Chapter 6

After the noodles came conversations about liquor. And after the conversations about liquor came plates of sticky rice cakes with mango slices, which prompted conversations about desserts, diabetes, and doctors. The exchanges had a generous splattering of names of different medications, blood test results, and what sounded like herbal teas recommended by the neighborhood shaman. Alfonso smiled when he was able, read as furtively as he could from his phone between mouthfuls of rice cake, and finally, bid the priests goodbye as the sun began setting behind the trees.

The goodbye had been long in coming, protracted as it was between talk of going to a doctor more regularly and what kinds of doctors were needed at an exorcism session. Someone suggested a cardiologist, while another doubted that a psychiatrist should even be present, which led to Fr. Anthony giving a rather pointed (at least to Alfonso) lecture on the merits of hiring a team to surround, support, and validate the opinions of the exorcist.

“I’m glad that they stayed quite a while,” the elder Jesuit spoke, almost gaily, as he and Alfonso watched the last car of priests pull out of the Infirmary driveway, “They might not be able to help in the research team, but maybe they took lessons with them to help them with their ministry.”

“Are you sure they won’t help you?” even as the question came out, Alfonso already knew the answer.

“I don’t think they believe in research,” Fr. Anthony put it almost off handedly, Alfonso was tempted to think the man was joking, “Or if they do, they do not see it as their priority when they have so many souls to minister to.”

Alfonso sighed, then shrugged. He had always loved research, loved asking questions. He could not imagine anyone blind to the pitfalls of their work or immune to critiquing their own practice (except for the very old, very deaf priest, who had never backed down from saying that psychiatrists were not necessary in his line of work).

“Maybe they’ll help you when they realize how much they need you,” Alfonso did not know what else to say, but he did not want Fr. Anthony to walk away bereft of consolation either, “Give them a few days and they might call you back.”

“Or I could give then a few documents from the archives about Lipa,” was the still careless reply, “Perhaps I can leave you in charge of that?”

The old priest’s grin was both mischievous and knowing, and Alfonso tried his best to not look like an idiot. He, therefore, could only grin back.

“Nothing to it, young man,” Fr. Anthony brushed the air with a few swipes of his hand, then led the way back to the Infirmary, “I appreciate that you looked up Lipa at all. Few priests would, I believe. Most would defend the apparition immediately, with little to no reading on their part – only a wish for your country to have its very own apparition, perhaps at a time when it is most needed.”

Alfonso did not feel the weight of the words until a few moments later, as he followed the elder Jesuit into the Infirmary. The need for recognition, for validation, made the priests sound more vain than concerned about the state of the country.

And the state of the country, indeed!

Outside of his bubble of Jesuit brotherhood was rising unrest, overflowing disenchantment, grinding disenfranchisement. There were wars of words and wills, both online and offline. There had been a storm that had torn the country’s coffers open, but had likewise revived old wounds, created new scars. There was to be an election in a year or so, and there was talk, his younger Jesuit comrades said, of increasing support for a presidential candidate from the southern islands who boasted of killing his enemies in the iciest of cold blood.

An apparition, so validated, would draw anyone running for election. There would be parades of cars spilling people and spouting campaign jingles. There would be hands outstretched for the shaking. There would be politicians kneeling before the Virgin and asking for her blessing (was the Virgin Mary ever frustrated, enraged, or irritated when all the politicians vying for a single presidential seat all started asking her for help? The voice at the back of Alfonso’s head wondered).

“Now, if you do not mind, I shall ask you a favor,” Fr. Anthony’s voice came from somewhere at the forefront of Alfonso’s barrage of thoughts, “May I ask you to join me in prayer?”

They were at the reception area, a few steps away from the hallway that Alfonso had struggled to pass through only that morning. Now, everything seemed bright, even in the waning light of day: there were few people out and about, but the Infirmary did not seem empty. There were birds still twittering as they came home to roost in the gardens around the building, and in some of the trees in the courtyard. There were orderlies bustling to and from rooms, a pair of nurses on a nearby bench reviewing for what appeared to be a coming exam, and even a few patients walking around while holding their prayerbooks.

