The Washday Demon :
My mother, dead now these past eighteen months – may God rest her soul – was a fanatically superstitious woman. Her ancestry, a combination of strict Catholicism and Irish folklore, had resulted in a potent blend which caused her to view life as a series of potential transgression (some valid, some merely fanciful) which might culminate in any one of a million unwanted outcomes should she step over some mystical line.
It was a matter of good fortune for me that my father, although a virtuous man, was totally lacking the imaginative capacity to believe very much in either religion or superstition. He would acquiesce to my mother’s demand that spilled salt be thrown over his shoulder where, she firmly assured us, it would hit the Devil square in the eye. Keys, errantly placed on the table, would be removed by him and the underside of ladders were always avoided. All these sanctions were borne well by him and he always played along with a look of mild amusement, total disbelief or loving indulgence, according to how whimsical mother’s demand might be. Never once did I hear him shout at her for the stupidity of her beliefs, nor did he ever refuse to play along. In time, I too learned to humour my mother and indulge her many whims. I walked a line between them and viewed the world of lore with a healthy scepticism and a pinch of open-mindedness.
Of all the stories my mother told me however, the one which scared me most as a child was the one about the Washday Demon. This was a potent morality warning, combining elements of superstition and retribution for wrongdoing. According to mother, if a housewife, or female homemaker (my mother had escaped the subtleties of women’s lib, but was nonetheless able to incorporate single women into her story) committed a black enough sin – such as shoddily darning her husband’s socks – she would be visited by the Washday Demon. This was a foul creature from the pits of Hell, who would pop up and visit the transgressing woman every washday, ensuring that her clean laundry would become inexplicably marked and soiled as it hung on the line. My father found this concept particularly hilarious – if the worst a woman had to deal with for her sins was a mucky-fingered pixie and some soiled linen, then the majority of womankind could happily sin away. Mother, however, always seemed to regard the concept of the Washday Demon with a little more gravity than any of her other bogeymen and hexes. I believe that it was this increased earnestness which made me particularly uncomfortable as a child.
My mother’s own washday was always a Wednesday and, more often than not, as I sat at her feet, watching her peg clothes on the line (undergarments always respectably hidden behind the sheets), she would raise the subject of the Demon. “Let’s hope the Washday Demon doesn’t come in the night and stain our clothes, Meg,” she would whisper. But in all the years that my mother hung up her laundry, he never did. In fact, the Daz doorstep challenge had been invented for women like my mother, and her clothes always glowed with a holy whiteness.
For all this, mother continued to obsess about the Demon. She claimed that when she was a child, her neighbour had been visited by him. Overnight the woman’s laundry became stained and foul smelling and no matter how many times she re-washed it, it refused to come clean until, finally, the woman went mad. I wondered why someone might go mad over dirty laundry, but my mother went on to tell me that the soiling of the washing was always accompanied by some other manifestation – a tangible by-product of the woman’s wrongful deed, and it was usually this which caused the woman’s fear.
The only way to appease the Demon, whispered my mother, was to acknowledge your wrongdoing – not as easy as it might appear, since the Demon could swing by years after a woman’s act of naughtiness. After pinpointing the problem, the woman in question would then have to burn every item of clothing and linen in her house, along with a lock of her hair, as an offering to the Demon. If she failed to do this, the mark on her soul would grow too large to eradicate and her sin would be discovered. Worse still, the Demon, a fractious and mischievous spirit who craved acknowledgement, would twist her wrongdoing into something far worse than it had originally been.
As I grew older, I heard the story less. Eventually, it was nothing more than a vague childhood memory, sharing limited space with all the other childish fairy tales I had heard throughout my youth. When I was eighteen, I moved out of my parents’ house and into a place of my own, by which stage the Washday Demon was a thing of the past. It wasn’t a hugely ambitious relocation, given that I bought a little terrace house a few doors down from them. It sat almost at the rear of my childhood home, separated by a tract of common land which ran in a strip between the back gardens of two rows of houses.
I remained close to my parents, up until my father’s death five years ago and my mother’s recent passing, but having my own place gave me a sense of freedom that I had never felt before, releasing me from the rituals of my mother’s superstition. Rituals which, thankfully, I didn’t feel compelled to take with me.
Since that move, eight years ago, I had barely thought about black cats and Washday Demons, except with an occasional sense of vague nostalgia. I certainly didn’t have cause to fear my mother’s shadow-demons until, that is, last week.
It’s odd but despite the superstitious conditioning of my childhood, the Washday Demon wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I saw the strange shaped mark on one of my white bed sheets. It appeared as a small, irregular handprint and as I peered closer, I saw that it had five long streaks above where the fingertips ended. The whole thing was dark brown in colour and stood out starkly against the purity of the rest of the sheet.
My first thought was that one of Sophie’s kids, from next door, was responsible. They were forever kicking their ball into my garden and letting themselves in the back gate to collect it. I tossed the sheet back into the machine to await the next wash load, thinking that I would let it slide this time. If the little buggers kept getting chocolaty hand marks everywhere, though, I’d have to speak to Sophie about it.
