The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim

The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim

by Marcia Douglas


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The ancestors have awakened. Somebody has called them. The long-dead are stirring. Jah ways are mysterious ways.

“Is me—Bob. Bob Marley.” Reincarnated as homeless Fall-down man, Bob Marley sleeps in a clock tower built on the site of a lynching in Half Way Tree, Kingston. The ghosts of Marcus Garvey and King Edward VII are there too, drinking whiskey and playing solitaire. No one sees that Fall-down is Bob Marley, no one but his long-ago love, the deaf woman, Leenah, and, in the way of this otherworldly book, when Bob steps into the street each day, five years have passed. Jah ways are mysterious ways, from Kingston’s ghettoes to London, from Haile Selaisse’s Ethiopian palace and back to Jamaica, Marcia Douglas’s mythical reworking of three hundred years of violence is a ticket to the deep world of Rasta history. This amazing novel—in bass riddim—carries the reader on a voyage all the way to the gates of Zion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811227865
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 07/31/2018
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 373,446
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

MARCIA DOUGLAS is the author of novels and poems and performs the one-woman show, “Natural Her-Story.” She teaches creative writing and Caribbean literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her The Marvellous Equations of the Dread was longlisted for the 2016 Republic of Consciousness Prize and the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

Read an Excerpt

The Marvellous Equations of the Dread

A Novel in Bass Riddim

By Marcia Douglas

Peepal Tree Press Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Marcia Douglas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84523-349-5




There is a bass-line that pulsates along the faults of this island, from the Blue Mountains to Santa Cruz, from Plantain Garden to Rio Minho; then travelling the coast, troubling the waters. They say each year the blue-green sea rises higher, pulled by the music of the people. Bass riddim moves underground and the sea lurches, dragging flotsam, broken shells, and ground hipbones.

"Walk on the sand with reverence, hear?" These are the words I say to Anjahla. For the bones of our kin are in the waters – the grainy debris of slave cargo – fierce babymothers who jumped off the ships and into the ocean. They swallowed seawater but stayed strong inside.

"Are you a fierce babymother?" Anjahla asks.

"Yes," I say. "I am fierce."

"Mama," she says. And I like the way her lips make "m". "When I tell this story to my children, I am going to give it another ending. I am going to send the mothers a rescue ship to take them home."

"And what you will call your ship, Anjahla?"

She smiles and looks off in the distance. The horizon at Hellshire is hazy green, like the bit of seaweed caught in her hair. We are conscious of the warm sand under our feet. Egrets step deliberately.

The year we walked Hellshire, Anjahla was six, so I am jumping way ahead. Before that, there was Bob and Riva Man; and my mama and papa; and Winifred and Hector; and the Guinea woman, Murlina; and yes, the fierce babymothers; but even before them, there was the big silk cotton at Half Way Tree, and later, the young boy hung from it for singing freedom. They say he died with a word at the tip of his tongue; and even three hundred years later, is restless to remember it. He is the reason – centuries after his dancing feet, and a clock tower erected in place of the tree – that the hands of the clock always told the wrong time. The dead can be agitated by unfinished business that way. And they say, too, that Bob has unfinished spirit things here; our underground bass is the riddim he'll ride on his return. Did Taino sister see that far? For there is something still –


[Cedars of Lebanon Hospital; May 11, 1981] Zion ship a come-o!


Of Lions and Pigs and Sorrow Mango [Babylon, May 11, 1981]

On the day Bob Marley dies, the two stone lions in front of the New York Public Library roar. I&I know because I&I dream it – a roar vibrating my body as I walk up the steps. There are little bells on my sandals, my locs swinging against my back. Just when I shift my bag from one shoulder to the other, something ignites right at my tail bone, the sensation increasing to a roaring current, Rastaman vibration travelling my spine to the top of my head. As the roar leaves my body, I sneeze and look behind me, but no one is there and the lions at the curb are still stone. Later, I learn the news of Bob's passing from television.

