Chapter 10

PJ, despite what felt like level coldness to William, was firm and gentle. He listened, calm, as Anna’s father spoke with him a while longer.

The priest reassured the man, calm still, as they walked to the spare room, down another hallway, in what felt like a massive, but constraining house. There seemed to be darkness in every corner, a creak in every step, a trick of the light in every shadow cast.

William followed behind PJ, and heard something about more exorcists. They were on the way, PJ said, cutting short their meeting in the next town to minister to the family.

Anna’s father nodded, hands still folded in prayer, rosary still strung around his fingers. William could almost predict the rhythm of his voice: a song rising and falling, vowels seemingly caught at the throat and then thrust out again, syllables running into each other and diving off at the end. The sounds lingered for a while, after the door was closed to what looked like a small library.

“We need to talk,” PJ said, to the space between William and the nearest chair.

William could not help taking a seat. Only then did he find that the muscles of his thighs were burning, and that his knees had the strength of jelly. He felt his body sink, heard his breath finally escape his lungs, sensed the air around him tingling, as though waiting to see if he would fight.

He had never expected the battle of an impending exorcism to approach the physical. Emotional, yes; even spiritual, if Brownie were to be believed. The old man’s heart attack? A rare retaliatory move; an extreme, sudden act of vengeance. Brownie never said anything about his thoughts being prodded by an invisible force, his imagination turned into water, and his entire world trying to drown him in inviting black waters of despair.

And again, William came to when PJ took a chair, lifted it, set it in front of his companion, and sat himself down.

“I need to know if you made a general confession,” PJ began, slowly, soothingly, as though anticipating that William would argue with him if he were any more direct, “I don’t want to accuse you of anything, but if there is something that you are not at peace with, if there is something that you are preoccupied with, were preoccupied with, then you have to tell me and you have to let it go, or the demon will use it against you.”

The words thundered in William’s skull. At any other time, he would have engaged his companion in debate. But at that moment, in a chair in a library in a house that seemed to move on its own volition, William could only swallow down a lump that had suddenly formed in his throat.

It was the night of blue and red once again, the dancing lights that blended and frolicked over the white picket fence and the garden path, the sweep of colors that made the river of blood sparkle and froth into the evening.

It was a fresh surge of despair, and William had to do – something – he knew he had to fight, but against whom?

He felt himself lean back in the chair, felt himself pale, then flush, as though his own body were trying to keep its secrets close. There was something about PJ the confessor that both invited William to be honest, and yet threatened everything he thought he knew to be hopefully, comfortably true. There indeed had been death, years ago, but it had not been in vain; she was truly an angel, when she was alive, and she had never lost the wings even when she died. And she watched over him, fought for him, came when he called.

He called her again, in his head, but got nothing in reply.

Or, more honestly, he got a blast of cold air against his nape, a sharp smash of ice against his arms that made the hairs on them stand on end, a gash of frost that seemed to slice across the library and spill blades of frozen blood.

He saw PJ make the Sign of the Cross, and mutter a prayer. William recognized the words from the Roman Ritual, the part where the priest asked to be a vessel for God, where the priest took on God’s armor, where the priest asked for protection by the heavenly hosts, the celestial army.

The room was warm once again.

William could only swallow down what felt like a lump of burrs and thorns in his throat.

PJ did not acknowledge anything, not the cold air replaced by warmth, not the almost instantaneous change of temperature, not the seeming miraculous lightness that came as a result of his prayers. He simply pulled out his phone, scrolled through something, and then addressed William.

“The girl,” PJ began, never looking up from the screen, “The victim was repeating this phrase. You might have heard it. I tried to write it. So – best effort.”

PJ sounded tired, or exasperated, but there was something in the boy’s tone that told William that he was a priest who had been thrust into a mission that he wanted no part of, but for which he had all the skills, and in great measure. He was tempted to try to counsel PJ, but there was the night of red and blue, blocking his thoughts, stealing the time in his imagination; and there was that voice, on the phone, as he sped down the highway. There was the other voice as well, in the other room, the phrase repeated over and over, as though someone ancient were watching him from behind young eyes, and delighted in the strength of youth that its old tongue could suddenly muster.

