When I was a girl, the thing I loved most was the game Light as a Feather. Back then, I felt weightless when any girl had her hands on me, so lying there with six girls’ fingers tucked beneath my body, I’d float to the ceiling, flushed and breathless. The touching was permissioned, so I could just enjoy it, though there was, of course, that fear of the occult. In the days that followed the game, I’d worry about the evil spirits that might’ve entered me. I would lie awake feeling something of the devil a-flicker inside.
Light As A Feather was a ritual performed in murmuring secrecy. It was sexy and witchy, but did not require me to invite anyone or anything inside. Ouija, on the other hand, was a kind of penetration I was not yet prepared for, a game my mother called the occult version of asking for it.
There are many reasons why in girlhood, we become necessarily preoccupied with possession. It makes sense—the fascination, as you are trying so desperately to grow into your body, with the dark thing that would drag you away. For girls are taught that the zenith of our lives occurs when we are most deeply inhabited by another. It is no coincidence in The Exorcist that the devil selects Regan for writhing. She is a pre-teen, which means most poised to be entered.
Once upon a time, everything carnal or feral in me was made, by faith, moribund. For fourteen years, my body remained this way — untouchable, untouched.
Once upon a time, I had no idea what I felt like inside. I’d lie in bed at night, fingers pinned beneath the small of my back so that God would not mistake a single movement for a sin.
It was only a matter of time before I was broken open.
He was, at the time, my best friend. When I wouldn’t let him kiss me, he shoved his fingers in my mouth. They were cold and smelled sharply of clementines.
And then it happened that he wormed my clothes away, and made me try things on, made me spin in a circle, motioning with his finger, a 360-degree humiliation.
He choked me out on the heart-shaped canopy bed my father built for me when I was a little girl. There was a Maglite under the mattress I used to read past my bedtime, and he fished it out and beat me with it until I agreed to lie still.
“I love you,” he said, like I was an idiot not to know it. “I love you.”
As he entered me, the room went black and filled with tiny stars. I had no idea I was so connected inside.
It was over for maybe minutes, and then it was never over. 
For months afterward, I avoided the eyes of my mother, father, and sister. I was worried they could tell by my face that I was changed. And then there was the feeling that everyone could see and smell my hymen ripped open, that the bruised triangle between my legs would point now only to what was missing.
I kept thinking, this creature, this monster, that my friend whom I loved turned out to be — was it there all along? Or was it culled from his body by my body, twirling as his finger guided me, tracing slow circles in the air?
In the game Bloody Mary, where girls summon a murderous spirit in the mirror, the point is not to invite evil, to stir the supernatural pot. To summon evil is to acknowledge its inevitability, to address that each moment spent in safety feels like holding your breath. If being a girl means leaving this world in little pieces, let’s get it over with. In chanting, let us exact some small control, let it be clear when and how we are asking for it.
It was over for maybe minutes, and then it was never over.
Sleep was something to be avoided then. Within sleep, all the hidden things choiring like starlings.
The dream in which the graveyard slides into the sea, and I drink the water clogged by corpses’ long, still-growing hair.
The dream where I feel safe from harm in a field of sunflowers until one by one, they give me up like a name they swore they’d take to the grave.
So much of my life was spent in that blue hour of morning, too early for waking and much too late to fall asleep. I’d put myself in a kind of trance watching bloody true crime television. Like melancholic music when your heart is broken, sometimes the only thing you can do with a feeling is lean into it.
Fictional shows in which rapists were captured and punished enraged me. I preferred survivors of torture talking straight to the camera. Stalked, abducted, raped, shot at point-blank range. Then burned, tossed in a trunk, tied with rebar to a desert stone. The actresses reenacting the story crawling so convincingly across lush lawns in blood-soaked nightgowns or running through a dark wood with only half of their heads attached.
A documentary about Seattle singer Mia Zapata, who wrote a song about being murdered and spread in pieces all over town just before being killed by a stranger who strangled her with her own sweatshirt.
A documentary about the Tate murders, in which the crime scene photo of Abigail Folgers shows her less heiress, more lawn stain. Her last words to the man stabbing her, “You’ve got me. I’m already dead.”
Maybe I was morbid to find comfort or, at the very least, distraction in these stories which were gruesome beyond my imagination. But I needed a break from the narrative I was living. The one where girls in my town were fish that fill a manmade lake, or fair chase pheasants set loose in the forest. The narrative where being hunted was the only thing they ever had in mind for us.
On a popular daytime talk show, footage of a body being exhumed. There are machines to help with the unearthing of the burial vault and tools to break its seal, revealing a cherry colored casket still draped in withered white roses. The shock of these bright colors coming out of the dirt makes it seem as though the casket too could be pried open to reveal a girl who is more like a Russian doll than a decomposing body or even a girl who would open her eyes, like the murder never happened, and say: I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.
When as children, my sister and I named Ken dolls after our enemies and buried them alive beneath the evergreens, and when we dug up dead frogs from the glittery coffins we made for them, praying over their tiny souls in tongues of necromancy, these were not merely games to us, though that is what we said. We knew survival would depend increasingly upon our relationship to resurrection.
