Chapter 8

The second year of Alfonso’s Regency flew by quickly. His research bore fruit almost overnight, as he spent weeks going to and from the biology teacher’s classroom, there to watch how the class giggled with both delight and excitement as the textbook seemed to come to life under their hands. Scores soared, students looked happy to be in school, and the joy seemed to naturally turn the lectures into discussions rather than one-sided affairs.

Alfonso sent the good news to Agnes through chat, and almost immediately got a response that sounded as though she were screaming into the phone.


He retorted with what he hoped was a visible snicker.


After the biology teacher came more research, and Alfonso found himself going to different classrooms in the city, to listen to teachers muddle through congested content and classes that looked like pandemics waiting to happen. There were two children to a seat, or children seated on tables or floors, or children peering in from the windows. There was so much to learn, so few good people, so little space.

Once or twice, Alfonso remembered his life before the priesthood, how his girlfriend and he had seen these same scenes played out in classrooms across the country, how the children seemed to be so willing to sit shoulder to shoulder if only to be able to say that they had gone to school, how the classrooms were sweaty and dank and damp, how he and she had planned to change the world when they got married. He knew that she was a teacher somewhere, working with children who had been born in prison or were convicted of crimes whose ramifications they could not understand. She had won awards for her work, and was slowly building a new school in a city in a province up north, where there was a place safe for children to dream in, large so that they did not have to breathe each other’s air, small so that they could feel that they were part of a family.

He and she had never been married, had never crossed paths again, and yet they were changing the world with tiny steps they had taken on their own.

Alfonso thought he would be asked to stay longer for more research. He had done quite a good deal of work in redeveloping biology, then physics, then mathematics classes, this time with the help of a new algorithm that he had refined after Agnes had led the way with a (not objective!) qualitative assessment. He thought that it was time for the word maps to spread their tentacles to more classes in the barrios – and he was poised to play with even more codes and experiment with even more ideas – until a call came from his Father Provincial.

He was asked to return to Manila to continue his studies, and his superiors hoped that his research work on schools would also provide him with a nuanced understanding of the vocation that he had chosen. He had a month left to say his goodbyes before he finally stepped his outstretched foot forward, onto a new path, to a new adventure.

Alfonso expected to be sad at the prospect of leaving; but he found, after he had replayed the phone call in this head, and had assured himself that the sentence had indeed been, “You may now return to Manila in a month’s time to resume your studies,” that he was quite at peace. After two years of taking rickety jeepneys or bouncy tricycles or, on occasion, worn out motorbikes to and from schools; listening to lectures during the day and sitting at his computer at night; writing, and analyzing, and interpreting, and thinking, and working – he felt his spirit lie still at the thought of departure.

It was as though the weight of expectations had been on his shoulders the entire time, and he had not realized that there was a weight at all until it had been lifted. That was not to say that he did not love research and the province, and the school he worked with and the many schools he had gone to. He loved it all, only as a priest like Alfonso could love. But he, too, had finally realized that there had been the burden of a generation thrust upon him, entrusted to him, begged of him his wisdom that it be taught well. He would miss the challenge –

And the research, and the (very objective) word maps.

There was a part of Alfonso that did not want to leave the research behind, that felt as though a task had not yet been finished, that felt that a chapter had not yet closed completely. He did not know what it was, only that it was there, a little spark of question marks bouncing merrily in his brain.

He was sitting at his computer, on one of his final days at the school and his Regency, when the young, Italian-studying Jesuit came in.

“Brother Alfonso?” he seemed as fearful as a mouse in a bucket, and in stark contrast to how Agnes had drawn him out but months before, “I know you’re very busy with packing up and final reports and all, but you have a guest. I’m so sorry to disturb you, and I really don’t want to disturb you at all because I know that you have a lot of work, but may he see you?”

Alfonso was used to the young man’s timidity, and he could not but laugh as the brother peeped from behind the open door, as though to conceal the guest as a surprise.

Alfonso assented, expecting to see the biology teacher, or one of the students with whom he had spoken, or one of the school principals to see him off. Instead, in came a spectacle of black and white, rather rotund, rather small, with hairs so thin the noonday sun streamed through them.

“You are a very polite young man,” the guest said, addressing the younger Jesuit, and opening his arms to the boy. All fear was gone, and he simply flew into the guest’s embrace, then received a blessing on his forehead, “Thank you for helping me.”

“No – thank you for helping me!” exclaimed the young Jesuit, with a bow to the guest, then to Alfonso, before he scurried off. Yet again, the boy had been drawn out and changed, and had chosen to scuttle out as though he had been frightened out of his wits.

Alfonso expected to be disappointed in the guest. Instead, he was relieved, soothed, even, as though he had been waiting for someone familiar to drop in and remind him of what he had left behind, and what he would soon return to. The guest was a bit rounder in both the middle and cheeks, but still as sprightly and bright as the Fr. Anthony that Alfonso had seen last.

“Sorry for the surprise, but your brothers in Manila said that I should drop by,” Fr. Anthony entered, in the old khaki half-pants that made him look as though he were ready to go to the beach after giving a sermon, “I was supposed to be here earlier – and then I spotted your young friend reading a book on folk religions, so I could not help talking to him. We had quite a discussion on rituals and candles and curses!”

The old priest opened his arms to Alfonso, and the latter could not but accept the embrace. He felt as though he were being held by a grandfather, father, and older brother, all rolled into one. It was only then that he remembered that he had not been embraced in two years. What a change to his spirit Fr. Anthony brought!

“So of course I had to be sure that the young man was not thinking of casting spells, or I would never be able to leave!” Fr. Anthony exclaimed, as though the hug had simply been a pause in his long tale, “And of course I wanted to protect you and all our brethren. It is one thing to be curious, but a whole other thing to be curious enough to dabble in dark designs. How are you, young Jesuit?”