“She was saying,” PJ spoke, “‘Non torturarci, ma siamo orgoglioso che questo bambino voglia ancora il suo papa morto.'”

William could only nod. PJ’s accent sounded more Spanish, with lightly rolling rs, and the ends of the words edging closer together, like vowels that found themselves naked in the middle of winter. He suddenly remembered Agnes, and her voice, and how she could speak Italian to her students; and then he remembered Landon, who hated the subjunctive of the Latin languages, and who Bradley had so carelessly matched with Agnes the night before. And then he remembered her, his guardian angel, the one who didn’t come when called – who seemed to send out a dark army in her stead, who seemed to be gone when he thought she had vowed to watch him until they were reunited –

“My Italian is pretty bad, so I went online,” PJ said, above William’s thoughts, almost too forcefully, as though he knew that William was drifting away once again, “It didn’t help, so I asked – I asked a friend to translate it. It took a while, and she – my friend made some corrections. The words, loosely translated, are, ‘Don’t torture us, but we are proud that this boy still wants his dead pope’.”

William tumbled out of his reverie. No one in their right mind could ignore such a confusing sentence. The torture, he understood; demons usually spoke in terms of pain or burning when they were being prayed over in the middle of an exorcism. The sense of pride, he also expected: demons thought themselves greater than humans, better than anything that had been created after them, and their instinct was to ultimately destroy creation. To be called a boy was par for the course; Brownie had been called “mere human”, “child”, “idiot”, and all sorts of names by his possessed patients.

“My friend wasn’t that sure either, but here’s what she came up with,” PJ spoke a little faster, as though he recognized that his companion was slowly unshackling himself from his despair, “First: the sentence is condescending; to be called ‘bambino’ is to be called little boy, or even baby. Questo bambino is ‘this kid’, so it’s almost mockery, like the demon can’t believe what it’s looking at. And it’s proud to see the bambino – well, doing what it’s doing.”

William wanted to shrug it off, the words, the purported insults, but he felt his shoulders weighed down with something – anger, sadness, regret, memories, he was not quite sure. He decided to keep his eyes on the wall beyond the young priest, on a shelf, where there were different figurines and religious icons all placed together in what looked like a party of plaster and dust.

“She says – there’s this saying in Italian,” PJ scrolled through the phone, to read what was presumably an exchange of messages between him and his friend, “Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro. It literally means that if a pope dies, you make a new one. It’s also used to say that there are plenty of fish in the sea, so if someone leaves you, then forget them – they’re the old pope. They’re the dead pope.”

The room was warm, but William felt ice crawling through his veins, from his feet, to his belly, to his spine, up into his nape. To speak of Lira so loosely as some dead patriarch – it was absurd, some coincidence, something that the demons were probably playing at, something that he probably carried on his face when he looked at any woman, something that any demon would see and try to use, these vermin of untruths, these fathers of lies –

“They seem to be proud of you, and as a body, for still holding out for someone,” PJ finished, steady, as though reading words from memory, “They are proud of you for wasting your life away, because their torture might be nothing compared to yours.”

William laughed, eyes still on the figurines. He was not aware that he was laughing for too long, too ridiculously long; had almost no control over what transpired, and came to when PJ looked up at him sharply.

“Is this your interpretation? Maybe your friend’s?” he found himself saying, words rising from the cold in his throat, sentences escaping as syllables on his tongue, “That’s way too much to read from just one sentence.”

William had to pause. PJ was handing him a white handkerchief, and was looking him in the eye.

It was only then that he realized that there were tears streaming down his cheeks, and knots in his voice; it was only then that he realized that he was speaking through sobs. And it was only then that he could take the handkerchief from PJ, bury his face in his hands, and bow his head to the floor.

He felt a warm hand on his shoulder; he heard PJ’s voice. He ignored the sounds beyond the library: a car coming up the driveway, people rushing through the house, crackling greetings of the elderly, high pitched words of the young. William shut them all out, and listened only to the young priest, heard the words of a prayer that he could not understand, felt the tears choke him as he tried to hold them back.

