“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” Matthew 10:8
Ezra could still hear the screams as distant, haunting echoes; could still see the blood spattering the walls in a Rorschach like fashion. The stains were still there, even years later through layers of paint and bleach. His memories lead him to believe that everything that had come to pass that night did so in slow motion. The shattering porcelain of the Virgin Mary as she was thrown from the nightstand, the arcs of fluid rust and smoke inundating the eyes upon the canvases of Christ, the impermeable choirs of voices screaming within the confines of the house. Voices that ebbed on the breaking tides of belief, voices that bore no gender, no common ground other than the manifestation of molten pain and wickedness.
His folks had only been back from Europe a week. They had fled under the shadows of night without warning a month before when doors began to slam against their frames without pause, when the cackling from his mother’s throat was not in her own inflections. His father had turned a blind eye to it before, even when the signs were all there. The lines directing multitudes of faces that didn’t belong to her, the nefarious leer that ran like a hook across her lips, the hushed, androgynous whispers as she sat in her room, eyes drilling into blank wall. She’d been steadily dropping fragments of her mind like glass marbles out the window as sleek summer days turned into winter engagements, locking them within the confines of their home. The bishop claimed there were maggots turning round and round in her mind that could be cured with doctors with white coats and white pills. “Satan does not trifle with wives of priests,” he said. “She is sickly, Father Byrd. Do not mistake illness with plights of the damned. Worry not.”
“Please, Richard.” Deceitful sobs broken with interchangeable bouts of laughter wracked her frail body, her ribs contracting like an accordion when she called out for her husband. A vile odor for which no earthly source could be named percolated through the room. No matter how many times she bathed or deodorized the scent would linger, gagging anyone who came from outside the home. She was rotting from the inside out. Whatever had burrowed into her flesh had done so with parasitic intention, feeding on her, waiting until its host was too weak to fight back for it to take the wheel. She stopped taking meals. She would wake in the night like a child adrift, crawling down the stairs, the muscles in her shoulders knotted and deformed, gray foam oozing from between her chapped lips, eyes bloodshot. When she spoke, nothing rolled past her tongue but a garbled language riddled with whistles and grunts.
The final straw came in late November, just after Ezra’s seventeenth birthday. The moon was high, curtains of stars dotting an empty heaven, a soundless murmur rushing through the halls of the house. Ezra staggered into the kitchen, the linoleum cool against his bare feet. Groggily he approached the sink. A single window overlooked the front yard, thick blue curtains pulled back against the pane. Moonlight spilled through the glass and onto the countertops. His hand paused just above the knob adjacent to the faucet when he heard the laughter, a foreboding crescendo of childlike giggles. Lethargy still tugged at him as he tried to pin the sound to a television or radio, but his intuition knew better than that.
A tap on the kitchen window opposite of him brought him roaring to full consciousness. There she stood on the other side of the glass, staring at him with a Cheshire grin slashed across her face. Humanity fleeted her gaze, and Ezra knew he was looking into the carcass of what had once been his mother. She waved at him as if she were still a little girl, pulling her cracked and bleeding lips back against her teeth. Her nose pressed against the window, black eyes penetrating the deepest, most intimate parts of Ezra, leaving him feeling violated with an un-washable filth. After a moment she tossed her head back, giddy with laughter before turning and running off into the woods surrounding the property. Ezra had been too paralyzed with fear to go after her. Instead, like a coward, he locked the doors and retreated to his room, scattering tea-lights around his feet, shaking hands reaching to cover the wicks as he lit them, prayer spilling past his teeth into the silence. That was the night Ezra knew without doubt that the devil was not just a Grimm fairy tale. Not a little red man running around the underworld with a pitchfork. That his initiation into the family business was in progression, his duty to exile the damned into what Dante referred to as an unyielding and unforgiving Hell. He pressed his grandfather’s rosary to his lips, Latin syllables curling around his tongue.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Holy Mary—”
She came from nowhere, bloody feet slipping across hardwood flooring. She tumbled onto all fours into his room, knocking the door open with a cannon-like blast, hair strung in front of her face to where only strips of eye and forehead could be seen. The creature that groveled before him was not the woman that had carried Ezra in her womb, but had transformed into a womb herself, an ewer for everything unclean. Ezra sat hunched, frozen within his ring of candles, beads between his fingers, psalms on his lips.
