Matteo was a little over a year old when he was first brought to the House of the Jesuits, and he liked to joke, when he was much older, that he never left.
After Mr. Castroverde gave his consent for his son to be assisted by the priests, the five exorcists sprang into action. Every priest was in charge of something: Fr. Genio cooked meals for the family, Fr. Jun interviewed the family about its activities and heard their confessions, Fr. Exo gave lectures at a variety of levels that allowed even the baby Matteo to learn his catechism early, Fr. Levi tutored both children on a variety of topics whenever the need arose, and Fr. Romy trained Matteo to recognize and control his gift.
Their aim was to ensure that one day, if the gift remained and Matteo had to face the world on his own, then he would not be overwhelmed with visions, and would have the emotional strength to deal with them even if they became too great for his own spirit to bear. There would be a support system in his family, and a support system within.
Dr. Santos was there for the first few weeks, until the family was safely ensconced and knew the maze of the House of the Jesuits by heart. They would see him only intermittently then, when Fr. Exo had to be given new medications, or when one of the priests were too sick and had to sleep a Saturday away, so that another exorcist had to work in their stead.
The routine was thus established every other Saturday for the rest of Matteo’s life as a child. He would go to the House of the Jesuits with his family (and later, his nanny), eat good food, listen to lectures, talk about his week, and hone his gift.
It was easier said than done, and for all parties involved.
Sometimes, the food would be ruined: the rice would suddenly be burned even after being cooked for a mere few minutes, or the plastic bowls holding hot soup would suddenly split in half, or the stews would suddenly be over-sweet or over-salty despite not being seasoned at all. This usually happened when Fr. Genio had to deal with exceptionally difficult exorcism cases – and he dealt with many, as he was apparently the only one in the group who had studied Latin, Greek, and Ancient Aramaic.
“And they like speaking those languages, for some reason,” Fr. Genio said, as he groaned over a pot of adobo that suddenly tasted like it had been marinated in vinegar for hours, “So I’m called in when a demon starts talking, and then I have to stay because the demon just keeps talking at me!”
“But what does the demon say?” the four-year old Matteo asked, as he still spooned the adobo over his rice and ate it (much to his mother’s horror).
“Oh – wicked things,” Fr. Genio tried to coax the adobo bowl away from the child, but Matteo insisted on having more, “Like how I am a useless priest, or how nobody loves me, or how I should be afraid because I will go to Hell one day no matter how much I pray.”
“Do you think they will say the same things to me?” Matteo chewed his food slowly, as though he were afraid of the answer to his question (in truth, the adobo was so sour, he was doing his best not to hurt the poor, exhausted Fr. Genio by grimacing).
“I wouldn’t know, little boy,” Fr. Genio sighed, “But whatever they do, and whatever they try to say to you, don’t respond. Don’t engage. Do not reply and do not listen. That’s what we do. Ignore, and keep praying.”
From somewhere in the kitchen beyond the dining hall, a ceramic bowl flew off a shelf and shattered to the floor. Then, all the pots that were presumably hanging on the walls came off their pegs one by one, sending metallic clangs as they banged against walls or flew into windows. It was as though a thousand bulls were charging on tiptoeing feet throughout the kitchen and scattering everything in sight.
Everyone at the table crossed themselves, including the child Matteo, whose eyes were on the doors to the kitchen, and whose skin had taken on a greyish hue. His mother put arm around him; his father put an arm around her; and Johanna whispered across the table that everything would be all right, and that she was there for her baby brother. The boy’s nanny was not immune to the look of alarm on her ward’s face: she promptly prayed, then stood up to gather all the stray grains of rice onto the center of his plate.
“Matteo,” came from Fr. Romy, both as a song and a warning, “Don’t listen. Look for your guardian angel.”
Matteo nodded, gray, tears clouding his eyes. He swallowed his food noisily, just as the clattering came to a sudden stop, and just as the room plunged into cold so sharp, the water in Fr. Genio’s glass turned into ice.
“He looks very angry and ugly, mama!” Matteo wailed, dropped his fork and spoon, and buried his face in his mother’s chest.
“Matteo, he is ugly because he is full of hatred,” Fr. Genio’s voice trembled as he set his glass down, “But you have to talk to your guardian angel and ask her to help you, and you have to have faith.”
“But he’s scary!”
“I know he’s scary, but what did I tell you about God?”
“God is bigger.”
“And who will you pray to?”
“My guardian angel,” Matteo sobbed from the depths of his mother’s blouse.
The entire table prayed then, until Matteo stopped crying, and until the room turned warm again. It was summer: the winds of the gardens were blowing hot air into the meal room, the sunshine outside looked like shards of light slicing through the trees, and the wood of the table even felt hot to the touch. No other glass of water had been touched by the sudden blast of cold; only Fr. Genio’s glass had been hit, but with ice so deadly, it actually sliced through his skin.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Matteo sobbed, as Fr. Genio closed his hand into a fist, but could not hide the drops of blood streaming down. The room had become warm once more, and everyone was breathing again.
“It’s not your fault, Matteo,” Fr. Genio spoke, gently, about to stop Fr. Levi as the latter headed for the kitchens, “Now, let’s make you something to eat, all right?”
Matteo paused, then gave a soft, almost guilty, “Yes, please,” as his nanny gave him his glass of water and helped him drink it.
“I think that’s why you’re crying,” Fr. Genio joked, “That was some very sour adobo!”
The rest of the table laughed, albeit mildly, as the priest’s hand continued to bleed. Even Fr. Levi joined them, as he came in from the kitchen with a basin of water and towel, walked to Fr. Genio’s side, and proceeded to clean the wounded priest’s hand.
“I do have good news,” Fr. Levi spoke, “The kitchen is clear. It’s clean. Nothing broken. Solamente rumore.”
“Only noise,” Fr. Genio translated for Matteo, whose mouth had dropped open.
The demons that came could indeed hurt the priests and the family; but for the greater part, and in the early years, they were simply purveyors of noise and chaos. That Saturday afternoon, there was no great damage done in the kitchen, no great damage done to anyone at the table save Fr. Genio (and even then, he simply brushed away all worry and claimed that it was oh-so-very usual for demons to be their icy selves. Dr. Santos nevertheless came that night to check him and stitch the wounds closed).
On another Saturday, however, there was more than a fair share of damage done. Matteo was already in elementary school then, in the second grade, and in the same school run by the university. Johanna was in high school, in her final year, getting ready for college, and, by all accounts, quite the candidate for the same university – which had already announced that it was planning to admit women the following schoolyear.
Any family would have been pleased to have such a daughter, but Mr. Castroverde was not a modern father who would simply look with pride upon his eldest child and tell her to conquer the world. When Fr. Levi had called their house a few days before to say that he had already written her a recommendation letter, Mr. Castroverde simply walked away from the dinner table, declared that he was not hungry, and said that he would be working in his room.
That very same day, Matteo had come face to face with a band of bullies – in truth, they were the tallest boys in his grade, and had, by mere chance, sauntered together into school at the exact same time, and just as Matteo emerged from his morning visit to the chapel. Like any good boy, he waved them his hello; and like any other boys who had suddenly found themselves with power, they laughed, pushed him to the ground, and stepped on his things as they left. Matteo said nothing, but turned away, kept his head bowed, and tried not to pay heed to the little demons that puttered in the boys’ wake.
He only remembered his guardian angel fending the demons off with fire. She fixed the problem, but could not fix the fact that his pencil case was horribly dented and his crayons were broken. His mother promptly scolded him that night, which made her rather cross for the rest of the week, which also made her rather short with his nanny, which also made his nanny be far less warm than usual to him.
Matteo did try to explain, but his mother wouldn’t listen, and he received only a “are they already teaching you to disrespect your parents?” in reply.
The family, therefore, was a bundle of nerves and irritation when it came to the session on Saturday. Even the interview sounded as though it were being barked.
No, Johanna’s father would first consider if she would be allowed to go to university, in a place where there were so many boys and Lord knows what else. Fr. Levi took his turn to walk out, but only to the kitchen, where he could help Fr. Genio prepare the meal (and where he began making a bowl of spaghetti for Johanna).
Yes, Johanna wanted to go to university. She would be a journalist. She knew she could write well, had been the editor-in-chief of their school paper, could see a career in journalism. She was ready, and she didn’t care if she had boys or dragons in her class (Fr. Levi cleared his throat noisily in warning).
Yes, Matteo’s nanny had taken good care of him, had seen that he always visited the chapel first when he was dropped off in the morning, had seen that he always visited the chapel first before he was taken home that night.
Yes, Mrs. Castroverde was all right.