The prayers of dusk were slowly coming closer, and Alfonso nodded his assent to Fr. Anthony.

“I was about to explain to you why this is a favor – but you seem excited,” the elder Jesuit mused, “Very well then: Follow me.”

Alfonso obeyed, as Fr. Anthony walked farther down the hallway, then made a left into a row of doors facing the courtyard. The birds should have been noisier, and nearer, the younger Jesuit thought; and yet, he heard them as though he were underwater. The once bright rays of the dying sun looked like shards of light here, as they sliced their way through trees and bushes, and as they showed off a row of crucifixes and fountains.

Alfonso noticed that the crucifixes were all facing the doors; and the fountains were still, and were labeled “Holy Water”. There too, were bottles on the ledges that divided the yard from the hallway. He read the labels as Fr. Anthony and he passed.

Chrism. Blessed salt.

Alfonso felt a trembling chill dampen the soles of his feet, before traveling upward and stinging his knees, the bottom of his spine, his nape, his eyes. He could hear his heart beating with fists into his ribcage. He could even see his breath coming out in a thin, swirling, smoky mist.

And still, he walked on. Beyond the doors, the rooms were silent.

Fr. Anthony unlocked one of the doors farther down the hallway. Alfonso followed, feeling the skin of his back lace with sweat, wincing as the muscles in his stomach braced, tightened, expected the worst.

If there were rows of crosses against rows of locked doors, a lingering cold that he could not even sense, bottles of blessed things – surely the insides of the rooms were almost like gateways to Hell.

And when he crossed the threshold, he found – almost nothing.

He was in what looked like a hospital room, except with iron-barred windows that opened out into yet another garden with rows of crosses. The chamber was spacious, with chairs for at least ten people, with a high ceiling on which were empty mounts that should have held CCTV cameras, with a wooden floor that felt soft to the young Jesuit’s knees. In one corner was an altar, with statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Michael the Archangel. In another corner was a white metal cart with medications, medical supplies, and bottles of Holy Water.

On the bed, asleep, was his friend, the novice.

Alfonso felt something inside him say that this poor man was not at peace; and that same something warned him that he, too, had to pray at that very moment to steel himself, because not all was well.

Alfonso did not know where the thoughts were coming from, but he obeyed immediately, and his pleas flew immediately to St. Michael.

In a few seconds, the room became even clearer. He saw Fr. Anthony sit next to his friend. He saw the cloth restraints that tied the boy’s wrists and ankles in place. He saw that the skin there appeared chafed, blackened, almost, as though the novice had wrestled and struggled and fought, and had found no release.

Alfonso heard another prayer rise automatically in his imagination. Again, the room grew clearer.

His friend had lost some weight, which was to be expected. There seemed to be no sign of food, save the earthy smell of some powdered supplement, which Alfonso assumed was the milky liquid in the glass on the bedside table. There, too, was an IV drip that led from a hanging bag of fluids, to somewhere under his friend’s blanket.

Apart from where he was being held down, there was nothing new in Alfonso’s friend, nothing to say that the boy was possessed.

“I thought you might want to see the young man you helped,” Fr. Anthony’s voice came, gentle, barely echoing in what Alfonso felt was such a vast room, “And I thought you might want to pray your evening prayers here. Will you join me?”

Alfonso could only nod, as he made the Sign of the Cross, and as he sat down on the other chair next to the bed, across from Fr. Anthony. He folded his hands but never closed his eyes. Instead, he watched his friend, prayed for the poor boy, and even marked a slight smile play on the latter’s lips as Fr. Anthony asked for the room to be surrounded by angels.

The prayer was brief, but Alfonso felt it lengthen, in the rays of the sun as it shone on the crosses outside, in the play of shadows as mango trees and acacias moved with an afternoon breeze – in the near complete absence of sound other than Fr. Anthony’s voice.

Alfonso exhaled an amen, but hardly heard the wheeze of air.

