Stefano Boscutti

Author, Screenwriter, Creative Consultant

 

Stefano Boscutti - Boscutti's John Harper - Screenplay

 

“Boscutti’s John Harper” (Screenplay)

A child shall lead them.

Struggling after the hanging of his beloved father, a young boy must protect his much younger sister and a deep, dark secret from the clutches of a murderous preacher.

This unsettling thriller pits good against unholy evil. It’s set along the cursed Ohio River in West Virginia during the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. A diabolical serial-killing preacher will stop at nothing in his quest to serve his fancied Lord.

“Boscutti’s John Harper” is a gripping, nightmarish screenplay. It’s a terrifying look at the loss of innocence.

Will the young John Harper escape the tormented preacher out for blood and vengeance?

Will the boy overcome his fears?

Will the boy become a man?

‘I love Charles Laughton’s intensely expressionistic 1955 film adaptation. But I wanted to go deeper into the original novel by Davis Grubb, wanted to see it from the eyes of the boy. I was stunned to learn the plot was based on the true story of Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children. I started digging from there.’ Stefano Boscutti

★★★★

‘Slits your heart like a fine, shiny knife.’ Florence Pontell

‘Sumptuous blend of blood, danger and menacing whispers in the cold, dark night.’ Thomas Nordine

‘Bewitching screenplay adaptation goes to the heart and soul of the original novel.’ Louis Caracciolo

‘Disturbing, complex and altogether haunting screenplay.’ Kelvin Quinn

‘Maintains the sustained drive and relentless, mounting terror missing from Laughton’s film adaptation.’ Nessa Taylor

‘American Southern Gothic Horror in all it’s glory.’ Susan Bock

“Boscutti’s John Harper” is based on Davis Grubb’s classic Depression-era novel “The Night of the Hunter.” Which was based on the true story of Harry Powers, who was hanged in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children. Features improved screenplay format to make it easier and more enjoyable for you to read.

Rated PG / ISBN 9780980712537 / 20,000 words / 80 minutes of relentless reading pleasure / Buy Amazon / Buy Barnes & Noble / Buy Smashwords

Prefer to read free online? Scroll on to read the full screenplay.

 


‘Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.’ Herman Melville

 

STEFANO BOSCUTTI

BOSCUTTI’S JOHN HARPER

BASED ON THE NOVEL BY DAVIS GRUBB

 

 

Author Edition
Copyright 2012 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved ISBN 9780980712537

Discover new stories, screenplays, novels and more by Stefano Boscutti at boscutti.com

 

 

Sounds of CHILD giggling.

Fade in.

 

EXT. 1933 - OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - GRUBB’S LIVERY STABLE – DUSK

Child’s hand with a piece of white chalk scrawls a careful cross on the red brick wall. Then a thick broken line for a rope. And then a scarecrow of a hanging man.

Beyond the red brick wall and down the lane sits the Harper House

PEARL (O.S.)
(chanting) - Hing Hang Hung! / See what the hangman done! / Hung Hang Hing! / See the robber swing --

Sounds of china plate and apple pie crashing to the floor.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - KITCHEN - CONTINUOUS

WILLA
Don’t you ever sing that! Ever! Ever! Ever!

WILLA, 30, is on her knees cleaning up the apple pie and shattered blue china plate with her poor, thin hands. PEARL, 4, frowns at the table. JOHN, 9, takes a sip of water from a cracked glass.

PEARL
Why? The other kids sing it. And John said --
WILLA
Never mind what John said. God in heaven as if my cross wasn’t hard enough to bear without my own children -- his own children -- mocking me with it! Now hush!
PEARL
Where’s dad?
WILLA
Hush! Hush!
PEARL
But why won’t you tell me? John knows?

Willa dumps the shattered china and pie into the sink.

WILLA
Go up to your room, Pearl.
PEARL
But my pie?
WILLA
Now!

Pearl gasps and waddles off, clutching her old rag doll. Willa glares at John.

WILLA
And I don’t want you telling her, John. I don’t want you breathing a word of it -- you hear? I don’t want her to ever know.

John looks at the slice of apple pie on his plate.

Willa by the mirror tucks her chestnut curls into the wide straw hat with the green band.

WILLA
I’m going to Moundsville to see your dad.

Willa scurries down the hallway past the hall clock that no longer works and out the door.

WILLA
Mind your sister now, John.

John listens to the whinny-and-catch, and then the final cough-and-catch and the rising whine of the old Model T as it starts and heads up the river road.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CHILDREN’S BEDROOM - LATER

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

Door opens and John enters with his slice of apple pie for Pearl.

She lies in the bed brushing the hair of her ancient doll in her arms with the heavy hairbrush, its chipped and corroded face not unlike her own streaked with faint dry tears.

She refuses the pie.

PEARL
Why won’t mom tell?
JOHN
Because you’re too little.
PEARL
I’m not, John. I’m not!

John moves to the window and looks out at the gas lamp on the wooden post below. It stands next to the wooden fence, behind the apple tree shifting in the night wind.

JOHN
Hush up, Pearl! It’s time you was asleep!

John sketches a crude hanging man on the foggy window pane with his finger. He slips into bed, watching the whirling shadows the gas lamp throws on the wall.

PEARL
Tell me a story, John.
JOHN
Only if you keep the covers on so you don’t catch the cold.

Pearl shoots down under the sheets, tucks her legs up tight and hugs her doll waiting for the story to start.

John stares at the swirling shadows.

JOHN
Once upon a time -- there was a rich king --
PEARL
What’s a rich king, John?
JOHN
You’ll see. Well, there was this rich king and he had a son and a daughter and they all lived in a castle over in Africa. Well one day this king got carried away by bad men --

Pearl’s face tightens.

JOHN
And well, before he got carried off he told his son to kill anyone that tried to steal their gold. Well, it wasn’t long before the same bad men came --
PEARL
The blue men?

John turns his head away from the shadows and shuts his eyes.

PEARL
John! What happened to the king’s gold? Did the blue men --
JOHN
Go to sleep, Pearl! I fogit the rest of that story.

John shivers under the covers.

Pearl sighs and puts her thumb in her mouth. Then takes it out again and blinks at the doll on the pillow next to her.

PEARL
(softly) - Good night, Miz Jenny. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

She falls asleep. But John remains awake, watching the creeping shadows form into the shape of a dark man crouched low.

John slips out of bed and steps to the window. His own shadow looms up behind him. He’s scared.

JOHN
(under his breath)
I ain’t scared --

He turns and scurries back into bed, pulling the covers up tight as the wind rattles the window like pressing hands.

John scowls and shuts his eyes tight as shadows gather over his face.

 

MATCH DISSOLVE

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - YARD - DAY

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “I’m Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge.”

John smiles and opens his eyes wide as sunlight passes over his face.

PEARL (O.S.)
It’s Dad! Look, it’s Dad!!

Old Model T rushes down river road, engine pounding. Bounces and rattles to a stop in the yard below the apple tree.

BEN HARPER, 33, falls through the door and staggers up towards the house. John rushes down to him.

Ben whirls and staggers, clutching his wounded right arm. Pearl runs down to him. John sees his eyes, his torn shirt sleeve drenched in the dark, spreading stain.

BEN
Where’s Willa? Where’s --
JOHN
Mom’s gone to buy calico. Dad, you’re bleeding.
BEN
Ain’t nothin’. Now listen to me, boy --
JOHN
Dad, you’re hurt bad!
BEN
Boy! Listen to me!

John sees the gun and the thick roll of green bank notes in his father’s hand.

BEN
They’re comin’ to take me, boy. This money here, I stole it, John. All of it.

Ben grabs his son close.

BEN
They musn’t get it. None of them! Not even Willa! Do you understand me, boy? Not even your mom!
JOHN
Dad, you’re bleeding bad.
BEN
Hush, John! We’ve got to hide it before they come.

John sees his father’s blood drip on the bank notes.

BEN
There’s thousands of dollars here, boy. And it’s yours. Yours and little Pearl’s.

Ben looks over the yard.

BEN
Think, boy! Behind a stone in the smokehouse. Buried under a brick under the tree. No! No! They’d dig for it for sure.

Ben looks at the doll in Pearl’s arms and smiles wide.

Scrambles on his knees to his daughter and lifts the broken doll from her arms.

PEARL
No! No! Miz Jenny!

Ben plucks the safety pin loose from the torn place in the doll’s cloth back. Pearl wails.

BEN
Wait, now, honey! I won’t hurt her none.

He tears out a great wad of cotton stuffing from the doll’s body and then stuffs the thick roll of notes inside. Snaps the safety pin back and hands the doll back, his blood smudged on the cheap little toy dress.

PEARL
You hurt her!
BEN
She ain’t hurt, baby. That ain’t doll’s blood, Pearl honey. That’s my blood.

Ben struggles to his feet, swaying.

BEN
Listen, John! Listen to me now! You must swear, boy! Swear, boy!
JOHN
What? I --
BEN
Swear means promise, John. You must promise you’ll take good care of Pearl. Promise? Swear?
JOHN
Yes! Yes! I --
BEN
With your life, boy!
JOHN
Yes, Dad!
BEN
And then swear you’ll keep the secret.
JOHN
About --
BEN
-- about that money, John. No matter who asks. Never tell. Never let them know, boy! Not even Willa! Not even your mom!
JOHN
Yes, Dad!
BEN
Swear!
JOHN
Yes! I swear!
BEN
And you, Pearl! You swear, too!

Pearl hugs her doll and laughs and nods. Ben sees two touring cars approaching. He backs away.

BLUE MEN clamber out of the cars, guns drawn. They wade through the tall grass towards Ben. BLUE MAN cocks his gun.

BLUE MAN
Drop the gun, Harper!

Ben squats and lowers his gun to the ground. Blue Men move in closer and closer. And leap onto him, beating him with their guns and truncheons and dragging him away to the cars.

John is horrified. Pearl claps her hands.

BEN
Mind, boy! Mind what you swore!!

Ben grimaces and shuts his eyes against the pain.

 

MATCH DISSOLVE

INT. OHIO - MOUNDSVILLE - MOUNDSVILLE PENITENTIARY - DEATH ROW - CELL - NIGHT

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed.”

Ben winces and opens his eyes against the dream. Sweat beads on his forehead. His eyes narrow as he takes aim and punches his coiled left fist with all his strength.

Hard into the whispering face of PREACHER, 44, looking down from the worn bunk above.

BEN
What did I say, Preacher!?
PREACHER
Nothin’! My God, nothin’, Ben Harper! I’m a man of the Lord!

Ben’s right arm is in a black sling.

BEN
You’re a slobberin’ hypocrite, Preacher! Now keep in your bunk before I smash your head in! I’d soon as hang for three killins as two.
PREACHER (O.C.)
Set your soul right, Ben Harper! That money’s bloodied with Satan’s own curse now. And the only way it can get cleared of it is to let it do His work in the hands of good, honest poor folks.
BEN
Like you, Preacher?
PREACHER (O.C.)
I serve the Lord in my humble ways.
BEN
Then how come they got you locked up in Moundsville penitentiary, Preacher?
PREACHER (O.C.)
There are those that serves Satan’s purposes against the Lord’s servants.
BEN
And how come you got that stick knife hid in your bed blankets?

Beat.

PREACHER (O.C.)
That sword has served me through many an evil time, Ben Harper.

Ben grins.

PREACHER (O.C.)
Where you’re goin’ it won’t serve you none. Buy your way to Paradise now! Let that money serve the Lord’s purposes. Tell me, boy! Have a heart!

Ben thinks for a moment.

BEN
Go to hell, Preacher!

Rain pours down into the grim night.

 

EXT. OHIO - MOUNDSVILLE - MOUNDSVILLE PENITENTIARY - DEATH HOUSE - SCAFFOLD - DAWN

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “The Soul Of A Man.”

Rain pours down into the gray dawn. Ben swings from the thick noose, black hood over his face. Right arm dangling in the black sling.

Move back up through the steel bars of the old cell block to reveal Preacher looking down in disgust with his black eyes. He shakes his head righteously, then spits.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - KITCHEN - DUSK

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying.”

Willa helps herself to coffee at the stove.

ICEY
Here, honey. Let me git you that. Set down and give your feet a rest.

ICEY SPOON, 60, is fat and pleasant. She pours out the black, scalding coffee. Then shuffles off to the ice cream freezers and returns with a heaped dish of chocolate cream. Sets it firmly at Willa’s elbow.

ICEY
A dish of that two or three times a day and you’ll commence to shape into something a feller might want to look at twice.

WALT SPOON, 60, is at the marble counter out front.

ICEY
Honey, there is certain plain facts of life that adds up. Just like two plus two makes four.

Willa doesn’t lift her eyes.

ICEY
No woman is good enough to raise growin’ youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two.

Icey rests her hands in her hips.

ICEY
Are you listenin’ to me now, honey?

Willa looks up.

ICEY
There ain’t so many single fellers nor widowers in Cresap’s Landing that a girl can afford to get too choosey.

Icey counts her first finger.

ICEY
There’s Charley Blankensop -- he drinks.

Willa counts her second finger.

ICEY
There’s Bill Showacre -- and he don’t amount to much except doin’ card tricks at socials but he is kind and he don’t touch a drop and the old pap’s got some farmland.
WILLA
Icey, I don’t want a husband.
ICEY
Want nothin’! You’re no spring chicken with hot britches, Willa Harper. You’re a grown woman widowed with two little youngins and it’s them you should be thinkin’ about.
WILLA
But Icey --
ICEY
But it’s a man you need in the house.
WILLA
But John takes awful good care of Pearl --
ICEY
Mindin’ girls ain’t no fit business for a growin’ boy, neither.

Willa looks away.

WILLA
Not every man wants a widow of a man who --
ICEY
-- a man who done somethin’ foolish! Ben Harper was no common thief. It’s these hard, mean times that ruins men.
WILLA
John’s so much like his dad it just naturally scares me. So serious about everything. He took his dad’s death hard.

