During the fall of 1499, I apprenticed for a priest in town. My brothers had paged for knights and noblemen, gigs with real cachet, but my parents had this idea of sending me into the order once I turned eighteen and so set me up with this guy in an attempt, I suppose, to entice me into the profession through mere exposure, so steadfast was their enthusiasm for the priesthood. They had also caught me completely blitzed after guzzling mead with some dropouts from the Franciscan abbey just before Michaelmas, and I think probably wished to avoid reoccurrences of such debauchery.
The priest was one of five in our town, and while the others integrated well into the communal social life, this priest rarely fraternized. His parish was on the smaller side (though it lacked the renown of being the smallest), and his parishioners reported that his services were serviceable, if a bit uninspired.
To be honest, I don’t think the priest needed an apprentice, but he took the charity portion of his oath seriously and probably felt like he couldn’t say no when my parents wrote asking if he’d be so kind as to take me on and introduce me to the enlightened, disciplined ways of the Augustinians, because every day I showed up at his place offering my services and every day he seemed surprised I had knocked on his door. “You are back again,” he would greet me, both a statement of fact and an accusation. He would let me in and scan his bare walls and sparse belongings for whatever menial labor he could put me to. Part of me suspected that he shaved the legs of his chairs off-kilter each evening just so I could set them right again the next morning. There was little in the way of clerical education those first few weeks, is what I’m saying, not that I complained.
Claims to have seen the devil or his minions abounded.
The fourth week of my apprenticeship the priest gave me a list of tasks that needed to be completed in preparation for the bishop’s impending arrival to town the following week, an arrival the priest treated with the resentful but dutiful respect one reserves for visits from middle management. One afternoon, as I was paring the solidified drippings from the sides of the priest’s candles—not so rudimentary a task as it may seem, believe me, as the candles had melted and bent and turned at odd angles, so I had to patiently guide my blade along their edges, careful not to cut nicks into the wax or slice them in two—the priest returned from his morning rounds visibly and audibly agitated. He closed the door quickly, glancing behind him, and moved toward me speaking hurriedly, his voice tight with excitement.
“The baroness reports that her husband has been taken by the devil,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“Possessed,” he said, tapping a thick finger to his chin.
“Yes,” I said.
“But!” the priest exclaimed, holding the same finger to my face. “I do not think the baron is possessed.”
“Oh,” I said.
The priest paced the room, his hands twisting, the fringe of his robes twirling and raising a storm of dust from the floor. He seemed in the throes of torment, thrust there by the implications of his statement.
“The baroness is lying?” I asked.
“No,” the priest said. “No, I am sure the baroness believes her husband is possessed.” He stopped and turned to me, his robes quivering into place like the coalescence of a shadow. “But I believe the baron is faking it.”
By that point in the year, approaching the end of the century, with its attendant notions of transformation and doom in equal measure—people have trouble with change, you know?—there was a general appreciation for the supernatural, diabolical, and eldritch that would have previously been considered blasphemous. The consensus was that the onset of the sixteenth century would plunge our town, if not the world, into calamity, and we all saw omens, harbingers of this calamity, with shameless frequency.
It began with a fire at the smithy on Whitsunday Eve. Instead of rising as plumes into the air, the smoke clung to the ground, like a freaky ashen fog, for two days. Ignoring the heavy, humid days and windless nights, the townsfolk deemed it a glimpse of the future, the initial sign that our town would soon descend into the fires of hell. The pall thickened as spring melted into summer, and after three swine were found disemboweled outside the new tavern, the porcine blood mingling with drunkards’ bile, a pox was all but confirmed.
Claims to have seen the devil or his minions abounded. Missing property was attributed to burgling imps. Parents warned children of fiends stalking the western forests, ready to snatch any misbehaving brats for spit-roasting. Philandering husbands returned groveling to their wives, alleging seduction by succubae. Two handmaidens, returning through the deserted streets after escorting their mistress to a midnight tryst, reported a Beelzebubbish figure preening in the moonlight, as if awaiting its own paramour. The butcher said he saw a hellish sprite spring from a pie set on a windowsill to cool. “But not a pie baked with my meats,” he assured his customers.
As the autumn deepened a few of us tried to be less credulous, insisting that the dozens of demonic sightings were nothing more than the fruits of a runaway collective imagination. In all honesty, I tried chalking it all up to an out of control series of pranks—I’ve lost count of the kids who’ve been in over their heads and had to gut a pig to save face—and while I maintain some instances were more likely pranks than not, the rash of busted pies convinced me that something supernatural was afoot. Even the boldest hooligan among us wouldn’t dare screw with somebody’s mutton tart.
