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January 12, 2018 | Nonfiction

My Literal Demons

Frances Chiem

My Literal Demons photo

There are very few places in suburban, quasi-rural Eastern Washington to privately banish a demon when you’re a teen witch still living in your parents’ house. Which was why Kyle and I found ourselves in the Target parking lot after dark in late February.

We had begun the ritual months earlier in winter on a bright Saturday during winter break. The explanation our parents had received was that Kyle and I were meeting at the Borders Books and Cafe near our high school. A half-truth carefully chosen because we had decided that lying violated the principles of our magical praxis. If words could hold power, magical power, lies were dangerous. So, we met, as we often did, in the occult section of the now-defunct bookstore, purchased chai lattes and then drove to our hideout. Practicing magic had become much easier when we turned 16 and got our driver’s licenses. No longer were we relegated to the culverts and vacant lots near his mom’s house or the occasional session in the school library.

Another friend of ours had dubbed the hideout “the Old Kingdom.” She was not part of our spellwork, but had facilitated Kyle and me becoming friends in middle school. The Old Kingdom was an inexplicably vacant piece of land in a upper-class housing development near Whitworth College in Spokane. Once we descended about a mile of switchbacks, we found ourselves in a valley behind a large, well-appointed house with its own tennis court. The trail stopped at a utility box where we continued into an open, grassy field. Foundations for three small farm houses were hidden in the weeds and a holding pond for water was still intact just off of a tributary stream for the Little Spokane River.

Past the edge of the meadow was second-growth forest crisscrossed with little streams made passable by the rusted-out irrigation pipes that still spanned across them. Further into the woods, there was a small waterfall made by an old concrete structure with several metal levers that looked to have, at some point, controlled a system of dam closures. But in winter, Kyle and I didn’t go that far into the wood. There was too much ice and the shade was too cold. In order to avoid parental suspicion on these jaunts, we had to dress as if we were just spending an afternoon in town where we would only need to keep ourselves warm long enough to cross a strip-mall parking lot.

For winter magic, we took shelter in a little hollow of trees near the retention pond. It was private enough, protecting us from view of the people walking their dogs, and the nearby stream provided white noise to obscure our voices in case anyone drew too close to us.


My demon had appeared shortly after Halloween. There was suddenly an immense weight in my chest. I wasn’t sleeping more than four or five hours a night. It felt as if someone had tied an invisible weight to my sternum and I was forced to drag it around, Kyle the only other person acknowledging its existence. When I told him about it, he began to feel the weight too, forever susceptible to my suggestions. It manifested as a heaviness in his shoulders, a vague sense of dread like something watching him from the shadows.

By January, we were fed up with it. We had planned a binding spell. We would perform it in the Old Kingdom around noon on a clear, winter’s day in Eastern Washington. Being in full sun was important since we were banishing a spirit of darkness and we were racing daylight, since sunset can come before 4pm during the winter that far north.

Kyle and I had been practicing magic together since 8th grade. I was the instigator. He was my best friend and I had a hopeless crush on him. He was a closeted nerd, devoured fantasy books and he didn’t run away when I told him about how I was slightly psychic, how I thought we might be able to do spells together.

By the time we were working on the banishment spell, he had come out to me as gay and I to him as bisexual, but it was the belief in magic at such a late age that bound us together, even as we orbited in different circles at school (me with the goths, he with the cheerleaders and their boyfriends). We met weekly at the Borders a few miles from school and treated the occult section like a library, sitting on the floor and pulling books from shelves. Though, we weren’t very serious students of magic. We had some herbs and crystals, but no candles (they weren’t allowed in either of our rooms for fear of housefire), and the notes we took from the books were sporadic at best. We didn’t pay attention to moon cycles or astrology. We wrote most of our own spells in mediocre verse, reinventing the wheel instead of honoring a storied tradition of Wiccan magic available on the shelf before us. At the time, Kyle and I were both active participants in our families’ churches. I was a student leader in the youth group and regular reader during Catholic mass. Maybe we wrote our own spells instead of using Wiccan ones as a way to alleviate our guilt.

I had stuffed three quartz crystals in the pocket of my winter coat along with a slip of paper where we had written the words to the binding spell. But when we came to the sheltered spot in the meadow where we would perform the ritual, I realized one of the crystals had disappeared during our descent.

“It must have taken it,” Kyle said in quiet rage. “What should we do?”