The room was soundproof. There were no paths or people in the gardens beyond the windows. It was isolation, silencing, hiding, almost shame, Alfonso thought. Then again, having victims out in the open would trumpet the exorcist’s existence for all and sundry, and subject the victims to scrutiny and publicity. Visibility was the last thing any exorcist wanted, if that day’s conversations were any indication.

The two Jesuits sat for a moment, after the prayer concluded, and watched the novice on the hospital bed.

“How is he?” Alfonso felt the words leave his throat as air across sand.

“Better,” Fr. Anthony replied, “We began with nightly exorcisms, but it seems the lesser demons abandoned their superior when his mother learned how to pray properly.”

Alfonso could not help smiling at the thought of a horde of devils fleeing from a single human. His memories, however, won over the amusement.

“Wasn’t she the one who cursed him?” He whispered, hoping his friend was not pretending to be asleep.

Fr. Anthony wagged a finger, but seemed to stifle a laugh, “I would not say ‘cursed’ so readily. She did, however, pray the right prayers at the wrong altar.”

The elder Jesuit turned somber. His thoughts seemed far away; farther, even, than the night on the balcony when the jungles threatened to swallow the House of the Jesuits whole. Alfonso did not dare ask what the old man remembered; he had had enough stories of exorcisms and possession that day, and he was not sure if he had enough courage to sleep alone in his room that night.

“I sent his mother to stay at one of your dormitories on campus,” Fr. Anthony spoke, “We have her here only for counseling now, or if we pray together – but we have to remove her when the sessions begin.

“I made the mistake of starting a session once, when she first came. It happened so quickly, I could only look back on it with hindsight and wish I had been more vigilant.

“I had just told her the story, you see, while her son was asleep, of what happened that night. I may or may not have mentioned you, in the context of this young man having brothers who so cared for him, that they thought little of their welfare in that moment of great danger.”

Alfonso felt his heart warm, but his bones rattle in his spine. The words seemed to be both an invitation to be thankful and to preen his imaginary feathers.

“As any mother would, she denied that she had any part in her son’s condition,” Fr. Anthony shook his head as he gestured toward the windows, “That was when everything happened, and all at once, I felt. A large, black crow crashed into the bars but never broke the glass; and then a bat came and hovered above the crosses; and then they both disappeared.

“And then this young man’s mother confessed to everything – I assumed that she did, because she was crying, saying sorry, but most of what she was saying was in their language.

“It was only after one or two sentences, I believe – only a few sentences, then her son suddenly woke up. He nearly broke the cloth holds, he nearly came up and scratched and bit her.

“I should have led her out first, but I opened the Ritual – and on impulse, which is dangerous.”

Fr. Anthony reached under the bed. Alfonso heard the knock of books against each other as the old Jesuit produced what looked like a mass of pages held together by flimsy red leather.

It was an old copy of the Roman Ritual. It looked like demons had tried to pry it from its bindings, had tried to tear it to pieces with talons and claws, had tried to smash it to smithereens with mere force. And yet, as Alfonso looked closely, he could see that the roughened sheets were not brittle, and the leather was not torn; if anything, the book seemed worn but strong, even alive. He could not help remembering the nine other priests at the table that day, who had been beaten and battered and forced through worlds of both angels and darkness – and even as some of them were deaf or bruised or weary, they all seemed, as a one, whole and stalwart, fighting even fiercer than before.

“This is not a book of magic,” Fr. Anthony raised his copy, so that Alfonso could see it framed by the dusky light, “It is simply a book with words, and I must speak them with faith. If I turn the ritual into a chant, if I turn these prayers into a formula, then I risk transforming this ancient, this sacred rite into a mere exercise in spellcasting.

“On that day, I opened it and I just read aloud. I did not know why, but I read it almost as though I were simply mouthing words back.

“In only a few moments, your friend here laughed. Or – that is to say – whatever was inside him laughed at me, at his mother. And someone – something – somewhere over my shoulder, said, ‘We got you too, you stupid priest’.”

Fr. Anthony did not have the habit of imitating the demons’ voices, but the words chilled Alfonso all the same.