But they kept coming, the tears, soaking the handkerchief, moistening his palms, escaping in a torrent that was strangely calming – as though he were being asked to make the sea that would help him sail to some shore, in some land, the real far, far away that he wanted and craved.

He allowed them to flow. For the first time in years, he actually wept – really, truly wept, really, truly remembered the Lira that had once been. The blonde hair that glistened in the candelight, that made her all the more charming, all the more glowing even when she asked him to be her friend, because Henry – the fun, the happy, the outrageous and exciting Henry – they like, really just hit it off one night, and she, well, liked him. The green eyes that looked like pools of glassy water rippling in the moonlight, that made her all the more youthful, all the more interesting to look at on that very first day she walked into the graduate students’ office and quietly waved hello at everyone. The white skin with the slightest of blushes, drained of blood as she lay dead on the porch of the house that she shared with the man she had chosen over William. She had been loving and kind in life, had been nice to him and had truly been his friend, but why wasn’t she the kind of angel that came when he called?

“Anytime you’re ready, William,” PJ’s voice was low, comforting, “Anything you say will remain in this room. Your secrets are safe with me.”

William didn’t call on any angel this time. He sobbed into the space between his hands, and told the story.

It was a story that he had assembled in his head, a story he had begun when he first met her, and a story that continued in earnest even after that night of red and blue lights, and sneering cats, and howling dogs, and police officers that tried to explain his misgivings away. He could hear it narrated, the way that he had narrated it to himself for years, as he watched someone else win her over, to the time that the same someone else took her away.

Lira was a graduate student in his department at the same time that he was finishing up his PhD in Philadelphia. She was quiet but bright, as she entered the graduate students’ office, and introduced herself as the new masters kid in counseling psychology. She sat a ways away from William, but he had fallen in love with her the minute he had seen her. She had grown up in southern Pennsylvania, near the mountains, in a town that had been settled by German immigrants, so that everyone was strong and stern, and blond haired and glassy-eyed, and objective and fair.

He asked her out that same day, and they went out for coffee that same night. He asked her out again, and she obliged. Then he asked her out a third time, this time to dinner, a week after her arrival at the graduate students’ office. And then they had dinner on and off for several weeks, and slept together in between. No commitments, no comments, no definition as to what they were doing, no labels to put barriers down. There was food, wine, some conversations about school, William taking her to and from work in his car, Lira sometimes calling him up to ask if he knew how to fix this or that light switch in her apartment, walks between buildings and classes whenever time permitted. And sex – lots of it, the way that any other romance was born in the world that William lived in.

For the first time, he asked her out on a Saturday (most of their dates were on weekdays, after her classes). He planned to formalize everything, give it a name, have some sort of closure to something that felt so dragged out and open. It had been a month since they had started seeing each other, after all.

He remembered that their dinner was costly, candelit, clinking with expensive china, tinkling with heavy silver. There was steak, and a salad, and soup, and then a dessert of some French cream that was as heavy as it was rich. He started the conversation over dessert; and over dessert, she told him that it was best that they remain friends, because another grad student had already asked her out, and they really hit it off. She felt sparks; like, real sparks.

It wasn’t the rebuffing that made William drink down all the wine. It was the “real sparks” remark. He didn’t know what “real” sparks were like; what were “fake” sparks anyway?

He had no idea how else to reply, except to say yes, he would be her friend.

He would be a friend to a girl whom he did not know was also dating one of his closest, best friends in graduate school. He would be a friend to them both.

He kept being that friend even when he watched Lira double over in laughter at Henry’s jokes, because that was Henry: the fun, happy, interesting Henry, who was hilarious even when he was serious, who peppered his sentences with four-letter words like he was simply inserting punctuation marks.

He kept being that friend even when he watched them go out together, in places Lira and he had also gone, in places he wished he had taken her. They had even gone to the fair at the pier, had their Tarot cards read, had been told that they would be together forever, had been told they would have a family and five kids and a dog and a lovely house in the suburbs.