A couple of days later I was in the village running a few errands. I had just cut through to a maze of back alleys, shortcuts behind the shops when I sensed a presence behind me. Swinging round, I saw a child, eight or nine years old, silently following me. He had fluffy blonde hair which stuck up, chick-like, around his head and would have been cute or funny if it weren’t for his eyes. In twenty-six years, I have never met someone with eyes that have chilled me, far less the eyes of a child. For that matter, I have seen very few photographs of convicted killers who have managed to convey quite so much hatred and evil with their eyes alone. There is the infamous photo of Myra Hindley, but even then the image is flat and two-dimensional – seemingly very far removed from one’s own reality. The child’s eyes weren’t. Almond shaped and icily blue, they appeared to be sunk deep into his skull. A predatory, watchful gaze hooded them slightly, and this would have been disconcerting enough on its own. Disconcerting even without the air of full-bodied hatred which sparked off of them, like embers from a grinding stone.
All of this I took in, briefly, in the moment before I turned my back on him and stepped up my pace through the winding alley. It had been my intention not to look back, so unnerved had I been by the child. It was, however, this very sense of unease, heavy as a storm cloud, which forced me to turn again, almost against my will. His evil drew me like a magnet – he was an unwanted fascination; the accident at the side of the road which we glance at, even as we vow to avoid it.
Had I not looked back, I wouldn’t have seen his hands, which now hung limply at his sides. On each of his fingers, reminiscent of Chinese Mandarins, protruded long-taloned nails, curled under in a perfect arc. That time when I turned away I didn’t walk – I ran.
When I returned home, I busied myself with household tasks, tidying and dusting and putting on another wash. Still, at that point, I didn’t think of the Washday Demon. The child, I told myself, was part of a traveling group, just passing through. He’d meant me no ill-will, I had simply overreacted. I continued to tell myself this until, that evening, something pulled me out of a dreamless sleep and urged me to my bedroom window.
Flipping the curtain aside, I saw him there, in the center of my moon-washed garden. He was running a long nail tenderly, almost lovingly, down my newly washed sheet. As though sensing my presence, he glanced up and caught my gaze, his eyes hooding almost imperceptibly. Then, in a whirligig of impish delight, he set about ripping my sheets to shreds – his legs, arms, feet, hands all moving in a grotesque dance of destruction. When he had finished, he looked up again, triumphant and brooding, before setting each of my clothes pegs spinning with one hooked nail. Then he set off at a jog towards the back gate, letting it slam hollowly in the empty silence.
The next morning when I ventured into the garden, every item of laundry was either shredded or stained with his dirty handprints. Moving closer, I now saw that it wasn’t chocolate, as I had first thought, but dried blood. After all the years I’d spent denying my mother’s stories, it seemed that I had my very own Washday Demon. I also had a pretty good idea why he was there.
Within half an hour I had collected every item of clothing and linen in my house – from the timeless Chanel suit I’d spent months saving for, to my plain white sheets monogrammed with my initials – MJP- bought for me as a joke by my best friend when I’d first moved into my house. Everything dear to me was piled high on a bonfire of broken twigs.
I had just struck the second match, and set the whole lot smoldering nicely, poking it with a stick, when my front doorbell rang. Ignoring it, I continued to stir my offering – asking the Demon to remove the stain from my soul. The doorbell again, and then a pounding at the gate. Standing there, stick in hand, I watched as the latch unclipped itself and four policemen threw themselves into my garden. “Megan Patrick,” one said, and I nodded, even though I knew it was a statement, not a question. “I’m arresting you on suspicion of murder.” A blur. An awareness of water being thrown onto fire and a hiss as it died, along with any hope. Someone yelling: “There’s blood on these sheets too. She’s tried to burn the evidence, but it looks like there’s enough left to make a match.”
Then I was being dragged out of the back gate and down the no-man’s-land between the houses. Back towards the tract of land behind my parents’ house. Already there was the fluttering of yellow crime-scene tape, squaring off a small portion of mud. I was pushed forward and glanced into the hole and there, wrapped I was told in one of my monogrammed sheets, was a child of eight or nine years old. I knew his age, even though he was decomposing; flesh and bone falling apart. But he shouldn’t have been a child. “No,” I screamed, wanting to speak it out loud, “not a child.” A baby, yes. That was my sin. Pregnant at seventeen in a small community, with a devout mother. Instead of doing something immediately, I waited until I had missed six periods and then I turned one of my mother’s knitting needles on myself. I hadn’t expected the baby to be so formed; so perfect. Nor had I expected it to be quite so substantial. For a moment, I had been sure that it was still alive, but I hadn’t checked twice. Instead, I had run with my burden, in the dead of night, and scraped a grave in the common land behind our garden, where it had remained undiscovered ever since. That was nine years ago. A baby, unborn, but not this child – whoever, or whatever, it was.
Then I saw it. The hands, skeletal and rotting, were nonetheless finished off with long, curving nails. Nails which had taken nine years to grow – nine years in which a dead baby had also, somehow, kept growing. A youthful misjudgment which had evolved into something very different; a game for the satisfaction of the Washday Demon. A game nine years in the making.
As I watched, I saw the death-head turn towards me and one eye clicked open in a languid, conspiratorial wink, as if to say, “Here I am. I’ve caught up with you at last.” And it was then that I remembered the hair. I had started the fire burning but forgotten to add a lock of my hair. Too late. I knew, just as surely as I knew the blood on my sheets would match this child’s blood, that I could never prove the truth of what had really happened. The Demon had taken my sin and amplified it in the most hideous manner; turning it into something that no washing in the world would ever be able to remove.