photo of the cross

Powers and Principalities by Matthew Guerruckey

The day room was chaos. Big John’s argument with Stevie over a misplayed hand of Spades had escalated from insults to fists, and now Big John found himself face down on the floor, trashing and kicking as the head nurse prepared a needle filled with sleep. The commotion had sent poor old Etheline into a territorial mania. She screeched like an eagle protecting its nest at anyone who wandered closer than three feet from her.

Only Efrem Winchester remained quiet in the center of the confusion. He sat by the window, watching the sky change from the tortured gray of that afternoon’s rain shower to the blue-orange of sunset. Light broke through the clouds onto the Bible spread across his legs, illuminating the red-inked words of the Lord.

Efrem’s calm demeanor betrayed no hint of the conflict within. He had been raised not to make a fuss. His grandmother had made it clear—children were to be seen, not heard, and the consequences of breaking that commandment were severe.

Sometimes he could feel the phantom barbs of thorns, as if he were walking through the briar patch behind her home to select a switch for his daily reckoning. If he picked a branch that was too thin or too weak his punishment would be doubled, so he learned to choose the thickest piece with the roughest bark. He would present it to her with an anticipation that grew more exhilarating as time went on. Then, in the basement, by the flicker of candlelight, his grandmother would beat his bare body until her arms tired, as his sister read passages from Ephesians. His grandmother told him she was tearing the sinful flesh away, leaving behind only the armor of God, to do battle with the powers and principalities of the evil one. By the time she was done, his bare ass hung flayed with tattered strips of flesh. He slept on his stomach each night as the cold wind through the screen door burned his wounds. In the morning he shoved dozens of sheets of Kleenex in his shorts to make his walk to school bearable.

The new nurse had awakened those powers and principalities. Dark skeletons, sealed for years in a tomb built from time, routine, and medication, reached their desiccated limbs toward him again. The nurse. Young, fresh from school, with stringy black hair, pale skin, and the limping-deer manner of the previously abused. She reminded him of the fourth girl. The papers said her name was Stephanie. The lawyer had shoved her photograph in Efrem’s unblinking face and pointed to her parents, huddled together in the back pews of the courtroom.

He’d begun sleeping during the evening hours to avoid the nurse and the memories and desires she aroused, but she was on a swing shift rotation. As soon as he became accustomed to a new sleep routine, she’d show up at a different time, taunting him with her imperfection and fragility.

The headaches began again. He spent long hours in the shower, with the heat turned up as high as it would go, scalding his skin to a bright red, letting the thrumming drone of the water drown out his increasingly depraved fantasies.

Finally, he couldn’t sleep at all. He sat up all night reading the Good Book from cover to cover. He became especially fond of the spare declarations of the Gospel of Mark.

“And if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”

But it was Revelations that drew his closest study—the grim promise of judgment to come for dogs and sorcerers and whoremongers and murderers. Murderers. That was him, and no amount of prayer or self-condemnation would ever change that fact. He was wicked, his grandmother had told him, his grandmother still told him, late at night when his room filled with the glow of her candle and his sister’s echoing voice.

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord …”

As the nurses struggled to fit Big John into his restraints, Efrem walked back to his room. He didn’t come out for evening smoke, and he refused dinner. Around seven o’clock he emerged, shuffling and bent, and walked toward the desk where the young nurse sat.

Blood had stained his red t-shirt black. His face was pale, his eyes sunk deep into black circles, but his face was more serene than it had ever been. His right hand was clenched into a fist—blood dribbled through the tight seal.

The nurse’s mouth opened for a scream that never came, as tears pooled in the corners of her clear, blue eyes—so very much like Stephanie’s. She managed, in a choked voice, to ask, “Mr. Winchester, are you bleeding?” in the panicked manner of all people faced with that which they cannot comprehend.

Efrem had witnessed that instinctual behavior too many times in his life, and now he never would again. He smiled.

“I have contended with the powers and principalities,” he said, and opened his hand, revealing the shriveled remnants of his own genitals, pulsating in a pool of blood and pus. “And behold, they lie in ruins.”

The nurse fainted. The rest of the staff charged toward him. He let them tackle him to the floor without a fight as they snarled and gnashed their teeth above. None of them seemed to understand that he was finally free.

Matthew Guerruckey is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary website Drunk Monkeys and a freelance fiction writer. His short stories have appeared in Five 2 One Magazine, Connotation Press, Midwestern Gothic, The Weekenders, and Bartleby Snopes. A West Coast native with Midwestern roots, he lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Lennon and Harrison.

Lead image“Cross at the summit” (via Flickr user Nicolas Vigier)