No, she wasn’t, was Johanna’s almost instant rejoinder, which prompted yet another clearing of the throat from the kitchen. Nope, she had scolded Matteo for breaking his pencil case and crayons, and she had been so angry for days, and it was so difficult to be in a home with an angry mother and a father who didn’t understand what the modern world was like.
The last words had come from the kitchen, from a flustered Fr. Levi, who had also saved the now fuming mother the effort of reprimanding her daughter.
“There were little devils,” Matteo spoke up at last, voice tinny, head bowed to his lap, as though he were about to cry; but firm enough to carry through the room, bounce against the walls, and make Fr. Jun finally smile, “They were following bullies. The bullies pushed me and stepped on my bag, and they broke my things. I was trying to tell you, mommy, but you told me to be quiet.”
“That’s because you shouldn’t answer back to your parents!” Mr. Castroverde thundered, voice battling against Matteo’s, “And you shouldn’t go to places where your parents tell you not to go!”
The last had been directed to Johanna, whose cheeks flushed crimson blood, as though she were about to explode.
“So why shouldn’t I go to college?” she retorted, to the chorus of gasps from both Fr. Levi and Fr. Exo.
“Because you are a child, and you don’t know any better!” Mr. Castroverde was close to shouting himself, and he ignored the glares from Fr. Genio and Fr. Romy.
“Really? Then what do you know?” was the flat question from Johanna, who had stood up, leaned upon the table, and faced her father with the flames seemingly leaping out of her skin.
“How dare you!” Mr. Castroverde picked up a fork and knife – only to be stopped by both Fr. Exo and Fr. Romy. The man was by no means a giant: he did not have the broad shoulders of Fr. Romy or the heft of Fr. Exo – but for some reason, his anger was so great, and his rage so pronounced, that he threw them both off and to the ground.
What happened next was both frightening and enlightening. Fr. Jun stood up, laid both his hands on Mr. Castroverde’s brow, and prayed the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. Mr. Castroverde’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed into his chair, hands trembling, knees shaking, as though a current were being run through his muscles, as though a puppet master played idly with the strings of his joints.
Mrs. Castroverde and Matteo’s nanny held on to each other. Johanna froze, both hands cupped over her mouth, eyes wide. The rest of the priests crossed themselves, reached into their pockets, and read silently from their own copies of what looked like red booklets that had been stitched, re-stitched, and re-bound with ash.
Matteo’s voice was the only other sound in the room, besides Fr. Jun’s. And the room – it had already been cold earlier, but it grew so cold, merely breathing let loose wisps and clouds of white frost.
“Please angel, please St. Michael, please help,” the little boy spoke.
His words were few, his pitch high and cloudy with breath; but the message carried, it seemed, as something in the room seemed to collapse, crawl out, leave. The going was long; one of the priests said that the clock seemed to stop, the seconds hand drag on as though it were traveling through tar, the minutes hand tick painfully into place as though it were made of lead. The prayers sounded as though they were syllables cut out of books, tossed into the air, riding on smoke, burning as they went. And that single sentence, spoken by a child, with so much pleading, so much sincerity and need – that single sentence seemed to part the stormy seas that drowned the room with poisoned water.
Anyone less wise would have lauded Matteo a saint, but even at his young age, he knew better: he had simply been a vessel for a greater power, and it was not his effort that had made the miracle.
There was no more counseling for the next few hours, as the priests sprang into action, on the ritual for which they were known, and for the first time in front of outsiders. No one could leave the room: there were too many priests outside, and they would inevitably ask why the guests were out and about, and why the meal room was locked. The family, instead, was tasked to step away (closer to the doorway, under the medal of St. Benedict) and pray.
There the rest of the Castroverdes stayed, on their knees, as the rest of the priests went to work. Fr. Jun had a crucifix on Mr. Castroverde’s forehead, as the father remained in what appeared to be a trance so deep, he was wordless and yet restive. Fr. Jun, for his part, was speaking prayers under his breath, reading from nowhere but his memories, calm, even, as the priests all around him walked about and set everything in order that should be set in order.
Fr. Romy ran out through the other entrance to the meal room. Fr. Exo opened his red book, stood next to Fr. Jun, and spoke prayers in what sounded like Latin with every syllable whispered. Fr. Levi knelt with the family and led them in a rosary; and, presently, put his arm around Matteo, who had clung to the priest and embraced the man. Fr. Genio opened the exit to the courtyard, retrieved bottles of what looked like salt and water, and came back in with his hands closed into white knuckled fists. Only later did the rest of the priests find out that the poor man could hardly breathe in the gardens, as though there were thousands of spirits congregated there.
Finally, Fr. Romy returned, and announced that the bishop had given his permission for a deliverance to proceed.
“We will go to a full and solemn exorcism only if a full and solemn exorcism is absolutely needed,” Fr. Levi said, as Matteo’s grip on him grew even tighter, “Don’t worry, little one. Your father will be all right for as long as you pray. Call on St. Michael again, and ask for his help every time you feel that you are afraid, because you must keep on fighting, capisci?”
The look of both bewilderment and fright blended into something pink and gray on the little boy’s face.
“You must fight, and call on St. Michael always,” Fr. Levi spoke, voice lower, “Do you understand?”
“No,” Matteo shook his head and began to sob, “I’m so sorry.”
Matteo began to cry then, and Fr. Levi held the boy to his chest, covered the child’s ears, and began to pray. From the table, something invisible laughed, as though it had heard the child’s whisper; it said something foul, in what sounded like Latin mangled with other languages dead and grating with anger; it sneered as Fr. Jun spoke a prayer from his book; then, it disappeared, as though fleeing from frost, leaving only warmth in its wake.
Mr. Castroverde was still unconscious: his hands hung limp at his sides, and his legs were splayed, as though he had indeed been a puppet cut from the strings that held him upright. He barely breathed; but when anyone looked closely, they would see his lungs rising and falling rapidly, as though he were indeed running a race in his sleep.
At length, the room seemed to calm, as the prayers went on, as Fr. Jun sprinkled Holy Water from the bottle that Fr. Genio had brought from the gardens, as the priests that surrounded the man sang psalms in voices that barely pierced through the thickness of the afternoon.
“Do not be sorry, Matteo,” Fr. Levi finally spoke, as he removed his hands from Matteo’s ears, “You did not cause this. It was not your responsibility. I know that you are afraid, but God is greater than all your fears, and it is His will that these things happen.”
The same invisible thing that had laughed and fled earlier now cackled from the ceiling. “But his grandmother called us!” the voice said, between giggles.
Mrs. Castroverde and Johanna looked at each other, eyes wide; they had no time to talk, however, as Fr. Jun’s words crept through the room.
“You will cease with all these lies, demon,” the priest looked up from the book, spoke a prayer in Latin, sprinkled Holy Water on Mr. Castroverde, then on the table. Something seemed to smolder there, as though it were made of hot coals meeting the rain.
That something seemed to come from the general direction of Mr. Castroverde’s plate – and, upon closer inspection, his keychain, which held the keys to the house and the car – and, upon even closer inspection by Fr. Jun, something that was neither key nor decoration attached to the key ring.
It looked like both a medal and a pendant; it still seemed to smoke, as Fr. Jun lifted it up, and let loose black fumes as the priest continued to pray.
“You will let this man go, demon,” Fr. Jun began – then spoke a name that sounded as though a thousand splinters had flown through the air and caught fire.
The name – the mere speaking of it – silenced the mumbles and grumbles that crept across the walls, obliterated the noises and scurrying that no one had noticed until they had completely disappeared.
And then Fr. Jun began a long prayer, in Latin, to which the priests would respond, “Ora pro nobis” at intervals. Matteo did not understand it, but he echoed the words as best he could, and, as he did, watched his father.
The man remained limp, quiet, so pale in the flesh save the fingers of his right hand, which appeared gray, as though the skin there had been burned. Mr. Castroverde might have been a silent figure in his waking hours, but he was a father, at least like other fathers in his time: he was the observant pillar, the force of order, the one whom the children were afraid to approach and fearful of offending (even the brusque Johanna was no exception). And yet at that moment, in his white collared cotton shirt, in his brown pants and black shoes, the man looked so vulnerable, so weakened, that Matteo could not help staring.
There seemed to be a stranger there, in the familiar clothes of his father. He could hear the prayers of what he later found out was the Litany of the Saints; he could hear his mother and sister speaking the words in clear Latin; he could hear his nanny praying as well in her own language. And yet the image of his father transfixed the child, so that even when the man awakened, he found himself withdrawing to his mother and hiding in her skirts, for he could still hear the crushing laughter, the giggles that grated on the walls, the heckles that were of a language that seemed to be mangled out of that spoken by his guardian angel.
No one could drag Matteo free from his mother, and then from his nanny, for the boy ran to her, clung to the belt that cinched her waist, and did not let go.