Willa stares at the palms of her hands.

WILLA
Sometimes I think about Ben lying there in that little plot of ground between by ma and pa and him being dead all these weeks and then I look into the boy’s face and it’s almost as if --

Sounds of the river wind whispering behind the window.

WILLA
-- as if he and Ben had a pact.
ICEY
About which?
WILLA
About that money, Icey.
ICEY
That money! A curse and abomination before God! I hope Ben throwed it in the river wrapped around a cobblestone!
WILLA
But he didn’t.
ICEY
Pshaw!
WILLA
It’s hid somewhere. And I think little John knows where it is.
ICEY
What? That child? Fiddlesticks!
WILLA
Icey! Honest to God, I don’t want that money! When I think about it being anywheres around us - it just makes me feel like folks is staring -- wonderin’ -- sniffin’ around it like dogs --

Beat.

WILLA
-- like somethin’ awful was going to happen to me and them kids because of it!
ICEY
And that’s why I say that the sooner you get a man into that house the better, Willa. There’s so much can happen to a widowed woman and two youngsters.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - CUNNINGHAM’S SECONDHAND STORE - DUSK

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s ”Let Your Light Shine On Me.”

John holds Pearl’s hand as they walk down the main street. He stops at a dirty shop window.

PEARL
What are you looking at, John?

He stares at a gleaming silver pocket watch among the gimcracks and buttons and fake diamond stickpins and the old Bryan campaign badges.

PEARL
John? Are you going to buy it, John?

John see, MISS CUNNINGHAM, 62, dirty hand welded to her worn cane limping towards the front door. He leaves with Pearl.

He looks down at UNCLE BIRDIE’S crumbling houseboat by the river shore.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CHILDREN’S BEDROOM - NIGHT

Pearl is asleep with her doll hugged tight. John watches the shadows brooding on the wall from the gas lamp below.

He sees the shadows darken and loom into the shape of a tall gaunt man wearing a low broad-brimmed hat.

John slips out of bed towards the window. Looks out and sees the black shape of Preacher by the roadside.

Standing silent, motionless. Staring towards the house.

John can’t understand why he’s so scared.

JOHN
(under his tongue)
I ain’t scared of --

Preacher turns and steps back into the shadows and wanders into town singing a sweet old gospel tune.

PREACHER
(singing)
Leaning, leaning! / Safe and secure from all alarms! / Leaning, leaning! / Leaning on the everlasting arms

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - DAY

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Is Coming Soon.”

John hears the shrill whistle of the little sternwheeler passing down the river as he crosses main street. Looks up to the parlor window and stops.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - MARBLE COUNTER - CONTINUOUS

Preacher sits at the soda fountain smiling and talking with Pearl who’s legs dangle over the edge of the counter. He’s dancing her old doll along the edge.

Walt puffs contentedly on his pipe. Icey whips the hot fudge on the black stove. Willa weeps soundlessly into her handkerchief.

John enters, eyes cast to the floor.

ICEY
And it’s a good man, a mighty good man to come out of his way to bring a word of cheer to a grieving widow.

Preacher clears his throat. Stiff paper collar bites into his neck.

PREACHER
I was with Brother Harper almost to the end. To know how brave her husband was -- how humble in the face of Eternity and the final judgment.
ICEY
Preacher, they’ll be a place for you in heaven for bringing them tidings to Willa here!

Preacher folds his long fingers into a web. Each finger is tattooed with a blue gray letter. The right hand spells L-O-V-E. The left hand H-A-T-E.

PREACHER
Ben Harper was the last of the condemned men whose troubled spirits I brought comfort to.

John can’t stop looking at the letters tattooed on Preacher’s fingers.

PREACHER
Ah, little lad! You’re staring at my fingers.

John stares back down at his shoes. Preacher holds out his hands, fingers outstretched.

PREACHER
These letters spell out the Lesson of Life, boy! Shall I tell you the story of right-hand and left-hand? The tale of Good and Evil?

Walt nudges John.

WALT
Preacher asked you a question!
PREACHER
Ah, he’s a shy one, poor little lamb! And no wonder! Think, my friends, what life has already done to those tender years.

John turns away. Preacher picks Pearl up and cradles her on his knee. Thrusts out his left hand so that all might read.

PREACHER
Hate! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low!

Preacher thrusts out his right hand.

PREACHER
Love! See these here fingers, dear friends! These fingers has veins that lead right square to the heart -- to the almighty soul of man.

Preacher thrusts his fingers together, wrings and twists them until the knuckles crack horribly.

PREACHER
These fingers -- they’re always a-tuggin’ and a-warrin’ and a-ragin’, my friends. The soul of man a-fightin’ against his own greed and lust and stinkin’ corruption! Look at them, dear hearts. Old left hand Hate’s afightin’ and it looks like old right hand Love’s a-goner!

Pearl stares, her plump mouth open wide. Preacher’s right hand struggles to overcome the left.

PREACHER
But wait, now! Hot dog! Love’s a-winnin’! Yessirree! Old left hand Hate’s a-goner!

Preacher crashes both hands onto the marble counter.

PREACHER
Hot dog, brothers and sisters! It was Love that won! Old Mister Left Hand has gone down for the count!

Icey sighs and slices the crisscross squares of fudge.

ICEY
I declare I never heard it better told, Preacher.
WILLA
John! Take your hands from behind you and act nice.

Preacher smiles and pats John’s head with firm, quick movements.

PREACHER
Many and many’s the time when I sat listening to Brother Harper speak about these youngins.

John’s eyes fly to Preacher’s smiling face as he gently lowers Pearl. She holds her doll close.

JOHN
What did he tell you?
PREACHER
He told me lots and lots of things. Nice things, boy.

John grabs Pearl’s hand.

JOHN
I reckon me and Pearl better go now.
ICEY
But the fudge ain’t hard yit.

John leads his sister out of the parlor.

ICEY
I declare such impudence.
PREACHER
We all fogit how much these little lambs has endured. He didn’t mean no impudence. Did you now boy?

Preacher calls out after John.

PREACHER
Did you, boy?

John and Pearl head down the main street towards home.

 

I/E. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - UNCLE BIRDIE’S HOUSEBOAT - DAY

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “John The Revelator.”

UNCLE BIRDIE, 65, is weathered and gnarled. Splashes some corn liquor into his coffee. Spots John standing timidly by the narrow gangplank. Pours out a second cup and walks out.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Bless my soul if it hain’t Ben Harper’s boy. Hop up, Johnny. Come have a good hot cup of coffee with me. Does your maw let you?

John’s eyes fall.

UNCLE BIRDIE
By damn, it don’t matter if she does or don’t.

Uncle Birdie offers John the second cup. He steps up and takes it. Looks down at the half-sunken boat on the shore below.

JOHN
Ain’t nobody stole Dad’s skiff?
UNCLE BIRDIE
Ain’t nobody going to neither. Figger I’ll wade down and git her up on the bank. Give her a good calkin’ and a new paint job and then you and me’ll go fishin’, boy.

John hands back his coffee cup, unfinished.

JOHN
I gotta go, Uncle Birdie.
UNCLE BIRDIE
Aw, you just got here.
JOHN
I told Mum I’d be back for Pearl. She don’t like us kids hangin’ around Mister Spoon’s place too much.

John scurries up the gangplank into town.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - KITCHEN - DUSK

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied.”

Close on Willa polishing long silver spoons.

WILLA (O.C.)
John don’t like him much.

Icey pops a Turkish delight into her mouth.

ICEY
It’ll be a sad day when a saasybritches like that John of yours can stand up and tell their elders what’s right and wrong.
WILLA
Well --
ICEY
Besides, honey! What about Pearl? She just dotes on him! It’s only natural for boys to feel sorty -- well sorty loyal to the memory of their father.

Willa agrees.

ICEY
You mark my words, Willa, that boy wouldn’t cotton up to no man you picked to marry.
WILLA
Gracious, Icey! Here we are just talkin’ about it like he’d gone and asked me.
ICEY
Shoot, now! Ain’t no man’ll ever ask a woman if she don’t find a way to let him know she’s ready.

Icey throws her hands in the air.

ICEY
Only thing else I can think of is you just naturally can’t see yourself in the same bed with him.
WILLA
No, it’s not that. It’s not love I’m huntin’ any more. If I was to marry again, Icey, it wouldn’t be for no other earthly reason than to give the kids a father, a provider who --
ICEY
Then what in heaven’s name is wrong with Preacher Powell? He’d be a comfort and --

Beat.

WILLA
It’s that money.
ICEY
Pshaw! That money! I declare you’ll let that money haunt you to your grave, Willa Harper.
WILLA
It’s always there -- bloody and evil and covered with sin.

Icey shakes her head.

WILLA
(low) - My sin as much as Ben’s. I feel like I ought to pay for it just as much as he done. Like I’d driven him to it.
ICEY
Such barefaced foolishness! It’s gone -- gone I tell you!

Willa stares at her chapped hands.

WILLA
There’s no way I can tell whether he knows about it or not.
ICEY
Who knows?
WILLA
Mister Powell.
ICEY
Well, shoot! I reckon he should know about it! It was in the Moundsville Daily Echo -- the whole story. It was even in the Wheeling papers, too. But what in the world has his knowin’ about it got to do with anything?

Willa shivers.

WILLA
Maybe he knows where it’s hid.
ICEY
It’s at the bottom of the Ohio River! That’s where it’s hid.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - STERN-WHEELER - BOILER DECK - DAY

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves On The Water.”

Close on wooden paddles chopping and churning the river.

John by the railing watches the world move slowly away.

PREACHER (O.C.)
I figure a boy like you would be mighty excited -- takin’ a ride on a real steamboat.

Willa chatters happily with Icey and Walt. Pearl looks into the passing river, her doll’s face pressed close against her pink bonnet brim. They can’t hear him talking to the boy.

Steam engine huffs and huffs, shrill whistle blows.

PREACHER
Aw, have a heart, boy! I think you made up your mind not to like me from the first.

John looks up at Preacher’s cold blue eyes.

PREACHER
Perhaps you better start trying to like me.

Preacher looks out and smiles.

PREACHER
Because your mamma likes me, John. And your dear little sister likes me. And if both of them like me -- well, don’t you think you might try to like me just a little? You don’t want to be different, do you?
JOHN
No -- yes --
PREACHER
Ah, that’s the boy! Did you hear that, Willa my girl?
WILLA
Pardon?

Preacher looks into the water, and smiles.

PREACHER
John! He says he likes me!

Willa blushes. Three shrill whistles blast the air as the stern-wheeler moves towards a grove of trees on the shore. The white spire of a country church and the pale stones of the graveyard reflect and shimmer in the water.

WILLA
We’re here! We’re here!

John rushes by her side, clutches her hand.

JOHN
Is dad --

Joy washes from Willa’s face as she pulls her hand away.

WILLA
John, how could you be that mean? To mention his name to me today!
JOHN
But I thought you said --

Willa walks away. Stern-wheeler scrapes the brick landing and everyone moves to leave.

Little country church bell strikes.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH - GRAVEYARD - LATER

John stands by his father’s unmarked grave. Pearl stands next to him, hugging her old doll.

PEARL
Where’s Dad?
JOHN
(soft)
I don’t know.

John looks over the eroded slabs with the little names, the numbers, the pictures of the sad, smiling ladies and little dimpled stone babies.

WILLA (O.C.)
John, are you sick?
JOHN
No, Mom.
WILLA
Then why don’t you eat your sandwich?
JOHN
Not hungry, Mom.
WILLA
Well, I don’t want you pestering me going home on the boat this evening. There’ll not be a drop of food to eat then.

John takes the sandwich from Willa before she leaves with Pearl. He takes a bite.

PREACHER (O.C.)
How about a bite out of that sandwich, boy?

Preacher checks the time on the silver pocket watch Willa has given him. John swallows hard.

JOHN
That’s my Dad’s watch.
PREACHER
That it is, John. Your mother gave it to me.

Preachers slips the watch back into his pocket, then reaches out his right hand.

PREACHER
Aw, have a heart, boy.

John holds his sandwich out. Preacher smiles, turns and walks away.

PREACHER
Tut, tut, boy! I don’t want your sandwich. That was just my little joke.

John scowls and throws his sandwich into the long grass.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - KITCHEN - DUSK

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.”

Willa washes the dishes while Icey dries.

ICEY
Says yes. That’s all! How many times has he asked you now?
WILLA
Twice.
ICEY
Forevermore! And you ain’t said yes --
WILLA
If I was only sure it would turn out --
ICEY
A husband is one piece of store goods you never know till you take home and get the paper off.
WILLA
That’s why --
ICEY
But if I ever seen a sure bargain, it’s Mister Powell. A good, Christian gentleman.
WILLA
Yes, Icey, but that boy of mine --

Icey waves off her concern.

ICEY
Marry the man!
WILLA
But I don’t feel -- Icey, it ain’t like me and Ben that summer --

Willa dips an ice-cream dish into the water.

ICEY
Fiddlesticks! That wasn’t love, honey. That was just hot britches. There’s more to marriage than four bare legs in a bed.

Willa brings out the dripping ice-cream dish.

ICEY
A woman is a fool to marry for that. The good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that - not really want it.

Willa stares at her dripping hands and then pushes a lock of hair back with the heel of her hand. Icey looks out through the front door.

ICEY
Psst! Mister Powell’s a coming.
WILLA
Do I look all right, Icey?
ICEY
Honey, you’re as pretty as a picture.

Willa dries her hands and rushes out to the counter.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - MARBLE COUNTER - CONTINUOUS

Preacher steps in and sits at the counter.

WILLA
Cocoa tonight?
PREACHER
No, my child! I haven’t eaten a smidgen of food all day.
WILLA
Goodness! Are you sick?
PREACHER
Willa, I can’t sleep nights till you say yes.

Preacher reaches for Willa’s hand.

