I was too young to fully comprehend what the man on the makeshift cross was feeling. I only knew that he hung there, in pain, staring at me. His eyes possessed no anger: I knew what that looked like. Most of the people in my life had eyes full of anger, frustration, and evil, but this man showed no trace of any of that in his soul. He must have known his death was imminent, and yet he somehow seemed concerned for me because I could feel his compassion, even though I did not know how it was reaching me.
When you’re a six-year-old girl, feelings hold an immense amount of weight; recognizing their presence was easy, but understanding them was not.
I was surrounded by people clothed in black hooded robes, standing in formation, watching. It was cold, and the night wind blew the tree branches back and forth, while threatening to blow out the candles strategically placed around us.
One man alone administered the horrific blows that caused his captive on the cross to convulse in pain. The whip he used was tied to his hand and had a long tail with splatters of blood. Each time the whip thrashed the man’s body, the cracking of his soft flesh made me flinch. No one else seemed bothered by the sound.
The captive had been stripped of all clothing and hung there in humiliation. Blood from the gaping wounds flowed down his body, rushed past his knees, and dripped from his toes into little puddles below, staining the dirt with his life.
Drip, drip, drip.
A tear ran down his face, passing over a dark lesion, then disappeared into his matted beard. His brown hair hung freely to his shoulders and was covered in blood. Sweat rushed down his chest and mingled with the blood from his torso, and his teeth were stained red with the blood that oozed from the corners of his mouth. But still his only trace of emotion was the compassion flowing from his kind eyes to mine.
He continued to stare at me as if he were reaching out in a way that was tangible, with a tenderness that mocked the iniquity around us. Somehow, his love pushed through the thick fog of evil to reach the small, scared child before him.
Unable to bear seeing his pain, I looked down, but then grew afraid that if I did not watch this hideous act of violence and bloodshed, I would be next. As my eyes crept upward, I shuddered at the blood that flowed from his trembling body. My legs quivered beneath my robe as I cried out inside. Mommy please help him! Please Mommy, please!
Several feet away, two demons watched me, hissing in anger. One pointed at me with his grey, scaly finger. His sharp black nails scared me. I could smell the stench of sulfur seething from both their deformed bodies. Their jagged teeth seemed anxious for human flesh, and their beady red eyes accused me with cruel ambition. I understood the message they were sending, so I quickly turned my gaze back to the man on the cross.
The wind blew my robe and hair, adding a chill to my tiny body. But when I looked into the captive’s shimmering eyes again, I felt warm inside. His affection was cradling me like a baby safe in its mother's arms. I relaxed my shoulders and took a deep breath, but within seconds felt the urge again to scream for someone to help him. Please, help him! I yelled inside, as my eyes remained locked onto his.
An ounce of compassion had crept into my soul, but I didn’t dare cry out. Tears welled up and tried to push their way out, but I swallowed hard and blinked them away, knowing they would only bring me trouble. I was trained to be strong and never cry, knowing the punishment for breaking that rule was severe. This taught me early on that tears were of no useful gain. When they came naturally I had to figure out a way to stop them.
Exhausted from the trauma, I stared past the man into the night and felt like an empty shell. No love, no hate, just emptiness. I longed to disappear and never return.
The crack of the whip pulled me out of my daze and I forced myself to watch again, moving my eyes up and down his damaged body. This time, when I met his gaze, I wondered if the man’s desire was to save me instead of himself. Of course, he could not physically come down from the posts he was tied to, but it was as if he was more concerned with my future than his own. I didn’t even know his name and had never seen him before this night. Why would he care what happened to me?
With his death approaching, did he know what his destination was when his existence on this earth expired? He must have known something I did not. He must have possessed something within that I did not possess.
Now the man’s body shook violently; it appeared that he was having difficulty breathing. His eyes rolled back into his head two or three times, and he heaved, trying to push air into his lungs. His face turned red, then purplish-blue, and his head fell back as he struggled to keep it steady.
The sound of the blood dropping to the ground seemed louder than the whip cracking on his skin.
Drip, drip, drip.
He looked into my eyes again, and I felt his pain. Sorrow welled up in my chest, and I trembled in the cold night air. The pain stabbed at me over and over. I tightened my stomach and squeezed my delicate hands into fists. Help me, Mommy, I cried silently.
