The Devil’s Terrible Nearness
When I cannot sleep, I slide my mind along my body, envisioning rituals of beautification. The feet: honed pink and soft. The toenails: clipped, filed, cuticle-pushed, buffed, polished nude. The legs: shaved or waxed, then lubricated. The kitty: neatly trimmed. The happy trail: ripped from the root. The armpits: exfoliated — we can’t have red bumps, ladies — then shaved with the grain, like a man’s cheek. The face: rubbed with sodium bicarbonate and oil, steamed over lavender tea, masked with oatmeal and honey, clogged pores expressed, eyebrows edged, soothing calamine for spots. Most delicious to imagine, the scalp. Contemporary aesthetic science is riddled with limitations, not so the fantasy of preening. Temporarily remove your hair and let it float a foot away from your sun-starved skull just long enough to give the scalp a true sloughing, as an arm finally free of the cast so needs. Each fat, coarse, curly strand, before rejoining its eroded root, now to receive a shellacking of as-seen-on-TV Flex Seal™ Liquid Rubber Coating to make it look alive.
I am not the sort of modern woman to spend precious waking hours on the practical application of such arts. But anything to soothe my peculiar and pliant mind, anxious passenger on a conductor-less train towards sleep. From what, or whom, do I hide under the armor of such a very thin and rote conception of the feminine? The answer is simple indeed, it is my Aunti Deirdre, sitting as she liked to do in the deepest window on the fifth and topmost floor of her narrow citified house in some lesser part of Boston. Her red curls, so crisp and dry they are nearly pink, run from her face, reach always behind her, back, back into the past like the story-hungry snakes they are. She addresses her lolloping cigarette smoke to the limp houseplants out a-sunning on the fire escape, but her words are for me. I am nine, I am fifteen, I am thirty-five, I am fifty-one-and-a-half, always a girl and frightened.
“What kind of a story are yuh feeling tah-night?” Aunti asks from her liminal sill. Now dead, she has nothing to do all day but smoke her slims and bask in perpetual, dusty sunlight.
“A happy story, if you please.”
She giggles into hacking. She swallows her lit butt. She sighs an “eeeeesh-hawww” of deepest satisfaction. Story time.
“You picture them, four fourth-grade sweetie lumpkins. You can be any-a-one you like: the one what does the bad thing, the one who dreams it up, the one who runs home to mommy, the one in whose name the sin is sung.”
“Well I’d hardly like to be anyone except a girl of action, Aunti dearest.”
“That’s my daring darling, my plucky punkin, my lionhearted lassie, my bitchin babe, my girl! Yes, yes, that’s you!” Aunti D claps like a child, fingers splayed, and levitates an inch or two above her seat. “Now close your eyes. Op! They’re already closed. Well, close your platonic eyes as well. Don’t think you can fool me with that chicky chicanery. Let sleep that bossy dream wench who keeps giving herself pedicures. Listen very carefully, imagine very fully. Very verily, this is a happy story:
You and your three ladies are nine years old when you play the circle game daily. You pretend the cat is nine too. Wooly, white and matted, she stares blind through cloudy blue eyes. Cat nests beneath saggy rectory porch. She’ll come on out and brush herself along your calves if you stand tight in your circle with your eyes tighter shut.
You clench silly Cally’s hand on the left and lovely Lish’s on the right. Your plaid skirts mesh at the pleats, one indistinguishable from the other. Donna always stands across the circle. If you falter she will know and peek out her left eye same as you, a reverse wink.
“Sisters are you here with me?” asks Donna. “The sky may be brightest orange and the ground knee-deep in ash, but do not be afraid! We near the mountains’ feet.”
You were the one who put it to a vote. Donna won. Donna is now and ever shall be Chief Describer of the Other Place. Pity, you know so much more about it. The Other Place runs adjacent to your place, your listing Catholic school, your identical bungalows, your baleful example of a city.
