I First met the devil when I was eight years old

pexels-photo-447570.jpeg

I try to keep my anger in check. I really do. But I’m tired of being poor and powerless, overlooked and ignored. I am not small. I am not insignificant. I am a person, just as deserving of life and happiness as anyone else. Maybe more so, since I’ve never done anything to actively hurt anyone, even though I’ve had the chance. It’s the slow leak of dignity day in and day out that gets to me.

It’s petty to think this way, I know. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, and it colors my perception of social interactions. My therapist and I have worked that out. I see slights that aren’t there, she says. But what does she know? She comes from money. She has a fancy degree that separates her from the people below her. She’s so used to the deference that she doesn’t even notice it anymore. How does she talk to the receptionist, huh? I can tell you it’s not with the same respect she gives her peers.

Sorry, I’m just venting.

It’s just that the workers have been drilling holes into the walls of my office all day. I can’t think straight, and maybe that’s why I’m irritated. I’ve asked them to stop, but the orders came from above. The orders always come from above. Orders can come from below, too, but those are dressed up differently.

Maybe you think this is a story about how I snapped. It’s not. I’m not a sociopath. I understand that people are just people, even if they play petty power games and look down on those like me. I could never do anything to hurt anyone. At least not willingly. No, this is a story about the devil.

I first met the devil when I was eight years old. I came across him one summer afternoon while I was out in the woods, miles from the nearest house or farm. He didn’t look much like I’d expected him to. He wasn’t red at all, and didn’t have even a single horn. Instead he was a thin, clean-shaven man in a shabby suit with jet black hair. He looked like any handsome man, except that he had one goat’s hoof and one rooster’s claw for feet. It was strange, if I looked directly at him, I could see those strange feet clearly, but if I looked at them from the corner of my eye, they just looked regular. He carried a satchel over one shoulder, and spoke with a polished and melodic voice that made me laugh to hear it. He didn’t introduce himself, but I knew him.

I loved him immediately.

I offered to show him around the woods, and he accepted with a gracious smile. So, I took the devil’s hand and led him to the creek where I liked to catch minnows, to the Culver's pasture where sometimes there was a mean old bull, to the fallen tree where I liked to build and demolish forts, and finally to the rock outcropping behind my house where I could watch the hawks dive for mice.

At the last stop, he bent down to me and whispered into my ear. “Which would you like to be, girl? The hawk or the mouse?”

I don’t know why, but the question scared me. I didn’t want to be the mouse, ripped up by the hawk’s talons, but I didn’t want to be the hawk either, doing the ripping. I told him that I had to go home, and he told me that he understood. He stooped a little, patted me on the head, and told me that I was a good girl and that we’d meet again soon. I told him that I couldn’t wait.

When I told my parents about the nice devil that I met in the woods, they smiled softly and told me that I had a very big imagination.

The rest of my childhood unfolded uneventfully. I was not particularly liked, but not particularly disliked. The boys mostly avoided me, but that meant that they also didn’t pick on me with much fervor. I was like most kids: a mind full of petty vendettas, easily forgotten by the time after school cartoons came on. I don’t remember whether I was happy, but I also don’t remember having been particularly sad. We were poor, but we had enough to scrape by most of the time when you counted the church donations and hand-me-down clothes.

I had forgotten all about the encounter with the devil by the time I reached adolescence, or if I remembered it, I thought it was a dream. When you cease to be a child, things that you remember as fact start to take on the characteristics of fiction. So it was with our meeting. It all ran together with make-believe and imaginary friends.

I was reminded of the reality of our interaction one day when I was fifteen. I was watching the news and saw some story about a rich man getting away with murder in the typical fashion. He’d killed his wife, and everyone knew it. He’d bragged about it openly, had left evidence out in the open. As the head juror announced the verdict--not guilty--the man turned not to his lawyer, but to a handsome man seated behind him. The murderer smiled and the handsome man nodded.

In an instant, I realized that I recognized that nodding man sitting in the first row. That jet black hair and shabby suit were the same as that day in the woods when I was eight years old. The whole experience came rushing back to me.

At first I wouldn’t believe it, thought that it was a kind of glitch in my brain that connected a half-remembered dream to the image I was seeing. It made a kind of sense, and I could have gone on believing in the lie I told myself if not for what unfolded on my sixteenth birthday.

It was supposed to be a surprise, that birthday party. My parents had gone to extensive lengths, and had spent far more than they could afford, to throw me a party that to most people would have appeared fairly modest. They rented the basement of the VFW and decorated the cinder-block walls with multi-colored streamers. There was even a store-bought cake, an unheard-of luxury for my family in those days.

I waited in anticipation for the first of my classmates to arrive. I continued to wait, even as the party’s start time came and went. I waited until my parents moved from where they had stood in the corner, speaking in hushed whispers and casting concerned expressions my way. I waited until they came up to me and put sympathetic hands on my shoulders, and asked if I wanted to go ahead and open my presents anyway.