PREACHER
It’s as if the Lord kept whisperin’ in my ear -- ‘This is the woman for you, Harry Powell!’

Beat.

PREACHER
Willa, have you got an answer for me?
WILLA
Harry, I’ll marry you -- if only --

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - HALLWAY - NIGHT

John steps up to the screen door, a dark shadow crucified by the wooden frame. The hall clock doesn’t tick.

JOHN
Is anybody there?

He opens the door and closes it softly and steps into the shadowed hallway.

PREACHER (O.C.)
Good evening, John!

Preacher stands by the hall rack.

PREACHER
Does your mother know you go wandering alone at night, John?
JOHN
No. She said --
PREACHER
Your little sister Pearl asleep, then?
JOHN
Yes.
PREACHER
Good, John. Because I have something to talk to you about.
JOHN
I reckon I ought to be gettin’ up to bed if you don’t mind --

Preacher steps in front of him.

PREACHER
Really, my lad! You weren’t worrying about bed when you sneaked off to the wharf to waste your time with that filthy old man.

Preacher smiles.

PREACHER
I had a little talk with your mother tonight, John. She decided it might be best for me to let you know the news.
JOHN
What news?
PREACHER
Your mother told me she wanted me to be a daddy to you and your sister. We’re getting married, boy!
JOHN
What?!
PREACHER
Married! We’re going to Sisterville tomorrow and have a simple wedding and when we come back --
JOHN
You ain’t my dad! You won’t never be my dad!
PREACHER
-- and when we come back we will all live here together in this house -- and be friends -- and share our fortunes together --
JOHN
You think you can make me tell! But I won’t! I won’t! I won’t!

Beat.

PREACHER
Tell me what, boy?
JOHN
Nothin’.
PREACHER
We’re not keeping secrets from one another are we, little lad?

Preacher chuckles. John races helter-skelter up the creaking stairway to his bedroom. Sounds of his bedroom door slamming.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - BEDROOM - DUSK

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.”

Icey tucks John and Pearl into the freshly made bed.

PEARL
Where’s Mom, John?
ICEY
Your ma has went to Sisterville with Mister Powell. That’s why you and John are sleeping here tonight.
PEARL
Why?
ICEY
To git married is why? Ain’t that nice, honey? Just think, when she gits back tomorrow you’ll have a brand-new dad.
PEARL
I love Mister Powell.
ICEY
Aw, ain’t that sweet.
PEARL
I love him lots and lots.
ICEY
Good night, little lamb.

Icey kisses Pearl’s cheek, turns out the gas lamp and leaves. Pearl holds her doll tight.

PEARL
I’m glad, John. I love Mister Powell.

John clenches his fist.

PEARL
John, if Mister Powell is our dad can I tell --

John’s hand flies out and presses over her wet, shocked mouth. She squeals softly into his fingers.

JOHN
You swore, Pearl! You promised dad you wouldn’t tell! If you ever do, I’ll get a big giant to come and murder you!

Pearl gasps through his fingers.

JOHN
A big, big giant with a long shiny sticker knife like he’s got!
PEARL
I promise, John! I swear!
JOHN
Because he’ll ask you some day soon.
PEARL
Mister Powell?
JOHN
He’ll come and beg you to tell him.
PEARL
But I won’t tell him, John. I won’t tell ever. Not even Mister Powell.

John lies back down.

PEARL
John?

John turns away.

PEARL
John, what’s a big sticker knife?

 

INT. OHIO - SISTERVILLE - DAVIS HOTEL - ROOM 9 - BATHROOM - NIGHT

Willa in a muslin nightgown holds Preacher’s coat in one hand as she reaches into the pocket with the other, puzzled.

She draws out Preacher’s faithful knife, looks at it strangely. Stares at the bone hasp, the soft metal button before slipping it back into the pocket and hooking the coat up on the back of the bathroom door.

Preacher is in bed, eyes closed. Lights already out.

PREACHER
Hurry along, my dear! We both need our rest.

 

INT. OHIO - SISTERVILLE - DAVIS HOTEL - ROOM 9 - BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS

Willa switches off the bathroom light and steps into her bed. Worn window blind flaps lightly.

WILLA
Harry?

Willa can hear his lips moving swiftly in the darkness.

WILLA
Harry?
PREACHER
I was praying.
WILLA
Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I thought maybe --
PREACHER
You thought the minute you walked in that door I’d start in to pawing and feeling you in the disgusting, abominable way men are supposed to on their wedding night --
WILLA
I thought --
PREACHER
I think it’s time we made one thing perfectly clear, Willa! Marriage to me represents a blending of two spirits in the sight of Almighty God.

Willa slams her eyes shut. Preacher gets out of bed.

PREACHER
Get out of bed, Willa!
WILLA
Harry, what --
PREACHER
Take off your nightdress.
WILLA
Harry!
PREACHER
Do as I say.

She does, scared.

PREACHER
Now look at yourself in that mirror.
WILLA
Harry, please! Please, I --

Willa tries to cover her naked body with trembling hands as she looks into the stained mirror.

PREACHER
You see the body of a woman! The temple of creation and motherhood! You see the flesh of Eve that man since Adam has profaned and filthied.

He points to her loins.

PREACHER
Do you want more children, Willa?
WILLA
I -- No, I --
PREACHER
Of course you don’t! It is the business of our marriage to mind those two you have now -- not to beget more! And if not to beget more -- then why should we soil our bodies?

Preacher stares at her a moment longer, head cocked to one side straining to hear a faint, far counsel from heaven.

PREACHER
Get back in your nightdress now, Willa, and stop shivering.

Willa does and slips into her bed. Preacher crawls stiffly under his sheets and turns his back to her again.

Willa closes her eyes softly.

Willa barely hears him praying and crying softly in his sleep like a child.

PREACHER (O.C.)
(under his breath)
Twelve -- more -- how many Lord - - Lord, won’t I never settle down -- Lord, won’t you never say the word that my work is done -- another one, Lord -- always another one --

 

MATCH DISSOLVE

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - KITCHEN - NIGHT

Willa closes her eyes harshly. They bear dark shadows and her mouth is thinner, paler.

WILLA
We shall bow our heads in grace.

John waits until Pearl closes her eyes before lowering his head over his plate of ham, and closing his own.

Preacher sits solemnly at the head of the table.

PREACHER
Though we live under the curse of Cain, Almighty God, we turn our backs against the temptations of this mortal flesh. Bless this good food, Oh, Lordamighty, and let it build up our stren’th to fight the Devil’s fiendish persuasions and the temptations of sex and gold and lust amen pass the bread please, boy.

John puts down his knife and fork he’s just picked up and reaches for the bread.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - UNCLE BIRDIE’S HOUSEBOAT - DAY

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down.”

Uncle Birdie gulps down a throatful of corn liquor.

JOHN
Did you fix Dad’s skiff yet?
UNCLE BIRDIE
Daggone it, Johnny, I’ve had such a misery in my hips these past couple of days I’ve barely stirred from the boat. Next week, now, I promise.

John sighs.

UNCLE BIRDIE
How’s your maw?
JOHN
She’s all right.
UNCLE BIRDIE
How’s your sister Pearl?

John gets up to leave.

JOHN
I gotta go mind her.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - HALLWAY - DUSK

Preacher stands by the cellar door, blocking John.

PREACHER
Your mother says you tattled on me, boy. She says you told her that I asked you where that money was hid. Isn’t that so, boy?

John wants to go upstairs.

JOHN
It don’t matter.
PREACHER
Because it’s your word against mine. And it’s me she believes!

Preacher smiles.

PREACHER
She thinks that money’s in the river. But you and me -- we know better! Don’t we, boy?

John listens to Pearl playing outside under the apple tree.

PREACHER
Don’t we, boy?

Preacher leans over him.

PREACHER
Goddamn you! Answer me!

Preacher takes out his knife with the bone hasp and presses the cold metal button. The steel blade leaps out.

PREACHER
Answer me you little son of a bitch!
JOHN
I don’t know nothin’.

Preachers starts paring his thumbnail.

PREACHER
Sooner or later, boy, you’ll tell. Now go fetch your sister and put her to bed!

John presses against the wall to pass him, dashes to the kitchen and out to the yard.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - YARD - CONTINUOUS

Pearl whispers as she scolds the doll now named Willa and the stick named Mister Powell.

JOHN
Bedtime!
PEARL
In a minute.
JOHN
Now -- now, Pearl. I’ll tell Ma!

John approaches. Pearl has her back to John and the house. John hears her frantic movements, the sounds of paper rustling in her frightened hands.

PEARL
You’ll get awful mad, John. I done a sin.

John chokes as he sees Pearl frantically gathering hundred-dollar bank notes. She’s cut two of them into the shape of paper dolls.

PEARL
John, don’t be mad! Don’t be mad! I was just playing with it! I didn’t tell no one!

Pearl is stuffing the notes back into the back of the old cloth doll. John falls to his knees and furiously pushes them in. One note slips from his fingers and flitters away into the meadows.

Preacher steps out onto the back porch behind them.

PREACHER
What’s that you’re playing with, boy?

Beat.

JOHN
Pearl’s junk. Mom gits mad when she plays out here and don’t clean up afterward.

John fumbles the safety pin back into the tear and passes the doll to Pearl. Then stands, takes her hand and slowly walks back to the house.

Preacher looks into the coming night.

PREACHER
Come on, children! It’s chilly out here tonight.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CHILDREN’S BEDROOM - NIGHT

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s ”Can’t Nobody Hide From God.”

John is awake in bed. Next to him Pearl is asleep, holding her doll tight.

He hears footsteps creak on the stairs. Door opens a crack.

WILLA
Did you pray?
JOHN
I forgot -- Mom -- I --
WILLA
Get out of bed. Get Pearl up, too.

John shakes his sister’s arm. She wakes, whining and yawing with sleep. They kneel on the cold floorboards, hands folded in prayer. Eyes shut tight.

WILLA
Were you impudent to Mister Powell again tonight, John?
JOHN
He asked about that money again --
WILLA
You know that’s not so, John! You always make up that lie. You’re always saying that Mister Powell asks you about that money. There’s no money, John.
JOHN
Yes’m. I told him --
WILLA
You think you can turn me against him, don’t you, John? Don’t you know he’s a man of God?

John hears a whippoorwill swoop and cry in the meadows.

WILLA
Ask God to forgive you for making up that lie about Mister Powell.

Beat.

JOHN
Forgive me God.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SHALLOWS - SKIFF - DAY

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Trouble Will Soon Be Over.”

Close on swirling shadow disappearing under the tobaccodark water. Fishing line flies up.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Meanest, orneriest, sneakinest son of a bitch in the whole damn river, boy! A gar!
JOHN
And he stole your bait, Uncle Birdie?
UNCLE BIRDIE
Ain’t no tobacco box can do that, Johnny. Ain’t no little sunfish can swipe bait like that. It were that sneakin’, egg-suckin’ son of bitch.

Uncle Birdie cocks a sidelong glance at John.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Your ma don’t know I cuss -- does she, boy?
JOHN
She don’t even know I’m here half the time.

Uncle Birdie takes a swig from his bottle of corn liquor. Coughs.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Well, you ain’t opposed are ye? To cussin’, I mean --

John smiles and shakes his head.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Your step-pa bein’ a preacher and all that. Never were much of a one for preachers myself.

John swallows quickly and his wide eyes become lost in the river.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Stepped on your toes that time, didn’t I, boy? Well, no matter. I don’t know what’s wrong up at your place and I don’t figure to ask. But you just remember one thing, Johnny --

John looks up to Uncle Birdie.

UNCLE BIRDIE
-- if you ever need help you just’ holler out or come a-runnin’. Old Uncle Birdie’s your friend.

Uncle Birdie takes another swig from his bottle of corn liquor.

JOHN
You done a good job with Dad’s skiff, Uncle Birdie.
UNCLE BIRDIE
She’s your skiff now. But say! Reckon I could have your permission to take her out once in a while on my own?

John nods happily.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CHILDREN’S BEDROOM - NIGHT

John stands by the window with his shoes off, watching the moonrise on the hill.

Door opens softly behind him. He tenses before he sees who it is.

PEARL
Ain’t you hungry, John?

John looks back out the window.

PEARL
Mom sure was mad. She sent you to bed without no supper when she found your shoes was wet.

John turns just as Pearl lifts a thick drumstick of sweet fried chicken from her doll’s little calico skirt and holds it to him.

JOHN
You swiped it?

John takes it and eats ravenously. He smiles and looks out the window to see Willa’s stooped, nervous figure hurry down the lane into town.

He swallows hard.

PREACHER (O.C.)
Woolgathering, children?

Preacher stands in the doorway watching them.

PREACHER
There’s my little Pearl!

Pearl cries out happily and runs to him. Throws her arms around him as her doll falls forgotten by his shoes. Preacher strokes her curls with his branded fingers.

PREACHER
We’re not talking to John tonight -- are we, Pearl? John’s been bad.

Pearl presses herself closer to Preacher.

PREACHER
And John knows that if he disobeys again he’ll get a taste of the strap --
PEARL
The strap! You better be good, John!
PREACHER
Ah! Ah! We mustn’t even speak to John, little sweetheart. John don’t like to be spoken to. John is a feller who likes to keep secrets. Especially about hiding things.

John looks up to the moon.

PREACHER
But you and me! We don’t keep secrets -- do we?

Pearl plucks at her lip with her finger.

PEARL
No --
PREACHER
Especially, secrets about -- money!

Pearl’s finger pops in her mouth as she looks at John.

PREACHER
Would you like to hear a secret, sweetheart?
PEARL
Yes!
PREACHER
Good! The secret is this -- I knowed your daddy.

Pearl frowns.

PEARL
Where’s Dad?
PREACHER
Never mind about that just yet. First just let me tell you what your daddy said to me. He said, ‘Tell my little girl that there’s to be no secrets between her and you.’

