“From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.” — H.P. Lovecraft
“It is for the best that the scenes I am about to describe have faded from public memory. They may have been successfully forgotten forever, had not I and my band of fools set about our disastrous adventure. Just as curiosity kills the cat, boredom kills the young man.
“I suppose it all started when I went to watch her concert, that bitch, that temptress, that dame de la mer, that enchantress of Lilith (Father forgive me for muttering the name). Though loneliness would continue to plague me, at least I would have my integrity—and other parts—intact!” Letting out a long, painful exhale, the young man continued, “but I should back track my story now, Father.”
The confessional felt as cold as the icy snow outside. Father Daniel had heard just about every sin imaginable since his ordination twenty-odd years ago, but never before had he encountered anyone so…shaken, disturbed, borderline-nihilistic as this young man. The things he was describing were extraordinary, and yet the Franciscan found himself believing every word of it.
“Please try to understand, we had no mal intent, it was all supposed to be fun. Who possibly could have believed—let alone predicted—what we were about to do?” Letting out another long breath, the kind one would use to let out cigarette smoke, he continued.
“As I said, I went to the theatre with a not-quite-girlfriend of mine. Though not yet romantically involved, I do confess to you that I had less-than-noble intentions, but few who knew her could blame me for that.” Looking at the confessional screen which separated the two men, Father Daniel indeed could understand. In the years before he took his priestly vows and secluded himself in the abbey (from which he had only recently returned to the world), he had indeed known the impulses the young man was describing. He knew now that such instincts were not malicious in and of themselves, but only in their misapplication. His attitude was therefore one of genuine sympathy, in stark contrast to how his own Confessor had received him.
“It was late on a Friday night, and, thinking such a time was…fortuitous, I let her lead me to the theatre through a little-known door in the storage area. There, we met several of her friends, many of whom wearing less-than-modest clothing and, looking around the room, I confess to you Father that I was happy to be the only man there.” Letting out a tired laugh, the kind that one does when reminiscing one’s previous misdeeds with bewilderment, the young man said, “I barely noticed when the Ouija board was first brought out. I had never seen one in person before, but there could be little doubt as to what it was. The shiny wooden frame, bright black lettering—I am still not even sure how such a thing is possible, but it was bright black. It had a smooth surface, the result of brilliant craftsmanship, and was thoroughly cold to the touch.”
This was something Father Daniel was all-too-familiar with. This was not his first case involving those demonic contraptions. He had been called to many situations in the late 80’s and early 90’s in which these peculiar boxes had played a central role. Though it is perhaps true that the “Satanic Panic” of the era was over-sensationalized by the media, it was also true that there were very real, very dangerous cases which did threaten society at that time. Father Malachi Martin had popularized the subject on public radio programs of the time, but that Jesuit’s reputation was—perhaps justifiably—questioned later on. Others, especially those of his own Franciscan Order, had tried their best to contain the damage, and were partially successful, but new cases continued to appear every now and again.
It was one particularly sinister case involving those boards that drove him away from society and to the abbey which was his home for over a decade. That he had failed to save several adolescents was something his superiors had forgiven him for, but he could never forgive himself…
The young man’s narration continued, “we had only been at it for a few minutes when we felt a presence. Please understand, Father: we felt a presence, physically. We all did, and don’t let any of them tell you differently.” Letting out another breath as if he expected cigarette smoke to be there, he pressed on. “She…she identified herself as a girl named Mary, something which seems almost blasphemous to me now, and told us that she had died in ‘an automobile accident over on Route 20.’”
“She gave us an exact date, almost as if daring us to check her story, which, eventually, we did. Or rather, they did.”
“Who?” asked the Franciscan.
“I’m getting there,” replied the young man, who let out yet another long, exhausted breath. “Several of the girls had had enough and went back to their apartments. A few of us were undaunted, however, and continued our line of questioning. For some reason, I cannot recall clearly what happened next, but by the end of the hour, we had ended the session (or so we thought!) and folded up the board. It was clear that sleep was not in order, so the four of us who remained went to the library stacks to try to find a record of the crash she told us about.”
“A curious decision,” remarked the Franciscan.
“Yes, but we wanted to stay busy, to not leave mental space for that thing to enter.”
