ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010
Somewhere Near Gerasa
The pig farmers were angry. The gospels never mention that. And the thing is, by the time I was back in my right mind, feeling like myself again, he was gone. Wouldn’t take me with him. Just told me the Kingdom of God was at hand, whatever that means, and took off across the Sea of Galilee, leaving me with a bunch of pissed-off pig farmers, wailing on about their drowned herds.
Drowned pigs are not a pretty sight. You can salvage a few, smoke or salt the meat, if you act quickly. But that many, no way. We’re talking a couple dozen pigs here. I was running a regular demon hostel. Even the fish had enough to eat; there were a few bloated carcasses bobbing against the cliff’s edge for days. Still, I can’t say I’m sorry. Bad luck for the pig farmers, but good fortune for me. Let me tell you how it was.
I got my first demon—or he got me, I should say—when I was five or six. Just a little one. Came up on me one day when I was sorting straw, helping my dad at the brickyard. Before I knew it—snerk—right up the nose and God it felt like I had to sneeze but I couldn’t, and my nose and mouth were all twitchy, like the worst itch I ever had, eyes blinking and watering, and everyone else at the brickyard must have thought I just got a breath of straw dust until I pissed myself and then walked straight into the brick kiln. Burned the tunic off my body, half the hair off my head, and the skin on my legs is still all shiny and smooth twelve years later. Spent the next months on my back at home, my little sister fanning me to keep the flies off. I listened to my father beat on my mother—demons always come from the mother’s side—and rail at me too, his eyes bulging, like this was my fault. (It was my mother who saved me, got a wisewoman to come over and drive that demon out. I don’t know how she did it except that I kept sneezing and sneezing, water streaming out of my nose, out of my eyes; even my burned legs were weeping. Demons can’t stand water. Jesus knew that. Maybe that’s why he could walk on it.)
After that, I got demons so often that my older brother would just take me down to the shore, throw me in, and hold me under until I had stopped twitching. Nearly drowned me on more than one occasion, but at least now I’m okay at swimming.
I wish I knew what it was about me that made me so appealing to demons. (I use the past tense because, lo!, these past few weeks I’ve felt so clean, so . . . empty . . . that I know it is all over. I am free of them at last.) I’ve always been a bit wild, prone to fits of sulking and tantrums when very little, struck by the wanderlust when I was older, so it wasn’t a big deal when the demons made me shriek with rage or run off into the desert—as they often did.
What did it feel like? Everyone wants to know what it feels like. Have you ever been out in the wilderness by yourself—not with other merchants or shepherds, not even with a camel, but really alone? Or maybe once in the desert you got up in the night to let the wine run out of you? And you go off a way in the scrub until you can’t tell which way is which, can’t hear the camels breathing any more, and a chill runs over you because your blankets were so warm. And then as you’re taking your piss—hanging on for dear life, like it’s the only thing that anchors you to this world—you make the mistake of looking up at the sky and for a moment you think, my God, look at these stars. Then your eyes are drawn to a spot between two stars, and it is so black, so deeply black of nothing, and no one has ever touched it, and you feel you’ve fallen in, like it’s a great pit that’s been waiting for you your whole life, cold and black and eager for you to fall. That’s what it’s like.
Never felt that? Never mind.
But you don’t want to hear about that anyway—about all those years of demons and torment and running around town naked. All those sacrifices my poor mother offered up to any god she thought might listen. All the times I got tied up in the public square with some priest dousing me with buckets of water every so often. Terrible. But still, I remember what my mother said not long after my father died: “A person can get used to anything.” Come to think of it, I’m not sure if she meant my father being dead or her being married to him for so long. Either way, it’s like that with demons too; you just get used to it. It was my life. Until he came along.
Not too long after my dad died, things went to pieces. My older brother was taken for conscripted labor on account of his debts and without him there, no one wanted me at the brickyard. My mother married another man—willing to be his third wife just to get some support—and even my little sister couldn’t keep me. Her lousy husband hates me; it’s not my fault that all my demons think he’s a jerk and took turns pissing on his sandals and pulling his hair while he slept. So I was on my own. And you know what that’s like, down on your luck, taking handouts, fighting dogs for food. I’d guess that at that time I had a dozen or so demons in me—I’d just about given up trying to get rid of them—all wrestling for control so that most of the day I’d just be a twitching heap in the village square, people stepping over my jerking limbs to draw water from the well. With demons, you see, once you’ve had one, it’s easier to get another one—and then it’s like a summer day on the seashore; every demon is bringing its family and friends. Come in! The water’s great! Except they hate water. But you get the idea.