Pearl whines.

PEARL
Where’s Dad?
PREACHER
Tut! Tut! I’m a-gettin’ to that part. But first you got to understand what your daddy said about secrets.
PEARL
Yes.

John reaches for the heavy hairbrush.

PREACHER
No secrets between you and me. None at all.
PEARL
Yes.

John grabs the heavy hairbrush.

PREACHER
Where’s that money hid?

John hurls the heavy hairbrush with all his might. It clips Preacher’s cheekbone.

JOHN
You swore you wouldn’t tell! You swore! You swore! You swore!

Beat.

PEARL
You’re bad, John. You hit Daddy with the hairbrush!

Preacher smiles deep.

PREACHER
We can’t have anything to do with John -- can we, little sweetheart? John’s just plumb bad through and through.
PEARL
John’s plumb-bad!
PREACHER
You and me will just lock poor, bad John in the room, little bird --

Preacher moves towards the door with Pearl in his arms.

PREACHER
-- and you and me will just go on downstairs to the parlor and have a nice chat. Would you like that, Pearl?

John sees the discarded doll on the floor.

PEARL
Yes, and we won’t let plumb-bad John come, will we?
PREACHER
Oh, gracious, no! John throws things. We’ll go and have a nice talk about all kinds of secrets!

Pearl twists in Preacher’s grasp, stretches out her twinkling fingers.

PEARL
Miz Jenny! Miz Jenny!

Preachers stoops with a chuckle and catches up the flopping cloth doll.

PREACHER
Just you and me and Miz Jenny.

They step out and the door closes and the brass key turns. John watches their shadows split the golden light in the slit above the threshold.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - KITCHEN - NIGHT

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Church, I’m Fully Saved Today.”

Willa is getting ready to leave. Icey and Walt are worried.

WILLA
I bear my cross with pride, Icey. I bear it graciously as He meant me to.
ICEY
I know that, honey. But there ain’t a bit of sense in lettin’ that youngster break up the happiness He meant for you and Mister Powell.
WILLA
The lord has His own ways!
WALT
Well, sometimes the lord needs a little help. And I don’t reckon a little switchin’ around the legs is no sin.
WILLA
Whippin’ won’t change him -- always suspicionin’ and lyin’ against that man of God. It is my cross, I must bear it with pride.

Willa opens the screen door.

ICEY
Good night, honey! And watch your step on the road. Want Walt to walk you?
WILLA
I’ll manage fine, Icey.

Icey grabs Willa’s thin face between her fat palms and kisses her quickly.

ICEY
Willa! Willa! Walt and me couldn’t care about you more if you was our own.
WILLA
I know, Icey. I know.

Willa steps out, loving the cross she bares.

ICEY
And plan on stayin’ longer next time. ‘Deed you hardly get settled till you’re fretting to git home again.

Willa walks towards the dusty lane home.

WILLA
I’m needed to keep peace and harmony between them.
ICEY
God bless ye.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - PORCH - NIGHT

Willa pauses in the darkness by the screen door and listens in to Preacher and Pearl in the parlor. Bugs scramble against the screen.

PEARL
Tell me a secret, please.
PREACHER
Aw, have a heart! That ain’t fair. I told you my secret. Now it’s your turn.
PEARL
What secret shall I tell?
PREACHER
Well -- you might start by tellin’ me how old you are!
PEARL
That’s no secret!
PREACHER
That’s no secret, is it? Then how about this? What’s your name?

Pearl chuckles outrageously.

PEARL
That’s no secret, either. My name’s Pearl!
PREACHER
Tut! Tut! Then I reckon I’ll have to try again --
PEARL
Tell me another secret! About my Dad!
PREACHER
Aw, no. It’s your turn to tell a secret. You have to tell me a secret now.

Willa stands smiling, happily listening.

PREACHER
Where that money hid?

Beat.

PEARL
John’s bad.
PREACHER
Yes! Yes! Never mind about John now! Where’s that money hid?
PEARL
But John made me swear.

Preacher starts shaking Pearl.

PREACHER
Where’s that money! Tell me now, you little bitch! Tell -- me --

Pearl flings the doll to the carpet and tears loose from him and flees screaming just as Willa steps across the threshold, still smiling.

WILLA
What’s wrong with Pearl?

Preacher passes the fingers tattooed L-O-V-E wearily across his brow.

PREACHER
It’s that boy, Willa. He’s been talking to her again about that - - money. I had to lock him in his room, my dear. He scared that poor little girl half out of her wits.

Willa moves after Pearl.

PREACHER
Willa, what in time are we goin’ to do with that boy?

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - MAIN BEDROOM - LATER

Willa and Preacher are lying in their separate beds.

WILLA
Amen!
PREACHER
Are you through praying because --
WILLA
Yes, I’m through, Harry.
PREACHER
-- because I want to know the truth.
WILLA
What?
PREACHER
What did she tell you when you seen her to bed and heard her prayers.

Willa smiles.

WILLA
You know what, Harry.
PREACHER
And you were listening, weren’t you? What did you hear, Willa?
WILLA
You know --
PREACHER
Yes, I know. I want you to say it. What did you hear? What did she say I said?

Beat.

WILLA
It’s not in the river is it, Harry? It somewhere here amongst us -- still tainting us --

Preacher leaps out of bed. Grips her thin arm like a ring of cold steel, lifting her out of bed.

PREACHER
Answer me!
WILLA
And Ben never told you he throwed it in the river? Did he?

Preacher backhands her hard. She staggers back towards the window, her lip bleeding.

WILLA
The children know where it’s hid? John knows? Is that it?

Willa looks out the window to the narrow moon.

WILLA
You must have known it all along. But that ain’t why you married me, Harry. It couldn’t be that because the Lord just wouldn’t let it. He made you marry me so’s you could show me the Way and the Life and the Salvation of my soul!

Preacher fumbles amongst his clothes on the back of the rocking chair.

Willa pulls down the window blind. Something clicks and swiftly opens as Preacher rushes behind her.

Sliver of silver flashes in the dark.

WILLA
Praise God!!

Preachers pulls back her head and slashes her throat deep with his six-inch knife.

Willa gasps and grabs her throat, blood spilling through her fingers.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CHILDREN’S BEDROOM - LATER

John’s eyes snap open as he hears the old Model T whinny-and-catch, whinny-and-catch. Then the final cough-and-catch and chatter as the motor catches.

He slips from bed and creeps to the window. Sees the old Model T drive off into the dark night drenched in a heavy fog.

JOHN
(to himself)
Go away. And don’t ever come back.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - KITCHEN - DAY

Icey cries out from the screen door.

ICEY
Walt! Come quick!

Walt comes running, pipe in hand.

WALT
What’s --
ICEY
Shhhhhh! He’s out there.
WALT
Who’s --
ICEY
It’s Mister Powell. He just come a-runnin’ from the house. Somethin’ awful has happened, Walt! Willa’s run away!
WALT
No!
ICEY
Willa’s run away!!
WALT
I’ll be switched!
ICEY
When he told me, I just couldn’t believe my ears so I made him tell me again.

Icey motions the front tables. Walt turns his eyes sadly towards the sound of weeping.

ICEY
Throwed himself down at one of the tables and put his head down in his arms and went to prayin’ and cryin’ all at the same time.

Sounds of weeping eases.

WALT
You better wait out here, Mother.

Icey follows through the door and peers around Walt’s shoulder at Preacher’s table by the window.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - SPOON’S ICE CREAM PARLOR - TABLE - CONTINUOUS

Preacher sits with his back to them, reading silently from the little pocket Scripture he always carries.

His thin, dry mouth working faintly as two fingers trace the crabbed, tiny print.

ICEY
Mister Powell?

Beat.

ICEY
Mister Powell? Me and Walt thought maybe --
PREACHER
-- for a whore is a deep dish! And a strange woman is a narrow pit!
ICEY
Amen!
PREACHER
She also lieth in wait as for a prey. And increaseth the transgressors among men.

Preacher folds the Bible and looks at them with a little smile of courage.

PREACHER
My dear, dear friends! Whatever would I do without you?
WALT
Is there anything --

Preacher stuffs the Bible into his coat pocket.

PREACHER
It is my shame -- my crown of thorns. And I must wear it bravely, my friends.
ICEY
What could have possessed that girl?
PREACHER
Satan. It was him that possessed her.
WALT
Didn’t she leave no word -- no explanation?
PREACHER
A note.

Preacher looks away.

PREACHER
I tore it up and burned it.
WALT
Didn’t you have no inkling?

Preacher smiles sadly.

PREACHER
From the first night.
WALT
How’s that?
PREACHER
Why, she turned me out of bed.
ICEY
No!
PREACHER
Yes! I reckon having had what she was used to from a man like Ben Harper -- she wouldn’t want nothin’ from a man of God.
ICEY
And you think that’s why she run off?
PREACHER
She still longed for the old life. Carousin’ of a night and beer drinkin’ -- and that other I reckon. I couldn’t give her that kind of life.

Icey sobs softly.

PREACHER
I wouldn’t if I could, dear hearts. I taken one look at them little ones of hers and I said to myself: ‘Better a millstone should be fastened around my neck --’
WALT
So what do you figure to do.

Preacher stands.

PREACHER
Do? Why, what would any man of God do? Stay and take care of them little kids in the way Jesus would want them to be brought up. Maybe He meant all this to happen this way, my friends.
ICEY
Praise God!
WALT
That’s mighty fine of you. Mighty brave, I’d say.
PREACHER
I reckon it has been ordained this way. The Lord has set my task before me. Those little lambs --

Preacher steps to the marble counter.

WALT
You plan to raise them kids up yourself? Providin’ Willa don’t come draggin’ her tail back home?
PREACHER
She’ll not be back. I reckon I’d be safe in promisin’ you that.

Walt puffs his pipe.

WALT
Her conscience might git the better of her.
PREACHER
She has no conscience. She was weak.
WALT
Or maybe she’s just run off on a spree.
PREACHER
No!
WALT
Well, there’s no harm in hopin’.
PREACHER
There ain’t no sense in it, neither. I knowed she was going -- I figured something like this was brewin’ when she went to bed last evenin’.
WALT
How?
PREACHER
Because she tarried around the kitchen for a good half hour after I’d gone up.

Preacher twines the fingers of his hands together.

PREACHER
And when the clock struck eleventhirty I went downstairs to see what was wrong.
WALT
And what --
PREACHER
She’d found a bottle of corn liquor that the husband - Harper - had hid away somewhere in the cellar.
WALT
You mean she --

Preacher nods.

PREACHER
She was drinking.

Icey stops weeping and stares, scandalized.

PREACHER
Her flesh was just too full of it for it not to git the upper hand, dear friends -- too full of Pride and Sin and Selfindulgence! I tried to save her --
ICEY
Oh, I know how you tried!
PREACHER
But it was too late --

Preacher cracks his knuckles together as the fingers begin to twist.

PREACHER
The devil got there first!

Preacher holds up the locked hands and twists them into each other. Icey and Walt stare transfixed as the writhing fingers with the tattooed letters of L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E war together in the air.

Close as the fingers of the left hand close over the fingers of the right and Preacher brings both hands down with a mighty crash on to the marble counter.

PREACHER (O.C.)
The devil wins sometimes!

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CELLAR - DUSK

John and Pearl are huddled together behind the barrel of stale winter apples, hiding in the darkness. Pearl clutches her doll. Hushed tones.

PEARL
But why, John?
JOHN
Hush up!
PEARL
Yes, but why do we have to hide?
JOHN
Because!
PEARL
John, where’s Mom? Where’s Dad?
JOHN
Pearl, hush up!
PEARL
Why, John? I want to see Daddy Powell.

John looks up to the closed cellar door at the top of the stairs.

JOHN
Someone is after us, Pearl?

Beat.

PEARL
Why is someone after us, John?
JOHN
Just be still, Pearl?
PEARL
I want to go upstairs. I’m hungry, John.

John turns and grasps Pearl firmly by the shoulders.

JOHN
Now listen to me, Pearl. You and me is runnin’ off tonight. If we stay here somethin’ awful will happen to us.
PEARL
Won’t Daddy take care of us?
JOHN
No! That’s just it! No!
PEARL
Where are we goin’, John?
JOHN
It don’t matter. Just do like I tell you, Pearl?
PEARL
All right, John. I will. I promise.

Beat.

PEARL
Is Mom running away, too?

John looks up at the single barred cellar window in the stone wall beneath the joists as the day fades. He looks back at Pearl and shakes his head, softly.

JOHN
(very low)
No.

They hear footsteps and movement in the dark house above them as Preacher searches for them, singing the sweet old gospel tune.

PREACHER (O.C.)
(singing)
Leaning, leaning! / Safe and secure from all alarms! / Leaning, leaning! / Leaning on the everlasting arms

They hear footsteps pad back and forth, and the closet doors squeak open one by one.

They hear footsteps move along the hallway to the cellar door.

They hear the cellar door creak open slowly.

PREACHER (O.C.)
Children?

John grips his sister.

PEARL
John?
JOHN
Hush!
PREACHER (O.C.)
Pearl?

Light leaps down one wall as Preacher steps down the stairs with the candle in his hand and stops halfway, straining his angry eyes into the shadows.

PREACHER
I know you’re here, children. So you’d better come out before I come find you myself. I can feel myself gettin’ awful mad, children.
PEARL
John? He said --

John claps his hand over her mouth, fingers pressed into her warm cheeks.

PREACHER
I hear you whisperin’ children. So I know you’re down there.

John shudders.

PREACHER
Very well! My patience has run out, children. I’m coming to find you.

Preacher hurries down the stairs, spreading new shadows and stretching light from the candle in his hand.

John peers between two half-gallon jars of candied apples and sees him with his back to them by the furnace, candle held high.

PREACHER
This is your last chance, my dears. I’m just gettin’ played out. I’m just getting’ so mad I won’t be responsible!

Light narrows as Preacher moves towards the coal bin and bends to peer inside.