Alfonso laughed; there was levity in the voice, but the allusions to the hidden evils of ill-chosen hobbies were clear in the older priest’s tone. He wondered if the mousy little brother Jesuit had already thrown out the book, or if he was still sneaking off to read it despite the warnings of one of the highest-ranking exorcists in the church hierarchy. Knowing Fr. Anthony, the admonitions would have been handed out most gently, with nary a reference to church texts or catechism, and without giving the old exorcist’s identity away. Alfonso was not sure if such techniques worked on his quiet friend.

“I’m at the end of my Regency and finishing up my research – and I’m ready to go home,” Alfonso replied, pulling up a wooden chair for the priest to sit on.

He offered the man coffee, tea, and sponge cake, set them before the exorcist, and laughed as Fr. Anthony simply drank some water and rubbed his round belly with a slow shake of his head.

“I’ve had so much to eat between this country and its rice, and Rome and its pasta, so let’s not give my doctor any more headaches,” Fr. Anthony poured Alfonso his own glass of water, and handed it to the boy, “I asked how you were doing, not what you were doing. Are you excited? Happy? Tired from working, wanting to keep moving? Tell this old priest good stories, because I am quite alone in this city and I would like to listen to new stories from familiar faces.”

Alfonso found himself mute. No one had ever asked him, and with so much exuberance and interest, to even describe what he felt.

“Very well, then, I shall show you how it is done,” Fr. Anthony rolled his eyes to the ceiling, in mock exasperation that made Alfonso laugh once again, “I am alarmed that books on the occult are so easy to come by, that a young priest has easy access to them, and reads them at a time when he should be reviewing theology texts for an examination.

“I am happy that I did not annoy you by my sudden arrival – there was little time to announce it, as I left Manila in quite a hurry. And your brothers are quite excited to see you again, so they gave me everything from your address to what they believe is your work schedule.”

Alfonso had to laugh, as he imagined how his brother Jesuits pieced together his emails, from their timestamps to his messages, and recreated what they thought was his daily routine. The brothers knew him too well; Alfonso felt a little pang in his heart, and sensed that he, too, had missed their company.

“Ah – and I am simply grateful for God’s mercy,” was the calm, and yet bright sentence from the old priest, with hardly any boasting or blaring trumpets to announce it, “The young man whom you helped – he has returned to the priesthood, and he will speak his First Vows soon. He is so much happier, and so much more whole, that I always remember you whenever I pass by him in the hallways of the Residences.”

Had he been a few years younger, Alfonso would have raised a fist in the air and given himself a pat on the back. Instead, he simply smiled; and, more than anything, felt relieved that his friend would truly be part of a long, lifetime welcome of brothers. Perhaps the episode of exorcism would never be repeated or spoken of, and the rest of the brothers would all move forward and forget.

“And yet – I am also very worried,” Fr. Anthony spoke, after a sip of water, and then a pause, “See, the reason I have been flown in is to observe a case in a house in this city, but the poor girl who has been purportedly possessed has simply been sleeping for days now, and refuses to awaken despite all my prayers. I pity the parents who so readily paid for my ticket, and are getting nothing.”

Alfonso was not only mute; he felt his jaw drop, and yet heard a prayer for the girl rise to his head. It was anything but an empty or impulsive move; it seemed natural, as he remembered his friend and the balcony, as he heard the jungles that echoed snarls and growls into the night. He had almost forgotten about that episode in the House of the Jesuits; the memory brought a chill to his legs, a sharp sweat to the back of his neck, a mist to his field of vision, as though he were both thrust into the desert and ankle-deep in ice.

“However, it warms my heart to see you look happy,” Fr. Anthony finished, “When we last met, you were rather thin, even pale, as though you were so frightened but fighting still. Ah, the Virgin Mary protect you, good young man!”

Alfonso could not help another laugh, this time louder. He had never thought of himself as some warrior with mere skin and bones to hold himself upright, but he did feel that some weakness left him, with the old Jesuit’s affection, and what seemed to be a rather powerful blessing.

A sudden breeze blew into the room, cast the door open, and then thrust it closed once again.

“It’s the weather and not necessarily anything supernatural,” Fr. Anthony spoke almost as soon as the wind died down, “I am glad that you look like you are doing well. Now, tell me how you are truly doing.”

“Very well, Father,” Alfonso finally replied, as hastily as he could, as though both the priest’s words and his speed with answering would push away his sudden surge of fright, “You’re right: I’m happy. I’ve been here for only two years, but I have done a lot of research for different people. I have watched teachers do better, and even be happier with their work because they’ve found new joy in doing it. I have watched students do better, not just in their examinations, but in how they look at the world, because they’re finding joy in learning. I’m happy that even in two years, I was able to help people, even if it was just to draw maps of their sentences so that I could see what they are really trying to say.”

Fr. Anthony had been watching him the entire time, with eyes so brightly blue and awash with alertness, with a stare that seemed to encourage Alfonso to keep on speaking, with an almost-smile that played on the corner of his lips, as though he were trying not to cry. Alfonso himself had to fight to stop talking, for the words just seemed ready to flow out, and he was already poised to explain the mathematical basis of his algorithms and how they had been shaped by a qualitative assessment of his work.

Not objective, was the titter at the back of his head.

“I am glad to hear all this, and from a brilliant young man,” the old priest made to stand up, and Alfonso stepped forward to assist him, “I like how you used research and did not simply barge into classrooms to preach Ignatian pedagogy.”

“I would not have had very happy teachers,” Alfonso rejoined.

Fr. Anthony laughed, then walked toward the whiteboard unaided. He stopped, much in the same way that Agnes had, with eyes wide and wondering at the spectacle of webs and tentacles that littered what looked like months of notes that had never been erased. His gaze, however, was different: he was not a scrutinizing professor with her own set of questions and answers, but a truly curious grandfather who had been treated to a sight never before seen.

“You said something about drawing maps of sentences?” the old exorcist asked, “Tell me more about your research.”

