The Devil’s in Her Mind

“The Devil’s in Her Mind” was published in Rhubarb, Issue 34,
where it won the Taboo Literary Contest in the nonfiction category.

When I am two years old, everything goes to hell.

My 16-year-old sister travels to Hawaii to vacation with a friend’s wealthy family. When it is time to leave the island, she disappears. At first, my sister lies about her age and gets a job as a waitress. When the restaurant manager finds out that she’s a minor, he fires her and she becomes a prostitute.

No one asks why she’d rather be a prostitute than come home.

This same year my father is in a car accident that nearly kills him. He never works again, but we survive. When my father is out of the wheelchair and able to walk, he becomes my full-time caregiver while my mother cleans toilets and my brother, who has dropped out of high school to help the family, cleans windows and carpets.

***

When I am five years old, my parents celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. My sister hires a singing telegram company to perform for the celebration. A big, hairy ape arrives and begins to sing my sister’s message. It is a personalized version of the old camp favourite “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” by Allen Sherman. The last verse the ape sings is “Muddah, Faddah, here I am, I am your dauddah!” With a flourish the ape removes its mask and there stands my sister.

My sister is sober and has given up her trade. She has begun seeing a therapist. She has come home to make amends and to confront our father. She tells the family that my father molested her as a child.

No one believes her. After all, my father is an elder at the nearby Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My mother tells me, “Your sister is very sick. A demon has possessed her mind and has forced her to tell terrible lies about your father.”

“It’s simply the only explanation,” she says.

My sister goes back to Hawaii and back to drinking and to hooking.

No one asks about me. No one wonders if I am safe.

***

When I am twelve, I tell my mom about the link between Cammie and me. I think it’s something cool, something so remarkably special about our friendship. I tell Mom how Cammie and I just know what the other is thinking, probably ‘cause we are best friends. I tell her how we’ve focused on it, and somehow—isn’t it amazing!—we can just concentrate and think about the other one and send a message—like a telephone, without a telephone!—and the other will just know.

Mom gets scared. She says that it’s the Devil’s work and that Satan is the most deceitful trickster of all. She warns that Cammie and I must stop this immediately and fight to keep our minds clear because, surely, the devil is behind this unnatural ability. It’s simply the only explanation.

During the summers before I tell Mom about the invisible telephone, I spent the night at Cammie’s house all the time, which was my favourite because even though her mom had recently become a Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rules were a little lax. Cammie was even allowed to have a poster of the New Kids on the Block on the back of her door. Her mom didn’t think it was idolatry.  

After Mom tells us to keep the Devil out of our minds, she still allows sleepovers, but they are monitored, controlled. This happens at the worst of times for Cammie because her mom has recently remarried and Cammie hates her new step-dad. I can’t understand why she hates him so much; he seems OK to me. We even wrestled once. No one thinks it’s weird that Cammie’s new step-dad likes to wrestle with me.

Eventually, Cammie can’t stand living with her step-dad anymore and she moves away to live with her real dad.

We never play invisible telephone again. I think Mom is relieved.

***

When I am fifteen, I leave our small town of Idyllwild, California, my parents, and my good friend Khadijah, to go to live with my sister in Kihei, Hawaii. I have become a shoplifter and a liar and have been causing my parents all sorts of trouble. I have been caught sneaking out of the house to have sex with boys and I’ve been kicked out of the church.

I tell my sister that if I don’t get out of the house soon, I am going to find myself a sugar daddy and run away.

“I don’t care if I have to have sex with an older man,” I tell her. “Anything is better than living here.”

My sister tells my parents that if they don’t let me live with her then I’ll run away, just like she did. They finally agree and I fly to Maui.

Strange things happen while I am there—things with my mind—but I keep it a secret. I don’t want people to think that I’m crazy, or worse. But sometimes it comes out. Like the day I play a game of cards with Chris, my new boyfriend, and Lahela, his sister. When we finish, Lahela tries to do a magic card trick. She shuffles the deck and asks me to pick a card. I pick one and she tells me to guess the number or face on the card. I guess correctly and she yells, “You saw the card!”

Lahela is careful to hide the second card. I empty my mind and then I guess the first thing to pop up. I guess correctly. Chris and Lahela squint their eyes at me, sure that I am cheating, even if they can’t tell how. Together they hide the third card. Again, I guess correctly. They know I didn’t cheat that time.

We play this guessing game until I have guessed twenty-one cards correctly, consecutively, and with witnesses. By twenty-one, there is so much pressure, we all feel about to explode and I start to make mistakes, and then I quit.