The plan had been to capture the demon in a triangle formed by the three crystals and then bind it in three pieces, one in each crystal, and we would then discard the pieces in three separate locations: one dropped in Seattle when my family went there on spring break, one in the river near the ritual’s origin point, and one buried on my parents’ property north of town.

The modified plan was to make me the third vessel in the triangle. In the moment we did not really consider this was counterintuitive: of binding a demon that was allegedly following me to my person. This is why teens should not conduct higher magics. So, I stood shin deep in snow as Kyle and I chanted the rending and binding we had written together. There was no sudden rush of energy, no protest from the demon. Once we were done, we began an anticlimactic trek uphill to our cars.

The weight in my chest remained and my irritability increased in the weeks following before we had time to complete the ritual.


I know now that the demon was never there, but I still occasionally allow myself to believe I am slightly psychic. In an office bet, I predicted the exact date of the birth of a coworker’s baby along with the sex and had the child’s weight off by only an ounce. I have vivid dreams with symbolism easily applicable to real-life problems.

I tell my mother about these things and she believes it too. All the women on her side of the family, she said, are slightly psychic. We were a family that discussed dreams over breakfast, never learning that this is something almost universally acknowledged as painfully boring.

“I dreamt a deer was in the kitchen and Dad was screaming at it to get out of the house, but it wouldn’t.”

“I dreamt about your grandpa on a mountain.”

The most significant of the dreams revolved around a long line of deaths. In the 36 years she’s been married to my father, she has loved and lost 16 pets. Only pets number 13, 14 and 15 (a large black cat named Reggie and two chocolate labradors from the same litter) lived past the age of 8. Two of Mom’s siblings died tragically in the ‘90s. Her father died at 70 of an aggressive stomach cancer just a couple months after diagnosis. After each of these deaths, she waited for the dearly departed to appear to her in a dream and each of them did in turn in the world’s most bittersweet parade for a single spectator.

I have waited for these appearances, too.

The black cat died while I was in my sophomore year of college. He had been missing for weeks, but my mother waited to tell me until after my midterms were over. We suspected he had been eaten by a coyote or owl. It was the price the family paid to live in the woods. Once, Dad had to shoot a coyote that wouldn’t leave the yard even when he yelled at it. We saw bear prints in the mud in spring.

Reggie had been my cat. I sobbed in bed in my dorm room for hours. I waited for him to appear to me in a dream and he did. It was a simple one: we were sitting on the yellow and blue floral couch at home and I was petting his glossy fur. I told my mother about the dream and she said emphatically, “I knew he’d come say goodbye to you.”

My mother’s side of the family is Catholic. Somehow, despite attending church every Sunday throughout my adolescence, even after Mom worked for the church for years, we all maintained some vestigial attachment to a sort of old-world mysticism.

Demons and devils have maintained some popularity in the Catholic Church throughout my life and magic always actively discouraged, though my family’s alleged psychic tendencies escaped this classification. Besides, Mom never seemed to believe in any kind of supernatural evil. Neither were my brother nor I banned from reading Harry Potter even though the series had been condemned by parts of the church. She even encouraged my Potter-related obsessions by sewing Hogwarts robes for me and once, when I was 9-years-old, buying me an actual Wiccan book called A Spell a Day to enhance my and my friends’ games.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger called the Harry Potter books “subtle seductions” that “deeply distort” the soul. More recently, Pope Francis has increased the profile of exorcisms in the church and is known to believe in the Devil as a supernatural force working against good-hearted Christians the world over. The Church still has between 500 and 600 sanctioned exorcists.

It is highly unlikely Mom would have sent me off to an exorcist if she had known the extent of my teenaged interest in the occult, but certainly she would have told me I was too old to believe in magic. Had my parents snooped thoroughly in my room, they would have easily found evidence of my “practice.” It was much less well-hidden than my birth control.

I had taken a few pieces of scrap copper wire from my dad’s workshop and twisted them into a short wand topped with a quartz crystal. In winter, when I was wearing a coat with large enough pockets, I carried it with me almost everywhere. It’s one artifact from my teen years that I wish I still had. I dismantled it in embarrassment at the age of 18, though I still remember its pleasant weight and the pressure of the ends of the wires pressing into my palm, imaging them like electrical prongs plugging into whatever supernatural energy I thought I had.

