At 3am on a clammy mid-August morning, I wash dishes because I cannot sleep. My skin vibrates. Every nerve, drawn out and exposed, prickles.
That evening, my mother had fallen next to the coffee table in the living room. For a desolate moment, she was laid out flat, facedown, motionless. I looked at her body. The room became silent and airless. My father crumpled in anticipatory grief. He spoke in a pleading whisper:
“Please, no. Please, no.”
My parents had been staying at my home in Montclair, New Jersey. Now in their late-70s, the six-hour flight from England, the stairs in my house, the mid-summer heat, had become onerous. This might be one of their last visits.
My mother had got up. Said she’d tripped over something. Her arm was bruised, but she was otherwise okay. It was my father’s voice that had kept me awake. His shrinking away. His stricken face. The pause before the scream, the quiet counting between lightning and thunder.
A plate slips between my fingers. I catch it before it breaks on the enamel sink. Glance in the kitchen window at my reflection and at the dark behind me. Say out loud:
“There is a demon in my house.”
At first, it lived in my car, though at the time I didn’t notice. It hadn’t taken shape yet. In late Spring that year, I had been rear-ended while stuck in traffic on Communipaw Avenue in Jersey City. The police officer who came to the scene told me that the accident wasn’t my fault, that my insurance would pay, that everything would be fine. When I pushed my car into “drive,” before I turned to look in the side mirror, I heard an almost imperceptible hiss. Felt a soft exhale against the tops of my cheeks, across the bridge of my nose, over the surface of my eyes.
I became a hyper-vigilant driver. Paused too long at intersections, hit my horn too much. Started at cars that could have backed into me from parking spots or sideswiped me from the next lane. Listened for knocks from the engine; wondered what clung to the chassis, pulling at the axels, the exhaust pipe. I glanced in the rearview mirror too often, checked nothing was behind me, waiting, ready to dig its fingernails into my neck.
I place each clean knife and fork gently into the cutlery drawer. That perfect blue-sky day on the fourth of July weekend had been a façade, I realize, a placating cover.
We had taken a road-trip to a taekwondo tournament in Detroit. My husband drove, my daughter sat in the back surrounded by comic books and donut crumbs. For a moment, my right hand had relaxed on the passenger-door handle.
This second accident had begun slowly: Traffic came to a standstill. There was a fender-bender ahead. Our car was hemmed in between two concrete jersey barriers. Then, the sounds accelerated, concertinaed into each other: steel plates crunching, brake disks compressing, plastic and wires ripping; rubber against asphalt, metal across concrete. Yells, screams, voices quivered or were shocked into steadiness:
Oh my God.
Mummy, are you okay?
The images were out-of-sync with the noise: An overloaded quarry truck plowing into a line of stationary cars. A rusty blue minivan crushed into a tangle of metal and glass. A woman’s hand holding a cellphone aloft, the body of her convertible BMW now coiled metal around her seat. The blur of vehicles grinding into the side of our car. A woman walking from the road ahead, mini bottles of water in each hand. Another woman looking for her glasses. Police, taking our names, starting to photograph, to measure. Ambulances, a helicopter. Dried flecks of someone else’s blood on the top of my husband’s right cheek.
We got a rental car and drove to a hotel. Laid down on the beds. My eyes were pinned open. Stretched lids, red veins, salt stinging dried cornea. Pressure at my temples; a metal band weight around my forehead. I am forced to watch.
Stitched together images and sounds unspooled in a hollow, muttering, chuckling clatter: My daughter is trapped in a mangled car seat. Her face bruised, her lips blue. Blood at the edge of her ear. Her chin lolls against her shoulder-blade. I hear a voice that sounds like my voice, faraway, then suddenly close, then inside:
This is what she would have looked like. There would have been nothing you could have done.
In the dark, in the quiet, the pictures supplant the silhouette of my daughter’s body, sleeping safely in the bed next to mine.
When I was a girl, my mother told me I was “fey.” She meant that I was attuned to sensations and emotions—pain, joy, anger, fear, loneliness, despair—that most people had yet to see or feel. Fey-ness was a second sight, but it was amorphous, without focus. It slid around me: thick, clinging, shapeless.
To be fey can mean to presage death. To presage is not to predict. It is to imbibe death’s vibrations, to feel them circulate through your blood, germinate under the surface of your skin. When I was in college, for instance, I knew that I should wait in the common room for the payphone to ring, knew before I answered it that it was my mother, knew before she spoke that she was going to tell me that my grandmother had died in her sleep. Each realization was a confirmation, like I was taking a step on a path I had walked down many times but had not returned to in forever.