I met Bob years ago in the street in London. He was walking down the road, his mane uprising, and he asked me where in this raasclaat place he could find a coconut water. I was glad that even in the nippy March air, bundled up with my coat and gloves on, I looked like the kinda yard woman who might know a coconut watering hole. Still, I thought his question funny and I said, "No coconut trees here, mate." He laughed and I liked the way he threw back his head and let his teeth scrape the air. I took him to the little West Indian pub on the corner where I worked and he sat by the window and drained a glass of orange juice and said, "Rastafari." He leaned back into his chair as if he owned it, as if he had owned every chair he had ever sat on, as if he owned the whole earth. He said he needed to know where to find the sufferahs, the people; he had come for the sufferahs. Then all of a sudden he stopped, his eyes absorbing me like scripture. When he finally spoke, he said, "Why yu never tell me yu deaf?" I knew he had not realized.

"Reading your lips is like eating wild guava," I said.

There was mischief in his eyes.

"Yu like wild guava?"

"Can a deaf girl know Jah?"

He smiled then and put my hand against his chest. When he sang, No cry, I closed my eyes and felt his voice on my palm. It was the most irie gift anyone had ever give me.

That was when I began to know him – the misbehaving hair in his eyebrow, the cheekbones which could balance an egg or a flame or a revolution, his slim hands, the tinge of fire under his skin, the roar-blue of his shirt like the colour of the Caribbean in a particular herb light. It was because of Bob that I began to grow my locs again – the dreads that Sunday teacher in Jamaica cut off when I was twelve. Teacher threw them in the bin and set them afire. "Rasta filthiness," she said. I was so shame. The whole street knew – the smell of my hair carried like news on the breeze. For the next eleven years the smell of burnt hair kept wafting back to me – on my bedclothes, in my school bag, from half-open drawers – and always unexpected as violence. Then Bob sang that day in the corner pub, and something else came back: Mama washing my hair in the river, oiling and twisting it as we sat on a rock in the sun. And her voice, Jah live, before she died. I had forgotten those words. I had even forgotten Mama's name, Vaughn. Her name was Vaughn. Violence will do that to you. Make you forget your mother's name. Perhaps I grew my dreads back to remember myself. The hair was stubborn at first, but soon grew restless, reaching downward toward tree roots and underground water, hunting for Mama and Papa, and Winnie and Grandpa Hector. Mama always said her dreads were transmitters – to the ancestors, to Jah – and mine became life-vines to Bob as well.

And so on this day in 1981, the 11 of May when Bob dies, this is how I&I immediately recognize the roar going up my spine and the whoosh and the wind and the power of his leaving. And I send him Jah-speed.

The next week, the island is in the midst of an eleven-day weeping. A friend sells his nine pigs – two sows, a boar and six piglets – for understanding the uncleanliness of pork to Rasta, he wants to honour Bob, and feels the only way to do so is to cleanse his yard of abomination. He changes his name to Ras Redemption and takes to singing in his sleep, funny little off-key tunes punctuated by selah, selah. It is also the only year his mango tree does not bear.

On the eleventh day, people line the streets from Kingston to Nine Mile to pay respect – breddren and sistren, youth watching from the top branches of trees, schoolchildren, madmen, preachers, murderers, market women, babymothers, thieves, shopkeepers, teachers, gangsters, politrickans, bus drivers, the sufferahs and the downpressers, the wicked and the I-nointed; and for fifty-five miles, a wave of grief passes through us, moving like a heat from one person to the other; and on this day, for the momentary passing of Bob's funeral motorcade, there is one sorrow.


Track 12.0: Bob Marley and the Lion of Judah Meet

And at the end of the fifty-five mile weeping, the angel of Jah blows the fourth trumpet and the Book of Zion is opened. For eleven days since his last breath, the prophet-Marley has travelled a wind swirling with sea salt, fire dust, bay rum, and the molasses scent of ancestors, all the while the wailing of the woman-Rita pressing him on like a conqueror – straight to the right hand of Jah.

He lands on his feet, blinks in the star-apple light, sees a house with a kerosene lamp in the window, an old man outside peeling sugar cane, and he knows right away he has seen this place before – in a half-silence while smoking a spliff, at the bottom of a river in a dream. This time though, there is sense of arrival: a sign – "STUDIO D: THE DUB-SIDE" – is propped against a nutmeg tree; a dog barks from behind the house. The eleven-day journey through soul debris has parched the prophet's throat and the old man, higherstanding, dips his cup in a water barrel, and waits.

