Laura Steadham Smith
The Demon at Montgomery Hill
Jody found Copper in the logging ditch on Friday morning. The ditch was dry this time of year, filled mostly with dead leaves and clay. Only a handful or two of water caught glints of sky. The trees were gray and bare in the winter forest. Jody scrambled down the ridge, planning to trot across the bottom, then keep going towards the river. But he saw red and white fur breaking the mottled pine shadows, and he stopped cold.
Somebody had hacked at Copper’s head with a hatchet, not quite severing it. The dog lay at the bottom of the ditch, eyes glassy, blood congealed where water ran in spring. Copper’s chest was motionless. His fur was still long and soft. Jody dropped on all fours, his body jolting in dry heaves. He didn’t hear his own yell, but Earl and Lois must have because suddenly they were there, their footsteps loud in the old leaves. Jody felt his brother’s small hand on his arm and heard Lois begin to cry, but he couldn’t look away. His dog, raised from a pup. Always gentle. He cried, and it was a long while before he let his younger brother pull him towards home.
Friday night, Jody’s daddy came home from the docks, his overalls dirty and his face tired, and Saturday morning he buried the dog under the juniper tree. Jody couldn’t bring himself to look at Copper again.
When his daddy came back to the house, he had his head down. Red clay dusted his trousers. He held his shoulders stiff to pour water in the washbasin and washed his hands slowly. He dried his hands and paced in front of the woodstove, then turned to Jody. “You have any idea who would have done a thing like that?” he asked. “Anybody who had reason to?”
Jody shook his head.
“Copper wasn’t wandering, was he? He wasn’t getting into anybody’s chickens? I heard talk about some going missing at the McMillan’s. The Thompson’s, too.”
Jody looked at his daddy’s face, at the lines etched into his skin from sun and heat and experience, and he felt very small. “No sir, I don’t think.” Copper was bad about barking. Surely someone would have heard him, had he gotten into somebody’s hens.
His daddy leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. They looked thick and strong. He shook his head, slowly. “Son, you gotta look out for things like that. When I’m gone, you gotta make sure no dog of ours gets into anybody else’s place.”
Jody nodded. Out the window, he heard Lois giggle. She darted into view, Earl fast behind her. She grabbed a handful of brown leaves and tossed them at Earl. They fell slowly, suspended for a moment like feathers. Jody looked out the window with his daddy and watched his siblings play.
Sunday morning, the whole family walked together to church. Jody sat by his mama while his daddy jiggled Lois on his lap, Earl squeezed in by the aisle. The preacher was in the middle of his sermon, getting high and mighty about God’s power and justice and His Lamb’s Book of Life.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Brother Hollis pounded the pulpit, his fist a pale stone, his veins thick like worms. Even on the happy verses, or when he baptized someone’s baby, he always looked angry.
Blessed are the meek. More like cursed are the meek, for their dogs will be killed. To hell with meekness. Jody wanted his shotgun. He looked upward from the pulpit, along the whitewashed walls up to the ceiling where ladybugs would swarm in summer. He imagined a dark form creeping through the garden at night, hatchet raised to get at their chickens. Jody would be ready, waiting behind the chimney, a cocked shotgun resting on his shoulder. He wouldn’t kill the man. There’d be no excuse for that, not over chickens or even Copper. But he would stop him in his tracks, spray buckshot into his skin to scar him, to let everyone know what he had done. The thought quieted the heat beneath Jody’s skin. He gritted his teeth and looked back at the preacher, the vision of a shadowy night sharp in his mind.
“Because the Lord our God is righteous,” Brother Hollis said. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his nose red with the effort. “And He takes care of the righteous, like the lilies of the field and the sparrows in the sky. Why worry about the future, about what will come? If you’re worried, maybe you ain’t living right. You got to be on the straight and narrow, got to be righteous.” He pointed his finger above his head and shook it. “Then the hand of the Lord will protect you.”
Leaning back in the pew, his mind filling with so much blood and pressure that he thought his skull might crack right open, Jody thought the worst thought then, so loud and clear he was afraid his mouth might have formed it into sound: Then tell God to go to hell.