Father Daniel thought to himself. This is actually a very effective technique: refusing to allow darkness to enter one’s mind by not providing space for it, something which too few in the secular, technological world are aware of. Was there something in this young man’s background, familial or otherwise, that had imparted this to him? Or were his simply good instincts? He would ponder this more later.
“It was when we got to the library that things got even weirder,” the young man explained. “We had asked the student at the desk, whose real name I do not recall, if he could help us find the newspaper archives we were looking for. He was visibly curious about this—having four anxious students approach him during the library’s last hour of operation for the night, desperate to find a newspaper article from decades ago—but he agreed to help us. Looking back on it now, I detect that his apprehension was somehow…well informed, especially when we mentioned the exact date in question.”
“What do you mean by ‘his real name?’” the Franciscan asked.
“I’m still getting there,” the student responded. “Long story short, we found the article and confirmed that a woman named Mary did indeed die under the circumstances described. The library assistant was paying us keen attention, as if making detailed mental notes.
“It had to have been nearly one in the morning by then, as the other librarian assistant, this one a graduate student, was ushering everyone out so he could close. We decided to visit the cemetery the following morning, preferably quite early as none of us were in the mood for sleeping.”
The young man went on to describe how he walked his not-quite-girlfriend home and how he was relieved to hear that her roommates were gone for the weekend, though he didn’t remember why. Not wanting to stay alone after the recent events, she invited him in to stay with her, and…well the reader can guess what happened next.
The following morning, he, his not-quite-girlfriend, and one of the other girls did indeed visit the cemetery in question. The caretaker corroborated all the events as “Mary” had described them, which was enough to give the girls a thorough scare. Yet the young man was undaunted. “I do not know why Father, but I felt driven to return there later that evening,” he continued. “It was a Saturday night, but I wasn’t in the mood to return to the traditional activities of a college student until I knew more about…whatever the hell we had stumbled onto.” Pausing for a moment, he said, “I stood at the gravesite for a few minutes, appreciating the statue of the Holy Virgin and the recently-delivered flowers. It was clear that someone was still honoring this girl’s memory.” He let out a sigh, “I was about to walk away, relieved that she had not been totally forgotten, but then…
“That’s when I first noticed them. A few men (were they all men?) in dark hoodies and pants moving slowly on the edge of the cemetery. Not in a sinister fashion, but being careful not to be observed. I may not have seen them at all, had not I felt this strange…energy being sent in their direction. I walked out of the cemetery, deliberately progressing loudly and letting out an occasional cough to be convincing…but then I doubled back! Keeping a healthy distance, I observed them.”
“They were praying, Father. Some form of cleansing ritual, I assume, invoking the name of Jesus, spraying (what I assume to be) holy water on the site, covering the area with a thin layer of salt, alternating prayers in English, Latin, and another language I didn’t recognize. I cannot be certain of all which I saw, but I suddenly felt a distinct sense of calm fall over the place, as if some great conflict had been resolved, some great tension released.”
Fr. Daniel listened very closely now. This ritual seemed to him to be very similar to the cleaning rituals of British folk magic. Something not officially permitted by the Church, but well known to persist on the Parish level of both the Roman Church and Anglican Communion.
The young man continued, though now his mood was discernably lighter. “I will admit, I…was almost optimistic when I left there. My mood was inexplicably lifted, as if I were experiencing peace for the first time in years.”
He went on to describe how he returned to his girlfriend (?) for another intimate evening. He offered more details than were perhaps necessary, but the Franciscan was more taken by how positively he described the events. The young man’s heart had been genuinely filled with love that night, perhaps for the first time. He had touched the realm of tranquility and emotional heights typically beyond the reach of man. Were he to have died in the time which has elapsed since, it would not have been a life wasted.
“Unfortunately, it was not to last,” Father Daniel had barely heard him say.
Pausing for a moment, he replied, “why do you say that?” The Franciscan forced himself to ask this; he did not want to draw this troubled man’s focus back to the harsh experiences which led him to the confessional, but knew that he must.
“It was actually just outside of this Chapel, Father, in this hallway which leads away toward the old, main building of campus.” Pausing for a moment, he added, “Do you know the portrait of Sister Kathleen?”
“How could I not? She was instrumental in building this college, figuratively laying down many of the stones herself.”
“Then I am afraid to tell you what we saw.