Also destroyed were the pages of notes for spells Kyle and I had written in several shared notebooks. By the time I was preparing to leave for college, the stakes of being found out had been raised. My mom’s side of the family had a history of schizophrenia and she speculated her father had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He was mostly kind but erratic in his behavior, unreliable, and prone to disappearing into the woods without telling anyone where he was headed. I was aware that mental illness often cropped up in the late teen years or early twenties. I was desperate to erase any evidence that I might have been experiencing paranoid delusions and hallucinations. At the time, I was not aware that I had stepped in line with a centuries-old Catholic tradition of explaining away mental illness with demons.

I wasn’t possessed. I was depressed.

I did not have the language to describe it as such, but I did have an expansive magical vocabulary. The symptoms I once associated with a mysterious dark force are familiar to me now. The intense dread; the feeling of a weight pulling me down, causing me to hunch at my desk; the lack of will to get out of bed coupled with fitful sleep; and inability to concentrate.

Words like “depression” and “mental illness” were not in the familial vocabulary, at least when it pertained to the immediate four of us, my dad, mom and younger brother. Dad had a job requiring a government security clearance. It is no secret that the intelligence community continues to believe seeing a therapist could mark an intelligence official as a liability, a weakening of their ability to keep state secrets. Mom, like me, was simply afraid of discussing those feelings given her family history.

When I was in 8th grade, a classmate hung herself in her closet. The principal sent all students home with a letter the day it was made public and, when I gave it to my mom, she simply said, “I don’t want you getting in a tizzy over this. You didn’t know her.” And while that was true, it would likely have been helpful to have some kind of conversation about suicidal thoughts, but she wasn’t ready. She probably didn’t have the language either and, like lying, acknowledging something’s existence can also give it more power. In her mind, she was probably trying to weave some protection over me.


A few weeks after the first stage, Kyle and I completed the ritual huddled behind a dumpster in a Target parking lot. We didn’t invoke the name of Jesus. I didn’t growl or spout curses. This was not that kind of demon. He invoked “the powers that be” (a phrase we had picked up from a book series we both loved, a sanitized divine force that was neither overtly Pagan or obviously Christian), placing his hands on my chest to draw the piece of the “creature” into a new crystal we had purchased at the nearby jewelry supply shop earlier in the afternoon.

Being touched so tenderly by someone I trusted temporarily untied the weight from my sternum. I could breath and stand straight for a few moments.

As he removed his hands from me, he asked, “Do you feel better?”

“Yes,” I said, truthfully. But the weight returned the following morning, or maybe as soon as I got home that night. I don’t remember. It might have been my first piece of depression-related deception. The darkness returned quickly, but how could I tell Kyle after what he had done for me? I didn’t. I just lived with it.

I don’t know if Kyle ever thinks about the impact of our spells. He and I soon went separate directions in our lives at the end of high school. Even though we briefly lived in the same city during early adulthood, we never spoke about the demon or what it really was.


The root of my attraction to magic is the fantasy of a single perfect word. Perfect language, the ability to change the world with a sound. As a writer, I am always looking for that perfect sequence of words, but I doubt my own ability to use them to enact change, especially in regard to my own health. Wards against depression are abundant online, but I stay far away from them.

My current potions against mental illness are FDA approved and fairly pedestrian: 150 mg of Sertraline daily (reduced from 200), hydroxyzine as needed for panic attacks, 2000 IUs of vitamin D, prazosin before bed for night terrors, and five days of vigorous exercise each week as prescribed by my nurse practitioner. The real magic is finding the right combination of those tools.

Many women and nonbinary people I know practice this incredibly casual style of magic. Professionals all, and a few (myself not included) hold secondary degrees or greater. A professor does energy readings. An advertising copywriter and accountant both read tarot. An early childhood-learning advocate casts spells against a troublesome old roommate. A lawyer puts curses on white supremacists and sends me the videos of her rituals via Twitter direct messages.

When I go looking for spells now, I don’t lurk in bookstores. I keep my interest safely in the category of “casual” and just go online like any normal-appearing person. Tumblr is a veritable coven of internet witches sharing traditional Pagan knowledge and their own home-brewed spells.

I let it lay dormant for years, but I have started to practice a little magic again. Sewing a sigil for clear speech into a tank top worn under my office clothes before a major presentation, participating in a mass binding spell against the 45th president, casting bones on a divination cloth, etc. There are a few crystals currently rolling around at the bottom of my messenger bag. I don’t know if I buy into the realness of it all, but it’s more active and creative than worry. 

image: Aaron Burch