Fr. Anthony was true to his promise. The priests later said that when he arrived, he was weak, seemingly bedraggled; and yet solemn still, with his Roman Ritual, his own vials of blessed salt and holy water, and a downcast gaze that made him appear as though he were bowing to the angels that were leading him onward.
Alfonso was not there to greet the exorcist. Within minutes of receiving Fr. Anthony’s message, the higher ranked priests came to the young Jesuit’s room and helped set it to rights, and a doctor took him aside to examine his wounds. There were at least seven priests present, and yet the coming and going felt familiar, routine, smooth, as though no one minded being called to the aid of a brother in need and under attack – as though it had already happened several times before, and the priests had long been drilled in their response.
Alfonso sat in a room farther down the hall, now hastily converted into an examination area. The doctor – also a Jesuit – removed more shards of plastic from Alfonso’s hair, cleaned the wounds and stanched the flow of blood with ball after ball of cotton, and prayed as he did everything with the precision of a surgeon operating on the most delicate of veins.
“These look like they’re from a picture frame, or a box, or a toy,” the doctor paused mid-psalm, “What broke?”
“I don’t know,” Alfonso felt the words scratch out of his throat, through a storm of anger that he was striving so hard to hold back, “I didn’t even feel the cut. I don’t feel anything now.”
The doctor hummed, “There really is quite a lot of blood, Alfonso, so even if – oh God,” he quickly cleared his throat, as he lifted the metal bowl that had been next to him the whole time.
Alfonso did not dare move, but he knew the bowl. He had heard it clink and clatter as each piece of plastic had been thrown into it. He knew that the doctor was about to take a look, to try to see what the pieces were, to probably pass the bowl to Alfonso so that the boy could also hazard a guess. And yet there the bowl was: empty. Except for some drops of Alfonso’s blood, there was no plastic to be seen.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said, above the noise outside. From the voices, Alfonso knew that Fr. Anthony had begun reading from the Roman Ritual, and the rest of the priests were responding to the words of the Litany of the Saints, “I’m sorry – things like this happen, but I don’t ever get used to them. They don’t happen often, but we once had a priest visiting from somewhere in South America, and he fell down the stairs on the way to a classroom. I had to pick pebbles out of his scalp, but they all disappeared, too.”
“Demonic oppression,” Alfonso echoed what he had read in the Lipa files. He felt something in his heart, two twin somethings that suddenly came to live there. One felt like it was squeezing out all hope; the other felt like it was cleaning out whatever love he felt for anyone, whether it had been his family, his friends, his brothers, the victims of possession that he had met or heard about, and – Fr. Anthony.
It was not even anything close to love or sympathy. It felt as though the love had been warped, destroyed, perverted into singing, stinging hatred.
Alfonso felt something feed the loathing, heard a cackle from a part of his will over which he thought he had control. Why had Fr. Anthony even given him the case to look at? Why had Fr. Anthony put him in danger, when he had absolutely no experience with possession cases, let alone a case that had been incubating for a decade? Why had Fr. Anthony come to him at all? Surely the priest had not been all that innocent, had planned everything, had calculated every single move, had pretended to care for even a poor young Jesuit who was probably reading a book on folk religiosity because he was simply curious – the way that all intelligent young men were, the same intelligent young men that the Jesuits strove to attract.
“So did the priest die?” Alfonso asked, but felt his spirit shrink at the flippancy of his own question.
The doctor dabbed a fresh piece of gauze and cotton to another part of Alfonso’s head, “He was badly bruised, but he was shaken, and he was so quiet for weeks,” the man discarded the gauze and cotton, then began applying an antiseptic that smelled like a mixture of alcohol and bleach, “We couldn’t talk to him. I treated his wounds, but he wouldn’t even answer my questions. Fr. Anthony helped him through it.”
“You know Fr. Anthony?” Alfonso felt the question come out more as a threat than a bright burst of curiosity; and, yet again, his spirit shrank.
“Of course we all know him – at least we, the older Jesuits,” the doctor answered, “Thank God we didn’t have to fly him in this time! Wait – how do you know him?”
“Manila,” oh how the single word felt as though it were broken glass, pushing against Alfonso’s heart! “He also visited me yesterday to ask for my help.”