Alfonso took down one printout and gave it to the priest. It was the same printout that he had given to Agnes, though scribbled over by Alfonso’s notes on the nature of the quizzes being created versus the subject being taught. He felt the excitement bubble up inside him, draw up memories, escape into a story. And tell the story he did, of how he had been tasked to help a biology teacher, how he had done analysis and had refined his algorithms with the help of a friend (he was not sure how Fr. Anthony would take to the idea of non-priest, let alone a woman, and an unmarried one at that, assisting him with his work), how the new quizzes had made students fare better at the subject, and how patterns, in general, were to be unearthed like treasures at every turn. He felt as though he were telling a tale of adventures to a grandfather who had traveled the world, and yet who sought truths in the narratives of the everyday.

That same grandfather nodded, pulled a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket, read the words through them, looked at his young companion, squinted his blue eyes as they shimmered shards of light, removed the glasses and folded them so that he could tap them against one temple. He did feel like a Jesuit who had spent his entire vocation scouring libraries and archives for hidden treasures to push away into the ever so many corners of his mind. He appeared like a scholar indeed, but one who loved to hear about new inventions, or old ideas made new.

“This is most interesting,” he spoke with a voice so round, it bounced into the silence, “I have often seen our brothers at the archives simply write down their thoughts on notebooks, and then convert them into reports. This technique is quite systematic – technical of course, as there is much I cannot understand – but I appreciate that it is systematic.”

“And objective,” Alfonso had to let the word out, “I know that some people might find this too mathematical, but I think Galileo himself said that God used math to write the world into being.”

“Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe,” Fr. Anthony corrected him, with a smile that was as bright as the shining seas in his eyes, “The world’s patterns reflect the hand that created them, and I believe you have crafted ways to reveal these patterns.”

Alfonso felt his cheeks warm, as though there were a blush there; and perhaps there truly was, for Fr. Anthony laughed lightly, gave him the sheet once again, and looked back at the rest of the sheets still hanging on the whiteboard. The look on the old exorcist’s face was that of affection, mixed generously with amazement, as though he were witnessing buried treasures truly emerging from beneath the mess that was reality.

Indeed, why believe that reality was a mess called into patterns with human frailty, when there truly was some underlying order in a universe called forth with numbers?

“I know that you are busy with preparations for your departure,” the old priest began, eyes still on the hanging sheets, “But might I trouble you with a question?”

“Of course!” Alfonso exclaimed, feeling himself grow even warmer as the elder Jesuit continued to peer at the word maps, to narrow his eyes at them, as though they would change shape if viewed through a glare, “And I’m all packed, Father, so don’t worry.”

Fr. Anthony smiled, and Alfonso recognized it as the same smile the old man gave to him when he had oh-so-readily accepted the invitation to visit his friend. It was that of a grandfather amazed at a grandchild’s ability to give himself over to service so easily, when the world out there was cruel to those who were generous, and often dangerously so.

“And here we go again with too much of the wrong kind of magis,” the exorcist wagged a finger at him, all while reaching into his pocket, “Remember, magis is to choose the loving option, not to put yourself on a silver platter for all and sundry to take advantage of.”

Alfonso had to laugh. It was one of the many Jesuit principles that he had grown up with in school, but one that he also had to learn and re-learn with each passing year. Some students made the mistake of interpreting the loving option as outright self-sacrifice; his early mentors in the priesthood corrected the notion years later, and spoke of living in one’s truth, and mindfulness, and care for the temple of the Holy Spirit as a form of love. The admonitions were a muddle in Alfonso’s mind now, as Fr. Anthony handed him a sheet of paper printed on one side with single-spaced text.

Alfonso read, and felt a shudder run through him at the very first line.

I am Legion. I have been unleashed.

The trembling began in the soles of his feet, traveled up like rivers of ice through the back of his legs, his spine, his heart, there to clasp the muscle with an embrace that felt like a thousand knives.

And yet, Alfonso continued to read, eyes darting from one edge of the margins to the other, from one end of text to the next. He could not hear the demon in his head, could not imagine its growls and snarls, could not see the victim it had ensnared, could not find any single voice that could match the words that dripped with hatred, rage, despair, death. The sentences read like daggers piercing bone, like blood and flesh flying from a carnage that was yet to be. They could not be paired together; they did not make sense. But every sentence, on its own, sounded as though it were creeping up, on all fours, with claws and cloven hooves, from the depths of the coldest, darkest Hell.

“I am so sorry to have shown you this,” he heard Fr. Anthony speak, as though from far away, “But my simple question is: what does it mean?”

Indeed? What could the smattering of butchery and anger mean? What were these words that seemed to run into each other, smash into sentences, bleed onto the page?

“I always remember you, for some reason, when I meet a victim for whom no one prays, or whom the world seems to cast away,” the old exorcist seemed to both muse and comfort his companion, “You chose to pray first, to do something that very few people would, and not on impulse, but compassion.”

Alfonso did not know what to say; he could only feel his head grow light, as though merely reading the text had drained him of energy. And yet – Fr. Anthony was right. There, in the middle of his head, had blossomed yet another prayer. It began when he read the first few lines, rested on his tongue as he continued through the words, hovered all around him in a blanket that felt like gentle starlight when he finally finished the text. He felt faint, true; but he also felt shielded, as though he were merely seeing events from afar, were commiserating, but were too far away to be touched by the evil that seemed to rise from the single sheet of paper.

“This is the case I have been asked to observe,” Fr. Anthony continued, voice even calmer, one hand now on Alfonso’s arm, as though the man sensed that the boy was slipping away, “I would appreciate if you kept this a secret from the brothers, as the child’s parents are rather affluent, loved even, close to the church and deep in the faith. They love their daughter, but she has been through several sessions already, and they are desperate for both help and secrecy.”

“What is this?” Alfonso felt the sentence leave him, but with a voice not his own.

He did not know how it had happened, but he found himself suddenly seated on the chair he had offered Fr. Anthony earlier. The exorcist was standing over him, with one hand on his shoulder.

“This is a copy of an essay that she typed on her father’s computer,” Fr. Anthony answered, laying the Sign of the Cross on the top of Alfonso’s head, “Right before her parents found her butchering the family dog.”

