Shaman

Nicholas Cormier III

Canto I: Shaman

My mind first unravelled at 23. The exorcisms didn’t help. It’s hard to know what to make of the Catholic church breaking up with you. The gist of it was, Don’t call us we’ll call you. The priest was a Franciscan, a small man who wore a grey robe that made him look like Obi Wan Kenobi. I’ll call him Bill, but his name was Bob. He said what we’d been through was an ‘open soul surgery’. He also said I’d never hold a job or maintain meaningful relationships again. I thought he was full of shit.

My wife took it harder than me. She was there both times. I remember the first time we made love, she glowed. It was like losing my virginity, only better. I loved her. I’d obsessed over her for months. Enough to form a real friendship. I thought she was an angel – she’s human. I signed the papers. It was the least I could do. She was there both times.

The whole thing had been arranged as a favour to my mother – a devout woman, tall and beautiful. When we were kids, she used to tell us how her lifelong dream was to be a nun and be with God all the time. If I were an alcoholic, I’d say that was my first resentment, seeing how it meant my brothers and I wouldn’t be around if she fulfilled that dream.

I never really felt wanted. Not by her. She loved me enough to listen when I told her I was being tossed around the room. I thought they were seizures at first. They kinda were, only I was never in danger of swallowing my tongue and being thrown against the wall by an unseen force. That ain’t a seizure in medical terms. My mother’s attendance at daily mass curried favour with many priests over the years. Most of those wouldn’t touch exorcisms. They were Diocesan priests, not religious priests. There’s a difference, but one of them knew a charismatic who was willing to see me.

Father Bill was relatively new to exorcisms when we met. He’d only performed two. I made sure I was good and high on the drive to see him. My wife went with me. She didn’t smoke. Wish I hadn’t either. The drive was a long and winding one, not only due to the terrain. My thoughts meandered. First, my marriage…my college sweetheart sat beside me in solidarity. The same solidarity that led her to foolishly add me to her checking account in college. The same solidarity that allowed her to forgive me for my relationship with another woman. There were others. She even indulged my guilt-guided decision to throw us back into the church on a daily basis. It didn’t suit her. She didn’t need Jesus to be decent or faithful.

My thoughts turned to wondering if the thing would show up in front of the priest. It was unpredictable to say the least. The weed allowed me to detach from the impending embarrassment of the devil leaving me high and dry. I pretended not to care, and had already made sure my attire said as much. I chose tattered blue jeans and a T-shirt. My calling card was a thick snake vertebrae necklace. I’d added a few beads to it. Three to be exact, each divided a section of the boa constrictor’s bones. There was still dried meat between. I thought it was cool. If Camel lights were a cologne, I’d have bathed in them.

The church was secluded, in fact it wasn’t listed. The directions were difficult to follow, and nightfall made it impossible to see. I thought we’d never find it. Exasperated, I uttered, God help me.

Suddenly we came upon an entrance where a statue stood powerfully between a path leading in and one leading out. The statue was a familiar one. I’m Catholic. It was of an archangel, sword in hand and a foot planted firmly on a chained demon’s neck. It was Saint Michael. The church was named after him as well. This was more of a compound. I remember my wife and I exchanging glances in awe of the surreal nature of where we were. I took in her long dark curly locks, her olive toned skin. I wanted to be better for her. She smiled warmly and grabbed my hand.

The grounds were well-manicured, and by that I mean the bushes were cut in perfect green squares. Every shrub and every tree had a shape. Not a blade of grass was out of place. This was a mission, a lot like the Alamo before we lost. I sat in the car frozen with fear. I lit a cigarette, took long deep drags.

What if I truly was possessed? The psychiatrists didn’t help. I’d been to more than one at this point. Schizophrenia. I almost bought the diagnosis, but the voices were coupled by something else. My eyes weren’t my own anymore. Something other than me was looking through them. I knew it. I felt it, and I’d been thrown to the ground and against too many walls to concede to – schizophrenia. The medicine felt like a punch in the brain. I’d stopped taking it. I finished the cigarette, flicked it out of the window. Muttered, Fuck it and got out of the car. I had to be cool back then.

