ZERAH COLBURN, a sickly and effeminate preacher from Round Lake, New York: early 20s.

RANCHER, a handsome and drunk rancher, tending to his dairy cow: late 30s.

GRISELDA MILLER, the owner and hostess of brothel Queen of Hearts Saloon: early 50s.

WINNIE MILLER, mother of Griselda, founder of Queen of Hearts Saloon: mid 70s.

DIAMOND, or LIL DEE, mute dancer at the saloon: late 20s.

MADAME FLOWER and MADAME SHIT, twin French soldiers in drag: late 40s.

SATAN, the devil in the form of a skeleton with a cowboy hat.

Scene I.

The year is 1894. A wave of dust moves across the stage. Thunderstorms can be heard rolling in the distance. A crack of lightning as the clouds clear. We see a handsome and drunk RANCHER sitting on a stool at the side of a road. His face is unshaven, covered in dirt and sand. A cow stands next to him with a full udder of milk. He swigs from a bottle of bourbon before pouring some inside a wooden bucket for the cow too. Suddenly, from the right side of the stage, a sickly and effeminate preacher staggers towards the rancher, in a collared shirt and waistcoat, a Methodist bible visible in his front pocket. Slung over his shoulder is a cloth sack filled with bones.

ZERAH COLBURN: (Coughing madly, he dives at the feet on the ranch hand.) Oh, golden night! I saw a light burning through the mist! The stirrup of your boots, the star of Bethlehem, that pale and careful flower that has led me from death’s wantonness. His greedy, greedy kisses on my neck and breast! Water! Please, good sir. Is there any water?

The RANCHER pours more bourbon into the wooden bucket and kicks it towards him. Trembling, ZERAH COLBURN cups some in his hands and begins to drink, before spitting it out in revulsion.

ZERAH COLBURN: Miscreant! This is alcohol! (He wipes his mouth wildly with the sleeve of his shirt.)

RANCHER: (Smiling to himself.) Finer than water, that boy. Cleaner than a virgin’s ass on the first of May. 

Offended, ZERAH COLBURN stands up and dusts off his trousers and waistcoat. 

ZERAH COLBURN: (Aside. Turning from the RANCHER.) I see Satan continues to follow me all the way from Wichita, Kansas. I must have the stamina of Simon of Aleppo in this desert of snakes. 

RANCHER: Where are you from, boy? You sure look like a queer type.

ZERAH COLBURN: My title is Zerah Colburn. I was named after a child prodigy, known to many as the human calculator. He could solve impossible equations inside his head from the age of six years. And I have travelled all the way here from Round Lake, New York. I followed that oil-soaked cemetery of alligators known as the Missouri River with only my father’s dying wish as a guide. I am a preacher you see. (Taps the bible in his pocket.) And this here. (Pulls out a skull from the bag.) Is my father.

RANCHER: He looks fit for the buzzards, boy.

ZERAH COLBURN: His dying wish must be fulfilled! I held his trembling hand as the Holy Ghost rose from his lips like a sick and green flame. Have you ever read the works of Søren Kierkegaard, my friend? How Abraham never lost faith in the mountains of Moriah?

RANCHER: I got all the leisure I need here, boy. (Grabs his bulging crotch.)

ZERAH COLBURN: (Looks away, begins coughing again.) I must find my father’s birthplace and the hallowed ground I can lay his bones to rest. We found his journal pages in the chapel last spring with his dying wish. I had his remains exhumed so I could bury them in that shining town. Silver Sands! I must reach Silver Sands! 

RANCHER: Silver Sands! (Bursts into howls of laughter.) That town is too rotten for the rats! It’s a cesspit, boy. Nothing but whores and flies. It’s the end of the world. I’d turn back, boy! 

ZERAH COLBURN: I have looked wickedness in the face. I have seen Vermont witches walk upon the mist-covered, New England air at night. Hags that fill the throats of frogs with the blood of their own babes. I fear not this Silver Sands.

