William read PJ perfectly. The boy’s exit had all the haste of someone who had come face to face with an idea that had always lurked beneath the surface of his preconceptions, of someone who had always had doubts about his own opinion but had never expected anyone to speak of them.
He had no urge (or obligation) to run after PJ, let alone apologize. In the other room, the exchange of insults had ceased completely, and all that he could hear were keyboard keys clacking in sequences that were so closely strung together, it seemed as though the brothers were simply slapping their hands on the letters in rage.
There would be no conversation with anyone in the house, at least not until lunch.
William finally opened the folder.
He found that it held together, and with a single fastener, sheets and sheets of paper that piled up to a height of around four inches thick. He nearly laughed: every case he had ever worked on in Boston had been thicker than this, and he had close to a hundred files in his office. William could still see the mountains of folders, the stray sheets, the unique topography carved by the archive that the graduate staff playfully called the Demonic Himalayas.
And then he looked at the bottom right corner of the first sheet, and found a tiny plastic bag stapled to it. Inside was what looked like a memory card, enough to hold 4 GB, the label said.
The sheet had a name at the top: female, and Spanish, as most Filipino names were. Born in the 40s, around 60 at the time of her exorcism; she had gone through five sessions, had been delivered on the last one. Victim of a curse: someone had tried to poison her, someone who wanted her to suffer, and to suffer slowly, because she had gossiped about someone’s son.
William glossed over the details about what had been gossiped about, read quickly through the list of the officiating priests, all of whom had “SJ” at the ends of their names. Deliverance had occurred on the dawn of Palm Sunday: the woman coughed out black screws that scattered into dust as they hit the floor.
He expected to read more details on the next page. Instead, he found yet another memory card, and yet another name: female, born in the 80s, a teenager when she first showed signs of “depression.” William was ready to laugh off what he expected would be a pedestrian assessment, until he saw that the diagnosis had been signed off by a doctor, a psychologist, a Jesuit – all rolled into one, as most Jesuits were.
The girl had nearly hanged herself at one session, nearly slashed her wrists at another. She had been delivered after 739 sessions on the Feast of Pentecost 2005. She had simply slept for three days and awakened free from the demons. She was a Carmelite nun, living in another city whose name William did not recognize.
Another name, another memory card, on the next pages. A teenage boy who had been “stalked by elves”; a mother with whom “a male fairy had fallen in love”, a grandfather who kept on seeing the Japanese soldiers that had murdered his parents during the Second World War, and then reported “an almost instant takeover” of his body by “the dark shadows that followed the ghosts”.
William would have laughed at the stories, had he been younger. Today, in a bubble of warmth created by the rising noonday sun, in a kitchen smelling of both detergent and sweetened pork, in a house that stood against the tunes of keyboards and chirping birds – William found only story after story, session after session, tragic tale after tragic tale.
There was one memory card for each page, one story for each sheet, one person for every single file that spanned the first years of the new millennium all the way to just the previous month.
He chanced upon a case, reddened by lines and question marks. It was as though the person who had filed it was unsure of everything he had written down, and was calling the attention of all his readers to fill in the missing information, to assist in the investigation.
Case 701. Woman, unknown age, no name, found on the road next to the cathedral, talking to herself, reportedly scratching anyone who dared approach. Discovered in 2005. She was a girl who had reportedly been raped as a child, and repeatedly, by her father; she carried all the demons that watched as it happened. She had superhuman strength, enough to push against three priests who had tried to hold her down.
That was when the question marks began. There were four demons, unwilling to name themselves. One spoke in a tiny voice, said that he had watched the girl, did nothing because their father was too powerful. Another spoke in a feminine voice, grating, saying that the girl deserved it for being so promiscuous, for looking at boys, and at merely 12 years old. Another spoke in an old voice, like a grandparent, a grandfather, who said he did not know anything, and did not want to be a part of the affair because people did not talk about these things in public, and no self respecting family would do this. And the fourth, in a deep voice, in a voice of commandeering strength, told everyone to shut up, because he did what he wanted with the people around him.