We entered the vestibule. The church was dark and smelled like my grandmother’s closet, sans moth balls. I wanted to leave, but Gladys grasped my hand tightly. Father Bill appeared at the other end of the hallway and approached slowly. He had his hood on, not sure if it was for dramatic effect, but it worked. He looked like a Jedi, and had referenced Star Wars on the phone. I can’t remember what he said, but he intimated that there were advanced human beings, or that the force was real. Something to relate to a 23-year old, I figured. He’d earned my attention.

We sat on a bench in the hallway. The smell of old wood struck me, and his voice echoed a bit as he spoke. His first question was about the drive over and how we’d managed to find the church. My wife answered fine and threw in that she didn’t know the church even existed. He ignored that and went on about being glad that I’d reached out to him. Bill said he took the rite of exorcism very seriously. The church had not sanctioned this. He made that clear. This was a favour, and from what my mother had relayed to her friend Monseigneur Mahoney, along with our phone conversation, we couldn’t wait for the blessing of the bishop.

It was getting worse. The suffocating fear and sleep paralysis had become a nightly occurrence. The waking nightmares, a given. The evening prior to our meeting, I’d fallen asleep on the couch, woke to blood dripping down the walls. I saw a bloody image of what looked like Christ, crown of thorns and all. The imagery is still seared into my memory. There was also writing scrawled in blood. I saw the words Death, and AIDS. This was accompanied by a loud continuous cackle and wailing. I said the Our Father. Cried out the name Jesus. A flash of white light flooded the room. Then it all vanished. Hadn’t told my wife. Hadn’t told Bill either. Prayed for it to be schizophrenia, or psychosis, the alternative was far more frightening.

Father Bill said a long prayer, the Athanasian Creed. I’d never heard it. He left the room briefly and returned holding an ancient Benedictine cross. It was made of olive wood and there was a cross within it that had the vertical letters CSSML. ND and MD were tamped horizontally on the left and right side of the second S respectively. He reached out the cross to me and told me to grab it. I did -something rose violently out of my body, raising me off of the bench. It propelled me forward. I clutched the cross with all my might. Bill stood his ground ready for battle. I could hear my wife praying somewhere near me. A voice leapt out of me. It was speaking an unknown language -to me, at least. Father Bill spoke to it with authority. I didn’t want to hurt him. I was no longer in control. He never allowed his gaze or words to break.

Canto II: Vertebrae

It’d been a month since my last exorcism when the phone rang. Father Bill was on the other end. His instructions were simple enough: burn the boa constrictor vertebrae that I proudly wore around my neck immediately. If I complied, he’d see me again for another exorcism. This wasn’t an easy ask. I’d worn the snake bone necklace for years at this point. Picked it up on a weekend trip while serving in the military. The guys and I had a habit of hitting a small town in Missouri with a major university and a private girl’s college to unwind. Wifey doesn’t know too much about those jaunts.

On one of those weekends we shot into town sipping cold ones on the scenic drive. Ramada Inn was our chosen hotel due to its prime location on the downtown thoroughfare. That hotel happened to have one of the best bars, which served as our oiling station for the night’s festivities. I remember the weekend well. Met Sarah as soon as we arrived. She was our cocktail girl at the bar. Shiny green short dress. Black fishnets. Dark hair. Olive brown skin. Jewish. Sauce had me good as soon as we locked eyes. Told me she had a boyfriend. They’d been together six years. My reply, Six years and no ring?Kicked me out of her dorm room right before her boyfriend arrived the next morning. Had the decency to call me a cab.

None of the guys made it out of Sarah’s bar the night before. So, when I stepped into the hotel room, they were raring to go. Soaped up a washcloth on the quick. Hit under the arms and scrote’ then took the stroll. We were greeted by a parade upon stepping out of the Ramada. The marching band’s horns energised us. The clang of cymbals put us in full retreat seeking some hair of the dog. When we popped out of a low-key watering hole two hours later, the day officially began.

