Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters


southern gothic

Cockadoodle Carnage and Bathtub Baptism

I was baptized in a bathtub. The exact same tub that housed the sinewy corpses of dozens of elderly, free-range chickens just one week before.

By this time, our family had moved into a new house in a decent neighborhood — nary a naked hippy or homeless grad student to be found. Plenty of drunks though. It was the era of the cocktail hour, after all.

Ours was a yellow split level, with redwood deck and screened porch and a crawl space just big enough to lock away our Llewellyn Setter, Belle — the second-best quail dog who ever did live. When she wasn’t in heat.

When she was in heat, she was an infernal creature chained inside the crawl space, where she commenced to fumigate the entire house with ripe, gamey smells that drove my mama half-crazy. No amount of Spic and Span could rid the house of that stench.

But back to the cockadoodle carnage and bathtub baptism…

Daddy decided one day that poultry production would be an economic way to feed his evangelical, not-a-cult-yet, bible-study group. That, and he could trade rough-hewn fence posts for a couple hundred Plymouth Rock hens, so why not?

As a newly-ordained shepherd in the Discipleship Movement of the 70s, he took his duties seriously. And one of those duties was to provide for his flock. We had a newly-planted victory garden with acres of okra and peas. And now we had chickens.

Let me tell ya, physicists have no business playing farmer. And in this tale, there are TWO physicists… my dad and his fellow Ole Miss faculty member, Dan. (We’ll call him Dan because he was a no-nonsense Yankee with clipped vowels from Michigan State, so Boaz or Silas as a scriptural pseudonym just never would fit.) So, Dan it is.

Now this was a cockamamie scheme (wink, wink) from the get go, for all sorts of reasons. First off, these were some tough old birds — Methuselah-old in chicken years. To say they were ready for the Purina pet food factory would NOT be an exaggeration. That, plus the fact Daddy didn’t have the proper equipment to butcher and clean poultry were just two reasons.

But a man who understood alpha particles and chaos theory wasn’t gonna let a bunch of chickens get the best of him. So he gathered up his meagre-but-eager flock of neophytes and in no time, they’d assembled a paltry little poultry production line:

  • machete
  • canning pots
  • table for plucking
  • buck knife
  • bathtub

The carnage began in the backyard. It was like Salome and John the Baptist out there — chickens losing heads right and left — with a particularly large and gregarious gentleman wielding the machete. We’ll call him Rufus because, well, he had red hair and lived in a trailer park, so it suits him. That, plus he’s the hunter who taught Daddy to pop off quail heads and feed them to Belle as her point-and-retrieve reward. (The ensuing belches rivaled Hell’s sulfurous fumes.) If a red-haired, trailer-park-living, bird-dog loving southern man ain’t tailor-made for the name Rufus, I don’t know who is.

Back in the kitchen, Daddy baptized the newly-headless chickens in 20-qt speckled enamel pots chock full of rapidly boiling water. (He was always looking to dunk somebody, so this was great practice.) The birds got two minutes each, just prior to plucking. No more. No less. Too long, boiled flesh. Too less, torn breasts.

The plucking came next. In the hallway. With a dagger. (Not really. I just couldn’t pass on the Clue allusion …). But it really did happen in the hallway, only with bare hands.

It was a sticky, heinous job. Rufus (after making mincemeat of the machete business) and Dan-the-physics-man found themselves covered top to toe in soaking-wet, blue and black and white and silver feathers. They looked like fish with fluffy scales. Or Harpies.

Harpies are typically half-bird, half-female creatures, but travel back to Oxford in the summer of ’76 and you’ll find two of the male variety, squatting over a table, fingers puckered from plucking, lashes dripping with downy detritus — one well over six feet; the other, not-so-much.

Last on the production line, the newly-naked corpses were tossed upstairs to the bathroom, where they lost their innards and feet at the hands of Hiram — a former Vietnam chopper pilot. Entrails were dropped in orange paint buckets, birds in the ice-filled tub.

Where they were left in waiting on the womenfolk.

The women were charged with dissection — 200 cadavers at ten pieces each. No small undertaking. Even with steel buck knifes. And once the dismemberment was final, the job was far from over.