“It was late the following night, on Monday following the evening I just described,” the student said. Father Daniel thought he heard him physically shiver. “We had thought that closing the previous session with the Ouija board had been the end of it, but one of the girls—I believe one of those who had left early the previous time—kept expressing her doubts about the entire affair, and had taken the board back to her apartment. We didn’t know it at the time, but at the exact moment this was happening, my girlfriend and I were walking the halls of the old, main building.
“It was she that saw it first, stopping dead cold, frozen in fear. I asked her what it was, but she just kept staring. Following her gaze, I saw it too. The frame which previously held Sister Kathleen’s picture now held another, far more hideous sight. It was diabolical, Father! The vague outline of a human-like figure was visible, but it was all dark. Too dark, blacker than black, and yet easily visible at the same time…I don’t know how to describe it. But those eyes…two red eyes…they saw us, saw through us, and shook us beyond all reason. We may never have recovered our sanity, could have been sucked into that abyss leading God knows where…but then, then they arrived! Two men—I knew them to be present at the graveyard the previous night, I don’t know how I knew that, but I did—arrived and…shouting something in (what I’m told) was Greek, they seemed to buy us time. Moments later, a priest came in from the other direction, and finished the banishing.”
Fr. Daniel was at a loss for words. He had not been expecting this, but there was no doubting this young man’s sincerity.
“My companion had fainted, from mental exhaustion I imagine, effectively leaving me alone with this mysterious group.” Letting out a long exhale, he said, “The looks they gave me told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had now become a part of their secret fraternity, whether I wanted to be or not…”
“Wait a moment,” asked the Franciscan, “who was this other priest you spoke of?”
“I never learned the name,” was the reply, “I have never seen him before, not that I was particularly active in the school’s religious life.”
The Franciscan was clearly at a loss for words, only after some time forcing out the question, “Well…what happened next?”
“Actually, Father, I think it would be easier to show you.” Daniel was not about to object.
Walking out of the chapel together now, the Franciscan and the young man walked through the campus grounds and across a prominent courtyard before stopping in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary standing over a fountain. “This is where they took me, Father,” the young man said, “one of the men, seemingly a bit older than the others, reached down, cupped his hands, and filled them with water.” The young man’s demeanor changed again, not exactly becoming lighter, but taking on some kind of quality the Franciscan couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“He poured the water over my hands and recited some prayer in Latin before saying ‘welcome.’” The young man paused, “I should clarify, I had led my girlfriend home and laid her on her bed before going to the fountain with these strangers.”
The Franciscan’s mind was racing: the hand-washing ritual seemed familiar to him, but he did not understand why. It was not Pilate’s washing of the hands—neither the spirit nor the context of the man’s description matched that—but why did he seem to recognize this rite? His mind turned to his long years of studying Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Germanic folklore, then to his studies of the Greek and Antiochian churches (especially their exorcist rites), then to neoplatonism, theurgy, and the mystery cults of the Near East, but nothing came up as a match. After some minutes, he finally opted simply to ask the young man.
“Was the significance of this hand-washing ever explained to you?”
“Yes, but it was beyond my understanding,” was the response. Before he could interject, the young man continued, “But there is something else you should see.”
He led the Franciscan back toward the chapel, to a wooded garden just outside the north wall. Father Daniel was familiar with this place: a circular grove, with an old tree in the center, surrounded by a stone path. The place was lined with bushes and flowers of various kinds on all sides and had previously hosted several picnic benches used by the nuns of yesteryear. Rumor had it that some of the nuns yet lingered there, that their ghostly apparitions could be observed smoking cigarettes, but he had never seen this himself.
“You little doubt know the stories associated with this place,” said a voice coming from a corner of the grove. Another young man made himself known, walking toward the Franciscan and the penitent. Father Daniel considered him. He looked the right age to be a student, but was somehow more…refined. His was a commanding presence, with slicked-back black hair, a muscular build, and a confident walk.
“We like to take those who are made for it to this place, those that have the sight, the higher perception gifted them by God.” The stranger’s words struck the Franciscan as odd, yet they rung true, profound.
“Father Daniel, allow me to introduce…”
“Names are important,” the stranger interrupted, “but not necessary right now. I have come here to ask you very directly for a favor, son of Francis.”