Oh how Alfonso’s heart roared in protest at the lie! The boy felt the anger leap, dance, prance around imaginary flames that seemed to coax it to life. He did not know what to say if the doctor asked for more information; thankfully, the priest returned to his prayers, dabbing and cleaning and dressing with nary a word further. The poor man was probably shaken out of bed, and was still barely functional – no thanks to an exorcist who had drawn the entire house of Jesuits into a fray in which they had no place.
Alfonso let out a burst of air, felt his heart race as though he were truly running, away from the pests that seemed to chase out the goodness he knew he still had, away from the twin somethings that seemed to already take refuge in his soul. He knew there was a wound there from the last session, and yet it felt scabbed over, dried out, as though it were healing on the surface but festering with anger and rage beneath.
He wanted to say something out loud, to speak up, but something was tying him down, keeping him silent, taunting him and laughing at how truly helpless he was when there were no more saints left –
“Saint Michael the Archangel!” Alfonso nearly shouted.
He expected the doctor to jump or scurry away; instead, the man placed all his tools down, laid both hands on Alfonso’s head, and began to pray. It was no formula Alfonso recognized; then again, his head felt empty, as though all the words he had ever known had been scrubbed clean from his memory. He only knew that he had to call the angel that led the heavenly hosts, or all would be lost.
The priest’s voice was steady, a low drone in the mess of rage and words that ran through Alfonso’s head. He slowly recognized the prayers, as he called out to the angels, as he felt the chill of the evening and the sting of his cuts, as the dull charge of blood pumped into his bruises and drew heat into his limbs. The anger was still there, retreating, awaiting its turn to be called to the fore; and, in its place, was fear – a deep kind of fear, not of the uncertain or of the unseen demons who had made their presence known, but of the idea that he, Alfonso, was capable of so much hatred.
“My dearest Lord, calm the heart of your servant Alfonso,” the young priest finally made out the prayer that the doctor had laid upon him, and felt the fear back away, “Do not lead him astray in this one of many tests that he must undergo. Let him find You – and in the words of our brother long gone, let him fall in love in an absolute way, in a final way. Let him love so that his imagination might be seized from that which plagues him. Let him love so that he will find You even in the darkness that tries to overtake his soul. Let him fall in love, and stay in love, with all that You are, and all that You have created, and all that You shall give him.”
“Amen,” Alfonso breathed out.
He felt the prayer walk into his heart, bearing no more than light and softness, there to cast away the invaders who had only recently taken up house and tried to destroy the peace within. He felt the prayer in his mind, heard it being said by some other voices, heard it sung by a chorus in a language that he could not hope to speak, but would one day understand. And his memories – they returned, as the fog lifted from the orchards, as the winds swept away the desert dust – they slowly came back. He remembered the love he knew he bore for everyone; and yet it felt alive, as though an unseen hand had snatched it from him by force, but a pure hand had taken it, molded it into a form most wonderful and new, consecrated it once again.
Alfonso felt the burdens upon him disappear, felt his body lie still, felt the bed beneath him sink beneath his weight. He knew that there were voices outside, still praying, still reading from the Roman Ritual; but they felt near and soothing, as though the psalms and hymns had been breathed to life. He knew that his room needed fixing, that there was a flight in a few days, that he would have to return to theology classes and study – but they did not matter. His spirit, so wounded and attacked, was begging to recover, and he had to allow it to heal.
Most importantly, it had been taught a lesson, and he had to stop and learn.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the white ceiling of the room, and heard the birds twittering outside. He saw a clock on the wall; it marked the hour as 12 noon.
He heard the prayers still, in a low drone at his side. Alfonso turned his head and saw Fr. Anthony.
The poor man was indeed worn out, stretched out, seemingly tossed by a gang of demons and then kicked to the wall. He looked as though he had not had any kind of rest; the remaining hairs on his head looked almost transparent. And his skin – the liver spots were all the more pronounced, the wrinkles and lines deeper, the veins and bones all the more obvious even with the man’s size. Alfonso could not imagine how sick the poor priest was; and he felt ashamed for even thinking of condemning him.
“Oh, thank you, dear Blessed Virgin!” the exorcist finally looked up from the Roman Ritual, as though sensing that Alfonso had awakened, “Oh, you poor child!”