Those chickens had come to a sticky end. And my mother soon found herself in the STICKIEST of situations.

Here’s a little-known chicken butchering fact (at least for physicists-turned farmers): If the fatty scent glands of a chicken aren’t excised properly, they leech a stinky, oily grease.

And these weren’t. So these did. All over Mama’s gold fiberglass tub/shower combo…

The clean-up was monumental. Exxon Valdiz monumental. No way Dawn Dishwashing Liquid was taking that grease out of her way. It stucketh to that tub closer than a brother.

Second little-known chicken butchering fact: fatty scent glands are the mark of Cain. They are made of impenetrable stuff.

My mama scrubbed her fingers raw. That grease still probably lingers to this day, haunting all past, present and future tenants.

Which brings us to our baptism side of the story on a Saturday evening a week or so later… when this narrator was washed in the blood of the lamb — and the oil of the fatty scent glands of two-hundred plymouth rock poultry.

I had just walked down the aisle as a junior bridesmaid and is a day that will forever live in fondness and infamy.

For the wedding, I wore a dotted swiss, lemon yellow dress with square neck and white rick rack. The collar just highlighted the tiny raised mole above my right breast — along with my burgeoning need for a training bra.

Those sprouting acorn-sized lumps must’ve constituted an emergency. That, plus the strawberry lip gloss the bride smeared across my mouth like a Sodomite stain…

Whatever the prompting, I found myself sitting in a tub full of water in a scooter skirt and tank, Daddy praying fervently over my soul.

I’m sure I looked wild-eyed and mortified.

I’d attended baptisms before, but never my own. And always at the riverside. Never tub-side. Where was the murky water? The threat of cottonmouth nests? The promise of fried chicken and RC Cola after? This felt all wrong.

Rufus, Hiram, and Dan made it the requisite Two-or-Three-Or-More-Are-Gathered-in-my-Name official. They sang a slightly off-tune “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray,” which calmed me. A little.

Until Daddy dunked me.

At ten, I was a long-legged filly (maybe another reason Daddy decided he could tary not one second more), so I’m not entirely certain my knobby knees made it under. Which is worrisome. Because it’s total dunk or no deal in Daddy’s nondenominational eyes. On sprinkle or pour, he casts aspersions.

But my noggin knocked fiberglass, of this I know. So here’s hoping it stuck.

I know the grease from the 200 fatty scent glands of the Plymouth Rock hens stuck. My hair had enough oil to light the lamps of the ten virgins in the parable for perpetuity.

I was one prepared virgin, at least. I know this much is true…

(And as for those chickens… chewy and tough as Methuselah’s boots. All Mama could do was grind them down to chicken salad — with a wallop of Duke’s mayonnaise and a half-a-patch of dill weed, you could still taste those fatty scent glands.)

The Southern Gothic Cradle that Kick-Started a Cult

We didn’t have gypsies or midgets living next door to us. Seems that’s always major criteria for living a truly gothic southern childhood.

True Flannery style, though, we did have a bible salesman – my father — selling scripture to anyone he could hold captive. And there was a prosthetic, too. And leg braces, straight-up-Forrest-Gump style. And plenty of twisted scripture. 

Sometimes people with the best hearts can make the worst choices. I heard that line last night and I immediately thought of my father and the choices he made so long ago that sucked him, and us right along with him, into a spiritual cyclone of incredibly destructive dimensions.

Growing up, we lived in a brick ranch on a dirt road just off the Ole Miss campus. There was a carport off the kitchen, a horse shed out back, a fern gully due south, and blackberry brambles as far as the eye could see. Our neighbors consisted of a one-eyed drunk, a couple of naked hippies, a random homeless grad student, and lots and lots of snakes.  I’d say all that qualifies as a veritable cornucopia of southern gothic ingredients.

Technically speaking, the road we lived on was gravel, but I remember one spring it rained 92 out of the 90 days and the gravel all washed away. Front porch mudslides and a mudbound VW bus became our new normal. That season, we subsisted on hot pickled okra and well water until my mother hitched a ride to the local Jitney Jungle atop a backhoe for peanut butter and bananas. 

