“Gods and moonshine in the Great Depression, written with a tenderness and brutality … this is as good as novels get.” —Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians
In 1933, nine-year-old Stella is left in the care of her grandmother, Motty, in the backwoods of Tennessee. The mountains are home to dangerous secrets, and soon after she arrives, Stella wanders into a dark cavern where she encounters the family's personal god, an entity known as the Ghostdaddy.
Years later, after a tragic incident that caused her to flee, Stella—now a professional bootlegger—returns for Motty's funeral, and to check on the mysterious ten-year-old girl named Sunny that Motty adopted. Sunny appears innocent enough, but she is more powerful than Stella could imagine—and she’s a direct link to Stella's buried past and her family's destructive faith.
Haunting and wholly engrossing, summoning mesmerizing voices and giving shape to the dark, Revelator is a southern gothic tale for the ages.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)|
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Stella wallace met her family’s god when she was nine years old. Later, she couldn’t figure out why she didn’t run when she saw it. It wasn’t fear that pinned her to the spot, staring up at it, or even shock. It was something else. Awe, maybe. Wonder so deep it was almost adoration.
Pa said she’d been born in the cove but they’d left when she was too young to remember it. This was where her ma was born too, and where she’d come back to die when she got sick. Where all the Birches before her had lived and died. He’d never told Stella much more about it than that. He was a quiet man, could go days on a dozen words, like a camel crossing the desert. The day before, they’d spent twelve hours together in the truck going from Chicago to Lexington, then another four this morning driving into the mountains, and the whole time the only one doing any talking was the truck, engine whining up the foothills, brakes complaining on the way down. Then the biggest climb, to the top of Rich Mountain. At the gap Pa pulled into a gravel overlook. He poured water into the Ford’s ticking radiator, then rolled himself a cigarette. Stella crept to the edge of the gravel and peered down at a valley spread open like a green pool.
“Is that it? This is the cove?”
“Where’s Motty’s house?”
Her father squinted. Stupid question, she thought. Probably couldn’t see it from here. She didn’t expect him to answer, and then he pointed his cigarette at a high mountain to the east. “That’s Thunderhead. And over there . . .” The tip of the cigarette swung south, pointed at a high, round bulge. “That’s yourn. Birch Bald.”
My mountain, she thought. Not his.
“Motty’s is straight down from there.”
They followed the twisting road into a valley as bright and warm as a bowl of light. Pa pulled onto a rutted lane, finally rolled to a stop in a grassy clearing in front of a white, tin-roofed house. A short ways off to the side, a gray, unpainted barn sat askew as if leaning into a stiff wind. Her father stared at the house for a long minute, sighed, ran a hand through his black hair.
A gray-haired woman came out onto the porch. Scrawny neck and thick arms in a no-color housedress. A long nose like a hawk. She held a tin can, as if she’d just opened some beans.
Pa said, “Well.” Got out of the truck and Stella climbed out after him.
The woman was old, and her skin was marked like Stella’s, splotches of red on her cheek, her neck, her arms, like a map of an island empire. The old woman’s stains were dark where Stella’s were bright red, but there was no mistaking them. They shared the same skin.
The woman gestured for Stella to come forward. Stella glanced at her father, but his eyes were on the hills, as if he were standing here alone.
The old woman gripped Stella’s chin, tipped her head sideways, examining those blossoms of red. Stella burned with embarrassment. She kept her arms and legs covered when she could, but nothing could hide the marks on her neck and face. She learned to avoid looking strangers in the eye, afraid to see their disgust.
Motty said, “You’re a Birch, all right.” Then she turned Stella’s wrists and examined her palms.
“She ain’t done hard work, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Pa said. “I kept her in school.”
The old woman grunted. “Town girl.”
Pa said to Stella, “You stay here. Motty and I . . . need a word.”
A word. Close to her father’s limit. The two of them went up the steps to the porch, then inside.