The shops on Broadway Boulevard were all boutiques. It was that kind of town. We stumbled into Cool Stuff Emporium. A massive store full of crystals and sage wands. This store had everything. This was new age before new age. Incense of every kind. Tarot cards and trinkets I’d never seen. The boys and I split up. I wandered to the back of the store where all of the African artifacts were. Ran my fingers across boldly-crafted wooden statues. Stared at the masks that my ancestors wore. Jewellery and rings too costly for my pocketbook. But I had to get something. This was Missouri, and here I was receiving a tangible African history lesson. My gaze found a glass case. In it were bones of varying sizes and shapes. One in particular caught my eye. Large, tan, spiked backbones with a brownish red crust caked between, strewn on what looked like thick hemp. The vertebrae were perfectly stacked. Not one missing. A clerk appeared behind me. He was jovial and overweight with a beard. This was his store. What’s that in the case? I asked, pointing at the necklace. The thing had drawn me in. He knew that. Said he got it in Zimbabwe on one of his many trips. I was intrigued. He knew that too. Said all the man who sold it to him would say was big snake. He relayed this with an accent. Said it again, Big snake. What kind of snake? I said. Boa Constrictor, he answered. Continued by telling me he thought it used to belong to a medicine man. Sold, I replied. Plunked down the cashola. Next we worked together to rub even more cool on it. Settled on large African carved beads, three of them to be exact. Each sectioning off the boa bones. One bead sat in the middle at the bottom of the necklace. I’ll be back. Concluded the transaction. He just smiled and added: That necklace has been here for a while, was wondering when its owner would show up. Chucked up the deuces, then stepped outside wearing that otherworldly bling.

Father Bill asking me to burn it was a non-starter at first. I mean my snake vertebrae necklace was the quintessential conversation piece – gotta give women a reason to talk to you. What better way than a daddy ass necklace with mojo on it. It was more than that, though. It was a part of me. I rarely took it off. It never broke. Pretty much grafted onto me. But I had to admit, something was throwing me up against the wall. Could it be the necklace? Bill thought so. In the days following the first exorcism he’d checked on me daily. There seemed to be a sense of victory in his eyes upon its completion. He was drained. His voice was hoarse on the phone. The calls eventually stopped. I hadn’t improved much. He advised me to distance myself from the energy stealing stuff. Porn, drinking and the like. I overcorrected. Daily mass at 6am, five days a week. Wifey would go with me. Hold my hand. Sat in the front row of the tiny chapel with me. Pleading for me to be free. While I’d pray on my knees during the ritual, vile thoughts flowed around me. Stay focused.Recite the mass. That’s all I’d keep telling myself. More than bothered. Felt like wasps stinging me. I was afraid to move. More I resisted rubbing my eyes or scratching an itch, the greater the disturbances became. Even Father Henry, our Parish priest was disturbed. Started stammering through mass. Couldn’t stop looking at me. I know he heard the vulgarities that haunted me. They began to haunt him too. Wifey prayed as hard as she could. The torture hadn’t abated. I was still being thrown to the floor.

My eyes still weren’t my own. Imagine something knowing every fear you have then using it against you. Think your wife might be cheating on you. Visions of her getting gangbanged flood your mind. Afraid you might have some homo in you? Voices scream every homophobic slur imaginable. The aim is to break your gaze. Make you look. Destroy your confidence. Think you could use a couple more inches on your dick? Voices tell you you’ve got the tiniest cock. Pretty soon you can’t look at the world. Can’t look anyone in the eye. You retreat. All your cocksurety gone. Doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished. The harassment whittles you down to nothing. Then it seizes you. It seized me the night before Father Bill called. I’d been writing at the computer a few hours after Gladys went to bed. It attacked from inside the body. Threw me to the ground. It’s like a full body charley horse – every muscle contracts. Even my face. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t scream. Then the hissing began. All I could fight with was the name of Jesus. Usually worked during the sleep paralysis. Didn’t work here. My mouth dropped open involuntarily. The hiss is guttural, rises from the bottom of your soul. Makes you drool. Defenseless. Eventually I could straighten my legs. Move my hands. Control my cheeks. I’d conceded. Bill’s call came right on time. I knew I had to burn the vertebrae.

