Someone posted a challenge about religion, and boy, do I ever have a piece for that. It is not, however, within a reasonable distance of the 50 word limit... so... I'll just leave this here (Content warning):
I don’t remember a time when my family didn’t attend church. We’ve gone since I was an infant. Sunday school and hymns are woven into the very fabric of me. So, you’d think it would be hard to doubt– when everything that has always been my reality says there is a God– that Jesus is real. You’d be wrong.
You see, when you grow up like I did, you learn some important lessons early on, and to doubt everything is first in a long line of rules that spring forth from the shadow of abuse. It didn’t matter that God loved me when my daddy was hitting my mommy in the bathroom before church. It didn’t matter if God loved me when my little eyes perceived the truth of things, and then saw how my family changed, as we unloaded one by one out of a too-crowded minivan in the church parking lot. My dad would sometimes hold her hand. I remember that much– even though I was small– I remember that much. And we’d pretend: we got really good at pretending. Pretend like you love each other, my mom would say… And we did. We pretended to love each other. We were all too broken and scarred to do much else. And, even though I’ve never questioned the existence of God– I’ve always wondered why would he care about me? Heck, my family had to pretend to love each other… and eventually, even that wasn’t enough to ignore the brutality that hid behind closed doors– behind my mother’s ears– under her long dark hair, and Sunday sweaters.
She was brave: my mother. She was–is– braver than she ever gave herself credit for. She left.
She left him. And it would have been so much easier to leave us, too– but she didn’t. She saved us– took us with her– worked like an abused dog– and made something new for us. Who’s us?
She left an abusive man and took SIX kids with her. Three of them were teens (or nearly teen) boys. Three of them were toddlers or infants. I was two. Two years old when my family broke apart–but who am I kidding– it was broken before I was born. Mom packed all of us up when dad was away at work. She picked up my big brothers from school– they never did get to say goodbye to their friends– and fled to a tiny town on the Northern California coast, to live with my Auntie Rose.
Her home was ordinary, by most standards, but to us, it was a magical kingdom. One of my first memories comes in a haze when I think of that time; A pricking in my foot as my stubby little toes squelched in the wetness of the ocean earth. I had a splinter, and I didn't care. I had to get to the half-rotten redwood stump just a few feet ahead. I would be safe there. I could hide and he couldn't find me. My chubby legs carried me as fast as they could, but still– he caught up to me and snatched my arm saying, “Tag. You’re it!” I replied with the delighted shriek of a child, just budding out of babyhood. I was running through the backyard at Aunt Rose’s house. The memory comes to me in a haze, as if seen through an old camera lens, blurred about the edges. It seems faded, but at the same time, burns with clarity. I can still smell the bark beneath my toes and feel my fat cheeks, flushed with exertion, the wispy orange hair clinging to them in the mist. Memories of the lazy days of childhood when knights and witches and dragons existed shatter much the same as a fragile window pane struck with a stone. In drifts the frigid breeze of reality, the tendrils of grief pulling at me like thousands of tiny hands, wishing to rip away whatever lasting illusion my mind houses. Those days of childish illusion are long gone, supplanted with a deep knowledge of circumstance that threatens to rip away even a memory of joy… the knowledge that I ran in Rose’s backyard because I would otherwise be running next to my mother’s grave.
After a short time of half-healing in the protection of Rose’s house, we moved to a sleepy little neighboring town. We were broken and weird, and mom would stare unseeingly out the kitchen window of our tiny house with tears silently streaming for hours. How terrible those times must have been for the kids who had some notion of what was going on. Us smaller kids didn’t understand, certainly, and I know my brother used to cry for his dad. How terrible that must have been for my mother. So much was terrible for my mother then. I was not aware of much, I hardly remember that time– I was little, after all. I was happy. I had mother, warm food, and my strawberry blanket. What more did I need? But, even then, I was a worrier– I came by it honestly. And there was one thing I worried about above all else. The Undertoads.
We spent a good amount of time at church and on the beach--those being some of the few recreational activities available to a family of seven in a small town. I was terrified of the ocean from the very beginning. The older boys would boogie board and body surf and play football in the sand. The younger boys would build forts and climb rocks and roll in the dirt. My littlest brother was strapped to mother’s chest in a baby wrap. I would sit on a blanket. I would not move. I would not play. I vaguely remember that I hated the feel of sand on my sensitive red-headed skin. But it wasn't the feeling of the sand or the chill of the cold air that caused me to stay on my blanket. It was the Undertoads. I scarcely breathed for fear they might hear me. My mother warned us profusely, whenever we arrived at the beach, that we needed to be cautious of sharks, and sea lions, and the dreaded “Undertoads”. I didn’t quite understand, but I knew I was terribly worried about these Undertoads. I'm sure you realize that she meant undertows, which are dangerous currents in the ocean that can suck swimmers out to sea and cause them to drown. Undertows are, in fact, something to be quite afraid of. But, I was two, and couldn't grasp the idea of currents in the ocean water that would pull me out to sea. And why would I bother to go in that freezing cold water anyways?