After ten minutes of fanning gnats from her face, Stella climbed the porch steps. Harsh voices stopped her at the screen door. They weren’t in the front room; must have gone to the back of the house. She thought about sitting in the porch swing but didn’t want to make noise. She wanted to disappear.
She went around the side of the house and found a neighborhood of narrow gray houses. In the first, a ham was strung up like a prisoner. A row of miniature apartments turned out to be occupied by chickens. Then a trio of wooden boxes whose purpose she couldn’t identify. And then a narrow little shack with a human-sized door. She smelled the shit before she opened it. An outhouse. She stared in horror at the hole in the bench. It was as wide as she was. They wouldn’t expect her to squat over this thing, would they? She could fall in and never be able to climb out! And where was the toilet paper? There was nothing but a mail-order catalog on the bench.
No. No no no. There had to be a bathroom in the house. She slammed the door shut.
The yard ended at a high bank cut into the side of the mountain, curling forward like a wave. She followed the curve, running her hand along the red clay, until she was behind the house. A back door was wedged open, and she could hear the old woman talking. Demanding answers. A shadow moved in the doorway and Stella scooted out of sight, toward the barn.
Attached to that building was an open shed—a roof nailed to the barn at the low end and angling upward to two posts like stout legs. A fence of wood rails and barbwire guarded an expanse of churned-up dirt, a muddy puddle, and an empty steel trough. Then she realized that in the dark shade of that roof lay an enormous creature. A pig, unmoving, as big as a hippo. She put her hands on the fence. Could it see her? Was it even alive?
The beast moved. Stepped out of the shade, staring at her.
“Hey, piggie piggie.”
It answered her with a sound like a cough.
She put her hand between the fence rails. “C’mere. C’mere, piggy.”
It charged at her. She jumped back and its head slammed against the fence. She stumbled, fell back on her butt. The animal looked at her for a long moment, between the two lowest rails, its eyes even with hers. Then suddenly it turned aside. Scraped its bristly hide against the wooden rails. Ambled away from her.
Stella got to her feet, feeling stupid. It was behind a fence. What was she afraid of?
She went up to the fence and kicked the rail. “You go to hades, pig.”
The animal ignored her.
She started for the mouth of the barn and stopped. The trees behind the pigpen had moved in a sneaky way. She went still, trying to detect what was in that thick brush. A bear? She’d like to see a bear.
She stepped toward a pair of trees leaning into each other like giraffe necks. A dirt path cut between them.
She looked back at the house, then at the path. No choice, really. She scampered between the cross trees.
The path turned steep, but the surface was smooth and the edges sharp. An important trail then, hundreds of years old, carved out by the Cherokee. Warpath! She followed it up, up, across an interruption of gray stone, and around a hairpin. She looked down and was surprised to see the roof of the old woman’s barn, and the house’s stone chimney. Kept climbing.
A white shape peeked through the trees—a building. The path led to it.
It was a steep-roofed house set into the slope of the mountain, all white clapboard, no windows in front and only a wide door set at the center. A long, deep scratch zigzagged along the door’s surface like a letter from a foreign alphabet.
She pulled on the iron handle. It didn’t budge. She set her feet and heaved. The lip of the door scraped over a stone threshold.
The light behind her showed her rows of church pews, four on each side of a center aisle. She’d gone to a church once, with a teacher who took pity on her, because Pa refused to walk into one. Where the podium should have been was a wide, blank stage with some kind of black carpet lying askew on it. The only window in the church was a small square thing high on the back wall.
Where was the cross? Seemed like there ought to be a cross.
The air smelled like sawdust. A lick of cold touched her face.
She crept forward, led by that feather of cold across her nose.
The black on the stage wasn’t a carpet—it was a hole, swallowing the light. A wide plank that had covered it had been pushed aside. Was this one of those baptizing pools? Some of her classmates in Chicago had been baptized.
Stella leaned over it. Wooden steps led down from one end, into the black. Dank air whispered around its edges.