Alfonso’s heart broke as Fr. Anthony stood up, pulled his chair closer to Alfonso’s bed, and laid a hand on the boy’s forehead. The man was limping, and yet he was smiling through the pain, and warm in the palms as he spoke yet another prayer, yet another blessing. How could anyone have thought that the exorcist would willingly manipulate anyone to his will?
“I am very sorry that I led you into this,” Fr. Anthony leaned back and returned the Roman Ritual to his pocket, “This should not have happened. I know that you are angry, and I ask for your forgiveness.”
“No – no, Father!” Alfonso spoke at once, with as much energy as he could inject into his voice, as his legs seemed limp still, “I am not angry at all!”
“Alfonso,” the priest spoke his name, and it reverberated across the room, a scolding with no effort.
Alfonso smiled, “That was then! I’m all right now!”
Fr. Anthony shook his head, let out one breath, and watched the young Jesuit with eyes that were a shade of glassy blue, through which sunlight passed. And in that quiet, in those few moments that he dared Alfonso to speak, the latter realized that he was not being asked to disregard what he had felt – but to acknowledge what had occurred, to forgive those whom he had felt wronged by, even when the wrong had merely been perceived.
“I – yes – I was angry,” Alfonso looked back on what had occurred right before the prayer had calmed him to sleep, “I was angry that I wasn’t supposed to be a part of this, but I felt like I was being forced into your project, and I was being hurt. I was angry at you, and I couldn’t control it, like there was something telling me what to do and I just kept obeying.”
Fr. Anthony nodded, as though listening to a confession, “And what did you do?”
“I tried to fight it.”
Alfonso opened his mouth, paused, thought – and realized that he had, indeed, brought no real weapons to the duel. He had simply relied on his inner strength, had tried to fight, and at the last minute, surrendered with the prayer that should have been his first recourse.
He expected the exorcist to reprimand him; but Fr. Anthony simply sat back, watched Alfonso, and then began to speak in a voice that seemed to hold all armies in its thrall.
“I worked on the information that you gave me, last night,” the words came out, whole, unbroken, “I spoke to the child’s father. I can say only as much as can be given away; but you were right. He baptized his entire company, as it were, ten years ago; he performed a ritual in his yard, broke a chicken’s neck and scattered its blood, kept amulets in the garden to shield the house from what he called ‘bad vibrations’ – cast a spell to make himself prosper.
“He grew very rich – but the price he paid was great. He couldn’t remember what he promised, because he didn’t know what exactly he was doing, only that he knew that his father had done it before him for another company, and that his friends had done it for their own companies. It was some ritual borne out of a habit shared across families, across generations.
“He couldn’t understand why his friends were not going through the exact same thing. He told me as much last night. He was defiant, this father; he said it was probably something else, a curse from a jealous business rival, a curse from his in-laws, a curse over which he had no control.
“And yet I knew that we had evidence. Because yesterday, you told me that when you were doing the analysis, you felt that you suddenly could no longer pray.
“There was something I left out, somewhat, in my story. Their daughter – I told you that she spoke fluent Ancient Greek and Aramaic when in a trance, even without having gone to school. But I also did not tell you, that on any normal day, when they try to talk to her, she does not talk at all. She cannot speak. She grunts when she does not get what she wants; and when she does, she smiles at you, like she suddenly loves you; but when she turns away, you can see her grinning, leering, still angry.”
Alfonso felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise; the room felt cold, as though something were fighting against the warm sun outside.
“I knew that you were dealing with a demon – or its minions – yesterday, and I knew that we had uncovered something, because – well – what else would a demon do if discovered?” again, there seemed to be an unmade chuckle, but Fr. Anthony turned it into a gentle smile, “Demons want so much to escape from Hell, and discovering them also assured them that they would be kicked right back.
“It was a long fight last night. I wish we had recorded it, but I could not call in anyone. No one could help except the parish priest and a deacon. Oh, and my good friend, poor Aloysio. He called the bishop, called me, marshalled forces, prayed; there is something about Aloysio’s strength that he does not get touched so easily by these nasty, vindictive demons. But perhaps it is also because he has a great mission in the Church, and God cannot permit his highest generals to be so quickly assailed.”
