By Alex Luceli Jiménez
Our daughter is possessed. She was sent home from school last week for speaking in tongues and crawling on the walls of her science classroom. All the kids in her class had to leave the room and wait while she convulsed on the walls and shrieked. Her teacher said she screamed so high and so loud that the beakers lined up on one of his shelves cracked. I am the seventh grade English teacher at her middle school and you were in court defending women abused by men so I left work early and took her home.
You do not want to believe she is possessed. Even when our daughter laughed the night she was sent home, floating five feet above her bed as we watched from the doorway, you did not want to believe she was possessed. We’re tired, you said. We’re overworked, you said. Our eyes are playing tricks on us, you said. When she snapped awake from her episode and dropped back down on her bed she cried and cried and I held her as you paced downstairs with all the lights in our house on, as if keeping all the lights on would keep our eyes from playing any more tricks on us.
We take her to a child psychologist. He asks if we, her adopted mothers, have ever seen this behavior from her before this. We tell him the truth: she has always been a little bit sad, a little bit strange, not so good at making friends and keeping them but she is sweet, awkward but so sweet, kind to old ladies on the street and always asking us how our days have been. We adopted her when she was eight and we do not know much about her life before her life with us. She does not like to talk about it and we were advised not to ask. She was close to your mother, who used to take care of her when we had to work, and then your mother passed last year when our daughter was twelve. She is thirteen now and her grades have been slipping and she sleeps most of her weekends away and as far as we know, she has no friends. She eats her lunch with me in my classroom, shrinking away from the shrieking laughter of the Gay-Straight Alliance kids that also eat lunch with me, their advisor. The child psychologist smiles and tells us that grief has no timeline—our daughter is still grieving the loss of her grandmother. That, and puberty is a strange, mysterious, ever so difficult time. He writes her a prescription for Zoloft after a private conversation with her. We pick it up from the pharmacy on the way home and she takes her first antidepressant that very same day.
That night, by some miracle, we somehow manage to fall asleep. We are woken up by our daughter’s howling screams. We race downstairs and she is in the kitchen, screaming in tongues and carving symbols into her stomach with a butcher knife. You start howling too, and you wrestle the knife away from her as I stand paralyzed, a one-woman audience. We take her to the emergency room, where they stitch her up and admit her to a pediatric psychiatric ward at your request. I cry when they take her away. I will not speak to you. I look away from you when you try to speak to me. I am petulant, like a child. I visit our daughter every day after work for a week and she is quiet and has little to say. I bring her clean new clothes and the books she likes to read, graphic science fiction and fantasy novels.
“Grief has no timeline,” says her doctor from the ward, the same thing the child psychologist told us. She is being pumped full of pills and they think all that is wrong with her is grief and I, her mother, can do nothing to save her.
She has been in the ward for eight days and I am considering speaking to you again when we get a call from the night nurse, who tells us to please come quickly. We drive to the ward in silence, a forty minute commute. Our daughter, brown face shiny with sweat and her sharp collarbone jutting out from her loose shirt collar, is waiting for us in the lobby with five staff members watching her warily. One of them, a nurse who reminds me of my mother, as my mother is also brown and short and stout, comes forward and presses a piece of paper into my hand.
“Your daughter needs help,” she tells me. “Que dios la bendiga.”
The paper has the name of a local Catholic church and a phone number. They do not want to tell us what she did to warrant such a late night call, they just tell us they cannot support her any longer, but we can fill in the gaps and we take her home and the drive is silent, just our daughter’s haggard breathing as she sleeps in the backseat and the rolling wind blowing outside in the southern California late night summer, hot even though it is nearing midnight. At home we carry her little body to her bedroom and wrap her up in cool clean sheets and I sleep next to her in her twin-sized bed and you sleep on the floor.
The next day is Saturday and the three of us sleep all day. We wake up when the sun is setting and I make us pancakes for dinner and you play your old records on the turntable in the living room and our daughter is smiling and everything feels normal until she starts gurgling at the kitchen table and vomits a stream of black liquid mixed with the pancake she just ate. She clutches at her throat and I cry and you scream at her and she starts talking about you, all these things about you that you do not like to talk about, all these things about you that she cannot possibly know, all these things about you that I barely know because I am too kind to pry.
“You watched your daddy beat your mom up,” she says, in a voice not her own, too deep to be her own. “You watched him beat her up almost every night and you did nothing. You watched him beat your brothers and did nothing. The only one he didn’t touch was you. What made you so special? What made you so special?”
“Stop,” you say, but your voice is weak and you are crying and I have not seen you cry since our wedding day, your tears of joy streaming down your face, the first time I let myself believe you love me as much as I love you. Even when your mother died, you did not cry. “Stop.”
“You were driving when that car hit you and your daddy was in the passenger seat. How did you survive? They called it a miracle. Were you glad he didn’t make it? Were you glad? Were you?”
You take your keys and walk out and I hear your car leave the driveway and I am left alone to tend to our daughter, snapped out of her episode and weeping now. Her white shirt is seeping with the black liquid she vomited but I am her mother and so I hold her and it gets on me, it gets everywhere, but I still hold her.
“How did you know all that?” I ask her. “Did your abuela tell you?”
“How did I know what?”
She does not remember, because she is possessed. You come back at 1 a.m. and I am waiting for you in the living room while our daughter sleeps in the armchair and you look at her then you look at me and I know you finally believe it, too.