He kept being that friend even when Henry proposed to Lira, a few months before her graduation. He stood by as one of the groomsmen at their City Hall wedding, and even consented to being part of the “let’s pick out Lira’s dress” committee, which would meet every Saturday over pizza and beer, before driving to the nearest bridal shop.

He stood as the friend from afar as Henry and Lira moved in together, in a house in the suburbs, with a front garden that leaned against a fence and looked as though it had been mowed over by a drunken rabbit (“A s**a** drunken rabbit,” Henry said), with a path made of what looked like old gravestones, with a front porch that Lira said would be the best place for a party when they were all settled in. And he was the friend who helped move Henry’s boxes of history books (“F***in’ Mesopotamia and Egypt!” Henry bellowed) and Lira’s boxes of board games from their apartments to their new house.

One month later, William was the friend that took a call from a Henry that sounded like a beast, that growled and sneered and snarled and spat, that demanded his presence.

William was the friend that drove across town, and found Henry on the porch, raising a knife high, dripping with blood.

At his feet were the mangled remains of Lira, whose blond hair almost seemed a deep shade of purple in the pool of torn flesh, whose face he could no longer distinguish, whose skin was pale, almost gray, as though she had been drained of her very soul, and had been infused with sand. He never saw her again, after that night; but he heard, from the calls of the police on their walkie-talkies, from the mumbling of the officers nearest him, from the whispers of her family as they spoke to her professors during her funeral – he heard that no one could tell what was left or right, up or down, back or front from her.

William saw the blood, flowing and frothing through the slats of the porch, bubbling against the play of lights, shining with life that once was. He could see blood and bone, what he thought was a fragment of an artery, what looked like a piece of an eyeball. From his place at the gate, he saw a body that he would never have hurt, someone whom he would never have murdered, a friend whom he would have been a good, gentle, loving husband to.

No one knew exactly what led to what. All that the neighbors said was that Henry and Lira were just fun, but undisruptive, almost non-descript. On that afternoon, they noticed something burning in the backyard, but they simply thought that the couple was having a barbecue. And then, that evening, their house rose and rattled with the sounds and snarls of raging, rampaging lions and tigers. That was when the neighbors called 911. When the cops arrived, Lira was dead on the front porch, Henry was covered head to toe in her blood, and he did not put up a fight as they took him away.

Henry was locked up in a psychiatric hospital, miles out of town, where the doctors said he spoke to himself in a language no one could understand, where he had to be fed intravenously and while in an induced coma, because he could make a weapon out of even the bluntest plasticware and try to stab himself dead.

William felt himself break, and die, along with Lira. He didn’t know how he could have prevented her murder. No one had the slightest clue that Henry was capable of even harming a stuffed animal, let alone murder the wife that he obviously worshipped. Sure, he cursed like a sailor, laughed like a boisterous uncle at a drunken weekend party, played jokes on the new graduate students, and spent his evenings writing up his survey results like a kid high on statistics – but at heart, he was a gentle boy, lanky, silly, heckling and naughty, beloved of his in-laws. No one recognized, or dared approach, the new, muttering, growling Henry, who lived in a padded room and was on a 24-hour suicide watch.

If Lira had married him, William, then she would still be alive. He would NEVER have done what Henry did.

So: William had to get away.

He went to Boston College, after he graduated, and as he put his father in a care home. He did postdoc research under Brownie, worked the possession cases. And when that was done, he wanted to go even farther away, farther from the cases in the U.S. that sounded so much like Henry on the phone, farther from the memories of Lira whose golden hair and green eyes made him wish he had stood his ground, disagreed to the friendship, fought it out.

So when the chance to go to the Philippines came along, William fled.

He wept, through the last words, as he felt the muscles in his legs slacken, as he felt the chair under him, as he realized that PJ had put his other hand on his head. A free hand to give comfort. A free hand to give a blessing.

“Bless me, Father,” he found himself saying, between his fingers, through the handkerchief, choking on another sob. It seemed the right and proper thing to say when a priest was around, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“It’s not a sin,” PJ spoke, in a tone that truly made him Alfonso Sucat. It was older, wiser, full of pity and commiseration – but, more accurately, full of sympathy that William had never heard anywhere else, “It’s not a sin, but it’s a burden, and something that weighs on you, that makes you feel that the world is unfair, that life is taken away from those that deserve it most.”

