except each other's grimacing faces. As in blind children, they cannot differentiate between morning and midnight.

When they talk to me, they often speak in the first person, and it's sometimes difficult for me to discern who is saying what and whether they all feel the same way.

Dodi coos in her sleep. She sighs and purrs, stretching so that her thigh drips moonlight across the floor. Dead leaves brush against the window, tapping softly. She creeps upon my brothers and tastes each of them in turn, stiffly swabbing the bulging curves of their forebrain, sweeping across the trinity of their stunted, twisted bodies. Knuckles brush the headboard, and four sets of feet whirl and kick.

I force myself not to look and end up staring at the wall instead. As the moon descends it draws their writhing shadows into focus, and I see the amazing things she does with every pliable cusp and muscle as they utter her name with flicking tongues. A name full of bitterness, reluctance, and wonder.

Her mother, Velma Coots, gave Dodi to me in trade for digging some screw worms out of her two cows and fixing the roof of her shanty. The years of humidity and rain and Spanish moss bleeding into the wood had rotted it to tissue. My brothers and I are the richest men in the town of Kingdom Come, Potts County, and still the conjure woman found it necessary to pay me. The price didn't matter to her, I knew. Only the service and finality of exchange.

Dodi got into my truck holding a small bundle of dirty clothes in her lap and didn't say a word. I wasn't even sure she could speak until she woke me one night, between all of their legs, caged by their bones, hidden under all that flesh, and whimpering, "Jesus, help me now and at the hour of my death, you bastard."

It's not something you want to hear. Other men might have argued or refused Velma Coots, which is why she did not trade Dodi to anyone but me, and why I didn't dig screw worms out of anybody else's cows but hers. The conjure woman stood in her yard beside water elm and loblolly pine, with her chin jutting, waiting to see what might happen next.

I waited too. My father killed himself because he could not accept backwoods swamp water ways like this, even though he'd never left Potts County himself. He fought the tradition of his own past and paid his price for it.

I shook my head and drove off with Dodi. No matter what I had to do, I would not end up like my father.

We may have a sister too, but I can't be certain. Our parents never said anything to me about it, but there are odd indentations along the left side of my rib cage, pointed and with attitude, which could be a woman's features.

Or they could be bruises and welts that never faded from some childhood scuffle. Or knife scars from the drunken brawls in the back of barrooms. Or perhaps fingernail scratches from one of the roadhouse gals I can't remember. They are beautiful and unforgettable when the icy beer and triple boilermakers wear down the spiked edges of the world enough to become bearable for another minute. The middle-aged women slow dance with me across the wet floor of Leadbetter's, denying their anguish as we move, in spasms, out to the parking lot and into the back of my truck.

Jonah has fallen in love with Sarah, who is doing a student documentary about my family.

She's been staying in the house a couple of weeks now, along with her cameraman, Fred. She tries to interview me but thinks I'm only another witless Kingdom Come swamp rat losing my mind to 160 proof moonshine. She's got the high lilt of a Jewish American Princess straight from the Gold Coast of Long Island, but she enjoys passing herself off as an East Village bohemian.

There's a tattoo on her hip that peeks out whenever she stands on her toes to fix the cheap halogen lights and the aluminum parabolic reflectors, but I can't make out what it might be. It's not sharp work, and the colors already appear faded. Her navel is pierced, which I find sort of sexy. There's a slight scar around the piercing from where infection had set in. She's the kind of girl who might smuggle hashish in the binding of D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel. Sarah wants to be eccentric but just doesn't have the stomach for it.

Being around my brothers terrifies her, and she can't hold back her staggering nausea. Sebastian chuckles as she grows pale talking with them, doing her best not to gag but still turning a nice shade of green, swallowing down her bile. She talks about the Sundance Film Festival, repeating the words like a mantra.

Sebastian says those words too, all of their tongues flailing. My brothers speak as one, each mouth working like a pipe organ, playing a different portion of their communal speech. It's the way that brain works. The "ch" goes to Sebastian, along with the glottal noises, "uh" and "ooh," "ing," names of foreign countries and pronouns, anything that brings his teeth together.

Jonah gets the hisses, the "ph" and drawn-out orgasmic "eeeeeee," titles of symphonies and sit-coms, all the poetry.

Cole is left with the growls and hard consonants, the adverbs, numbers following ten, dirty words, colors, sweet nothings, and every predicate.

Trying to hold back her fear, Sarah does a fair amount of cocaine and leaves blood-spotted tissues in the wastebasket and sitting on the rim of the toilet seat. She has to be careful when she reaches into her handbag so that she doesn't cut her fingers on the razor blades. Every so often she gives such an implosive sniff that there's a loud, high-pitched whistle. She left her nose on some Manhattan surgeon's floor and didn't quite get what her father paid for.

Fred sets up the camera and plays with his light meter, taking readings all over the living room. He uses a Tiffen Black Pro Mist Filter No. 1/2 to knock the bite off glass, wet teeth, brass, and the harshness of my brothers' appearance. I watch him with a slight smile, which he gives in return, rolling his eyes as he spins away toward the bay window, playing with the blinds. He says, "Fuckin' freak shitkickers" loud enough for me to hear because he thinks I'm too stupid to consider it an insult.