“Of course, it had to be some creature in charge of propagating empty prayers, or spellcasting, something to do with abuse of one’s requests to God,” the old priest’s tone shifted, as though he were simply reciting a bedtime story, “There are patron demons too, if you must know, the way there are patron angels or patron saints. St. Michael protects us from evil, St. Raphael protects us from illness, St. Jude is the patron of impossible causes, and so on…

“There are specific demons of deception, of greed, of anger, of all evil things you can imagine, of all evil things that you cannot even fathom. They have assignments out of habit and hatred; to fall under any such patronage is to succumb to a doubled death of love: Doing things out of habit, with no heart; and doing things in an atmosphere of pure, ancient hatred.

“In any case…

“I did not realize it soon enough, but of course I would have to do battle with that sort of demon, the kind that lives on perverted prayers or someone praying for something evil, from someone who should not be prayed to.

“And my goodness, this demon was fast. I only realized later that of course, it had to be fast, because it’s the demon that makes you do things quickly with absolutely no reflection, no discernment, just a need for results. As I said, no heart.

“It came out, and it latched on to her.”

Alfonso could not help imagining something shadowy and ugly rising out of his friend’s body, dashing across the floor, and taking control of the entire room. He prayed a tiny prayer inwardly, almost to the point of thoughtlessness; then, he stopped himself, quieted the storm in his head, and immediately focused on both the sleeping boy and a God who listened.

“As I said, mere moments,” Fr. Anthony spoke, and after a minute or so of silence. He seemed to sense that Alfonso had fought a tiny battle of his own, and needed space to breathe, “The demon demanded that she pay for what she did. It never said what that payment should be, or exactly what it was that she had to pay for.

“The haste and vagueness were deliberate. It was trying to trap her.

“Thankfully, one of the nurses heard us, and he came in and pulled her out. Who knows what price she would have paid if she had stayed longer?

“A mother’s prayers, you see, are a wonderful thing – but a mother’s desperation can destroy worlds.”

Alfonso felt the still lingering chill turn to frost, with puttering, pattering feet that spread underneath his skin. He looked at his friend again, tried to recognize the young man who had screamed and screeched on the balcony that night; but he found only the novice who had been so excited to take his vows, so happy and young in what felt like centuries gone. His bones were closer to his skin now, true; and his cheeks were no longer full like those of a wide-eyed child; but he was there, the brother and the Jesuit, the friend who should be part of the family of Ignatius for all time. Alfonso could imagine his friend returning to the Residences; but he could only try to imagine whether the young man would truly be welcomed absent suspicion.

“You are right, however: that same mother was at fault,” Fr. Anthony returned the Roman Ritual to its place under the bed, “I heard her confession that same night. It took her hours to finish, hours to unburden herself, hours to speak and realize, on her own, how her prayer had been unjust and dangerous.

“She had not been thinking long of her anger. I think she already accepted long, long ago that her son was meant for the priesthood. But she might have seen something, heard something, caught on to something that gave her that tiny spark of hope that any mother would want in a time of loneliness.

“If she had been living in despair for a much longer time, then we would still be holding your friend down and strapping him head to toe to the bed. It was minor, but a whisper — it was a mere, tiny accident, a little wrongly placed prayer… but there her son was, in mortal peril, in spiritual peril.”

“But father,” Alfonso did not know where his strength was coming from, so out the question flew, bumping against a soundless room, “Father – I’m sure there are lots of other people that pray for the right things in the wrong way. Are they all possessed? Are they all going to make other people possessed?”

Fr. Anthony laughed low, as though to tell Alfonso that such a question was naïve, given all that the young priest had learned that day.

“I cannot speak with finality on something as invisible as who is a victim, who has a devil in their midst, who has a demon grappling with their soul,” here, the older Jesuit took Alfonso’s friend’s hand between his, and held it as a father would while calling a dying son back from the Afterlife, “But you see, this one is a priest, and he is beloved of his mother. He is special – a special prize, as all priests would be to a demon. A priest is vulnerable every single day — but he is the most vulnerable, the most prized right before he is claimed completely in the name of God.

“And his mother, with the intensity of her desires and the depth of her despair – she came calling with a voice loud and clear into the wilderness, where a demon lay in wait.