Now, I told you there’d be a prosthetic in this story, and I don’t lie. (I may embellish, but I never lie.) That drunk next door — the one over the gully and through the mud? He had a glass eye, and any given night, he’d wander up our way and knock on the carport door. If I answered, he’d knuckle his eye out, pop it in his mouth, and roll it around on his tongue like a jawbreaker. Then he’d spit it out and offer it up to me. I had wet-the-bed- night-terrors over it. 

Even though he probably died years ago, for anonymity purposes, I’ll call him Shine – if not for the prosthetic spit-shines, then for his moonshine pilgrimages. You see, Shine would show up looking for liquor or ladies, or both, almost every single night. It got to where Mama was afraid to answer her own door. 

If Daddy was home, he’d carpe the diem and minister to Shine’s soul. I think that’s where his passion for scripture truly set fire. My father was fairly lost himself at the time — his own father having recently passed — and I’ve heard an existential crisis like that makes a body vulnerable to cultish ways. 

Regardless, there in our kitchen, my dad would fire up the Holy Spirit and force-feed scripture and coffee down Shine’s throat till he got a bellyful and went off in search of better spirits. 

Now Shine wasn’t the only strange and suspect man we’d find in our kitchen back then. The grad student Sellers (not sure if that was his first name or last, but I know he’s dead of suicide now, so I’ll name him) studied physics by day and lived in his car in our side yard by night. Every morning, he’d steal into our kitchen to swig milk straight out of the wax carton. 

I was a toddler then, in leg braces (didn’t I promise ya?). Dr. Stone told my folks I had some sort of rotational deformity, I think, so I wore the human equivalent of a leather and metal horse harness every night, and wasn’t allowed in the kitchen until my mother unshackled me every morning. The screws in the feet chewed up the linoleum, leaving Mama in a tizzy. 

So I’d watch Sellers quietly from the hallway as he unfolded the spout and chugged away. (I did a whole lot of watching back then and not a lot of talking. More on that in a moment.) Every single thing about Sellers was disheveled. His head, with its matted tufts of hair, his chest, with its pale, pudgy flesh, his Hanes briefs, with their drooping posterior.

He drove my mother crazy. But he was my father’s most faithful disciple — somehow fascinated with my Daddy’s frenzied spiritual awakenings. As far as my father was concerned, Sellers could do no wrong. 

Those naked hippies though — Dad made it pretty clear they could do no right. They lived on the other side of us from Shine.  Of all the neighbors, they scared me the least and Dad the most. 

To me, the most fascinating thing about them wasn’t their nakedness, but their giant outdoor waterbed. It sat about thirty feet from their back porch, hidden by jutting canna lilies with giant purple stalks and flaming red tips. The flowers sheltered the hippies from view when they laid naked in the sunshine. 

I watched them from a rusted-out Chevy perched among a mess of brambles at their tree line. A sapling had sprouted through the floorboards and crept through the passenger window. It housed a whole lot of spiders and an occasional garden snake. And me. From my vantage point, I pretended I was a member of the Swiss Family Robinson surveying the natives in their natural habitat.  

I don’t remember him much, just that he had long, lanky limbs and hair. But her, she was an Ole Miss beauty queen drop out with caramel skin and honey hair and (according to my father’s definition of hippies) a love of mind-altering substances. A few years later, she was involved in a terrible car crash that left her in a wheelchair the remainder of her days. 

She once gave me a Mrs. Beasley doll from Family Affair fame. It had a blue polka dot body, frizzy blond hair, and a non-functioning pull string. This Ole Miss Beauty Queen was probably twenty years my senior, but at four-years-old, she became my closest friend and the closest thing I will ever know to a goddess. Or a hippie, for that matter, I guess.

There were other people in my life in those early days, too. Every Wednesday night, Dad hosted prayer meetings in our living room where he strummed his guitar with a pick and sang Delta Dawn with my mother. I don’t remember much about the folks there. Just that they were mostly college kids who probably wanted an A in my father’s physics lab. 

My father often prophesied about the end of days and always shouted in tongues. There was also some laying-on of hands and some casting out of demons. It all fell just short of snake handling, though.