RANCHER: You sure look sick. I don’t think you’ll make it. It’s about twenty-five miles that way. (He points to the left.) The cow needs milking if you want some. She’s looking fuller than the sheriff’s ball-sack. 

Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, ZERAH COLBURN dabs his face. He leans down and begins to milk the cow’s udders.

RANCHER: You sure look awful talented at that. I bet you got some experience out there in New York City, right? I heard the sailors out there can suck the paint off a railroad post.

ZERAH COLBURN: (Drinks thirsty from the bucket of milk before flinging the bag of bones over his shoulder.) I hope one day you can accept the grace of the Lord into your abysmal mind. 

RANCHER: (Laughing. Continues to swig from bottle.) There’s no room for God up there. (Tapping his head.) I like to sleep alone at night, you see. Just me and the moonlight and the sound of the wolves. I ain’t sharing my brain with no parasite.

ZERAH COLBURN: Our Lord and Savior is no parasite! I will leave you to the luxury of your own damnation!

Outraged, ZERAH COLBURN grabs the bag of bones and exits to the right. The RANCHER continues to drink. Lights begin to fade. Distant sound again of thunderstorms. A faint crack of lightning.

Scene II.

Darkness. Faint sound of a concertina playing. Lights go up. We see a brothel with a large wooden bar. Behind the bar, stands a towering woman called GRISELDA in a large blonde wig; owner and hostess of the establishment. On the left-hand side of bar, a young mute woman dances in a cage. She is wearing a dress made of chicken feathers.  A human skeleton is nailed to a wall behind the bar. At the front-left of the stage, twin brothers sit asleep back-to-back, both in Venetian courtesan gowns filled with moth-eaten holes. Behind them is a chaise lounge and a table and chairs. On the right wall is a window where an old woman WINNIE, mother of the hostess, sits in a wheelchair, playing an accordion. There’s a pair of saloon doors on the opposite wall. A large trapdoor sits in the centre of the room. A crack of lightning at the window. The music abruptly stops. The dancer continues to shimmy.

WINNIE: The weathercock has shifted south-east! We’ll be obliterated when the hurricane hits! (Sadly.) There will be nothing left but sawdust and headlice!

GRISELDA: Will you shut your sauce box! There’s no goddamn hurricane coming! I told you that fifteen times! I ought to feed you to the miserable crows. Ain’t nothin’ but gristle on that cheeseboard head of yours. You’ve been a goddamn church bell tolling in my ear for years now.

WINNIE: It’s happened before…

GRISELDA: (Walks towards her and raises her hand.) I’m awful telling you now, mother. If you mention that weathercock one more fanciful time to me, I swear to Satan himself, I will nail those ham hock, dead-to-the-world, feet of yours to the goddamn roof. You and that weathercock will make a fine pair of lovebirds up there with your constant squawking every single goddamn….

Suddenly, ZERAH COLBURN bursts through the saloon doors. Coughing, he staggers towards the center of the room. GRISELDA, looking stunned, lowers her hand and turns to face their visitor. ZERAH COLBURN is shaking, looking ready to faint. 

ZERAH COLBURN: Water…. I must…

GRISELDA: I’ll be hanged! (Rushes to grab a chair and seats ZERAH COLBURN.) Mother, fetch this boy a cold glass of elderflower cordial. And some bread from the oven. Why he’s as thin as an Arkansas toothpick! (Puts her hand to his forehead.) Oh, and he’s burning up hotter than a housefly on a policeman’s pecker in June. 

WINNIE wheels across and pours him a glass of cordial. She brings it back with the bread. which Zerah Colburn devours wildly, appearing to slowly come round whilst GRISELDA waves a laced fan in his face.

ZERAH COLBURN: What oasis have I stumbled upon in this most barren wilderness?