William nodded, tears still flowing, thoughts still passing through his memories. He could see Lira laughing with Henry, Lira winning Monopoly against her own research adviser, Lira drinking a bottle of beer on her porch one midnight as she sat with William to talk about her thesis. He said that her technique, of interviewing patients, was not objective if she wanted to generalize everything. She said that she could always consult an Ouija board for answers if she wanted something that was objective for all time. He told her that she could just do a survey and save herself the trouble. She said that he felt like her older brother.

Of course the words hurt. Even in that room, in an afternoon that swam with despair, the words still hurt.

“It’s a burden that you’ve been carrying for years now,” PJ broke through his imagination, “And it’s coloring how you see the world, how you talk to people, how you face your problems and try to solve them, how you show other people how to face their problems. This is a burden because you are putting it behind you. You’re not confronting it.”

William felt as though someone had both punched him in the gut and cleared the cobwebs from his head. The tears had been flowing for what felt like hundreds of years, but they seemed to dry out now, leaving tracks of salt that tightened the skin of his cheeks, dampened the spaces in his neck, rested in the cavities created by his collarbones. He was not sure if it was enlightenment as much as it was fear. He always saw the scene of the crime in his nightmares, always heard Lira’s voice in his memories, always remembered her and how her hair and her eyes and her skin caught all the light and reflected it back. And now, he was even calling her his angel. How could he not have been confronting her all this time?

“You’ve been running from what this all means to you,” PJ’s words seemed to answer his questions, “Of course you remember her, and of course you wish she were still alive, but I need you to ask yourself: what was her death like? What did it make you feel? I don’t want you to mention Henry, or even Lira; talk about yourself. What did you feel?”

He knew this technique, from somewhere in his textbooks, or maybe from one of his undergrad interview sessions, probably from work. The origin was less important than his answer, and he was ready to speak up, but he found that there was nothing coming to mind. There was nothing that did not involve saying how he resented that Henry had won Lira, and had ended up killing her. There was nothing that did not involve mentioning how he missed Lira because he wanted her with him – because – well – because she was Lira, and he had loved Lira, had wanted Lira, missed Lira, and today – well –

He could hear conversations outside, muffled by the library wall. He recognized the rising and falling of the father’s voice, the clinking of glasses that probably signaled that people were being served water, the heavy footfalls of the Sheffield brothers as they perhaps repositioned their recording equipment. He barely remembered seeing the two boys on his way out of the room. Besides Landon’s entrance, the brothers seemed to come and go with bulk and brawn, but with spectral speed. They were unobtrusive, watching the world from the sidelines, recording everything for posterity, leaving nothing behind. He wondered if Bradley was ever afraid of being possessed again, or if Landon had ever thought of leaving the project and going back to his job at the European Council.

And still, in his distraction, no words came to William.

“It might take a while,” PJ said, comfortingly, as a mentor would to a student frustrated by his inability to get the answers immediately right on an exam, “But I need you to face what you fled from. You need to acknowledge everything: the hurt, the pain, the anger, the suffering, the loss – even the love.”

There it was. The answer.

PJ seemed to sense it. He squeezed William’s shoulder, and nodded.

“I feel like everything inside me is broken, and nothing makes sense unless I just keep moving, unless I just keep walking forward,” William spoke, feeling the words throb on the inside of his cheeks, hearing the syllables play against his eardrums, “Every time I remember that night, I feel like I’m getting this reminder: there was nothing I could do, and that there will never be anything I can do for anyone. That hurts me, because in psychology, there IS something that you can always do, there IS someone who needs healing, and you can do it if you know how. I didn’t know anything, and maybe I should have, but I feel angry, hurt – just – broken.”

“Betrayed?” PJ added.

William had been looking down at the floor the entire time. From PJ’s tone, he guessed that the boy might have sounded flippant, but there would be an air of warm sympathy around the priest that no one in his memory could ever duplicate.