And so, just as the corn was silking, all I could think about was driving till I hit the Pacific, becoming for all intents and purposes a ghost.
You see, I come from a town where no one leaves and there’s only one way a girl goes missing. Every few years, weighted to the bottom of a golf course pond or stuffed in a storm drain she will be discovered, made Legend.
You see, I come from a town where there’s only one way a girl is made Legend.
And in that town, that the air does not ring with them, that the new crocuses do not chatter with what has become of them, that the hushed ground is filled with them where they will remain forever, it is that more than anything that gave me the courage to leave.
Give me a world, I said aloud to no one. You have taken the world I was.
And a new world opened for me, by and by.
Each night in that blue light, they flickered across the ceiling. Pretty girls turned hungry ghosts who wanted to leave with me. I could see each of their lives like little boats upon the water, bright first, then burning, then snuffed out by the breakers of the sea.
I come from a town where no one leaves and there’s only one way a girl goes missing. Every few years, weighted to the bottom of a golf course pond or stuffed in a storm drain she will be discovered.
I will not say to you that the Legends as I experienced them were real, that I can prove how the room filled with strange heat, buoyed by their breath.
What I’m saying is whether they were real or mere projections of the mind seen with intense clarity, we belonged to one another. And knowing them, what was done to them, gave me one hundred new reasons to survive.
I began at dawn through the green maze of corn, an achingly familiar crop that dizzied suddenly with its vastness, its flickering infinity. I drove all day long, straight through Des Moines’ end-of-the-world darkness, where I made believe the few flickering lights were lanterns of the last survivors. Throughout Nebraska, day and night, earth and sky fused together, falling like a white sheet over me. That such monotony gave way to mountains was its own little miracle, though I couldn’t decide at first whether they made me feel sheltered or loomed over. By the time I got to Oregon, the clouds seemed close enough that you could reach your hand through the sunroof and come back with a fistful of nimbostratus. And when at last I reached Seattle, lush and so fervently green it bordered upon narcotic, I knew for certain I would find heaven there.
The first thing I did was drive to the corner of 24th Avenue and South Washington Street, the place where Mia Zapata was made Legend. It felt like the only right place to start. Twenty years had passed since her death, something like 5,520 days of rain, and it seemed to me she still smudged the earth, though there was nothing of her spirit there, which I knew would move through darkened rooms bright as aurora borealis.
I could see each of their lives like little boats upon the water, bright first, then burning, then snuffed out by the breakers of the sea
It was like stepping inside a house where you intuit immediately that something horrible has happened, except that there were no walls around it, making it that much harder to escape.
Aside from my books, I didn’t want anything that home had threaded through. Everything else I burned or left on the side of the road. What I needed, more than anything, was a perfect loneliness, pure and cold and bright. I found a studio two streets east of where Mia had lived when she’d been alive. With the apartment empty but for a mattress, windows clean, ceilings high, walls freshly white, I loved Seattle, which was more a city in the evening when its greenery folded into darkness. That first night, there was whiskey, and the Legends partnered and danced sweetly across the ceiling, and Nina Simone sang to a lover I hadn’t met yet: You’re spring to me / all things to me / don’t you know you’re life itself?
Back in high school, there were girls I loved for their beauty, and for their ability to receive pleasure without needing to return it. I would learn little things about them—a favorite song, a moon sign so I could joke that we were star-crossed or destined depending—but I did not use or remember their names. I wanted them for the way they kissed, the way they moved and sounded in the dark, that they smelled of rosehip and jasmine or Parliaments and Jameson, that beneath my tongue, they’d rise to the ceiling like steam. The only girls I named were the girls with whom things went terribly wrong.
For instance, there was I Should’ve Loved A Thunderbird Instead, who threw a brick through the window of my car, filled the driver’s seat with mayonnaise, and lit all of my shoes on fire before trying to fuck me in the driveway of my parents’ home.
There was What Spring Does To The Cherry Trees, who had feverish dreams I was the devil and tried, on more than one occasion, to spoon holy water into my hair before accosting me one day when I was at the dentist, marching right up to the chair to hit me in the face with the zippered end of her leather jacket.
In both instances, the authorities had to be called, and I authored wild explanations that absolved me entirely. I did not learn, in either instance, that for all the charm in the world, I would always be out of my depth until I could become a woman who could set her heart on something.
My favorite book as a girl was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I found myself in the farewell letter Willie-Jay addresses to Perry, one the novel’s killers:
You are a man of extreme passion, a hungry man not quite sure where his appetite lies, a deeply frustrated man striving to project his individuality against a backdrop of rigid conformity. You exist in a half-world suspended between two superstructures, one self-expression and the other self-destruction.
The juxtaposition of individuality and conformity could be true of anyone, as could the notion of existing in a half-world. What frightened me then was the misplaced hunger, the way that Perry, pulled by confusion and desire, became a killer, a grown man who had yet to understand his appetite.
The trouble with being a girl is that you are expected to trade craving for hunger, hunger the specter that looms over you even as you sleep. And this makes you feel like a predator, a prowler in the lambs’ midst.