This was no pool. But she knew exactly what this was. She was a girl who read novels about castles. She’d been waiting her entire life to discover a secret passage.
She glanced back at the church entrance, which seemed farther away than she expected. Stepped down. Cold air swirled across her legs. Bit by bit she climbed down into the earth.
Sixteen steps, and her feet found the dirt bottom. The hole barely allowed any light; darkness surrounded her. The air smelled like a muddy riverbank.
She put out a hand and shuffled forward. Her fingers touched something cool and slick as toad skin and she yanked her hand back. Yet still she didn’t leave. She could go up and pull that trapdoor over her and her father would never find her. He’d send for search parties and they’d comb the forests and even come into this church and never find this cave. Newspapers would print her picture. Years later men would scratch their beards and say, well, I guess the Indians got her.
She took another step, and something in the air changed. A trembling, a thrum she felt in her chest. She looked around, eyes wide against the dark. And then she heard another sound, penetrating the thrum: a scrape like a knife caressing a stone. She looked up.
Above her, a gleam like moonlight on a china plate. She reached toward it, unsure how far away it was, then froze.
The pale, smooth surface belonged to something very large. She could barely see it, and couldn’t make out its shape. But she could feel it. The presence loomed over her, gazing down, listening to her—every breath a roar.
She couldn’t move. The scrape came again. A limb—a long, chalky limb, flat as a blade—eased toward her. Other limbs unfolded. It descended like a spider.
Something seized the back of her neck. She screamed. A hand gripped her jaw.
“How did you get in here?” Her grandmother, shouting in her face out of the dark. So furious.
She pulled Stella toward the steps, shoved her up. She fell onto the altar floor. After the dark of the cave, the church seemed so much brighter. Motty climbed out of the hole, cursing. She picked up the plank with surprising ease, then dropped it across the hole with a boom.
Stella blinked up at her, afraid. “I’m sorry, I don’t—”
“You never go in here, do you hear?” Stella nodded and Motty said, “Say it!”
The old woman yanked her to her feet. “Your father’s calling for you. Go.”
She didn’t know what she’d seen. Didn’t have a name for it. She wouldn’t know either of those things for a while.
her father was pacing beside the truck, scanning the trees. Stella’s cardboard suitcase and her wicker basket of personals sat on the porch’s front steps. She didn’t want to go to him.
Then he saw her. Saw that she’d been crying. His face went hard, as if she’d disappointed him terribly. She rubbed the tears from her eyes. She wanted to tell him about what she saw. If he hadn’t looked at her like that maybe she would have.
Instead she said, “How long?” She’d asked him this a dozen times. Usually he didn’t answer. Sometimes he said what he said now: “Till I find work.”
Tears popped into her eyes again, and she blinked them away. “And then you’ll come get me?”
He didn’t answer.
Pa and her, they never knew what to do with each other. He couldn’t talk to her, and she didn’t know how to draw him out.
He ran a hand across his jaw. “Your mama’s people . . .” He looked at the house behind her, seemed to change his mind about what he was going to say. Her grandmother stood on the porch, hands on hips, watching them. “Motty’ll take good care of you. She been waiting for you a long time.”
Later, when she thought about this day, it wasn’t the creature in the cave that most shook her. Oh, it should have scared her to death, and the fact that it didn’t was a strangeness in herself she’d ponder about for years. What did frighten her was her father’s coldness. Her pa was gone already, standing in front of her.
She wanted to punch him, just to wake him up. But her body betrayed her and went to him and hugged him. She didn’t have a say in it. After a while he pulled her arms from his waist.
She watched the truck back up, turn awkwardly, and rattle out of the yard.
“Might as well come on in,” Motty said. Pretending like she hadn’t been ready to whup Stella a minute ago. “Supper’s on.”
But Stella wouldn’t come in. She wanted her father to look back and see her standing there. When he got to the top of Rich Mountain she wanted him to look down and see her burning like a bonfire.