Fr. Daniel thought now of that night, many years ago. The Franciscan had expected a difficult journey in returning to the world but this…this had been something else altogether.
The stranger described how, just as the Penitent (as Daniel now referred to him) and his girlfriend (?) had been walking the halls of the old building that night, another girl from the original Ouija session had brought out the board again. Once more calling upon “Mary,” she had sought to disabuse herself of her silly notions. The occult wasn’t real; it couldn’t be. It was just like religion: a social construct invented to keep people—especially women—scared and complacent. She would show them. She was strong, independent, liberated; she could do this, she would conquer her fears!
She was soon to lose every semblance of sanity.
Opening the board as she sat on her bed, she began the rite her friends had taught her. Before long, she felt a chill enter her room, taking possession of it. She explained this away on account that it was winter, but still there was a definite fear creeping in from the corners of her consciousness. The session began in the normal manner. She placed her hands on the key and let them be dragged from letter to letter across the board, spelling out the words meant to answer the questions she posed. After a few minutes, though, she knew she had made a terrible mistake.
After the board spelled out some hideous message (her memory is mercifully blank of what it had been), she closed the board rapidly, threw it on the floor, and hid beneath her covers. She tried to will herself to sleep but learned the hard way the limitations of personal power.
It was after perhaps twenty minutes of vain struggle that she saw it. At the foot of her bed (why is it always the foot of your bed?), there were two red eyes. They were just hovering there, staring at her, jeering at her contemptuously. She was frozen in shock until her window suddenly shattered. A small stone, the decorative kind which are used to line gardens, had been thrown through, catching even the apparition off-guard.
Suddenly able to think quickly, she remembered what she had seen in B-movies and read about in horror novels. She grabbed her crucifix that was fatefully hanging within arm’s reach on the wall (her nosy, goody two shoe parents had left it for her the month before) and held it in front of herself. The spirit moved back temporarily but exhorted a great pressure on the crucifix, a pressure so powerful that it eventually snapped in two as the spirit drew nearer. Holding the two pieces of the cross together, the girl was able to repel the spirit again long enough for her to escape the room and seek her friends’ help.
No one could be sure what happened next. Entering the room with great reluctance the following morning, she found it…cleaned? It was clearly not as she had left it. The glass shards on the floor had disappeared and a brand-new window was in the place of the old one. Her bed, left disheveled as she fled, had been made. A new crucifix was hung over it, larger and more durable than the one which had snapped. One of her friends even thought that she could smell faint traces of fresh paint. The entire scene now looked like a fresh room in a three-star hotel. Most importantly though, the malicious presence, whatever it was, was evidently gone.
It was only then that she noticed the stone on the floor. Clearly the one which had shattered the window, she saw that it bore a carving of a Greek cross and an inscription she could not read. Whoever had thrown it had clearly saved her, but could her sanity ever recover?
Saints have remarked that if it were not for the aesthetics, those recluses who live in seclusion and constant prayer, Judgement would come immediately. As the stranger related this story to Daniel, it became apparent that he was the one who had thrown the stone. That such a guardian was to be present among college students was initially surprising to the priest, but stood to reason upon further reflection.
Feeling compelled to help him, Father Daniel had said a Mass for the Dead that very night. The attendees had been only himself, the penitent, and a group of eight or nine other students known to him only as the ‘friends.’ Though he was perhaps mistaken, he couldn’t help but think that the strong winds that night were attempts to break through the windows and interrupt the proceedings. But deformed spirits cannot break into the Father’s house. Sinful disorder cannot debase saintly coherence from without, only via corruption from within, and those gathered there in Jesus’ name were steadfast in their wish to do good that evening.
Daniel had also observed—but kept quiet about it—two red eyes circling the chapel, going from window to window peering in, seeking, in vain, to get at him.
But Daniel was not afraid.
Nam, etsi ambulavero in medio umbræ mortis, non timebo mala, quoniam tu mecum es. Virga tua, et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sunt. Parasti in conspectu meo mensam, adversus eos qui tribulant me; impinguasti in oleo caput meum; et calix meus inebrians quam præclarus est!
Daniel Bretton is a wayward son of New England. A simple, philosophically-inclined man, he wanders the world in search of wisdom, both worldly and Godly. Like Herodotus, he reports what he sees and leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.