Soon as Marley steps forward, the dog – a little Chihuahua – runs into the yard, almost knocks the cup from the man's hand. The nutmeg tree leans to the side and the ground hums like a spinning record. Marley reaches for the cup, the taste, at first, as ordinary as St. Ann rain; but then – give-thanks-and-praise – the quench opens his Rastafareye, and all things are made clear: the Most High, His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the King of Kings, Elect of God, is revealed before him – the old man in the torn shirt eating sugar cane.

And so it is the prophet and the Judah-lion stand at the redgreengold sign. Both small in stature, they meet eye-to -eye, the lion longtime stripped of his medallions, epaulettes and custom-made shoes; and Marley, all bald-head now – his locs uprooted by the cancer, even the dread wig in which he was buried, left in the coffin, unable to traverse the space between Nine Mile and Jahliverance. The Judah-lion is the first to smile; he shows a row of missing teeth, his dentures samewise left behind, buried deep in the faeces his dead body was thrown in; the canines he depended on, now in the sewer under Colonel Mengistu's toilet, incapable under such weight to make the dread journey. For such are the mysteries of the Dub-side: Rastaman without locs, lion without teeth.

In Babylon, Marley had hung a picture of His Imperial Majesty above his bed – H.I.M. regal and never-smiling. He smoked holy herb beneath that picture and made love there and wrote songs; he prophesied in season and out of season; called to pretty women outside the window; laughed and reasoned and dreamed dreams and awakened to the sirens in the street; traced downpressors, and longed for the taste of honey and pineapple – H.I.M. always watching sideways and serious. Much respect. Now the Judah-lion's toothless smile is absent of worry or botheration, and Marley, standing there face-to-face with the Almighty, feels the urge to sing, his voice a seven-chambered instrument filling the yard, redgreengold fire in the sound.

The Judah-lion listens, his eyes moist. He puts his hand on Marley's shoulder. "Who the son are you?" His words, spoken without teeth, are sea foam.

The question stirs remembrance in Marley of the ring once worn by His Majesty-self – black onyx with a lion engraved in gold – which would prove he is a son of the Most High. He had guarded it from thieves and lovers, fire and water, and now, standing before Selassie-I, he feels for it on his middle finger, eager to establish that he is indeed a son of the Judah Lion, that he has fought a good fight and has been a careful steward.

He takes off the ring and puts it in His Majesty's palm. H.I.M. holds it to the light, contemplates a while, a little smile on his face. "My ring is in replica all over the streeths of Addis Ababa," he says, then drops it in a tin of cane trash. "This is just another one."

* * *

Somewhere down in Babylon, a breadfruit falls with a loud clap on a zinc roof. Tribulation. Marley tries to read His Majesty's face, but he still smiles. "Someone has tricked you," his eyes say. The prophet looks back at the place where he landed. Under the nutmeg tree a fog rises up like herb smoke, and the way back to Babylon has vanished.


The Fall-down Angel of Hope Road

Back in Babylon where the weeping has subsided, it is raining and a radio at a bus stop on Hope Road plays a Marley tune as a fall-down angel taps foot to the one-drop beat. Every town has them – breddren and sistren who wander the streets, turn over garbage bins, point in your face and cry, "Babylon!" Some people call them mad, some people call them poets, some people call them fall-down angels.

The fall-down of Hope Road is afraid of no one. He is known to pull his ratchet knife out his back pocket and stare-down anyone from Governor General to bad dog. Sitting at this bus stop and then that one, he plays fool to catch wise and knows everybody's business. To this day, if people want to know the real Jamaica, they ask a fallen angel and if they want to know Bob's business, they ask the fall-down on Hope Road.

And so it is, back in Babylon at the intersection of Half Way Tree and Hope, Fall-down smiles a little smile as he imagines the Prophet on the Dub-side, his cancer-foot healed, and even the criss-cross lines which once marked his palms all disappeared, the skin a new parchment. A schoolboy shelters from rain beside the fall-down, and sings along with the radio, from time to time strumming an imaginary guitar.

"Zion," the fall-down whispers to no one in particular. His head is tied around and around with a red cloth and little brass Africas dangle from his ears.

"What about Zion, Fall-down?" the boy asks, for all the schoolchildren know the mad angel and mock him.

"Robert Nesta Marley must find where Zion is."