Mr. Castroverde, for his part, looked as though he had run a race for centuries. He had been standing up then, or barely and trying to, with tears streaming down his cheeks, with sweat beading his neck and arms. He was saying something about trying to outpace something that was flying behind him, that wanted to hurt his children, that wanted to tear his family apart; but he could not see that same something, could not even speak the words of a prayer he knew from his childhood.
And now that Matteo would not even dare come near him, the poor man collapsed onto a chair and burst into tears.
The only one who came to his aid and comfort was Johanna. She knelt by his side and embraced him, her arms circling his neck the way they once did when she had been a child pleading for him to help her little brother gain his footing in a world of invisible dangers. And in that moment, as the priests tried to coax Matteo, as the nanny tried to pry his little fingers free from her belt (she was finding it hard to stand upright, besides), as Mrs. Castroverde whispered to her little boy and begged for him to not be so afraid – in that moment, father and daughter spoke to each other.
They had hardly ever done so in the last few years, except for when Johanna brought home writing awards and showed them off at the dinner table, or when Mr. Castroverde checked on Matteo’s progress with his lessons by asking everyone around the child to talk about what the priests had said. There had been no real confiding until that moment, in a locked room that had grown warm after hours of being cold, in a chamber that had settled into silence after hours of trembling with the scurrying of invisible feet.
The father said something about being so afraid for his daughter, because they were taking students away, and students were disappearing, and some of them were turning up stabbed to death and so much worse – and he was so afraid that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he lost his children.
The daughter said something about being careful, because she would still live at home, and the Jesuits would keep a close watch on her when she was on campus. And didn’t he want to have a daughter who was happy, really and truly happy, and who was doing good things, and was a scholar?
Something changed in the room, at that moment. Matteo finally crept out from behind his nanny, ran across the room, and embraced what he could of both his father and his sister. The priests were silent, save for Fr. Jun, who spoke to Mrs. Castroverde in a voice that was as level as it was calming.
“I had sessions this week,” he began, one hand holding his book, the other still clasped around Mr. Castroverde’s keychain, “They were with an older man, someone who was once a politician, and who perhaps lost himself in his own arguments. He had several demons, including the one that I removed from your husband.”
Mrs. Castroverde gasped, and yet remained in place, watching her husband enclosed by their children’s arms, unwilling to step forward when that same embrace had never been given, in all its true affection, before. She allowed the children to hold their father, as her own voice came out in what sounded like a croak littered with pebbles.
“Is that possible?” she did not remove her eyes from her family, “For a demon to possess more than one person?”
“A demon goes beyond all space and time; it is a fallen angel that can be in any place at once, but only if God so wills,” Fr. Jun sounded less a scholar, more of a professor who was preparing to scold a student, but who would do so with both gentleness and grace when the opportune time came, “Your husband was not possessed, strictly speaking, and I credit your prayerfulness as a family for that. He was oppressed: the demon was already knocking at open doors, waiting for him to give in, looking for weaknesses to exploit. I’m glad we caught it early.”
Mrs. Castroverde could only nod. Her eyes were now to Fr. Jun’s hand, which still held the keychain.
“Mrs. Castroverde,” the priest spoke, this time with the voice that commanded those who had offended to listen, and those who were not involved to leave, “I need you to tell me what this is.”
The rest of the priests dispersed, almost on cue: Fr. Genio returned the bottles of salt and water to the courtyard, Fr. Exo gathered the empty plates on the table, Fr. Levi laid out notebooks on the table in preparation for lessons, and Fr. Romy stood by Mr. Castroverde and prayed more prayers from his own copy of the red book. Even Matteo’s nanny seemed to know what to do; she made for the kitchen and announced that she would wash the dishes for the priests, and she could cook for them if they needed to stay late.
Mrs. Castroverde remained quiet in those few seconds of flurried activity. She simply stared at Fr. Jun’s open palm, where her husband’s keychain was.
There, indeed, was a pendant, deformed by an invisible fire. It seemed that there had once been a crucifix on it; but in the bright light of the afternoon, in the smoky air of the room, the face of Christ appeared tortured, almost gruesome.
“He always carries it around,” was all she could say.
Fr. Jun removed the pendant from the keyring, then handed the rest of the keys to Mrs. Castroverde. She jumped; the keys were frozen, she later said. They felt as though they had been made of ice.
As for the pendant, she later found out that Fr. Genio had taken it to a rubbish pile behind the seminary. He burned it, spoke prayers over it, and carried out the entire proceedings with courage, for he felt as though nameless, faceless, numberless beasts were snarling and growling in his ears as he read out the syllables in Latin. He swore that at one point, he was shouting; and yet no one had heard him, and one young priest claimed that he had simply seen the Spaniard standing in place, dazed, staring at wisps of black smoke coming from beneath the garbage.
Fr. Jun spent the rest of the afternoon counseling the Castroverde couple in the garden, while Johanna and Matteo sat in the dining hall with Fr. Exo and Fr. Levi for lessons. It was only in that atmosphere of ease that the story emerged.
Mr. Castroverde’s mother had always been a devotee at Quiapo, and had bought the pendant after her son’s graduation from college. She said it had been blessed by a priest, that it would allow him to get a good job, and that it would protect him from whoever tried to thwart his plans. Mr. Castroverde’s mother had died before Matteo was born, so there was no way to confirm the story or know any further details. All that Mr. Castroverde knew was that every time he needed help, he simply needed to go down on his knees, clasp the pendant, and pray a Latin prayer word for word without missing a single syllable.
Fr. Jun asked him to repeat the prayer. Mr. Castroverde spoke it in a voice that was withdrawn but insistent, as though he had indeed drawn the words from memory for years, and yet regretted doing so.
“I didn’t know about this,” Mrs. Castroverde said faintly.
“I don’t recognize it as any of our standard prayers either,” Fr. Jun rejoined, tone tentative, brows wrinkled, “But I can understand what the lines mean. Roughly translated: you’re calling a specific angel to help you do something, to come to your aid.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Mr. Castroverde’s usual defiance played on the ends of his syllables, “Shouldn’t we call on angels in any case?”
“Yes – but we know only three of them by name: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel,” the priest counted out the names on one hand, “We don’t idly use angels’ names because we are not summoning them; we are begging for their intercession. That is why we only ask for our Guardian Angel, but we do not give it any name.”
Husband and wife looked at each other, swallowed hard, looked at Fr. Jun again.
“I know that someone – a teacher, a grandparent – might have taught you otherwise,” Fr. Jun continued, voice level yet calming, “It is something consistent with our need to make God part of our family, with religion being something of our everyday lives, not just something we do on Sundays.
“But the need to keep your guardian angel nameless makes sense if you think about what naming your angel actually does.
“When we exorcists carry out a solemn exorcism, our first task is to make a demon give up its name. Nothing can move forward without that name; and the process often takes days or weeks, even months. Once a demon is weakened – after long prayers, and fasting, and repeated blessings – once a demon is too weak to be defiant, it will finally say its name, and that name gives the priest power over the demon. The priest can then command the demon to reveal how it was allowed to enter the person, when it will leave, even the body part from which it will escape.”
A light breeze blew through the courtyard, carrying with it the smell of lilies, as well as the sound of Matteo repeating lines of English prayers after Fr. Levi recited them.
“There is a caveat, however, to using a demon’s name,” Fr. Jun went on, syllables pointed, as though he were about to launch into a lecture, “An exorcist can never cast it out based on his own power and will. An exorcist always works as a vessel for God. That is why you hear us say things like, ‘In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ,’ or ‘In the name of the great God who created the heavens and the earth.’ The words might be in Latin, but they hold power only if the priest who speaks them is also sincerely calling upon God to use him, only if the priest is surrendering to the higher power of God.
“The words have no meaning if they are used by a priest who sees the exorcism as a way to gain recognition, or who sees the words as a method to order demons to do his bidding. Once a priest begins to walk down this path, he is walking into a trap, and all will be lost: demons will latch on to his vanity, they will adhere to his need for control, and they may even tempt him by leaving as a body so that he is tricked into believing that he has successfully removed them, all by his own power and means.”
Fr. Jun paused once again, allowed the Castroverdes to absorb the words, listened awhile to the sounds from the dining hall. This time, it was Johanna who was talking. Her voice had lost the high pitch that had once characterized the little girl, and her tone was far less insistent than when she had first protested that she truly did not like playing with dolls – but she was the same child who loved learning new things and saw in her brother a little boy to be protected. Even her encouragement for Matteo to learn a new prayer sounded as though she were asking him to learn how to build his own armor, for she would need him to fight on his own one day.
“Now, Mr. Castroverde,” Fr. Jun resumed, “I’m afraid that you walked into that same trap.”