So, despite a vocal minority, most in town were undeterred, and thus the more outlandish—and, according to the doubters farcical—the stories grew. And yet, I thought, even amid all the gossip-mongering, only a lunatic would pretend to be possessed.
The priest provided no evidence for why he believed the baron was feigning demonic possession, but devised a plan to prove it.
According to the priest, only the ordained could administer an exorcism. “With authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out,” the priest said. “Authority and power,” he repeated to himself as he resumed his pacing. “Authority and power.” He stopped and rubbed the back of his bald skull. He looked me up and down, stepped forward, and took me by the arms, squared my shoulders, sized me up. “You, my apprentice, lack the requisite authority and power.”
“No, no,” the priest said, waving away my apology. “This is how we will uncover the baron’s ruse. Fetch my exorcising vestments,” he told me. The priest had separate exorcise robes, I knew, because he tended to get sweaty in the course of an exorcism—it could be quite strenuous, he said, with the forceful flicking of holy water and full-throated chanting and whatnot—and this set, he said, had a moisture-wicking quality that his everyday vestments did not.
I returned from where I’d beaten dust from the exorcise robes the day before and offered them to the priest, but he put up his hands in refusal. “No, these are for you,” he said. “Put them on.”
“It’s quite simple,” he said. “You will visit the baron in my stead, presenting yourself as a priest. You will perform the exorcistic rites just as I, or any true priest, would. Thus we will test the baron. If you succeed in driving the devil out of him, we will know there was never any devil in him to drive out, because you cannot drive the devil out of anyone, you lack the authority and power to do so. If the baron lets your impotent exorcism free his spirits, his spirits were never imprisoned, you see?”
“But who will oil the bells?” I asked.
“Put on the robes,” the priest said, pulling at my tunic and yanking it over my head. In my brief tenure as his apprentice I had never seen the priest so determined. He typically executed his duties with an enervation that gave the impression that he was, perhaps, over it all. But as he tightened his belt around my waist and smoothed my hair, all the while instructing me on the basic components of a proper exorcism, his usually dull eyes were alight and he panted with, if I can be honest, a somewhat unsettling eagerness. He looked, in a word, jazzed.
“The bishop,” the priest said, a presumptive triumph ringing in his voice. “Even the bishop will have to commend our success if we reveal the baron’s trick.”
He stepped back to appraise the overall impression of my makeover. “Recall that Thomas—one of the twelve apostles I remind you—demanded proof that Christ had risen from the grave,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince me, or confirm for himself the righteousness of his scheme. “We must be seekers of the truth, for the truth is divine.”
Sweat mixed with the waxy coating on my hands from my candle pruning. I rubbed my palms together, wiped them on the exorcise robes, and picked up my list of tasks. “But who will oil the bells?” I asked.
“The bells, the bells,” the priest said dismissively. “The bishop will pay the bells no mind, not with a possession, fraudulent or not, in our midst. I will handle these.” He snatched the list from my hand and handed me a chalice filled to the brim with holy water, instructed me not to spill any. “Go to the baron—and do try to be a convincing imposter.”
My apprenticeship duties had evidently escalated.
I arrived at the baronial estate late in the evening, my journey hampered by the gentle sloshing of holy water.
The baron’s castle was larger than any building I, at that point in my life, had been inside. A rumor held that it was divided evenly between the baron and his wife, each half equipped with the facilities necessary to live comfortably as a baron or baroness, so that the two rarely crossed paths. Some said the two hadn’t dined together, except when entertaining on official baronial business, since the first years of their marriage. As I stood outside, contemplating these rumors and the supposed horrors that awaited inside, the place radiated the willies. A flock of birds flew away on the wind, cawing ominously. The castle’s turret reached into the violet sky and seemed to pull the stars closer. I felt the night swaddling the compound as the metal gate rose—and halted halfway with a squeal so I had to hobble under.
A servant, no older than me (in fact eerily similar in visage and pallor) led me into a grand hall, where the baroness waited seated at a long table with places set for twelve. My presence went unacknowledged, and I watched as the baroness sawed into a roasted bird. The bewitching aroma of cooked meat effused the air. “Lark,” she said without looking up.
“Your Ladyship,” I said, bending just so at my knees.
“I prefer to cut my own meat,” she said, with a gruff scoff. “The help are useless.”