Alfonso felt something sour at the back of his throat, but felt it go away. The chair was there, his body said; his feet were on the ground, his hand was clasping a sheet of paper, an old priest was before him, keeping him steady. The world was real, but the words seemed to have a power of their own, seemed to pull his soul out of his body as though the demons had cloaked themselves in letters and were clinging to him with burning claws.

“She was only four years old when it all began,” the exorcist added, “She typed this out in perfect English. She is now seven, has never been to school, but speaks fluent Aramaic and ancient Greek when in a trance, in sentences that make almost no sense, only that they are sentences strung together.”

No sentences were ever random, the voice in Alfonso’s head spoke up. Nothing was ever done with no intent; no sentence was created to simply be spoken forth in the world, no matter whether the speaker was an angel that praised God or spouted lies. There was a pattern, there should be a pattern underlying everything, a pattern that said that despite the evil, the hand of God was still present and weaving a story into being.

“I promise that I came only to see you,” Fr. Anthony’s voice seemed closer now.

Alfonso began to breathe. The paper felt rough on his palms, the chair pressed onto his back, his pants wrapped around the skin of his legs, his eyes finally blinked.

“I wanted to see you much later, but something told me to see you today,” the old priest’s voice sounded both exhausted and soothing, “Perhaps it means something; perhaps it means nothing at all.”

“It means something, Father,” Alfonso spoke, this time with a voice and ideas entirely his own, “Maybe I was meant to answer your questions.”

“Or maybe you were meant to be challenged with the temptation to answer a question,” was the pointed response, with a raised eyebrow that seemed to bring a whiff of hair to the old exorcist’s head, “Be very careful, young Jesuit, or you might be walking into a trap. Go slow.”

Alfonso swallowed the embarrassment down. The most fitting exorcist was the one hiding behind the end of the line, unwilling to do the job, humble in his self-appraisal of his ability to fight evil. And yet, Alfonso thought, he also had faith that his prayers would grant him the understanding and enlightenment that he so craved at that very moment, that he would be given gifts that he could use for good, that two heartbroken parents could have some semblance of a life with their daughter once again. Wasn’t there grace in hoping as well?

“I will help you in whatever way I can, Father,” the young Jesuit stood up and made for his desk, “I cannot promise you that I will answer the question, but I can try and see what human – and humble – tools can tell us.”

All he saw was the gentlest smile, the calmest blue eyes. He did not know what exactly Fr. Anthony said in reply, only that it felt encouraging and joyful, like a burst of sunshine piercing through cold waves thrashing against black-grey skies. Alfonso felt as though he were still coming out of stormy seas, bedraggled, wet, dripping with anger and rage that seemed to roll off him oh-so-slowly, weighed down by hatred that refused to give up its choking, burning, scalding hold.

He did not know how it happened, and felt as though someone else were doing it, but there he was, typing the contents of the entire sheet into his computer.

He did not know what he would find, but he knew that if he had been given the gift of coding and modeling and research and discernment, then there was a truth to be unearthed even in the most senseless of texts, a universe to be summoned from even the most muddled of lies. No deed was ever random. No words were simply the playthings of a bored angel long fallen.

He did not realize that Fr. Anthony was already seated next to him, and watching his progress, until he heard a voice at his side.

“This is most interesting! Words become maps, and maps become meaning,” the priest spoke, as though a child peering over the shoulder of an adventurer, “I’m afraid you got the short end of the stick today, young Jesuit. I have learned so much from you, and yet you have suffered as a result.”

Alfonso felt his brows crease, and a laugh escape him easily; he did not know where the grace had come from, but he felt as though there had, indeed, been suffering – but it was so far away, it might as well have happened to someone else.

“I need not tell you to pray,” Fr. Anthony patted him on the head, and then laid another cross there with his thumb, “Now, what shall I do? Would you like me to get you some dinner?”

“What?” Alfonso had expected any question besides that, and he could not help smiling as the exorcist burst into laughter, “It’s only 3 PM!”

“I’m troubling you and you shall not go without a meal!” the exorcist pulled out his phone, and wore his reading glasses, “I can also order things and pick them up, even if I must walk across the road, or across the city! Let the round priest shave off a few pounds, you skinny runt.”

Alfonso completely forgot about his coding, the sheet of paper, the diary entry, the case, and even his prayers; he simply laughed, loud, unabashed, from the depths of his belly so that he shook his so-called skinny bones. He felt as though he had never laughed as much in the ever so many months he had spent in front of the computer, in the hours he had stood before the word maps, in the minutes he had spent making connections and wondering what his work truly meant. Fr. Anthony laughed along with him, but the man’s laugh seemed one of relief, as though he were dreading that he had brought doom into the afternoon.

“We can have dinner with the brothers later, Father,” Alfonso wiped the tears from his eyes, “And we’ll walk across campus to get there. Don’t worry about me.”

The old priest took a deep breath, let it out, sagged into his belly. “I worry about all good priests, always,” he looked pointedly at Alfonso from above the glasses perched on his nose, “I accept the invitation to dinner, and the invitation to walk, but what shall I get the young man who is going above and beyond his duties?”


“Aside from that?”

“More prayer?”

“Ah – you’re impossible!” the old exorcist exclaimed, with half a laugh that was extinguished as the printer beeped, hummed, and let out a single sheet of paper, printed side still face down.

Both Jesuits stared at it, no longer daring to banter, no longer as flippant. Alfonso took the sheet, turned it over, and returned the original essay to Fr. Anthony.

What met the young man’s eyes was an insect, if he were to use Agnes’ method of imagining the maps. He saw an insect whose body was divided into six words, with three legs on each side, with each leg housing a creature of its own. At first glance, the words seemed to look like a storm across the page; but upon closer inspection, the giant bug was neatly – curiously – bewilderingly fashioned with perfect symmetry.

Alfonso felt his stomach grow cold, his voice escape him with almost no effort, his breath turn to ice in his throat.

“Six body parts, six legs, each leg holding an insect with six legs of its own,” he said, both amazed at the near perfect alignment of words, and dreading the numbers that described it.