“We’re all ssssssssinners, boy,” she hissed, crawling on her knuckles towards him, head cocked unnaturally to her right. “You wanna touch me?” She rolled back on her haunches, lifting her nightgown up to reveal the naked flesh beneath. Ezra snapped his eyes shut, his rites hardly more than whimpers.
“Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. B-be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly p-pray—”
“Fuck me, Ezra. Fuck your mommy.” Her hands wove across the contours of his face, rubbing her body against his. Her feet knocked the candles and flames curdled into coils of blue-gray smoke.
“And do thou, O Prince of the h-heavenly host, by the power of God cast into hell, Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl throughout the world seeking the ruin of s-souls—”
Suddenly her spine snapped back, agonized howls splitting through the darkness with an axe-like brutality. Ezra watched in stunned silence as her body contorted and flailed, each movement jagged. Forced. His father stood behind her, crucifix raised, a plastic bottle filled with blessed water. “Get away from my son, let go of my wife.” His voice was dangerously low.
“She’s minnnnnnne, Daddy. All miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine.” His mother sprawled dramatically on the floor, heels drumming into the wood surface. A sinister, bubbling laughter rose from her abdomen and out through her mouth. Her hands traveled across her bosom, then down her stomach and back again. “She’s not in here anymore, not no more, not no more. She stopped showing up a loooooong time ago. It’s all me in here.”
“LEAVE HER!” the severity in his father’s tone shocked Ezra. The desperation was evident to him, and Ezra knew that if he could hear it, so could the demon meticulously goading both men into the palms of hysteria. An exorcist was not to bargain with the devil. Was not to argue with its reasoning or defiled logic. His father was toeing a line that once crossed, could not be backtracked.
“If you want her, come and get ‘er, Priest.” She spat the latter word from her mouth as if it were venom. “You are nothing more but a man cloaked in black, pining at the beds of lonely little boys.” Chuckling now, mocking; “‘You cannot drink from the cup of the Lord and from the cup of demons, too. You cannot eat at the Lord’s Table and at the table of demons, too,’ said the Corinthians.”
Defiantly, Richard finished the verse. “‘Do you dare to rouse the Lord’s jealousy as Israel did? Do you think you are stronger than He is?’”
“Oh, stupid, stupid boy.” She fell back lazily onto the floor, spreading each one of her limbs as far as they could go, her right hand tangled in her hair. “I’ve had snakes in every garden since Eden.”
They started that night what they should have begun so long ago. The first of several exorcisms, his mother bound by snares of rope and cotton bed sheets. His father had tackled her from behind, almost snapping her arms as he strapped them wrist to wrist with zip ties. Ezra had sworn that God had infused himself into Richard Byrd that night, had taken possession of him as some dark thing swallowed his mother whole, a python constricting life until there was nothing left but bones and fragmented memory. There was a powerful aura about him as he grabbed his wife at the elbows and pulled her down the stairs, her teeth snapping at him like a rabid dog’s. Poison tipped words fell from her chapped lips, spittle staining the front of her nightgown. Ezra trailed behind, splashing holy water on her face and chest. He refused to look at her directly after that night. Her eyes haunted him. She was no longer his mother. She was not the woman he had come to in the dead of night, seeking lullabies and the comfort of wanting arms, but a foul mortar made up of flesh and rotting teeth.
“Ezra.” His father’s voice, low but powerful, pulled him to the south end of the basement. “Get her feet. Secure them to the rail.”