“Yes,” I said, eyeing the servants stationed at the far end of the room as they looked up into the architecture of the arched ceiling or down at their own fingernails, all apparently oblivious to the criticism.
The baroness’s gaze drifted from her bird, though she continued sawing while she studied me. “A bit young for a priest, aren’t you?” she said, her mouth full of fowl.
“Yes, well, I am freshly ordained,” I said. I’d anticipated this one. “But what I may lack in experience, I make up for with a, uh, youthful vigor often missing in the others of my profession.”
She considered me a moment, skeptical. “Fine,” she said, standing and turning to lead me to the baron’s chambers. “We could use a vigorous priest.”
We crossed to the opposite side of the castle and I followed her down a cramped hall, poorly lit with squat votive candles, which terminated in a menacing glow that indicated, I guessed, the baron’s door, behind which I would find the baron himself in his spiritual tempest. As we approached I thought I could hear a faint angry rumbling from the baron’s room, what I imagined was the devil that possessed him ranting in tongues, but it was simply the mumbled curses of the servant who’d let me in, following behind the baroness and me on hands and knees, wiping up the holy water that dripped from the chalice as I shuffled along in the semidarkness. My mouthed apologies went unacknowledged.
What I thought would be the baron’s room was actually the first in a series of antechambers. That first room was filled with nothing but scrolls, piles of them unfurling languidly over one another. “The baron can’t finish six inches,” the baroness said as we walked through to the next room, which contained a single codex on a pedestal. “Hasn’t even cracked that one,” the baroness said. The final room before the baron’s was empty.
“We had to move him back here,” the baroness explained. “Otherwise we wouldn’t get any sleep.”
“It’s silent,” I said, afraid of jinxing what I thought obvious.
“You’ll see,” she said. She unlatched the door and nudged it open, gesturing for me to enter. Her expression made clear that I was to enter alone.
The baron appeared mid-evil when I crept into the room. He lay on the floor, back arched, head twitching to and fro, tongue pinched between browning teeth. But as I had remarked, it was a silent torment.
“Your lordship,” I said. The baron continued to writhe on the plush carpet, his knocking elbows making soft puh sounds against the pile. I repeated my greeting louder. “Your lordship, I am here to cast out whatever devil has trespassed inside you.” It was a good line, I thought, authoritative.
The baron’s limbs went rigid, legs down and arms out, a cross, and his arms began trembling inside his billowy sleeves. If he’d been upright I thought he might’ve taken flight.
I glanced back at the door. A tapestry hanging behind me depicted a scene from the heavenly war of the angels and the dragon. To the right of the archangel Michael was stitched a man with what I believed was an attempted resemblance to the baron.
The baron appeared mid-evil when I crept into the room.
Staring down at the baron as he did whatever it was he was doing—with a dedication that, if he were faking, demanded a certain respect—I attempted to recall the priest’s instructions, but found myself lost in the complexities of the whole ritual rigmarole: I was to recite a number of prayers, in a particular order he’d said, but while I was confident I knew the Our Father (or the gist of it anyway) the priest had included a creed in his list of doctrinal necessities and I promise you I knew no creeds. He’d also said something about addressing the devil squarely—call the beast from the baron’s depths, I thought he’d said—but hadn’t explained, at least memorably, how to do so, and I figured it was not with a casual beast, hello. Of course I supposed I could not blame the priest for my own feelings of inadequacy. Still, he’d wanted me to be convincing, and so I should at least strive to appear as if I knew what I was doing.
The baron, through all of my indecision, had continued to flap maniacally. I had the eerie sense that he grew tired waiting for me to proceed with the rites, a subtle slowing of his flaps.
“Your lordship—” I began, but was interrupted by an inhuman sound that seemed to emanate from somewhere within the baron’s abdomen. The sound began as a quarrelling in his intestines and grew to a trembling bellow. The sound was a physical presence in the room: it echoed off the stone walls, flickered the candles in their holders, rattled the saucers on the tabletops and the bones in my flesh.
I dipped my fingers into the half-empty chalice of holy water and was about to proceed with the rites to the best of my memory, but as the droplets of water fell from my fingertips to the baron’s forehead, he rose and lunged at me with a guttural hiss. The two of us tumbled backward against the tapestry, pulling it down from the wall. The weight of it brought us both to our knees and I felt what was left of the holy water splash down my front. The pressure of the baron’s thumbs against my throat produced a gurgling in my mouth and I just hoped it wasn’t blood, until suddenly the baron was yanked off of me and thrown into the wardrobe, on which he cracked his head, slumping unconscious to the ground.
