by Carmen Lau.
- Our Courtship
This was how I met the Devil:
I was walking home from school one day and happened to pass by a little patch of woods I had never known was there. Coming upon a large, smooth rock that still felt of fading sunlight against my palm, I sat down to take a breath.
“Yelp!” the rock said. In my astonishment, I leapt up and kicked the rock. It rolled away and out popped the Devil wearing a brand new suit. The suit was peeling off him in flaming strips. They dropped to the ground and sizzled against the fallen leaves. In his hand he held a rough burlap sack full of mewling, keening, writhing things.
“Who are you?” I said. “What’s in that sack?”
“Souls,” he said, looking bashful. “It’s my job to collect them.”
He had been trying to tempt the dentist that morning as she was walking to work. He had whispered in her ear a special song:
Dearie, dearie old Dr. Leary,
Aren’t you weary of days gone cold?
Merry, merry, dance the old longings
Walk with me, my sweet dark soul
and she had hit him over the head and put him under the rock.
“You poor thing,” I said.
“It is the life I am used to,” he said. I looked upon his pale sharp-featured face, not knowing yet it was borrowed, and marked the centuries he had lived. How short my own life had been! I sat on the rock beside him. From his pocket he pulled out a withered poppy. The orange of its petals flaked off like dust. He tucked it behind my ear. His fingers singed my hair. The smell of my own burning filled the air.
“You’re so sweet,” he said.
He put his hands in his pockets and looked down at his shiny black shoes. They reflected our faces, both gazing downward in abashment. The sack of souls mewed and howled. I got up.
“I had better get going,” I said.
“Wait!” he said. “Would you like to hear a story?”
“Certainly,” I said, and sat back down.
- The Tale of a River
One time, he said, One time in Oklahoma I spotted a fine river and thought to make it mine. I sat on the bank with a willow at my knee for a fishing pole, for I knew on the other side some men would soon be coming to cross it. Fishing is a business that needs cunning. Once the men came to the river I set it to writhing, beat it up like a bowlful of frothing milk, and boy were they howling and pleading! Please Sir Devil, they said, One of ours is sick and needs to cross. I said, I am normally not one for good deeds, but for you I will make a deal. You can cross but you have got to hang tight to the branches of my willow tree. All of them agreed except for one, the sick man. I’ll die soon anyway, boys, he said, no use making a deal with the Devil. No, no, they said, we’ve got to save you. So they grabbed hold of my willow tree’s branches and tied the sick man up in them. Take him across, they said, save him. No, no! cried the sick man. I tugged on my willow tree and reeled him in. In my sack he went, screaming all the while. Love and Christian goodness serve me well from time to time. To this day no one dares cross that river.
- Our Courtship
“How clever!” I said.
“It is my job to be clever,” he said, his chest swelling. He looked at the darkness of the sky. “No one can best me in a game of wits. Why, one blue moon night….”
- The Tale of the Three Boys
One blue moon night as I was taking a walk, I fell into a hole. As I lay rubbing my head and groaning in that dark pit, I heard some boys chattering above me. What do you think Jesus will give for him? said one. A hundred at least, said another. We’ll need more than that to get the bike, said the first. Two hundred, I bet, said the second.
Stars! I was in luck. Creeping up to the edge of the hole with my sack slung over my shoulder, I peered out at the boys. There were three: one fat, one thin and one tall. I let out a long low whistle, and the three boys turned to me as if pulled by their noses.
Two hundred, you say, I said. I waved my hand and a stack of bills appeared before me. What about a thousand?
The fat boy spat, said, We’re no fools. A deal with the Devil is a losing bet.
Wait now, the tall one said. That’s a thousand there plain as the morning. He approached. Gimme those bills and let me see if they’re real.
The thin one was silent as a stone in a river.
I flicked a bill at him. You’ve got to let me go if you want the rest.
The three boys studied the bill, stretching it and holding it against the light of the setting sun.
It’s real, the tall one said.
What makes you think the rest is real? the fat one said.
I harrumphed and lowed, but the boys crossed their arms.
We won’t let you go unless you show us it’s all real, the fat one said.
At last I sighed. Do you promise to let me go if I give it to you?
Cross our hearts, the tall one said.
I blew upon the bills, and the bills appeared in their hands. The boys cackled as they counted.
Five hundred here, the tall one said.
And five hundred here, the fat one said.
All the while the thin one had been quiet as moss. Now he threw up his hands and shook his fists.
Ah! he said. How saddened I am. You would sell your souls so easily.
The boys turned to him as if they had never seen him before.
I stand before you mortified to think you called yourselves lambs of mine. My father will never want to see you in our kingdom now. What a grievous mistake you have made.
The boys fell to their knees before him. Forgive us, our prince, they wailed.
I died for you, the thin boy said. Do you remember that? I was nothing but kind to you, so kind that I perished for you. I hung for days and was pierced and spat upon. My eyes filled with my own blood. Near the end the pain was so vicious I no longer felt it. Have you ever felt such pain? The boy wiped tears from his cheek. I did, and I remember every second of it. Everything I did was for you, and you throw it all away.
Forgive us, the boys wailed. They clutched his feet and kissed them.
All the while I had been creeping out of the hole, my sack open and ready. I was right behind the boys when the Savior cried,
Stop! If these boys return the money, will it undo the deal?