GRISELDA: Why this, my good sir, is the Queen of Hearts Saloon, our most humble abode. Founded over thirty years ago by my mother here, Winnie Miller. And my name is Griselda. (WINNIE smiles weakly and returns to the window where she continues to play her accordion, staring again out the window. GRISELDA looks annoyed.) Oh, ignore her balderdash. That up there (points to the dancer shimmying in time with the music), we call her Diamond, or Lil Dee. She’s dumb as a rock. Can’t speak a word but she’s awful pretty to look at, no? (Claps her hands together.) Oh, how magnanimous it is to have a real life, flesh-and-blood man, back here at the saloon! (Tilts her head backwards laughing.)

GRISELDA’s laughing wakes up the two twin brothers. They look around sleepily. Their faces are covered in white makeup. They are wearing wigs with blue ribbons and blonde ringlets.



GRISELDA: And those two are Madame Flower and Madame Shit. A pair of brothers from the French legionnaire, soldiers both shot and dying out on the southern plains. When me and mother found them, they were full of gunpowder, each as cold as a wagon tyre. And after we nursed them better, they awful loved it here at the Queen of Hearts. There were so many men! You were afeared to speak or you’d have five pricks in your mouth. And those two were the wildest whores you ever laid eyes on. They imagined they were back in Montmartre. 



GRISELDA: (Laughing again. Coming closer to ZERAH COLBURN’s face, who is gradually looking more horrified.) That was their trick here, known throughout the entire state. A whole battalion would put apricot jam on their erect members and these two would suck from dusk until the pink-bright dawn.  

ZERAH COLBURN: My good lady! (Dusts off his waistcoat, and trousers.) Really! This entire county is obsessed with its mouth!

GRISELDA: There’s no judgement here, young sir. If you prefer a woman’s touch then there’s always Lil Dee. Or I am as capable as any mechanic.

ZERAH COLBURN: (Voice raising.) Silver Sands! I must exit from this blasphemous swamp and find Silver Sands!

GRISELDA: (Looking puzzled and across at Winnie who stops playing, and turns back from window.) Why my boy, this sure is Silver Sands! From here, out towards that old oak tree on the northern plateau.

ZERAH COLBURN: (Dumbfounded. Picking up the cloth sack at his side.) But… St. Bartholomew’s Chapel, that most meek of missionaries. I must lay my father to rest there.  

WINNIE wheels across.

WINNIE: The hurricane! The hurricane came and swept it all away! The houses, the chapel. Children flew into the air like leaves from the trees. And we used the remains of the chapel to build the saloon, right here.

ZERAH COLBURN: (Stunned.) This house of degradation? This powder-puff boudoir of Sodom? Where the hands of men run across your revolting, obsequious faces?

GRISELDA: Listen here, mister. We provide an honest trade. And you bound in here into our establishment, our home! I sure ain’t met no man beyond the needs of a good whorehouse.

ZERAH COLBURN: (Turning angry.) One day, you jezebels will be devoured by the snakes you conjure from the dirt. I can smell pandemonium in the air here, lavender and mint. This truly is the mansion of Satan himself.

GRISELDA: Satan, you say? (Smiling.) Oh yes, we know his ways. His kindness, his cold touch. He rides a steed across the western plains as the red liquid sunlight shivers across his bones. He brings us bags of grain, a purse of golden coins. My mother needs a stronger resolve because Satan has always kept the hurricane from our door. 

ZERAH COLBURN: This is all a mirage! (Horrified, he walks towards the front of the stage.) When Simon stood atop his pillar in the desert, the antichrist appeared in many obscene disguises. What are you ungodly dragons?

GRISELDA: Simple folk, mister. Folk that listen to that awful song of the wind at night as it tears across the plains. If you want to bury your father, you’ll find the old cemetery directly beneath us. (She walks across and opens the trapdoor in the center of the room.)

ZERAH COLBURN: (Falls to his knees, weeping.) Oh, father. Was this your last wish? For me to greet Satan himself? (Taking out the Methodist bible from his pocket, he flings it angrily to the side of the saloon. He continues to weep.)

