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MISTA GOD

The room was bare but for the unmade bed, a mosquito net, a chair and a single large trunk in the corner with his Bible on the top. There was a cross on the wall and ratty curtains over the one open window – nothing else at all; no tiny memento, no indication of who or what lived in here – a completely ascetic room; clothes, a hat, an empty glass with a think line of ants crawling in single file up one side and down into the sticky, dried juice left in the bottom, nothing more. The visible life of Father Lathaniel Cooper.

One elderly church, an empty clearing, thirty huts, thirty families – about one hundred sheep to his solitary shepherd, but of all those probably only a third, if that, were really children of the Lord. The rest were a crafty, duplicitous bunch, capable of saying a prayer with him then leaving the service and killing a chicken to appease an entirely different god. He’d spent thirty-five years on this island; his entire adult life spent tending an unwilling congregation, providing them with spiritual nourishment, clothes, food, hospital care, a structure for their heathen lives and no thought to his own. Ungrateful swine.

They don’t listen, they don’t listen to me – he knew, saw the blank looks, the giggles when they thought his back was turned, the nodding off at sermon time, the grief and unending toil of it, trying to keep them in God’s way. Such was his life – a never ending attempt to plug up the leaking holes in a bucket full of them. The villagers resisted all attempts at reason, so his remained a Victorian vocation of thunder, God’s wrath and eternal damnation. He was the repository of the forbidden. He had the laws. He had the strength. He was Mista God.

‘Get the shower ready, Jarod!’

The preacher heard the scuttle of bare feet move away from his hut. He slipped on his spectacles, yesterday’s shorts, grabbed his soap from the chair and opened the door.

*

There was a roar of laughter. The noise had an abandoned, dangerous quality about it that led him to suspect sin. They were just laughing at him. Things seemed faintly out of control this morning, but he couldn’t quite work out why. Another burst of mirth rang out as he stepped onto the three steps and stood for a moment, surveying his domain.

One enormous islander, flanked by his three sons, sat on a log facing the church. The smallest of the three was fast asleep curled up in his father’s lap; the second sat on the sand between dad’s huge legs,like a little pixie peering round two brown stone pillars. The third, a boy of about sixteen was leaning slightly away, arm around another young man of the same age. Both wore grubby T-shirts and shorts, their bare feet and splayed toes dug into the sand. Next to them an older man, head bowed, completely out of it, swaying silently, occasionally looking up at the others and sighing before he slipped back into whatever world he was in. His glassy eyes were repeated around the fire, mirrored across the flames by another group of men. This was their daily ritual, the banding together of the men from the mission to air their grievances, plot their plots, gossip and tell jokes. Every day was a day of little other than sitting around. The men sank into a kava-doze till evening, watching their women work.

My flock, thought Father Lathaniel, and curled his lip. My fucking flock.

*

He girded what was left of his loins and walked out onto the balcony, past his favorite chair, down three steps and across the clearing to his personal shower. This was a bucket with holes in it surrounded by screens, topped up by the perennially enthusiastic Jarod, his manservant, factotum, assistant, cook and slave. Jarod would stand up on a little ladder whistling, pouring the water in to the bucket when required, steadfastly looking away lest he see anything of Lathaniel’s manhood. Jarod didn’t care. He was married to Lucy and they lived over the square. In return for his church duties Jarod had a special position in the village; he was Mista God’s right hand man.

The cold water brought the preacher to his senses. He washed carefully with coconut soap, scrubbed that closely cropped red hair, feeling the thick lather run down the small of his back. He was a thin man getting fat round the middle, soft and out of condition, a man of the cloth, not the flesh, he reminded himself, all brain and no body – but sometimes there were fleeting morning memories of those bare breasts at the market, those pert brown nipples, the delicious curve underneath, the freshness, the bloom on these young native girls from the hills…

He felt his loins stirring. Stop, stop thinking this. What has got into you today?

He lifted his head to face the dripping water, ran a hand over his forehead and shook the water from his ears. Ah-h-h, excellent, he thought, much better. Lathaniel was himself again. He dried off briskly and put on the fresh clothes Jarod handed him – one pair voluminous boxer shorts, faintly striped in blue, one pair dark blue shorts with cuffs, ironed, one short-sleeved shirt, once white, now grey, with frayed collar, also ironed. Joshua also handed him a pair of rolled up long socks that he threw high in the air in a purposeful way as he marched back to his veranda, ready to start the day.

He sat in his favorite chair overlooking the clearing, pulling one long sock up to his knee. He placed that gloved foot into one of the two sandals placed here each day by Jarod, then, leaning his weight onto that leg, pulled on the other sock. It was a morning ritual that hadn’t changed in fifteen years. Then he sat back. Already the sweat of the day was starting to break on his shoulders; he knew this crisp, clean feeling wouldn’t last for long.

*

JOSHUA

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