A voice calls from the kitchen.

ICEY (O.C.)
Yoohoo! Mister Powell!

Preacher shuffles back across to the stairs and steps up to the kitchen.

ICEY (O.C.)
Gracious, Mister Powell!

John and Pearl look at each other.

ICEY (O.C.)
It’s just a little hot supper I fixed for you and the children. Walt and me got to thinkin’ about you being lonely and helpless over here without a woman in the house and it seemed the least we could do. Where are the children?

Beat.

PREACHER (O.C.)
They’re down there in the cellar.
ICEY (O.C.)
They what? Oh, no!
PREACHER (O.C.)
Yes! Yes! They’re down there playing in the cellar and they won’t mind me when I call them and I just don’t know what to do.

John can almost hear Preacher sigh.

PREACHER (O.C.)
It just seems too much with everything else on my mind today -- Willa and all. Would you mind trying?

Icey’s shadow fills the cellar doorway.

ICEY
John! Pearl! You get out of that cellar this very minute!

Icey claps her hands sharply.

ICEY
Come on! Shake a leg! I won’t have you worryin’ poor Mister Powell another minute.

 

OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - KITCHEN - CONTINUOUS

John appears blinking and moves into the gaslit kitchen. Pearl follows, hugging her doll sheepishly before her shamed eyes.

ICEY
Now just look at you!

Icey has left a large basket laden with hot fried chicken and cornsticks and apple cobbler and candied sweets. Icey brushes cobwebs from the little one’s curls.

ICEY
Dust and filth from head to toe! If that ain’t a poor way to serve Mister Powell on a sad day like this!

Icey turns to Preacher and raises her eyebrows.

ICEY
Want me to take them up and wash ‘em good?
PREACHER
Thank you, dear Icey. But no, I’ll tend to them.
ICEY
Well, at least you’ll all have a good hot meal tonight.

Icey pats John’s head, bowed beside his sister.

ICEY
Don’t be too hard on them. Like it as not they’ve took it hard -- the mother runnin’ off that way. Poor lambs! Poor motherless children!

Preacher reaches out his hand and runs the fingers tattooed L-O-V-E through Pearl’s tumbling, dusty locks.

PREACHER
I’ve been thinking of something that might ease the pain.
ICEY
Yes?
PREACHER
I thought I might take them away for a week or two -- to my sister’s --
ICEY
Well, now!
PREACHER
The change might help --
ICEY
Hear that, children! Doesn’t that sound nice?

John trembles.

PREACHER
It would give me time to -- help mend things --
ICEY
That’s a grand, sensible plan, Mister Powell. Just grand.

Icey pats Pearl’s head one last time, pinches John’s cold cheek and moves out onto the porch.

ICEY
And remember, now, Mister Powell. If you need anything -- any time of night or day -- don’t be afraid to call on us.

Icey steps down onto the yard and heads to the lane.

ICEY
Mind now! Good night!
PREACHER
The Lord will watch over us all.

Preacher watches Icey waddle home. Then takes a thick drumstick from the basket and bites into it. He chews and turns and smiles at the children.

PREACHER
Weren’t you afraid, my lambs? Down there in all that dark?

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - DEEP PLACE - SKIFF - DAWN

Close on shadows waving under the dark water. Taut fishing line slices the water.

Uncle Birdie tugs hard on the line.

UNCLE BIRDIE
You slimy, snag-toothed son of a bitch!

Uncle Birdie tugs again but the line doesn’t give. Guzzles a swig from his bottle of corn liquor.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Meanest, suck-egg, bait-stealin’ bastard between here ’n’ Cairo!

Uncle Birdie looks over the side of the skiff and down the fishing line. The further he looks the further his eyes widen in horror.

Follow the fishing line down under the dark water to where the hook is snagged on the rear view mirror of the old Model T at the bottom of the river.

Continue back to reveal Willa Harper roped into the passenger seat, eyes open and throat slashed wide. Her hair waving lazy and soft around her like meadow grass under flood waters.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CHILDREN’S BEDROOM - DUSK

Pearl is trying to open the locked door.

PEARL
Why did Daddy Powell lock us in our room without no supper. We’re you bad again, John?
JOHN
Hush up! I’m thinkin’, Pearl.
PEARL
What about?
JOHN
About gettin’ away.

Pearl steps away from the door and begins playing with her doll.

JOHN
Listen to me, Pearl. You’ve got to mind me tonight.

Pearl is more interested in her doll.

PEARL
All right, John.
JOHN
No matter what he says! No matter what he does, Pearl -- remember what you swore!

Preacher opens the door.

PREACHER
Hello there, children!

Both look at him, worried. He smiles at them.

PREACHER
I saved you some supper. Have we got good appetites, my lambs?
PEARL
I’m real hungry.
PREACHER
Why, sure you’re hungry, And guess what’s waiting for you downstairs. There’s fried chicken and candied sweets and cornsticks and apple cobbler and --
PEARL
Can I have my supper, please?
PREACHER
Well, sure. I’ll go warm it up for you directly. But first --
PEARL
Can I have milk, too?
PREACHER
Yes, little bird. To be sure!

Preacher gathers her gently into his arms.

PREACHER
But first of all we’ll have a little talk --

Pearl frowns and puts her finger in her mouth.

PREACHER
-- about our secrets!
PEARL
No.
PREACHER
No? And why, pray tell?
PEARL
Because John said I musn’t!
PREACHER
Ah, but we both know what a bad, bad boy John is. But we’ll attend to John later, won’t we, my lamb? Now let’s just you and me talk.

Preacher strokes her hair.

PREACHER
We’ll have a nice little chat and we won’t even let John open his mouth.

Pearl scowls at John.

PEARL
You’re bad, John! We’ll have a chat and we won’t let you open your mouth!

Out the window, the slender moon has risen.

PREACHER
Do you have any secrets you’d like to tell me, Pearl?

Pearl’s mouth tightens as she nods once.

PREACHER
What is it?

Pearl glances at John.

PEARL
That money --
PREACHER
Ah, of course. That money. And where is that money, little darling?

Pearl begins to sob softly.

PEARL
John said --

Preacher moves in close to her.

PREACHER
Never -- mind -- what -- John -- said!

Preacher towers above her.

PREACHER
I told you once, my girl, that John ain’t even here as far as you and me is concerned. John don’t matter!

Pearl sobs.

PREACHER
John is a meddler! John is a nasty, sneaking, mean little -- stop snivelling -- looky here a minute! In my hand -- here!

Preacher brings his knife out of his coat pocket and bounces it twice in his palm. The stinging blade still secret in the bone hasp.

PREACHER
Know what it is?
PEARL
Yes.
PREACHER
What is it, Pearl?
PEARL
I don’t know.
PREACHER
Well then don’t say, I know, if you don’t. That’s lying. This is a knife! Want to see something cute? Looky now!

Preacher touches the soft metal button lightly with the finger named H and the six-inch silver blade flicks straight out.

Pearl reaches out to touch it.

PREACHER
No! No, my lamb. Don’t touch my knife! That makes me mad! Very, very mad!

Preacher holds out the knife.

PREACHER
This is what I use on meddlers, my lamb! Get me? For meddlers!

Preacher lifts his eyes to John.

PREACHER
John might be a meddler, mightn’t he? Or mebbe he’s got better sense, eh, little lamb?

Preacher’s eyes harden.

PREACHER
John would be sorry he meddled! In fact, if John so much as breathes a word -- if he so much as -- opens -- his -- mouth --

Pearl hugs her doll. Preacher softens, lays his hand tattooed L-O-V-E on her soft curls.

PREACHER
Just tell me now, Pearl -- where’s it hid?

Pearl turns her eyes to John.

PREACHER
Think baby! Think of all the nice things we can buy with it! A new dress for dolly and a new pair of shoes for you!
PEARL
Where’s Mom?
PREACHER
Ah, that’s a secret, too, little bird. And I can’t tell you my secrets till you tell me yours.
PEARL
Can John have a present, too?
PREACHER
Well, I reckon so. We’ll even buy a present for nasty, naughty John.

Pearl sighs.

PEARL
But I swore. I promised John I wouldn’t tell!
PREACHER
John -- doesn’t -- matter! Can’t I get that through your head, you poor, silly, disgusting little wretch!

Pearl’s mouth quivers, tears brim.

PREACHER
There now! See what you went and made me do? You made me lose my temper! I’m sorry! I’m real sorry! Sometimes the old Devil gets the upper hand and I just go all to pieces! Sometimes that old left hand named Hate gits stronger than his brother.

Pearl snuffles and wipes her eyes.

PREACHER
Now, Pearl -- where’s it hid?

Beat.

JOHN
I’ll tell!

Preacher fixes the boy with a steady stare.

PREACHER
I thought I told you to keep your mouth shut.
JOHN
It ain’t fair to make Pearl tell when she swore she wouldn’t. That’s a Sin! I’ll tell!

Preacher turns to Pearl and smiles brightly.

PREACHER
Well, I declare. Sometimes I think poor John will make it to heaven yet! Did ye hear that, little lamb? After all his carryin’ on -- John’s going to be the one to tell us after all.

Preacher’s eyes snap back to John.

PREACHER
All right, boy! Where’s that money?

John’s eyes fall to the floor.

JOHN
In the cellar! Buried in the floor behind the Mason jars.

Preacher presses the knife closed in the palm of his hand, never taking his eyes off John for an instant.

PREACHER
I’ll go hard, boy, if I find out you’re lyin’ to me!
JOHN
I ain’t lyin’! Go look for yourself! It’s all there! All that money -- buried under a stone! Right where Dad stuck it that day!
PREACHER
All right. Come along --
JOHN
What!?
PREACHER
-- the both of you -- to the cellar! You don’t reckon I’d leave you --
JOHN
Don’t you believe me?
PREACHER
Why, sure, boy. Sure. But just the same -- come along. I’ll risk no tricks.

John takes Pearl’s hand as Preacher herds them out of the bedroom.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - STAIRWAY - CONTINUOUS

John holds Pearl’s hand tighter as he leads her down the stairway. Preacher is behind them, humming the sweet old gospel tune.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - KITCHEN - CONTINUOUS

John grips Pearl’s hand tighter still as he leads her towards the cellar door. Preacher grabs the candle and lights it. Flame flickers to life

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - CELLAR - CONTINUOUS

Door swings open. John leads Pearl down into the cellar while preacher follows, candle held high.

Throwing long shadows across the floor among the apple barrels and old trunks.

PREACHER
Now where, boy? And mind now -- no tricks. I can’t abide liars!

John points.

JOHN
Behind the big, tall shelf!

Preacher swoops the candle. Mason jars of candied apples gleam in the light.

JOHN
Under the stone in the floor!

Preacher drops to his knees, panting with excitement as he spills tallow on the lip of a great stone jar and sets the candle. Brushes the dust away from the floor with shaking fingers.

PREACHER
Why, this ain’t no stone floor, boy! It’s concrete.

Preacher look at John is disbelief.

PREACHER
There hain’t no stone here for nothin’ to be buried under!
PEARL
John made a Sin. John told a lie.

Preacher grabs John by his shirt as he reaches for his knife.

PREACHER
Yes, Pearl. John told a lie. John just never stopped to think that the Lord ain’t the only one that hates a liar.

Preacher pulls John close as his thumb moves and the blade leaps out. John freezes. Preacher holds him tight, head cocked to one side straining to hear.

PREACHER
I’m listening! And the Lord is talking to me now. And He’s a-sayin’, ‘Not yet, brother! Stay thy hand a while! Give these lambs one more chance!’

Preacher lifts the blade to the soft flesh beneath John’s ear.

PREACHER
The Lord’s a-talkin’ to me just as plain, John! Can’t you hear him? No?

Preacher press the blade closer.

PREACHER
Well He is! He’s a-sayin’, ‘A liar is an abomination before mine eyes!’ But the Lord is a God of Mercy, boy! He’s a-ayin’, ‘Give brother Ananias another chance.’ Now speak, boy! Speak! Where’s it hid?

Preacher growls.

PREACHER
Speak before I cut your throat and leave you to drip like a hog!

Pearl sobs in terror. Preacher whirls on her, smiling.

PREACHER
You could save him, little bird. You could save John if you was to tell.
PEARL
John! John!
JOHN
Pearl, shut up! Pearl, you swore!
PREACHER
Shut up, you little bastard! Where, Pearl? Where!

Pearl screams.

PEARL
Inside my doll! Inside my doll!!

Preacher lowers the knife, jaw sagging.

He throws back his head, and roars with laughter.

PREACHER
By God, what a clever one Brother Harper was! The last place anyone would look! In the doll! Why, sure! Sure!

Preacher reaches for the doll as John backhands the candle off the stone jar, throwing the cellar into darkness. John snatches Pearl’s hand and drags her screaming away towards the stairs.

Preacher leaps up, slips on the candle and brings down the shelf of glass jars, cascading and bursting onto him.

John and Pearl scatter through the shadows. Preacher stumbles through the broken jars, over the rakes and hoes.

John and Pearl race up the stairs towards the partly open door to the kitchen, towards the bright bar of lamplight. Behind them they hear Preacher go down cursing again in another welter of crashing jars.

Pearl screams in a high, keening wail.

John slips on the very top step and almost carries them both backwards down the stairs and into the hunter’s arms. They hear the scramble of Preacher’s feet on the stairs behind them.

Through the threshold and John slams the door behind him with all his might. Preacher screams in anguish as John feels the evil fingers crush between the door and the jam. He draws the door back and slams it again.

And again.

And pushes the door tight and slides the iron bolt home.

John sinks gasping against the wall. His sister huddles up to him, hugging her doll close.

Preacher is crouched at the top of the stairs like a trapped fox. Mouth pressed against the crack of the door, breathing hoarsely, sobbing faintly, thinking, scheming.

PREACHER
Children?

John fights to find his breath.

