Appalachia was our home. Our house was no more than a dilapidating sanctuary amongst an unhallowed forest. Ma, who never seemed to trust the trees, always spoke of packing up and moving somewhere else, but her job waitressing didn't provide the funds necessary to do so. Every night she would lock up the creaking doors and draw the decaying curtains closed, leaving the screeching bugs outside.
"Evil's in those woods. You stay outta' there."
Ma is the only one I've got. My dad left the both of us when I was barely four years old. Although we were both abandoned, Ma felt more forsaken than I did. I was hardly any comfort to her, being the young child that I was. So she turned to the only person she could—Jesus Christ. Ever since, it seems evil has been all around us. It came into our house through the ancient radio and hardly functional television. The devil and his demons seemed to be responsible for everything that went wrong. Thunder storms, the lack of money, the fact that our home seemed to be withering away beneath us, the devil was everywhere. Because of him, the roof leaked, the floorboards were rotting away, and the pipes were rusting over. Ma's minimal education kept her stuck in that low-paying job, and she refused to try and learn more. I guess the devil was in the schoolbooks, too. Sometimes at night we would watch the news, one of the only programs available, and she would shake her head in disgust at stories about the lack of God in the school systems and the country in general. For this reason I was home schooled.
"The devil's taking over America. You gotta' watch yourself, Noah," she would lecture in between swigs of tea, her eyes fixed on the television.
By the time I was six or so, I knew that God played a dominant role in our lives. There was Jesus, all emaciated and dying, hanging on his cross in nearly all the rooms of the house. Those sad eyes watched me while I played, while I ate, and even while I slept. His frail corpse, just hanging there, was a constant phantom in my nightmares.
Ironically, we didn't go to Church. Ma took Bible-interpretation into her own hands.
"You've accepted Jesus into your heart?" She would lecture at night, before tucking me into bed. "You know what happens if you don't, right?"
Of course I knew. How many times had she described in gory detail the fiery afterlife that all the sinners and non-believers were damned to enter? She took pleasure in telling all the different types of eternal suffering one could endure to scare me into the arms of her beloved lord.Then her eyes would get all teary, and she would pull me up against her in an almost-too-tight embrace. "Except him, son. He died for your sins."
I was young, so I don't know how many wrongs I could have possibly committed up to that point. Maybe I lied or didn't mind Ma, but was that all it took to send me on a one way trip into never ending flames?
I assured her that yes, I had allowed the Lord to save me. She would then kiss me on the forehead and whisper "Jesus loves you" into my ear. I always wondered if she loved me too, but I never got the courage to ask her. Then she'd leave my room, closing the door behind her.
The thought of evils out in that forest often kept me up at night, staring into the empty eyes of Jesus. Despite Ma's pure devotion to him, I couldn't help but think that he didn't look so loving. He had made Ma turn awfully cold. She didn't laugh anymore. A smile was rare enough.
I was eight when I first escaped the godly prison that my home had become. It was a sweltering, humid summer day. The kind where the air is heavy, and it feels like it's weighing you down. Ma had fallen asleep on the porch, Bible in hand, guarding the entrance to our house against demons. Her tea sat idly on an end table beside her, droplets condensing on the glass. I tiptoed my way across the creaking boards of the porch, managing to keep quiet. Then it was a simple trip down the stairs and out into the yard I ran.
I could only vanish so far into the trees before I slowed down to a walk. Being under the protection of the foliage was oddly soothing. Unlike Ma, I caught no sense of a menacing presence lurking nearby. Spruces and firs were growing all around, like the skyscrapers I had never seen. They were dressed in verdant moss, and light was filtering in from their canopy just slightly, tinted green as it pushed its way through the leaves. Birds were singing their sweet arias from the branches. Their song was far more beautiful than any lullaby Ma bothered to sing me. I've never seen anything like it.
Back at home, Ma must've awakened with a start to find me missing. I heard her shrieking my name from the porch. Reluctantly, I turned around and headed back. After all, Ma was all I had. She kept a close watch on me from then on, and I never did get another change to go and explore the woods further.
She spent the rest of her life trying to ensure my faith in her God. Truth be told, I found more evidence of a holy being among the beauty of the forest. Although her god was questionable, there was absolutely no denying the divinity found in something as simple as a flower blooming or a tree growing out of the seemingly dead earth. Life itself is something so amazing, and she wasted hers by being afraid of evils that never existed. Eventually, she passed away, happy in the false knowledge that she would see me in her selective heaven. I never had the heart to tell her that she wouldn't.