“It was a perfect combination at an opportune time. Do you understand?”

Every single word had been spoken with gentleness, but every single word frightened Alfonso with the images called forth: a desert crowded with beings of all makes and origins, a valley of souls weeping and wailing for assistance, and a cry through the maddening mist pulling out a single hound with eyes of blackened fire. The hound bayed with a hundred howls, rushed with claws digging into the dust, bore down on a child and tried to eat its soul.

Alfonso nodded, “You said he’s getting better?”

Fr. Anthony’s smile was warm, but cast grey in the dying light of dusk, “We have had some sessions, and the remaining demon gave its name a few days ago,” the priest used a tone so light, Alfonso was tempted to believe the demon had been converted to angelhood on the basis of the priest’s goodwill alone, “It said it would leave in a week, at midnight, and it would never bother your friend again.”

“That’s good,” Alfonso could not help smiling (and he felt his face crack, as though he had never truly smiled that entire day, until that very moment), “But — what happens in that time? What is the demon doing? Why does he have to stay a whole week?”

Again, another low laugh from the exorcist; and again, Alfonso felt as though he were an innocent child, with a grandfather who was patting him on his head, telling him about a harsh world that was no place for a good boy.

“No one knows,” Fr. Anthony shrugged, “Some demons linger because they no longer want to return to Hell. They know no other home, but it is a place of torture for them, and they would rather be tortured by the words of the Ritual than go back to their holes and tunnels of darkness and cold. We do have his name, so he cannot simply do as he wishes, because he knows that he will be subjected to pain once again if we call upon Heaven to discipline him. The Blessed Virgin comes often, and any misbehaving demon knows better than to play around when she arrives.

“But there might be another reason. Time exists differently for supranatural beings. Remember that a demon is a fallen angel: it might be full of hatred, it might be overflowing with evil, but it has all the gifts of an angel. It can see past, present, and future, not because it knows, but because it can read things and see their repercussions. Time and infinity are one and the same. One day in Hell might be a minute here on earth; or maybe, a week on earth will feel like a minute in Hell. For all we know, this demon will take a few minutes to make sure that its chamber in Hell is vacant, so that it can have somewhere to go when it is cast back down.”

And down, and down, and down, the words echoed in Alfonso’s brain. His physics training came to the fore, as he pondered the strange arrangements of time and space between the Afterlife and Earth. Why would time be elongated in one place and compressed in the other? What did that elongation of time mean for how a demon spoke and what it said? If the demon could see the past, present, and future all at once, was it wise, or was it cunning — and could its words be trusted?

“You look as though you had enough thoughts to write a book,” Fr. Anthony awakened Alfonso out of his pondering for what felt like the thousandth time, so that Alfonso could not help laughing, “I shall try to help you by asking for one thought to be set free from whatever muddle you’re getting into.

“You shall have to be honest with me now. What do you think of the idea of research?”

“Important,” Alfonso answered immediately, and honestly, “If this is about research for the exorcism project, then it’s important that we do research because if it’s as bad as you say it is, then we can’t just throw prayers at the situation.”

“What do you propose we throw at it?”

“Well, prayers with a purpose, an exorcism with purpose. We can’t just keep opening the Ritual, as you said, or we risk turning it into a Book of Spells.”

Alfonso had to swallow hard at the sight of Fr. Anthony. The man looked proud, as though he were about to hand Alfonso an A for his answer. None of his theology professors had beamed as happily as the old Jesuit was doing now.

“A second question, and I hope you indulge me,” Fr. Anthony spoke, “From what you’ve read: what do you think of the Lipa case?”

“I can’t judge,” Alfonso was not sure where his courage was coming from, but there it was, fast flowing and bright, “I’ve read only the first few pages of the documents. I think it’s harsh to say that the apparition is not real because the first encounter was with a demon.”

“Not supernatural.”


“The apparition was judged as not supernatural,” Fr. Anthony still looked proud even when correcting the young Jesuit, “There is no judgement on whether it is real or not; But there is doubt cast on whether the apparition was supernatural versus something that the novice’s mind spontaneously created in order to come to terms with the specter of evil that visited her and distressed her.”