My servant double, my savior, stood before me. “Perhaps enough for tonight,” he said.
“The baron is an adept actor,” the priest said when I returned the next morning with a puffy right eyelid, bruises from the baron’s grip around my neck, and gave my report. “He has always loved the stage.” The priest did not acknowledge my injuries. As he had the day before, he paced the room from one wall to the next; I thought maybe he had kept pacing through the night. “The townspeople are beginning to talk of a man possessed,” he said.
“You must try again,” the priest said.
I gestured at the bells along the wall. “Are you sure—”
The priest stumbled toward me, placing a cloth full of wafers in my hands. “Consecrated,” he said. “Get one into his mouth.”
I left him crisscrossing the floor and journeyed to the baron’s castle for the second time.
“Have you come to speak in new tongues, father?”
The baron was waiting for me. He sat in a chair in the middle of his room and made only the slightest movements: the tensing and relaxing of the muscles in his arms, the clenching and unclenching of his fists. I noticed that his ankles were shackled to the legs of the chair and a deep foreboding tingled my bowels.
The baron spoke over me: “‘In my name shall they cast out devils! They shall speak with new tongues!’ Mark something or other, do you not recognize the scripture of the messiah?”
“Fine, fine,” the baron said. “Let’s get on with the casting out, then, shall we? What have you for us today?”
I fingered the wafers in the pocket of my robe but left them there, sure I was being mocked. A tremor in the baron’s eyes suggested the rabidity of the prior evening lurked within his sedate, conversational demeanor, and even if he faked the demonic possession, he didn’t fake the death-grip on my jugular from the night before.
I had arrived with a plan—well, an estimation of a plan—of what I intended to say and do, but things were quickly going awry. You are supposed to be a priest, I told myself, and attempted to exude the confidence imbued in such a position. “Which devil greets me?” I asked, striking an assertive pose, chest forward and hands on my hips, though the blousy drape of the priest’s exorcise robes may have nullified the effect.
The baron, or the devil, smiled. “Whichever you’d like,” he said.
“You—you remain possessed,” I said, not entirely sure which you—the baron or the demon, possibly demons plural, inside of him—was the subject of my address.
“Yes, quite,” the baron said. He swung his head back and forth, a defanged reenactment of the diabolism I walked in on last night. “Unless . . .” His voice faded as he examined me, a devious thought playing across his face.
I leaned in, ignoring the part of me that was alert to a trap. I have to say, there was something titillating about the possibility of conversing with the devil.
“Well, father, I was simply entertaining the thought that perhaps it is I who is sane and with the Lord and you, so desirous for a devil to excise, who is possessed with a Luciferian fervor.” He wiggled his finger between us. “Maybe we should switch places, hmm?”
He laughed, loudly, much louder than he’d been speaking, and with a gravelly depth that made me think maybe there actually was a demon inside him. I may very well have pissed myself, but only a bit. I stepped back. The door rattled behind me but remained closed; I hoped it was again the servant standing guard, ready to burst in at the first sign of trouble.
“Don’t leave, father,” the baron said as I looked at the door. “Stay, have a look around. Chat with me.”
Pushing aside sheer terror, I was intrigued by the baron’s chambers. I had never been in the presence of such stuff. I slowly walked around the room, keeping my one good eye on the baron while surveying his things: a number of chain mails, jousting lances adorned with ribbons in a variety of colors, a broken loom with a half-finished cloth dangling strands of yarn. He seemed to be a man of many hobbies.
A falcon sat in a cage in the back corner of the room. The bird wore a funny-looking hood with two stringy antennae sprouting from the top and bulbous patches around the eyes, and there was a leather mitt at the bottom of the cage, covered in falcon feces. It had clearly been caged for some time. The bird was silent and stiff as I approached, but it was awake; it bobbed and ruffled in response to my snaps.
“We’ve possessed that one too,” the baron said, straining his neck to see me. “Give it the ol’ crucifix why don’t you?”
Never having seen such a noble creature so close before, I was tempted to stick my fingers through the cage bars to stroke its feathers, but then noticed the fine points of its talons.
The baron sighed with an exaggerated contentment. “Oh, we’re having fun, aren’t we?”
The baron’s condescension suggested, I thought, that while I was becoming convinced of his possession, he suspected I was bogus—if there was a devil inside his flesh, I was not seen as a threat; it did not fear excavation at my hands. It felt like he was toying with me.