PREACHER
Children, won’t you listen to me for a minute? It was all just a joke. Aw, have a heart now. Children, can’t you see? The only reason I wanted that money is so’s you could have it. That’s right! See? It ain’t a-doin’ no one no good sewed up in that doll. I wanted to make you see that, children.

Pearl sobs.

PREACHER
Listen, little Pearl! You’ll listen to me, won’t ye now? Won’t you, little bird? Little lamb? Listen. I’ll make a bargain with you both. That’s what I’ll do. The Lord just spoke to me, children.

Preacher rattles the door. Children huddle closer.

PREACHER
The Lord just come out plain and loud and he rebuked me for meddlin’. Yessir, if you’ll let me out I promise I’ll go away tonight and never come back. Pearl? You listenin’, little lamb? Want your mommy back, lamb? Want me to go git her right now?
PEARL
John?
JOHN
Hush, Pearl!
PREACHER
Children! Children! Are you listening to me? Open the door! Answer me, you spawn of the Devil’s own whore!!

Sudden rain of hammering fists against the old door.

Old hinges strain and squeal as he sets his shoulders to the panels again and again, stumbling and slipping on the steps. Then lunging again against the old wood.

Pearl screams again as John grabs her hand and drags her towards the porch door and into the night.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - HARPER HOUSE - YARD - CONTINUOUS

Slithered moon rises above John and Pearl, clutching her doll, as they flee pell-mell down the lane.

Behind them they can hear the thundering shocks on the failing cellar door echo into the night.

River fog creeps in.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - CRESAP’S LANDING - UNCLE BIRDIE’S HOUSEBOAT - CONTINUOUS

Dusty glow of the smoking oil lantern lights the deck.

Uncle Birdie is sprawled on a pile of dirty flour sacks in one corner.

He is dead drunk and lost in his nightmares. Moaning, mumbling softly to himself.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Down there in the deep place -- in that old Model T with her eyes starin’ -- and that slit in her throat just like she had an extry mouth -- swee’ Jesus save us all -- they’ll think it were me --

John and Pearl stumble up the narrow gangplank. Uncle Birdie’s old face grimaces.

UNCLE BIRDIE
-- Christ God Almighty, they’ll think it were me --

John’s hands tug at the old man’s bony shoulders.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Don’t -- don’t -- it warn’t me --

John slips to his knees, weeping unashamedly. Pearl stands, clutching the doll and watching.

JOHN
Uncle -- Birdie! Oh -- please -- please wake up!

Uncle Birdie rouses and lifts himself, staring at the pair.

UNCLE BIRDIE
Johnny!

Then falls face down again into the flour sacks. John shakes him as hard as he can.

Uncle Birdie rolls on his side, reaches for his corn liquor bottle and throws down a throatful. Splutters.

UNCLE BIRDIE
-- Never done it, boy! Chris’ God, never done such a terr’ble, terr’ble thing! Shantyboat trash, done it! Shantyboat trash!

Downs another throatful.

JOHN
Hide us. He’s comin’ after us. It’s him that’s after us -- Mister Powell --
UNCLE BIRDIE
Who, boy?
JOHN
Mister Powell -- he’s a-comin’ with his knife.

River wind blows out the lantern behind them. Night mist seeps in. John looks at Uncle Birdie desperately.

UNCLE BIRDIE
But I never done it, boy! Swee’ Jesus, I never done it! I’ll swear on the Book to it, boy. I never done it. I never --

John gets to his feet, takes Pearl’s hand and leads her into the night again. Behind them they hear the old man fall into a welter of shame and grief and sickness in the rags of his cot.

Above them the street gleams in the circle of lamplight beside the shop where the great wood key hangs overhead. They hear the laughter of a family drift towards them.

John drags Pearl into the sumac and pokeberry bushes by the river shore. He looks back and sees Preacher’s shadow break suddenly into the lamplight by the locksmith’s. Left arm out, knife poised.

PEARL
John, where are we --
JOHN
Please, be quiet! Oh, please, Pearl!

John’s feet slip and suck in the mud. Weeds tear at his legs as he leads her stumbling on.

PREACHER (O.C.)
Children!
JOHN
Hurry, Pearl! Oh, Godamighty, please hurry, Pearl!
PEARL
You said a cuss word, John. That’s a Sin.

John stares into a great patch of mist by the willows.

PEARL
John, where --
JOHN
Hush! Hush! Hurry, Pearl!

Then he spies it. The bow of the skiff jutting sharply in the blanketing white mist. Pearl yawns and hugs her doll and trudges wearily through the ooze to the skiff.

PREACHER
Children! Children!!

They can hear him above them, thrashing down through the high brush. Fighting his way towards them.

JOHN
Get in, Pearl! Oh, Godamighty, hurry!
PREACHER
Children!!!
PEARL
John!

Beat.

PEARL
That’s Daddy calling us!

John utters a sob of despair and thrusts his sister brutally over the skiff side and down among the bait cans and fish heads in the bottom.

They hear Preacher wildly hacking at a vine with his knife. In an instant he is free again, thrashing down through the brush not ten feet away.

John is in the skiff, pushing madly against the oar. But the skiff is so tightly grounded in the muck they don’t even move an inch.

Preacher cuts through the brush.

PREACHER
Ah, my lambs! So there you are!

John thrusts and strains against the oar until the flesh of his hands tear against the woods ragged grain.

And the skiff moves.

And John bears down again with every ounce of flesh and bone.

And the skiff moves again.

But now Preacher clears the brush and steps swiftly through the mud and muck towards them, arm raised.

John gives a final thrust and the skiff swings suddenly into the slithing current.

PREACHER
Wait! Wait, you little bastards!

Even with the river mists wisping and curling against the land, they can see his twisted face sick with hatred.

He wallows rapidly towards them through the shallows, the silver blade flashing in his fist. John tries to bear the old oar back in the lock with his bleeding hand.

He staggers and slip and falls. Flounders in the water for a moment and then rises again, arm raised and splashes after them.

PREACHER
Wait! Wait! Wait --

John bears back again and the oar blade bite hard into the water and the skiff swings erratically like an autumn leaf while the oar slips free from his grip.

PREACHER
Damn you --

Some errant current in the vast, dark river catches the skiff and spins it at first, then heads them into the channel.

PREACHER
Damn you to hell!

The children are safe in the river’s arms.

PEARL
John?

John drags his eyes to her, spent and exhausted. His face drops into the crook of his arm.

PEARL
We forgot to take Daddy.
JOHN
Yes. Yes, Pearl.

Behind them they hear Preacher begin a steady, rhythmical, animal scream of outrage and loss coming down the water to them. Something as old and dark as evil itself.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - DEEP WATER CHANNEL - SKIFF - LATER

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was The Ground.”

Even when the skiff has floated far away down the dark and silent river they still hear the faint, distant drift of that terrible howl.

PEARL
John?

John is fast asleep. Pearl moves closer to him.

PEARL
John?

Pearl cradles her doll. Whispers.

PEARL
All right, Miz Jenny, I’m going to tell you a little story about a pretty fly. He had a wife, this pretty fly, and one day she flew away and he was very sad.

Pearl yawns. Then yawns again.

PEARL
And then one night his two pretty fly children flew away, too, into the sky -- into the moon --

Pearl eyes close and she too falls asleep.

A blanket of stars hangs over them as they drift down river.

The family of stars that form each astrological constellation shimmer and turn overhead as the silent, flowing waters carry the children further and further from danger.

The ram, the bull, the heavenly twins.

And next the crab, the lion shines.

The virgin and the scales.

The scorpion, archer, and the goat.

The man who holds the watering-pot.

And the fish with glittering scales.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - SKIFF - DAWN

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s ”Motherless Children Have A Hard Time.”

Dawn rises low and soft across the sky, filling the river with golden light.

John and Pearl are softly dreaming.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - SANDBAR - SKIFF - CONTINUOUS

Skiff drifts gently into the sandbar. Water ripples against the side as John and Pearl awaken.

The pair of them are foul with the smell of fish heads from the skiff’s bilge and smirched with tar from Uncle Birdie’s generous calking of its old seams.

John shrewdly drags the skiff onto the bar as far as he can. Pearl wanders up to the meadow plateau and gathers a bouquet of daisies.

Each see MISS COOPER, 66, at the fence at the same moment.

Pearl’s hand freezes with the nodding daisies in her fisted fingers. John scrambles the length of the skiff, lifting the remaining oar threateningly.

MISS COOPER
You two youngsters git up here to me this instant!

John’s mouth falls open at the authority in her voice.

Pearl turns a frightened face to him.

MISS COOPER
Mind me now! I’ll fetch a willow switch and bring you up here jumpin’ directly!

Miss Cooper looks straight at them, staunch and determined. She wears a man’s old hat on her head and a shapeless gray wool sweater hung over her shoulders.

She straddles over the fence and snatches a switch of willow as she comes scrambling towards the children.

Miss Cooper catches Pearl up in her stout embrace and makes for John, her big man’s shoes squishing through the mud.

Pearl wails, her face wrinkling and scarlet with outrage.

JOHN
Don’t you hurt her!
MISS COOPER
Hurt her nothin’! Wash her is more like it! And you, too, mister!

Miss Copper raises the switch.

MISS COOPER
Now git on up there to my house and don’t set a foot inside till I’ve fetched the washtub for the both of ye.

Miss Copper herds them grimly through the meadow like angry little lambs.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - CONTINUOUS

Miss Cooper looks up to the gray frame house.

MISS COOPER
Ruby! Lill’ Mary!

Two children’s faces appear above the rows of tomato plants, over the top rail of her neat, white wooden fence. Bright as morning hollyhocks.

RUBY/LILL’ MARY
Yes, Miz Cooper!

RUBY, 13, big and shapeless and stooped from being with the smaller one so much. LILL’ MARY, 4, raven black hair as straight as a mare’s tail and eyes like dark little pools of stump water.

MISS COOPER
Ruby -- run fetch the washtub and fill it. Lill’ Mary -- fetch a bar of laundry soap from the wash-house and the scrub brush, too.

And the faces disappear.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - YARD - CONTINUOUS

Miss Cooper shoves John and Pearl through her gate and then turns to survey them again, her lips pursed and working with anger.

MISS COOPER
Gracious! If you hain’t a sight to beat all! Where you from? Where’s your folks? Speak up now.

John stares at her big, man’s shoes crusted and heavy with garden mud.

MISS COOPER
Gracious! So I’ve got two more mouths to feed! All right. Git them clothes off now and throw ‘em in the grass.

Neither child moves. Miss Copper looks at his bloodied hand.

MISS COOPER
Mind me now! Mind!

John slowly unbuttons his little shirt and the old woman stoops and begins tugging at Pearl’s knotted shoelaces.

Ruby moves from the kitchen doorway, awkwardly dragging the washtub to the grass beside the pump. She begins filling it with gushing cold water.

John smiles to himself.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - PARLOR - NIGHT

Miss Cooper sits in her chair reading from the Scripture, children fanned out on little square carpet stools in front of her. White spectres of muslincloaked furniture behind them.

John wears fresh new clothes and stands in the doorway by himself. Hand carefully wrapped in a clean bandage.

Pearl and Lill’ Mary hold hands, giggling.

MISS COOPER
Now, old Pharoah -- he was the King of Egyptland!

Miss Cooper spreads her hard old hands across the tissue-thin pages.

MISS COOPER
And he had a daughter and once upon a time she was walkin’ along the river and she seen something bumpin’ and scrapin’ along down on a bar under the willows, back in the cattails where the devil’s darnin’ needles was flashin’ in the mornin’ sun. And do you know what it was, children?
RUBY/LILL’ MARY
No!
PEARL
No!
MISS COOPER
Well now, it was a skiff washed up on the bar. And who do you reckon was in it?

Pearl glances at her doll in her lap.

RUBY
Pearl and John!
MISS COOPER
Not this time! It was just one youngin’ -- a little boy babe. And do you know who he was, children?
RUBY/LILL’ MARY/PEARL
No!
MISS COOPER
It was Moses! A king of men, children, that was to grow up to lead his people out of the wilderness -- to save them all from death and pestilence and plague.

John enters and sits boldly in the semicircle, beside Ruby and listens.

And the old woman wisely pays him no mind.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - KITCHEN - LATER

Miss Cooper darns some tattered stockings under the circle of lamplight.

MISS COOPER
Git ye an apple from the cellar, boy. And git me one, too.

John pauses at the cellar door.

MISS COOPER
Go on.

John bounds into the cellar and scampers back with two McIntoshes. Washes them at the pump and gives one to Miss Cooper. She sets her darning down, and bites crisply into the fruit.

MISS COOPER
John, where’s your folks?

He lifts his eyes to her.

JOHN
Dead.

Miss Cooper nods.

MISS COOPER
And where you from?
JOHN
Upriver. A ways.
MISS COOPER
I didn’t figger you’d rowed that boat up from Parkersburg! Have you any kin?

John shrugs.

MISS COOPER
No aunts, no uncle, no grandfolks?
JOHN
I don’t know.

John reaches out his hand and lays his fingers on her old knuckles.

JOHN
Tell me that story agin.
MISS COOPER
Story, honey?
JOHN
About them kings that the queen found down on the sandbar in the skiff that time.
MISS COOPER
Kings! Why, honey, there was only one.
JOHN
Oh, no, you said there was two.

Miss Cooper smiles.

MISS COOPER
Well, shoot! Maybe there was. Yes, come to think of it --

John smiles.

MISS COOPER
But it’s high time you were in bed with the others. Gracious, it must be late.

Miss Cooper shakes her head at the broken kitchen clock. John looks at it too.

JOHN
How late?
MISS COOPER
Late enough!

John hurries up the kitchen stairs to bed. Miss Cooper smacks his bottom smartly.

MISS COOPER
Now git to bed and no nonsense. We’ve all got to be up tomorrow bright and early to fetch them eggs and butter to town.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - NEW ECONOMY - MAIN STREET - DAY

Ruby, Lill’ Mary and Pearl follow single file behind Miss Cooper as she marches up the street. John is by her side.