Mr. Castroverde looked defiant for but a single moment; in the next, he paled, as though the afternoon had already drained him of whatever energy he had left.
“I do not fault your mother; I am sure she meant well, and God rest her soul,” Fr. Jun spoke immediately, though calm, “But that prayer, it named an angel and made you believe that you were controlling it, that you had power over your destiny. You might have experienced good things at the beginning as a result of praying the words faithfully: extra cash coming your way, bosses taking you to big gatherings where you could mingle with rich and powerful people, compliments on your work, maybe even a pay raise.
“And maybe things kept on staying good – but then they started becoming suspicious, maybe even eerie. The extra cash came from someone who had to go hungry so that your wallet could be filled. The big gatherings were filled with rich, powerful people who asked you for favors that verged on illegal. You were complimented for that work, given a pay raise for that illegal job.
“Or maybe things didn’t work out at all. And then you prayed once again, and things got better – but other things in your life took a strange turn. You would get into petty arguments with your friends, you would lose contact with your closest relatives, or you would feel as though your family was being torn apart.”
Fr. Jun was about to say more, but he did not dare. Mr. Castroverde had already broken down in sobs, was almost shameless as he covered his face, slouched over his knees, and bowed his head to the ground. He had his back turned to the meal room windows that opened out into the gardens, but had he seen the scene within, he would have been proud of his children: Johanna saw him, snapped her attention immediately to Matteo, and distracted the child by making the little boy describe her guardian angel to her in detail.
It was Matteo’s favorite topic, and he obliged. There will be space to talk about this later, but for now, in the garden, there was a confession. And in the years that followed, there was counseling for Mrs. and Mrs. Castroverde, for they had grown up with the notion that prayers were words to be cast, and that when they did not come true, then there was something wrong in how the prayers had been said. They could not be faulted for such notions, and neither could the parents who had raised them, for they had hardly had any catechism growing up; their lessons, post-Second World War, had drilled math, English, and reading that could purportedly rebuild a broken, bomb-torn nation.
So, every time the children had their lessons, Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde would sit with one of the priests for consultations, prayers, conversation, and, in the first few years, minor deliverances for Mr. Castroverde. The demon that Fr. Jun had already cast out liked coming back (Or, as Fr. Levi put it, “jumping houses”), and it usually did so right when Fr. Jun would be sitting with the couple. Whenever this happened, Johanna was in charge of ensuring that Matteo was preoccupied with something else, whether it was prayers, an essay for school, a textbook that he had to plod through, an article in the newspaper, an opinion column that was spouting more than the usual vitriol against the current government, anything to make Matteo overuse his brain.
It was her second diversionary tactic, next to asking about her guardian angel. Where Johanna was incredibly sharp in her speeches and incisive in her writing, Matteo struggled to express himself with ease. Where Johanna seemed to absorb everything she read, Matteo had to go through books at least twice to understand them, thrice if he had an examination, four times (and half-heartedly) if Fr. Levi shook his head and insisted that the boy learn his catechism if he wanted to survive the ongoing celestial war without having to consult the priests every time.
“What if I become a priest so that I’m always here?” Matteo once asked, before graduating from elementary school.
“Then you’ll have to work much harder or I’ll send you to another order!” Fr. Exo replied; and then added, with a rather loud, New York-sized snort, “Maybe the Dominicans will take you.”
“Oh, Exodo!” Fr. Genio groaned, “Don’t discourage the poor boy!”
Matteo laughed at the exchange, but he did try harder; and if there was one thing he truly excelled at, it was succeeding after trying. He prayed harder then, had a faith that seemed so well anchored, it would have broken a storm and moved mountains. And there was no one prouder of his progress – and of his deepening faith – than Fr. Exo, who taught him catechism and, later, sacred theology.
Fr. Exo treated Matteo like any of his students: he did not lecture the child. Instead, he asked questions.
When Matteo was a baby, Fr. Exo brought paper and drew angels – with cloud-like wings that made them look like marshmallows – using a variety of crayons. Matteo giggled at the sight of colors, and giggled harder when the priest asked, in a gentle voice, “These are angels – do you know what angels do, little boy?”
When Matteo was a little older and in school, Fr. Exo handed the crayons to him, gave him sheets of paper, and asked Matteo to draw what he saw. Matteo could only fill the sheet with yellow lines, orange swirls, and black dots. The little boy was liberally coloring the sheet with orange and yellow; but when he came to the black, he hesitated, as though he could not, would not draw what he so clearly witnessed in reality.
“Is this what you can truly see, Matteo?” Fr. Exo inquired.
Matteo pouted, shook his head slightly, but kept his eyes to the sheet. “I don’t like drawing the demons.”
“They’re scary. It feels like I’m trying to talk to them when I draw them. Fr. Genio said not to talk to them. But when I try to draw them, they come nearer.”
Mrs. Castroverde was sitting down next to her son then, and she suddenly sprang up, rubbed her hands together, paced for a few moments, and then sat next to little Matteo and wrapped her arms around him. Matteo simply leaned his head on his mother’s head, but he continued to color in the yellows with the energy of a child that hid its fears behind feverish activity.
Fr. Exo watched him awhile, and yet did not correct the boy, nor encourage him to think otherwise. He simply observed the now brightening sheet of paper, with its dots nearly disappearing behind what he imagined was a veil of gold and fire.
“When they come nearer, Matteo,” Fr. Exo began, when the little boy’s mother loosened him at last, “When the demons come nearer, Matteo, what do they try to say to you?”
Matteo paused, swallowed, then shrugged, as though he had never thought of the question, had to see if he had the means to answer it at the very moment – and, receiving the answer, found that it was far less frightening than he had first thought it.
“I don’t understand anything, Fr. Exo,” he said the priest’s name with a drawl, tongue stumbling over the X, “They sound like they’re mad. Sometimes they sound like they’re mad at you.”
Fr. Exo smiled slightly, but he did lose some of the color in his cheeks. “They’re mad at me all the time,” he took his turn to shrug, “And I think they are mad at all priests – or all humans, because they don’t like us very much.”
“They don’t love us,” Matteo rejoined, sighing, as though he pitied the demons that seemed to be so close, lingering, nipping at the heels of his imagination, “They hate us, and they’re very ugly, Fr. Exo.”
“Then don’t try to draw them,” the priest leaned forward, patted the boy on the head, and laughed, for Matteo smiled his brightest and widest. Even his cheeks glowed, lit from below by afternoon sunlight bouncing off his now golden sheet of paper, “Maybe try to draw your angel? What does your angel look like?”
“I don’t see her, Fr. Exo,” Matteo retorted, sing-song, as though he were correcting the priest with barely concealed exasperation, “I know I used to see her, but I don’t remember her. I only see her wings now. But I know they’re not wings; they’re covering me, like – like the world is very shiny.”
“And is it like this all the time?” Fr. Exo asked, but motioned to Fr. Romy at the other end of the room. The latter immediately walked to the table, notebook in hand, to listen, “Do you always see your angel like this?”
“She’s always shiny but I don’t see her face.”
“And do you see her shiny wings all the time?”
“Not all the time, but a lot.”
“And when you say a lot, do you mean when you wake up, until when you go to bed, but not when you go to the bathroom?”
Matteo giggled, “I think my angel is laughing too, Fr. Exo – I can see her wings shaking!” the boy looked up, then all around him, as though he, indeed, could see the golden feathers that he so fearlessly drew, “But I see her a lot when I go out to the gardens or on the street.”
Fr. Romy took notes from his post behind the child, but made no indication that he was there. Not even Mrs. Castroverde noticed his presence.
“So what happens when you’re in the gardens, Matteo?” Fr. Exo continued, “You said that your angel sometimes comes out when you’re the gardens? Does she come out all the time when you’re in the gardens?”
Matteo shook his head, took a black crayon, but simply held it in his hand. He looked up, crayon poised, but eyes on Fr. Exo, “She only comes out when the bad things come out.”
There were two gasps from the other end of the room: one was from Johanna, who had been sitting in the corner and reading a book on Italy that Fr. Levi had lent her; the other was Matteo’s nanny, who paled, as though she had been responsible for the gardens’ evil residents.
“Oh, goodness,” was the faint exclamation from Mr. Castroverde, who was seated in a corner and drinking coffee with Dr. Santos. The words might have sounded sharp, but Mr. Castroverde looked as though he wanted to run out the room; his wife later said that he no longer took nightly walks in their garden, and, if he did, he would always ask his wife to join him.
Fr. Exo was calm, nevertheless, as he went on, “When you say ‘bad things’, Matteo,” he looked the little boy in the eye, to keep the child from seeing how his family had been so alarmed by his words, “Do you mean demons? Are there demons in your garden?”
