“Ceremony” by Misty Lynn Ellingburg
What does a demon look like? What is its smell? When you touch it, what is its texture? And how does it sound? To ten-year-old Dustin, it smelled like cedar, like the smoke from ceremonies that curled, blue and circular, above the fire-pit. Like the velvet-touch of a feather brushing cool against his moist-sweat-skin. He saw it first, in the window. The White Cloud Ghost. How does a demon manifest? When it seeps into your skin, how do you separate one from the other? The Demon from the Self? He felt it, red-black-white hot like the coals in the fire-pit. Rippling under his skin. He wanted to extricate it from himself, to pull the darkness from the White Cloud Ghost out of his body like Peter-Pan’s shadow. To hold it at an arm’s length and examine it.
He saw it first, in the window. Creeping in. It wasn’t because Dustin was special. Nothing particularly interesting about the child. Just that the demon was bored. There was a spirit around the big purple house that attracted it. Filled with mischief. No, filled with malice. Curious. Or consuming. Oh, the unending black hole. Oh, the White Cloud Ghost! The demon that crawled through his nostrils. The demon that crystallized into his lungs. The demon.
In the window, he saw it. It had the head of a dead pig, beheaded, pickled, with black-hole eyes. It had the body of a dog, the claws of a lobster, the tail of a salamander. The body was scaly. It smelled like cigarettes, smoke.
He opened his mouth. No sound. He waited for sound to come from his own throat with the fervor and desire of the disciples waiting for Jesus to rise from the tomb. No miracles today, no noises. The demon laughed. It sounded like crystal bells ringing, all the more macabre coming from such a dark figure. The scent changed from smoke to burnt pork. Dustin sat down in his bed and closed his eyes and wished for tears to wash his face. He saw it, he saw it. The White Cloud Ghost. And there was nothing else, now. Nothing but that demon in the window, changing the air in his bedroom. Making it feel close and cramped and hot.
Fear in his heart was like the iron claws of a hawk clutching a flopping fish, fresh from the ocean. His heart struggled, but those clutches were mighty. The terror was so pressing, the grip on him so tight, that he wished for one moment he were that fish, so that, razor-sharp, a beak could drill into his skull and end that moment. Or if he could be a grain of sand on the beach, an innocuous crab scuttling under a rock, anything to escape those open chasms that were the eyes on the demon’s face.
If he could move, he would move from the vision of the scaly monster. And how had it flown three stories to peer, curious, into a child’s bedroom?
Crystal bells in the air. The sound, in the next room–his parent’s room– of a lighter being lit. A deep inhalation. Hold. Three. Two. One. Release. Don’t want the meth to crystalize in there. The White Cloud Ghost. The demon in his window; the demon he could see as plain as he ever saw anything. And in a moment, it would crawl through his window. But with claws like that, it would never work the latch.
All the effort in his child body would not release the scream from the back of his throat he was sure would send the wraith on its way, to haunt another house on the reservation.
The latch on the window began to twitch from the inside. Chasmic eyes. Vacant, hollow, unending. His feet found the floor; his body went flying towards the door. On his knees in the hallway. Crawling, scuttling, crashing forward. Past the parents’ bedroom. Down the stairs. The messy living room. One of his uncles, George, watching the ball game. This ball game or that ball game. Any ball game. A cold one in his hand.
Dustin’s body vibrated with terror. Afraid that George would look at him and instead of seeing kind, or hard brown eyes, depending on his drunk the man was, he would see those, oh god, chasms. There were three or four empty cans around George’s feet. Socks went halfway up brown ankles. Red converse high tops. Basketball shorts. No hair on the legs. Athlete’s legs. Uncle George. A cold beer in his tight hand. The way his fingers curled around the substance like medicine.
George turned to look. Saw it was only Dustin.
“Ey, shouldn’t you be in bed?” George asked.
George didn’t care. Dustin knew he didn’t care. Dustin tottered into the kitchen. Dizzy-scared. There wasn’t food in the kitchen. Dustin knew that. He’d eaten the last of the bread with the last scrapes of margarine from the tub hours ago. He would have to go to Edith’s tomorrow and ask her for something, crackers or something. They had three more days until the commodities came. Then he could look forward to canned green beans for a couple of weeks. No food in the kitchen. A bottle of ketchup half-full in the fridge. Some relish. A twenty-four pack of Coors Light. His mother didn’t want to get fat. His mother was already fat with another baby. Next to her beer, his father’s, dark beer. Only six of those. He wouldn’t take one and risk them noticing.
Dustin reached forward.
Upstairs, the lighter. The breath. The poison-lungs. The White Cloud Ghost. Empty crack-pipe. Buzzed-electric parents. A demon looking in his window, curious. Tinkling crystal. In his hand, cool, close, a cold one. He was bad at opening cans. Always made his dad open his sodas. Ever since he was little and he cut his finger trying to open a Coke. He opened the can all by himself, this time. Grown-up. Felt the beer as it was raised to his lips. Maybe it was the demon in the window did it. Maybe it wasn’t him, maybe maybe. Fear like fire washing him, burning him up. A child made of ash and cinder. A child made of white smoke. An alcoholic infant.
The liquid ran, easy, down his throat. He sucked it down fast. Heard it going into his body, glug, glug, glug. Tasted bitter. Not like sweet soda. But not bad; it wasn’t bad. He threw the bottle under the sink with the other ones and opened another beer. He willed that liquid into his body. He drank it like a dying man drinks water. He drank it. He drank it.
Maybe the fear would go away, he thought, sitting down dizzy on the dirty floor. Crawling under the kitchen table and curling himself around his father’s chair. Cat-like. Yellow kitchen tiles. Yellow overhead light.
What does a demon look like? What is its smell? Feather-light and velvety on the skin? Or the feeling of having something other than your brain will your eyes open. Rapidly blinking. Cedar smoke.