I huffed. A deal is a deal. They have taken the money and let me out. For that, I have every right to their souls.
The boy looked into my eyes. Poor Devil, he said softly. Are you so unlucky that you must chase after the tiny souls of two insignificant boys? I have always felt for you.
Unlucky! I shook. Only today I have bagged more than a million souls. Why, I can bag another million by the time the moon sets.
The Savior gazed down at the boys, their faces streaked with dirt and tears, and sighed. I can very well believe it, he said, if you take such sickly souls as these. He pulled his feet away from their grasp. Go ahead, he said. Our father would not want them anyway.
But I was too cunning to fall for such a ruse! I saw then what pitiful souls they were, quivering under our gazes.
Oh no, I said. You are welcome to them. I will not fill Hell with small fry.
Truly? the Savior said. He gathered the boys to him and embraced them. Very well. He sighed and shook his head. What is Heaven becoming? In a blink they were gone.
And that was how in one day I escaped from two traps: one laid by the boys, and one laid by the Savior! I am ever so clever.
- Our Courtship
I clapped my hands. “Your wits are truly to be feared!”
The Devil’s flames curled up higher, lighting up the night around him. I huddled closer to his warmth.
“Well, I had best get on,” he said.
“Wait,” I said. “Please tell me more. Tell me where you’re from.”
- The Tale of the Fall
Of all of God’s angels I was the bravest one. I was the best and the brightest. I was the one he loved most. But I was also the one who saw through his bull. So one day, I said something about it. I meant no insult at the time, but boy, did he huff and puff! I put my hands up, said, Sir, no need for grievances. But it was too late. Before I knew it I had his boot to my backside, and over the edge of Heaven I went.
You should’ve seen me! In a blaze of light I streaked from the sky, a meteor. I crashed and rose bruised and wingless. Down I walked into the fires of Hell, swearing vengeance. With every step fountains of flame roared up behind me, scalding my heels. And soon I felt the beam inside me surface. In the fire that licked out from under my skin, my angelic countenance burned away. Now I am just the way you see me.
- The Tale of the Fall
Perhaps, in truth, my husband is God’s willing shadow, God’s right-hand man masked in treachery. This is only a rumor I heard. Perhaps he is the hand offering fruit, the suspicious eye, the wagging tongue, he who plays upon us feeble sinners, he who roams the land proving the good are not so good, all in the service of God. A bum job. Always accusing and always accused, forever stepped upon and forever biting – perhaps that is my poor husband.
These were the thoughts that would surface after we were married. At the time few thoughts surfaced at all!
- Our Courtship
“Well,” he said, “I really must get going.”
He bent to pick up the sack. A piece of his jacket sleeve fell to the ground steaming. Feeling sorry for him, I said,
“I’ll mend your jacket. I’ll mend the whole suit.”
“I could not ask for so much of your trouble,” he said.
“It would be no trouble at all,” I said.
All night I stayed up mending the suit. The moon rose and clothed my busy hands in silver. My mother asked me whose suit it was and I said, “None of your business.” I fell asleep at the table, the poppy still behind my ear. When I woke the Devil was in my house trying on the new suit. My mother had crawled under the sofa.
“Thank you for the trouble,” the Devil said, looking down at his shiny shoes. The sleeves were too long, the pants waist too high, but what is that in the face of love?
“It’s no trouble at all,” I said. “I’ll make you a whole new wardrobe.”
And I did. For days my hands were bloody pinning pieces of suit together. I cut them out of curtains, tablecloths, my own dresses. You should have seen the things I concocted for him! Outfits of the snazziest plaid, the slickest polyester, the cheeriest Kokopelli-adorned hand-woven wool.
“There’s no way you’ll keep seeing the Devil,” my mother said. “The next time he’s here I’m chasing him out.”
The next time the Devil came she crawled under the carpet. He tried on the new suits one over the other, so eager he was to see how they fit. The last was a blue corduroy ripped from the sofa. It was this that, perhaps, won him over.
“Will you marry me?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Weeping, he embraced me. My dress went up in flames.
The door opened. My father stood just outside. He smiled at the snipped curtains, the white clouds of sofa stuffing spit upon the floor, the rug with the suit-shaped hole. We waited for him to say something, but as always his mouth was locked.
- The Escape
But heavens! My mother had more wit than that. During my sleep she jailed me in my very own bed. Every sheet in the house she wrapped around me, and every quilt and pillow she cast upon my dozing form, so that when I woke I was in a strange soft place I never wanted to leave. I gazed, enthralled, at the pattern of cozy napping cats on the covers over my eyes. And far away I could hear my mother humming. She was at the peak of the quilt-and-pillow mountain, singing to me. Old songs she sang, happy songs. In her distress she had become cheerful.
The Devil came to my window and banged and howled.
“Is that a storm?” my mother called. “Be gone, storm, for you shall find no fields to rain upon here!”
The Devil scratched and screeched at the glass.
“Is that a racoon?” my mother said. “Go away, bandit, for there is no fragrant trash for you to nibble on here!”
The Devil yelled and cursed, and then he was quiet.
Under the mountain, he sprang up beside me from the mattress. Over my head he slipped his sack, down to my shoulders, down to my feet, until I was all swallowed up. Through the mattress he slipped again, dragging me behind. Out into the cool night he stole, his sack full of me flung over his shoulder, his whistle full of glee, as my mother sat upon her mountain singing happy songs to me.