Took some time for the fire to light. The weight of the vertebrae in my hand reminded me of how precious my connection to the necklace truly was. Felt naked. By the time the flames engulfed it, I already felt lighter. Shroud of darkness temporarily replaced by sadness. Palpability of this kind of loss tastes like the ash of volcanic rock. Plume of dark smoke brought to mind the first exorcism. If Bill had any semblance of a victory, it came midway through, after he’d handed me the Benedictine Cross. The one with the horizontal and verticals letters on it. My hand wrapped tightly around. Couldn’t pry them off if I’d wanted. Powerless to let go. Clutching on with every bit of faith Catechism taught me. I was under Father Bill’s spell if only for a moment. He performed the rite. Voices of every kind spewed venomous curses upon him. He stood firm. Demanded to know the name of the demon. Eyes bulging. Head cocked back. From the nether regions of the greatest abyss. One much larger than me. It spoke, SALOME. We knew its name.

Gladys wasn’t keen on me going back to see Father Bill. We’d tried to put it all behind us. Started volunteering at a homeless shelter. Painted the weather-beaten house over Christmas for the old woman who ran it. Took the kids from there to an ice-skating rink. Held hands. Worked out together. I lost 20 pounds. She lost 30. Best year of our marriage. Except Salome, or whatever the hell you wanna call it, was still on me. In me. What Wifey didn’t know was that something would take hold of me at night while she slept. I’d gone to the grimiest places. Peephole shows. Massage parlours. More shame I felt. Greater its hold on me. I’d try to wash myself by going to weekly confession. Started going to St. Jude’s Cathedral downtown. It was open 24 hours. If I were an alcoholic, I’d say it’s the equivalent of that bar where drunks go to die. Priest there invited me upstairs to his living quarters. His breath smelled like cheap Catholic wine. Saw bottles in his room. He was the head of that Diocese. Not sure which order. Not a Jesuit. Not a Franciscan like Father Bill. Told me to seek psychiatric help. Told him I’d done that. Nothing helped. Never mentioned what I went through with Bill. Didn’t matter. He appeared to have no knowledge of the rite anyway. Left dejected. Called Father Bill on the drive of shame back home. Told him I’d burned the bones. Said he needed a few weeks to prepare. Scheduled the second exorcism for a Friday.

Canto III: Charism

Survivor’s Guilt. That’s what my mother calls it. She had four boys, now she’s got three. I’m the middle one. Fourth son was my identical twin. Earliest childhood memory? Me standing in front of my brother’s tiny tomb. Walked to it almost every day. Right there across the street from my grandmother’s house. I’d speak to him – ask why I was still here. That tiny tomb towered over me. Had a weather-beaten broken baby angel on top. Damn cherub was older than my dead brother. Don’t know if I believe in angels anymore. But if they exist, my brother’s one of them. Sure, mother loves me, but that kind of loss only the church could help her with. She’s been a daily mass goer ever since. After, I told Mother about being grabbed by that unseen force. Thrown against the wall. Pinned to the floor. She made a call to Monseigneur Mahoney, her parish priest from college. Got invited to a Charismatic Healing Mass. They pray in tongues. Guess she wanted him to lay hands on me. If that’s even a thing in the Catholic Church. Didn’t know praying in tongues was. I went alone.

Anointed. That’s how I felt after Mahoney rolled his thumb in oil like a Black man getting fingerprinted and made a cross against my forehead. It’d been years since my confirmation. Memories flashed with each step toward the Monseigneur. Grandmother’s death. Every sleepless night counting popcorn on the ceiling. Cursing God. Head full of questions. Never answered. The voices that did, weren’t God. Depression landed. She was supposed to live until I died. Betrayed. Sleep paralysis. Every last terror-filled occurrence. Anxiety arrived. Figured it was penalty for fucking with a Ouija board in sixth grade.

Woke up one night. Went to the fridge. Reached for the handle. Couldn’t grab the fucking thing. Hand went clear through. Realised I wasn’t in my body. Astral projection. That’s some weird shit. Zap! Awake. Back to the body. The thought did that. Only problem was, I was frozen in it. Took forever to move again. Muted screams within this lifeless shell. Didn’t matter. Fear set in. Haven’t slept soundly since. Right before reaching Mahoney, I tucked the snake vertebrae worn around my neck under my collar. Instinct, I guess. We locked eyes. He read me. Crinkled forehead tightened by stress like a crank pulling a fine metal wire to the edge before it snaps. Think he made the decision then. Sanctioned an under-the-table exorcism. Special favour to Mother. The kind of woman that keeps everybody waiting for an hour while she confesses. That’s where the exorcist comes in.