On the ceiling, a cockroach skittered out of one corner, shadowy and dark, its antenna stretched out like whips.
Jody hadn’t meant to let a demon into the church. He sat on the dogtrot connecting the kitchen to the rest of the house and watched chickens swarm around his feet, their feathers red and brown and speckled. I didn’t know. Even in winter he was sweating as he sat, waiting for the air to move. It didn’t. Only the chickens moved, pecking the dirt and wandering in loops and circles. The carpenter bees buzzed above them, heavy and lazy, always sinking and jerking up when Jody least expected it.
He knew without seeing that his mama was standing at the top of the kitchen steps, looking down at the neighbor. She’d have one hand tossed on her hip, one free to swat carpenter bees out of the air when they came too close. He’d have one on his overall strap, one leaned on the railing. She’d try to keep her face smooth, to keep her eyebrows from making a crease that showed her displeasure, while he chewed tobacco and spat out news.
“Wouldn’t have thought it possible,” Jody heard the neighbor say. “But I done seen it, too. Two nights ago I did.”
Jody heard his mama cross her arms through her words. “I’m sure it was something.”
“There was a light, y’understand. I saw it. Floating, like. No source to it. We went up to the church doors all quiet, and we flung ‘em open, wanting to catch somebody, but weren’t nobody there. And the presence… we knew what we were in for, then.” There was a squirt, the sound of juice hitting dirt. “We don’t know who could’ve let it in. Can’t just come in on its own, you know.”
“You might better save your ghost stories for my husband.”
Jody kicked his legs where they hung over the dogtrot, sending a hen aside with a squawk. He knew the rules governing demons. That angels of the Lord kept them out of churches with flaming invisible swords. That they couldn’t get inside a church on their own. That they were always waiting, lurking, hoping to get a foot in the door, but that they couldn’t enter and possess a church unless someone invited them in. Unless someone entered a church and broke the angels’ defense by sinning inside. That once they were inside, they would use the church as a stronghold and invite a legion into the surrounding town. Wreak havoc over everyone. Jody wiped his forehead and swallowed thickly.
“Weren’t no ghost, ma’am. Ghosts don’t have trouble in churches. Good Book tells us that. There’s an inseparable gulf separating the living from the dead.” The neighbor’s voice dropped, rasping like old rope. “Only demons can inhabit churches like that, ma’am. But they can’t get in on they own. Somebody gotta bring ‘em in.”
The chickens pecked the ground faster, looping round in a red and brown frenzy.
“There’s a demon in that church, Mrs. Merritt. You be careful.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Crosby.” Jody’s mama was raising her eyebrows, he knew, ready to get Mr. Crosby off her steps. He knew she’d be drumming her fingers against her arm, crossing them tighter, waiting for a polite chance to bid him good day.
But she didn’t know. Old leaves rustled under the dogtrot. Jody gripped the edge of the rough boards as tight as he could, hoping to settle the shaking that spread through his stomach and into his limbs, out into the chickens, even, sending them in ever tighter spirals till he thought their feathers would twist themselves free and float up like Satan himself had rattled them off.
At night, Jody fetched a few logs to keep the stove going. His mama was serving dinner when he walked inside. Cornbread and honey, the end of a jar of fig preserves. The table filled most of the room, and the woodstove in the corner stood next to a chopping block. Earl and Lois had cloths tucked into their shirtfronts like bibs, and his mama sat back a little, one hand raised, a finger picking at her mouth.
“You kids weren’t listening to Mr. Crosby, were you?” she asked. Lois shook her head primly. Jody sat down to his cornbread and drizzled a little honey across the top. Last summer he and his daddy had seen bees swarming in search of a new hive, and they’d raided the old one. He cut his cornbread and licked the knife.
“That’s not polite, Jody,” his mama said.
“Neither am I,” Jody said.
She tilted her eyes and the crease hardened between them, but Earl spilled golden syrup down his face and she turned to wipe it away. “Gotta be more careful,” she said. She wasn’t eating. “We’ve had a few chickens go missing,” she said, half to herself. “Could have used the eggs. Jody, we have more cornbread for tomorrow, but not enough meat to go around. That’ll be your task. Find us something.”