“Well – I think they really are, but they’re pretending not to be,” and here, Matteo spoke rapidly, as though he had a bottomless store of tales from which he could draw his narrative, “They’re pretending to be dwarves and fairies and elves, and they try to make me go with them, and they try to make other children go with them, but they’re really just demons.”
Another gasp, still from Matteo’s nanny.
“And yaya says I shouldn’t go to the garden because they’re bad and they can take me away,” Matteo went on (Yaya was his name for his nanny), “She’s right, Fr. Exo, because they’re really bad – and they take little children, and the little children never come back!”
Johanna completely ignored the book now. Fr. Levi brought her a bowl of peanuts, then sat beside her, wordless. They shared the snack as they listened.
“When you say that the little children never come back,” Fr. Exo nodded at Fr. Romy, who promptly motioned that he should go on, “Do you mean that their families never see them again?”
“Oh no, Father,” Matteo was almost nonchalant in his correction, “They come home, but they’re not the same. They have something with them, like they have two people inside them.”
“Two people? Inside them?”
“Yes – like they have two people in one room, but they don’t like to share, and they fight, but the demons are very strong and the children just sit and cry.”
“How do you know this, Matteo? Do you see the demon and the children together?”
“Yes – they are inside the body, but it’s like the demon is very, very big and he’s using the whole body; but there was this little boy on the street yesterday, I saw him walking, and I saw the real little boy sitting inside his head and crying.”
The peanut chewing grew rather frenzied at the other end of the room, prompting Fr. Romy to signal Fr. Levi and Johanna to be quiet.
“And do you see this a lot, Matteo?” Fr. Exo asked.
The little boy shook his head, “Only three times,” he picked up an orange crayon, then drew lines over the yellowed sheet, “There was a little boy on the street, and I also saw my friends. I haven’t seen them for a very long time. Where did they go, Mama?”
The sudden question – and Matteo’s turn of his head to his mother – made Mrs. Castroverde jump in her seat.
“Who are your friends, Matteo?” Mrs. Castroverde’s voice sounded as though it were tiptoeing through a pebbled beach at noon.
Matteo’s tone, on the other hand, sounded as though he were casting starlight onto a field of fully grown corn. “The family in the house down the street, mama,” he continued, eyes once more to his paper, orange crayon drawing circles and curves. “The brown house that had all the banana trees – and they have a river behind their garden, a tiny river. That’s where the elves came from.”
Mrs. Castroverde was too stunned to say a word. Her eyes grew wide, and stayed wide, as she watched Matteo, then glanced at her husband (who, for his part, had never recovered from his pallor).
“I don’t see the family anymore,” Matteo returned the orange crayons to the pile that the rest of the crayons made, and pushed the sheet toward Fr. Exo, “But the elves sometimes stay in the house. Do you know where the family went, mama?”
Mrs. Castroverde cleared her throat, and exchanged glances this time with Matteo’s nanny, who looked as though she wanted to apologize for ever broaching the topic of elves, dwarves, or fairies. Mrs. Castroverde smiled, or tried to, in comfort; there would be no controlling, it seemed, what Matteo could see.
“I think they left for the province a month ago, my dear,” she finally spoke, “I don’t know where they went. I only heard that they would not be coming back soon.”
The story, much later, came to light, when Matteo was asked to go to Fr. Romy for lessons, and as Fr. Exo sat with Matteo’s parents. There had been a family, indeed, a few doors down from the Castroverdes. Their daughters had gone to the same school as Johanna’s, but the girls were in different grades. They would sometimes pass by the Castroverde gate on their way home: they would say hello to their “big sister” Johanna (who was almost always preoccupied with a book) but would also talk awhile to Matteo and his nanny, who often went out for a stroll on the street at around the time that the girls’ classes were over. Sometimes, Matteo and his nanny would walk all the way down to where the girls lived; sometimes, the girls asked if Matteo could come in and play; and always, Matteo refused, hands to his nanny’s skirts, face hidden in the fabric.
The visits to the girls’ house became rarer, for Matteo’s nanny could see how distraught her ward was whenever they got too close to the trees and creek at the end of the road on which they lived. As per Fr. Romy’s instructions, she did not press Matteo for reasons; she waited for him to speak. When the girls and their family left, Matteo asked to walk up and down the street once again, though he had never told his nanny – or anyone else – why, until the moment that he had to draw things for Fr. Exo.
“I can’t tell whether the secrecy is a good thing or a bad thing,” Fr. Romy said later, when he handed the boy to Fr. Exo for catechism lessons, “It can be good because we know that Matteo won’t simply tell anyone about what he sees. But this early, it can be bad, because we want him to acknowledge his own fears, and to talk to you.”
Mr. Castroverde had been addressed then, and his swallow was so loud, it made him flinch. Mrs. Castroverde simply nodded; Johanna looked downcast (she had expected her little brother to ask her to protect him, it seemed); and Matteo’s nanny appeared as though she wanted to fall to her knees in apology for not inquiring after Matteo, even after she had heard about what had truly happened to the family that lived in the brown house at the end of the road.
The daughters had fallen sick; so horribly sick, that the hospitals in Manila could not provide care beyond telling the family that perhaps, their children should stop schooling for a year and go to their province to recuperate. The family packed up and left, but the housekeepers left behind also whispered about how they sometimes heard the girls talking to someone in their room – someone who seemed to talk back boldly when doors were closed, but who disappeared whenever the maids attempted to walk in on the conversation.
Fr. Exo dispelled any notions of responsibility on the part of Matteo’s nanny, though he did amend Fr. Romy’s previous instructions, and asked the nanny and Mrs. Castroverde to ask Matteo questions whenever the child appeared afraid. And he warned them that whatever it was that had plagued the poor daughters could still be around, “jumping house”, wreaking havoc, playing tricks. No “childhood friend” was ever innocuous, no “imaginary friend” was ever harmless. The exorcist then proceeded to bless the family, after the stories were told, after lessons were over, using the prayers of deliverance from his little red book.
That same night, Fr. Exo said later, something black and sprightly scurried across his walls while the poor priest fought to sleep. It would pitter patter on claws hitting wood; it would scuttle from corner to corner as though chasing mice; and when Fr. Exo thought that he was ready to fall asleep, it would chitter-chatter with a high-pitched voice, as though trying to coax the priest to come out and play from behind whatever was shielding him.
The following week, Fr. Exo administered to several cases, all of whom were residents who lived in the gated subdivisions close to the university grounds. The testimonies were all the same: the victims claimed that they had been visited every night by creatures with eyes of flaming darkness, with teeth sharp as and crowded in slavering jaws, with emaciated bodies hunched to the floor. A father said he had been bitten, and showed the teeth marks on his back to prove it; another father said he had been scratched, and showed the deep gashes that ran up and down his legs. And yet another father could not say a word, save to growl at Fr. Exo between phrases in Latin and ancient Aramaic.
“Did you like how I kept you up all night?” Fr. Genio translated, when Fr. Exo repeated the words.
And so it happened that whenever little Matteo would encounter a “creature of the earth” (which was Johanna’s literal translation of his nanny’s name for the minor and mischievous demons), those same creatures would be subjected to Fr. Exo’s prayers – and would promptly oppress Fr. Exo before running back to hell.
And if the oppression was great, Fr. Exo would have a minor heart attack. He had several of them over the period that he was Matteo’s teacher, through the times that Matteo could still clearly see demons. He asked the brothers never to speak of the heart attacks, and warned Dr. Santos never to mention them to the family; but when Matteo was much older, and when the visions were more “refined”, as it were, he finally told the boy about the demons, and how no creature of the earth was ever harmless, let alone amusing.
“I am so sorry, Fr. Exo,” Matteo spoke, both alarmed and on the verge of tears as a fifteen-year-old boy. He had started going to the House of the Jesuits on his own then, even on weekdays. His parents would be at work, his nanny now helped out at home, and his sister was busy at her teaching job at the university. He was studying in the high school, which was not very far from where his sister was; but she had already graduated college, with multiple honors, had begun plunging into research, had even showed some interest in the boys (and had a special softness, it seemed, for a particular one that she had met courtesy of her father).
Matteo, for his part, found peace whenever he visited the five priests with whom he had grown up. And on that afternoon, a part of him broke as Fr. Exo revealed what had truly been going on while Matteo so innocently drew yellow streaks and black dots.
“I am so sorry, Fr. Exo,” Matteo repeated, when Fr. Exo brushed him away. They were in Fr. Exo’s library, where they usually sat on weekdays, since the meal room would be occupied by the younger Jesuits, “I know that you don’t want me to think that I’m responsible, but I really do think I am.”