Alfonso felt the weight of Fr. Anthony’s gaze upon him, as though there were some meaning that the exorcist was trying to drive early on, to foreshadow what he would promptly reveal later.
“We had permission almost immediately because the poor little girl was thrashing about. It took all her father’s guards to pin her down. I began almost immediately, but with energy thanks to your cake and water. You did well to force me to eat.”
Fr. Anthony’s smile was weak once again, as though the memories tired him.
“I had to work immediately. Every second matters, every breath matters when you are dealing with beings that transcend time and space, that are every where at once, every time at once.
“I gathered the names of a few demons, but their boss – they called him their boss in Italian, the capo – and I recognized the word only because I’d seen quite a few mafia movies. They said their capo wanted to talk to the young Jesuit priest and his woman.”
Alfonso swallowed hard, felt the lump in his throat suddenly grow spikes and threaten to stab his heart. He was ready to confess that he had indeed asked a woman for help, but he decided not to speak, and to allow Fr. Anthony to continue.
“I ignored the demons. I ignored everything they said because – well – demons under duress will spout malice, and intrigue, and gossip – they will do anything to get you to stop and ask them for more. Anything to keep you there, keep you talking – keep themselves on this plane and away from their leader. Lucifer Morningstar – a beautiful name, but that Light Bringer is as much the enemy of humankind as he is the most feared of all the demons. He sends them out like a cowardly general, then tortures them all over again when they are cast back down.”
And down, and down, and down – the jungle in Alfonso’s memories whispered.
“I was praying, hearing their pleading, ignoring. And then their boss – the capo – he came. He asked that I spare them all because it all hurt. He even tried to broker a deal, like a true mafioso: he would leave the child, but I had to pick somewhere else for him to be. I ignored him, and I kept on praying and calling on the Blessed Virgin.
“Then, he said something that I should not have disregarded. He said, ‘Bring that stupid Alfonso Sucat to me, or I will go to him.’”
Alfonso felt the blood drain from his face, the warmth evaporate from his fingertips. He felt rage stirring in his heart, felt the twin somethings knock at the doors of his mind, inviting him to stoke the flames that had kept him awake so effortlessly but hours before.
“And that is why I am asking for your forgiveness,” Fr. Anthony looked straight into Alfonso’s eyes, an ocean threatening to drown out any protest, “I should not have ignored the demon, but I also should not have made you work yesterday without the proper preparation – and for that, I am very, truly deeply sorry.”
The old man laid one hand on Alfonso’s shoulder. The young priest, for his part, was not sure how to react. He could only look away from the exorcist, and straight up at the ceiling, to imagine what the scene had been. A demon angry enough to throw him out of bed, wound him, thrash his room, play with his altar – but it was also a demon who had tried to tear a family apart, tried to destroy a little girl, tried to banish her childhood. Alfonso had had one night, but the child had years behind her, perhaps years before her still.
And yet – how many more nights and nightmares would he have to endure?
Alfonso was not aware that he was crying, until he felt the tears choke him, felt the salt sting his throat. In a few moments, he found himself enveloped in an embrace; Fr. Anthony had stood up and drawn the sobbing boy to his chest.
“You have every right to weep, Alfonso,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was deeper when heard from above the old man’s heart, and it seemed to enclose Alfonso’s tears as well, to wipe them away, “You should not have been hurt. I should not have even brought the child’s writing when I visited you. I cannot promise you that the demon will leave permanently, but I can promise you that I can teach you how to keep it at bay.”
Alfonso did not know what else to say, only that the tears kept on falling, kept on rolling down his cheeks; the sobs kept rising, kept clutching at his throat; his heart kept on smashing against his ribs, kept expanding into his lungs. The fear seemed to grow, to spread through every bone in his body, to gash through his insides. He had dealt with frightening professors, hints of ghosts, threats of low grades – all his old fears disappeared in the wake of a hatred that was older than time, a rage that burned for thousands of years beyond the imaginings of man, a pride that had cleaved the universe into light and darkness forever.
It was an enemy that could be with anyone, anywhere; his parents, his dearest friends, his brothers – oh God, what if he had pulled them all into a battle that he started, all because he thought it was his duty to help a man who had visited him only by chance?
