The Hidden Nine Hours

The Holy Father sat before them, in his chair at the head of the table. He wore a dark shirt, overlain with a dark jacket; his white soutana was hanging outside, blown softly by the children of the very winds that had sent him back to the city. Even his pants seemed to have gone through a storm: there were patches of cotton where his knees were, runs and frays where the fabric could no longer hold itself together, hanging threads at the hems where the pants met his ankles. If you looked hard enough, you could see his wrinkled legs, and the spots of age on his bare feet.

But what caught everyone’s eyes in that room was his face. To say he was disappointed would be to understate his sad calm. He kept his eyes on his fingers, his fingers wrapped around his mug, his chin close to his chest. He would take a drink of tea from time to time, and those seated closest to him could see his glasses fog up. The fog hid the tears, but his voice did not.

“The Holy Father thanks you for coming,” the Monsignor Tradurre, the translator, piped up, with more brightness than the man seated next to him. The sprightly translation could hardly match the break in the Pope’s short sentence. The translation was probably inaccurate. There were more mumbles than the Grazie mille that most of the table had heard anyway. No one attempted to ask for more.

The rain began to fall. A young priest stepped into the room, bowed briefly to the occupants, and squeaked his softest as he saw the woman seated at the table. He quickly composed himself, opened the doors to the garden, and brought in the Pope’s soutana.

When the boy scampered out, the Pope spoke louder, this time drawing all the eyes in the room to meet his.

“I am sad that I saw so few people, and that I spoke to so few who had suffered,” the Monsignor translator began, as soon as a break came in the speech, “Everything is in the hands of our Lord. He knows what to do, for I can only do so much. I wanted to stay for a much longer time. I think Jesus said that there is much to attend to – and while it has nothing to do with your country alone, it is still an important matter, and it must be dealt with immediately.”

The Monsignor Tradurre gestured to the woman on the Pope’s left side. She was drinking a cup of coffee, and was looking at the blank sheet of paper before her. She did not expect to be addressed so early on, so she simply nodded – and blushed, as though there were no other way to react to a cordial address by a much-loved Pope. Her hard swallow, however, removed much of her brightness. The Holy Father must have heard it as well, for he seemed to take it as the cue to reach into his pocket and produce a tiny black book.

It was no larger than the cellular phones of most of the people seated at the table. It was coated in old, moisture-wrinkled leather; the pages were intact, but crumpled and folded at the corners. The Pope laid the book on the table, but not without a prayer that most of the table heard – one that required no translation. It was the prayer to St. Michael, the archangel warrior who protected people from the devil.

The entire table fell silent. Peter, the psychiatrist, knotted his brows, creating a crease in between his eyes, as though to signal that he was assessing the situation with as scientific and detached a stance as possible. Fr. Matteo, the young exorcist, took one long breath, and did not appear to release it. Fr. Anthony, the elder exorcist, made a hasty Sign of the Cross, then sat back in his chair. Landon and Bradley, who had hitherto been writing notes on how they would set up the recording equipment, stopped altogether and closed all their books. Agnes, the girl, simply wondered at why the book held so much weight, and she looked at the leather, then at the pope’s mug, then at the translator.

She found the Monsignor Tradurre pale, with his mouth hanging open. He said something to the Holy Father in brisk, staccato Italian, but Agnes caught all of it.

“What?” she took her turn to pale.

Monsignor Tradurre shook his head, “Pardone, Signora Professora,” he turned to the Holy Father, “I shall wait for his Holiness to speak, for it is he who knows better what to say.”

The Holy Father was not as fluent in English, but when he did speak in his native Spanish, his passion blossomed. He could draw all attention in a room to him; he could gather all the air around him and fashion, refashion, draw it so that it seemed to form into the images called forth by his words. The translation often lost much of his original fervor. But now, there was an exception. He spoke in clear, though halting English. His fear needed no words to translate.

“I am glad that I could call you all again, and I am glad that you were all gathered and ready to be called at the shortest notice,” he began, then took a drink of more tea, “Some of you have had little time to rest. I thank you for still obeying the call. Monday is too late.”

“Your eminence, if I may,” Fr. Anthony began, with a cough, then a louder cough as the Pope attempted to brush off the title, “I think you, of all of us, have had the least time to rest. We obey your summons. I think I speak for all of us here, even if I do not know all of us yet.”

The Pope nodded as the words were translated, then spoke again, in the same pause-rich English, with the same dread that seemed to form into a mist before his eyes, “Thank you, Confrere, for the concern. Now, let us talk, as equals, so please, no more titles.”

It was a difficult order to follow, as evidenced by the six pairs of eyes that exchanged glances all across the table. Landon and Bradley attempted to assuage their own unease by reopening their books. Peter took to writing idle notes in his pad, sometimes looking up, as though to consult with Agnes silently. Monsignor Tradurre motioned to her to wait, for Agnes shifted in her seat, as though ready to burst into a long speech on how she needed to know what the black notebook was for.

The pope spoke again, above the louder chorus of rain outside.

“A year ago, Cardinal Aloysio contacted all of you and asked to speak with you privately. You were told of the study, and of your mission. It is a task that many others all over the world are taking, but none perhaps as important as this, now, and here.”