So, there you have it. The southern gothic roots that propogated my father’s crazy, cultish curiosity with off-the-grid faith. And it all stemmed from a good heart, recently broken by a father’s death.

Still, it was all a bit much for a toddler in leg braces to absorb. But absorb, I did. And like it or not, it proved good fodder for a future writer.

Fears, Phobias, and Freakishly Fun Encounters

Pretty sure I had a close encounter with a voodoo queen the other day. It was a dark and stormy day on a trail just off the shores of Allatoona.

But first let me explain that not a whole lot of things scare me. Only a couple of things, really — and they are pretty much the standard fare: I’m afraid of the dark – of the demons and monsters that can lurk in the closets, under the beds, and in the black and impenetrable air. And I’m terrified of mice – of the squealing, pink-nosed breeders of filth and disease.

The fear of the dark is a holdover from my childhood and those demons I saw cast out of my parents’ living room on a weekly basis. The mice – well, I’m pretty sure they’re a plague hangover from a former life in London during the Middle Ages. Both make complete and total sense. To me.

My husband, he’s afraid of clowns. Clowns. I don’t get it. They wear makeup and extravagant footwear, so honestly, what’s there to fear?

But millions of people on this planet do fear them. I think they’re impressive. They have mad skills. They can juggle. And craft squeaky balloon animals. And distract angry bulls — and that takes a heap of talent. I was married to a Taurus, and I never could master that skill.

Clowns get a bad rap. Sure, there’s John Wayne Gacy and Pennywise… and I guess they sort of ruined it for all the clowns. But honestly, between the two of them they were responsible for maybe fifty deaths… You’re much more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a clown.

Mice however, they carried the fleas that vomited the virus that cost the human race an estimated 100 million lives… That, my friends is a whole lot of scary. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

And our boys are a little bit afraid of thunder — but I’m working on them. Thunder’s not scary, I tell them. It’s loud, but it can’t hurt you. It’s nothing more than sonic burps — atmospheric indigestion, if you will.

You might have the same if you deep-throated lightning. (Only I don’t tell them that part.) And because I have no desire to test that theory, I maintain a healthy distance from lightning.

But then, this past week, Mike and I were inadvertently caught in a lightning storm. We were hiking a favorite mountain trail when suddenly the sky darkened and we heard familiar rumblings.

At first I thought it was my stomach – or maybe Mike’s. (We’re currently on a quest for our missing summer bods and eating what feels like nothing but raw cucumbers while we search. Our stomachs have the habit of digesting their own linings in protest.)

But nope, turns out it was the sky. And she was craving a giant, hand-tossed peperoni pizza as much as I was. She was HANGRY and hurling lightning as a hunger strike.

So there we were. Out in nature. On a mountaintop. With wobbly, fatigued legs. And about a gazillion tall trees.

Now that’s scary.

We began high-tailing it down the trail, which had morphed into treacherous red slime, rain-slicked rock, and lightning bolts (lots and lots of lightning bolts), when what to our wondering eye should appear but a freakishly frightening silhouette. (Think Victor Frankenstein, Lake Geneva, and electric shock and you’ve got the picture.)

Only she was no creature. She was a dark and mysterious woman. And she stalked in beauty like the night.

She was regal and dressed all in black: black tights, black skirt, black-heeled boots, black blouse. And she bore in her gnarled and ancient hand a giant black umbrella.

I’m fairly certain she was a bona fide, conjure-crafting, card-carrying voodoo queen. Or a dark arts Mary Poppins. Or a figment of my overwrought, Romantic imagination.

Regardless, she was upon us in an instant, parting the sheets of rain as she defied the elements — climbing up the mountain that we were so eagerly vacating.

As lightning cracked once again, she flashed us a smile, revealing a glittering cavern of canines and incisors.

I was in awe of her, and just the tiniest bit afraid. But mostly in awe. I’m pretty sure she had deep-throated lightning and lived to tell the tale.

In another instant, she was gone.

And us? We were gone too – down that mountain as fast as humanly possible.

So we could live to tell the tale.