“Is that — less bad?”

“Well, it only means that if any prayers are prayed, then they should be prayed as a private devotion rather than as a set of prayers to be propagated,” Fr. Anthony’s tone was heavy, as though the issue of Lipa weighed on him indeed, “If anything, Lipa is a battleground, and more research is needed if we wish to step into the fray.”

“Will the apparition ever be approved?”

“I don’t know, and it should not matter where prayers are concerned. I shall say this as an exorcist: the many titles of the Blessed Virgin are simply gilding the lily. To not have an approved apparition takes nothing away from the Queen of Heaven, for we must venerate her and continue to do so regardless.”

Alfonso had much to say to that, both for and against, but he knew that the debate boiled down to the question of what an approved apparition would do that could not be done hitherto. Again, it seemed vain to want Lipa to be on the world map, to draw attention to a place where exorcists were working, to bring the rest of humanity to a place where privacy and prudence were prized. It would be unjust to trumpet Lipa while exorcisms were still on the rise.

“A final question, because I shall have to wake this young man soon for our version of evening prayers — and because you must be off to the Residences for your dinner,” Fr. Anthony said the words a bit faster than usual, as though he were about to make a joke about gossiping Jesuits, “Are you afraid?”

“Of what?” was Alfonso’s quick, and truly candid reply.

The elder Jesuit’s blue eyes disappeared slightly as his lids narrowed, “Of this room, this place — of your friend. There are two other victims in the rooms you passed, and there are reportedly days when the rooms above these must be used for victims because this ward is full. There is a waiting list for people to be admitted. Are you afraid?”

Alfonso had to stop and think. He was tempted to tell the priest of what had occurred that morning, on the way to the meeting, when the entire hallway seemed to close in on him, to swallow him whole in its darkness. He was ready to sputter out something about his hair standing on end, or his skin growing clammy with sweat, or his brain filling up with images whenever the priests talked about their sessions and imitated the demons’ voices.

He was tempted to say “afraid”, but there was something less permanent, less deep seated.

“Frightened,” Alfonso whispered the word, “I would say I was frightened, but I don’t think I’m afraid.”

Fr. Anthony’s eyes were a brighter hue of blue, “And the difference is?”

“The element of surprise,” Alfonso felt himself calm, felt the words leave him as a river between winter and spring, “I can be frightened in one moment, but I cannot be frightened forever. Being afraid and having fear sound so long lasting. I was frightened several times today, to tell the truth; but I didn’t stay that way.”

“And what did the fright become?”

“I – don’t know.”


“But that’s always there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Love is a default position, not something to become or transform into.”

Alfonso was both conscious of what he was saying, and astonished at how his thoughts came unbidden, as though they had simply been waiting to be called into being. He had always known the meaning of his words, had never doubted their truth; but in a room where his friend lay sleeping, in a ward where people had to suffer through agonies the young Jesuit could barely understand (much less accept as real), everything he spoke seemed consequential to whether good or evil would win in the end.

The idea that he could even influence the outcome of his friend’s future seemed vain in Alfonso’s eyes. He corrected himself inwardly; in another breath, he felt the dusky light of the room thin into gossamer dust.

“Best be on your way, young Jesuit,” was the low, even soothing response from Fr. Anthony, “You’ve helped me a good deal; too much, even, beyond expectation and need. You should rest.”

The words seemed to carry far more weight than simply well wishing. Alfonso nodded as he stood up, keeping his hands on the back of the chair.

“Do you – need my help for the final session?” He watched his friend’s face, trying to see if the slight smile would return.

The exorcist’s countenance was bright, but sad, “Thank you for the offer; however, I would rather that you prepare for your Regency,” his eyes were a grayish blue, like an inland sea on a cloudy morning, “Those years will fly fast, so you must reflect on every minute, discern your path, find your direction while you serve. How long will you be off? Two? Three years? Longer?”

Alfonso shrugged, “I don’t know yet. It depends.”