I didn’t. I ran out of the VFW and the entire three miles back to the house. There I holed up in my room and cried until I felt empty. I had never been so humiliated in my life. When the phone rang, I debated not answering it. Ultimately I picked it up, only to hear the voice of my best friend timidly speaking on the other line.

“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry I missed your party.”

I choked down a giant sob and remained stoically silent on the phone, hoping that Sarah could feel the depths of my anger in that silence.

She cleared her throat. “I really wanted to go, I promise. It’s just that Erin also had a birthday party today, and she rented out the skating rink.” There was another silence from my end. “I really thought I could make it to both, but Darren was there, and you know...”

I did know. Erin Opfer had planned her party on the day she knew I was having mine. Her birthday wasn’t even for another week. She’d done it to be cruel, and for no other reason. I thought about her perfect smug face. In that moment, I hated her more than I’d ever hated anyone in my life. I sat on my bed crying and visualizing the elaborate ways in which Erin could be punished until I eventually fell asleep.

It was mid-afternoon the next day before I heard the news. My dad had just come in from town, and he sat stiffly at the kitchen table, looking gray and ashen. I walked up to him to see if everything was okay.

“Sit down,” he said, looking like he might cry. “I’ve got some bad news for you.”

I steadied myself against the table and slid into a chair.

“The Opfer girl, the one in your grade?” he looked at me and continued, “well, she was found today.”

“Found?” I asked. I hadn’t known she was missing.

My dad choked on his words and shifted his eyes from mine. “I know you were friends with her.”

I nodded at this, not feeling like it was the time to argue.

“Well,” he cleared his throat again, “well, she was found in the park this morning. Oh, sweetie, she’s dead. I’m so sorry.” He pulled me in for a hug as worrisome thoughts swirled through my head.

The next day at school, every classroom was abuzz at the news. Some students were crying openly, and the ones that weren’t looked shell-shocked. The details were beginning to emerge of how Erin was found, of how the ropes that had hung her from the oak tree in the middle of the park had bitten into her naked flesh. Pieces of her, they said, were just gone. One boy leaned in to whisper in my ear during fourth period. He said her face was frozen mid-scream.

The teachers let us out after lunch, said that we all needed some time to deal with what had happened. I was glad to be away from the mass grief, but I also didn’t feel comfortable being by myself. I went home with Sarah and we sat together on her bedroom floor.

“It’s just so awful,” she said, breaking the silence that had fallen between us.

“Yeah,” I replied, avoiding eye contact.

“They say she was scalped. Can you believe that? What kind of sicko would do something like that?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Well, I just hope whoever is responsible rots in Hell. I really do.”

I nodded at her, unable to speak over the lump in my throat. I gestured toward the door, and walked out before Sarah could object.

The devil was waiting for me in my bedroom when I got home. I didn’t feel any surprise, not really. Just disorientation and a guilt that wouldn’t slip down out of my throat.

“The first one is free. The rest are unlimited, after a simple exchange.” He said, by way of reintroduction.

“I don’t understand,” I said, looking up at the man in confusion.

“You don’t understand? Well, I think you do. Maybe your brain has rationalized it away. Maybe you’ve told yourself that it was just a coincidence. But we both know what really happened, and who orchestrated it. I did it because you wanted me to.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, but it was a lie. I knew exactly what he was talking about.

“You poor, meek child. What do you know?”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” I said, more to myself than to the man standing before me. I hoped that the tiny amounts of biblical knowledge I possessed might keep this man, this devil, at bay.

He laughed. “Inherit the earth? The meek shall inherit nothing. The meek shall live their lives in anonymous toil, trod upon and ignored by everyone who actually stands up for what they want. Then, the meek shall die forgotten and alone. The meek shall inherit the earth? What exactly do you think they would even do with it? They’re certainly not going to lead each other the greater heights, or elevate mankind. That whole “the meek will inherit the earth” nonsense is just a way for the powerful to keep the powerless in line. It’s a tale as old as me, my dear. False promises and slap to the face if you are brave enough to ask for proof. The meek are cowards; have the courage to take what’s yours.”

“What do you have to offer, then?” I thought about Erin, strung up in the tree and shuddered.

His smile nearly split his face in two. “My dear, I offer you only what is rightfully yours. I offer you the respect every human being is entitled to.”

“And at what cost? I’m not stupid enough to make a deal with the devil. We all know what comes of that.”

“The devil went down to Georgia; he was lookin’ for a soul to steal?” he laughed. “You believe popular culture instead of what you know to be true? Don’t be silly, girl. There’s no fire and brimstone at the end of the story, only a full and happy life followed by an easy death.”

Every part of me was drawn to the man and the offer he was presenting to me. It felt like falling into bed after a long day of work, and struggling to stay awake. All I wanted to do was sleep, to give in to the physical and mental pull before me. I closed my eyes tightly and resisted with all my power.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t take what you offer.”

He smirked at me, cocking his head to the side. “Even to me, she apologizes.”