“This one hasn’t learned that much about human will, has he?” Fr. Exo glared at Fr. Levi, who was seated with him then, and who was looking through the library’s books for something new to lend to Matteo, “Are you sure you taught him basic philosophy? I’m about to send him over to the Dominicans.”
“I think I really should go over to the Dominicans, Fr. Exo,” Matteo retorted, “What do you think?”
“You’ll give me another heart attack!” Fr. Exo exclaimed, picking up the nearest newspaper, rolling it up, and oh-so-gently thwacking Matteo’s head with it, “Why are you going over to the Dark Side? Did you learn nothing from Star Wars?”
All the priests had seen the film, of course, and were now fully using it for their lessons. Even Fr. Levi was not immune, and he had spent many an afternoon talking about Buddhist philosophy and its ties to Catholic belief – which had made Johanna light up in excitement, but which made Matteo wrinkle his brows in exhaustion. Again, it was not so much because Matteo was not interested; it only took him much longer to attach meaning to things that seemed so usual, so pedestrian.
“I learned that there are two sides to every… order,” Matteo joked, so that Fr. Levi had to sit down and laugh, “And maybe I should join the side that might like me.”
“Ay, all those years spent teaching you!” Fr. Exo threw up his hands, then tossed the newspaper behind him, “You had better tutor this one, Levitico. I give up!”
“But didn’t you say it was better that I wasn’t smart, because Satan could use me?” Matteo rejoined; and yet a little too careless, it appeared, for both the priests crossed themselves, and Fr. Levi took his turn to pick up the newspaper, roll it up, and give Matteo his own thwack to the head.
“Don’t talk lightly of these things!” Fr. Levi said, in a high whisper that threatened to burst into a yell, which Matteo simply laughed at, “And no one said you weren’t smart!”
“Only slow,” Fr. Exo grinned, and laughed harder when the other priest could only manage an “Ay, Exodo!” in reply.
Matteo did not mind being called slow; on that afternoon, he exchanged a laugh with Fr. Exo, and even avoided a fresh thwacking by Fr. Levi, who was still sore after hearing the boy’s nonchalant mention of Satan. Fr. Levi was playful, nevertheless; he had, after all, told Matteo that being slow was perhaps a gift, for it allowed the young man to be discerning, to think through his work before spouting out what might be impulse rather than wisdom,
“Now, if it’s any comfort,” Fr. Exo said, shifting slightly in his seat, “It’s been fifteen years since we played with the little version of you, the one that was – well, slightly less slow.”
Matteo laughed even harder, for the last words were said in a comical whisper, as though Fr. Exo were afraid that Fr. Levi would hear.
“And you’re more thoughtful now, Matteo – which is a blessing for someone with your visions,” Fr. Exo smiled, though one corner of his mouth no longer had the old energy that made his cheeks puff and redden. The muscle seemed slack, weak, as though tired of holding up skin for close to two decades, “Just so you know, we’re all slower too. Quick in the head, my brothers might say – slow in the body.”
“Speak for yourself,” Fr. Levi snorted. He and Fr. Romy were the youngest of the five exorcists, and the Italian still did not have the groans of the fast-walking Fr. Genio, the heart attacks of the pudgy Fr. Exo, the now frequent coughing of the counselor Fr. Jun, or even the fevers of Fr. Romy that took much longer to abate between his sessions. Fr. Levi, however, seemed slower in his wit now, far less poetic than he had been in his youth when he had exchanged ideas with Johanna, more preoccupied with reading rather than producing the essays and stories he had once so easily made.
It was as though Fr. Levi were being called back to his childhood, for there were days when he would simply want to read books, or look through the pictures in the old encyclopedias in the library, or simply stare at the titles and pull out a volume to hand to Matteo (despite it having been lent to the boy at least twice before).
It was a rather strange turn of events, for Fr. Levi was often called to exorcise children: he was a gentle man, who loved to ask questions, to draw children in by making them tell stories. And the stories they told – Johanna would listen to Fr Levi relay them with her mouth hanging open (or being filled constantly by peanuts), while Matteo would note them, think of them, commit them to memory as he imagined the cases that the priest dealt with.
And a few weeks later, he would ask Fr. Levi about the case, and have some insight (or difficult question) ready.
There was one child who said that he wanted to kill his parents, who imagined that he would boil them in oil and skin them alive; the same child spoke the words bereft of tears or tone, his eyes looking directly into Fr. Levi’s, a snarl simmering in his throat. Fr. Levi said that he was not afraid, that God’s mercy was greater than the thing that sat in the little boy’s place; and yet he could not help feeling that there was indeed a beast there, and the child’s soul had gone elsewhere.
It was a ten-year old Matteo that heard the story. His sister, fresh out of theology classes in college, asked about the nature of evil, which allowed Fr. Levi launch into a discussion with Johanna, which promptly made the little boy’s eyes glaze over.
A few weeks later, Matteo sat with Fr. Levi in the garden, while Fr. Jun sat with Mr. and Mrs. Castroverde in the dining hall, and Johanna taught Matteo’s nanny to read recipes with Fr. Genio in the kitchen. It was summer then, and Fr. Levi liked teaching in the airy courtyard, where the winds stirred the now blossoming white hibiscus that Fr. Romy had planted years before, where the sunlight played with the tight knots of the branches of the acacias that the older Jesuits had brought in as mere saplings when the building had first been constructed, where Matteo’s voice could not so easily be carried into the rooms of the House of the Jesuits.
Fr. Levi was reading aloud from a book about guardian angels, and Matteo was repeating after him, but the boy stopped at a sentence that said that guardian angels were always close by, to guard the souls of humans.
“Father,” he spoke slowly, “What happened to the guardian angel of the little boy that wanted to kill his parents?”
Fr. Levi paused; his eyes were wider than his smile, which, Matteo knew, was the sign that Fr. Levi had already forgotten about the case. It was a skill that all the priests said they needed to have: they could write down about their experiences, just so they had files on their cases; but they could not commit cases or sessions to memory, or they would never have a moment’s rest. Demons liked to prey on even the merest bit of anxiety; they latched onto anger and regret; any exorcist who dwelt on his work was also in danger, Fr. Genio said, of spreading the darkness farther.
“I’m sorry, Matteo, but I haven’t heard from the family again,” Fr. Levi sighed after some time, “I wish I could go, but they have to want me there.”
“Is it because they need to have faith in God first?” Matteo piped up, the single sentence coming out in a string of words so plainly, so distinctly spoken, that Fr. Levi simply stared at the child for a few seconds.
That afternoon was the first time that Matteo had crafted a question that seemed far more profound than his years, far deeper than his few, humble words would allow.
“What do you mean, Matteo?” Fr. Levi took Fr. Exo’s technique of asking rather than correcting, for he truly meant to continue his earlier response with an explanation of the nature of consent.
Matteo shrugged his little shoulders, his eyes still on the passage in the book to which Fr. Levi pointed, his gaze elsewhere, as though he were listening to his guardian angel.
“I think that if a family wants God to make their little boy better, then they should want you there,” again, Matteo spoke slowly, as though he were choosing the words – or at least trying to remember how he had framed them in his memory, “But if they want you, they should want you to help them because you are working for God. That means they should want the help of God. If they just want you there because they think you will give them something fast, then they just have faith in you, and I heard Fr. Jun say that it’s dangerous.”
“And why is it dangerous?” Fr. Levi pressed.
“Because we don’t have power over evil. Only God does.”
“That’s how all priests think.”
“The whole family should think that way, or they’ll also make the priest think that he’s better than everyone. I heard Fr. Genio say that that’s very dangerous.”
“And is this something that your guardian angel told you about?”
“Oh no – I don’t understand what she says anymore, but right now she feels very happy.”
Fr. Levi could not help smiling at the exchange. It was nothing profound, but hearing the ideas from a ten-year old – who had simply listened to conversations among exorcists, and had taken some ideas from his discussions with them over the last decade – made the priest take note of the incident, and relay it to Fr. Romy that night at dinner. Fr. Exo, unsurprisingly, laughed, clapped his hands, and declared that the boy had promise yet; but when all was quiet, and when the exorcists joined their Jesuit brothers for evening prayers, it was Fr. Exo who sang the loudest and smiled the widest, as though creating his own form of rather raucous thanksgiving.
A few years later, when Matteo was twelve, a child was actually confined at the House of the Jesuits, and was placed in the room opposite the dining hall. It was an emergency case: the child had been brought just that morning, as Fr. Levi had spent the entire Friday evening ministering to her, but had made no progress. He could not proceed with the exorcism because there seemed to be something in the child’s house that clung to her, that did not want her to leave, that attached to her and seemed to chain her in place – and, in so doing, beat her tiny body with invisible fists.