The Writing Process: Fishing Serendipity and the Swampland to Serve up Batter-dipped, Panfried Truths

There’s this weird feeling I get sometimes. Like someone has hit a tuning fork — but the tuning fork is my body. And it rings and vibrates. Like a silver spoon hitting chilled stainless. Like ice hitting back molars. Like wintergreen hitting my veins. And the one hitting the tuning fork is the universe. Is God, if you will.

I feel awake and alive and almost raw.

So I go to my computer and I dive into the current of serendipity’s stream. And I pay really careful attention.

Words swirl around me, boomerang back at me like white water rapids. They carry me, roll me, drive me forward. The universe is in charge, and I am on a wild ride. Where I’m going is out of my hands – but I know I’m on the right track.

So I swim. Hard. And fast. To stay inside that current. Not sink beneath it.

Because the universe has given me a gift — it has given me a path and a process. But it has expectations. It has demands. And those demands are rigorous. They are… well… demanding.

This current will take me to my goal, but only with a whole lot of work.

So work, I do. At first I’m cold and rusty, and my mind misfires. A lot. But I remind myself I’m trained for this. I can do this hard thing. I am prepared. And so I just keep kicking, doing my best to stay afloat and follow directions as the words swirl around me, bump up against me.

Inside the current, my mind warms, loosens — perhaps even unravels a bit – allowing flexibility and vision and a bit of slack to reel in the difficult bits, the hard bits. Of life. Particularly, my life. My past.

Because the hard and difficult bits require a whole lot of slack — lest I get too wound up, too tense, and then break the line and lose the way, the truth, and the life. My way. My truth. My life.

Barbara Kingsolver once stated that “memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” And I totally get it — especially when the memory itself is incredibly complicated, when the truth you are recording — the twisted religion of your formative years — was itself a relative to truth, but not its twin. Maybe not even the same family… or neighborhood. But definitely the same region. My truth fits within the region — the southern region, that is.

The South — where truths become memories, loosely maintained, that become yarns, wildly spun, that become tales, twisty and gnarled.  Where truths become monstrosities.

Here in the land of Faulkner and Flannery, we drill holes in mama’s coffin (and right on through to her face) so she can breathe in the hereafter. We have kinky morticians and corrupt bible salesmen and Presbyterian ax vigilantes. We have deaf mutes and hunchbacks and dwarves – oh my! All so we can safely unearth the darkened roots of our deep-seated insecurities.

Here in the South, we love a little batter on our vegetables and a little gothic on our histories. Sure, maybe raw is better for you – but they taste so much better in a solid bath of debauchery and a heavy dusting of sin. (Minimalist, we are not!)

It’s as much about embellishment as it is about fact here. We hide our tender bits inside hyperbole and the grotesque. The crazier the tale, the deeper the truth.

For me, swimming serendipity’s stream may begin with the exquisite chill of a spoon hitting stainless, but it never fails to dump me where stainless will always fall victim to stain: childhood and the fears and tears that form its fecund swamplands.

The water there is brackish and foul with trash and monsters. Monsters ready to be raised from the near-dead. Demons with watermelon rinds for smiles. Disciples with oily words and cardboard hearts.

I land there each and every time. And after I catch my breath and adjust to the temperature change, I dredge the swamp.

And as the silt and sludge swirls, I bring in my haul — words writhing and thick with hard muscle, slippery sinew, scaly gill. They emerge slowly, but in netfuls, tangled and twisted. Words glinting with a thousand splendid refractions, bending and contorting in the light. Piercing.

I capture them all by capturing my past. Finding the way and the truth from my life.

My biggest and most-tangled of truths thus far — a Pentecostal pastor’s circumcised daughter — flesh faulted and excised amid great ceremony and pain. She emerges from the darkness demanding her reckoning. She flips silver on my screen.

She is forged from the cold steel of serendipity’s stream, humming with the frequency of the tuning fork. The chill of wintergreen hangs in the air… along with the sweetness and rot of the swamp.

I gut her and clean her. I batter-dip her in admonition and intuition and the blood of the Lamb. I sear her on tongues of flame. I lay her on a slaw of shredded scripture. And I serve her up to the world.

+ + +

In the beginning was the word.