The doors of the room swung open, hinges creaking, and then smashed closed again, as though an invisible storm had suddenly descended onto campus. And yet there was no wind, no howling, no rain or hail – only an afternoon that was both sunny and gray, alive and dead, a child and a rotting corpse.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alfonso saw Fr. Anthony pull out a copy of the Roman Ritual. The exorcist opened it, read from it, whispered what sounded like Latin that was rapid but enunciated with the combined forces of fear and love. Alfonso felt a prayer well up in his own heart, felt his muscles relax, felt the beating in his head make itself known and then calm itself, and saw the word map suddenly appear as clear as an essay written by the hand of God Himself.

He did not know where the strength came from, but he took notes, spoke at the same time, saw the map for the truth it had revealed.

“There are six major patterns here, from which all the other patterns come,” Alfonso began, slow, steady, as though he were walking across grassy fields and reading the ideas in the sky, “They are six words but they are synonyms of being let loose, being unleashed.

“The top leg here, on the left, is all about animals. The one below it also seems to be about beasts, because it repeats the word in different forms; beast, beastly, beasts. Then the one at the bottom is about things holding it back: cages, fences, wire.

“On the top leg on the right, we can find pronouns. It’s all you, she, us. On the leg below that, it looks like they’re all emotions – all about anger, I believe, or rage, specifically at being held back.

“On the final leg, I can see phrases. They look like another language, which is why they’re grouped together, but I believe some of them are in Italian – which you might know, Father?”

Fr. Anthony shook his head, still muttering prayers for a while under his breath, “I can’t speak it, young brother, but I shall try,” he looked briefly at the word map, eyes narrowed, “It looks like Italian, but I know very basic words, present tense, enough to get by. But I never picked up languages.”

It was perhaps a blessing, Alfonso thought briefly, lest the old priest be thought possessed. He remembered reading or hearing somewhere that often, the exorcists were chosen from humble priests who did not have the intellectual capacity of the theologians or the charismatic gifts of the preachers; they often had no gifts other than a love of God, a complete trust in a power other than their own, a faith that moved mountains only because they fought the hardest to climb them.

By that same token, it would be frightening to pick up languages easily, if indeed languages were a gateway for possession. Alfonso suddenly thought of Agnes, prayed for her; and then remembered that he could kill two birds with one stone.

He quickly took his phone from his pocket, opened the chat software, searched for Agnes’ name, and sent off a quick greeting, all while he glanced at Fr. Anthony. The old man was still praying from the Ritual, and very much occupied.

Little brother! Nice to hear from you! Of course I have a minute. Several, in fact. Students might consult in a bit so there might be a delay.

Alfonso gave the best excuse he could think of for translation, and then typed in the six phrases, complete with the diacritical marks that characterized Italian. He wrote on the word map as he did so, noting how the speaker seemed to be a beast long imprisoned, with rage running deep. In a minute, Agnes had returned with a chat message far longer than the length of his screen.

What is this? It’s like someone vomited Italian all over you. It’s a mix, so let me translate first. Then I’ll try SYSTEMATIC THEMATIC ANALYSIS just to piss off some extremely objectivist friends *cough* you *cough*

Alfonso wanted to laugh, to tell the truth, but he could still hear Fr. Anthony praying, and he marked a slight whistle of wind blowing through the room. He prayed to St. Michael the Archangel; the winds grew calm, warm, almost comforting.

He continued reading Agnes’ message.

le parole non ci terrebbero fuori – words would not keep us out
Cio’ che fosse vero dieci anni fa – what was true ten years ago (but this is subjunctive so it needs context)
Il tuo desiderio quando fosti un ragazzo – your wish when you were a boy
Ovviamente non ti abbiamo dimenticato la chiamata – of course we haven’t forgotten the call
Ma Lei e’ in carcere – but she is in prison (or formally: but you are in prison if that Lei is deliberately capitalized)
I tuoi fratelli – your brothers

In truth, Alfonso had recognized some of the words from his own Latin and Italian lessons, but he would not have had the energy to translate them, much less distinguish between tenses. He was already on the verge of typing the words and mapping them – and thinking of an excuse to give Fr. Anthony, if caught – but his phone blinked alive once more.

Is this a mafia movie?

What do you mean? Alfonso typed with one hand, keeping the phone out of Fr. Anthony’s sight.

Because it all sounds menacing, like a group of bad guys showing up at your house, then they say they haven’t forgotten what you did. And then they say that you asked them to do something for you ten years ago, so they’re back (to collect payment?). And even if you repented of what you made them do, they’re still waiting for payback because they’re your brothers. I’m not sure about prison. Maybe they’re visiting him in prison?

Menacing, Alfonso thought, was an understatement. And yet there was something about Agnes’ words, something that made sense if all the words would be taken together, something that seemed to tell the story of someone who had asked for something long ago, had forgotten it, was being reminded of it, was imprisoned.

The wheels of logic and rationality ran and turned in the byroads and ruts in Alfonso’s head. He sent off a thank you! to Agnes, and received a ciao ciao puppy chow! in reply.

And in that moment, the puzzle suddenly reassembled into a narrative.

The sentences about beasts were always about the demons, the speakers. The sentences about prison were about someone else – an absent “you”. He did not have the original sheet in front of him, but something in his head clicked, brought the sentences clearly into his memories, made Agnes’ interpretation stand against the words.

He returned to his software, edited the sentences according to her translation, and ran the code.

The lights in the room flickered on, but the light switches had never moved. Fr. Anthony looked up from the Ritual.

“Is everything all right?” his smile was wan, as though merely reading the prayers had drawn the spirit out of him. The lights blinked off again.

Alfonso felt his breath catch in his throat, “I had to encode the translated text, Father,” he chose every word, afraid that he would give away how he had been chatting with a friend right in the middle of work, “I just need to ask you something – but this is about the girl’s father. What does he do?”

Fr. Anthony shrugged, “Quite a successful businessman,” the old priest’s eyes seemed to be a mix of slate gray and a calm sea, “He has been running a chain of hardware stores for about a decade now. Why do you ask?”