His words sent my temper into overdrive. I could feel my nostrils flare as I clenched my fists. His smile only broadened, and I knew he thought he was winning. I forced myself to be calm.

“Leave,” I said. “Now.”

He looked at me and made a graceful bow, nearly touching his chest to the floor in the process.

“I’ll see you again soon, my girl. You’ll be ready for me in time.”

Soon, I guess, is a relative term, because I didn’t see him again for many years. I graduated high school and went to a state school on scholarship, the furthest one I could find from that room and that park. I didn’t return for many years, and by then, I had once again convinced myself that it was all a bad dream.

It was my mother’s funeral that prompted my return. She died alone in her bedroom while my dad was away looking for a calf that had gotten out of the fence. A stroke, they told me. I was twenty-three.

I won’t get into the devastation of the loss. Just know that it was earth-shattering. How could it have been otherwise? It hurts still to think about it, even now, years later. And besides, this is not a story about that. It’s about the devil.

I saw him again at the funeral. I was standing next to the coffin, blankly accepting the hugs of great-aunts who smelled like rose perfume when I heard the click of his hoof on the polished funeral home floor. He smiled at me as he entered the receiving line, and for the first time in days I felt something other than emptiness and grief. By the time he had gotten to me, the rage had built up inside me to the point of pure hatred.

“What are you doing here?” I hissed at him.

“I came to give my condolences.” He said, feigning indignation.

“You aren’t welcome here.”

He smiled at me and drew me in with an arm across my shoulder. No one around me seemed to care or notice. He leaned in close, and I could feel the heat of his breath as he spoke into my ear.

“Her suffering was great. Still is, if we’re being honest about it.”

“I know that’s not true; the doctors said her death was instant.”

“Well, sure. That’s what they say. Who would tell a grieving daughter that her mother died in agony? Not the doctors, that’s for certain. I, however, believe in honesty above all else.”

I pulled away from him, but his fingers tightened against my shoulder.

“That’s a lie.”

“Would you like more detail? The aneurysm that felled your mother started as a small weak spot in her brain. It bulged over time, pulsing against the wall of the artery until it exploded, sending blood rushing through her skull and causing her stroke. Within minutes, deprived of oxygen as she was, parts of her brain began to die. She felt it. The helpless desperation of it all. Alone in her bedroom, with not a soul to ease her lonely terror in those last minutes, the rational parts of the brain shutting down one by one, leaving only animal panic in their wake. Until, at long last, the animal gave up its fight altogether.” He leaned in close again. “Now, does that sound painless to you? You of all people should know that physical pain pales in comparison to emotional pain.”

I swallowed hard and peeled myself from the man’s grasp.

“I don’t believe you, and even if I did, I don’t want to listen to you anymore.”

“But I haven’t even told you about her soul. Don’t you want to hear about how it suffers? About how your mother writhes in agony even now?”

“You’re a liar. You told me before that there was no such thing as Hell.”

“Is your mind that small, girl?” He asked, laughing humorlessly. “Hell certainly does not exist, but does that mean that insignificant souls like your mother’s do not suffer for eternity? Or are you really so unimaginative?”

I clasped my hands over my ears and screamed. I screamed until my dad came over and took me away. He was concerned, he said when I asked what happened to the black-haired man.

“There was no black-haired man, sweetheart. You were standing alone, and just started screaming out of nowhere.” He looked away from me, his eyes filling with tears. “I know how you feel. We’ll get through this together.”

I could only nod.

In the years that have gone by, I think about what the man said to me every day. I can’t forget it. And he doesn’t let me. I see his face so often. In the background when medics rush in to a natural disaster area. In the courtroom during the trials of heinous acts. Standing behind politicians as they are sworn in. He’s always there.

And he calls me, too. During my weaker moments. I try to minimize those as best as I can.

I do my best to stay optimistic and calm in all situations. I stopped reading the news. I don’t watch sports. I don’t follow politics. I give people the benefit of the doubt and don’t give them a chance to disappoint me.

The big things, I can watch out for more easily. The deaths, the break-ups, the layoffs. Those things are consequential and plain to see. It’s the little things that get to me.

Every time the petty annoyances of the world start to snowball in my head, I try to stay alert. I try to tamp them down and breathe deeply and count to ten. Most of the time it works, but when it doesn’t, I know I’ll be receiving a visit.

As I sit here now and they keep drilling in the walls, I can feel the anger like a small hard knot in my throat. The small injustices of the past few weeks have been bubbling up in my memory. Venting here has helped a little, but the phone is buzzing, and I know who it is. I don’t even have to look at my phone to see the two-digit number flashed upon the screen. I know that when I answer it, I’ll hear that kindly, lilting voice telling me that it can all go away. Who would dare slight me once the devil is done? Not that barista who rolled her eyes at me this morning, or the asshole in the Porsche who nearly ran me over in the crosswalk. Certainly not the banker who denied my loan or the date who left dinner early because of a “family emergency.”

I take a deep breath and pick up the phone.