A priest comes to our house a few days later. It is not the priest whose number the nurse gave me at the ward. He is an old family friend, a priest that has known my family for years. I am a lapsed Catholic, I have not stepped foot in a church since I was fifteen and my parents stopped making me go, but he is kind and he asks how I have been doing and he says nothing about the fact that our daughter has two mothers. You stand on the margins and watch because you were never a Catholic at all. Your mother did not believe and so you did not believe.
It all happens so fast. Nightfall comes and our daughter floats above her bed and speaks in tongues and the priest reads from his Bible and holds out a cross and throws holy water at her. This goes on all night until the sun starts rising and our daughter snaps out of her episode and starts crying. This time you step forward and you are the one who holds her and the priest looks at me with wary eyes and shakes his head.
“She does not want to let it go,” he says. “It is difficult if she does not want to let it go.”
“But what do you mean?”
“She is holding on to it. She is stronger than me, and she is holding on to it.”
Later I take your place and it is the middle of the morning and our daughter is having trouble falling asleep but I can hear your snoring from our bedroom, where you have retreated. I stroke her hair and lie down next to her and I sing to her like I did when she was younger, that first year we adopted her and I stayed home to take care of her for a year so she could get to know me and be more comfortable with me. She smiles a little but she still cannot fall asleep. When the sun starts burning brightly in the morning sky, shining through her thin curtains, she whispers a confession: “I wished for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wished for something to make me stronger. That’s why this is happening.”
I am troubled by her words. I do not ask her to tell me more. I am her mother and this is all she needs to say.
But you are also her mother and you wake up later and you say we must find another priest, a stronger one, because our daughter is possessed and you believe it now. You are perpetually stuck in your own ways and I know arguing with you about it would only be in vain. I do not argue with you but I make you do all the work and you find another priest to come to our house. This time our daughter tries to claw out his eyes. We pull her off him before she can do more than leave a nasty scratch beneath his left eye.
“Give up,” he tells us as he walks out the door, hand over his wound. “Your daughter cannot be saved.”
The next night: another sleepless night for me while you sleep in fits beside me. I hear the stairs creak. I go downstairs. I do not turn on the lights. I stand at the bottom of the stairs. The living room curtains are drawn open and in the moonlight I can see our daughter on the living room ceiling, her eyes shining in the dim white light, head turned backwards on her neck. She stares down at me and I can hear her haggard breathing. I wish her bones were not so pronounced. I wish I could be more than her mother. I wish I could be someone who can save her.
She snarls, and says, “Your girlfriend in college used to hit you. You’ve never told anyone. You let it go on for two years. How’d it make you feel? How’d it make you feel?”
I do not have to think before saying, “Small, and powerless. It made me feel weak. I felt like I was worthless. I felt like I was nobody at all. I felt invisible, and frayed. I spent years finding and picking up the pieces of me she broke off. I wanted somebody to save me, the way I want to save you.”
Our daughter is quiet. I feel watched and I look behind me and there you are, at the top of the stairs. You heard everything. I look back at our daughter, still on the ceiling. She turns her head the right way and crawls down. She convulses, sprawled out on the ground, before falling still altogether and closing her eyes. We carry her to bed, and wrap her up in cool clean sheets. Downstairs you make me juniper berry tea and we sit across from each other at the kitchen table.
“What else can we do?” you ask me.
“What else can we do,” I say, “but live with it?”
It is a difficult choice but I leave my job so I can homeschool our daughter. I struggle with the math and science but that is what she is best at, and I can handle the English and history, no problem. You take less cases. You stay home more often. Money is tight but we always did know that a rainy day would come and we have enough to get by. We tell each other we love each other for the first time since we adopted our daughter. All these years have gone by without us telling each other that we love each other. We realize how distant we had grown because of how much closer we are now. Our daughter still crawls on walls and floats above her bed and speaks in tongues but we hold her when she cries and the episodes are making her cry less and less as the months go by. She becomes friends with a girl a year younger than her who moves in across the street and one day we are brave enough to let that friend sleep over and of course that night ends up being one of the nights where she floats above her bed and speaks in tongues. Her friend, though, is not scared—she watches with curious eyes and says our daughter is the most interesting person she knows.
A year passes, and more. Our daughter is fourteen now. She has been possessed for thirteen months. One night I wake at 3 a.m. and something draws me towards our bedroom window, which looks out into the backyard. When I look outside, the lights that turn on with any movement are on, and our daughter is standing in the middle of the grassy backyard. I shake you awake and we go outside to be with her so that she will not be alone. Something is different about this episode. I can feel the air humming, even though for once it is not windy in our town at all. Our daughter starts convulsing where she stands and you step forward but I put an arm out and keep you from advancing. We watch as a shadow emerges from her body, so large it must be at least three times her size, and I am not sure if you can see it or if I am just imagining it but I dare look away so I can look at you and your mouth is hanging open and then I know you see it, too. When I look back at her the shadow is surrounding every inch of her in what I realize can only be an embrace. Then the wind picks up, like it never stopped, and the shadow dissipates with every gust of breeze.
Our daughter turns around to face us. She is smiling, and so are we.
Alex Luceli Jiménez is a queer Mexican writer and middle school English teacher living in Soledad, CA. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Berkeley Fiction Review, Barren Magazine, Ram Eye Press, and Tales From Between. She was born and raised in Southern California, and is currently editing her first sapphic horror novel.