“Here, in the Other Place, there is only one road, just a dry creek, leading into the mountains,” you say. “The way be treacherous — sinkholes with their ghosties lurking, lisping and luring us to weakest ground.”
If there is a town in the other place, it forever crouches on the horizon. The living cannot reach it.
“We will follow the creek unto its source in the Mountains of the Damned,” intones Donna. “Up there, in spired canyons, cowers the sinister incarnation of the Devil’s own intentions, Inus —”
“A-waitin to be killed!” You nearly shout.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” If you opened your eyes you would surely see Donna’s moon face drawn-in angry. “Your echoes are heard far and wide.”
“Kitty’s here in the Other Place with us.” Lish drops your hand. “Pretty kitty, fluffy, white. She’s not blind. She just sees how the other place overlaps with our place. She can take us to Inus. He’s here in our place.”
“Um, Lish —” Donna’s voice has lost its inner howl.
“No way, don’t be dumb.” Now Cally’s out as well. “Last week Donna talked to a wind spirit who said Inus was up in the Mountains of the Damned and I asked Father Jones about the Mountains of the Damned and he said they are very real and that God sends…”
“Shut up, Cally.” You fish blindly for Lish’s hand. You regain it. “Yes, I see the white cat. She’s walking up the creek road with her tail high.”
“Inus is here among us,” Lish insists. “I know he’s here. I’ve seen him.”
“Open your eyes.” Donna sounds frustrated.
“Lish, you’ve seen Inus?” you ask. What to make of Lish’s face, as studiously blank as if Sister Beverly has asked her to solve an equation in chalk?
“Yes. That’s what I’ve been saying and saying. I’ve seen him. He’s seen me.”
“How do you know?” Cally sounds like a much older girl when she says this.
“What does he look like?” In your visions he is both taller and narrower than any living man.
“Where?” asks Donna.
“I saw him last week, parked in my alley,” says Lish. “He has a blue car.”
“Well great, thanks so much.” Cally tosses your hand away. She scratches the base of her red braid.
“Lish, maybe you have not been paying very good attention.” Donna has the hilarious habit of punching her own hips when she’s mad. Like a flappy bird. “Inus is the Devil today working evil with his easy words and ways, hunting our hearts and marauding our minds, like Father Jones talks about. I don’t really think —”
“Donna, would you let Lish talk for even two seconds?” You tap Donna’s chest, hard. It feels wonderful. “If Inus stalks our hearts and minds then Lish is right, he could cross over from the Other Place into our place. Jesus does that all the time. Jesus works God’s miracles in our place and Inus works their opposite on the Devil’s behalf.”
This fight might have gone on a long time, both you and Donna being experts on the Devil’s Terrible Nearness. But Lish’s hand is so wet and teeny in yours. You want to hold her like a mommy would, hug her between bosoms for days, because she hasn’t been talking and she hasn’t been eating and her eyes have been on the Other Place, making her trip and run into things like a dumb dumb. But there’s no hugging allowed at school, so you scoop up the white cat and foist it upon her.
“Tell us,” you say.
“He’s taller than Father Jones, but much skinnier. He has almost-white hair, you can see his scalp through it. He’s not very old, only his teeth are very, very old, like he stole them from a dead man. He has a blue car.”
“But he’s Inus?”
Lish buries her face in the cat. The creature looks to speak from her arms like a tufted oracle. Instinctively, you all tighten your circle.
“On a no-dinner night last week. Momma was at the restaurant and Dad and Niki were out. I found these quarters in Dad’s Lazy Boy so I go to the corner store to get some Laffy Taffy because my stomach hurt.”
You all nod sagely.
“Anyway, there’s this blue car parked in the alley, all blocking the sidewalk. Like a light blue car how everyone says a robin’s egg… anyway, I was just walking around and then he reached out the window and grabbed my arm.”