There was, as well, a sharp pain under William’s heart, as though there had been a knife sitting there since his birth, and had been trying to make itself known for years.

“Betrayed?” was all that William could manage, “How?”

PJ’s put both his hands on William’s shoulders. “I know there was no label on your relationship, as you put it,” the priest’s tone was gentle, soft, as though he could sense that the knife in William’s heart could stab the man at any time, “But there was some form of commitment, an investment, a bond between you that you expected her to recognize.”

William wanted to say something, but all that came up was a choke.

“I know what you’re about to say,” PJ continued, still unassuming, still unwavering, “It’s just sex, it’s a fling, it’s something that lasted for as long as it should have. But you wouldn’t be sitting here, you wouldn’t be bothered and burdened if it wasn’t something you considered serious.”

And there the stab was. It finally met the heart that held it back, finally did its gruesome work, finally made the tears flow down William’s cheeks. The tears tasted deeply bitter, as though they had been waiting for years to be set free.

“But there’s another betrayal,” PJ’s tone never changed, although this time, William felt as though he were being comforted rather than taught a lesson, “You trusted that this girl, this girl you loved – you trusted that she would be happy even when you weren’t around to be the person she would be happy with. And you trusted that person that she picked over you. You trusted him to make her happy. Even if they both betrayed you, you trusted that they would be happy.”

The priest hesitated, as though he were grappling with the words.

“You trusted that your sacrifice, of letting her go,” PJ resumed, “You trusted that your sacrifice would mean something.”

William felt his guts clench once more, as though to push out the last of his tears. He continued to weep, no longer caring whether or not PJ’s words made sense, no longer thinking of whether he had to keep his story a secret, and simply allowing the grief – the real grief, it appeared – its final, fullest release.

“It’s all right not to know everything,” PJ’s voice was low, calm, piercing through his sobs, “When I left you right before lunch, I started running down the road, just to pray, let off steam, be away from the questions. I thought I would have peace, because I deserved it: I worked a lot, I studied a lot, I never rested except to eat and sleep.

“Then I saw her father – this girl’s father – running up to me. He was crying, just running and crying while holding up this bottle of water. And I thought, ‘Oh, great – just when I need to be alone.’ So I thought I’d be nice, run fast, refuse the water.

“But he said something that made me stop. I didn’t want to, but I just did.

“He said, ‘She ran away like a black spider’.”

William felt his insides turn to blades. He remembered a case like this, in Brownie’s older files. A girl, perhaps no older than their victim, had been possessed by a demon that called itself Lucifer. No one wanted to believe her, not in a staunchly Catholic family, not in a household that had an altar in every room – until the parish priest visited their house, and the daughter ran away from him by scaling the walls on all fours, hissing, coughing up white threads as delicate as sparkling spidersilk.

“I know this family from the case files,” PJ went on, “They’re well off, well respected – they love their daughter. I sat in on one of her sessions, and nothing happened. She just slept.

“Then one of the neighbors ran up to us today, and said they caught her trying to kill a cat, and trying to – to – eat it alive.

“It took six men to drag her back to the house, and nearly all the women to get her cleaned up. The whole time, she was talking in different languages. She’d try to scratch people, then she’d calm down again.

“So while this was happening, I ran to the church, to the parish office, to the little chapel. No priests anywhere. Bishop in Manila. No phones working.

“All I could think was that Satan picked quite the day to show up, and quite the person to show up to, and just when that person wanted to be alone.”

For the first time, PJ’s voice was grave, and frightened.

“I ran back to their house, to this house,” his loud swallow was deep enough to make William look up and observe the priest, “I’d been running, and I was breathing and panting, so I could smell everything.

“Something in the house smelled like bleach. I wasn’t sure what it meant, so I ran in, I took a pitcher of water from their fridge, dumped vinegar, and saw all the bubbles.

“I heard this laugh come from the girl’s bedroom, and all around me, like there were demons in the wood.

“And someone from inside the walls said, ‘You discovered my plot, child.’

“She tried to poison her family.”

