For a few years when I was a kid, Saturday mornings went like this: My parents dropped me off at the corner of Oak Park Avenue and North Boulevard and I walked to a health food store. There I ordered a large bag of popcorn with extra veggie salt, handed over my fifty cents, and waited for a brown paper bag, warm to the touch and filled with just-popped corn. I gave it a good shake so the salt would get to the middle and bottom of the bag (because popcorn with no butter or salt is cardboard), then walked to the el. I was in a choir, and each Saturday, holding my popcorn, I met a few of my other choir mates to take the el into the city for practice.
Once, a man who was sitting near us started to behave suspiciously. He licked his lips and smiled, snapped his teeth, and lunged like he would bite us. At one point he stood up and made a sound in his mouth as though he was gargling up mucus to spit at us. I flinched, and popcorn spilled on my lap and the floor. The man laughed and left the train at the next stop. I looked down at my popcorn, ashamed and tears filling my eyes. I was probably ten or eleven, but I understood I’d given this man what he was looking for: he wanted to scare us, and I’d shown him he had. Writing this down, I can still feel the uneven movement of the el, the taste of tears and veggie salt in my mouth, and the evil, satisfied look on that man’s face.
At choir practice, we were rehearsing a song I think was called “Mary’s Song,” although I don’t remember for sure. It was about Mary after she found out she would give birth to Jesus. Our choir director, Ms. Ziegenhall, broke us up into three groups to practice our parts. We were singing a cappella and three-part harmony, and Ms. Ziegenhall, a woman I can only explain as the female Dumbledore, made it very clear that we would not be reunited until she was sure we knew our parts so well we wouldn’t be thrown off course when we were all singing together.
I was a soprano and I truly thought I would die from boredom singing my part. Over and over we sang the same melody until I yawned when I sang. The only lyrics I remember are, “When Mary walked through thorny woods,” and that morning I began to believe I would be walking with Mary in the woods for the rest of my life: forever pregnant, forever in the woods, forever looking out for thorns.
After what felt like one hundred years, we were corralled into the main room. Ms. Ziegenhall didn’t explain how we were to proceed. She just raised her white wand in the dead silent room. I see now that this was her showing us she had confidence in our abilities. She had taught us what to do and how we should do it, and at her cue, we began.
I’d never experienced music like this. It felt alive. The hair on my arms stood up, and I felt as though I was standing in the woods with Mary. It was dark and branches and tree roots made the path hard to walk on. She held her abdomen, and she was scared, and I was scared, but the music was beautiful and I wanted to keep singing for her. I wanted to keep walking with her.
August is a difficult month for me. If I’m teaching, I begin to have nightmares about rowdy classrooms and unprepared lesson plans. Now that I’m a mother, I worry about my kids going to school and fitting in. And it was in August, eight years ago, that my aunt Lucy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. August scares me. August is the man on the train, taunting me, waiting for me to flinch.
It was in August that I met Scott Derrickson and learned about transcendental darkness. “Close the curtains! Shut off the lights! It’s not dark enough!” he declared as his movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, cued up. My heart beat faster and my stomach churned as I watched the mountains and the blue sky disappear, the curtains shutting out all the light. The movie began, and I lowered my head. I never saw Emily Rose, but I heard her. Heard her demonic growls and the pleading from her parents and priests. At least, that’s who I assumed the other voices were.
I cried into my lap, my hands slippery from my tears. I was ashamed of myself because I was too afraid to look at the screen and take note of anything besides how smothered and suffocated my fear was making me. I kept thinking of my own daughters. What if this happens to them? What if Satan grabs hold of my babies and doesn’t let them go? Can that happen? I wondered about Emily before she was possessed. What was her favorite color? Her favorite toy? Did she have a best friend? Will this be the only thing she is remembered for?
“Scott Derrickson wants to scare you,” his introducer said. And he did. He scared me so badly I left before I had a chance to grapple with or grasp anything transcendental. I could see nothing but darkness. I staggered toward the closest women’s restroom. Once inside, I put my palms on either side of the stall because the room was spinning. I called my husband and begged him to get me a plane ticket home. I was too scared to stay.
Derrickson said in his presentation that demons are most prevalent between two and three in the morning. That’s when I wake up every night in the summer. I do not believe I am strong enough to fight demons.
One night, I wake up at two, and I am afraid, as usual. I am eleven again, eating popcorn and the man on the train is getting closer and the train sways and roars toward the city while he tries to swallow me whole. I am in my twenties, trying to remember how to teach while kids run around my classroom. I am in my thirties, seven months pregnant, sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing after learning about my aunt’s diagnosis.
Then I am in the woods with Mary. It is dark and she is afraid, and I am afraid, and we walk together. We step on twigs that snap, and I flinch. But I keep singing and Mary keeps walking, and this is how I fall back to sleep at night: walking and singing in this darkness, forever in the harmony of my weakness and fear, boundlessly reaching for what I hope for but cannot see.