I looked around, but no one came to my rescue. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t hide, and I dared not scream out, so I swallowed hard again, pushed my eyebrows down, and pursed my lips together. One tear managed to sneak down my face, so I quickly moved my arm to wipe it away and cleared the snot from my nose. Turning my eyes back to the brutal murder, I forced a steel wall to close itself inside of me to keep the emotions thoroughly restrained.
After countless blows, the man’s body frantically convulsed. Suddenly the strength dropped out of it, his eyes closed, and his head fell forward. He was dead, dead and gone forever.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the dark red puddles accumulating below him.
Drip, drip, drip.
When I finally looked back up I noticed a small tattoo on his right shoulder. It was a cross, and each end had a sharp point. It was one of the few places on his body that was left untouched by the whip.
Thinking about how much I despised the people around me, I felt the urge to scream at them, I hate you! I hate all of you!
But fear did its job well and kept me silent. The only option I had was the scowl on my face that conveyed the mountain of hate inside of me.
“Jackie, what are you feeling right now? Jackie, can you hear me?” The voice of Maureen, my therapist, sounded miles away. As I slowly moved back into the present, her voice, repeating my name, became comforting to me. But my sense of safety was short lived as the memory replayed over and over in my mind.
Had I really managed to escape such a corrupt, violent childhood? I was still trying to comprehend it. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had happened, but somehow, it was hard to accept. As the memories rushed through my mind, I trembled. Where are they now? I wondered. Will they come after me and try to kill me too? I was having a hard time distinguishing the past from the present.
“Are you okay?” Maureen asked.
I nodded my head.
“Do you understand what you saw?”
“Yes,” I whispered. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t find the way to do it.
“Can you tell me what you were seeing?” Maureen’s voice was thick with concern.
I forced myself to delve back into the memory.
“It’s a man . . . and he’s hanging there, and . . . and I’m scared. It’s really scary. He, he’s bleeding, and I think he’s hurt bad. But he keeps looking at me, and it makes me feel better.” I felt like a child again.
“Do you know his name?”
“What else do you see?”
“I see demons.” My voice wavered and my hand shook as I pushed the hair behind my ear. I looked around the room, half expecting to see one of the contorted creatures taunting me.
“What were the demons doing?” Maureen asked.
“They um . . . they watch me. And they curse a lot. And . . . and they were circling around the guy on the cross and hissing. I think they spit on him a couple of times.” My body suddenly felt cold. I stared at Maureen in silence, and wondered if she had ever seen a demon before.
“So what do you think about the memory?”
“I don’t know what to think about this memory.” My eyes darted around her office again.
“It’s obvious that I had a pretty fucked up childhood.”
“Do you know who you were there with?” Maureen asked.
I tapped my nails on the arm of the couch, trying to remember the face of anyone other than the man being killed or the demons.
“Um, I’m not sure. I know that there were a bunch of people there watching, but I don’t remember their faces.”
“Well, you were young at the time, so someone must have taken you there. What about your parents? Do you recall either of them being there?”
“No, I just can’t remember. I’m trying . . . but there’s nothing, nothing at all.” I was frustrated at myself for not remembering.
“So what are you feeling about this memory? Remember, it’s important to process the emotions.”
“I feel like shit,” I said. “Utter and complete shit.” I shifted in my seat and bounced my foot around. Pain tried to make its way into my chest, but my steel wall blocked it.
“What they did to that man was inconceivable. And I hate it that I was there and couldn’t help him. And I want to cry right now, but . . . but I can’t.” I chewed on my thumb nail while my foot continued to shake. “It all scares the hell out of me. Especially how cold hearted those people were.”
I sat thinking about the people that were there, but since I couldn't place a face to any of them, my focus turned to the demons.
“But what scares me the most are the demons,” I said.
“Why is that?” Maureen asked.
“I don’t know.” I sighed, exasperated. “I guess because they’ve returned. They follow me and watch me. But, but it’s more than that.” I paused and waited for Maureen to finish her notes. “I can FEEL them. And it’s like . . . like being tormented. Every damn day I feel tormented by them.”
The tears finally tried to make an appearance, but I automatically fought them back, making sure they stayed in their place.
Maureen sat quietly gazing into my eyes, and then jotted something in her notebook again.
“What specifically are they doing that’s tormenting you?” she asked.
“Shit! Everything. They point at me and hiss. They follow me around and and watch my every move. I don’t really know how to explain it. They’re just around and I can feel their hate and see the anger in their eyes.”
“What is it you’re afraid of?”