Alfonso wept, prayed through his tears, heard the old exorcist whisper prayers that sounded as though they were commanding angels to assist him and come to his aid.
Alfonso did not know how long he had been embraced, held, and prayed for, only that he confessed, through his sobs, how truly angry and frightened he was; how he was so worried about his family and his friends; how he did not know what to do because he had never been taught about Hell and its demons, had learned so little about the devil, felt so very hopeless and alone.
All he knew was that Fr. Anthony calmed him down, slowly, with a hand on his head, and later, one hand on the boy’s heart, as though to urge him to breathe, to accept that he had indeed been attacked, to surrender to a power greater than his.
“You will never know if you opened the door, or if you had been a target for a very long time because of your goodness and your kindness,” the priest spoke; and, as he did, gave Alfonso a new copy of the Roman Ritual, “What matters now is that you must learn how to protect yourself.”
His lessons began that very same hour.
Had anyone merely glanced at Fr. Anthony, they would have seen a grandfather standing over the bed of his grandson and reading him a story, the way that he did every night. But had they listened closely, they would have seen that the grandfather and grandson were reading from the same book, save that the grandfather’s copy was careworn and faded, while the grandson’s copy was crimson and rough with the crisp of fresh pages. They would have seen the grandfather peer up from his glasses, to check on the boy’s echoing of his words. They would have seen the grandson’s smile grow, ever so slowly, as though he had walked through wind, and rain, and mud, and snow, if only to find himself in bed once again and calmly listening to his grandfather’s voice.
This same lesson took on different forms in the months that followed. Alfonso’s story remained a secret amongst the Jesuits of the provincial university; no one learned of it in Manila, save his spiritual director. The latter and Fr. Anthony were on the phone for hours, on that same evening that Alfonso first studied the Roman Ritual in earnest. The old priests exchanged notes on Alfonso; and, by midnight, the task of spiritually guiding the young Jesuit fell to the exorcist.
Alfonso spent a year being a classroom-bound student when he returned to Manila: he took classes in Canon Law in the mornings, then sacred theology and philosophy in the afternoons. At dusk, an hour before dinner, he studied the Roman Ritual and its theological underpinnings with Fr. Anthony. The lessons were sometimes done in person, as Fr. Anthony remained at the House of the Jesuits, on the orders of the Pope. Most of the time, however, Fr. Anthony would be out, advising bishops, trying to recruit priests into the project, and even carrying out the Rite when cases were too severe for the country’s newly minted exorcists. Alfonso and he would still be on the phone for an hour, going through theological texts, discussing their meaning and how they worked within the Ritual, debating on how some prayers were either poor or overdone translations of the original Latin.
As for exorcisms, Alfonso attended only a few, and only the mildest cases, and only after Fr. Anthony and he had spent hours in prayer and days in fasting. And yet, for all the preparation, there was only very little of note that occurred. The young Jesuit had witnessed only black smoke coming out of a man’s mouth, in one instance; and a child vomiting nails in another. Most of the time, the victims were asleep, or yawning, or coughing; one simply stared at the crucifix that a priest pressed to her forehead, and then promptly belched.
There too, was not much for Alfonso to actually do. He was in charge of calling the local diocese to secure the bishop’s permission for an exorcism, and to ensure that the priests knew that their team was on the way. He was in charge of ferrying Fr. Anthony to the victim’s home, and then back to the House of the Jesuits later. When they were on site, Alfonso was in charge of accompanying relatives who had to come to join the session: he would lead them in prayer in a room away from the victim, listen to their stories and answer their questions, and, on occasion, patiently nod his head as they claimed that some dwarf or elf or fairy had been at fault.
“As if these elementals were any better than demons,” Fr. Anthony once mused, as Alfonso drove them both back to the Residences one night.
“I used to hear the same thing from the kids, when I was on Regency,” Alfonso spoke, as he drove the Residences’ official (rather rickety) car into the campus, and out of the highway, “They had all these stories about this friend who disappeared because a fairy fell in love with her, or this friend who fell asleep and never woke up because he ate food from the elves, or this friend who got boils all over his body because he disturbed the home of the dwarves when he played in his backyard.”
Fr. Anthony’s laugh sounded both alarmed and amused, “The parents in this country have quite a rich store of threats to keep you children quiet, don’t they?”