The girl spoke in a mixture of English and Tagalog. She did not seem educated beyond the fourth grade. Could she have fluently spoken English, in normal, everyday talk? More question marks.
No liberation. No reaction except anger and screams to the prayers. She ran away after one session that lasted three hours.
Found dead the following week on the highway out of Lipa. She had slashed her wrists, bled to death in a ditch.
Something tugged at the edges of William’s fears. He had to close the folder, step away, think through Case 701 even with the noonday heat rising.
He finally read the folder label properly.
Resolved Cases: Batangas (primarily Lipa).
He could only imagine how there was probably another folder somewhere, perhaps as thick, labeled Ongoing Cases. Maybe it was as hefty as this one. Or even heavier. Or there were folders. Folders and folders creating their own Demonic Himalayas, Philippine Province.
As for Case 701 –
“And that’s a wrap!” Was the near shout from the other room. William snapped out of his thoughts, looked up at the clock, and found that high noon had just struck, down to the very second. The last voice had been Landon’s, and uncharacteristically so: William had never imagined the quiet, solemn Sheffield brother to be loud, let alone excited to finish his work.
“Fine!” Was the characteristically bouncy shout from Bradley, “Congratulations, Oh Champion! Your next job is to transcribe and annotate the entire next round! That’s 1000 cases! May the Force be with you!”
“One thousand seven hundred and five resolved and ready for complete annotation,” Landon retorted, even happier than before, and while pacing around the living room, “You can be in charge of final edits while you eat, Chubbs.”
William turned to the very last page of the sheets in the folder, and found 1,706 written on the bottom, next to the plastic with the memory card. Landon had quite a memory for numbers, it appeared, give or take a few cases.
“Or I can be in charge of tasting all the food you make,” Bradley cut into the pacing, “And showing that the Sheffield brothers actually can have a life.”
“I have a productive life.”
“Eating is productive, too. At least I stand up and exercise.”
“You run your mouth is what.”
“Oh! Oh! Oh! Oy Jesuit! I’m reporting harassment! Off to confession with you!”
“Alfonso is not saving you,” was Landon’s answer, behind what William assumed was a stack of boxes, “Always out for a run while his algorithms are running, and brain always running even when not required.”
“Running, never stopping, finding nothing,” Bradley sang, then shouted loud enough to carry his roaring through to the kitchen, “Oy PJ! You there?”
“He went out for another run!” William shouted back, feeling his social graces diminished, but his attention still drawn to Case 701, “He said he’d be back before lunch.”
“See? Running!” Landon said, with a voice that walked through the front room of the house, “Now that’s exercise. Real exercise. That’s the exercise that needs a good bowl of rice and my newest dish: caldereta.”
“New food!” Bradley shouted, his voice blaring into the walls and matching his spring out of his chair, his footfalls on the wooden floor, and his rush into the kitchen.
William was ready to greet Bradley, but met only the boy’s incredulous, even angry look.
“What are you doing with that?” He demanded. Behind him, Landon came running, “How did you get that?”
William felt his mouth fall open, and a shiver of cold tickle the bottom of his spine. He put both hands up, palms to Bradley, as the boy took the folder.
“PJ,” was all William could manage, “He showed me-”
“This is confidential information,” Bradley stepped back, handed the folder to his brother, and sat down next to William, “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have seen this.”
Case 701 still stood next to William, pulled at his shirt, told him to speak up.
“These cases are for the team, and PJ’s breached protocol,” Bradley’s voice lost all of its excitement, and was grave, even chilling, “These files are not even supposed to be out of their boxes, unless you ask for them, unless you’re part of the project.”
“It’s all right, Bradley,” was Landon’s calming contribution from the living room, where William could hear him stacking boxes, “They’re just priests’ notes for the recordings.”
“With names!” Bradley answered back.
“He can’t memorize the thousands! And everything else is on the cards!”
“We can’t risk it! You know how Uncle is!”
“Oh, don’t worry? Why don’t you explain this to Fr. Anthony next time he comes knocking?”