No— I didn't picture an ocean current. I imagined immensely huge, warty toads. I imagined that they would be as tall as the waves breaking some distance out in the ocean. Perhaps the Toads would hide behind the giant monolithic rocks of the Northern California coast? I imagined the Toads to be dark green to blend in with the murky water. The Undertoads were more real and terrifying to me than the greatest great white shark could ever be. My mother had told me that they would grab me and drag me out to the Ocean, after all. Would they drag me down to their toady kingdom and feast on my tiny bones? The Undertoads were dangerous, very dangerous. So how on Earth could I conceive of leaving the blanket? It was safe on the blanket. And though I was little, I had seen a toad before– and I knew, they could hop. There was no way that I would be going anywhere near the water. I was so terrified for my older brothers out there, playing in the waves, with the Undertoads lurking nearby. I’d internally shriek and panic as my mother neared the water's edge and dipped her toes in. My little red baby cheeks would flush in fear as I watched her stare out into the water and I wondered if she was looking into the Toad's eyes. I know now she was looking at something much more terrifying– perhaps a reflection of her life, or into the face of God that always hides in the waves– either way, the both of us were afraid.
It was a good many years before I knew that the real monsters don’t hide under rocks or waves–they’re usually in the next room over, or in the car behind you in traffic, or sitting next to you on the pew at church, hands clasped in obedience and hearts clenched in hatred. Once I began to understand that, I decided it was worth it to go into the ocean–that I might like to hop over the waves like my brothers did. I might even like to swim with the sea lions like they did. In the back of my mind I still believed that the Undertoads were out there, and anytime a piece of kelp wrapped round my ankle, I’d scream my heart out. I knew one day the toads would drag me to their murky realm. But– once I’d started going into the water, my fascination with the secret toads grew–and something changed. A part of me was just daring them to drag me under. I’d play tag with the waves, and eventually, I began to think of them as my friends. Perhaps that’s why I nurtured the toads in the drainage ditch with such care so many years later? Or why I wept when one especially dear friend (MR. TOAD, that is) was run over by a car? I swear that’s where I got the first and only wart on my ring finger, taking care of the toads– though, I’ve heard that’s just superstition. It’s obvious by now that I do put a lot of stock in superstition, though, isn’t it? I sometimes longed for the undertoads to take me, when I began to truly suffer. But they never did, and they became the first (and most docile) of the monsters who visited my youth.
Set aside the more tangible monsters, who were human (my father, the first boy I ever loved, the teacher who berated and neglected, despite the apparent signs of danger so obvious in my teens), and a creature of the more mythical variety emerged. When I was twelve, a demon started visiting my room at night. A demon?? you ask.
Yes. A demon. I can confidently say that a demon visited my bedroom. There is no doubt in my mind. Couldn’t it have been a ghost, or someone playing a trick…. Or even your imagination? No. It couldn’t have.
I’ve visited every option, including the one that I might possibly be insane, again and again… and the same conclusion always presents itself: it was a demon. I’ll be honest– I might be a little insane– but either way– A demon is A demon.
I think he came because he knew the time was quickly approaching when I’d wake up and find myself unloved, used, and frankly un-special in every conceivable way. The time was approaching when I’d realize what was wrong with my dad… that anything was wrong with him at all.
And the demon would be waiting, ready to take me when I was broken– to drive me over the edge into insanity. But that is just a theory. All I know is that some days, I’d walk into my bedroom, and it would smell strangely floral– earthy– very nearly like weed smoked out of an apple bong.
Did I mention that he wasn’t MY DEMON? Not really, that is. He quite wanted to be, that is certain– but in truth, this demon belonged to my older brother– one my mom had to send away to rescue us younger kids from his depravity. Anyway, I took over my older brother’s room when he moved, and so inherited the demon, who I assumed bided his time until I was ripe for the taking, and then chose to appear.
Where was I? That’s right: apple bong.
Yes. I always knew it would be a “demon night” because my bedroom smelled sickly sweet. I did my best to ignore the ripe odor, but small droplets of sweat would break out on my skin, and I just couldn’t bring myself to close the door and shut myself in, but finally sleep would beckon– I’ve never been one to say no to a decent sleep– and I would curl into my blanket and collapse into oblivion, only to waken some hours later with a sick, crawling sensation in the pit of my stomach. I’d look then, to the corner: his corner. Sometimes when I looked up, he’d already be there, standing like darkness incarnate with black tattered robes brushing the floor and a face that wasn’t a face, but a pit of oozing darkness. When he did have eyes, they had a reddish tinge– but he didn’t always have eyes– I just knew he was looking at me. Other times, I’d watch him manifest with sick fascination: a black cloud growing in the corner of my ceiling until the cloaked figure stood, ready to devour all goodness from my world.
