American Cloven Hoof Anthem
by Steve Passey
And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
– Revelations 22:21
The Devil whispers in Johnny’s ear and can’t no one hear what he says ‘cept Johnny. Johnny gets his gun and he have but one bullet for it. He’s gonna shoot his woman down. He’s gonna kill Maria dead. She waits for him on the swing on her daddy’s porch. She has her hair up, tied back with a black ribbon. She wears a white dress and white shoes.
“That bitch has strayed,” he says.
The Devil walks behind him, three feet off Johnny’s left shoulder. You can tell the Devil by his cloven hoof, and the red mark beneath his eye. With that cloven hoof he leans a bit left when he stands.
Willie stands in front of Johnny, the palms of his hands out.
“You are in the wrong of it Johnny,” he says. “You are in the wrong. Maria is my sister. I love you both, but you will not pass. You will not pass by me with that gun in your hand. You got but one bullet Johnny. What you gonna do?”
Johnny shoots Willie. Shoots him dead. The last light of day shine through the hole in Willie’s body where his heart used to beat and it marks a spot on the ground that he falls on and now he’s gone, gone forever. The sound of it beats down like a gavel and the Devil he laughs. He laughs soft and low, like the mouth of the graveyard, the man with the lantern that leads you through the cemetery at night.
Johnny’s out of bullets now.
The Devil whispers again in Johnny’s ear and again ain’t no one can hear what he says. Johnny go get his knife. He’s got a thousand-dollar knife, welded steel, damascened. That thing is harder than the back of your daddy’s hand, and got an edge that will draw and press cut. There is a secret in its making, and you can trace the word in it with your finger. No matter where you start once you make six points you lose the line and have to start over again and there are a thousand lines.
Johnny walks the road with his knife in his hand. He walks and the moon start to come up. The Devil walks behind him, three yards behind. He has trouble keeping up. He has a halt in his gait. Beneath his left eye his red mark is barely to be seen. Up in the hills above the road two men strip to the waist and fight. They fight like wild things by the light of a fire. The western witches watch and sway, they’re gonna make a child with the man who lives. Somewhere up ahead Maria come off of the swing on her daddy’s porch and sets on the railing. She takes that black ribbon from her hair and leave it on the ground and her hair falls soft around her shoulders.
Johnny and the Devil cut though the boneyard, the old cemetery where the church was pulled down. Ain’t nothin’ left but headstones. The living? They’re all gone. Ain’t no one there. Johnny gets to Maria’s daddy’s stone and her daddy, his spirit rise up. He shines silver in the moonrise and you can see right through him.
“You come to me with a knife in your hand boy?” he say. “I ain’t afraid of you. Turn back while you still got a chance, son. While you still got a knife.”
But Johnny ain’t afraid neither. He takes that knife, that thousand-dollar knife with the word written in it special-made and he drives it through the old man, straight through his ghost’s heart. He drives it so hard it goes all the way through, and the point of it hits Maria’s Daddy’s stone right where his last day is carved and that blade, damascened and all, shatters, splinters, breaks. Johnny picks the shards up in his hands but there is more than six pieces, more than six times six, and the lines once in the blade are as weak as handwriting, as weak as words, and there ain’t no binding them together again.
The Devil laughs. He laughs a bit louder this time, he sounds like the deacon at church, taking roll, asking who’s there and who’s not there, making out his ledger.
Johnny’s got no knife now.
The Devil, he catches up, and he whispers in Johnny’s ear one last time. No one can hear what he say. Johnny clenched his fists now, ball up ‘em like hammers. He’s gonna kill Maria with his bare hands. Women try but they never understand how a man get so crazy he can kill with his hands.
Johnny runs up the hill now, the hill to Maria’s daddy’s house. The devil can’t keep up, he’s three furlongs behind. He drags that bad foot behind him on the path and it gives off sparks like flint striking steel and they trail off into the night. The smell of fire marks his passage. That red mark beneath his eye can’t be seen in the darkness now, he is too far away. Up in the hills a man who won a fight dies hard of a spider bite. The western witches, two sisters, watch and sway. They have made a child of a dead man.
Up ahead Maria comes down off of the railing and waits for Johnny at the top of the steps. She kicks off her shoes; bunches her skirt up ‘round her knees. She waits for Johnny under the full moonlight, her feet and arms bare.
Johnny gets to Maria’s daddy’s house and sees her upon the steps and he try to take them all in one stride. With his right hand he tries to mark her arm with the four fingers of his grip, with his left he tries and take her by the neck and mark her there with his judgment. Maria just turns her head and slips his hand. With her left foot she stops him on her heel and holds him up a moment. She don’t even look at him, just curses him with her mouth, her lips, her tongue. She pushes him down with that foot, kicks him down the stairs and he roll and break his hands, mark his head all up. When he get to the bottom he sit there and cries.
“Why have you done this to me?” he says.
She leaves him there. She picks up her shoes in her left hand, her ribbon in her right, and she walks back into her daddy’s house with her feet and arms bare.
Somewhere down on the path and in the dark of night the Devil he laughs and it carries far and high and goes around and around. When the ringing of Scratch’s laughter is gone there ain’t nothin’ left but a man alone at the bottom of a steep hill, waiting now on the sound of the law to come and get him.
The law, it sure do take it’s time but eventually it come and fetch with its irons and its keys.
After the law a man waits in penitentiary to hang. That day comes and God’s law comes to him. The Devil? He won’t be there with Johnny. He’s gone from Johnny’s side. He’s been gone for years. He’s got other men that need lookin’ after, but the witches, those sisters, they come to see Johnny and oh how they watch and oh how they sway.
About the author
Steve Passey is originally from southern Alberta. His collection of short stories “Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock” has recently been released by Tortoise Books (Chicago, Illinois). He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction. Tweet to him @CanadianCoyote1