“What’s a demon look like?” Earl asked.
“Nothing,” their mama said. “They ain’t of this world.”
“They’re of the other one?” Earl asked.
Their mama nodded. “But they’re nothing little boys need concern themselves about.”
“Or little girls?” Lois asked.
“Or little girls.”
“They can steal your soul,” Jody said.
“Not yours, they can’t,” his mama said.
“Can they steal my soul?” Lois asked.
“No ma’am,” their mama said. “Y’all aren’t past the age of innocence. They can’t steal a soul the Lord has taken for His own.”
“But one that’s damned already?” Earl asked.
“That’s right,” their mama said. “So nothing y’all need worry about.”
“All you need is a moment of weakness,” Jody said. “If one’s hanging around, it don’t matter if you’re saved. You just need a moment of weakness when you let a little sin slip, and then they slide into you. Like butter. Through your eyeballs.” He widened his eyes and leaned closer to Earl, who batted him away with sticky hands.
“Jody, cut it out.” Their mama’s voice was sharp. “We got enough demons hanging on us without you adding more.”
That night, Jody couldn’t sleep. He listened to the crickets murmur above the sound of Earl’s breathing, but neither sound was soothing. Something flickered outside, and Jody shuddered into his blanket.
When Jody was little, his daddy would sit on the steps outside and smoke tobacco after supper. Jody loved the smell of burning leaves, thick and musky, loved the trails of smoke that spun from the end of his daddy’s pipe. He would follow his daddy outside and toss sticks for Copper to fetch, though his daddy never offered the pipe. Jody asked to try it once.
“Are you a man?” his daddy had asked, his eyes squinting above his cheekbones.
“No,” Jody said.
“Then not today.” His daddy pulled on the pipe, and the leaves crackled. He exhaled slowly. “When you take care of a family, you can smoke all the pipe tobacco you want.”
Jody thought he saw another flash outside, and he pulled the blanket tight over his head. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, willing himself not to think of the demon. He thought instead of the bedtime prayer his daddy taught him when he was little, the words any good Holiness family knew before they could walk: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. He felt safe, thinking of his daddy’s clasped hands at night before they knew what stock market or hungry meant, before the job in Mobile, before Jody tried to become a man. He said that prayer over and over, his lips moving underneath his blanket, until he was asleep.
The next morning, Jody milked the cow before the sun was fully up. Steam rose off the bucket, the smell rich and warm in Jody’s nostrils. He went to the henhouse next, a lean-to with shelves for nesting. But the eggs were gone. Downy feathers swirled in piles on the shelves, and the hens squawked and clambered over one another for any feed Jody might scatter. He stood dumbly and looked at the empty shelves. They were cursed. He’d cursed the family. His stomach rumbled, and he looked from the shelves to the floor and back again, like he might catch a shadow stretching long fingers over the shelves.
When he stepped back outside, Earl was chasing Lois behind the kitchen. Earl held a magnolia cone, picking the seeds out and throwing them at her. They were red and waxy like the lips of the girls in calendar pictures, the ones their daddy kept in the shed. Earl laughed, but when Lois raised her head, wet trails cut lines down her face.
“I got you, little girl!” Earl moved around her in a circle, picking the magnolia seeds out one by one. “I’mma get inside your head! Just think a bad thought, Lois. Do it, and it’ll be too late. Bet you can’t hold out.” He tossed the empty cone aside. “Bet you’ll let a demon in.”
Jody didn’t know what he was doing till Earl was on the ground. A trickle of blood seeped from Earl’s nose, blooming across his lip. His jaw was tight, his eyes wide and wet. Lois shrieked, a high, stabbing sound.
Jody backed away. Earl struggled to lift himself on his elbow, like Abel lying in the field. Jody willed the story to stop behind his eyes. Before their mama could step outside, Jody turned and darted into the woods, wishing the gaunt branches could swallow him whole.
He didn’t come home until the sun was deep below the trees and his stomach was growling like distant thunder. His mama was sitting by the door when he came in, waiting in her rocker. Her face was tired, humorless. She tilted her head, tapping a belt across her lap. Jody’s chest tightened.
“I hear you had an altercation with your brother today.”