The little girl came to the House of the Jesuits with bruises purpling her pale skin. The moment she lay in the room, however, she seemed calmer; but the minute the prayers began, the bruises reappeared, and she screamed her little lungs out as though she were being branded with a thousand iron bars.
The Castroverdes heard only the story, but none of the screams; the rooms were soundproofed and sealed, Fr. Levi told them, as he took a break from the session and sat with the children. Fr. Jun had tried to call the family to postpone their meeting, but no one was answering the phone at their residence (the family later found out that on that exact day, all phone lines were down on their street, but they were promptly restored that evening with neither reason nor explanation). Fr. Romy and Fr. Genio were too busy preparing to be Fr. Levi’s assistants, and could not drive to the Castroverde residence to warn them not to come. Fr. Exo had to rest, for he had been teaching younger Jesuits all week (he had also had yet another heart attack, but the priests had thought it best not to tell the family).
It was the worst possible scenario, Fr. Levi said, as he stifled a yawn by drinking a whole liter of water; it was the worst possible scenario because Matteo had already been able to control his visions, but there was no telling what it would be like if he were suddenly placed in a situation where a battle between good and evil was being waged.
“I am so sorry that I cannot teach you today, Matteo, let alone talk to you, Johanna,” Fr. Levi’s voice sounded as though his throat had been opened to a sandstorm, and had been scraped with broken glass, “This is an emergency case, and I ask that you pray for me, so that I do not falter.”
Johanna nodded, most business-like, but with face pale. Fr. Levi had always been the strongest of the five priests, and it was unnerving, to say the least, to see him now. His hair appeared fainter, his skin looked as though it had been both drained of blood and filled with cement, his eyes looked empty, as though his soul had fallen asleep.
And yet her pallor was also due to Matteo, whom she held close to her body, one arm around him and clutching him tight, the other arm’s free hand holding a rosary, scapular, and a crucifix that Fr. Levi had given her as a gift for her eighteenth birthday.
“You don’t have to be afraid, Ate,” Matteo spoke the word that meant “big sister” in their native language, “I can see many shadows, and I think my guardian angel is helping in the battle. I can talk about it if you like.”
Fr. Romy had entered then, to fetch Fr. Levi, and he nearly jumped at the sight of the Castroverdes; he did flinch, however, when he saw how aghast the parents were, and how they had collapsed into chairs and could not be spoken to. His eyes widened at the sight of the stunned Johanna, and even more at the calm Matteo.
“You shouldn’t be here,” was all that Fr. Romy said, as he wiped sweat off his brow, and as he took his turn to drink a liter of water from one of the many full pitchers on the dining hall table, “This is dangerous, Matteo; I don’t know if you can handle the visions.”
“I can’t,” Matteo admitted, tone level, and yet voice playing with a single note that sounded as clear as a prayer bell across a monastery on a mountain, “I can’t, not on my own. But God can.”
Fr. Levi stood at the exit to the other side of the House of the Jesuits. He could only smile at the sight of a twelve-year old boy looking straight at him, as though lending him strength as forces invisible and ancient raged and thundered all around the hall. Anyone who listened closely would have recognized Matteo’s words as the reminder given to all exorcists: that they were but vessels and not keepers of power, that they were but paths through which graces could flow, that they were human and could do nothing extraordinary without guidance.
Fr. Levi returned to the sickroom, while Fr. Romy sat with Matteo and Johanna for prayer. At that very moment, Mr. Castroverde complained about the stifling air, the choking atmosphere, the absence of his ability to form sentences; he recognized it immediately as a reflection of his own experience years before, and he quickly begged his wife to stay, so that they could have a session with Fr. Jun.
There were no lessons for the Castroverde siblings that day. The parents sat with Fr. Jun in the dining hall, while the children filled pitchers of water in the kitchen (it had been Johanna’s idea, for without Matteo close by, she found herself shaking, felt that she could not control her fingers, discovered what a mess her mind was).
“Don’t worry, Ate,” Matteo spoke for what seemed to be the hundredth time that afternoon, “Just call your guardian angel. He’ll help you.”
Johanna was staring at the faucet then, at the strangely slow flow of water. Matteo stood next to her, ready to take a full pitcher back out to the dining hall; and yet with feet never shifting, knees steady, voice calm. He was as tall as his big sister now, and he was growing by the month, it seemed; but there was something about Johanna that made her appear larger than life, so that when she sank into fear, she likewise seemed to take the world with her.
“Is he here?” Johanna asked, faintly.
It had long been established, through their lessons, that there were no sexes amongst the angels; but Matteo always felt the masculine, almost brotherly presence of Johanna’s guardian, who seemed to be as stalwart and battle-ready as she. He even had a sword: Matteo faintly remembered it as a gleaming blade of a metal that rippled with strength and sharpness; as he grew older, he saw it as a shard of light that pierced through the shadows.
“He’s always here,” Matteo sighed, “And he’ll be busy, but he’s with you.”
Johanna laughed low to herself, then smiled, as though she had expected as much, as though she were proud of having such a brave angel as her guard. She was quiet for a long while, as the pitcher was finally filled, as she sealed it, and as she handed it to Matteo, knuckles brightly white from her grip.
Matteo did not immediately leave. He stood by his sister’s side, in the kitchen that had been part of his entire childhood, before a window that often brought in late afternoon sunlight onto their lessons in the room outside. He had been here to help Fr. Genio serve food, or to follow Fr. Exo as the old priest searched out the cupboards for hidden candies, or to listen to Fr. Levi and Johanna continue their discussions no matter where they walked, or to help Fr. Jun assemble plates of snacks for his parents’ counseling session, or to ask Fr. Romy about controlling his visions. He remembered the counter being so high that he could not get the cookies that Fr. Genio baked; then the counter being within reach, but the windows so high that he could not open them when the air grew too heavy in the summer; then the windows being within reach, but the cupboards still so high that he had to still ask for the assistance of the tall and gangly Fr. Jun.
One day, perhaps he would be taller than all the priests, and they would be stooped over because they had been serving people all their lives, or had been sick so often that they could not remember any time that they had been well, or had been awake so frequently that they would no longer recognize sunrise from sunset.
And then he would serve the food, search for candies, walk through the kitchen, assemble snack plates, answer the questions of a four-year old boy who was so puzzled to be walking into a world clouded and luminous with the beauty of angels.
Whenever anyone asked when he knew that he should become a priest, Matteo always went back to that moment in the kitchen, when he stood next to the sister who had protected him all her life. He was twelve years old: the rest of the boys his age saw nothing ahead of them but their games, saw nothing behind them but afternoons, knew only what was in the moment. Matteo felt as though he had been walking through a hundred lives, had fought a thousand battles, had spoken to men and children and women and girls in languages both word-rich and melodic. And yet there was so much left to do, and he had so much heart to do it.
“Ate,” he began, “You don’t have to worry about me or about yourself. We’ve been preparing for this to happen.”
“Hoy, Matt-Matt,” Johanna retorted, glare as pointed as the nickname she used whenever she wanted to give him a thwack upside the head, “We never said that you would go say hello to demon hordes.”
“Maybe legions?” Matteo grinned, pleased with his sudden burst of wit.
“I hate that word!” his sister’s high whisper made him laugh even harder. She nudged him with an elbow to his ribs, which made him choke up what would have been a string of chuckles, which then silenced the low hum of conversations in the dining hall.
“I’ve always heard Fr. Levi mention that word! It’s how the demons talk about themselves!” Johanna insisted, after the counseling resumed outside, “And it’s not a joke, Matteo! That’s five thousand demons. It’s not like you’re seeing four or five. Five thousand. And used in plural, too. Legions. Thousands and thousands in that room back there, and we’re right here.”
“That’s not how it works,” Matteo reminded her, doing his best to check his jubilance at how swiftly the lessons were escaping him, “The body of the little girl is near us, but it doesn’t always mean that the demon is close by and right next to you.”
“I know,” Johanna shrugged, then sealed the pitcher as she turned the faucet off, “I know they’re anywhere and anywhen. I know it’s another dimension. But you’re here, and you see them, and I’ve seen you cry when you’ve seen just one or two demons.”
“But you’ve also seen me happy when I saw just one or two angels,” Matteo spoke, syllables accented, as though he were trying to steady his sister’s pulse, “So imagine when I see legions and legions of angels. Imagine how much happier your little brother would be.”
“Imagine how scared I would be.”
“Just imagine that there is no such thing as a world full of demons, but absolutely no angels. There will always be angels standing guard. There will always be light in the darkness, like Fr. Levi keeps telling us.”
Matteo trailed off into a comforting sort of quiet, the kind that made Johanna look straight at him, and smile, with wonderment spread so transparently across her countenance. She glowed, perhaps at the thought that her brother had grown, perhaps at the notion that the little boy to whom she had told fairytales had now become his own kind of story weaver.
