An Atheist's Exorcism
Chapter 1 of With Hands Unclean
The first thing I heard was a rattle. No, more like a roar. It was deafening, like my head was inside a jet engine, the kind of sound that stops your heart, punches your gut. It wasn’t just in my ears, but in my entire body. It was in my chattering teeth, in my balled-up fists. It was in my chest which burned like I’d swallowed the sun. It moved me, jolted me like Frankenstein’s monster. I was alive, although it dawned on me that I might possibly be dying.
All the clichés were there: the voices of family members, a bright, white light. I fought against the tide pulling me away. I wasn’t scared to die, but I’d done way too much fucked up shit to go without making my peace. But as I lay there blinking, gasping like a goldfish in a child’s curious hand, I realized I wasn’t dying at all. This was something far less romantic and not nearly as profound.
Looking back, I’m kind of pissed. I was probably better off dead.
“At your command, O Creator, may we reclaim possession of this man! May we no longer fear tyranny for You are with us! By Your hand do we reclaim this soul! By Your might do we forever cast out the pretender!”
I had no idea who was shouting these words, or why he was here in what I was slowly recognizing as my shoebox studio apartment. As I craned my neck and looked around, groggy and drained, I couldn’t even count the number of faces that had somehow packed in my place like pickles in a jar. Some of them had their hands clasped so tightly that their knuckles threatened to burst from their skin, some even on their knees praying and crying. No, not crying. Weeping. I felt like I was on the other side of a television screen, an unwilling subject of early morning evangelists yelling bible scriptures and praying away made-up demons. I waited for a hallelujah.
I tried to tell everyone to stop yelling. My throat was dry, and I could barely make a sound. I tasted pennies in my throat. My head was imploding, making it hard to focus. Was I hungover? I didn’t remember drinking a drop last night. Then again, I couldn’t remember anything about last night at all. In fact, last night felt like years ago.
My plan B was to wave everyone off, give them some universal hand signal for ‘Please shut the hell up.’ But I couldn’t move my hands. Then, I couldn’t move my feet.
“Can we untie him, now?” Someone said. I think it was my father.
My eyes immediately bolted to my wrists, only then realizing that I was bound to my own rickety bed posts. My hands were covered with old socks, and I was slowly catching wind of my sheets that smelled like a dirty gym bag.
“Hold on!” said the man who’d been yelling prayers a moment ago. His voice caught my attention as he walked closer.
Something about the way his lanky body approached was intimidating. His eyes glowered like I’d deeply offended him while he breathed deeply through a hooked nose, his deviated septum causing an unflattering whistle to leave his straining nostril. I tried to sink into my mattress as he produced a golden rosary from his hand and slowly dangled it before me. At first, it waved back and forth, and I wasn’t sure if he was trying to hypnotize me or draw me into play like a cat. I tried to follow the sway, but my eyes were Sahara dry, and there was that pounding in my head again.
“W-what do you want?” I finally said. My own voice sounded foreign to me.
He didn’t answer, didn’t even attempt to. It was like I hadn’t spoken at all. Just continued to stare down at me while his Adam’s apple struggled to bob past the small white band around his throat. With the focus of a surgeon, he started to slowly lower the crucifix toward my forehead, and I could feel it before it even made contact, the kind of tickle you get when you think about bugs.
“Dad?” I tried, certain I’d heard him before, but the priest stuck out his arm behind him, telling everyone that was there not to answer me.
A heavy and stifling silence fell over the room.
When the cross finally contacted my skin, it felt warm and moist, like he’d been clenching it in a sweating fist for a long time. He looked at me like he expected something to happen, but nothing did. His eyes, dull with age, bore deeper into me than anyone’s ever had. I felt naked in front of him, judged. It made me wonder if I’d cleaned up the place. Wouldn’t want a priest here, with my family no less, looking around thinking how nasty it was that the dishes weren’t done, the laundry not sorted. Tsk, tsk.
Well anyway, there must have been some reason why he was looking at me like a strict nanny, so I licked my cracked lips and tried to sort it out.
“What are you doing?” I asked, the crucifix starting to itch now, no doubt leaving an indentation in my forehead.
“What is your name?” he asked softly, but sternly. I could taste his stale breath. “I command you. In the presence of our Lord, what is your name?”
“Tell me what’s going on—”
“I command you! What is your name?!”
I contemplated what to tell him. The answer was obvious, but the way he asked it made me doubt myself. It felt like I was being tricked. Even though I couldn’t see past the stranger blocking my view, I felt many sets of eyes on me, waiting without breathing.
There was an enormous rapture that made me flinch. Everyone clapped and cheered as Father-No-Name stood up victorious, praised my water-stained ceiling, and declared that I’d been exorcised. That my soul was saved.
All of that and I hadn’t even known I was possessed.
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