Alfonso’s hair stood on end. He felt his throat go dry, as though it were filled with sand and pebbles.

“Did he ever say how he started?” the young priest had to speak up before the desert came and swallowed his thoughts again, “How he started the business, I mean, ten years ago.”

Fr. Anthony closed the Ritual, but kept his thumb within the book to mark out a page, “I never thought of asking him,” his brow wrinkled, and one eye seemed to be glaring right into Alfonso, “What does your word map tell you?”

Alfonso tried to recount Agnes’ speculations as best he could. He stitched them into his own findings about the beasts that were the demons, added the still flimsy thread of the third, unnamed “you” who seemed to wait in prison, wove the narrative of an anger long simmering in silence, now unbridled and unleashed. The young priest tried not to tremble when the printer coughed out the results of his newly minted code.

The map was the same: multiple 6’s layered onto each other on the legs of a gigantic beast, limbs bursting with letters that seemed to tell the story of creatures coming to their once incarcerated brother, circles seemingly laid out like hundreds of coins as though to remind Alfonso that there was payment to be made.

Fr. Anthony listened, nodded, peered at Alfonso when the explanations grew technical, looked closely at the printout when the young priest talked about how something might have been sacrificed a decade before, on the promise of success.

And, when the story was over, Alfonso breathed deep, sat back, and tried to still the thrumming in the muscles of his throat. He felt as though he had been talking for ages, as though there had been nothing else in the world but his voice, as though the act of choosing every single word and wading his way through the muck of the new map had pulled the air out of his lungs, drawn the world outside into another outer space where no human souls lived.

There was unsettling quiet now, as Fr. Anthony looked at the map, then at his now open Ritual, then at his phone. Alfonso did not dare ask the old man anything; the young Jesuit was, after all, nearly nailed in place by a biting cold, and it took all his energy – howsoever little there was of it left – to pray. And yet – even the prayers that had been so easy to pray long ago, the words that had seemed so embedded in his memory, the lilting notes of words that lauded the saints and angels, begged for assistance from the Mother of God – even they seemed to be disappearing.

Alfonso knew what it was like to forget answers on an exam, or to draw a blank on a question during class. This was different. It was as though all the prayers he had always known, always prayed, were pulled out of his reach. They were always in an orchard in his imagination, those prayers, dangling like fruit from trees forever green, never dropping from plants that were forever living in spring – but then came a wind that brought with it smoke, and cloud, and fog, and everything familiar and true and beautiful was held back by something menacing, leering, taunting.

He very nearly forgot even the names of the saints, and simply called out in his head for St. Michael the Archangel. He repeated the name, as Fr. Anthony read once more from the ritual, as the computer whirred in the background, as the clock on the wall – began ticking out seconds again. Alfonso finally realized why the silence had been as sharp as a knife in his insides: the clock had simply stopped, as though time itself had disappeared.

He looked at the clock on the computer, and the clock on the wall. The time was the same. From the moment he had first sat at the computer to type out the essay, to that very second that he stared at the numbers on the wall, the world had gone by for no more than 30 minutes.

He felt that he had been analyzing data for hours, had been waiting for printouts for ages, had spoken until his throat ran as dry as the desert. And yet almost no time had passed.

“I’ll talk to the girl’s father soon – today – as soon as I get back,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was at his side once again, and it eased gently into Alfonso’s bewilderment, “Are you all right, young Jesuit?”

It was only then that Alfonso realized that he was grasping the arms of his chair, and that his palms had left wet handprints there. He could not lie; he shook his head, swallowed the lump that seemed to expand in his throat, tried to push out the air that seemed to weigh on his chest. The world around him appeared normal once again; but deep in his belly, where he felt his soul now was, there lay something wounded, something worn, something stretched beyond its limits and only now recovering.

Fr. Anthony’s smile was both worried and comforting, “You have come face to face with a very different kind of evil,” the priest paused, returned his phone to his shirt pocket, “This demon – or this demon and its friends – they seem to like playing with words. They like writing, spouting out things, making themselves look voluble and loquacious. But their words, as you can see, might be their own undoing.

“Did you feel that you were being inundated with words in your head? Some demons can cause confusion that way.”

Alfonso felt the blood crawl back into his veins as he flexed his fingers, “The exact opposite, Father,” he breathed easily, as he could finally hear the clock on the wall much more clearly, and as the air around him grew warm, “I felt like it was taking away all the prayers I’ve always prayed. I just called out to St. Michael, but I lost all the words. Everything I thought I knew by heart was just gone.”

There was no alarm on Fr. Anthony’s face, only a sigh, as though the priest had simply been reminded of an old enemy – one among thousands – that had made its presence known in yet another annoying way.

“Demons used to be angels – and all angels are preternatural beings,” the old man reached forward and placed his hand on Alfonso’s head. “They can defy time, and space, and all natural laws. That means they can know what is unknown to you, and sense your weaknesses, and be in many different places at once.”

Alfonso chose to say nothing, as Fr. Anthony seemed to be mumbling a prayer.

“This also means that they know how to play with you: they can toy with your emotions, exploit your frailties, expose your fragilities. This particular one tried to take away the shields that you know would protect you,” Fr. Anthony traced the Sign of the Cross on Alfonso’s forehead, “But you must also remember, young Jesuit, that demons will leave; and yet when they do, they never leave innocently. They draw out your energy so that you feel hopeless, or they can try to bring out memories that you don’t want to remember, or they can wound your very soul.”

Alfonso could only nod his head. He felt as though he ought to weep, but the tears seemed to be so deep within his heart, that it would take years before they could crawl to the surface and give him release.

“Oh, my poor young one – I can guess as to how distressing it must have been for you. I should not have put you in this position.”

“Don’t be sorry, Father – you just showed me how difficult your job is,” Alfonso felt his breath warm his throat, “Is it like this all the time – for you?”

“No – only the very first few times, when I was young and a beginner. I had all the vigor of a child; and like a child, I had no strategies to protect myself. But I think I’ve felt what you now feel. It was like you didn’t know what to say?”

