Repeat after me:
I must not tell lies. I must not tell lies. I CANNOT tell lies. Or else.
It’s as vacuous a statement as you can find. If someone is truthful, then they do not need to make such a promise. If they are not, then their promise means nothing anyway. There’s only so much a mother can do when her daughter is a liar though, and I was doing the best I could.
Marcelline is just eight years old, but she’s learning so fast. She can count all the way to 1,000 and has her multiplication tables memorized. She can read on her own without moving her lips, and she knows how to look up words she doesn’t know. She loves playing soccer, riding bikes, and rollerskating, but her most impressive skill by far is her mastery over lying. And she does it every chance she gets.
My daughter’s favorite lie is about a character named Zafai she read about in one of her books. If she doesn’t want to get up in the morning, it’s because Zafai kept her awake all night. She never breaks anything, but Zafai is a whirling dervish when I’m not around. I thought it was cute at first, but I knew I had to put a stop to it before it became an incurable habit.
I started by punishing her. I would scold her and tell her to stand in the corner, or take away her toys and books when she wouldn’t stop. The little rebel fought back, digging in her heels and hotly declaring that Zafai wouldn’t tolerate being stolen from. Marcelline was a banshee with an attitude problem, and I’d usually only last a few hours before giving in just to shut her up. My husband Marc thought I was just enabling her, but I couldn’t help it. Watching her scream and wail and throw herself around the room like a crash-test dummy in an explosives yard was too much for me to bear.
“We can’t let this go on,” Marc said to me the other night after Marcelline had gone to bed. “She’s holding the whole house hostage.”
“Fine with me. You get the rope and I’ll get the gag. They make those in children’s size, right?”
“I’m serious,” he said. “She might not understand now, but it’s for her own good. How do you think she’s going to navigate through life, or hold a job, or maintain a relationship when she thinks lying is a magic answer to everything?”
Of course he was right. We had to parent the shit out of that little beasty. She’s on winter break now, and our house was about to turn into liar’s rehab. That night Marc and I collected all of her books and padlocked them in a cabinet. He took the key with him to work so I wouldn’t be able to give in to her tantrums. Over breakfast, we both sat down with her to clearly lay out the rules.
“Do you know why mommy and daddy took your books away?” I started.
I guess she hadn’t noticed until I said it. Her little eyes narrowed, the dead rot of winter piercing through the slits. I looked helplessly to Marc for support.
“You’ve been telling a lot of lies lately, and you’re getting punished,” Marc supplied. “If you want them back, you’ve got to go a whole day without lying.”
Marcelline took a deep breath and pouted her bottom lip. It was almost enough to make me give-in immediately, but Marc was there to the rescue.
“Repeat after me: I must not tell lies.”
Marcelline looked pleadingly at me. I crossed my arms and pressed my lips into a hard, uncompromising line. At last she rolled her eyes in defeat.
“I must not tell lies,” Marcelline sighed dramatically.
“And you’re going to start by telling us that Zafai isn’t real,” I interjected. Marc grinned and gave me a nod of approval.
Marcelline wasn’t giving us a death glare anymore. Her wide, quivering eyes were much harder to endure. She was even starting to look pale. Damn she’s good.
“Say it, or I’m going to lock up your skates too,” Marc growled.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “Zafai hates lies even more than you do, and I know he’s listening.”
“Marcelline! Say it!” I almost shouted. Marc raised his eyebrows. “Or else!”
She looked wildly around like harried prey. Tears were welling in her eyes. Marc grabbed my hand exactly when I needed him to. She needs this, stay strong, his grip seemed to say.
“Marcelline!” Marc bellowed.
“Okay okay! Zafai isn’t real. I’m so sorry Zafai, please don’t hurt me.”
I sighed. Mark snorted in amusement. “Good enough for today, I guess. I’ll be home around six, think you can hold the fort until then?”
“Bring it on! I can do it,” I gave him my most convincing fist pump. It felt like the first victory we’ve had over our daughter in months. I had no idea how wrong I was.
It started with the silent treatment, although I have to admit that was actually a relief. I expected her to be screaming bloody-murder the second Marc closed the door, but Marcelline just sat in the living room and glared at me from under her little furrowed brow. Fine, let her sulk, at least I could keep an eye on her here. I sat on the couch with my laptop to bust out some last minute Christmas shopping. Marcelline was muttering under breath, but I did my best to just ignore her. It sounded like she was apologizing over and over, but it would take more than that to break my resolve.
The first time I glanced up, she was still sulking, her bottom lip pushed out as far as it would go.
Ten minutes later and she still hadn’t moved. She was just staring at me and chewing on her lip. She was waiting for me to give in like I always did, but this time I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. I made a real mental effort to not even look at her for the next half-hour.
But I did look up eventually, and I started screaming the moment I did. The lower half of her face was covered in blood, dribbling down her chin onto the floor like a vampire over a fresh kill. She was still glaring at me, relentlessly and purposefully chewing.
At first I couldn’t figure out what happened, but when I rushed over to her she spat a fleshy lump in my face. I grabbed it without thinking, mind numb from disgust, staring at bloody slug-like thing in my hand. She spat another one — it was her other lip that she had chewed straight off.
“I must not tell lies,” she hissed, spluttering blood as she did. She wasn’t grinning, but it looked like she was. Even with her mouth closed I could see all her ferocious little teeth jutting out of her gory gums. “What cannot speak cannot tell lies.” And then she was chewing again, the open wound of her face doing nothing to conceal the gnashing teeth which sank into her tongue over and over again.
I had to grip the top of her head and her chin to hold her mouth shut, but it took both hands and I couldn’t reach the phone. Tears were mingling with her blood to gush down her face, but nothing could stop the gnashing. Even with both my hands and my whole body weight pressing down on her head, I could feel her jaws relentlessly lifting me and clamping back down again.
I tried to stuff my fingers into her mouth to hold it open instead, but they snapped down so ferociously that I almost lost a digit. It was like trying to stop a garbage disposal with my bare hands. Next I tried to get her to lie down and relax, but she started choking and I had to lift her immediately. I thought she was just choking on the blood, but no — a second later her entire tongue oozed out of her mouth like some giant eel swimming through red waters.
At least she had nothing to chew anymore. I broke away for long enough to call an ambulance, but even that was a mistake. Her jaw was already working through the insides of her cheeks. She started choking on the pieces again, unable to get them out of her mouth without the aid of her tongue. I couldn’t stop her — all I could do was hold her on her hands and knees to let the bloody chunks dribble out of her mouth so they wouldn’t go down her throat.
She didn’t stop until the paramedics arrived and injected her with something that knocked her out. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even follow. I just sat on the bloody floor and cried, finally noticing the words which must have stained carpet while she was kneeling.
“Zafai is real. I must not tell lies.”
When she recovers — if she recovers — I’m going to have a lot of questions that she won’t be able to answer. I’ve heard there are people here who know about this sort of thing though, so I’m begging you for help. What is Zafai? What do I do now? I know it must be hard to believe, but please don’t dismiss it or give me any false hope. Zafai hates liars, and I just know it’s still listening.