I don't take offense, really, but it sets a smoldering fire in my guts, and I'm going to break his arm in two places anyway.

Jonah, who is remorseful, scowls and holds his lips apart, filling each syllable he gets to say with all his resentment. He forces Sebastian and Cole to wheel farther and farther around as they walk so he can get as close to Sarah as possible. He's making a hell of an effort. You can hear their joints popping, the odd slap of nearly atrophied muscle on muscle. Their legs are like contorted stems bending beneath their combined weight. Arms twine around each other's waists like they're about to break out into a bizarre Russian dance.

Jonah rubs against Sarah like an animal, which is exactly how she thinks of him and the others and me. She chokes back puke. We are generally beneath notice, but not beneath disgust, and when she finally gets what she wants down on film she'll wish us dead in the river.

I sit on the settee and try to look stupid without drooling. It's easier than it should be. She has a DAT recorder thrust into the middle of the room and a minicassette recorder on the table placed precisely equidistant from us both. She asks the same questions repeatedly, hoping to keep me talking long enough so that even if I don't give an adequate answer, I'll say enough for her to splice the tape together into something worthwhile.

"Tell me, Thomas, what is it like living with a Siamese triplet?"

There is no such thing, of course—the term is a misnomer as she uses it, proving how ignorant she is of the situation. But I can't completely fault her for that. There's no way to comprehend it, even for us. "Oh, it's fine."

"Could you elucidate?"

I lean forward toward the recorder. "It's fine!"

Her grin is soldered in place, and her upper row of crowns look like they might snap to pieces at any moment. Her nose hairs are being burned away by the coke. "No, Thomas," she says through her teeth. "Elucidate doesn't mean louder, it means could you go into a little more depth about that?"

"About what?"

"Living with your brothers."

I lean forward. "We get along just fine!"

The minitape recorder makes a soft whirr as she swallows thickly. The pulse under her left ear throbs so wildly that it brushes her long gold earrings and gets them swinging. I must admit that Sarah is quite an attractive girl, and I realize why Jonah is falling in love with her despite her poor disposition. What I don't understand is why Sebastian and Cole aren't.

It's a good thing Fred is using the Mist Filter because Sarah's tongue unfurls and is very slimy. "Why do you sleep in the same bedroom?"

"It's my room."

"You have a gorgeous antediluvian mansion here that's enormous enough to fit five families under one roof."

I nod and tell her, "It's nice."

"Don't you need privacy? Why do you sleep in the same bedroom as your brothers?"

"I always have. It's our room. We watch over one another." Which is nothing less than the truth.

The edges of her nostrils are threaded with broken blood vessels, a sharp pink that is both revolting and somehow arousing. Her hair is plum-colored, breasts slightly too large just the way Jonah likes them. Perfect caps that are not too white or too large, and the tip of her tongue constantly works across the glossy upper lip. Her insincerity bleeds off her in a torrent now. Jonah's using his peripheral vision to stare at Sarah and somehow let his love be known. He's beginning to jitter and giggle in place, which means all three of them are. The pleasure in his mind is a delight for them all.

Fred tries to hold his rancor and derision in but can't make it. I see him coming apart inch by inch as the veins stand out in his muscular throat. He lets loose a bark of loathing and aims the camera at the window, searching for Dodi who's swinging from an old tire out front. He zooms in on her, trying to get beaver shots. "Sarah, I'm sick of this place and these freaks. Let's just get out of here and do the movie about your grandmother's Alzheimer's."

"No."

"It can't be any less engaging than this. Come on, an old lady dressed in pigtails and diaper, calling for her mommy? That's priceless material."

"The story's here."

"The retards are here, and we've got nothing to show for our time so far except a huge credit card bill. That car rental is costing us, and I've got to get the DAT back to the university by next Wednesday or Professor James is gonna throw a fit. I signed for this hardware, I'm responsible for it."

She tries to hold on, pressing her nails on top of the cassette recorder and shoving it closer to me. "Yours is one of the richest and oldest families in the town of Kingdom Come, but you seem to be ostracized by the community."

"They bring us pies sometimes."

"Pies?"

"Sour Cream Rhubarb, Mississippi Mud, Tar Heel Pie." Some folks do bring us homemade meals on occasion, but usually it's me doing the baking and giving food away to the men at the mill.

Though Jonah is irritated, Sebastian likes the way I'm screwing with her. He shouts out the names of more pies, using all their throats: Peach Skillet, Double Layer Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, Kiwi Lime.

Sarah's eyes are almost spinning. The coke is really grooving in her system. She can't focus well, and I'm breaking down what little concentration she has left. If only she'd listened to me that first day when I told her we weren't interested in broadcasting our lives. She'd been in control then, so wonderfully sure of herself. Backing off the porch she had turned her attention to my brothers, who peered through the bay window and rapped on the glass with their many hands. Jonah, all three of them actually, begging Sarah to stay.

She's spoken with them at length but still needs me for the buffer. The tale cannot work without my support. The audience needs someone to identity with. This is, after all, a human interest story.

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