It was about then that the village elders chained me in the tombs. Out of sight, out of mind. Most folks have never been in a tomb; I hadn’t either. But it’s not so bad. Just a big cave that’s been dug out of the hillside with a stone slab, almost like a skinny table, in the middle and a whole bunch of smaller holes all over the walls. The Levites would come down with a body to be interred, lay it out all nice-like on the slab, and then scram. Back to the village gate to do their purifications before sunset. Just me and the body down there. And my demons, of course. And I’d get a little lonely sometimes, but I think the body was happy to have me there—someone to talk to, even if I was demon infested. And anyway, within a day or two someone from the dead guy’s family always came down with a food offering. They’re not supposed to. The priests say it’s superstition; the dead don’t need food. But everyone does it anyway, and I was glad. I’d skulk in the shadows while the family visited and arranged the food, then dig in when they took off. I always left a little for the dead guy. And eventually the Levites would come back with another corpse and they’d take the first body, which was mostly just bones by then anyway, and toss it into one of the holes in the cave wall, stretch the new body on the stone slab, and leave. And so it went.
I kind of liked it down there at first. It was peaceful sometimes. Quiet. No one bothered me, except the demons. They hated it. There’s nothing a demon likes more than the desert sun—hot and bright and dry. And they’d get angry, argue with each other. Let’s kill this guy and find someone new, one of them might say. No, I like this one, the living’s easy, another would reply. A couple of them liked being around the dead—the smell of it—and they’d try to get me to poke at the corpses, lick the dead flesh. Oh, God. But most of them just wanted to get out. They wailed on about how it was too much like the abyss they all came from. Too dark. Too quiet. Too dead. They’d throw my limbs around and yank at the chain that was staked deep into the floor of the cave and howl and weep, thinking about Abaddon, that deep, deep darkness that’s out there waiting for everyone, in everyone. And I’d see it then, that hole inside opening up, the deep mouth of the earth, ready to swallow me. And I’d tear at my flesh, try to rip off my foot that was chained. Anything, anything to get me out of this cave, this body, this grave.
And that’s when he came. It was early afternoon, the only hour when sunlight would slant into my cave. I was sitting in that sliver of glare, and the demons were quiet, like wolves happily lapping up a pool of blood. But suddenly they knocked me over, all of them lurching within me to one side, like men in a boat on a stormy sea. I could hardly hear over their clamor: Shit. It’s him. Run. Ha Meshiach. No way. Sounding just like chickens when a fox has gotten in. And all of them pulled me, but together for once, and they got that damned stake out of the ground and had me running so fast I stumbled and fell, again and again, out of the cave, the chain dragging along after me, kicking up a cloud of dust. They pulled me out into the sun, and that’s when I felt it—this surge through me, like someone had reached inside and pulled out my guts. Horrifying and intimate all at once.
I saw him right then. He was just getting out of the boat and a whole bunch of other guys were tying up the sails and stowing the oars. Some of them looked pale, a little greenish, like they’d been sick or scared. But him. He just stepped out of that boat, didn’t even get his feet wet, and walked right towards me. This alone was surprising. Most folks would’ve run the other way from a naked man, dusty and bruised up, dragging a length of chain. And if that weren’t enough, I could feel the demons rumbling around inside of me, like I’d eaten meat that sat out too long on a sunny day. Just bubbling and liable to burst out of me from any hole. I could feel them wrestling with each other, holding my mouth shut, trying to bend my knees and make me run, until the big one, the one I called Lump (because that’s what he felt like, a big lump that sat inside my head just behind my right ear, the better to whisper at me) pushed to the front and got a hold of my mouth.