And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us — howling to be heard. To be seen. To be known.

Ex nihilo.


Pretty Sure We Have Ourselves a Ghost: Night Noises and Red Shirts

It would appear we have a ghost — a real live (well, I guess not live), but real used-to-be-live blustering, busy-body, house-haunting ghost.

It all began three weeks ago. Although looking back, I think we’ve had some other curious situations over the last couple of years of living in our house. Things lost and then found in odd locations. Or things never found at all, but heard — like nursery toys not seen for a year or more suddenly heard playing their eerie, tinkling tunes. No clue from where. Still. we chalked all that up to pudgy toddler hands and their haphazard hiding prowess. But then, the events of the last three weeks have convinced me otherwise. The events of the last three weeks have led me to suspect the supernatural…

It all began deep in the belly of night — the deepest crease of the deepest fold of the big, broad belly of night – when our sleep was sucker-punched by a bruising, clanging sound.

I jolted awake. Mike blinked in the darkness. He thought he’d dreamed it until I asked, “Did you hear that?!?” and then he shot instantly up. Armed with a golf driver made of carbon fiber for flexibility and force and kept at our bedside for just such an occasion. I watched the shadow of his imposing figure creep out of the bedroom and into the echoing darkness.

The wind was howling outside, and my soul was howling inside. Someone was in our house.

A long and frightening aeon later, he reappears. “The flue flew open,” he explains. “Pretty sure it popped due to the pressure of that storm.”

“Really? Are you positive?”

“Yep, it’s held closed by tension. Storm got it.”

Ok. I guess I’m buying. But not sleeping. Nope. My adrenaline raged – as hard as the wind at my window.

Then last weekend…

Doors that we were certain we had locked were found unlatched or unbolted: the back screen, the side garage, the front entry. Forgetfulness, we rationalized – even though my childhood full of attempted break-ins has left me locking and double-locking every door in the house all the time. Still — if not forgetfulness, then toddlers. Two of them. Always eager to let out the dog or check out the state of the weather.

So cut to the middle of last week…

Asleep. Again. This time, not quite buried as deep in the fleshy middle of night, but late — just after midnight – and I find myself floating slowly up to the surface of my slumber, where I hear a woman’s voice. It’s a metallic, tinny voice. I listen intently. Am I dreaming this? Is this reality? Then I hear her again.

I’m certain its coming from the boys’ rooms — projected through the monitor on our nightstand. My heart lurches, then trips, spilling sweat across my chest and arms.

“Mike?” I grab his wrist.

“I hear it,” he answers.

This time, it’s not the golf club he grabs, but the gun from the closet. He clicks the slide, loads the chamber, and heads out the door.

After another terrifying aeon, he returns.

This time, it isn’t the flue. This time, it’s the television.

“It’s turned itself on — just the sound bar. Just the audio. Probably a power surge,” he rationalizes.

I’m not buying. Not this time. “No clocks are flashing. No lights have flickered. I don’t think so,” I reply.

“All’s clear, though,” he states.

Eventually I fall back asleep. It takes me a long, long time.

Then, yesterday…

We’re all in the basement so the boys can run wild. Their playroom is down here. So is the game room. I’m facetiming my daughter. We’re commiserating about the racist leader of our great nation when she stops cold. “Hey, let me see the room you’re in.”

So I pan the phone around the game room: pool table, big comfy couches, newly-purchased karaoke tv.

“Who was that man I saw a minute ago? Is Sam there?” she asks.

Mike and I freeze. “What man?”

“The man in the red shirt I saw over your shoulder.”

Over my shoulder, there is nothing but the blank wall of the hallway. Not even a picture, a photograph, to break up the blankness.

“Sam’s not here. Nobody else is here.”

“I saw a man.”


Mike’s ready to call a realtor. Me? I’m not too worried. I can’t say I like being jolted awake in the middle of the night, but I’m not afraid of this trickster ghost, this old man in his red shirt.  I don’t think he means us any harm, he just wants us to know he’s here. Pretty sure he doesn’t want us gone. He just wants our attention.