Father Bill only had a couple exorcisms under his belt when we met. Mahoney chose him anyway. Might explain the need for this second one with me. But then again, probably not too many priests out there willing to buck the bishops. He’d avoided me after the first time. Sent me home with a Catholic exorcism prayer. Maintenance. Didn’t work. Memorised it anyway. We do that in the Catholic church. Followed his instructions. Burned the snake vertebrae necklace. Kept going to daily masses with the Missus. Read the good book. Joined the Big Brother program. Cool kid. Would meet him for lunch at his middle school. Started mentoring his little brother too. Did a play. Had three lines. Smoked good Austin-kind bud. Wrote mostly. Father Bill trained in the meantime. The first exorcism had taken a lot out of him. Admitted as much. Said it’d take about a month for him to get prayed up and recoup.

Days leading up to the exorcism filled with Gladys and I reliving our courtship. There were times like these in our marriage. I’d pick up a bouquet of stargazer lilies. Plop them on the counter. Slice open the green baggie filled with plant food. Open sesame! She’d grow closer. Our hands started to gravitate toward each other’s again. That space between the sheets got smaller. Began holding her in my sleep. Obliged her friends with my presence. This I hated. Wasn’t a social animal anymore. She’d fallen in love with the social animal. Not the man I’d become. The one who recoiled from crowded places one minute. Or became enraged the next. There was a beast growing inside of me. Full of fury. Cut me off on the road. I’d chase you. Follow you home. Make you capitulate. If she looked at another man. There was hell to pay. Couldn’t take it – and she was fucking beautiful. You know what that means. Disrespect did not go over lightly. It’s endless with a hot wife. Met her ex-boyfriend in a restaurant. Skinny boy. Light-skinned brother. Too pretty for my taste. Walked right up to us. Started rapping to her. Eruption. Cleared the restaurant. She knew. Police heard me out. Told them what happened. Wasn’t arrested. Texas don’t play that shit – even with black men.

Got a call the day before the second exorcism. Old college roommate. Guy was in tears. Found out his wife had been cheating on him. Didn’t know what to do. Just needed to tell someone. His words dug deeply into my core, excavating the flimsy faith that held the beast at bay. Rage rumbled. Bubbled up like the molten red-orange lava that destroyed the streets of Pompeii. Breathing brimstone. Wifey arrived late that day. Told her what happened. Studied her reaction. Beast broke free. Unleashed blow after blow on her belly. Out of body. I can still see it. Her crumpled-over frame leaning forward clutching her elbows. A strange brew of shock and fear showered both of us. Rage abated. Demon finished with me. Dropped to my knees. Reached for her. She flinched. Some men don’t talk of these things. Maybe those of us who only had to see it once do. Police not called. Neighbours unaware. Just you and your wife. Trying to make sense of the madness that grabs hold of man. Didn’t have to tell her it’d never happen again. Cried in her lap all night. Decision made. We’d go see Father Bill as planned.

Silence. The kind of quiet that steals every impulse marked the drive to see Bill. No music. Couldn’t talk. Just think. Gladys stared out the window watching flat plains looming large like green grid solar panels. Lost in thought, I remembered walking this route back in college. The hung-over hitchhiker. She and her mother picked me up. Shameful serendipity. I’d travelled into Lewisville that weekend with Derrick, my best friend from high school. Blond caught my eye. Kept going into a bathroom. Boyfriend caught me looking at her. Looks like you find sweet pea appealing, he said. Pretty sauced. I just shrugged. More where that came from? he added. Invited me to hang. Thought he was offering her to me. After the bar closed, hopped into their SUV. Took me to a small pink wooden house in a bad neighbourhood. It was dank dark in there. Old Black woman seated in a rocking chair picking yellowish white gravel out of a coin pouch. Hypnotised. Hollowed out women with skin the same colour as mine kneeled in subservience forming a circle around her. She’d call each one forward. Break off some rock. Sprinkle it in their hands. Shocked. I watched with awe as they scurried back to their spots. Resumed kneeling. Pipe in hands. Sparking up crack cocaine. Pick one, the slick red neck boyfriend commanded. I’m good man, I whispered. Never seen anything like it. I was only 18. Escaped. Went to an after-hours swinger’s spot with the cowboy and his girlfriend. He was the bartender. Had the keys. Turned on strobe lights. Started kissing his blond in front of me. Took off her clothes. Fed her some rock. Instructed her to service me. Succumbed. Not to the rock. To Salome. The demon Father Bill claimed was inside of me. Ended quicker than I wanted it too. Lightning bolt. Catholic guilt struck. Dropped me off at Lewisville mall at dawn. 16 miles to Denton. Gladys and her mother never asked where I’d been.

