Aug 22, 2021
9 mins read
"Edge of Madness"
by Denise Ruttan
Before Dana’s brother Beau was sent away to an institution because their mother could no longer care for him, he told her something that aroused her interest and since then she has not been able to let it go. She thinks on it now, idly, as she is absently stirring milk into her hot English breakfast tea even though she does not usually drink her English breakfast tea with milk. That is the British style; that is too much like her mother.
It is silent in the kitchen and Dana reflects on that too. Silence is never really as silent as you think it is however. We are conditioned to be used to sound, a constant wall of sound always around us, so that some of us even have to carry headphones when we go for a walk in the woods because otherwise we would feel wrenched from the daily verisimilitude of our usual stimulation. So as she relaxes into the silence, or tries to; her foot is still twitching - Dana hears the hum of the refrigerator and the distant buzz of the neighbor’s lawn mower and a dog barking faintly, an urgent noise tinged with desperation. Dana’s shoulders stiffen.
She thinks of what her brother said before he left. He was still on the edge of madness then, if you can call it madness; maybe that is not the correct term any more and we are all a kind of mad in the end. She sips her tea and it is still hot and she burns her lip. She put too much milk in it and it tastes weak now and she winces. Why do people like milk in their tea? If you like milk in your tea why not just drink milk? She prefers the bitterness of the real thing scalding her tongue, the earthy aroma coating her sore throat. Anyway, what was that thing her brother said? Beau was still lucid back then.
Dana pictures him as he was then, when he was still earnest and not cruel. She sees his high cheekbones, his porcelain face, his long nose, his bright blue eyes, and the clarity of his eyes is striking to her. She winces again because this image of her brother in her mind is so clear and so visceral that it startles her. She doesn’t know why she is so jumpy this morning; maybe it was the milk in her tea. What was she thinking? She grimaces and puts the milk in the refrigerator and she realizes it has been some time since her mother has gone shopping. They are out of eggs. The racks of the refrigerator are coated with moldy stains. It has been some time since it has been cleaned. Dana thinks she should clean it but she can always do that later. She bites her bottom lip until it bleeds.
Beau was telling her about a demon. Dana humored him because that’s what you do for your brother who was going through a rough time. She did not think of it as going mad at the time because that was kind of judgmental, she just thought of her brother going through a rough time and his brain didn’t know what to do about it. But their mother made a bigger deal of it. She is prone to overreact to small calamities but then not clean the racks in the refrigerator after she has spilled food on them. Their mother’s name is not important.
“Tell me about this demon,” said Dana. She smiled, her lips were parted. She was wearing a white tanktop and ripped denim shorts. She had just returned from a beach party. It was really hot that summer. Her face was flushed and she was sure she had gotten sunburned and she regretted not applying sunscreen. It was always such a pain, sunscreen, and then it smelled and covered your skin in this grimy, sticky mess. She had had too much alcohol at that party and her head was still pounding. But she sipped water and listened to her brother.
So he told her about the demon. He had heard about the demon from one of the homeless guys he was always hanging around and giving bread to. The homeless guy had told him about the complicated ritual that he had to invoke in order to manifest the demon. The demon would grant him riches and wishes and bless him. Just look at the homeless guy, he was happy and numb to the world. Beau told him he thought that was just the vodka and the homeless guy laughed and laughed and said “No man, this demon. I’m telling you. This demon is the shit.”
“What’s its name?” Beau had asked, kindly, drinking vodka even though he hated liquor, but he wanted to be friendly, he wanted this man on his side even though he was a homeless guy and a drunk and this street was dirty and he didn’t know what he was doing or what was the point.
“No, no, no, you can never say the demon’s name,” said the homeless guy, suddenly putting his rough fingers on Beau’s lips, and Beau had reared back, shocked. “It’s bad luck. Just know this demon was once a prince. The Prince of Virtues. He’s not, though, not really a prince, nor is he virtuous.”
“It’s a he, then,” Beau had said. So he found out all he could about this demon. He read library books and went to churches and mosques and collected every piece of lore he could find. He had been obsessed. Finally one night he did the rituals and it seemed quite silly to him but he held the incense sticks and killed the squirrel and murmured the prayers there in the dark and he saw the demon and it was beautiful and seized him with such rapture that he could not control himself. The demon talked to him in a language he couldn’t understand and adopted his skin as his own and eventually Beau couldn’t take it and went and talked to the homeless guy and the homeless guy rocked back and forth and said, “You said his name, didn’t you, didn’t you?” And offered no help.
Now Beau is gone because their mother couldn’t care for him any longer and Dana finds herself obsessed with this demon, too. She has one of Beau’s books about him and she reads it as she sips her tea. It has cooled off now and the dog has stopped barking and her tea has stopped tasting like tea and now it just tastes like milk but she drinks it anyway because it is something to do here in this empty house when her mother is lying in bed upstairs in the stuffy master bedroom but she won’t open the windows. “I’m just going for a nap,” she explained, even though she usually doesn’t say anything. Sometimes she goes for a walk and she is gone for a day but Dana doesn’t get concerned because she always comes back, and then she says, “I just needed some fresh air,” even though usually she doesn’t say anything, and Dana doesn’t care anyway. She should go to the store and get some eggs. But there is no money.
Dana stares into her empty cup and thinks she will do this ritual. She spends a few days gathering the materials and studying the language in the ritual prayers even though she does not know what language it is. Then she thinks, if the demon is already in her brother why would it be interested in her? But she has to try, she is seized with a longing she cannot explain. She remembers those days on playgrounds when she would look at the mothers of other children and how put together they looked with their blonde curls and makeup and manicured nails, and she would run after her brother through the jungle gym even though he was faster than her and she would fall and scrape her knee and a lump would twist in her throat and she couldn’t swallow the insatiable longing. But back then she was a child and she did not understand anything.
Maybe she does not understand anything now.
So one night she sneaks out to the graveyard and she performs the rituals. It is quiet, so quiet, that kind of preternatural quiet that is too quiet, where not even an owl hoots or a bird cries or a child screams in the distance. She sits on a gravestone and hops just so and does the dances and feels monumentally silly, maybe that homeless guy was just letting her brother on. But then an eerie sort of wind rustles through the trees. It is in the fall when the chill is setting in but it is not quite as cold as it will be one month from now and she shivers, thinking about time and how it can be fast and slow all at once, and her skin is scaly with goosebumps. Her heart is in her throat, permanently lodged.
All she can think about is the demon and how she wants him inside her and the thought thrills her and terrifies her. She crouches on the gravestone with her back to it and she does not even read the name. Tears run down her face. The dead don’t matter do they? Not when the living don’t matter either. Names aren't important anyway.
Her heart beats faster and the wind picks up and she thinks she hears a keening in the distance, like a boy singing a song in a church choir before puberty has deepened his voice, and she wraps her arms around her and feels colder than she has any right to feel. She sees the demon’s face and it is not an evil face nor a good face, it is just the face of a boy with sad eyes and tousled hair, and suddenly she feels silly for wanting him, silly and slightly ashamed. Her cheeks flush and she wishes she had brought some alcohol to warm up the night, or at least a sweater. Her skin is white. It glows in the dark. She dries her tears and collects the materials and leaves the dead squirrel by a tree. She is filled with a sharp sense of regret that turns her stomach.
Maybe the other squirrels will perform funeral rituals for their dead companion, even though they don't know it, it came from another forest. She doesn’t know how squirrels remember the dead, if it even matters to them; she wonders why rituals matter. She looks back over her shoulder and the air smells like cinnamon incense and her nose burns, and she realizes she misses her brother as the boy stares back at her with dead eyes and then vanishes into the night.