Alfonso had been rather, and inexplicably, despondent that evening. He blamed the most recently removed demon for his mood, and credited Fr. Anthony for lifting him out of it. “My parents hardly ever talked about elves or fairies, so I didn’t grow up with the stories,” he laughed along with the elder Jesuit, as he pulled the car onto the road that cut into the jungles of the campus, “The elves and dwarves and fairies I know are the kinds that I read in books, the ones that fought in wars or defended hobbits.”
“Ah – a reader! Not a barbarian in your tastes after all!” Fr. Anthony exclaimed; then, with a tone a pitch lower, and more sober, “Still, these elementals are not simply to be played with or trivialized, away from your books, and in the real world, so to speak. They, too, were part of the Fall. Never mind that nonsense about them being these Beings in Between.”
“What the heck?”
“The Beings in Between – the ones that old folk tales say were the angels who could not choose between God and Lucifer, so they were cast out until they could make a decision. If you cannot choose between Good and Evil, then you certainly cannot be thought of as some creature of good – and especially if you sometimes ask humans to give you offerings to appease you, if I understand some of these stories correctly!”
“No – Father – it’s…” Alfonso’s brain, normally so well tied with both reality and imagination, now felt itself collapsing into knots, “It’s not that – I’m sorry – but – Father, we’re out of gas.”
And with his words, the car died, in the middle of the jungle road, with a tank of gas that was suddenly empty when it had been refilled but an hour earlier.
And with the rickety, creaking, croaking car suddenly coming to a full stop, so did the roar of cicadas and crickets rise up out of the trees, as though in both warning and mockery. A quick prayer to St. Michael undid the strangeness, however: the car suddenly started, on its own, with the tank of gas blinking itself full, and the world without falling into silence.
“I’m sure the good generals are in battle once again,” Fr. Anthony’s still calm voice broke into Alfonso’s fright, “Drive on, my boy, so that we can get to bed before any of these Fallen think of playing any new tricks.”
Beyond the episode with the Residences car, there were no more attacks, no more vicious threats, no more demons calling Alfonso by name. The boy knew, however, that he was not immune, for Fr. Anthony was still keeping him from the larger, more complex, deeply-embedded cases. The old man never spoke of them, never alluded to them; Alfonso was thankful, for he knew that if he were to even be asked, he would jump at the chance to assist at the more treacherous sessions, when he was so ill prepared for all the perils he would face.
There, was, nevertheless, something that bothered the young priest.
Alfonso thought that the deep immersion in the Ritual itself would push him dangerously close to Hell and all its dangers. But as he kept on reading the theological texts that studied and scrutinized the Roman Ritual, and as he kept on helping out at the sessions, he felt himself grow farther and farther from the act. He was not sure whether he missed the research, or if he was simply too much a scholar perched on a highchair up in his ivory tower – but he felt, all the more keenly now, that everything was happening to somebody else, in another room, in another life.
He did not know, as well, why it bothered him. After all, he had been attacked, and viciously so, by an actual demon. To be pushed so far away from the prospect of interacting with anyone from Hell was actually a blessing.
The answer could well have been far simpler than Alfonso’s overly knotted imagination would allow: he was simply a scholar, not a practitioner; he would not be cut out for the actual task of exorcism.
He resolved to wait things out, to write his papers, graduate from theology – and help Fr. Anthony. Three years had already passed since Alfonso had first met the exorcist, and the poor man still had no research team to show for his efforts. Alfonso pitied him, but he also loved the grandfather that Fr. Anthony had become: stern, with blue eyes like stained glass through which summer light passed; gentle, with a grasp firm and warm, and voice deep, words slow; and even comical, as he exchanged banter on the phone on some days with a pair of boys he only referred to as The Sheffields, and, very rarely, with the Pope himself.
(These latter conversations were special. Fr. Anthony spoke a smattering of Spanish, charming in its brokenness; Alfonso once caught his name mentioned as a new student. He hoped the Pope remembered. The very notion made him work, ever so hard, to suppress a giggle.)
And yet, Alfonso could not see himself as an exorcist. A scholar, yes; a writer, of course; but not the man whose strength and love he saw in Fr. Anthony.
The thought bothered him; in truth, it frightened him.