Broad bronzed wings of an Archangel cast a dark shadow upon our Pegasus – white Honda Civic – as we drove through the gates of St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Main entrance was long like the ones you find at amusement parks. Red streaks painted translucent clouds as the sun set. This exorcism was to be held in the main sanctuary. Surprise switch. First one took place in a satellite chapel. Gladys finally spoke, with her eyes. Motioned her head toward the church. Grabbed my hand. Squeezed. Couldn’t meet her gaze. Sparked a Camel light. Took deep drags. Checked my neck. No vertebrae. Maybe after this one. I’ll be free.

Father Bill didn’t greet us. Gave us time to survey the sanctuary. Smelled like old books. To the right knelt a nun dressed in a brown habit. Deep in prayer – thumbing rosary beads. Felt me. Grabbed all of her shit. Bolted. Knew what I was there for. Bill appeared clad in a smoky, grey robe with his hood on. Had a rope around his waist. Small man. Even smaller than I remembered. Three people walked in behind. One woman. Young. Good looking. Two men. One was tall and pudgy, zits. Goody two-shoes type. Don’t remember what the skinnier one looked like. Shook my hand. Introduced himself. Father Bill said they’d be sitting in with us. Damn Franciscan ambushed me. Each one possessed a spiritual gift. Girl had discernment. Could distinguish spirits. Fat cat was like a prayer warrior on steroids. Super faith man. Spoke in tongues. Other guy was something else. Mix between a psychic reader and interpreter of tongues. Bill wasted no time. Hit me with the holy water. Started the Rite. Full-fledged charismatic attack. Gladys took to a pew. Knelt down. Started praying. Drool leaked from the sides of my mouth. The prayer clan formed a triangle around me. Felt drunk. Fell into a stupor. Booming voice screamed out of me. Spoke a language I can’t replicate. Syllables bent in ways to spew hate. Stampeded me up and down the aisle. Backed Bill up. Recovered. Came back fortified. Cross in hand. Sight of it cut through me. Like a sharp blade making an incision across my heart.

Staggered. Entranced. Father Bill guided me to a seat. Sat me down. Still drooling. Felt hypnotised. Charismatics stood their ground. Father continued the rite. Heard him talking to them. Told them they had to find where the spirit entered. Slipped into a deeper state of spiritual hypnosis. Started probing my life. It was like a strange scan of my soul. Rose out of my body. Could see it all from above. Reached my born date. Said, Something happened here. At birth. Something tragic. Continued with: We have to go deeper. Took me all the way into my mother’s womb. Body shot into an upright foetal position. Third Trimester. Warm. Uncomfortable. Not much room. Second Trimester. Brotherly bonding. Knew he was with me. Indescribable. First Trimester. Nothing. Probed further. Said: Here. Right here. Heard the girl say something. Bill replied: This child wasn’t wanted.

Nicholas Cormier III is a veteran of the United States Air Force. Spent several years as an Air Traffic Controller. Graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington where he studied Art with a concentration in Film and a minor in Theatre. He holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Texas State University. Writer. Director. Actor. Nicholas volunteers for Veteran-centric service organizations and regularly advocates for mentally-ill veterans, including those with substance abuse issues, living on the streets of Los Angeles. He is a USC Warrior Bard and longtime member of the renowned UCLA Wordcommandos Creative Writing Workshop for Veterans. He is also Co-host of Voice of the Veteran, a weekly national first-hand Vet experience podcast/Vlog on the VA. His short stories have appeared in MAYDAY and The Good Life Review.

 

*Image by Anne Nygård on Unsplash