The demon never did anything at all. He just stood. Watched. Waited. Ate my fear. Yes. I tell you this, he ate and drank my fear. Well, why didn't you turn on the light? I couldn't. I wouldn't. When I looked at him standing in the corner, all darkness and gloom and death, I couldn't move, I couldn't breathe– I could feel every muscle in my body slowly tense and then atrophy and do nothing. And then I would be nothing at all– I would dissolve as I stared into his hollow eyes, and those were the times I could feel that the demon was happy. Yes, happy. I could tell that the demon could feel happy. My fear would overtake everything, then. I would lie there all night and stare into nothing… At least, that is, the nothing that was the demon in the corner. He’d retreat with the morning sun, and I’d get out of bed shaky and ruined before the day had even begun.
The demon loved my weakness. It was a few years later, when I was visited by a much kinder spiritual presence, that the demon was finally banished from my bedroom corner. I was sixteen and broken beyond all rights of a child of that year. At sixteen, I’d been through physical and psychological abuse, a custody battle, a brief kidnapping, the grief that is standing up and confessing such things to the adults in one’s life, and countless other small tragedies at the hands of my father. At sixteen, I lay shattered in the dark on the futon in my bedroom, the first heartbreak (of the romantic variety), raw and metaphorically bleeding out onto my bedsheets. Sixteen-year-olds can be dramatic, yes, but looking back on the time I spent with that boy, through the much clearer lens of adulthood, I know I did love him. And I know I’d stepped out of one form of abuse at the hands of my father, and directly into another at the hands of my lover. My soul was shredded, and I didn’t suspect I’d ever recover. I wouldn’t have, save for what happened next. I was considering, in far too serious of a manner, the ways in which I might end my life. My mental state had never come to such a place before, and even then, I did not toy with those thoughts lightly. If I should even bother to think them, God knew I must be terribly serious about going through with the thing. It was darker than it had ever been before in my bedroom, though it was just past 10pm on a balmy summer night. The moon was nearly full, and it should have been shining romantically through my window, but it didn’t. I was lost in my grief, and as I dissolved into nothing on the futon cushion, the demon came back for the first time in years. He didn’t stay at his place in the corner this time. This time he wrapped his black cloak around me, and silently encouraged my agony. He reminded me how alone I was, and neglected my eyes from the light. I sobbed openly, and I’m surprised my mother couldn’t hear me from the next room over. My throat was raw from the burn of hot tears, and I began to know what I needed to do. I began to think it harder–more loudly– than before. And then, as the chasm opened to nearly the point of no return, a miracle happened. The demon vanished. The blackness vanished. The agony. Misery. Physical pain. The anguish vanished. And I felt warm. And I felt safe. I was being held by a figure crafted from pure light. I felt myself clasped in palms that seemed larger than the sun, and warmer, too, but not in a way that burns. I knew, then, that God must be real, because he held me in his very hands. A still, small voice whispered, “I am with you,” and with one last pulse of deliverance I was left alone again on the futon. This time, the light of the moon danced around the room from my open window, and I fell into the most blissful sleep. I’ve never experienced a sleep so peaceful again, but I haven’t needed to.
I painted a picture of the cross, some years later, and put it there, in the corner where the demon had lived: a symbol of the war which had been won in that room. It was a cross, with a rose vine trellising around it, and light clouds beckoning from the heavens above. The painting stayed on the wall for years– even long after I moved out– and every time I saw it, it seemed to have drunk a little more of the darkness. The clouds that had started white had turned dishwater grey. I won’t pretend to know if this was just the natural result of cheap paint and passing time, but I remember eventually, my mother asked if it might be okay to take the painting down. “It scares me, a little” she’d admitted. And I had to agree. What had started as a hopeful, beautiful thing, had faded into murkiness. It felt gross. She took it down and hid it in the back of a closet. When she moved out of the apartment, she hung the painting upstairs in her loft, and to this day, whenever I walk past it, the hair on my arms raise a salute to those dishwater grey clouds, and I can feel hollow eyes on the back of my neck when I turn away. The eyes stare hungrily, but the both of us know, they’ll never truly touch me again.
And now, I am here. Time passed by in a hurricane blur, and decades have passed since that broken little girl sat on the blanket at the side of the sea. I stand at the edge and stare into the green, foam frothing at my feet, and feel a strange community– I see God in the waves now. All of the broken little parts of me were scattered in the sand here so many years ago. It feels almost like visiting a grave, but– I don’t feel alone. I feel the sharks, and the sea lions, and the dreaded undertoads out there, and I am not afraid anymore.