“Something like that,” Alfonso felt the wind around him grow lighter, “But – more precisely, it was like I didn’t know how to speak.”

It was the merest twitch, the tiniest gasp, but Alfonso marked it clearly on Fr. Anthony’s countenance. The exorcist was as gentle as before, but he seemed in a hurry now, afraid, even, of wasting another minute. And yet he was still accommodating, still a doting grandfather, as he stood up, held his Ritual to his heart, and smiled while waving Alfonso’s hand away when the boy offered to help him.

“You should allow an old man his sacrifices – and exercise,” Fr. Anthony’s chuckle sounded more nervous than amused, “I’m afraid that I can’t stay for dinner, because after what happened today, I think we shall start sessions tonight.”

Alfonso very nearly asked how he could help, and yet something held him back. He was not sure if it was good sense, or if it was the exhaustion that still seemed to gnaw at his insides, where the wound was on his soul. He only knew that Fr. Anthony had embraced him, given him another Sign of the Cross on this forehead, and told him to pray, because his guardian angel was quite a good and powerful being to keep him so protected thus.

“You need to rest – and I order you to pray, little Jesuit,” Fr. Anthony reminded him, as they walked to the door, “Now as for food – I’ve sent word that some be brought over. I believe that when you walk into your dining hall, there will be enough for you and the young man that I met earlier.”

“What?” Alfonso promptly forgot about his unease, his meditation on whether he should help Fr. Anthony, and the sight of an insect filled with words and letters.

Fr. Anthony smiled, with brightness that should have been a chuckle had he been less occupied, “Did you think you were the only one using his mobile phone this afternoon?” he returned his Ritual to his pocket, “I know how to use delivery services, even if I don’t use your Netflix.”

“You really shouldn’t have, Father.”

“Oh yes, I should,” the priest retorted, blinking as he opened the door and greeted the late afternoon sunlight, “I find that a variety of dumplings and noodles work very well after an oppression, and that heavy meals with either pasta or rice work very well after an exorcism. And that is why I am now a giant ball of fat. Take care, dear young brother.”

“But what about you?” Alfonso picked up the nearest cake slice and handed it to Fr. Anthony, “You need food now.”

The old exorcist suddenly seemed young in the skin, but ancient in his gaze, in that moment that he accepted the snack, and as he looked at his companion. He appeared geared for battle, cloaked with armor, protected by fire; and yet his eyes seemed tired, as though the waters of stormy seas were scrambling to a rocky shore. And when he laid a hand on Alfonso’s cheek, the skin felt leathery, but warm, like that of a grandfather so hopeful in his grandchild, and so wise in the ways of an unseen world.

“Thank you – I’ll take this, but I can eat no more,” the exorcist’s voice was low, almost a whisper, as though he were steeling himself for the battle ahead, “I think you know how difficult the sessions are. What you witnessed in Manila was mild and quiet, and yet I don’t think anyone could have eaten while being in that same room.”

Alfonso had always looked back on the session on the balcony with dread. He could hear screams and jeers almost as clearly as though the beasts were nearby; and yet he found that as the months passed, the memories plagued him less and less. He could still hear the jungle, the chorus of menacing voices emanating from everywhere at once, the hiss of snakes and growls of giant cats spewing forth from his friend’s body. And yet he felt as though it had happened to someone else, in another life, in another chamber in a giant house through which he still roamed.

“What about water?” Alfonso gave Fr. Anthony the nearest bottle.

“And now you are like my grandmother,” Fr. Anthony’s smile was wider, but drawn, as though he were looking upon his last few moments of happiness before he cast himself into despair once again, “But like my grandmother said, ‘I ask only that you pray for me.’”

Alfonso promised that he would, and he truly did, as he exchanged phone numbers with Fr. Anthony, as he walked in silence with the old priest to the university gates (save a grave order of, “You must pray for yourself!” that served as the old man’s goodbye), as he returned to his office and breathed through his memories of the last hour’s labors, and as he finally made his way to the dining hall. He was not sure how to even talk about what had transpired if anyone asked him who his American Jesuit friend was; but thankfully, no words were required. There, on the table, glistened a giant box of pork dumplings, two plates overflowing with noodles and vegetables, and a bowl of fried chicken.

And around the table were his research team, who promptly rose, pulled him onto a seat, and gave him a plate that swelled with food. Fr. Anthony had ordered enough, it seemed, for ten people.

“This is amazing!” someone said, “Thank you to the Manila Jesuits for your goodbye party!”

“I heard it was from one of the businessmen in the city,” the young priest (whom both Agnes and Fr. Anthony had met) said between mouthfuls of chicken, “I didn’t know you knew so many people, Brother Alfonso!”

“I heard it was from the Vatican,” another teammate added.

The speculations flew – until someone halted all the eating and reminded them all to say grace – and continued to fly well into the meal. Someone said that the Manila Jesuits were celebrating Alfonso’s return, so they had to send food to comfort the researchers he would leave behind; another said that the businessman probably heard about all the good work Alfonso had done for the city’s schools and was sending him an entire Chinese restaurant as thanks; and his young Jesuit friend said that if, indeed, the Vatican had sent the food, then it would have been pizza and pasta. This prompted a discussion on Filipino sweet spaghetti and the merits of pineapple on pizza, followed by the stories of some of the researchers who had already been to Rome, followed by yet another discussion on what the next few weeks would be like, research-wise, without Alfonso.

Thankfully, Alfonso did not need to join the conversation. He laughed with the brothers, accepted their best wishes, listened to their debates on Italian food, quietly reminisced on his own holidays in Rome when he was younger, and simply nodded as he saw how life would carry on in the university long after he had left.

And that night, he bade the brothers goodbye. His flight was in mere days, and he would no longer be joining them in their research, no longer be studying word maps or coding data, no longer be watching once staid lectures blossom into seas of lessons and knowledge. He would simply be Alfonso, a student yet again, this time studying theology for a full four years, a youngster once more in the ways of a new world.