“What do you want of me?” He yelled out through my lips, battering my tongue against my teeth, unsure of how to use these instruments properly, never having had them himself. The man before me said nothing. I felt my teeth clench and grind, my knees buckle; I fell to the ground. “Yeheshua.” It grated out of me, that name. “Son of God. What do you want?” I ended with a gasp, the sudden tug of another demon inside my throat choking off my air, keeping me from speaking. I could hardly focus on the man in front me, or the faint surprise that registered on his face when he heard Lump’s words, my words. Sparkles broke out across my vision, the edges of the world darkened, my chest burned.
“What is your name?” another voice asked, a voice that was not sweet, but was like oak, firm and strong and lasting. And if it was sweet, it was sweet like the first cool day of winter, a relief but also a promise of worse to come, of power. “What is your name?”
And I wanted to cry out my own name, the name my mother gave me, and say, “Here I am, your humble servant.” But when the demon from my throat was torn away, and I could draw breath, it was Lump who filled my mouth, mashing my lips, jamming my tongue through. “We are Legion.” And then a torrent of sound—I never knew I could create such babble—as every demon within clamored for a bit of tongue, of lip, of air, with which to shout out, “No, not that!” And those who couldn’t shout through me raised my arms as if to fly, my feet as if to flee, and surged within me, “Anywhere, anywhere but there!” I felt them clawing, pushing, trapped inside. Anywhere but there, the abyss. Abaddon. Back to the darkness. Never had I felt them afraid. Annoyed, yes, when they were rudely doused with water, but never afraid.
“That is your home. Where else should you go?” Said the oaken voice.
Lump pushed me to my knees. “Anywhere. Have mercy.” These words on my lips tasted salty and strange, like tears, like blood. The babble broke out again, a renewed frenzy of threats and pleas until Lump once again squeezed my tongue. “There, master.” My arm came up slow and distant; I saw my fingers, gray and listless, like one a week dead, point to the distance. The man turned and looked, but my gaze stayed fixed on the pale pointing hand that could not be my own.
“So be it,” the man said, and with his own hand—brown and smooth—he too pointed. “Go.”
The moment you come forth from your mother must be terrible. I’ve seen a birth—I shouldn’t have, but I saw it, snooping on a midwife’s visit in the village. And it’s awful, your mother wailing and all this bloody mess, and then you in the middle of it. And it must hurt like hell to be ripped from her, to be taken from the warm dark depths of that safety, to have the cord cut. And yet it must be wonderful too, the light and the colors and the other faces before you, the world in all its promise.
That’s what I felt at that moment when the brown arm pointed and I on my knees was torn out from my demon womb. Gone, the darkness. Gone, the murmur of voices not my own. Gone, the ties that bound me. And oh, the pain, and oh, the glory.
The world returned to me in sunlight and sparkling water and there, beyond the pointing finger on the rocky, yellow cliff above the sea, a herd of pigs, black and brown and bristling, being driven along a path by the swineherds. Headed to market no doubt. There was no noise, no telltale shift in the wind, but as one who has lived with demons for so long, I could feel them, almost see them, moving through the air—like a heat shimmer making a mirage in the desert. And then they were upon the herd. The first pig leapt in the air, legs stiff, tail suddenly straight, and the other pigs jerked and danced too. The swineherds beat at them with sticks, pounded their sides, but it was too late. In a breath the pigs were off and running, and I saw the man before me gesturing with his finger as if commanding them from afar, drawing them down from the path, out along the rocky promontory and off the edge, little legs pumping, mouths open to squeal, into the waiting sea. Demons hate the water.
And what of me, empty husk, naked and unclean, a dweller with the dead? In those first few moments of freedom, I saw myself for what I was, what I had become: the fingernails on both hands torn away, the streaks of blood and dirt and shit that coated my entire body, the oozing sores where the demons had picked at my flesh. Unclean, unclean, a thousand times defiled. They wouldn’t let me back in my own village, let alone anywhere near the priests and the ritual baths. There were no possible rites of purification that could take away this stench. On my knees on that rocky shore, the man still stood before me, his boat dragged up on the beach, his followers watching him or me or the pigs, and he looked at me and said, “Go. Take a bath.”
Really. Who wouldn’t have said that?
