Author Recalls Childhood Steeped In Religious Fundamentalism & Poverty In New Memoir

By Kelly J Beard

My mother saw demons.

I learned this while curled at her feet, eavesdropping on her conversations during Bible Study. She and three other women from Desert Chapel huddled around our kitchen table cross-referencing the standard King James with the red-letter Schofield Bible. Afterwards, they prayed for everything from straying husbands to Rock Hudson.

That day, my mother told the circle of women about a call she received the night before. A boy. A teenager who came home from Youth Services to find his mother naked, thrashing in the shallow end of their swimming pool, gurgling like a baby. I hugged my knees to my chest, curled at the center of their shuffling feet, listening to my mother concede defeat. Even with the strongest man in the world beside her, the demons won that night. They spewed curse words in three voices, she said, all deep, like men.
Coffee cups settled.

She sniffed, reached under the table and scratched her leg while telling the women how she and Dad stayed all night, praying with the woman in the pool. The whole time she’s flinging spit and the nastiest things at us. And this awful, foul odor.

She took a shuddery breath that ended in something like a hiccup. Blew her nose, and wadded the tissue into her apron pocket. We did everything we could. There were just too many of them. They were too strong.

The women sighed and sucked their teeth. Sister Busby snapped her gum.
I thought about Mama waking me the night before, how I’d listened to Daddy peeing in the tiny turquoise and white tiled bathroom across the hall while she told me they were leaving to pray for a lady. I begged to go along. No, she said, we think she’s demon possessed, we can’t let you get that close. The toilet flushed. She disappeared into the dark.

I lay awake the rest of the night, my cotton gown sticky as I listened to my sister’s rhythmic huffs in the bunk below. She slept through everything. The ceiling had gone from black to a pale blur by the time the car crept back across the gravel drive.

My mother held a mystical place in my small world, her presence so pervasive those first years I believed I was her shadow, a sightless thing always at her heels, following her around by day, lolling at her feet until she put me to bed at night.

After the three older kids left for school, she’d crack my door, and with a quick snap my small soles reattached to hers. All day, I drifted behind her, skimming the nubby carpet while she vacuumed, hovering against pale green walls while she made beds, bobbing in the greasy puddles on the floor as she scoured pans soaking in the sink. Sometimes she napped, and I lay flat against her back.

While the women prayed and wept, I felt a chill of evil lurking outside the circle of legs splayed under the table. I shrunk into my skin, listening to the women comfort my mother for her failure. When Sister Fee started talking about a demon possessed man who roamed naked through a hillside cemetery, I thought she meant someone we knew until Mama finished the story.

He chewed right through chains the villagers used to tie him to the tombstones. Villagers, I thought, not people I know! Still, this fact didn’t relieve the crawl of dread that threaded through my veins while she finished the story, describing how a slew of demons wheedled a concession from Jesus, how he’d agreed to let them pass from the man into a herd of swine feeding nearby.

No one explained why the pigs chose death over demons. No one divulged why the demons had to beg to possess pigs but not people. No one revealed how to avoid falling for them. I knew they wore disguises, knew that what looked beautiful or enticing was most likely of the devil, but I didn’t know how to protect myself.

I took precautions. I didn’t look Brother Pine in the eyes. I crossed to the center of the street fifty yards before reaching the terra cotta colored house with the tiled roof and flowering Saguaro cacti, preferring the mortal danger of passing cars to the spiritual hazard of getting too close to the house where my mother saw demons flickering behind the windows. I never took the Lord’s name in vain.

But I knew I was vulnerable. This knowledge kept me pinned to the floor at her feet, week after week, my cheek pressed against the cream and black speckled linoleum, the yellow ties of her apron dangling out of reach. Her feet made a papery sound when she rubbed them together. A blue vein draped across her ankle.

Now, in late middle-age, I still see that little girl prostrate at her mother’s feet, her lower lip nearly bit-through with fear. She doesn’t know yet how the demons lurking beyond the table’s circumference will be nothing like she imagines. They will not swirl around her in ghostly bodies with blood-red eyes. Instead, they will appear in fires and floods, in her family’s fractured lives, and in the carnage of their violent faith.

Kelly J. Beard practiced employment discrimination in the Atlanta area for two decades, during which time she founded the Professional Women’s Information Network (ProWIN) and received multiple awards for her legal and community service. She was recognized as a “Super Lawyer,” a “Star of Atlanta,” and as one of the nation’s “Preeminent Female Lawyers,” and received a certificate of recognition from the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence for her service. In 2016, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work appears in Creative Nonfiction, Santa Ana River Review, Five Points, Bacopa Literary Review and others. An Imperfect Rapture is her first full-length memoir.

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