BY KAILEY TEDESCO
Did you know Benjamin Franklin may have created the Jersey Devil by insisting that a man, an occultist and a competitor, was a ghost? He wanted that man to disappear, and so he insisted he never existed. He erased what he felt didn’t belong in his narrative.
Titan Leeds, he predicted in his almanac, will die. Titan Leeds, he said, has died. Titan Leeds, in life and in death, has always been a ghost.
This isn’t the version of the story my mother told me. It’s missing Mrs. Leeds — our favorite part.
I know two origin stories of myself, and I believe both to be true. That is, I believe my mother believes both to be true.
1. I came into the world as the most beautiful child my mother had ever seen. She held me to the light, to the nurses and doctors, in the Burlington County hospital and exclaimed “isn’t she beautiful? how did we make something so beautiful?”
2. I came into this world smeared with caul, smelling of wet pennies, with fur down my back. My father says now I looked like the inside of a pumpkin. Blanketed in something else’s guts. A beast. My mother exclaimed “what is this? what is wrong with her?” The doctors tell her the dark mat of hair on my back will fall out. I get a mini-period a few days later, and lose the hair. The doctor says nothing of the caul.
I do not know the story of how I came to be prior to being. My mother leaves this mostly to my imagination.
She was a teen and working at Wawa. My father was a teen and working at Wawa. They fell in love.
My mother says if she hadn’t had me, she wouldn’t have had any children at all, wouldn’t have even gotten married. She imagined herself as a soldier, like her father. For the first twelve years of my life, she works midnight shifts and lets me sleep on her chest in the summer. I get to know my mother best while we both sleep. One night, my father and I find her in a white button up and slacks woven with the scent of Marlboro and deli ham from work, asleep on the couch. We wake her so we can all go to bed.
She is in a trance-state. Looks me in the eyes and says, “who are you?”
I laugh and say, “it’s Kailey, your daughter.”
She asks me, “how many?”
My mother, I think, duplicates me in her sleep as a way for us to be together. As a way to keep me from becoming erased.
Everyone was afraid of Mrs. Leeds. Whether her name was Deborah or Jane or whether she never existed at all. She lived in the woods. She was a witch. She was a mother. She had too many children with many fathers. She had too many children with one father. The father is inconsequential to the narrative in nearly every telling. She copulated with Satan. She was a Catholic woman of God. Her body was a vessel. Her body was a curse. Her body birthed chaos into the Pine Barons. She never asked for thirteen children. No one ever cares how they got there. No one cares for her at all in any telling of the story.
My mother and father drive me to Evergreen Woods in Pamona, NJ. I learn later that I was conceived here. Just a few short miles from the Leeds’ house. They listen to Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen softly and I beg to sit in the back of their pick-up truck to no avail.
I like to watch the trees well in my eyes like ocean. Some of them growing from water. All of them growing from sand. I imagine murderers fill the spaces between them, and at night, I let myself get frightened of what I may see.
My father takes us to get slush puppies at Patty’s Custard. I sit between my parents on a bench. Years before your birth, my mother says, your father and I drove on this road and found a boy, our age, sitting at the edge of the trees. We stopped to ask him for a ride and he just stared and stared and stared and stared. We drove off and called police. Later on we found out he had escaped from the psychiatric hospital. People were looking for him.
Be careful, she tells me. It’s easy to become lost out here.
My father tells me the story of Bloody Mary in these woods. I sit in a golf cart with him. I cling to his side, afraid of falling off (I have before). We often get chased by feral dogs. The story frightens me because it’s night and the entire lake is a mirror. I jump off the cart and run back to our trailer alone.
As I run, I think of my favorite trailers in the woods — the ones that are abandoned and filled with everything that gets left behind. I love being lost out here. I love trying to find the lost inside of the abandoned. I run into my mother’s arms and she scolds my father. We sleep together on the corduroy couch with the blue of the TV on our faces.
I found my way in the Pines, I think to myself, and I’m never frightened again.
I never ask my mother why she chose to keep me. Sometimes she’ll volunteer, with love, that I was her ticket out of those woods or that I was the bind that keeps her and my father together, that led to the birth of my brother and sister. I’ve only ever known myself, in the narrative of my birth, to be an accident. This was never said as a way to make me feel small, but more as a way for my mother to assert the importance of her story as well as mine. I’ve always appreciated this offering of honesty.
The resemblance between Mrs. Leeds and Mary of Nazareth is noteworthy. As I child, I scold myself for wondering about the thinness of the line that keeps Mary from being called a witch. Now, I think I celebrate that thinness. How can anyone ever corroborate whether or not a mother is blessed or cursed, except for the mother themselves.
When my mother tells me the story of the Jersey Devil for the first time, and every time, her tone always becomes exasperated at this part:
“Mrs. Leeds had twelve children with the THIRTEENTH on the way. Exhausted from the children she had already, she asks the devil to curse the unborn child in her womb so that she will not have to care for it. And the devil does.”
She tells the story as though this thirteenth fetus was something forced upon Mrs. Leeds, something that happened to her, instead of with or for her, as though she knew Mrs. Leeds personally and empathizes. She tells the story in a way that makes it clear this thirteenth child wasn’t just a child that Mrs. Leeds didn’t want, but one she emotionally or even physically couldn’t care for.
This is how I tell the story as well, at sleepovers and faculty meetings, for the next two decades. Emphasizing the same parts to show my sympathy for and solidarity with Mrs. Leeds.
The Jersey Devil has always been dear to my heart. I’ve seen myself in him. And, Mrs. Leeds, I think, must be something divine, too — a sort of Parton Saint of bodily autonomy, of witchcraft as a means of agency in a world that denies it.
In college, I went searching for her house, but found only ruins.
Kailey Tedesco is the author of These Ghosts of Mine, Siamese (Dancing Girl Press) and the forthcoming full-length collection, She Used to be on a Milk Carton (April Gloaming Publications). She is the co-founding editor-in-chief of Rag Queen Periodical and a member of the Poetry Brothel. She received her MFA in creative writing from Arcadia University, and she now teaches literature at several local colleges. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her work in Prelude, Bellevue Literary Review, Sugar House Review, Poetry Quarterly, Hello Giggles, UltraCulture, and more. For more information, please visit kaileytedesco.com.