From a house somewhere, a dog howled. Another answered it. The howls seemed to creep into the lodgings of the Pope, through the trees that shaded the garden, into the cracks in the wall, all around the table where the meeting was being held. All the windows were closed, but the wind stirred some sheets of paper, and the pope’s gray hair. “Our days before us need prayer, now more than ever,” he said slowly, breaking the table out of its trembling reverie, “Some of you, I already know from the Cardinal’s notes; others, I know only from my own notes.”

Father Matteo looked at Agnes, then at the wall behind her. She glanced back questioningly, but did not speak more, as she recognized his frown. He bowed his head. She did not dare look where his eyes had last been.

The Pope marked Agnes’ pallor. “I would like to ask the young professora to introduce herself, and for all of you to speak about what will be your work. It will begin soon, and sooner than we believed.”

The howling died down, and the winds calmed, but they failed to hide the woman’s loud swallow. She laid her pen down, and looked from one person to another, as though caught between wanting to initiate conversation and keeping still in the face of an unseen enemy.

“Good evening, Holy Father – and good evening everyone. I’m Agnes,” she began, swallowing another time, for the wind had returned and whipped her dark locks from her ponytail, “I am an assistant professor, and I teach at the same university as Father Matteo. He – recruited – brought me to Cardinal Aloysio, and I’ve been working on the project since last year. I’ve been working on transcripts of exorcisms here in the Philippines dating back all the way to the 1800s, which thankfully, Father Matteo and his staff have been working on restoring. I also did a few transcriptions with Father Matteo and his staff. Right now, I am in charge of analyzing the exorcism transcripts.”

Again, the wind. A door closed and opened somewhere in the house. Most of the occupants of the table seemed ready to run away, but the Pope remained calm. He nodded at Agnes, then gestured to the two boys at the other side of the table.

“I’m Landon – hi – evening everyone,” the older one said, in a crisp English accent, “I got this job through Bradley. We’re both Catholic, born, raised, all – hi Holy Father.”

Everything flew too fast, even for Monsignor Tradurre, He translated as fast as he could, even with the Holy Father laughing.

“Thank you, Landon, Bradley,” the Pope nodded to the boys, who promptly grinned, and then tempered their apparent giddiness, “These young men are what you might call nephews. They are the children of my friends from home, and they have lived in London all their lives. I have known them since their youth, and they are good, but naughty.”

Landon’s grin returned, as though to prove the point, “And we’re here to record all the exorcisms, which our professor here will analyze. We’ll help you transcribe them, Doctor.”

“Woah,” even Agnes had caught the bug of informality that had abruptly descended upon the table, “I can’t write you a prescription.”

“She’s not that old,” Bradley nudged his brother, almost disregarding his so-called uncle, who was leaning his head toward the now rapidly whispering Monsignor Tradurre, “Sorry to ask, Doc, but you look like a kid. Are you like one of those child geniuses who went to college at twelve?”

Even the austere Father Anthony started to chortle, then cough. Agnes was not immune to laughter, “I’m at least a decade older than you boys,” she imitated their grins, “I just look like a kid, which is probably a good thing if you want to get free roller coaster rides.”

Father Matteo looked at his notes nervously, as though Agnes had called up a spectre that he did not want to see then. She saw him tremble, and her smile disappeared.

“So,” Landon said pointedly, as he marked the new air of unease, “My brother and I are the recorders and transcribers as needs be.”

“And the paranormal investigators, just so we have fair warning. Ah, and we need to do lots of documentation, because our uncle is a Jesuit and he likes archives and such,” Bradley added, with a wave at the Pope, as though they were merely discussing a party, “And yes hi, my name is Bradley, and I’ve been investigating exorcisms and assisting cases since I was a kid – when I was kind of possessed.”

Nearly all heads in the room turned to Bradley.

“Yes, he was,” the Pope spoke in English, “You were very young, Bradley. But I am glad that you are helping many others, and at great risk to you.”

Bradley simply shrugged, then managed a smile. Landon and he had matching blond heads and bright, almost glassy green eyes. But for all of their joking, both brothers seemed to live in a world of shadows. Bradley, especially, fell so easily into silence, that every time he paused, there seemed to be a demand for someone to speak.

“I am Father Matteo,” the young priest obeyed the summons, “I teach theology at the same university as our young professor here. I work regularly with Father Anthony, who introduced me to both Father Aloysio and the Holy Father. They are all my mentors. I am glad to be here. I am also quite – frightened by the task ahead.”

“Now I shall speak before we all start admitting how we are afraid and completely take away the gift of humor that the two young men brought earlier,” Father Anthony raised his hand. No one would have guessed that Father Anthony was the oldest person in that room, unless they listened to his stories carefully and read his deeply furrowed face, “I am Father Anthony, and an exorcist. I am training Father Matteo, I trained Father Aloysio, and I worked with two Holy Fathers in developing classes in exorcism. It is indeed something to be feared, and the exorcist is always the last person in the room to ever want to be an exorcist. It requires strength and a heart full of faith – to which I am sure the young man Bradley will attest.”