He nodded, grabbing her ankles. They too, had grown thin. The fat that had once padded her legs and toes had long disappeared when she stopped eating, when she locked herself in the attic for hours on end to play with her childhood dolls. The family had left her alone at first, thinking that the death of his sister had been the last strike against her sanity and that the stress she had kept bottled in glass jars finally broke. But then she began sleeping up there, despite the suffocating heat of summer. At night he would hear her weeping, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. After a while she refused to eat, nor would she descend from her makeshift grave, forever lost in her loosely threaded mind. He had gone up to the attic once in hopes of regaining his missing mother and found her laying on the floor amidst shards of porcelain flesh and photographs. The china dolls of her childhood had been smashed to pieces, their eyes filled in with black marker. He hadn’t known then that this matron wasn’t lost. She was trapped.
Feet secured to the bed rail with the sheets dotted with blue forget-me-nots, Ezra turned to his father’s dim form silently moving under his mother’s curses. After a moment, his back straightened in the darkness, and his voice spoke of nations conquered and bloodless wars. His eyes flashed within the wraps of shadows. “It’s time.”
Seven Years Later—Yachats, Oregon
For the first time in months, it was the drumming of rain against the window pane that woke him, like the soft pitter-patter of children running through rooms in the early throngs of daylight. A waking shudder convulsed through him and the exorcist rolled onto his side. February had been grueling. Throughout the night, silhouetted demons drug him into their nightmare world, dark things biting him, clawing at him, gluttonous fiends burrowed deep into the walls like insects. Blood would drip like acidic wine from the walls, burning away lavender dotted paper to leave only chinked drywall. More often than not he would wake to find bloodied scars across his back, stigmata burned into his palms. Later, water would turn pink around his feet in the shower, lesions erupting upon his flesh like stinging nettles. He would blink away the pain. Embracing it, forehead pressed against wet porcelain, fingers curled into fists. He had spent so many starless nights battling the demons of the light, the devilish worms that excavated innocent flesh until nothing remained but a human meat suit. So many hours were spent combating what ailed his clients when all along he should have been tending to his own demons. The ones that haunted him nocturnally, pilfering him in his sleep, the ones with faces. So many faces.
But the damned did not pursue him for now. Blue light filtered through the blinds, illuminating the red neon numbers flickering on the alarm clock adjacent to his head. 4:15 A.M. Christ. Ezra blinked back sleep, turning his head towards the window. It was nice, he had to admit. To be able to wake without a blanket of sweat cloaked about his face and shoulders, without having to explain to the cleaning woman why the bed sheets were veined with crimson. To not have to bow his head as he slipped a wad of green under her lined hands, refusing to make eye contact when her prying eyes searched his.
“Señor, ¿qué pasó?” They were always elderly Hispanic women, sometimes Asian, but the questions were always the same, the gentle, motherly hands reaching up to touch his shoulder, his cheek, attempting to understand and comfort. They were valiant in their efforts, but he could never explain to them, could never paint a picture with equivalent accuracy of what he was going through. What he had seen, felt.
“Señor, hay tanta sangre, necesita ayuda!” I know, Maria. I know.
Emerald orbs flickered under curtained eyelids, sleep fading from his limbs. Ezra wanted nothing more than to fade back into a dreamless slumber, something he hadn’t experienced in so long. But the gulls cawing over the bay beckoned him. He knew Malachi wouldn’t be up for another few hours. Ezra shook his head, chuckling into the ears of the dark motel room, sneaking a glance towards his sleeping friend. The dude slept like a log. He needed the sleep though, they both did, but as Ezra grabbed his rumpled t-shirt off the floor, he accepted the fact that he would not be returning to the safe confines of his bed anytime soon. It was ironic, safety. Society put so much effort into their security systems, their rabid dogs and smoking guns; all for nothing. The true villains, the ones who lurked in the fog, who swam upon soggy marsh mists in the still of the night? The best of canines would do little to deter the obscurest of intentions.