Miss Cooper stops outside Robert’s Drugstore and has a word with Ruby who stays behind with her basket of eggs. Ruby looks at the movie magazines in the rack inside.

Miss Cooper files off with the two little girl in tow and the boy by her side.

LOAFERS laugh. WOMEN are envious at how the children obediently follow the old woman. MEN tip their hats in respect in the late afternoon sun.

GENE
Hi, Miz Cooper.
MISS COOPER
Howdy, Gene.
GENE
Got two more peeps in yore brood, I see.

Miss Cooper huffs and strides on towards the ferry to take them home.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - NEW ECONOMY - ROBERT’S DRUGSTORE - LATER

Dusk settles into the town. Ruby sits on the bench outside, fingers locked around the handle of her basket still full of eggs.

Preacher’s dark shadow lengthens over her.

PREACHER (O.C.)
You’re Ruby -- ain’t you, my child?

She look up into his dusty, brooding face and smiles.

PREACHER
I’d like to talk to you, my dear.
RUBY
I will if you buy me a chocolate soda.
PREACHER
You’ll what?

Loafers across the street laugh and catcall. MACIJAH BLAKE, 22, whistles out loud.

MACIJAH
Watch out, Preacher! She’ll dreg ye down in the dust right there in the middle of the street if ye don’t watch her.

Preacher turns and glares at them.

PREACHER
Shet ye dirty mouths! Shet ‘em.

Preacher turns and smiles at Ruby.

PREACHER
I want to ask you a question, girl. And if you’ll answer me God’s truth I’ll buy you whatever you want.

Ruby wanders into the drug store.

RUBY
A chocolate soda!

Ruby sits at a table. Preacher follows her in.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - NEW ECONOMY - ROBERT’S DRUGSTORE - TABLE - LATER

Preacher seethes with impatience as he watches her begin to eat her chocolate soda.

PREACHER
Now, Ruby, it’s time for you to keep your share of the bargain. Will you tell me --

Ruby slides from her wire chair without answering.

Wanders off with wanton, swaying hips to the magazine rack. She leafs through the latest “Movie Time” magazine and thinks how beautiful she must be.

PREACHER
Will you tell me --
RUBY
Buy me this.

She smiles, her small eyes shrewd and bargaining.

Preacher gets up and lays the coins on the marble counter.

RUBY
Ain’t I purty?

He smiles and relaxes, knowing now how he can get her.

PREACHER
Why, you’re the purtiest gal I’ve seen in all my wandering! ‘Deed, I never seen such purty eyes in all my born days!

Ruby blushes sweetly.

PREACHER
Didn’t no one never tell you that, Ruby?
RUBY
No. No one never did.

And then Ruby dances over to the big brown mirror over the soda fountain and pouts at her reflection.

She dances back to the table and starts again on her chocolate soda. Preacher sits, rolling the “Movie Time” magazine in his hands and watching her.

She sucks the last of the sweetness through the gurgling straw.

PREACHER
There’s two new ones over at your place, ain’t there, Ruby?

She nods dumbly.

PREACHER
What’s their names?
RUBY
Pearl and John.

Beat.

PREACHER
And is there -- a doll?

Ruby nods again.

RUBY
Pearl, she has a doll. Only she won’t let none of us kids play with it and Miz Cooper says for us to leave her doll alone because it’s hers.

Preacher smiles deep inside.

PREACHER
Ruby?
RUBY
Yes, sir.

Preacher slides the “Movie Time” magazine towards her.

On the cover is LILLIAN GISH in her first talkie “His Double Life.”

PREACHER
Not a word about this little powwow to Miz Cooper, eh? That’s part of our bargain.

She nods and reaches for the magazine, her outstretched finger touching a blue gray letter on the right hand of L-O-V-E.

Preacher snaps his hand back and springs to his feet, and leaves.

Ruby gathers the “Movie Time” magazine in both hands.

Lillian Gish beams from the cover.

 

MATCH DISSOLVE

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - KITCHEN - NIGHT

Lillian Gish beams from the cover. Miss Cooper holds the “Movie Time” magazine in both hands.

MISS COOPER (O.C.)
Ruby, stop your weepin’ and look me square in the eye and answer me.

Ruby sits in the straight-backed chair by the kitchen door, weeping soundlessly into her big fingers. She looks up and stares at Miss Cooper sitting on the canning bench.

RUBY
Yes’m.
MISS COOPER
Ruby, you didn’t have no money to buy that movie book did ye?
RUBY
No’m. But I never took nothin’ from your sugar bowl. Miz Cooper, you just know I wouldn’t steal nothin’ of yours.
MISS COOPER
I know you wouldn’t, child. I’m not accusin’ you of nothin’. Just tell me and tell me the truth.

Ruby looks down.

MISS COOPER
Where’d you git the money to git that there book?
RUBY
You’ll whip me!
MISS COOPER
Shoot! When did I ever? You’ve been spanked by me -- and you may be again -- but you never got a whippin’ after the day you walked over my threshold. Just tell me, Ruby. There hain’t nothin’ to fear.
RUBY
He give it to me -- he said --
MISS COOPER
Who?
RUBY
That man down at the drugstore!
MISS COOPER
A man!
RUBY
He was a nice man. He said my eyes was the purtiest things.
MISS COOPER
Shoot, now! And who ever said they warn’t! You’re a beautiful young girl, Ruby, and that’s the very reason I don’t want nothin’ happenin’ to you.
RUBY
He just bought me the sody and the book and he said my eyes was the purtiest --
MISS COOPER
But he must have wanted something, Ruby. A man don’t waste his time on a girl unless he gits something.

Miss Copper looks closely at Ruby.

MISS COOPER
What did he --
RUBY
He asked about John -- and Pearl.

Beat.

MISS COOPER
Is he their pap?

Ruby shrugs.

MISS COOPER
Well, girl, didn’t he say?
RUBY
No’m. He just said was them kids Pearl and John livin’ here.
MISS COOPER
He said that, eh?
RUBY
Yes’m.

Miss Cooper rises, livid with anger and stomps to the open window.

MISS COOPER
Then I’d just like to know why he never come right up to the house today and showed hisself! Just come right up like ever’one else does in broad daylight and said, ’Them my youngins! Much obliged, madam! Hand ‘em over!’ Shoot! I just plainly can’t abide a sneak!
RUBY
He was nice. He said my eyes --
MISS COOPER
Hush, child!

Miss Cooper glares out the open window into the black night.

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - YARD - DAY

Ruby drops two brown eggs as soon as she sees Preacher approaching in the distance. They splatter on the flagstones by the stable.

Preacher walks slowly up the path through the meadow from the river road. Ruby scampers off to the basement where Miss Cooper is setting up fresh quart jars of apple butter.

RUBY
It’s him! It’s him!
MISS COOPER
Who?
RUBY
The man! The man!
MISS COOPER
Well, shoot! Don’t take it like it was the Second Coming, Ruby. Git on up to the kitchen and put your shoes on. I’ll be up and talk with him directly. Gracious sakes alive, girl, don’t act so simple!

Preacher walks past the neat, white wooden fence. Across the yard towards the back porch with his head cocked slightly, eyes creased in cautious greeting.

PREACHER
Mornin’, ladies.

Ruby sits suddenly in the rope swing under the apple tree. Miss Cooper stands at the open screen door, her hands folded on her apron.

PREACHER
How’do!

He stands there staring at them. First the old woman and then the girl and then back to the old woman with half a bow.

PREACHER
You’re Miz Cooper, I take it.

Ruby starts swinging.

MISS COOPER
I am.
PREACHER
Then you’re who I’m lookin’ for all right, ma’am.

Miss Cooper steps boldly onto the stoop and approaches him across the grass.

MISS COOPER
It’s about them two kids I took in? That John and that Pearl?
PREACHER
Ah, then it’s true. You have them.

His face twitches with emotion. His voice breaks into great, thankful sobs.

PREACHER
My little lambs!

He falls to his knees, hands clasped in prayer.

PREACHER
Oh, Lord, we praise Thy name! Oh, sweet, sweet little lambs! And to think I never hoped to see them again in this world! Oh, dear madam --

Preacher stands. Miss Cooper keeps her eyes on him.

PREACHER
Oh, where are they, Miz Cooper? Where are my little lambs.
MISS COOPER
They’ve all went to gather walnuts. Up in the woods beyond Stalnaker place.

She fixes him with a stare.

MISS COOPER
Ruby, go call them kids.

Ruby minces primly off through the tall grass at the edge of the lawn, towards the pasture below the woods.

Preacher wipes at a tear on his stubbled cheek with the heel of his hand. Miss Cooper sees the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on his fingers.

He catches her staring and clenches the fingers into a fist.

PREACHER
I am a man of God.
MISS COOPER
And them kids is yours?
PREACHER
My flesh and blood! My very heart and soul!
MISS COOPER
Where’s your missus?

He bows his head away from her, biting his lip and staring off.

PREACHER
She went the way of temptation. Run off with a drummer one Wednesday night not an hour before I was to preach the prayer meetin’.
MISS COOPER
And took them kids with her?
PREACHER
Yes. Took them with her. God only knows what unholy sights and sounds those innocent little babes has heard in the dens of perdition where she dragged them!
MISS COOPER
If she took them how come --
PREACHER
It was too much for them. They run off from her --
MISS COOPER
Where’s she at?
PREACHER
The Lord only knows! The good Lord only knows!
MISS COOPER
And them kids has been runnin’ the roads since then?
PREACHER
Yes.

He smiles softly.

PREACHER
Before Jesus whispered in their little ears and led them to you.
MISS COOPER
Where’d they run from?
PREACHER
Somewhere downriver. Parkesburg, mebbe! Cincinnati! One of them Sodoms on the Ohio River.

Miss Cooper smiles.

MISS COOPER
Right funny, hain’t it, how they rowed all the way upriver in a ten-foot boat!

Preacher’s eyes flash like summer lightning.

PREACHER
They run north.

Rachel hears Ruby’s flat, pale voice hollering and hailing the children.

PREACHER
I reckon they stole the skiff and coasted downriver a spell to keep off the hot roads.

Rachel looks at him.

PREACHER
Tell me about them! Are they well?
MISS COOPER
They’re a sight better than they was when I fetched them up from that sandbank where the river had throwed ‘em. They was a sight to turn a body’s stomach.

Preacher tsk, tsks.

MISS COOPER
Ticks in their hair and mud in their shoes and dirty as shoats from head to toe. Just skin and bones, too, hungry as hogs.
PREACHER
Goodness, gracious! You are a good woman, Miz Cooper!
MISS COOPER
Now if you don’t mind my askin’, Preacher, how you figgerin’ to raise them two without a woman?
PREACHER
The Lord will provide.

He picks an apple from the tree. Tries it with his thumb and bites into it thoughtfully.

PREACHER
That little Pearl! Her and that doll of hers! Kept it with her night and day!
MISS COOPER
Still does.

Suddenly the children round the corner of the washhouse in a pell-mell rush of small faces.

MISS COOPER
John, Pearl. We got company today. Your dad has come to claim you.

For an instant no one speaks, no one moves. Like figures frozen is some quaint country tintype at a family reunion. Then Pearl gives a wail of happiness and, dropping her doll in the grass by John’s feet, races into Preacher’s arms.

Preacher catches her up and kisses her face, crying in sorrowful happiness.

John stands still and looks straight into Miss Cooper’s eyes. She holds his gaze.

He lowers his eyes from hers and stares at the doll at his feet. He stoops bravely and gathers it up, it’s loose silly arms flopping against him.

Preacher peers over Pearl’s shoulder at him.

PREACHER
And there’s little John. Ah, what a day this is! What rejoicing there must be in heaven now! Come to me, boy!

But John doesn’t move.

PREACHER
Didn’t you hear me, boy?

Preacher puts Pearl down, smiling. John swallows and lifts his eyes to the old woman.

MISS COOPER
What’s wrong, John?

John smiles foolishly.

MISS COOPER
When your dad says ‘come’ -- you should mind him.

Beat.

MISS COOPER
John?
JOHN
He ain’t my dad.

John hugs the doll. Preacher is still smiling as he approaches the boy.

PREACHER
John! Have a heart! You’ll have poor Miz Cooper here thinkin’ I’m an imposter.

He turns his head to the little girl.

PREACHER
Pearl, tell Miz Cooper who I am. Come on, now!

Pearl smiles.

PEARL
You’re Daddy.

Preacher turns to Miss Cooper again and throws his hands up at this proof.

PREACHER
The boy’s a strange lad. The shock of all this -- the mother runnin’ away and all --

Miss Cooper turns and moves, flushed and breathless, towards the house.

PREACHER
Miz Cooper, you don’t mean to hint you believe this boy!
MISS COOPER
I know him a damn sight better than I know you, mister!

John runs ahead of her up the back porch and into the house. Miss Copper ducks inside.

PREACHER
Well, they believed me in town. And they’d understand it wasn’t my fault if there’s going to be any trouble about gettin’ them kids back.

Preacher approaches the back porch, dragging the knife out of his pocket and softly pressing the small metal button.

Six-inch blade slices the cool air.

His smile is gone, his face melts into a sallow leer of unveiled malevolence.

He opens the screen door.

And Miss Cooper stands there with a pump shotgun at his head as steady as doom in her old hands.

MISS COOPER
Just march yourself yonder, mister.

Preacher slowly lifts his face from the shotgun muzzle to Miss Cooper’s face. His features are yellow with uncontrollable fury.

MISS COOPER
I ain’t fooling.

Preacher staggers backward step by step, the bonehandled knife with its bright blade still bouncing in his palm. His face is a wash of madness.

PREACHER
Gooddamn you! Goddamn you, I’m going but I’ll come back! Goddamn you, I’ll come back! I’ll have that bastard yet! Goddamn you, I will!