“On whom?”

“On our provincial. Maybe it will be two years, two decades, we shall see.”

“And does that bother you?”

“The two decades?”

“Well, the uncertainty, more so.”

Alfonso shrugged once again, but felt a laugh bubble out, “Not at all,” he could not help smiling, “The higher ups will know my case best. I don’t think it’s uncertainty. Maybe trust?”

Again, the young Jesuit had to swallow hard at the sight of Fr. Anthony’s smile. There was something knowing, something gentle in the way the exorcist gazed at him. He felt as though his future were laid bare, and Fr. Anthony alone could see what the end of the Regency held – what the whole path was, already paved and brightened with the light of the noonday sun. Alfonso could not even speak the words in his head.

“So,” Alfonso decided to bury his fears beneath his voice, “Will he be all right?”

Fr. Anthony breathed deep, but he was watching Alfonso rather than the novice, as though examining the young Jesuit’s every move.

“He will be…but if you mean ‘alright’, as in can he return to the priesthood? We shall see,” the elder Jesuit sat back in his chair, and finally let the sleeping novice’s hand go, “For now, he shall rest. And then we shall have the session – the final session. And then we shall see.”

“I’ll pray for him.”

“Yes – please do. There is nothing left but to wait. But, as you said: trust, not uncertainty.”

Oh, there it was again, the dread that made itself known deep in the pit of Alfonso’s stomach! The words that threatened to make themselves known to the soundless room, the looming prospect of an invitation that he knew he would be too afraid to take, too weak to accept, too young to even attempt! And yet, the old priest said nothing, only smiled, as though he had already carried out test after test on a student who had unwillingly passed every single examination.

Alfonso let the chair go, and felt his palms cool, “Thank you for letting me help today – I learned a lot,” he tried not to sputter the words out, for truly, the young priest had learned so many new things, he could only take them with the excitement of a knowledge-hungry child, “I’ll be gone in a few days, Father. I might not see you until – maybe after my Regency, if you’re still here.”

“I can imagine that I will still be here, or at least hovering in the general vicinity of the country, given the nature of my work,” Fr. Anthony’s words were hasty, as though he were both hurrying Alfonso along and reassuring the boy, “So I shall see you, maybe one of these days; maybe soon; maybe in remote correspondence, we shall never know. But I can imagine that we shall meet again.”

Alfonso did not know what to say to that. The exorcist’s tone was that of a father sending his son off to safety while a battle was being fought; and that same son was both willing to be called to arms while fearing the invitation. That same son had also seemingly been put through an oral examination that was as easy as it was pregnant with meaning: all his thoughts had simply been invited into the open, been pushed to the fore, been made to see the sun – and yet they had not been mere thoughts as they were echoes of a father’s philosophy, howsoever unwilling that son was to admit it.

“I will make a request, however,” Fr. Anthony said, voice still as steady as seawater on a summer morning, “Please do not speak of the meeting, or of the exorcism project yet. It is still very young, and it needs refining – it needs people, to both design and populate it, and I fear that too many experts weighing in might also weigh the project down.”

Alfonso nodded; he needed no explanation for the reminder.

“And one last thing: if anyone does ask about the exorcism course, and the exorcism project – do not talk too freely of me and Jorge. All exorcists operate quietly, but Jorge’s time is precious, and I do not think he wants any more attention. Too much work to do, so much to fix at the Vatican; I can only see a part of it, and I am close enough to getting a heart attack.”

“Of course,” Alfonso had been itching to ask about the Pope all day, and had tried to suppress his excitement beneath all sorts of questions, “But – father – what is he like?”

Fr. Anthony burst out laughing; but the laughter came out like soft giggles, like ripples of water over pebbles worn by the waves.

“To answer that would need another day, and I’m afraid that is something that neither you nor I have,” the exorcist’s smile was all the more fatherly, as the last of the dusky light gave way to a gray evening in the gardens outside, “But to keep it simple: he is a simple man who loves to tell stories and loves to laugh. When we meet again, young Jesuit, perhaps I can tell you more.”

