The New Saint Catherine

One of the cruelest truths is that not even children are spared from wickedness. They’re not sullied by original sin, but the world’s so bad its depravity has a way of seeping into them. I was shown no mercy and came to be possessed at age eight. This was the blight that would disfigure my childhood.

While lying in a field I was literally hit by a bolt from the blue. Out of all the kids who could’ve been struck, Jupiter’s arrow had found me and split my skull in two. From this wound something essential to life like blood or air slipped out, and in its place a demon settled. A nasty mark was left on my forehead, but I was the only one who could see it. Isn’t it a rule that all acts of violence must come with visible scars, solid proof underlying the emptiness of words? When we learned about the son of God in Sunday school I wondered whether he would’ve been believed without his stigmata. I thought not, so I told no one about that noonday incident.

At first the torments came only at night, manifested in the same vision. My bones heavy like lead, I was strapped down to the grass like a girl Prometheus while being stabbed by lightning. The crack in my forehead would seal itself only to be torn open again. There was a lurid quality to this dreamscape: the stench of burnt flesh, the snapping sound of bone giving way to brain, the sour bile in my mouth, the hardness of the ground beneath, and most vividly the harsh brightness of the bolt. By morning (or the middle of the night), the sheets would be stained with either sweat or piss, and my palms would tingle as if I’d been electrocuted.

I began to fear sleep. To keep awake I mulled over what sins I must’ve committed to deserve early damnation. These small transgressions that turned out not to be so small sat on my chest each night, and I recounted them with my hands: talking back to my mother (thumb), pinching a classmate (index finger), watching too much TV (middle finger), letting the dog upstairs (forefinger), stealing sweets from the cabinet (pinky). Clenching my fists so tightly that my knuckles almost ripped through the skin, I cursed myself in the dark.

But this moonlit punishment wasn’t a worthy penance, so I had to suffer during the day. Each time I left the house there was a chance I’d be struck again, and maybe this time the lightning would kill me. Yes, it would be the final blow, and in my place only traces of ash would remain. I performed strange acts of worships as if they were good luck charms, a string of rabbit feet around my neck. While walking to school I alternated between the sides of the street, held my breath when speaking to strangers, and avoided looking into those with eyes that held glints of vice. These ceremonies may seem childish, but to me they were the difference between living and complete destruction, the only talismans I had.

While I could insulate myself from external danger, the fiendish spirit within remained untamed. In the morning it would spy me from the other side of the mirror. From storefronts and car-doors I felt its heavy gaze crawling on my skin. Even my shadow was tainted, and in that cool blackness there were always a pair of eyes. And so I became afraid of my reflection, knowing that something terrible would look back at me.

I became deformed from the inside out. My anatomy was rewired, and now every nerve in my body was hypersensitive to sight and sound. Whenever my name was called or a pocket of thunder clapped I instinctively drew into myself, sensing that danger was lying in wait and ready to attack. The worst incident was in middle school, when a teacher gently clasped a hand on my shoulder. There was screaming and terrible sobs punctuated by choking, and I saw myself crying. The entire time I floated above watching this scene play out, but I was absolutely powerless. After a trip to the guidance counselor’s office (like many girls my age I was suffering from puberty-induced histrionics), I was branded as a neurotic overnight.

Only food offered a vague comfort, the sensation of being full with something other than a reckless parasite. So I ate until I thought my guts would rip through my stomach, until I couldn’t even taste what was in my mouth and everything came rushing out again. This was a reassuring ceremony, completely safe and predictable. Just as the moon made the tides ride in and out, I cycled food up and down my throat according to a hallowed pattern. Each time I emptied myself felt like a small renewal, a cleanliness that I couldn’t even get when I scrubbed my skin a tinder, bright red.

Had it not been for my parents, who saw me swell to twice my size in a year, I would’ve continued this soothing routine. They put me on a diet, and this was even more satisfying than my old practice, which left me with nasty toothaches. Restriction gave me a way to wrest my body from the interloper, and I wielded it like a superpower.