“Case 701 is not possession,” William finally found the strength to speak up above what would have been an endless argument about who would get mad at who, “It’s dissociation, the brain’s mechanism to cope with trauma.”
The house fell silent.
Bradley could only look back at William, blond hair golden in the glare of the noonday sun, blue eyes bright, but skin pale. Landon walked in at that moment, as William had spoken, and as one Sheffield brother still sat at the table, eyes upon the guest.
“Read Case 701,” William felt his voice tremble as he spoke, as though his words were walking on tightropes, “Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID. The girl was raped as a child, and repeatedly, by a person she trusted and called father. If she was in school apparently only until the fourth grade, then we can only assume that she ran away as a child, and had already developed four different personalities when the diocese tried to exorcise her.
“Those four demons are the dissociated personalities. One is the girl, still a child, forcing herself to look at everything from afar. The other is the mother, and then the grandfather, and then maybe the father himself. They’re all demonic because that’s how a little girl will see all the people around her when she is neglected or tortured or subjected to evil by people she thought loved her.”
William did not know how fast he had spoken, or how long he had held his breath, until he sat back in his chair and felt his body slacken. Case 701 had exhausted its pleas: it now sat by his side, waited for his suspicions to be confirmed.
“Don’t take this out on PJ,” William felt himself floating on his words, both fearful for the young Jesuit and irritated at how anyone could miss DID in what seemed to be a textbook case, “If anything, he allowed me to help you. Listen to the file. Open the memory card. If you like, I can listen in, and I’ll tell you what you’re listening to. She’s dead. She has no name, and we won’t have anything to trace to anyone, no confidentiality issues. But you can do yourselves a favor and have one less case to transcribe.”
Landon had been standing at the doorway to the kitchen, and had hitherto been silent, until William had finished talking. His only response was to walk back to the front room, open all the boxes again, take out what William assumed was the folder that PJ had given him, and switch on – rather noisily – a machine that William assumed would play the memory card.
“What the bloody hell?” Bradley sprang up, even more pale, out of his chair and into the front room, “Are you actually doing what he’s telling us to do?”
William followed. He pushed his excitement down into a combination of silence and openness, the kind that arose almost organically from the part of him that listened to patients, or read transcripts, or wrote journal articles for peer review. He felt an inner soul brace itself, come to the fore, listen to every single note that the world threw at him in its endless songs of birds and human conversation.
“Yes, little brother; we might as well listen,” Landon disconnected a headset from his laptop, connected the laptop to a pair of speakers, and never once looked at the people that stood behind him, “Won’t hurt now, would it?”
Unlike PJ, Landon went from switch to machine, volume knobs to keyboard using choreography bred with intent urgency rather than flowing grace. Bradley seemed used to the dance; he simply leaned against the edge of a table near William, folded his arms across his chest, and waited.
The file began to play grating, gurgling white noise, into speakers, out onto the room.
“Three hours,” Landon announced, eyes on his laptop screen. William could see the waves that made up the recording: sharp peaks where the screaming began, he assumed; flowing hills where the prayers progressed; crowds of peaks and valleys making their own Demonic Himalayas to mark where the great exchanges between exorcist and “demon” occurred.
Landon pushed his cursor forward into the file, skipping through the opening prayers. The words turned into squeaks, the appeals into squeals, the pauses into bass notes that rose into the air like bubbles of hollow sound.
Finally, Landon came to the part where the priest demanded that the demon reveal its name.
A childlike voice answered, almost inaudible.
“He took her,” it was feminine, on the verge of tears, whispering, “I watched. I couldn’t do anything.”
The words shifted to native Tagalog, with lilts and pauses punctuated by sobs.
“This is the dissociated persona,” William began, “She tries to isolate herself from the situation, so she creates another version of herself, one that can watch and observe from afar, rather than participate and be hurt.”
“You speak Tagalog?” Bradley’s question sounded more like a challenge.
William kept his voice low, the better to listen to the recording, “I don’t, but I can hear that she’s speaking in a high whisper,” he replied, still trying to catch snatches of words in the breathy, smoky audio, “It sounds like she still believes that she has to hide, or that she can hide.”