“Not hard, just to get my attention. He was only a few years older than Niki. A grownup, though. And he had that white hair. He said, ‘Sorry, but do you know the way to the park.’ I was gunna say, ‘Which park, Mister? Because there’s the small park by the hospital with all the goose poop in it and there’s the big park down by the blind kids’ school,’ but he had his … pink thing in his other hand. And I saw it and I just got scared, I said, ‘I don’t know, sorry,’ a bunch of times.”
“Lish, what do you mean his thing?” Pretend you are baffled.
“His disgusting dick,” says Donna and she looks right at you.
“Then what happened?”
You are walking home from school along the creek, thinking about the circle game, when you hear a cat screaming from the other side of the water. It’s easy to cross there, even in saddle shoes, a cottonwood fell shore to shore in the last flood.
The opposite bank is more Lish’s neighborhood, where the houses squat on the ground like they have no foundations. Everyone parks a car in their yard. You scrabble up behind a Victorian that veers toward the creek. You’ve been there before, an Easter party last year, and you saw a homeless man bathing shirtless in the river. You tried to gift him chocolate eggs by rolling them down the hill. He put a finger over his lips to say, “Our secret.”
The cat yowls again from up a red gravel alley.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” you say. Fingers to brow, to sternum, to shoulder, and shoulder. “Though I walk through the valley —”
You’re not twenty feet down the alley when you spy the tail of a boxy, egg-blue car poking from the weeds.
The cat tugs from a back tire. You can’t make out how she’s caught from so far away, but she cries and she cries and she moves less and less. You are not shaking. You memorize the cat. White cat. Are her eyes blue-blind?
You run to the river. You rehearse the phrases of your favorite, most beautiful Spanish teacher, Sister Lacey, who says “Mary knows no English.”
“Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores. Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores. Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros.”
And when she’d brought you safely across the water, “Madre de la gracia, Madre llena de santa alegría. Madre de la gracia, Madre llena de santa alegría. Madre de la gracia, Madre llena de santa alegría. Madre, Madre, Madre.”
Bend your heads low lassies, curtains of hair.
“Close your eyes,” says Donna.
You do, but not before noticing how white are your hands round Lish and Cally’s. “I know where Inus is.”
“I don’t want to play anymore,” says Cally. “You don’t really know where Inus lives. Inus isn’t real.”
“Calista! You are lacking in faith.” Donna, chief scolder.
You could not care less whether Cally stays and plays or runs on home to mommy. “I know where his house is. He tortures cats there. I prayed about this. Mother Mary will protect us. We can’t get hurt if we go there. Only Inus can get hurt.”
“It’s like Father Jones says, we are angels of light,” says Lish.
So-sweet Lish. How the black, black hair at the nape of her neck did curl.
In the neighborhoods by the river where you and your ladies do live, the mommas care how long it takes their babies to get home from school. But the mommas also work. They know you’ve got home when you call their shift manager, Chuck or Paul or Rudy, who passes the word along, because your mommas are always busy.
On the bad afternoon, the sky is grey and the light is green and you all lie to your mommas from the payphone at the 7-11 by the river. Except Cally, who goes straight home.
Then you and Donna forge the way up the creek bed with Lish trailing behind, looking closely at the water.
“We need weapons,” says Donna.
“I have a knife.”
You both stop walking to look at Lish’s knife. She stole it from her brother Niki’s room. The knife has a hard-to-push release button and a lot of black gunk on the tip. Donna uses it to sharpen three sticks, each a few feet long and thin enough to wrap your small fists around.
Meanwhile, Lish weaves a wreath of forget-me-nots. She crowns you with it.
You slink down the alley. The car has vanished, the cat has not.
“Stop. Kneel.” You plant your stick in the dirt by the crushed cat corpse. “Your cat body is dead, but your spirit is with the cat god.”
“We need to bury her,” says Lish.
