“Satan and his demons are always there,” my mother said. “They look for any opening to prey upon us.” She threw out my brother’s Judas Priest tapes, his Metallica t-shirts, and then ripped a King Diamond poster off his bedroom wall.
“I won’t have this in here. As for me and my house, we shall serve Jehovah.”
She shredded the poster until all I could make out was one of King Diamond’s eyes, which was lined in black, the pupil large, wide. It stared at me from its open grave on our shitty green carpet.
By then, my brother had already slammed the door and left the house.
None of my mother’s zeal mattered because even after the tapes, t-shirts, and posters were gone, my brother saw a woman in white in his bedroom. She told him to kill himself, and he tried to do this once in the woods with a .22 rifle but did not complete. Shortly after, he moved out. Then my sister and I were alone in the house with our mother and our father, who did not go to the meetings with us, who, bound by the dual duties of marriage and parenthood, built cars at a Ford plant all day and drank Miller Lite to drown out all that haunted him at night.
When my father was working or sleeping, my mother told us stories. She described in detail the Great Tribulation, a time when the Witnesses would be persecuted before Armageddon. Then she told us about the end of the world. Both the Great Tribulation and Armageddon were imminent, she said, and everyone who didn’t believe in Jehovah would die.
She also said we should never eat red Smarties because they were made from beetles’ blood. She told us we could not listen to Annie Lennox, specifically the song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” because demons gave Lennox the lyrics. She told us about demons talking through television sets. She explained the dangers of Ouija boards and engaging with spirits. She told us how members of the occult disemboweled animals—squirrels, rabbits, deer.
I shuddered at her lessons. I imagined a demon’s breathy voice every time I turned on the TV. I developed an acute fear of my father and brother dying at Armageddon. With each trepid footfall into the woods behind our house, I watched for dead animals. I was frightened by the large stands of pine trees, by how their darkness loomed, their quietness the inverse of a chapel. I feared the attic room connected to my bedroom, the rodents that scratched the walls of our farmhouse at night. I dreaded the reappearance of the woman in white who would undoubtedly haunt my sister and me as our parents slept.
Once, too afraid to go downstairs to the bathroom in the night, I simply pissed the bed and soaked it up with a blanket my grandmother had knitted.
But a particular story my mother told haunted me long after all the others. She told it to my sister and me as we lay in our twin beds, a weak lamp between us lighting the white walls. My mother had a tick—every so often she would shake her head just slightly, as though a hair had gone astray and needed to be righted. Before starting the story, she shook her head in this way. Then she took off her glasses and placed them in her lap. She cleared her throat, which always seemed to be plagued with some type of congestion, and the story began like this:
“A young girl, around you girls’ age, from a congregation in California woke up one morning with red marks on her arms. They were scattered up and down her arms, and the girl said she had no idea what happened. Her parents thought they were bug bites, so they washed her arms and put calamine lotion on the marks, even though the girl said they didn’t itch. The next night was fine, and everyone assumed that a spider or some other insect had gotten into the house and that was that.
But a few nights later, the girl woke up to the marks on her arms and her legs. This time they were deeper and even worse. Her body looked like it was covered in a different language—red here, red there, the lines connected in horrible shapes. She was crying and crying and wouldn’t stop.
“What is wrong with you, honey?” the mother asked.
“What happened?” the father said.
The girl didn’t say a word—nothing at all. It was as if something had taken her voice.
The parents slept in her room that night—the mother stirring at the slightest sound, the father nodding in and out of sleep in a rocking chair.
But nothing happened.
The girl’s wounds healed. She started talking again, and the family went back to normal.
One day when they were out in service—both parents were full-time pioneers—in a nice neighborhood with tree-lined streets, two car garages, and big houses, a young man answered the door. He was clean cut and well-dressed, like he might be a businessman. When he saw the girl at the door, his face went white and he started yelling.
“What is she doing here?” he said. “Why would you bring her to my house?”
“We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the mother said. “This is our daughter.”
“You can’t see it?” he said. “You can’t see the marks on her?”
That’s when they noticed their daughter’s palms. The insides of her hands were marked with crescents, as though she had dug her fingernails in. The crescents were bleeding, and as the adults watched, a single drop of blood fell on the white concrete step of the man’s house. She looked up at them, in awe of her own blood. Then she opened her mouth to cry, but no sound came out.
“Get her out of here!” he yelled, and then he slammed the door hard enough that one of the numbers on his house fell off. It was a six.
Back in the car, her parents tended to her wounds with wet naps.
“Does it hurt?” they asked.
“Are you OK?” they asked.
“Why did you do this?” they asked.
She shook her head. Her voice was gone again.
Her parents’ frustration grew; they were scared and angry. They had been living their lives according to the Bible; they were doing Jehovah’s will. They had even simplified their lives in order to spend more time in the Field Ministry. So why was this happening? Perhaps it was a test. Perhaps Jehovah was testing their faith. They prayed that night, deciding to leave everything in His hands.
“Tell Jehovah everything,” they told the girl. “Lay all your burdens on him. He will help and protect you.”
After this, they went to bed, exhausted.
The house was quiet. They lived on a busy road, but even the busy road was quiet. There were no crickets chirping, no owls or whippoorwills calling. The parents slept deeply.
But then, in the middle of the night, when the parents were in the deepest part of their dreams, the girl began to scream.
“Mom! Mom!” she shrieked. “Dad! Dad!”
The parents ran to her room, first the mother and then the father. When the mother switched on the light, the girl was sitting straight up in bed, blood running down her neck and her arms. But nothing in the room was amiss; in fact, the sheets were barely rumpled. A blanket at the foot of the bed was still in place undisturbed. The father surveyed the room, looking beneath the bed and in the closet.
There was nothing.