Bradley shrugged, lips curled.
“A high whisper can also sound like a little girl’s voice,” William persisted, “She’s projecting a memory. She’s not faking anything. She’s just – coping.”
The Tagalog continued, still whispered, still high pitched, rapid this time. William could understand nothing.
“I think she says he did all this over and over?” Landon put in, eyes focused on the screen, “I hear some of these words on the street. Sounds like she’s telling a story, how she was taken, I’m guessing raped over and over.”
The voice suddenly changed. It was more authoritative, deeper, but affected, forced, like a child trying to speak like an adult.
“Come here? Come to your daddy? Papa?” Landon translated what was an increasingly garbled recording, as though the voice was shouting louder and louder.
“It’s her dissociated father identity,” William said, “She’s replaying a scene from her past. Child hiding, father searching her out.”
William felt a chill kick him in the stomach. It was something between anger and disgust at what the child had been through, a response that seemed to come from his insides and threatened to throw out what he hoped was his clinical, neutral tone.
He looked over at Bradley and found the boy’s fists clenched.
The scene continued to play, sans Landon’s attempts at translation. Perhaps no translation was needed, or even desired, given the gravity of the situation: the three simply listened to the voice of a girl trying to play the role of her own father.
“If you listen,” William had to speak up, to still the burbling rage in his gut, “If you listen, you’ll notice that the scream is hiding the effort it takes to deepen her voice. This is not like your other cases -”
“Depths of hell,” Bradley mused, eyes glassy, gaze to the floor, “Effortless depths of hell.”
Landon had perhaps sensed how uneasy his brother was. He pushed the file forward as the prayers began. Again, the squeaks and squeals, the globes and globs of sound – until he reached a mature voice, almost motherly.
“This little girl,” the voice sounded natural, the woman’s default, “She is not normal. She likes boys. She is so young but she knows how to get men.”
And then, a scream of a single word in Tagalog.
“I hear that when people call a woman a flirt,” Landon winced, as the speakers trembled with the force of the sound.
“I think it’s worse than that,” Bradley shook his head briskly, as though to push the screech out of his ears, “Might mean more than just – ‘flirt’ is too playful, too mild. We need a native speaker.”
“Whatever it is, it’s her mom, or the dissociated identity, ” William could not help putting in, as the girl continued to speak, this time in Tagalog, “She’s using her normal voice, so she might be a teenager, late teens. Can’t comment on structure, but from that first part, she sounds like she’s trying to put words together in a sentence. We can hear it as slow and nurturing, but it can also mean that she’s struggling with the language. She’s not fluent.”
And then the girl’s voice became gravelly, like an elder in a Saturday morning cartoon that promised giggles in the middle and a lesson in the end. William guessed that this was the grandfather, the dissociated old man who kept the family’s affairs secret, who did not air the dirty laundry even if it meant a lifetime of trauma for his grandchild.
“You know,” Bradley began, voice choking. William looked at the boy, and found that he was reading the same sheet that William had looked at earlier, “You know, we had a case just like this, back in the States.”
“Minnesota?” Landon put in, still unmoving from his post by the computer.
Bradley did not even respond, “Psychiatric hospital, girl went through childhood trauma but never talked about it,” the boy closed the folder and put it down again, but kept his hand on the cover, as though fearful that William would get his hands on it and try to diagnose another case, “The doctors said her family just came one day, dropped her off and never looked back.
“Maybe family came first. Some family it was.”
William crossed his arms, felt the perspiration in the crooks of his elbows, but sensed a comforting warmth brush his nape. He guessed that she was watching him, making sure that he didn’t speak out of line.
“And the case?” He asked.
“Genuine,” Landon answered, fingers on the computer monitor, as he traced the waves of the audio file, “Her doctor and psychiatrist all said she was normal. All boxes checked – except that she was rather violent.”
“She killed an orderly with a lancet to the jugular,” Bradley finished for his brother, “All while the CCTV footage showed that she never left her room.”