"Tell me about Bob," the boy says, as Fall-down reaches and cups his hand to taste the rain.

"Few gateways to Zion, but Bob will find one of them."

"How you know, Mad-Ras?"

Fall-down does not answer. Every now and then there is a soft chime, and the boy is uncertain whether the clink-clink comes from the radio or from the little brass Africas.

"I bet you, not a raas ting go so," he says.

The rain is falling harder and a huddle of birds cuss over a piece of stale bread.

"There was a time when a boy would not talk to an angel like that."

"Tell me about Zion," says the boy, strumming guitar. "Where it is, Fall-down?"

"Somewhere special."

"But how you get there? You have to dead like Bob?"

There is another clink-clink, and a man's voice on the radio cries, "Bloodfiah!" For a while Fall-down does not answer. His eyes are far away, past the rain and the backed-up traffic, past the fence across the street and the birds on the cable wires.

"No, you don't have to dead to get there."

"Take me to Zion then," the boy says. "Get me outta this raas place."

Fruit flies circle his head, following him like specks in orbit. Fall-down taps his staff.

"Every now and then, somebody find it without looking," he says.

Concerning Zion and the Higherstanding of Maths

The boy is there the next afternoon with his school bag and holey shoes. All night he has searched in his dream for Zion, chopping his way through a thicket of bamboo, guango trees and long john-crow vines. He sits now on an overturned bucket by the bus stop, listening to the clink-clink of Fall-down's earrings, missing his bus then waiting for the next one and the one after that.

"Tell me again bout Zion, the place you say Bob must reach," he says.

It is Friday and the city is ablaze with heat and vice.

"Awake, Zion, awake!" Fall-down sings.

"Shut up," the boy says. "People can't even talk serious with you."

"Since when you take me serious, anyway?"

The boy sucks on a tamarind ball and spits out the seed.

"Alright, respect."

"Riddle me this; riddle me that. Guess me this riddle and perhaps not: My mother have many mansions and all of them have a different gate."

"So is more than one place?"

"No, is one place."

The boy looks confused.

"The arithmetics of Zion, youth-man! Maths like that no teach inna school."

The boy throws a stone at a bird in the lignum vitae tree behind him. The bird takes off, following the direction of traffic.

Another bus begins to pull away from the curb and Fall-down watches as a woman runs to catch it, the muskwhiff of her passing filling the air.


Track 13.0: Under the Nutmeg Tree

The holy herb fills the yard, swirls around the feet of Marley and His Imperial Majesty, so that soon the two stand in a river of smoke. Marley bends down, fans the air, anxious to peer back into Babylon to find where the true ring might be.

"Do not look back," H.I.M. says, and the smoke rises higher, touches their knees. "Since I have been here, I have witnessed it time and time again. Those who look back thlip and fall down, and never come back, and anyway, you do not want to return to 56 Hope Road, falling backwards like a fool."

And who is Marley to defy the Almighty? Down in Babylon, there are wars and rumours of wars. Marley feels the rumbling under his feet – gunshots and backfighting and all manner of politricks and wickedness and spoilation of the earth – a youth running across the street at Molynes Road shot in the head; a politician's girlfriend locked in a freezer, poisoned water; stillborn infants; a stick rammed up a goat's ass; a man's slit throat.

As a sign between himself and Jah, he had been given the ring for the healing of the nation, and now for all his trials and sufferation, he has lost it. Marley looks back at the leaning tree, "STUDIO D" all covered in smoke. Somewhere in the distance there is a faint clink-clink, and he moves toward the sound.


H.I.M. speaks with a quiet assurance, holds up his hands like two tablets of stone. The last in a succession of 225 kings traced back through bloodfire to King Solomon and his court, H.I.M. lifts his voice and Rastafari listens. The indigo sky casts a bluish tinge on his palms, and as he speaks the smoke rises higher, covers his wrists and his slender fingertips.


Excerpted from The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas. Copyright © 2016 Marcia Douglas. Excerpted by permission of Peepal Tree Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Re-mix: Xaymaca, 1494,
The Marvellous Equations of the Dread,
Kingston Ringtune,
House of Zion,
And with Fullticipation, They Said,
Backstage Pass [Appendix I],
Studio Pass [Appendix II],

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