“Do you really see them, Matteo?” she asked, almost as though she were a child once again, “Do you really see angels, right now?”
Matteo took a deep breath, closed his eyes, then opened them and stared off into space. There was a count to his actions, a rhythm to his breathing, a cadence to every blink his eyes made, as though he were counting his slow descent up into a mountain, where his gazed followed the shifting sky, and where the sun soothed his skin.
“I can see many warriors,” he began, still steeped in another world, “I have never seen so many of them. I just see all their swords, and not their faces; but I can see so many wings shining, and so many gold shields burning. They’re standing, in so many lines, as far as I can see them; and they’re so big, so bright, I don’t know where one angel ends and another begins.”
He smiled, took in several breaths, released them slowly, watched the world before him with the calm of a climber beholding a sunset he had always awakened to see.
“You can feel their strength, and you can feel – I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s like they’re angry, but they’re not wrong to be angry.”
“Righteous anger,” Johanna’s voice was steady as well, as though she had rehearsed the lines; as though she, too, were being gifted with the calm of the angelic army.
Matteo nodded, “I think your angel is with them – he just – agreed, and he seems very happy and proud of you,” then, with a chuckle and a slight shake of his head, “He corrected me, but I don’t understand his correction – I think he is showing me that it is not pride, that there is no human word for it, but I think he is trying to say that he has watched us grow, and he sees you with something like joy – something like a happiness that is deep, like he knows he can fight in a battle and not worry about you. But he will still watch you – and right now, he will watch us, because my angel is in the middle of a battle.”
Johanna’s gasp did not drown out Matteo’s sentences.
“My angel is somewhere near where the demons are, and I can sense that she is protecting me, but – she seems very tired, like she always fights battles, but she isn’t supposed to be fighting them,” his head shook once again, briskly, “Oh – wait – she corrected me – which is so interesting because she’s fighting while she’s correcting me – and it’s so different because she’s fighting but she’s also showing me that she has to fight the battle. She’s showing me that there are so many battles and there will be so many more, but she has to fight even when her job is to be a guardian, because that’s what all angels do. And all angels have to keep fighting because there are so many battles now, more than there ever were. And now she has to really go away, and – and I think the lines are moving.”
“No surprises there,” Johanna murmured, “Of course there are demons. And of course they’ll be in the millions now.”
“Some of the angels agree,” Matteo lowered his voice, edged closer to his sister, “They say that we must not be afraid to fight.”
“We must not be afraid to speak out when we see injustice.”
“They agree, but they say you have to be careful.”
Matteo did not flinch or move when Johanna’s hand closed over his. And yet he trembled, involuntarily, as though something in the unspoken language of the angels had closed frozen fingers across his insides and twisted them. There was something that had been said, so far above his own understanding, too deep for his twelve-year old brain to comprehend; but its meaning was keen enough to be sensed in his soul, and he never forgot it.
It sounded like a warning.
And then, the trembling disappeared; it had lasted for a mere moment, even Johanna did not mark it. The warning felt like centuries to Matteo: he could hear trumpets blasting notes in his gut, could sense the pounding of war drums that seemed to have been fashioned from the flesh of the damned, could see stronger outlines now, of angels that were drawing swords and shields and bows and marching off into a world his young mind could not yet perceive, let alone describe.
But like the warning, he felt the triumph and the hope thunder through his bones.
“The angels have to fight,” his eyes grew glassy, as though he wanted to cry, “And they’re angry – so angry, because they love the little girl. They love everything on this earth, but they can see demons destroying it all.”
Matteo gasped. The warning had long gone, and the trembling had ceased, but something dark passed across his countenance – so fleeting, and yet so visible, as though a veil had been drawn between him and the light of the sunset. The same darkness seemed to creep into his skin, to pull away the warmth that had only so lately returned, to crawl with tiny claws that gnawed and cawed at the soul. He grasped his sister’s hand, swallowed hard, prayed somewhere in his imagination; years later, when he finally had the power to articulate what had occurred, he would say that he felt as though he were being pushed down into mud thick with rage and despair, felt as though something were entering his body through his nostrils, felt as though his very spirit was being hammered away by ice.
He did not have the courage to speak of it to Johanna. He knew how she feared his visions.
Years later, he wished he had the strength to make her listen, wished he had her ability to craft words with precision so that he would have described every single scene to her in detail without making her run, wished that he had listened much closer to the warnings of Heaven thundering all around him.
In that moment, he knew only the pain of being drowned in what felt like blood thickened with oil.
He called his guardian angel, begged for her; and then felt the pain lift. It was the kind of pain that did not make itself known until it had left; and in its place, there seemed to be a pit that dug into the center of the earth, that had a hundred arms with muscles long and sinewed, that had fingers that pulled on limbs and dragged them down where there was no order, only darkness.
It was also the kind of pain that disappeared when great hope arrived, and it rained upon Matteo like a thousand stars.
Something whispered to him that these were reinforcements, called from their positions amongst the priests who slept and worked in the quarters above.
“Oh wow,” the words came out of Matteo like twin gusts of wind, “I can’t see demons at all now, Johanna. It’s just angels, and they’re brilliant. They look like they’re marching, and then they’re disappearing, but I know that there is a big battle, but I don’t know when it will happen. They’re driving out demons now, but the great battle is yet to come.”
Brother and sister stood in silence for a long while, Johanna clasping Matteo’s hand, Matteo breathing slowly before he closed his eyes, then opened them again. He kept his gaze on the horizon, where the sun glowed a mixture of gold and gray, as though reflecting the thousands of angels and their shining wings and burnished swords. Johanna watched through the window as well, and though she could not see what her brother saw, she comforted him all the same as she leaned her head upon his, temple to temple.
They cast a soft silhouette in the dying light of the afternoon, as Fr. Jun slowly finished his session with their parents, and as Fr. Romy walked into the kitchen to check on Matteo – but stopped himself in the middle of the conversation between the siblings.
The priest had heard Matteo’s account of the battle, clearly, syllable following each syllable, even with his distance from the Castroverde children. He liked to think, much later, that an angel had carried the words from the boy to him, so that he could clearly hear what was occurring in the world beyond the session – and, more importantly, so that he could see how Matteo had growing strength even in the face of the most terrifying of all situations in which a clairvoyant could be placed.
Fr. Romy had seen Matteo’s shaking knees, the trembling hand, even the pallor in the boy’s skin. He knew that the child had seen the demons that had beaten the poor girl in the room across the courtyard.
Fr. Romy truly was afraid for Matteo: the child in the sickroom had already begun to speak in multiple voices, screeching at the priests in languages even Fr. Genio could not decipher. In between the gnarled words were the groans and shouts of a thousand demons being whipped with lashes of fire; and yet they would always recover, always shout back that they would be sending souls to hell, because there was so little hope in the world without, and the souls themselves craved the darkness of the abyss.
And then the cries of demons being chased and branded; and then defiance, over and over again.
There was a shout, however, that did not make immediate sense when he first heard it creeping through the adjuration of the ancient serpent.
Take away that flaming chariot! Take away that soldier!
It had been said but a few times, and the priests had ignored the words. They had also been the last words that the girl had spoken before she fell out of the trance, collapsed onto the bed, and fallen asleep. Fr. Romy had taken the chance then, to run out and see if Matteo had done as he had been taught: to protect himself and put up his shields.
Quite the opposite, it appeared; and yet the boy’s courage had also shown Fr. Romy that the flaming chariot and soldier were no mere turns of phrase. The shouts were truly signs that there was a great weakening: perhaps the demons would give up their names in the next few hours; or they would tarry a while longer, the way they taunted poor Fr. Levi, who seemed to specialize in casting out a very specific, caustic brand of demon.
They were the demons that were the most mischievous, and yet the most vicious kind: they had the power to tempt children, to lure the innocent soul, or to latch on to a spirit that had almost no kind of sin on which any evil could feed. It would take years for such cases to fully resolve themselves. Fr. Levi said it was because children were still so weak, that even in their innocence, they did not have the spiritual armor that girded them for warfare; even in their lack of sin, they, too, did not have complete mastery over their will. This was both boon and bane: a demon had to take over a person’s will, and adults sometimes gave themselves over but knew how to take their will back. Children very rarely could.
Fr. Romy pulled out his notebook from his pocket. He had a whole booklet devoted to the child victims of possession, and he had been carrying it at that exact moment that he saw the Castroverde siblings by the kitchen window. He began to write a few reminders for Matteo, for their next session; and then he wrote a sentence that likewise spelled Matteo’s fate, even as the child had already seen it happening in his imagination.
“My dearest Virgin Mary, please let this young man join us as a priest.”