William felt a lump throb in his neck. It pushed out like a dry spider, threatened to mute him, made him tremble with the gust of cold that seemed to grip the skin of his back.
“She also spoke in Ancient Greek and Latin,” Landon went on, tone almost flat.
“But she didn’t sound like this,” Bradley said, above the sound of prayers from the crackling audio file, and the sudden screech of birds in the front garden, “She had different voices speaking all at once. It was like hearing howls and conversation at the same time, all from one person.”
William was not sure how the next word escaped his rapidly drying throat, “Delivered?”
Bradley shook his head. “And that’s in a mental institution, right where the doctors can pay her all the attention she needs without even wanting it,” he released a cross between a laugh and a scoff, “Psychiatric care isn’t as – big in this country. It’s looked down on.”
“Or looked at with dread,” Landon put in, pausing to listen to the file, but bringing up what sounded like priests speaking a hymn in voices louder than usual, “Makes it harder to assess cases. Exorcism is sometimes the first resort.”
“But we can’t proceed without complete psych assessment,” Bradley motioned to William with one hand, “Or at least what the priests can manage at that point in time.”
William had heard as much from his fellow guidance counselors. Pulling teeth, herding cats, slaying the Hydra, cooking the Kraken – they had all sorts of metaphors ready for the students that refused psychiatric help. Their parents would not hear of it, they said; no self respecting family had insane children.
The three kept silent as Landon continued to browse through the file, skipping through prayers, then stopping at the high, whispering voice, the one that seemed both childlike and scheming. It crept through the chants, in Tagalog, with exhalations coming through the speakers like waves of dense water crashing onto a rocky shore.
“Child,” William pronounced, hearing the tone of both scholar and counselor emerging through the mist of sound, and the force of his own voice trying to win over the shivers that shook his chest.
A flood of sentences that cracked pebbles underfoot.
A smooth, slow voice that trembled and swam with every word joined together.
The bold scream of ocean foam and storm-embattled ships, which Landon translated as an order for everyone to be quiet.
Then the prayers rose again, the scream died down, and the audio abruptly came to an end.
William guessed that the girl had sprung free of the priests and run away. He wanted to know who those priests were, if he could track them down, talk to them about what the case had been like as it played out before them that one afternoon. What had made them see possession immediately, or all-too readily judge the affair as supernatural? Where was their psychiatrist priest, and why hadn’t he double checked the recording if he couldn’t be there?
“All right,” Bradley kept his hand on the folder, but his eyes were to William – or somewhere beyond William, as though he were listening to what seemed to be a meeting of disgruntled wildlife in the garden, “Let’s pretend it’s the same person playing different parts. Explain how she had enough strength to push away three priests.”
“Adrenaline,” William shrugged, “Or maybe the three priests weren’t that strong. Or maybe they were distracted.”
“We’ll never know without videos,” Landon mused, plugging his headset again and switching the speakers off.
“And without a native speaker,” Bradley added, taking the folder, dropping it into one of the boxes, then looking straight at William, “We need PJ.”
“With or without PJ, you can tell that these are dissociated personalities,” William did not break eye contact with Bradley, “I’ve seen DID misinterpreted as possession. And you said so yourself: you’ve heard what the voices are supposed to sound like.”
“But every possession is different!”
“Having different voices talking at the same time is different from speaking in different voices.”
“What if her disorder also made her possessed?”
“What? More vulnerable? Ok, maybe – but why isn’t it showing? Why does she have to make an effort to change her voice every single time?”
“The changes were really quick.”
“No, they weren’t,” William fought not to raise his voice, “It took at least two seconds for her to shift each time. Check the recordings.”
“Two to three seconds,” Landon raised his hand.
“We still need a native speaker,” Bradley insisted.
“Fine,” William threw up his hands, “But just so you know, you have my professional opinion. And if there’s one wrong diagnosis in that pile, then I guarantee you there’ll be more.”
Bradley threw up his hands as well, let out a long breath – then stopped abruptly.