“Tell me, tell Mommy what happened,” the mother said. She had gathered tissues and the garbage can and was soaking up blood from the small wounds that seemed to be everywhere.
The girl’s sobs racked her body.
The father went to the other side of the bed and helped tend to her wounds. As they worked together, they noticed something: each of her small forearms had three sets of six wounds from wrist to elbow.
The parents looked at each other across the girl’s body.
“Tell me what happened,” the mother said, desperate.
“You have to tell us what happened,” the father said.
But the girl just continued crying.
“Let’s pray,” the father said.
And so amidst the girl’s cries, the father prayed.
“Dear Jehovah, you are a wonderful and merciful God. We thank you for everything you have given us – this house, our beautiful daughter, the opportunity to serve you. Please, we ask you to help us now. Help heal our daughter’s body and her mind. Help her tell us what happened so that we may stop this harm from ever happening to her again. Please, Jehovah, please help us in our time of need. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.”
Finally, after the prayer, the girl’s sobs began to wane.
“Can you tell us now?” the mother said.
“Yes, can you tell us now?” the father said.
The girl raised her arm slowly, straight out in front of her.
With their eyes, the parents followed the girl’s arm from shoulder to wrist to pointed finger, indicating the bedroom window.
“Did someone come in the window?” the mother asked.
“An animal?” the father asked.
But the girl shook her head. She leaned her body forward, pointing not at the glass itself, but at what hung on each side of it – six pieces of cloth in all, two on each window.
“Honey, I don’t understand,” the mother said. “Please, you have to talk to us. You have to help us understand the what happened.”
“It’s them,” she whispered. “They are doing it to me.”
“Them?” the father said. “Who are you talking about?”
“Them,” the girl said, more loudly this time. “It’s THEM!” she yelled. “Don’t you see THEM?”
The mother and father exchanged looks across the daughter’s head. The fabric was white and printed with characters from The Smurfs—Gargamel, Azrael, Papa Smurf, and the others, too.
“At night they move. They come right off the curtains. They come right into my bed. And they hurt me. They bite me and scratch me. See—,” she lifted up her shirt to show her parents a thick red scratch on her stomach, “Azrael.” And then she put her head back, revealing a straight red line across her windpipe. “Gargamel.”
A chill ran through the parents’ bodies.
“They want me. They want to take me with them. But I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go with them!” the girl said.
The parents looked at one another over the girl’s head again, unbelieving.
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” the father asked.
“Honey, why?” the mother said.
“Because…” She looked her parents in the eye—first the mother and then the father. “Because…because they said if I told, they’d kill you first.”
“I don’t think—” the father started.
But then the mother hit him on the shoulder.
“Look,” she said.
And sure enough, one of the curtains had started to move. It was just a little movement—just one small twitch at the hem, like wind moving through the Smurf’s village. But then the whispers started, growing louder and louder until chattering filled up the whole room.
“Burn them!” the mother screamed. “Burn them now!”
She opened the windows, pushing out the screens. The father grabbed a lighter and lit the curtains before dropping them out the window and onto the lawn below.
Screams emanated from the fabric loudly enough so that the neighbors’ lights flickered on. The parents stood and watched the curtains burn until nothing remained. Then they held hands and prayed for Jehovah’s protection over the ash.
After that, they never watched The Smurfs again; they never even said the name. And they thanked Jehovah for showing them how crafty Satan is, how he can use things that seem innocent—even cartoons—to try to pull us away from Him. We always have to be on guard, girls. Do you understand?”
My sister and I nodded slowly, the current of the story running through our bodies.
She pulled the blankets up so that only our heads were above the stiff, scratchy fabric. Then she went around each of us, smoothing our blankets down and making sure the sheets were tucked in tightly enough so that we could barely move.
“All right, girls, goodnight,” she said. Her back was already towards us; I remember clearly her silhouette in the doorway.
“Can you leave the hallway light on?” I asked.
“That wastes electricity. You don’t want your father to be mad, do you?” she said. She was already walking away, towards where my father would soon sit smoking Camels and drinking Miller Lite, trying to forget.
My sister and I stayed silent until we were sure she was completely downstairs.
“You don’t have anything with Smurfs on it, do you?” my sister asked.
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
“I had a sticker once from someone at school, but I threw it away.”
“Good,” I said.
Then we lay there listening to each other breathe until finally, we fell asleep, one and then the other. It wouldn’t last long, of course. As always, I’d wake up in the night to some noise, real or dreamed, and my heart would pound. Sometimes I’d crawl in next to my sister who had less fear than I did. Begrudgingly, she’d share her bed.
My sister and I moved out of our parents’ house and into an apartment as soon as I was 18. At night we sat together as I drank in front of the television set, sometimes too much and sometimes, unfortunately, not enough. It was how I slept. It was the only way I could sleep. Soon we were both disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for doing things teenagers do—having sex with our boyfriends, partying. People we had known all our lives shunned us. Our mother only interacted with us when we went home to see our father. On those visits, she forced a smile and spoke in clipped sentences, making little eye contact as she busied herself with an endless list of small tasks, avoiding us at every turn.
Later that year, my father took sick and died, and I became acutely ill with grief. I turned to my mother, my sister too sad to comfort me, thinking that since we both held my father while his heart stopped beating, a seismic shift would have occurred. But in the late winter after my father’s death, I understood real ghosts and demons. The horror happened when my mother, newly widowed but wholly pious, shunned me so completely that she became the apparition I had always feared.
Darci Schummer is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press) and the forthcoming novel The Ballad of Two Sisters (Unsolicited Press). Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Folio, Jet Fuel Review, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, MAYDAY, and Heavy Feather Review, among other places. Her work has been nominated both for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College where she also serves as faculty editor of The Thunderbird Review.