Ruby, Lill’ Mary and Pearl fall back under the apple tree to let him pass. His body bent and racked with rage.

PREACHER
You ain’t done with Harry Powell yet, you Whore of Babylon.

Miss Cooper follows him with the shotgun to the fence with all her little flock behind her, except for the stillhidden John.

Preacher hunches down the path through the meadow to the river road.

PREACHER
I will wait until Almighty God sounds the trump of Doomsday! You’ll wish you had never been born when I am done with you! The Lord God Jehovah will guide me to the hiding place of mine enemies!

His voice echoes across the silent fields.

PREACHER (O.C.)
He will guide my hand in vengeance! Goddamn you! Godddamn you! I’ll come back when it’s dark. You devils! You Whores of Babylon! Just wait! You wait! Just wait!

Move slowly up to the sky as evening clouds gather around the setting sun.

 

MATCH DISSOLVE

EXT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - YARD - LATE NIGHT

Move slowly down from a river of stars and a full, swollen moon. Faint, yet distinct in the barely stirring air is that old gospel tune.

PREACHER (O.C)
(singing)
Leaning, leaning! / Safe and secure from all alarms! / Leaning, leaning! / Leaning on the everlasting arms

Pale, dead light spills down over the black shape of Preacher sitting on a locust stump at the end of the garden, body fixed upon the silent house.

Evening mist thickens.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - BACK PORCH - CONTINUOUS

Miss Cooper sits in her rocking chair, rocking slowly into the late night. Shotgun across her knees, facing the screen door and focusing all her attention on the black shape of Preacher.

PREACHER
(singing)
Leaning, leaning! / Safe and secure from all alarms! / Leaning, leaning! / Leaning on the everlasting arms

Her head nods and her lids fall for a instant before she catches herself and her face snaps up. She peers through the deepening mist and sees the black shape of Preacher is still there.

Partly because she needs the strength from God and partly because she needs to keep from hearing his voice, she mouths and softly sings the old words too.

PREACHER
(singing)
Leaning, leaning! / Safe and secure from all alarms! / Leaning, leaning! / Leaning on the everlasting arms

Her head falls only for a second. And yet when her eyes fly open again she sees the moon has drifted from the crooked elbow of the apple tree to the thin mists above the stable.

The black shape of Preacher has gone.

Miss Cooper stands, holds the gas lamp up to the screen door. Turns and hurries to the doorway at the foot of the kitchen stairs. Lifts the lamp into the darkness.

MISS COOPER
Ruby! Ruby!!

Rustle of the straw mattress from the room above. Dry hiss and pad of the girl’s naked feet.

MISS COOPER
Ruby, git John and Pearl up out of bed. Git Lill’ Mary up, too. Bring them all down here to the kitchen.
RUBY (O.C.)
Yes’m, Miz Cooper.

Miss Cooper turns again and the long shadows stretch like arms before the moving lamp as she goes to the table and sits down, pump shotgun facing the screen door.

Children pad swiftly into the kitchen from the stair door and circle her. Miss Cooper looks into their innocent faces.

MISS COOPER
Children, I got lonesome and wanted company. I figgered we might play games.

Pearl and Lill’ Mary jump up and down, patting their fat palms.

PEARL
Will you tell us a story?

Miss Cooper glances into the moonlit yard.

MISS COOPER
I reckon I might.
RUBY
Miz Cooper, did that nice man go away?
MISS COOPER
Hush! Hush, Ruby! Just git a hold of yourself, young woman, and come back down to earth. Shame on you! Moonin’ around the house this livelong day just hot as a fritter over that mad dog of a preacher!

Ruby sulks on the floor boards by the old woman’s knees. Lill’ Mary looks up, moon-eyed and scared.

LILL’ MARY
That man! He’s bad, hain’t he, Miz Cooper?
MISS COOPER
Yes, but hush up talkin’ about him! If we don’t think about him he won’t bother us half as much.

She smiles at the children.

MISS COOPER
Because it’ll be sunup directly and he won’t dare come pokin’ round by daylight.

Children smile.

MISS COOPER
Ruby, run grab the coffeepot.
RUBY/LILL’ MARY
Can we have coffee?
MISS COOPER
I reckon a smidgen of good, strong coffee would do us all some good. Go long, Ruby, and pour the pot.

She pads to the stove, loose-limbed and sullen. Pours out cups of coffee from the full pot on the burner.

John stands next to Miss Cooper, looking out the screen door into the night. A moth thuds against the screen.

Miss Cooper’s finger tightens on the warm flat trigger of the shotgun.

MISS COOPER
All right! Who’ll tell a story!

RUBY/LILL’ MARY/PEARL
You! You tell a story!

John presses forward so the whole of his right arm touches hers.

MISS COOPER
Well --

She sips the warm coffee.

MISS COOPER
-- ‘member what I told you last Sunday about little Jesus and his ma and pa?

All the children nod happily.

MISS COOPER
Well, now, there was this sneakin’, no-account, ornery King Herod! And he heard tell of this little King Jesus growin’ up and old Herod figgered: ‘Well, shoot! There sure won’t be no room for the both of us. Ain’t nobody wants two Kings and that’s a fact.’

Children are awed.

MISS COOPER
Well, he never knowed for sure which one of all them babies in the land was King Jesus because one baby don’t look much different from another. You know that as well as I do.

Children agree.

MISS COOPER
And so that cursed old King Herod figgered if he was to kill all the babies in the land -- every last one -- he’d be sure to get little Jesus. Now when little King Jesus’s ma and pa heard about that plan what do you reckon they went and done?
LILL’ MARY
They hid in the broom closet!
RUBY
They hid round the wash-house!

Beat.

JOHN
They went a-runnin’.
MISS COOPER
Well, now, John, that’s just what they done! Little King Jesus’s ma and pa took and saddled a mule and rode clean down to Egyptland.
JOHN
And that’s where the queen found them in the billy rushes.
MISS COOPER
Shoot, now. That warn’t the same story at all. That was little King Moses.

John lowers his eyes, bites his bottom lip.

MISS COOPER
But just the same it does seem like it was a plagued time for little ones -- them olden days -- them hard, hard times!

A gentle, steady wind rises from the river and begins clearing the mist. Moon shines bright as twilight.

MISS COOPER
I sure could tell stories better if I was to blow the lamp out. It’s always more fun hearin’ stories in the dark, ain’t it, now?
RUBY/LILL’ MARY/PEARL
Yes! Yes, blow out the lamp!

Miss Cooper cups her palm against the smoking glass and huffs once. And suddenly the moonlight pours in, blue pools at their feet. A soft wind blows through the yard.

MISS COOPER
Lill’ Mary! Let’s hear you do the Twenty-Third Psalm. You and me has ‘bout got that one learnt, ain’t we?

Lill’ Mary shuts both eyes squint-tight and starts lisping the words.

LILL’ MARY
He ‘storeth my soul.

The old woman’s mouth shapes the words mutely with the child’s voice as she hears the parlor window being slowly dragged open.

LILL’ MARY
He lea’th me in the paths in righteousness.

She sees the white parlor window curtains breathing in the night wind. Sees the white muslin over the furniture whisper like spirits.

LILL’ MARY
For He -- for He name’s sake. He --

She sees the receiver from the wall phone in the hall hanging off the hook, swinging low.

MISS COOPER
Come, lambs! Come stand close by me!

They obey. Lill’ Mary sucks her thumb gravely at being interrupted.

Miss Cooper tries to peer into the parlor when she hears his voice from the far end of the kitchen.

PREACHER
Figgered I was gone, eh?

She swings the heavy shotgun, ready to start pulling the trigger.

MISS COOPER
What do you want?
PREACHER
I want them kids!
MISS COOPER
What are you after them for, you devil?
PREACHER
None of your damn business, madam!

She ducks her face, whispering to the children.

MISS COOPER
Run! Hide in the staircase! Run, quick!

They scuffle away. Ruby lingers.

MISS COOPER
Ruby, git with the rest!

Ruby follows. Miss Cooper levels the shotgun in the crook of her arm.

MISS COOPER
Mister, I’m givin’ you to the count of three to git out that screen door.

She stands.

MISS COOPER
And if you ain’t gone by then I’m comin’ across this kitchen a-shootin. And I’ll blast every winder and joist and shingle out that end of the kitchen and you with it to Kingdom Come!!

A scurry of footsteps and she pulls the trigger and the heavy shotgun bucks and booms in her hands. And the broken kitchen clock explodes into the air.

Silence.

And Preacher suddenly rockets up before her very eyes, his twisted face caught for one split second in the silver moonlight.

She sees the knife in his fist rise swiftly just as she pulls the trigger and shotgun bucks and booms one more time.

The scream and the thunder roll away to an echoing stillness as she sees him reel backward through the screen door.

Shrieking and cursing and stumbling into the broken shadows towards the open barn.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - STAIRCASE - CONTINUOUS

The children crouch in the dark of the staircase. They see Miss Cooper move into the hallway and crank the wall phone.

MISS COOPER
(into receiver)
No time for that! Better send to Parkersburg for the state troopers and the city police -- get them out to my place right quick --

She looks out towards the yard.

MISS COOPER
(into receiver)
I trapped me something bad up in the barn --

 

EXT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - BACK PORCH - DAWN

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Trouble Soon be Over.”

Morning light shoots golden shafts into the mists of the trees.

Miss Cooper sits on the back steps, holding vigil over the barn with the shotgun cradled in her arms.

She stands when she hears cars and the voices of MEN.

And the children hear them too because they wander out of the house, tired and still afraid.

They go with her to the fence and see the gathering cars in the lane beyond the north pasture, see the men in the tan state police uniform and the blue-coated city police from Parkersburg.

Miss Cooper grabs John’s cold fingers. Feels the sweat spring to his palm when Preacher suddenly staggers out the barn.

Hears the quick intake of his breath as the BLUE MEN steal in from the river mists and gather under the branches of the apple tree.

They move together towards Preacher who doesn’t seem to see them or care if they come or not.

John swallows hard as the blue men move solemnly toward the swaying man, left arm hanging useless in his shattered sleeve. Damp blood on his fingertips.

STATE TROOPER
Harry Powell! You’re under arrest!

Beat.

STATE TROOPER
You’re under arrest for the murder of Willa Harper!

Blue men lay into Preacher, their truncheons rising high. Preachers falls down in the grass, trying to cover his head from the blows with his good arm.

MISS COOPER
John! John, wait!

John races towards Preacher with the doll he’s torn from his sister’s arms.

Blue men fall back as he hurtles among them and arches over the man in the grass, his child’s face twisted and clenched like a fist.

JOHN
Here! Here!!

He flogs the man in the grass with the limp doll until his arms ache.

JOHN
Here! Take it back! I can’t stand it!

The doll’s cloth back tears open and bank notes flutter over Preacher.

JOHN
I don’t want it! I don’t want it!!

Blue men seize him gently and one of them carries him back to Miss Cooper, limp and sobbing in his arms.

They take Preacher off to the cars as Miss Cooper carries the boy into the house.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - KITCHEN - CONTINUOUS

Miss Copper carries him past the shattered kitchen clock, the blood on the wall.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - STAIRCASE - CONTINUOUS

Miss Cooper carries him upstairs.

 

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - MISS COOPER’S BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS

Miss Cooper carries him to her own featherbed and undresses him and kisses his face and tucks him in - little and naked and lost - under the old gospel quilt she had made when she was a little girl in the mountains sixty years before.

The morning sun casts a cross from the window frame across John’s face. A silent tear spills down his cheek as he falls gently asleep.

 

MATCH DISSOLVE

INT. OHIO RIVER - MEADOW PLATEAU - MISS COOPER’S HOUSE - MISS COOPER’S BEDROOM - NIGHT

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Let Your Light Shine On Me.”

His tear has disappeared in the moonlight. Door gently creaks open.

MISS COOPER
John, you ‘wake?

John opens his eyes, safe and warm. Miss Cooper enters with a gas lamp and sits on the edge of the bed. She takes something small wrapped in calico out of her apron and looks at it before handing it to John.

He opens it and sees it’s the silver pocket watch he first saw in the shop window. Shiny and new and beating proudly.

His eyes and smile open wide in wonder.

MISS COOPER
I declare, John. That sure is a fine, loud ticker.

John holds it up against his ear, then looks at the numerals that shine in the dark. Miss Cooper looks upon him with love.

She looks way. He reaches up and hugs her close.

JOHN
That there watch is the nicest watch I ever had.

She clutches him tight.

MISS COOPER
I’m mighty glad to hear that, John. A feller can’t just go around with rundown, busted watches in his pocket. Especially when folks is countin’ on him for the right time.

She stands and leaves with the gas lamp, smiling back at him. Gently closes the door as the lamp light narrows to nothing and soft moonlight fills the room.

John hears her step gently down the staircase.

John sees the shadows on the wall come to life as night clouds part from the new moon. The shadows gather and shift into each other.

The shadows darken and loom into the shape of a tall gaunt man wearing a low hat.

The dark man raises his crooked arm high but then lowers it as John lowers his own.

John sees the hat disappear as pushes his head deeper into the pillow.

John clutches the watch against his chest, its steady heart beating against his own. He stares as clouds draw over the moon and the remains of the shadow man fade away.

JOHN
(to himself)
I ain’t scared of you. I ain’t scared no more. I got a watch that ticks.

John smiles proud.

JOHN
I got a watch that shines in the dark.

Fade to night.

Fade up Blind Willie Johnson’s “Bottleneck Blues.”

 

 


Bio

Stefano Boscutti is an award-winning writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Stefano is also a highly experienced creative consultant specialising in world-changing creative projects and campaigns for Ford, Foxtel, Lexus, Porsche, Qantas, SBS, Warner Bros. and more. McKinsey & Co? Not after the consultancy’s role in helping Saudi Arabia target online critics. Questions? Email stef@boscutti.com

Contents