“And to which Father Anthony will also attest, because I think you also studied my files,” Bradley replied, with a rather strange grin that made Father Anthony shake his head and smile.

The Pope motioned to the last man, who had not yet introduced himself.

“Good evening. I am Peter, the psychologist, and one of many employed by priests before they proceed with an exorcism,” he smiled mildly, deepening lines on the side of his lips. While Father Anthony and Father Matteo showed signs of being on the road, and tired from their work, Peter seemed to be tired within himself. Even his voice was level, almost soft, inaudible had the rain not stopped, “I know Father Anthony will speak up, but I am always the biggest skeptic in the room.”

“And yes, Father Anthony will speak up,” the older cleric nodded, “The exorcist must always be the biggest skeptic before everyone else. Although, you are right, Peter – I think we all need to be skeptics… but perhaps the Holy Father shall tell us otherwise, especially when he finally explains this black book.”

The Holy Father bowed his head briefly, as though uttering a quick prayer; then, he looked at Father Anthony, shooting him a tiny smile before settling his gaze on the table. The rains had gone, but in their place was the wind, still coming from nowhere, and yet everywhere at once.

“It warms my heart to hear light banter and bright words today,” the Pope spoke slowly, on his own, in clear English. His voice was becoming nasal, and he seemed to be catching a cold, which made most of the eyes in the room widen in alarm, “Today – earlier – I visited a city that was nearly wiped out by a storm. I could not offer them anything except my words and a silent heart, and perhaps – maybe encouragement that Jesus would not leave them. I learned much – I wish I could stay longer. I wish I could talk to more people and listen to their stories, because it is the poor that have the greatest stories, but the smallest audience.

“I was thinking how sad it was, that there was another storm. And I was quite ready, you see, to tell the guards to make me stay – but then… then I felt this in my pocket.”

All eyes in the room moved from the Holy Father to the black book.

“It is a book that I always keep with me, as Father Tradurre will tell you,” the Holy Father continued, motioning to the book, and leaving it in its place, as though it would move if he tried to touch it, “It is small, but it contains my accounts of all the exorcisms that I led, and assisted. Sometimes, I read it, so that I remember that there are many who suffer, and who cannot speak freely of their suffering. They, too, are poor. They, too – they need me, and they need us.”

The pope took another drink of his tea. His mug was almost empty; Father Tradurre offered to refill it, but the Pope brushed him away gently, with a low, “Do not trouble yourself”, in Spanish. Father Tradurre nodded, eyes glazed and seeing beyond the walls of the room.

“Now, sometime ago, when I was planning the training in exorcism, I gathered all the scholars and asked them to bring in all our exorcism transcripts,” the Holy Father went on, looking at each person as he addressed their case, “I spoke with Father Anthony, who also knew Father Matteo, and they brought the copies of transcripts from Asia. Then Peter, here, has his own records, so he and I spoke. And of course, the young boys, they had their own transcripts. I wanted to include this black book – and I left it on my desk. Father Tradurre saw it there. That was where we last saw it.”

The air in the room grew heavy and stifling.

“We lost the book. We never saw it since then,” and, with a light cough, the Holy Father continued, “Until today.”

“It’s playing with you,” came out of Agnes, but she quickly clamped her mouth shut when Father Matteo nodded at her, and at something behind her.

“You’re protected, don’t worry,” he said at once.

“Seraphim?” the Holy Father put in.

Father Matteo looked again, nodding, as though he were counting, “Eight.”

“Wait – what – you’ve got eight Seraphim guarding you?” Landon raised his hand, then pointed it at the Pope, “And my uncle’s book suddenly goes missing and turns up in his pocket? This is – ok – I don’t say this about a lot of my cases, but this is weird and I want to know more, in a very geeky sort of way where…” and here, he held both hands up, as though placating Father Anthony in advance, “Where I’m not the most enthusiastic participant in an exorcism ever.”

Father Anthony chortled, then began to cough.

The Holy Father was not immune to the banter, but his voice was grave, “I agree, Professora- whatever it is, it is playing with me. But while we have the book, we need to work. It is a sign of things to come. You all need to assemble – now, and go to the most violent, the cases of those who have nothing but this thing hanging on to them. We need to understand what is happening now – and read the book, now that the book is here.”

Again, the book had disappeared from the table. The two young men raised both hands in the air, as though to signal that they did nothing to disturb the book. Father Tradurre made a quick sign of the cross. The father exorcists reached into their cassocks to pull out the Rituale Romanum, ready for the battle. Peter examined each face, as though he were at a crime scene. Agnes was silent, the hairs on her arms standing on end; until her voice rose through the winds that stirred the room.

“My dearest guardian angels,” she addressed her fingers, “My saints and protectors, St Michael, God the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, I beg of you, help us.”

Only the Holy Father seemed calm through the flurry of activity, as the boys opened their books and set up their cameras, as the priests uttered low prayers, and as Peter shook his head and appeared to scour through his brain for rational answers.

“There is no rational answer, Peter,” the Holy Father addressed him, “Except that you must begin your work now.”