His footsteps were barely audible as he trolled through the dimly lit hallways of the motel, locking his room door behind him as he went. Ceiling lights buzzed and flickered every so often, as if they were reminding him that they could go out at any moment they so pleased, that darkness was so close at hand. Early morning air kissed his face as he pushed through the grime slotted doors to the motel and he began making his way to the pulsing shoreline surrounding the property
In a few hours they would be making their way further inland to the Montgomery residence. From what Drew had told him, he was pretty sure the legitimacy of the case was valid. The Vatican had wiped their hands clean of the girl they would soon be exorcising. No bishop would grant permission for the church’s involvement in the case, doctors were left baffled, psychologists intrigued at first than horrified when coming into direct contact with the girl. Already had she been institutionalized than later released because the signs originally condemning her to psychiatric treatment had all but vanished within a few days. The self-mutilation, the carcasses of animals left to rot around their property after the Montgomery girl was found ripping them apart while life still thrummed in their veins, the abhorrence to religious paraphernalia…all of it pointed to possession. But the new age of modern medicine deemed demonic proprietorship nothing more than a tall tale, a legend.
A landward zephyr ruffled the swelling tide, wave after unbroken wave tapping upon the sand in foam laced carpet, pausing upon the land before falling back into the horizon with a whisper. Leaning against the railing that bisected the beach from the parking lot, Ezra pressed his face into the palms of his hands. Dark rings circled his eyes, skin sallow and pale. He did not need a mirror to know how badly he looked for the past few months. When he had been younger, Ezra had often found himself looking into his bathroom mirror in the hush of the morning when twilight yawned into a lavender dawn. What Ezra came to find within the glass was his father’s reflection, not his own. His father’s thick black hair, his roman nose, all on Ezra’s face. He would press the flesh back against his skull, pull it away from his jaw and stretch his lips back from his teeth, frantically trying to find a fragment of himself within his father’s shadow. The results were always the same, though. The demons they so adamantly surged against were always there, reflecting in the greens of his eyes, lingering, waiting for an open wound in order to finally crawl and fester within the most holy of hosts.
He didn’t hear Malachi until he was next to him. Ezra kept his eyes on the sea. He heard someone behind them, then a car door shutting. The low rumble of an engine. The ruffle of wings as a gull searched for crumbs on the asphalt. His fellow priest said nothing for a few moments, eyes trained on the sun emerging among waning stars. His dark hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans, form sturdy and unwavering.
“You need to get your shit together, Byrd.”
Silence. “I know.”
“You sure as hell don’t look like it.” Malachi’s eyes burned into Ezra’s downturned forehead. Why Drew thought he needed a babysitter in the first place was beyond him. He always came home with a client back in their right state of mind, and the people that sought their group’s help didn’t shy away from Ezra’s appearance like they did Malachi’s. At first glance the guy looked as if he belonged on a beach with a joint in one hand and a whore in the other. His hair was the color of charcoal and braided into dreadlocks that fell just below the ball of his shoulder. The cartilage of his nose and ears bore rings made of silver while some were made from bone. Tattoos of beads circled the backs of his hands in black ink and a red string was tied around his left wrist. He wore jeans, a long-sleeved shirt the color of milk. Flip-flops. To keep him close to the earth, he said. Closest he could get without walking around barefoot. He spoke with a heavy accent that reminded Ezra of spices, fires spitting with the smell of cooking boar, skies burning the colors of summer. They didn’t look like men of their profession. Ezra in leather jackets, old metal t-shirts. Combat boots.
“I like you, Ezra. And you know I got your back, but if you can’t manage this, I’m gonna’ have to call Drew and have him send Emma or Theo out. Again.” Another silent pause, then a swatch of air against Ezra’s legs as Malachi moved to head back to the motel. “We need to get going. Mrs. Montgomery just called; they need us there now. She’s gettin’ worse.”