“How did you do that?!” Lahela asks.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

“That’s amazing,” Chris says.

Then I think about the invisible telephone and how my mother said that it was the Devil trying to take over my mind.

But they don’t think it’s the Devil. They think I’m special.

***

When I live with my sister, sometimes she is sober and sometimes she takes her kids to the babysitter’s house and disappears for a few days or a week. One of these times, I invite my friend Maile and her boyfriend over and while we’re hanging out, the phone rings from the living room.

As soon as I hear the phone, I know it’s my sister-in-law Jody and I know that she is going to tell me something I don’t want to hear.

Because I was excommunicated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for fornication, no one from my family calls to talk to me in Hawaii. I have been ostracized. So I know there is absolutely no reason for Jody to call me. But somehow, I just know, and I stare at the phone and I count the rings and I tell myself that if it rings ten times I will pick it up, even as I silently will the phone to go quiet.

After the tenth ring, I pick up.

“Sierra?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“It’s Jody.”

Everything slows down and I hold my breath.

“Something horrible has happened. You remember your friend, Khadijah? I’m so sorry to tell you, but she was killed. Her father set the home with explosives and trapped her and her mother inside and they died in the bomb.”

It sounds absurd.

I can’t remember the rest of the conversation. I can’t think. Maile and her boyfriend walk up to me and I tell them what happened. Their voices sound thick and drawn out. Maile’s boyfriend says, “She’s in shock.”

***

A decade passes and I try not to think about Khadijah, but when I am twenty-seven, an old elementary school friend finds me on Facebook and it comes up. He tells me that it wasn’t a bomb, but a fire. He tells me the father trapped them in the home and set it ablaze.

Death by fire is one of my greatest fears and so I try not to think about it. I try not to think about Khadijah.

More years pass and after my father tells the Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus came to him in a vision and told him of errors in their doctrine and after he leaves to start his own church and after he leaves my mother and a marriage of forty years, he still claims that she does not have the religious right to divorce him. And because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that it takes the word of at least two women to counter the word of one man if he is an elder, even one that has turned his back on his congregation, both my sister and I must write to the church authorities and swear that our father abused us. Adultery is the only grounds for divorce in the church. After we send our letters, the elders allow my mother to divorce my father.

During all this time, no one ever says that the Devil possessed my father. Everyone says that it was the prescription drugs he’d become addicted to ever since the accident.

Then my brother says, “Well, you know that the accident happened because he was driving drunk, right?”

No, I did not know, but of course, yes, that could be it too.

After the letters and the divorce, the family realizes how wrong they were. No one thinks the Devil made my sister say anything. Not anymore.

They believe her only because they believe me. I am not the crazy one. I am not the drunk, the drug addict, the prostitute.

When my sister commits suicide, they can barely look me in the eyes at her funeral. When they look at me, I can tell they are thinking about the letters, about what happened, about how my sister tried to tell the truth so many years ago, but they called her a liar and a woman possessed. When they tell me, “We’re so sorry, Sierra,” I know what they are truly sorry for.

***

On the four-year anniversary of my sister’s death, I start thinking about Khadijah again. I start thinking about her and her father, and I can’t stop.

I contact the offices of the Idyllwild Town Crier and they send me scanned copies of the articles they published about the murders. I find out that it wasn’t a bomb and it wasn’t exactly a fire. I find out that Khadijah came home from school one day to find her father in their home. Her mother had a restraining order against him, but there he stood, making Molotov cocktails.

He beat her to death.

When Khadijah’s mother came home a short while later, he struck her down with an axe. Then he set the fire, walked into the woods, and shot himself.

I look at the newspaper article and see a picture of Khadijah. She is smiling and her thick dark hair is pulled over to the left, partially covering the upper-most corner of her face. I remember then that corner of her face, when—curled up on the couch in my bedroom—she pulled back her beautiful mane and showed me the three fresh lacerations coming down from her scalp, like the mark of a claw. She told me about how, in a rage, her father had grabbed the first thing he’d seen—a child’s plastic toy rake—and struck her with it across her head and face, leaving behind a three-pronged wound.

When I think about this and about how I told no one because Khadijah had sworn me to secrecy, I’m suddenly filled with an immense pool of some sort of emotion that I can’t identify. It is regret and sadness and a sweet nostalgia—all oddly removed, as if feeling it through water or hearing it on the other side of a wall. Maybe it is a second shock.

I can’t remember if Khadijah told me what had made her father so angry. I don’t know why he did it. I wonder if he had seen the Devil inside her and wanted to make a crack in her face, a space in her skin, to let him slip out.

It’s simply the only explanation.

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