“Um, I don’t know. Them.”
“Have they ever physically hurt you?”
“Yes . . . no . . . I don’t know.” I tapped my nails nervously. “But I’ve seen them hurt other people. What about the man on the cross?” I said. “They were a part of killing him. And I had to stand there and watch!” I jumped up off the couch and paced across the room with my hands tightly gripping my hips. My brows were furrowed and my right eye twitched in frustration. As I paced, indignation took over. It gushed though my mind faster than my pounding heart. As I turned to Maureen, my voice grew louder, and I pointed my index finger at her.
“The demons are nothing more than a bunch of miserable, vile, stinkin’ creatures that seem to revel in human pain.” I paced faster. “I had to watch them torture that man when I was a kid, and, and do so many fucking horrible things.” I looked back at Maureen. “And now, they still follow me around as if I'm some sort of pawn in their sick, sordid game.” My arms flew up and slapped down on my thighs. My mind was spinning. “They're just so fucking evil.” With fire in my eyes I suddenly yelled, “And I’m so fucking sick of it!”
The room fell silent except for the clock ticking on her desk.
Tick, tick, tick.
I turned to look out the window. No demons in sight.
Breaking the silence Maureen asked, “What do you plan on doing about it?”
I turned to her with a confused look. “I don’t know. What am I supposed to do about it?” I waited for an answer. “Well?” I asked, raising both arms out to my side. When there was no answer from her I continued on. “I’m here, seeking help. What the hell does anybody on this planet do about demons?”
Maureen smiled at me and, as usual, appeared to be filled with calm.
“Jackie, why don’t you sit down and try to relax?”
“Fine,” I said, and trudged over to the couch rolling my eyes, and slumped down onto the spot I was in before. My heart rate slowed. Defeat crammed its way into my thoughts. There is no way to get rid of them. I’m here living on this planet and they’re here too. Where do I go to get away?
“I wrestled with demons when I was a younger woman,” Maureen said. “I understand how real they are, and how ruthless they can be.” She leaned forward and looked at me with a serious expression. “But maybe therapy isn’t enough. Maybe you need to make a choice.”
“A choice about what?” I asked. “What choices do I have here?”
“To stand and fight,” she said. “To tell them no. To stop being their victim.”
What victim? I thought. I’m nobody’s fucking victim.
I crossed my legs and nervously bounced my foot. The heels I had on were killing my feet and the stockings felt like they were choking my body. I guess it was the price I paid to look sophisticated and professional at work every day. I looked down at my fancy shoes, stopped bouncing my foot, and suddenly realized what little control I had over my life. I ran to my car at night terrified the demons would get me. I slept with a gun under the pillow next to me.
I suddenly blurted out, “I am NOT their victim.” I tapped my nails hard on the side table, hoping not to chip the dark, red nail polish. I looked at Maureen for a reaction but she sat in silence.
Angry, I looked down. My actions every day told a different story about not being their victim. I walked around in fear, every day, because of the demons. I’d never done anything to try and remove them from my life. And I’d never even tried to find a way to fight back. My denial waned as the truth trickled into my heart. I’ve been nothing but their victim.
I could not live the rest of my life this way. It was time to ask the question that frightened me the most. I hesitated, clenched my hands together, and searched my mind for the courage to ask.
“How . . .” My voice wavered. “How am I supposed to fight back?”
“Well it seems to me that you’ve already begun to,” Maureen replied.
“I don’t get it. How?”
“By deciding that you’re no longer their victim.”
I sat silent, not knowing how to respond.
The session’s hour was over, so I gathered my coat and purse and left. Outside, the cool air whipped around my body. I ran to my car, shivering, and once inside sat staring into space, emotionally beat.
Then I thought about Maureen’s statements again. Victim, stand and fight, tell them no. It hadn’t dawned on me before that I even had any choices with the demons. But what would they do if I did try to stand my ground and fight them? I was scared. Scared and alone. I had no ties to my family, by choice. My only friend in town, Dannie, was just a drinking buddy. I only saw Maureen once a week and she certainly couldn’t follow me around to protect me.
How can I fight them alone? I thought. How do I fight them at all?
I tapped my nails on the steering wheel and stared at the mountains.
But how can I not, at least try?
The anger rose again. I revved the engine and backed out of the parking space.
“I will NOT continue to be their damn victim!”
My tires screeched with smoke as I bolted out of the parking lot, and drove home to my life of emotional desolation.