Jody looked at the fire, avoiding her eyes. The flames curled around a pine scrap, the smell pitchy and thick. “Yes’m.”
“You never hit your brother. I don’t care what he’s doing. You don’t hit your brother.”
The pine scrap broke, crumbling into the ashes. Jody nodded.
“You’re the oldest, Jody. You’re the example. You hit Earl, Earl thinks that kind of behavior is alright.” She tapped her hand against the leather, the sound soft but distinct. “I gotta show him better.”
Jody stretched his eyes wide, trying to keep them dry. The fire seared his retinas, burning hot and smooth like honey.
“Go ‘head now.” His mama stood, the floor creaking beneath her. “Bend over that table.”
Jody complied. Shadows danced across his vision where the flames were a moment ago, blue and green and black. He undid his buttons and pulled down his pants. They slid around his ankles.
His mama had never whipped him before, had never had to. Jody breathed in sharply, and the air felt cold in his lungs. He shuddered and tried not to think of a dark spirit lurking, slinking through the room. He buried his face in the wood that muffled his cry with each lick.
No one stirred when Jody rose in the middle of the night. He couldn’t stop the floor from creaking, so he moved slowly, slipping into the main room where his mama slept. Her breathing didn’t change, a calm steady pulse above the embers. The fire had almost gone out. Jody reached for the family Bible, tucked on the mantle. The Lord is my shepherd. He willed himself to think of this, to forget about the demon waiting for him at the church. He shivered when his fingers brushed the worn leather.
He had started this, and he would have to finish it. He held the Bible in one hand and walked himself through the armor of God, as he’d memorized in Sunday School. The belt of truth, buckled around his waist. He waved the Bible across himself, as if he were securing a strap. Feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. The shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which was the word of God. He held the Bible a little ways from his body, as though it were weapon and defense in one. He bowed his head and prayed silently: Jesus, prepare me for what You want me to do. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Make my prayers work, for the angels and the demons.
Outside, the night was like ice that seared Jody’s lungs. Naked oak branches clawed at the sky. He strode past the barn, under the pines, walking as quickly as he dared into the darkness. His eyes began to adjust, and he saw the pines outlined against the dark, their bark purplish and covered in scales. Something rustled in the leaves, and Jody broke into a run.
The cemetery was calm. Fences rimmed the headstones like old lace, around headstones grown moldy with age. The church loomed above, milky on the hilltop, its windows blank eyes. Jody stood beneath a cedar at the edge of the clearing, waiting.
Nothing. No sound, not even crickets. Only thin moonlight, eerie across the headstones, casting curled shadows from the fences. His grandparents were in the corner farthest from him, and their grandparents in the plot next to it. He had never thought about them lying there until now, never thought about dirt and worms smothering the air away. He closed his eyes, breathing deep and fast. The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in this world.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He stepped out from under the trees and darted between the fences towards the mimosa tree in the middle of the graves. I shall fear no evil. For Thou art with me. Had God forgiven him for damning Him to hell? Had Jody even asked? He leaned against the mimosa and watched the thin branches shake from his body.
“Jesus, forgive me,” he whispered. “I didn’t know, but I do now.” A cricket answered him with a sharp whir. Across the churchyard, a breeze bent the oak that sheltered the Sunday School building. The frame looked small and clean. A light flickered in the main church, then went out. Beckoning.
Jody leaned against the mimosa, hesitant again. The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in this world. Clouds smeared the sky, distant floats beyond the church. Jody bent low, his back even with the graveyard fences, and ran between the plots. Azalea bushes rimmed the church, but he gave them a wide berth. He circled to the front, where the main doors glowed under the moon. Their faces pure, whitewashed. He put his hand on the knob and paused.
He took a breath and closed his eyes. He couldn’t stop. Like jumping into the creek from the ridge, he couldn’t stop. A deep breath, a fluid motion with his legs, and then the cold water wrapping around him. He turned the knob and stepped inside.
The night was darker inside than in the cemetery. Jody stood in the foyer, waiting for his eyes to adjust. The wooden pews, dark and cool. The heavy curtains behind the pulpit, a rich green in the daylight, black now. Slowly the church came into focus, the outline of the windows, the sconces on the wall for gas lanterns. Jody took a small step, from the foyer into the back of the church. He rested his hand on the back of a pew.