Outside, the twittering and chirping, once a mere ruckus, had turned into pandemonium. A bat had begun to add its own staccato cheep-cheep to the chorus, begun to beat its vast wings onto the thick noonday heat. From far away, a dog howled, slicing the air with a song that made the afternoon swim and glide through imaginary waters.
Bradley’s own breath had turned into white mist before his eyes.
It was only then that the three felt the cold, the biting chill that stabbed the skin, the icy wind that stripped the soul bare – the kind of cold that signaled that all thoughts had fled, all good things had left, all beauty had flown.
William saw Landon cross himself, and Bradley sink into a chair. To hide? Shrink? Maybe pray? William was not quite sure what he had to do, and not in the face of a cold that seemed to pierce from the inside going out, as though his own soul were being crushed into crystals of sharp, sparkling ice.
William looked at the clock. It was 1 in the afternoon, but the sky was darkness, and the world was winter.
And then, the footfalls in the street outside, that turned into footfalls in the garden path, that sprang into the front door being thrown open to spill a pale, panting PJ into the house.
“Call Fr. Anthony,” he spoke, voice seemingly cast behind a wall of sound, “We need emergency permission from the bishop.”
William heard Landon pick up a phone and press a single button. Still, he could not move.
“I tried to call,” PJ pushed out clouds of white mist through his mouth, “Nothing’s working. Bishop in Manila with the cardinal. No priests anywhere.”
Landon placed the handset down, shook his head at the young Jesuit, and trembled, even as his hands fought to make another Sign of the Cross.
PJ breathed out, through a cough, a name. Bradley sprang up and pulled out a box from a pile, then began to pull out folder after folder, mumbling the name, as though merely saying it would draw the file out.
William read the box label in the fogged light of noon.
Ongoing Cases. 2016.
He could barely hear PJ’s prayers as he watched the pile of folders grow. One box holding what looked like forty folders, one folder holding over a thousand sheets, one sheet to a case. One folder fell to the floor, but Bradley paid it no mind as he opened one folder and retrieved one sheet, then tossed a memory card to his brother.
William could barely see PJ lift pile after pile of printouts, until he found a mobile phone. Bradley took it briskly from the young priest, checked for a signal, crossed himself, dialed a number, paced across the floor and into the kitchen.
William could barely see Landon packing a box of cameras, voice recorders, notebooks, pens, memory cards – and a copy of the Roman Ritual.
“She – it – knew – it knows,” PJ sounded both afraid and resolute, as he opened a cupboard over the computers and packed his own bag: a bottle of Holy Water, a jar of holy salt, his own copy of the Ritual, a shining golden container of what was perhaps a consecrated host, a piece of cloth that William recognized as the stole that all exorcists wore, “It knows that I’m the only priest left.”
“Can’t we do an unofficial exorcism?” Landon’s voice seemed sharp, as he opened a notebook and began listing everything in the box.
PJ shook his head, “We need a solemn rite,” his words seemed to bang against an invisible wall; in the sunlight, William could clearly see the boy’s forehead beaded in sweat, “Part of the house caved in while I was praying. I can’t risk an unofficial if it’s that kind of demon.”
William was tempted to say that it could simply be a poltergeist, but he felt himself chained in place by the cold, felt his joints stiffen as though ice were wrapping and binding them. Something seemed to be pulling the sun out of the room, even as the glare bounced off the wooden floors.
“We’ll help you out,” Landon spoke again, closing the box, muffled words pounding both encouragement and strength into the afternoon, “General confession?”
PJ’s nod was grave, “Then blessings, then prayers. But we need permission from the bishop first.”
Bradley emerged from the kitchen, phone still to one ear, voice hardened into syllables that cut into the mist of the afternoon.
“Fr. Anthony is on the phone with Cardinal Aloysio and the bishop,” he took three strides to get to his brother, a beat to pull out something from the box, two strides to get to William, a breath to make William lose sight of the entire world and focus only on his words.
More precisely, focus only on the sight of Bradley handing him a single sheet, from which dangled an empty plastic bag that made the corner of the paper bob in the chilling wind that crept through the room.
“They need an initial assessment,” Bradley spoke the first clear words that William heard that afternoon, “Case?”