He did not know how tired he truly was after the word mapping session with Fr. Anthony, until he stood up and felt his entire digestive system weigh itself down in protest. He had no idea how much food he had eaten, or how many servings he had had (he was quite sure he had refilled his plate several times, but he had been too dazed to count). He simply slid into bed that night, without brushing his teeth, without taking a shower, without even reading from his breviary.

When he awoke, he was on the floor, tangled in his sheets. His phone was alerting him that a text message had arrived; in the rush to give in to his exhaustion, he had also apparently forgotten to turn his phone off.

Alfonso blamed the excessive MSG, the grease, the carbohydrates, even his now rather loud belch as he reached up into the darkness, groped around his desk, and, finally, clasped his fingers around his phone. The white light of his screen left black spots in his vision; he saw that it was 3 AM.

The message was from Father Anthony.

“We just liberated her from some of the demons. Thank you, dear Jesuit brother. I hope that I can talk to you one day about how you helped me. For now, I must rest and prepare for more work ahead.”

Alfonso was too wide awake to put off a reply. He crawled out of the knots that his sheets had made, stood up, banged his hip against something, kicked his foot against something else – good God, why was his body everywhere at once? – and knocked his knuckles against a wall as he switched on the light to his room. He was typing a response out the entire time.

“I don’t think I helped at all, Father, but I’m glad I did. Yes, let’s talk when you’ve rested. I’ll keep praying for you.”

Alfonso heard knocking from somewhere, but he was still too deep in sleep. He yawned, rubbed his eyes, belched yet another time and tasted a mixture of noodles and dumplings. He felt both deaf and numb, and almost blind as his phone blinked to life.

“Go to sleep – and stay safe! I shall be sure to tell Jorge about you. Mind you, he will probably invite you to join the project (as will I, but this is something that has to be talked about rather than decided without discernment).”

Alfonso laughed (giggled, too, at the thought that the Pope might one day know about him). He figured that Fr. Anthony would say as much, given how the old man’s wide blue eyes had seemed to brighten with both eagerness and understanding when Alfonso explained the work that he did. The priest had already hinted at such an invitation so many times, in Manila, in the Infirmary, in casual conversation, even in the quiet air that the man bore as they had strolled together on the grounds of the university. And yet – Alfonso felt only the pull of research and the need to look at words, which, he knew, was no substitute for the compassion that victims of exorcism needed.

Again, there was the knocking, but Alfonso ignored it as he typed another message.

“Thank you, Fr. Anthony. I am a fan of the Holy Father, but I don’t think I’m a good fit for the project. I’m only a researcher. I’d bore even demons to death.”

The knocking grew louder, and this time, the voice was clear. It was from his door, calling out his name.

The door was right in front of him, and Alfonso yawned once again as he opened it; then tried not to jump when he saw that it was the priest who slept in the next room, and who took one look at him, then at the room behind him, and paled.

“I was going to ask if you were ok,” the priest said, in a high whisper, “I heard noises – but – oh my God. Stay where you are. Don’t move. I’ll be back.”

The man crossed himself, then ran down the hall, in the general direction of the sleeping quarters of the higher ranked priests.

Alfonso barely saw his phone light up once again with a message. He turned around, slowly, heard his breath catch in his throat, felt his throat constrict into a thousand knots as he beheld the state of his room.

His bed was on its side, perfectly vertical, as though someone had pushed it and spilled him neatly onto the floor with the rest of the bedclothes. All the doors of his cabinets and cupboards were open, including those that he did not use because they were too high to reach. All the little images of the saints and angels on his altar were turned around – oh-so-neatly, as though someone had meant for all the symbols of protection and faith to turn their backs on the young Jesuit.

And on his arms and legs were bruises, from where he fell to the floor, or hit things on the way to the light switch. Alfonso looked at himself in the mirror, and felt the knots in his throat grow tighter, dig deeper: there was blood on one side of his face, and he saw a tiny cut, near his ear, where a tiny shard of sharp plastic was still embedded.

He had felt no pain when he had gotten up from the floor; he felt no pain now… only…fear. A tiny, half-a-breath moment of fear.

It was as though – a child had played with him. A child who could fly to reach high knobs, a child with enough preternatural strength to set a solid wooden bed frame on its side. A child who seemed to be laughing at him now, who seemed to delight in wresting the words from his head and the prayers from his heart, who seemed to be lurking in the shadows and waiting for his anger to be so great, so sweet, so juicy that any demon would race to feed on it.

Alfonso dared to look down at his phone and read Fr. Anthony’s latest reply.

“I am so sorry dear Alfonso, but I did not want to tell you this through SMS. You have to be careful. The session took nine hours this night. The demons called you by name.”

Alfonso truly thought that his fear would graduate into anger. There was some rage in him, a tiny flame that flickered around in his consciousness, looked for a corner in his heart to warm itself. And yet, as Alfonso looked at the mess that had been made, he felt only a sadness stabbing at the wound that had been made in advance that afternoon.

There was fear, true; but the sadness, the despair for the victim’s poor parents – it rang and dug much deeper.

A mother and a father had to deal with this kind of vicious, horrible mischief for years, had to watch their child suffer, had to keep her imprisoned at home. A poor child had to be blind to the realities of the world, had missed five years of her life, and would perhaps miss more. And all this happened, while there were children crowded in classrooms elsewhere, while their voices filled the university halls with giggles and laughs aplenty, while their lives went on in a storm of toy cars and dolls, mornings in school and afternoons on the playground, evenings with their families and nights snug asleep in their beds.

It wasn’t fair to the poor little girl; she had probably endured the possession on behalf of her father, as payment for something he had done.

But, there too, was another kind of anger in Alfonso’s heart; and he strove to ignore it as he typed a message to Fr. Anthony.

“I think the demon was here.”

He heard the priests calling out to each other, farther down the hallway. He could hear someone waking up the doctors. There was a call for holy water, blessed salt, and a copy of the Roman Ritual.

Alfonso’s phone blinked to life with another message from the exorcist.

“I will be there in a few minutes. I’ve already alerted your brothers.”

Return to Table of Contents for Book 2