And I’m intrigued to know why…

Why I’m Afraid of the Dark: True Southern Gothic

The summer solstice is here. That means summertime. Where the days are long and the nights are sticky. Pools and fireworks and barbecued weenies. Mermaid days. Firefly nights.

I love me some summer. Always have. As a teacher, I love them even more than ever. They are my chance to relax and recover. They are unbelievably important to my state of mind.

But I remember one summer way back when that totally wracked my state of mind. It was the summer that ended my childhood. It was the summer before my sixth-grade year. It was the summer I heard demons in my living room. It was the summer I learned we were moving to a giant metropolis and leaving my friends and fun and beloved frog pond far behind. It was the summer of my fall.

Up until then I’d been knobby-kneed, sun kissed, and barefoot. I had three sisters, a new baby brother, and more than a mild addiction to lime Kool Aid. I wore my hair long and tangled and crunchy with chlorine. I loved horses and roller skates and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I knew nothing about life but what my small little patch of Yoknapatawpha had taught me: kudzu and snake skins and sandy creek beds; frog ponds and field corn and honeysuckle vines. My own little Garden of Eden postage stamp.

My friends and I – a neighborhood pack of elementary school vagabonds — roamed the backroads and the brambles in search of the most perfect summer. And we damned near found it amidst a syrup of sweat and random scents: deadheaded marigolds, sunbaked magnolia blossoms, warm pine needles, maypops cracked wide open on hot asphalt, and truckloads of mosquito spray, which we rode our bikes behind like we were soaring through clouds in fighter jets.  Those are the smells I remember from that summer. It was a summer full to the brim. Mosquitoes and memories multiplying under a speckled canopy of freckles and stars.

And then came the demons.

It wasn’t what you would think. It wasn’t howling and hissing and holy water sizzling on flesh. I saw that sort of thing later, in some Hollywood versions of possession. No, this to me was, and still is, far scarier. Because it happened. To me. In real life. And it was nothing like in the movies.

It happened in a run-of-the-mill southern den, amid a velveteen sofa, a couple of flame-stitched wingbacks, and a good many, good-intentioned, God-fearing people. There was a laying-on of hands, a cacophony of tongue-speaking… and hissing. I remember harsh, guttural hissings. Lots of repetitive phrases, lots of In the Name of the Lords and Get behind me, Satans.

This is not something your average eleven-year-old should be exposed to. Just saying.

It left me terrified of the dark to this day.

It happened in our living room during a cell meeting – the little home prayer groups that were sprouting up all around our neck of the southeast back then. Led by people dissatisfied with the ways of organized religion. Rather ironic, considering they organized their own, new brand of religion, which ended up leaving me terrified of any and all organized religion.

It was just a small gathering of people I’d grown up around. And they were there, in our living room, worshipping God in the way they thought best. Lots of singing, praying, lifting of hands, and speaking in tongues. I was used to it.

Until it took that turn. That devilish turn. I remember – or maybe I invented — a smile. The biggest smile you ever did see on the biggest, best man I ever knew. A great, big-bellied, big-hearted man with a great big watermelon smile. Only this smile wasn’t his smile. It was creepy and folded in. Like a jack-o-lantern two weeks too old.

As dozens of men surrounded the smile, and dozens of women prayed fervently, that smile broke my innocence. And I can never go back.

To this day, I can’t watch possession movies. I just can’t. Give me all the Criminal Minds and Law & Orders and Sherlocks you’ve got. I lap them up — my adult version of lime Kool-Aid. I am more than mildly addicted. But possession flicks? Nope. Not happening.

And whenever I wake at 3:00 AM – the witching hour, the devil’s hour — I shiver and slide over closer to my sleeping husband, terrified of the knowledge I absorbed way back then.

It can’t be undone. It can’t be dismissed.

Were the demons real? Who knows? I was told once that I was possessed, too. I was pretty sure I wasn’t. Still, it was scary as all get out to be told that. And to witness all that I witnessed. For there were far more exorcisms than just the one.

And this summer, I’ve been revisiting that time — working on a novel that integrates some of those same situations and the ensuing darkness that enveloped me.

It all began with a grinning demon. And it all ended with a damsel in distress.

It took her years to escape. She’s still working on it, actually.

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