One time when I was seven years old, my aunt placed her hands upon me and tried to drive out my devils. I was not aware that I had any resident devils and said so, hesitantly, as she was a firm woman. She said, You certainly do have devils, and they are beginning to manifest. I did not know what manifest meant but did not say so. She moved her hands from my head to my shoulders to my chest and then back up to my head again. I wanted to ask where the devils lived and how many there were and what they looked like and did they know Lucifer personally and was he a decent guy who just snapped one day or what, but she was intent and her eyes were closed and she was not a woman to be interrupted while she was working.
After a while she opened her eyes, and I asked if the devils were gone, and she said, We will see, we will see. Even then I knew that if someone said something twice it meant that they were not sure it was so. I was learning that a lot of times what people meant was not at all what they said. Maybe meant no, and The Lord will provide meant the Lord had not yet provided, and Take your time meant hurry up. It was hard to learn all the languages spoken in our house. There was the loose limber American language that we all spoke, and then there was the riverine sinuous Irish language that the old people spoke when they were angry, and then there was the chittery sparrowish female language that my mother and grandmother and aunts and the neighborhood women spoke, and then there was the raffish chaffing language that other dads spoke to my dad when they came over for cocktail parties, and then there was the high slow language we all spoke when priests were in the house, and then there were the dialects spoken by only one person — for example, my sister, who spoke the haughty languorous language of her many cats, or my youngest brother, Tommy, who spoke Tommy, which only he and my sister could understand. She would often translate for him; apparently he talked mostly about cheese and crayons.
The rest of that day I went around feeling filled with devils and slightly queasy about it. I figured they must be living in my stomach or lungs, because those were the only places inside me with any air to breathe. I asked my oldest brother if devils needed air, the way people do, and he made a gesture with his hand that meant Go away right now. Hand gestures were another language in our family, and our mother was the most eloquent speaker of that tongue. If she turned her hand one way it meant Go get my cigarettes. If she turned it another way it meant What you just said is so silly that I am not going to bother to disabuse you of your idiocy. Still other gestures meant Whatever, and In a thousand years it will all be the same, and Take your youngest brother with you and do not attempt to give me lip about it.
I waited until bedtime to ask my mother about my devils. She was about to make the hand gesture that meant We will talk about this some other time, but then she saw my worried expression, and she stopped and sat down with me, and I explained about my aunt and the laying on of hands. My mother made a few incomprehensible sounds in her throat and then talked about her sister as if she were a tree that we were examining from various angles. Her sweet sister was a wonderfully devout person, she said, and she had the very best of intentions, and she had the truest heart of anyone you could ever meet, and she was more alert to the prevalence of miracles than anyone else my mother knew, and you had to admire the depth of her faith — we should all be as committed and dedicated and passionate as she was — but the fact was that we were not quite as committed as my aunt to the more remote possibilities, such as the laying on of hands to dispel demons. Do you have the slightest idea what I am saying to you? she asked. I said I did not, hesitantly, because I didn’t want her to stop talking so beautifully and entertainingly, and she put her hand on my forehead and said that she loved me, and that it was bedtime, so I’d better hop to it, which I did. As she left, she made a gesture with her hand that meant If you don’t brush your teeth and then try to pretend that you did, I will know you are telling a lie and it will not end well, and she laughed, and I laughed, and I brushed my teeth.