I ran right past his followers, headlong into the sea, just like the pigs had done—only there wasn’t a cliff here. How can anyone hate the water? I scooped great handfuls of sand from the bottom and scrubbed myself with it, grit against grit, until I was new all over, the scurf and scale rubbed away. Then I floated, watched the last of the sun’s arc in the sky and thought that it wouldn’t be so bad if I just had to stay in the water for the rest of my life; if floating was the only way to stay demon-free, I could do it. Catch fish. Maybe help sailors. Wouldn’t be too bad. Except in winter. But then I heard cries from shore and saw a whole group of people waving and calling at me: come in, come in. I dipped my head beneath the waves and swam towards them, eyes open under water, the silty bottom, the fish passing along beneath me.
Ashore, one man wrapped me in a camel-smelling robe, another took a knife to my matted hair. “Looks like a Nazirite, this one,” he said as he sawed off great chunks. I tried to sit still as he yanked at my hair, but across the shore I could see the man who had cast out my demons perched on a stone with a group of eager-faced men before him. His mouth moved, and I tried to hear the words from his lips, catch them on the evening air. “Mustard seed . . . I tell you . . . The Kingdom.” The group before him shook their heads and he stood, an urgency seeming to take hold. “Listen.” I listened, or tried to, snatching the words as they came to me.
I can’t say I understood what he said: “The Kingdom of God is here.” I mean, it seems simple enough, but really? Here? This sea? This rock-strewn shore? This demon-addled plain? “Truly,” he said, sounding like a school-boy. “Amen, vamen—truly, truly,” he said. “And even that man,” his finger pointed at me, the so-called barber’s knife posed over my left ear, the claw marks of demons still evident on my neck, ankles, hands. “Even that man shall have a place in it.” The barber sawed at my hair with his knife and at that moment it slipped, cutting my ear, sending a sticky splash of blood down my face. I howled. In a few quick strides the man came over, held my head in both hands. “Be at peace.” I know you want me to say that it was like a mother’s embrace or the sun on a spring day. But it wasn’t. His mouth might have said “Peace,” but his hands were all power, like an ox’s hoof stepping on a ripe melon. That’s what his touch on my head felt like—that any second I would explode. Unbearable. I was afraid I’d be sick; I could feel my stomach burning up my throat, could feel my hands twitching. Then he let go.
They say he’s brought men back from the dead, and I’d like to meet one of them, buy him a cup of wine, compare notes. Was it painful? Dark? Do you wish you could go back? Why do you think he chose you? Will we ever see him again? Because these are all the questions I ask myself. They’re the questions other people ask me. And I know there are demons out there—I can feel them sometimes, scratching up against me, making me itch. Just like death is out there—again—even for those who have been brought back. Getting a second chance is not the same as being immortal. So how does one go on? No one has given me the answers; I’ve just been set free.
That night, I slept amongst them, a dozen or so bodies rolled up in cloaks, snoring and farting into the night air and it was so nice not to be sleeping with the dead and the demons—neither of whom really sleep at all, not in a human sense anyway. I must have heard the waves lapping the shore all night, for I dreamt of a vast lake, water clear to the bottom, and in the middle was an island, green and growing. He was on the island. I knew it, even though I couldn’t see him or anything. And me, I was on the shore, and I waded in—dream water, not hot, not cold, not even wet, really—and started slowly swimming out to him. I must have slept heavily because when I awoke from this dream, the boat was gone with everyone on it. They’d left me a cloak and half a loaf of bread, which I took to mean that I hadn’t been abandoned so much as released. On the silent shore of the sea, I sat and ate the bread, looking for an island out there.
I was barely awake, barely realizing that all the cuts and sores on my body were healed when over the closest rise I heard pebbles crunching under heel and hoof. The swineherds of yesterday, with their few remaining sows, spotted me on the beach. I knew they’d have questions for me, could see the anger etched in their faces. So I picked up my cloak and set off on the road to tell everyone about him, about the kingdom, about his words, his power. I would have stayed to make things right with the swineherds, but I had nothing to offer them but the miracle of my own body, which is not enough for them.
Alex Myers lives and teaches in Rhode Island. He is currently earning his MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and working on a novel. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of print and web journals. For full publishing details, visit: AlexMyersWriting.blogspot.com.