Again, William’s mind wandered to Brownie’s case files, as his eyes focused once more on the figurines across the room. There was something about the figurines of angels on the shelf, something darker that had caught his eye earlier, but he could not capture it, could not commit it to questioning, could remember only his adviser’s previous cases.

There was the little boy who had tried to kill his baby sister by feeding her honey. The act is deliberate, the file had said, and the boy is resolute: the honey was meant to make his sister sleep forever, because the Tall Black Man had asked for her, and the Tall Black Man had promised him a lot of money when he grew up. When asked who the Tall Black Man was, the boy had replied, “He’s always on fire, and he has red eyes like coals, and teeth like a shark.”

The boy was probably thirty now, and had been possessed for over half his life.

“So I started praying,” PJ went on, words stumbling over each other, as though he, too, were struggling to breathe, “And the laughter kept on going on, and on, and on, and the voices called me unworthy, and disobedient, because I had no permission to do what I was doing.

“But I kept praying, called the names of the saints, and then suddenly, the roof over the altar caved in.

“I knew that this was serious, so I told the father to gather the neighbors to pray the rosary, and then I ran to HQ. I kept asking for help, for a phone, every chance I got, but no one was home, phone lines were down, there was no signal.”

PJ seemed to be both angry at how he had run on a route he had been forced to take, and yet relieved that he had taken it anyway. He finally removed his hands from William’s shoulders, sat back in his chair, and folded his arms. William noticed that PJ had never removed the purple stole that draped over his chest.

“I know that took longer than usual,” the priest said, “But my point is: you can map your life, and you can plan every day, every minute. You can plan years ahead, if you like. But you also have to be ready to accept your humanity, and the humanity of everyone around you. They won’t fall into your box of expectations – because that’s what expectations are, anyway; they’re elements of human-made plans.”

There were more voices outside the library now, muffled, louder, closer to where PJ and William were. PJ had to pause, as cutlery clattered in the kitchen, as footsteps thundered across the house, and as the girl’s father (PJ translated) called out for someone to bring food, because only the rice was unspoiled, and everything else was suddenly filled with maggots and mold.

“He says the priests should have lunch,” PJ finished, cringing as he translated the words, “Of all the things that wouldn’t spoil, it has to be rice.”

“Why is that strange?” William asked, eyes still on the figurines across the room, ears straining to hear the voices outside.

“Rice spoils in this heat,” PJ replied, “Something about fungi or yeasts, and heat, and the sugars, but rice can spoil faster than a lot of other food that gets paired with it.”

William suddenly felt the urge to pray and, almost unbidden, had to abandon the previous topic of conversation in favor of a question.

“By the way,” he kept his voice level, “I just need to ask about something – Filipino. A statue.”

If PJ was surprised, he did not show it, “Go ahead.”

“There’s this black wooden statue of what looks like a man with slanted eyes, a really round head, and an almost triangular nose, and a face like an upside down trapezoid,” William squinted in the glaring afternoon light, “He’s squatting, I think, and he has his arms across his chest. And I think he has a bowl in front of him with – I guess it’s white rice.”

PJ typed something into his phone, then showed William a photo.

“That’s a Bul-ol,” PJ spoke, as soon as William nodded, “Guardians of rice fields, ancestral spirits. They’re more well known in highland areas. Some tribes keep them in place for very specific reasons.”

“Like good harvests, that sort of thing?”

“Yes, or even guarding a family home.”

“What happens when you move it?”

“Well – if there’s a spirit attached to the Bul-ol, then it moves with the statue. Folk stories say they’re monsters of habit.”


“Yes – move them and they bring trouble unless you take them home.”

“Right – so – what kind of trouble?”

“Wait,” PJ seemed to pale, “Why are you asking all these questions?”

“Because there’s one right there, and there’s a bowl of rice grains right in front of it.”

William pointed across the study, to the figurines, right at the black statue that had been in his line of sight, but had never seemed strange until then.

PJ stood up, turned around, and looked – and breathed.

That was exactly when the voice in the walls began to speak again.

“Do not dare touch my kingdom, human,” was the clear, thrumming bass that silenced all the mumbling in the hallway, “This house is mine.”

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