Being both evangelical and gay from birth, I worried at purity balls that my sinner’s skin would singe my satin gown. I was made to wear a purity ring that only a wedding ring could remove—this, an offering of love from my earthly and heavenly fathers.
What I knew that they did not: If God made me, he made me an aberration of nature. Try as I might to people the wedding chapels of my imagination, there were other things consuming me, other fires, which burned the bridegrooms, and leveled the altars to ash.
It was with this same burning that I left my hometown, determined to find what I wanted and, for the first time in my life, to ask for it.
I learned Seattle by watching it like a television. Learned, for example, that I would need to trade my thick Midwestern skin for indifference. Learned that a morning’s bleariness was known to burn away like a marine layer, at which point the branches, hanging lush and wet and low, flickered for a bit in the wide pinking light. And on those days, people would stand in the street with reverence, or perhaps I imagined it that way. In any case, it made me feel that I was less alone.
I met her at a bar called Flowers, quiet and dark, three whiskies in.
From the start it was almost too much to look at her, so I stared instead out the windows, balmy with breath, tracing my fingers through their slow sweat.
The trouble with being a girl is that you are expected to trade craving for hunger, hunger the specter that looms over you even as you sleep.
When I worked up the nerve to be near her I was hooked right away by the friction between the few cautious words she afforded me and the way she knew, like no one had ever known, how to own me with her hot, hungry look. Those eyes that reduced continents to kindling, crisping planets of the Milky Way until the known universe scattered like ash from a cigarette’s sleeve and in that bar, it was only the two of us. And in that moment, I was the first woman ever made or the last one alive at the end of the world.
We compared scrapes born of war stories, and secretly, I named hers after summer constellations.
When I touched myself and was close to coming, I whispered her name, evoking her: a séance.
In the nights that followed, she was the specter. Bright, inscrutable orb darting the darkened room.
Every day the Legends got hungrier. I could hear the grinding of each twinkling maw. We were all starving in our own way, them because they’d been denied their rightful lives as women, me as a woman with the world before her too frightened and scarred to do a damn thing about it.
My days with them were lucid dreams. Their stories swirled around me, and if I wanted, I could pluck one from the air and ask her.
Legend who spoke of her body discovered in the dumpster behind Dot Liquor.
Legend who was murdered while playing Bloody Mary in the mirror.
Legends whose sweet mouths appeared still singing in the water, multiples of Millais’ Ophelia.
Legend three days shy of her sweet sixteen birthday party, who received instead the party where everyone searches and searches, finding nothing in the end but a crawl space filled with bone.
I say that I asked them for their stories, but over time, the room became cacophonous. It was sometimes hard to remember I wasn’t one of them. I was beginning to feel like my body was an Ouija board full of vague answers: yes, no, goodbye. Forever anticipating that moment where the wind shifts and the room moves from carefree to electric and malevolent.
The ghost I knew by heart was Mia. She was the only one who moved through the world with me. It was, after all, her neighborhood, and she was nice enough to show me around. We spoke through a kind of telekinesis, girl to ghost, and although it is strange to say so, Mia was my first Seattle friend. I would learn I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, that many girls in Seattle were descendants of Mia, beautiful and strange but because of her story, less innocent, walking home from the Comet Tavern, their keys tiny knives between their fingers, their eyes two fierce dogs gone hunting in the night.
In Buddhism, there is a creature known as the Hungry Ghost, a spirit characterized by great craving and eternal starvation. Small of mouth, narrow of throat, Hungry Ghosts are all desire, with no way to satiate. Sometimes they’ll receive a drop of water which evaporates upon the lips, or food, which bursts into flames before they can swallow. Each iota of desire comes with the consequence of pain, and being a woman had me like a Hungry Ghost. I am no longer willing to forfeit the wild and beautiful things I thirst for all for some craving gone quiet.
What I want now is a balance between woman and ghost.
A courage that has nothing to do with survival.
I want to eat a Clementine without thinking of his cold fingers.
I want Mia to eat my heart from cupped hands as Beatrice did Dante’s, and for everyone to vow on her behalf: I will not let him make of me a craven thing when bravery is so much sweeter.
I want to never forget the Legends, but to set them free, or to trap them in a lucid dream from which I will myself awake, so that I may finally see past them, see instead the first sailboats of morning upon the water, salty and cerulean, and wonder how I got so lucky. And wonder I am alive to know it at all.
“I want to be with someone who knows secret things,” Rilke said, “or else alone.” And I would like that to be my love letter to her.
I want her to see in perfect detail the things that might have destroyed me, and how I chose beauty instead. I want her to know so she never doubts it again, that she is commensurate of that beauty.
I want to move into the terror and the awe of this rare and beautiful thing between us, and hold there until we forget who we are, or how we might ruin one another, for as close and as long as she’ll let me.
And if ever she asks, without a word, I will gently
let her go.
* * *
The essay first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Hotel Amerika, a biannual print literary journal based in Chicago, and is forthcoming in Daniels’ debut essay collection, Ladies Lazarus, from Tarpaulin Sky Press.