You unearth a broken trowel from Inus’s junky yard. You were unafraid to look there. You pick the middle of his parking spot on purpose, so he’ll stumble on the grave. You dig the hole while Lish and Donna keep a keen eye at each end of the alley. There is nothing like a cross around, only a long shard of mirror to mark the head. You leave Lish’s flowers, she does not even have to ask.
That small mound in the occluding dark. The blocks-off shouts of all the daddies, home from work. Cumbia out a parked car. The kick of a lawn mower.
When you hear the hiss of a car turning onto gravel you are not surprised. You snag your stick and fold yourself into the weeds to watch.
Through his cracked windshield Inus looks as Lish described — bleached, wet, thin. This is the man who shows a nine-year old girl his penis while asking for directions to the park.
He stops the car in the alley and gets out to kneel by the grave. As if he knew it would be there. The air smells heavy. He picks up Lish’s circle of flowers and sniffs them. You see Donna flicker across the taillights. You are not afraid. You step out of the brush like coming up to bat in softball. His head, just at tee-height.
“Madre de Dios, ruega por los pecadores.”
It would not have been so serious if he had not caught you in the mirror, if he had not looked back at you over his shoulder. The quick point of the stick catches in his eye and sticks. You trip forward. Mother, it feels like a fall. The stick meets no resistance, just goes back and back.
It rains that night. It rains on the mountain scars where the old mines have been tapped out. It rains in the canyons where the trees have all been eaten by fire. Scorched earth resists much. Everyone and everything must run across it. The gutters pool. The streets fill. The water creeps up the lawns and slips into the kitchens of the low houses. The water traps your mother at the restaurant and you spend the night in the corner of the attic. You suck your thumb with your face pressed against the rafters.
The run home soaked you to the bone. At the bend in the swelling creek Lish and Donna ran off the other way. Nobody said a word. Nobody looked in your eyes.
You lay in the attic all night waiting for the maelstrom to erase your brain. You say your rosary, once, twice, a hundred times.
In the morning the rain dwindles but everyone can see that their lights don’t turn on and their phones don’t call and their cars have all drowned.
Your mother arrives home by noon. She just walks through the water.
“Oh my little kitten,” she says, when she finds you pushing mud around the living room with a broom.
You hear that many people died in the flood. A woman asleep on a park bench had tied her belongings to herself and when the waters receded there she lay, unmoved and unmoving. Cars strewn around her, pieces of road and tree and house. The Victorian fell into the river and cracked like an egg. A dead man is found clutching a crumpled cat. A tree branch pierces his eye right through to his damp brain.
Two little girls are fished from the torrent a long way down stream. Both survive, though they’ll never speak again. Folk suspect the trauma of near drowning has a psychosomatic effect on their vocal cords. Nobody pays to find out. They struck their small skulls so, so many times.
Father Jones transfers them to the school for the blind, the deaf, the mute. You hear they keep mostly together, mostly to themselves. You do sneak over, wrap your fingers round the wrought iron fence and watch them play in the wide and rolling parkland outside their new school. You only do this once. Donna sprints down the field and Lish runs after, full tilt. Lish’s hand brushes her back and Donna freezes so hard she falls right over. Lish laughs and laughs.
Piss, shit and cunt-faced calumny!
You can see I’ve gone and fucked it up, again.
She always finds a way in, my sweet demonian Deirdre. The failure, a careful reader knows already, was in the hands. Most basic oversight, to fashion such impregnable prettiness only to forget the hands that labor. Ack. Look now how they’ve aged faster than the rest of me, freckle-mottled and wrinkle-rippled. Ugly hands that did done do. River mud and gravel dust prying up the nails. Long-lodged splinters a-pearling in the palms.
Tessa Cheek is an MFA candidate and Teaching Fellow at Hollins University. She served as the 2014-2015 Alice Maxine Bowie Fiction Fellow at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado, where she also worked as a reporter for The Colorado Independent. Tessa currently lives with her partner in an old mill in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her stories, essays and experiments can be found in print and online through her website, tessacheek.com. Follow her @tessacheek.