by Madeline Poage
My dad brought me to the Pine Barrens and rubbed its red dirt into my hand. It looked bloody, but he said it’s because of the iron oxide. The soil’s acidic, too nutrient-deficient to be any use.
He told me the trees burn from the inside, from the heart of their trunks, a self-immolation to ensure the endurance of the species.
He told me not to go swimming in the Blue Hole.
Ice cold, that water. Cold in July. You could go into shock dipping your toe in. Your heart could stop.
That doesn’t stop people. The surrounding lakes that dot the Barrens are the same sludgy brown as the river behind our house, but the Blue Hole lives up to its name. I later went through a whole crayon box, the forty-plus colors kind, to find the right shade. Cerulean, bright and endless. The kind of blue that looks so nice in the hot sun all the death warnings in the world seem miles away.
It’s deep too, deceptively so. Five feet from shore the bottom drops out, and no one knows how far down it goes. But you can’t tread water. Too cold. Your muscles seize up.
“Then the riptides. They appear out of nowhere and then whoosh.” Dad swept my hair over until it covered my face. “You’re pulled out too far to swim back.”
And in case that doesn’t do the trick, he told me, it’s the Jersey Devil’s favorite place to swim.
Dad sat at the base of a pine and patted the ground next to him. He told me the Jersey Devil would come for me if I kept pretending I’d gone to sleep when I hadn’t. Six inch claws, he said. Rapping on your window. He knocked his knuckles on my forehead, scraped the skin gently with his bitten-off fingernails.
It started about a month before, when Dad first started coming home more. The strangest thing, waking up in the middle of the night. Not because of nightmares, no dreams at all. Just the humid summer sky outside my window, a hollow echo in my chest, and, for some reason, sore wrists that wouldn’t ease up no matter how hard I rubbed at them. And a feeling, creeping up like flood waters up a staircase, like someone had drained everything I had out of me.
My dad could sense when I was awake, as if the house tilted to one side when I sat up. He came to my room each time, kitchen chair in hand, to sit beside my bed. I’d always pretend to be back asleep before he could, the blankets tucked over my mouth. I hadn’t realized yet that people breathe different when they sleep.
It was frightening, and him being there didn’t lessen it. The overwhelming sense that something was waiting for me just outside, and it didn’t care about walls. The guilty feeling that if I could only fall asleep again, it would go away. Instead, I stayed frozen stiff, listening to Dad’s breath whistle through his nose until the hazy sun filtered through the window. He’d get up then, taking the kitchen chair with him, and a few minutes later I’d hear the coffeemaker hiss to life.
One night, I heard him whisper. “Funny kid. Case of the summer blues.”
It was the kind of thing I fixated on. I imagined it as a drink, like his beer. Caffeinated. A freshly-brewed case of the summer blues. Bottled straight from the Jersey Devil’s personal swimming pool. The kind of drink that prickled my nose when I sniffed it, that numbed my throat going down.
The most important thing to know about the Jersey Devil is how he was born. Mother Leeds, upon discovering that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, threw her hands up and proclaimed, “Let this one be a devil!” Months later when the baby was born, it was said to be a routine birth, a healthy baby boy. But in minutes it began to transform, wriggling and shrieking—a tail elongating from the baby’s spine, curved claws erupting from the soft baby fingernails, leathery wings flexing from its back.
By all accounts, he thrashed uncontrollably, his forked tail whipping across the room. By all accounts, he howled and snapped his wolf-like teeth at anyone who came close. And in the end, he killed the midwife, most of his siblings and, to the cries of his mother, escaped up the chimney and into the wilds of the haunted Pine Barrens.
What I want you to take away from this story is that he didn’t try to drag his family down to hell. He didn’t stick around to feast on their bodies or even try to finish what he started and kill off the rest.
He was confused. He was brand new, and he was changing too fast. He was too big for the room, and he was trying to get out.
It’s important to me because his first responsibility as a baby—to cry for his mother—is recorded as a devilish scream. It’s important because he must have been in pain when he shed his newborn skin, and not known why.
The case of the blues my dad had diagnosed me with seemed to have stuck to my shoes that summer, like a bad shadow. Each night, I bolted awake. Each night, my dad joined me in the quiet that felt like it was bearing down on me. But one night, I didn’t hear him approaching, the chair scraping over the floor, even after I sat up.
I felt like the swimmers of the Blue Hole must have, when they realized the cold water had inundated them right to the bone and they couldn’t move their arms, their legs. Like I could sense the Jersey Devil right outside my window, hovering, his wings beating back the fireflies and no-see-ums. His forked tail swaying like a pendulum and brushing the lilac bushes. I couldn’t decide on the reason for his visit. To make me dive back under my blankets? Or because he knew Dad wasn’t there, kitchen chair in hand?
I finally crept out of bed to check, opening the front door as quietly as I could. My dad was there, under the porch light in his slippers and bathrobe. He was staring out at the dark yard as if he were waiting for something to emerge.
I slipped under his arm, shivering, and he patted my shoulder in this heavy-handed way of his—just a little too strong, like he wasn’t used to handling something like me yet. I told him I thought the Jersey Devil was outside my window.
“Why do you think I’m out here, kiddo?” he asked.
We stood and listened, sifting through the summer noise of cicadas humming, tree branches creaking in the breeze, the distant nighttime traffic. No Blue Holes out here. If the Jersey Devil was out and about, we’d be able to hear him coming—his breathing, his wings, his claws digging into the wet earth.
When Dad took me to the Blue Hole, I trailed my finger in the water before snatching it back. Like running it across an ice cube. It was calm and quiet, and I had trouble imagining the Jersey Devil’s scaly claw reaching up, up towards the surface to wrap itself around an ankle.
“I’ve seen it,” my dad nodded. “One second someone will be swimming along just fine. Then they’re gone.” No waves, no wake, the surface of the water barely disturbed. Gone.
When he wasn’t looking, I dipped my foot close to the water, the bottom of my sneaker balancing on the surface. I watched the red soil wash away, consumed by the Blue Hole until it disappeared altogether.
Years later, the blues would strike me again in a way that made me want to run the 250 miles home without having to unearth myself from my blankets. It’d be the same as before—sore wrists, no sleep, and the horrible feeling in my stomach that if I couldn’t something terrible would happen—and I’d tell a friend about the summer when my dad took me to the Pine Barrens. She’d say it sounded like hell. Something out of a bad dream, and she asked why my dad would ever take me there?
I knew why. He’d told me. He said he’d always liked going there and standing at the maw of the Blue Hole, knowing that nothing—not the riptides, not the cold, not the absence of any place to stand—could touch him. As long as he stayed out of the water.
My friend was right. It had been hellish. But after, when we got back to the car, Dad’s old blue Ford, he placed his red palm on my head and let it rest there. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This car is fully Devil-proof.”
On the ride home I thought of the Devil in the Blue Hole, gliding through the water and leaving a trail of bubbles from his snout. I imagined him rinsing red dirt and soot off his scales, his hairy hide, his leathery wings, crouching in the shallow end of the water. He wishes the water was warmer. He wishes the soil didn’t stain him bloody. He wishes the trees watching him would stop lighting themselves on fire.
MADELINE POAGE grew up in New Jersey, and it clearly had an impact. She enjoys writing about childhood and family struggle, and is drawn to mythology in everyday places. Madeline currently works at a local nonprofit in Boston and wrote everything she has ever written in her bed, as her desk has long disappeared beneath an increasingly large pile of yet-to-be read books.