“But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries has had the common humanity to pray for
the one sinner that needed it most?” -- Mark Twain’s Autobiography
I was born hungry in a trailer on the Missouri-Arkansas line beneath a blood moon and a Scorpio sky. Our singlewide permanently rested on my paternal grandmother’s lot in a village of abandoned buildings, an almost-town of dreams never realized spilling into a manmade lake of mud and mold and acrid fish, failing to attract tourists, our lifeblood. My homeland is for dying locals. For wood paneling, humidity dew at the height of day, wolf spiders under bed sheets, and tree plague. I grew among gardens of weeds, eternal cicadas, thick incense, and gargoyles. Instead of Christmas lights, we left our Halloween decorations up all year round.
I remember my grandfather roping a milk crate to his four-wheeler so Spanky, his blue heeler, could ride with us to the gas station, the only place within an hour’s drive to get milk. I remember tapeworms floating in Spanky’s bloated belly and yards dotted with unmarked graves, the remains of forgotten Civil War battles. We had a Ouija board to communicate with the dead soldiers, but the box warned us not to play it in a cemetery, and the whole town was a cemetery. There was a house with not one door, gallows used as a clothing line, a wax head nailed to a tree stump, burnt houses and flooded fields, toys strewn, bent, mangled, and strapped to the grill of an oversized truck, and an old school and church boarded up, the graffiti said, by Satan himself.
The only other church nearby was Southern Baptist and led by my great-grandfather, my Papa, who gave five-hour sermons long after his dementia refused to help him make sense of them. Before he was a preacher man, he was a salesman. Before that, a thief.
He was the first person I knew to die. He was 87, and he had just had failed open-heart surgery. As I approached his deathbed, over 80 years between us, I noticed all of the thick wrinkles, the deep purple lines that ran through his translucent skin, and I saw that his body had become a roadmap of where he had been. I lightly touched his arm and waited for him to tell me about the place where he was going. “Listen here, Maddy,” he said. “Listen closely. Never marry a Democrat or a black man.” I withdrew my hand and thought goddamn and Jesus Christ, my favorite curse words.
I would like to believe his last words were uttered out of confusion, disorientation, and mental decline, but if you were to replace never marry with never speak to, you would arrive at Papa’s life proverb, followed more strictly than the Bible’s commandments he yelled, his vocal cords straining, spit flying, at his all-white, all-Republican congregation, his flock.
“Hell, fire, and damnation,” I can still hear him shouting.
“Hell, fire, and damnation,” I whispered at his funeral.
I never believed in Santa Claus or God. I preferred worshipping the sun, and by the age of five, I was already certain that what motivated me most to do good in this world, to do right by other people, was the knowledge that this is all we have.
Although I believed I had at the time, I had not completely arrived at this on my own. My maternal grandmother, my namesake, was the only person I knew who openly labeled herself as an atheist, and she was also the most generous person I knew. She washed old people at a nursing home for a living, and as I watched Papa take hundreds of dollars during collection time from his mostly-ancient, mostly-impoverished congregation, I watched my grandma give hundreds of dollars to every homeless person she encountered. When anyone tried to talk her out of giving or giving so much, she taught me to quote Joe Rogan, the man I knew so well from watching hours of Fear Factor: “This homeless guy asked me for money the other day, and I was about to give it to him, but then I thought, why should I give it to him? He’s just going to use it on drugs and alcohol. Then I realized that’s what I’m going to use it on. Why am I judging this poor bastard?”
My father, having grown up in Papa’s harsh religion, was a closet agnostic. He never got angry with me for getting in trouble at church, for complaining and talking through the service, because he, he said, felt the same way about it.
“Then why do we have to go?” I asked, lower-lip jutted out, hands on tiny hips.
He gave no reply then, but later I would find out that the one time my father had tried to skip church out of defiance, Papa had whipped him.
I was endlessly punished during Papa’s Sunday school, made to wear a dunce cap that said “Sinner” atop the naughty stool in the time-out corner for asking questions no one could answer, for asking why, for embarrassing him, and for finally proclaiming, “If there is a hell, this is it,” and “Why can’t Satan be my friend?” The only part I liked was when we got to drink the wine, and it wasn’t even real wine. Only grape juice.
But one Sunday, I let my great-grandmother, my Mema, save and baptize me in her house, the house where I had gotten my big head stuck between the stair railings, where there were wax owls and holes in the walls that stray kittens burrowed in, simply because I knew it meant something to her, and simply because I knew she would be dead soon. Her arthritic hands shook along with her voice in prayer. I watched her instead of closing my eyes like a good girl, in awe of her reverence and deep love that I had never seen in the eyes of Papa, the preacher man, who often raised his voice and hand to Mema, but as far I knew, never struck. They both lifted me into their dirty, murky hot tub, and just like that, my soul was saved.
When it was all over, Mema gave me a medallion that hung from their ceiling fan: “Bless this child, so filled with a love~pure and sweet, a gift from above,” it read in gold and pink, fat angel babies etched into the reverse.
Despite being a member of one of the fastest-growing, second largest religious group in the United States, no religion, which includes atheism, agnosticism, and the unaffiliated and makes up a quarter of the population, that medallion is the only object that has made it through all eight of my moves, wrapped in crushed velvet, the very first object to go in my very first memory box. It reminds me of my Mema, my Papa, the old abandoned funeral parlor that used to be in the woods behind our trailer. When it was torn down, they burned the basement out, flames licking up as if from the fiery pits of hell.
It’s all gone now. The trailer. My grandmother’s lot. My grandmother.
I used to be afraid of the place I was born. Everything either dead or in the throes of dying. Rotting. Somewhere on the cusp, at the brink, on edge. Full of ghosts.
Despite my adamant atheism, because of these things, I was too afraid to sleep. To try to comfort myself, I would take out the medallion Mema gave me, worry it, imagine some protective spirit rising from it and wrapping itself around me like a coat.
Despite my adamant atheism, for many years, whenever I became anxious or felt threatened by some unknown uneasiness that felt like evil, I was haunted by incessant chanting to myself: I love God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and heaven, but I hate hell and the Devil. I love God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and heaven, but I hate hell and the Devil. It was compulsive, worrisome.
Many years later, I would catch my mother whispering those exact words to herself after a fight with my father.
So it was a thing handed down, like religion or the medallion. Like the ramshackle family farms passed down in my homeland.
I’ve long since learned to make friends with my demons, to stop the chant before it gets to God and replace that three-letter word for another: you. But I still cherish the medallion, because I do feel blessed and filled with love. I feel pure and sweet, but also unpretending. Not always honest, but true, like the place I was born. The place that taught me to ask why.
A gift from a blood moon and a Scorpio sky.
Madison Larimore is a writer, editor, and writing consultant, as well as an English major with a concentration in creative non-fiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Some of her writing can be found in Midnight Circus, Journey Literary Magazine, and 13th Floor Magazine. She was awarded the John J. McKenna fellowship and the Fund for Undergraduate Scholarly Experiences grant in 2018 for her creative non-fiction project, HumanKind, which you can learn more about at humankind.blog.