Just as past worshippers imbued numbers with magic and meaning, I found measurements to hold a sacred significance. My calorie limit, the scale’s judgement, the size of my jeans: they were holy figures that guaranteed I was no mere puppet. I couldn’t cast out the intruder, but at least I could exorcize pieces of my body. My fingers and toes turned livid and my spine poked though the nape of my neck, but I couldn’t stop.

Being a female adolescent the worst was assumed. Doctors told me I was being irrational, and maybe they were right. But being randomly struck by lightning was so outside the bounds of reason I felt no need to act sane. Why should I be when the circumstances didn’t call for it? I imagined myself to be Saint Catherine of Siena, starving for the divine cause of stealing small pieces of myself back from a leech. The white coats were wrong, but I saw the pride in their faces when they filed me away as an anorexic. Like disobedient girls thrown away in nunneries, I was sent to a clinic for re-education.

The treatment center was a preview of what I imagined Hell to be. Damned girls with gaunt faces, thinning hair, and eyes like bush-babies wandered around my floor. Once again I was a helpless child, with my food and weight closely monitored. It was as if I was on an operating table while distant eyes gazed at my flayed body. In church I’d learned that suffering could achieve what happiness could not, but I was being whittled away into nothingness.

Eventually I was allowed to spend time outside the hospital, like a dog occasionally let out of its cage. At first I felt no difference, since under the hawkish eyes of my parents I was still a prisoner. But then I found ways to rebel, like carving in my skin.  These runes were hidden on my thighs and the inside of my upper arm. Maybe if you aligned all the symbols on my body they’d spell the secret to why curses are cast upon children and how they should be lifted.

I grew bold, and during one supervised release I planned to fast for an entire day. This was met with disapproval but I was brave, or at least so angry that I couldn’t help but act out. After my mother crying (you look sick) and my father yelling (how ungrateful you are for the food on this table) at dinner, I sprinted barefoot out the front door. I had no idea where I was going, but that was ok. The plan was to keep running until I fell off the edge of the earth, and even though my ankles made strange popping noises I ran like I had the Holy Ghost.

Soon though my vision turned sideways and my head felt empty and cold. My heart strained against my ribcage and I thought I was dying. It’s never a good idea to go charging out of your house at night with an empty stomach. My feet slipped from under my body and I hit my head hard on the ground. A warm trickle of blood streamed from the wound and down the bridge of my nose, but I didn’t even attempt to get up.

I sprang back to consciousness in that doomed field. When I titled my head up the full moon, pale and bright, was hanging in the air. Was death an eternity spent living the worse moment of your life? I don’t know why but I felt the time was ripe for divination, and I knew here I would know my fate.

A beam of cool moonlight fell on my eyes, and I heard a voice speaking with the gift of tongues. It repeated a single command: speak, speak, speak. There was a sweetness in this simple chant, and each time I heard the word my spirit lifted higher. It was a simple solution, to let someone in on my secret, but I felt I didn’t have the right. But to hear another say that it was the righteous thing to do sent me into a beatific state.  

I was sick but neither food nor blood came up this time. Instead it was my childhood demon, withering on the ground. Time flowed the right way again, and there were scenes from my youth, happy ones, that I thought didn’t exist. I saw myself as if in a mirror, and no creature lurked behind my eyes. And most brilliantly of all, I sensed my future heavy with so many years.

From what I’m told I didn’t get very far in my escape, and my parents tearfully drove my limp body back to the hospital. There will be no more supervised releases soon, but I’ve found freedom. Though I am too nervous to speak it out loud, I’ve written my tale of possession down and will give it to a white coat when the time is right. But I will tell the dreary-eyed girls on my floor of what I saw that night, and they’ll know what to do to free themselves. This is it, the moment of ascension, and I feel my soul flying up to salvation.

Words: Alex Reaves, Illustrations: Raisa Yavneh

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