A year before the first car accident, in my bedroom upstairs, I had heard my friend’s last breath. It was a deep sigh, a single note descending to an abrupt stop, so clear and present that I turned from the laundry I was folding and looked over my shoulder to see who was standing behind me. The next day I discovered that my friend had suddenly died; that the sigh had been the sound she had made at her last moment.
In Scotland, where my mother’s parents grew up, fey means someone who is born doomed. Always anticipating, preparing for, their fate. This fey-ness feels like being in a staring contest with your brother. Eyes burning, tears streaming, still you refuse to blink. Or, like when you squeeze your car-key into the middle of your palm before you leave an office building and walk to the parking garage. Or when you are away from home and you imagine how your fingers check and recheck door locks, open and close the oven door, click light switches on and off. Death dances across your limbs, shapes your gestures, draws attention to itself, makes you contend with its inevitability.
My mother recognized this quality in me because she had seen it in her own mother. “You have your grandmother’s eyes,” she would say.
My grandmother often took to her bed. Refused to see people, refused to talk. The world outside her room seemed to disturb her, to set her on edge. Perhaps she felt safer with the covers pulled up to her chin, the bedside lamp turned off. The doctor said she’d had a “nervous breakdown.” Prescribed valium.
Around the time of my first car accident, I was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid. The condition had caused heart palpitations, hot flashes, anxiety. It attacked the muscles behind my eyes, pushed my eyeballs out beyond the lids so that I looked constantly startled, permanently afraid. A rash appeared and disappeared around my body in red palm-shaped patches, marked my skin from the inside. Temporarily, though, sporadically. Just enough to rattle me.
I had to learn how to prevent what was inside from taking shape, from gaining solid edges, from activating its senses. I would lie on my bed, in the half-light. Focus on my skin’s surface, my organs’ rhythms, my synapse connections. Demarcate my body like the outline of a murder. Exorcise myself.
Recognizing the demon’s presence in my house brings relief—a cool wash of air. I have been released from the confinement of an endless car journey and now I sit on a beach on a calm fall day, watch the waves, press my fingertips into cold sand.
I tell a co-worker about the demon, and she makes me stand still in front of her. She mimes snipping movements with her fingers, circles her arms around my head and shoulders as she cuts at imaginary strings that she says surround me; bind me to dangerous forces.
My neighbor brings sage for smudging from a voodoo shop in New Orleans meant for authentic practitioners, not tourists. I walk through my house, directing smoke trails through open windows, collecting ash in an iridescent half-shell.
My hairdresser tells me that in Japan it is a Shinto custom to place saucers of salt at the corners of your home. The salt absorbs evil spirits, she says. I pour expensive Malden salt crystals onto four lilac plastic saucers. Bury each one in the ground cover foliage around my house.
“We need an exorcist,” my husband says. “Not a hippy lady, a real bruja.”
At a local crystal shop, I buy two polished black obsidian stones that are supposed to absorb negative, disruptive energy. I place the smaller one in the glove compartment of my car. The larger one on the sash of the kitchen window next to a Christmas ornament left by the previous owner of our house who had died of cancer. An angel painted with her name—Eliza. This talisman, together with the obsidian, will offer some protection.
The demon makes itself small, almost invisible. It hides inside me, coiled, fragile, ravenous. It stays still and quiet for weeks, months, until I forget. Then, it starts to peck and pinch. My muscles tighten, anticipate its sudden appearance—from the back seat of my car, at the end of my bed in the middle of the night, or its hand grabbing at ankles from underneath the living room coffee table. I can’t sit still. I pull at my hair, tap my fingers, rub at my eyes. Words dance around the page when I try to read. The TV volume turns up and down; muffles, amplifies voices. The safest place to be is in my bedroom, curled up in a ball.
Put the light out.
Try to breathe.
Count in squares: 1. 2. 3. 4.
Name the objects around me, the sounds.
Describe how the sheets feel on the backs of my legs.
Tell myself I am safe.
Shout in the demon’s face:
I can defeat you. I can make you disappear.
This time the demon is stronger. It unfurls itself across my bed so that there is only a small corner left for me to crouch into. It pushes my face into the pillow.
Its voice is an unyielding, languid, inhale. It would be easier if I stopped struggling. Followed the sound. Let the demon draw me in until I am exhausted, emptied.
The demon sucks out my eyes and replaces them with my grandmother’s. It wants me to see what she saw, feel what she felt, submit like she did. It pulls breath from my lungs. Swallows.
This time is not like all the other times. This time you are going to die.
Jacqueline Ellis is a writer and professor of women's and gender studies. Her most recent work has appeared in Porridge Magazine, Hinterland Magazine and Bending Genres. Originally from England, she lives in Montclair, New Jersey. Twitter: @jelliswgst