Then the voice came.
“What now?” The tone was weary, the sound quiet.
Jody looked from the altar to the ceiling, the walls, the pews, the wood floors. Nothing. The wood glistened in the dim light, malted and smooth. Jody gasped when his lungs started working again, filling his chest with cold air. The church was still.
He saw the hands first. They were raised, palms facing out in surrender. Then a face followed, rising above the pulpit. The eyes were hollow, the nose a hook splitting the middle, the rest deepened by shadow. Jody’s mouth was dry. He couldn’t breathe.
The face stared at him, not moving, not advancing. Jody gripped the Bible more tightly. He held it out in front of him like a shield. “Get behind me,” he said. His voice faded to a whisper. “Satan.”
Jody flinched. The demon was tall but skinny, a bag of acute angles under striped cotton getup. He rubbed his forehead with long, thin fingers. Jody tried to keep his Bible outstretched, but his hands shook until he hugged it to his chest. The demon leaned an elbow against the lectern, propping his face against his hand. He waited, staring at Jody. They were silent. The church seemed huge and airy.
“Whatever you’re looking for isn’t here. It’s just me.”
Jody’s knees were weak. He sank into the back pew. He was suddenly ashamed. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Someone who knows better’n to give his name when he’s caught hiding out.” He shook his head and continued. “It’s alright, kid. I’m not violent. Just hungry. I don’t think your Jesus would have such a problem with that.” He lifted his hand to scratch at his beard. It looked coarse and thin, like dried straw. “He was always feeding people. Had the order right, you know. Food first, preaching later. Didn’t waste time damning people for trying to meet the needs He made ‘em to have.”
Jody kept his eyes on the man, but he rubbed his fingers over the Bible, feeling its name embossed on the leather. He glanced at the cross on the altar, its shadow long on the wall. He realized he was crying when the church blurred through tears, the whitewashed wall a soft glow behind the man’s head. Tears dripped from his chin to his lap. He was glad his daddy couldn’t see him. He lifted his hand to his nose and wiped the mucus away. His knees shook.
“Don’t guess it matters.” The man stepped away from the lectern, walking down the steps and down the aisle past Jody. He smelled like cigarettes. He walked into the foyer, then mounted the steps to the balcony. “I know when I’m caught.”
Jody didn’t move while the man rustled around up above. He turned just in time to see the man pull the latch on the opening into the attic and disappear into the darkness. He came out with a bag full of indiscernible lumps, a glint of tin sticking out of the top.
“We have food,” Jody said. “You can come by our house.”
The man laughed. The sound echoed in the sanctuary. He disappeared at the head of the balcony stairs, then reappeared at the door, raising his hand. “Don’t want your food.” A hatchet peeked out the top of his pack. “But if you tell anybody, son, make sure to give me a head start.”
Jody nodded and stared at the hatchet. The man made a gesture with his thumb and forefinger, like he’d have tipped his hat if he had one. Jody straightened his back and held his chin a little higher, despite the damp places on his face. Then the man opened the front door and melted into the darkness outside.
Jody turned to look back at the altar and shuddered in the cold church. The room smelled holy, like wood and paper and maybe mildew. He imagined the man striding into the darkness, hatchet in tow, while the azaleas waited in the clear night, the coyotes watching wild-eyed. He looked out the window, but the man was gone. Only the pines stretched heavenward, the oaks heavy with resurrection fern standing in silence. Jody followed a spindly trunk upward till it branched into shadows and thought of the weight of the leaves on its limbs. In winter its burden was lighter, but it came back every spring, heavy and growing and constant. He brought his hands together on top of the Bible, but he didn’t know what to pray.
Laura Steadham Smith’s work has appeared in Quail Bell, Mental Floss, The Red Clay Review, and other magazines. She was awarded the Colby Kullman prize for fiction from the University of Mississippi in July 2013 and was recognized by the Southern Writers Symposium as a notable emerging writer in 2013. She holds an MFA in fiction from Florida State University.