Context: I am what I like to call a born-again Atheist and I have quite a few stories to tell about growing up in conservative Christian America. This is one of those stories.
Word count: 953
The Devil in the China
When we moved to Miami, fear consumed Mom’s heart, and in her search for control she found Jesus. On what was otherwise an ordinary Friday, Mom volunteered our home for the Prayer Warriors next meeting and though we were dirt poor, she made bread pudding and strong Puerto Rican coffee which the white people were not prepared for. After the table had been cleared the prayer-chanting began in which words were repeated over and over until certain members went into a sort of trance and swayed from side to side. My brother Manny, and I sat side by side in the corner of the room. He was six and terrified but I did not comfort him.
The church leader, a tall, closeted alcoholic with a thick black mustache and a belief that he was chosen by God, walked around the house ‘anointing it.’ He stopped when he saw the poster of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Manny’s bedroom wall. He said Satan was in our home so he ripped the poster in two which sent Manny into angry hysterics. Mom told me to take Manny to my room so the cleansing could continue and I locked the door behind us. For all eleven years of my life I had never been so afraid of inanimate objects and our house was filled with them.
The next morning Mom woke me with a black bag in hand.
“We’re going to destroy all the devil’s things in this house and you’re going to help me.”
She dragged me from bed and we stared at my precious unicorn collection. They were white with glimmering horns, some prancing, some bent as if drinking water and some staring defiantly back at me, demanding I save them. But I was afraid and the strength to stand up to Mom would not come until later.
“Put them in the bag. We’re going to destroy them, Satan is using them to enter this house.”
“How is he doing it?”
“It’s not for us to ask,” she said.
Satan had become so tangible you’d think he’d stride in for dinner and poison our lemonade. My hands shook as I grabbed the figurines but there was no hesitation because the fear of Satan overruled any other fear. Into the black bag they went, into its pits they were lost. One by one until there were none, until the glass table was empty but for the circles the bases had made in the dirty glass. Mom went to the kitchen and tied the bag tight then grabbed from the counter her rolling pin and shoved it at me.
“Say ‘In the name of Jesus!’ Hit them until they’re gone. You have to do this, Brenda.”
I remember thinking she was mad, that she was unhinged but it was mixed with absolute horror, horror at the possibility of satanic contamination. So I hit the bag. The sound of the breaking ceramic against the relentless pounding of the pin.
“In the name of Jesus!” I said.
“Again!” Mom loomed.
“In the name of Jesus!”
And I started to cry. Each crack felt like a betrayal and I dimly remember Mom praising the Holy Spirit for being with us that morning, for showering us with its presence.
“In the name of Jesus!”
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Savior of worlds, destroyer of unicorns.
When I finished, the bag was a mess of pulverized dreams. Mom held me, told me God had used me, that he had worked through me. Then I watched as she grabbed a family heirloom gifted by her Japanese aunt, an intricately painted set of china. It was royal blue with orange dragons twisted in the handles of the tea cups. When you held the cups to the light you would see a Geisha smiling in the base. It was the most beautiful thing we owned and I had spent many moments holding tea cups to the light, it was a wisp of magic in the everyday. That day I saw them disappear into a black bag. She panted as she crushed them with the pin, she didn’t cry but there was a tightening to her eyes.
I clearly remember that day and even though it’s been twenty-five years, I still can hear the screaming of unicorns and the granulating of a tea set. The devil was in the china, she had said. If one were to believe in such things as devils and ghouls that hide in figurines one would also have to believe in the silliness of humans. That day I believed in the former and today is quite a different story.
Years later I reminded Mom of that day. She was older, wiser, less afraid, less likely to be manipulated by some prayer warrior with an alcohol problem.
“Sometimes we do stupid things, Brenda.”
I wanted to accuse her of many things but I bit my tongue until it stung. It was done.
“I loved that tea set,” Mom said.
To this day, I understand little of Mom but I saw her then as she truly was. A young mother alone in a country she didn’t know, afraid of everything, grasping for some control. Two weeks ago, I decided to search for the tea set on eBay and I found one remarkably close. I showed it to her and she leaned forward with a childlike smile on her lips.
“Just like mine, look at how the cups flute outward like a tulip. Tia Betty would pour me green tea when I was little in them, she had the smallest wrists I had ever seen. Yeah, they were just like this. I remember them.”