Suddenly, a skeleton in a cowboy hat rises from the trapdoor.

SATAN: Come, my child. Your father, he sinned terribly. Your father committed the most unspeakable acts. He wants to show you the labyrinth of his heart. Will you join us in the deep bosom of the Earth? We sleep so soundly amongst its warm rivers. 

ZERAH COLBURN: (Stops crying. Defeated.) Take me to him, foul escort.

SATAN: As you wish. (Blows kisses to all the others.) Good night, my sweet consorts. I will protect you all in the deepest fire. May we dance forever inside our most forbidden dream. We will meet again beneath the blasted throne of sin.

SATAN scoops up ZERAH COLBURN in his arms and they descend together on the trapdoor. WINNIE plays her accordion and LIL DEE continues to dance. GRISELDA is cleaning the bar with a wet cloth. The lights on the stage turn bright green then slowly start to darken. Two voices heard in pitch darkness.



Scene III.

Pitch black stage. A spotlight hits the center of the stage and shows a stand with a large silver microphone, glistening in the light. ZERAH COLBURN and SATAN enter at the front- right of stage, holding hands. With his other hand, SATAN is holding a lit candelabra and leads ZERAH COLBURN slowly to the microphone. SATAN blows out the candles and slinks gracefully away. ZERAH COLBURN is looking down at the floor and slowly raises his face to look at the audience, beginning to sing softly.

ZERAH COLBURN:  I fell in love with Satan

On the way to Santa Fe.

He held me in his arms

On that blue bewitch’d day.

The lights go up and we see the saloon behind ZERAH COLBURN with two sets of tables and chairs. GRISELDA, MADAME FLOWER and MADAME SHIT are sitting at one, drinking and playing cards. At the other LIL DEE, the RANCHER and WINNIE, are playing cards. LIL DEE stands up and opens her mouth, as though to sing. The others watch on, dumbfounded. ZERAH COLBURN remains looking down.

LIL DEE: (Sings sadly.) Our king of hearts.

The lights go out again and the spotlight comes back on so all we see is ZERAH COLBURN at the microphone. Again, he looks back up at the audience and sings.

ZERAH COLBURN: We married at a crossroads

Between a field of wheat and corn.

A scarecrow for a witness,

To him, my love was sworn.

Oh, Silver Sands!

That endless land of glass.

His skull upon my cheek,

His hand across my ass.

Butterflies and crocodiles,

And fireflies that dance and burn.

Satan, my midnight suitor,

To hell we must return!

The spotlight goes out. The lights go up and we see the other characters drinking and playing cards. ZERAH COLBURN remains silent with head down. We hear a soft chant that begins to swell into singing.

RANCHER, GRISELDA, WINNIE, LIL DEE, MADAME FLOWER, MADAME SHIT: (Cheering in unison. All repeating.) Hell is a royal flush. Hot! Hot!

The characters rise from their chairs and stand at back of stage, swaying and chanting. WINNIE takes her accordion and begins to play, soundlessly. Slowly, we hear the sound of a brass band building louder and louder. Soon, we can only hear the music but the characters continue to sway. SATAN enters stage right and moves towards ZERAH COLBURN. SATAN takes the hand of ZERAH COLBURN and they begin to dance the Viennese waltz clockwise in circles around the stage. The music rises louder and louder. The other characters are now drinking and cheering. The RANCHER is kissing LIL DEE. The others are clapping their hands to the music. ZERAH COLBURN and SATAN waltz faster and faster. Suddenly the lights go out.

Matthew Kinlin lives and writes in Glasgow. His published works include Teenage Hallucination (Orbis Tertius Press), Curse Red, Curse Blue, Curse Green (Sweat Drenched Press), The Glass Abattoir (D.F.L. Lit) and Songs of Xanthina (Broken Sleep Books).

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