“One of these days,” Alfonso could no longer contain his grin, and the elder Jesuit laughed yet again, “Thank you, Fr. Anthony. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye for now, little brother Alfonso. Be good, as you are.”

Fr. Anthony made a Sign of the Cross in the air with his right hand. Alfonso’s grin softened into a smile, disappeared as he bowed and felt the room grow even lighter than before. It was a struggle not to raise a triumphant fist in the air; he had been blessed by an exorcist who was a close friend to the Pope, after all, and there were few blessings on earth that were more valuable.

The young Jesuit was almost blind and deaf as he left the Infirmary and returned to the Residences: he had been out for hours, had done no reading, had done nothing on his own. He had met with exorcists, had learned of a secret exorcism project, and had been even more acquainted with someone who was close to the Pope – someone who knew the Pope well enough to speak of the man for a day! And he got a blessing! Alfonso was close to bouncing as he walked through the tree-lined paths, beneath a sky growing with stars, through a darkening jungle filled with chittering bats and cooing birds.

It took all his energy not to burst into the dining hall and scream, “I am one degree away from the Pope!” (It also took a good degree of his maturity, but – and here, the voice in the back of his head began to laugh – was there really any maturity in not celebrating bits of happiness in one’s day?)

He held his excitement down, kept as quiet as he could, and prayed that no one had noticed that he had been gone for hours, prayed that no one would ask where he had been. He exchanged jokes with the other brothers, laughed as the elder brothers teased the novices, and finally, tried not to show any emotion as the gossip session arose almost naturally from dessert.

Someone mentioned the novice’s case, how a teacher and student were still being tended to, how the mysterious Fr. Anthony was at the task every day. Alfonso had to fight not to laugh at how the open, white-haired, blue-eyed, pudgy priest was described as someone to be feared and left to work on what seemed to be his powers.

“Well, let’s pray that we’ll have our friend back soon,” Alfonso could not help speaking up, as he felt the exchange of speculations weigh on him and threaten to squeeze out a firm correction regarding the role of the exorcist in a session, “Maybe it won’t be long until we can see him again.”

A beat – a single beat of delay – then a happy chorus that swelled with smiles and joy.

Of course! We should! Let’s pray! He’ll be back! The words played with the yellow light of the dining hall, glistened on the surface of the wooden tables, spoke louder than the tittering of crickets and cicadas in the jungles outside.

In that single beat, that blink of a moment of a pause – Alfonso saw a flitting image, a tiny shard of pain that pierced his heart. He could put no definite name to it, but it was as clear as sunlight on the faces of his brothers.

Disgust? Unease? Dread?

Or, most simply, fear.

His heart felt as though it had been riddled with stabs, as though it were heavy with blood and disappointment. In some other places, in another time, in his childhood, he remembered how possession looked like a disease that spread and contaminated people, that blackened and poisoned everything it touched. But he knew then that evil could spread only to those who wanted to accept it; that there was no merit to seeing evil everywhere as much as there was no merit to assume that there was only good in all things.

And yet, that tiny moment stamped itself on Alfonso’s memory that evening. It was delay, hesitation, even as there was a promise of prayer, a potential to welcome the brother back after his journey through a universe where time did not exist, where angels and devils fought battles in a desert that stretched toward an eternity no human mind could fathom or measure.

Maybe the delay meant that his friends did not know how to deal with a brother who had just returned from a universe of suffering that no one could imagine, give a name to, empathize with. Or maybe they truly believed that evil could still spread, like some contagion created by human hands and imagined by human minds. Or maybe –

The thoughts were what kept Alfonso up that night. He all but forgot Sr. Teresita and her encounters with the devil, and how it had re-framed the apparition as a psychological response rather than a supernatural gift. He could no longer see the image of a wandering soul in his head, who swapped places with a mischievous demon that made sport of poor priests, whose face could not be committed to memory, whose life was immured in darkness and shadows. His mind no longer replayed the stories that had been told, the request to put in a good word for Lipa, even the image of his friend writhing and weeping on the floor of the balcony – everything paled against the single second where everyone around him seemed to see evil when there should have been…

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