“Monster, seducer of men,” I began, turning to address the devil squarely.
“Yes, that’s the stuff,” the baron said, with a goading nod. “Go on . . .”
“Abomination, wicked inhabitant—”
The baron laughed his frightening laugh again, and I tripped into a collection of alchemist’s paraphernalia strewn at the foot of the bed and came up with my hands and hair slathered in a sticky goo. “Crap—”
“Oh, come off it, father,” the baron said, spitting “father” like an insult, working his chair around to face me. “You think you can exorcise me? Look at you, you’ve still got the shine of the womb on you.”
I patted my matted scalp.
“You’re nothing but a simple churl. Go back to dusting your apse.”
“My what?” I said, flinging the slime from my hands. I tried to look not so churlish. “Your lordship, I assure you—sorry, I mean, prince of evil—”
“You couldn’t exorcise the colors off a peacock.”
I recomposed myself, grasping for a semblance of professionalism. “I—I assure you, I am quite capable of extracting the devil within you,” I said. Pretty good, I thought.
“You think so, don’t you?” the baron said. “Come on, then, let me have one of those wafers you have stashed there.”
It only occurred to me later to wonder how he knew I had the wafers in my robe.
I stepped toward his chair and, leaning with my arm extended so as to remain an ungrabbable distance away, offered him a wafer. He placed it gingerly on his tongue. “Bit dry,” he said. “Have any more of that water from yesterday?”
“No,” I said.
“Shame,” he said. “Well, that’s enough for today.” He whistled for the servant, who entered quickly prepared, by the look on his face, for some obscene sight of mayhem like my first visit. The baron ordered: “Escort the good father out and fetch me something to drink.”
The baron called to me as the servant held the door. “And remember, father: ‘God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.’”
As I walked from the castle to the priest’s, the baron’s words echoing in my head, the cobbler approached me, rambling about his sins and appealing for absolution, and I politely explained that I was not a real priest.
The priest sat on the floor oiling his bells.
“The baron quoted the Gospels,” I said.
“Aha!” The priest leapt up, oil spilling and staining the floor, the bells rolling and clanging at his feet. “We have him now. Lucifer cannot quote scripture.”
“There are rules to this,” the priest said.
There were rules to it, apparently.
We sped off, no time to rinse myself of the baron’s alchemical gunk.
The priest insisted on accompanying me on my third visit to the baron, in disguise of course, so as to not arouse suspicion. When we arrived at the castle I introduced him as a Welsh monk visiting for the Advent season.
“Vow of silence, you know,” I said.
“Sure, whatever,” the baroness said, waving us through.
“Monster, seducer of men,” I began, turning to address the devil squarely.
The baron was not visible when we entered his chamber. The priest and I cautiously approached the baron’s chair, which remained in its place in the center of the room, metal cuffs lying ominously unshackled. Absent the demoniac we expected, the room felt as empty as the sea, and we were unmoored from our plan. Not that we had one, I mean—well I can’t speak for the priest, but at least according to my knowledge we had no plan. But if we had, we would have been unmoored from it.
“Where is the baron?” the priest asked, breaking his vow and failing to stifle his alarm.
I kicked the cuffs. They did not appear to have been ripped off, which was a small consolation. Perhaps, after the holy water and the wafer . . .
As I began to speak, there was a rustling overhead and the baron’s falcon darted low around our heads, its squeaky chirping frantic with freedom, sending us both scampering to separate corners.
A sinister muttering came from underneath the bed, punctuated by a forceful thumping that shook the bedposts. The priest and I watched the baron crawl out: his hands frozen in tortured grips with fingers bent at inhuman angles, clawing into the carpet as his arms strained to drag the rest of his body, his legs limp, dead. He collapsed in the middle of the floor, impishly grinning up at us with, or so I swear, an orange glow in his eyes. A series of manic expressions flitted across his face; he seemed to have lost control over the muscles of his eyes, his jaw, his tongue.
“The holy water, the wafers—perhaps they only angered the devil?” I called to the priest, who mumbled quietly in his corner, what sounded like a prayer. He appeared horrified to see the validity of the baron’s possession confirmed. “Father?”
“The water was not holy!” the priest shouted. “The wafers were not consecrated! I did not intend for you to administer a real exorcism!”
Finally the baron leapt into the air, back-flipping into what I can only describe as threatening calisthenics. After a sequence of squats and lunges he began running in circles.
The priest slid a bronze crucifix from his robes and raised it above his head. I waited for him to step forward and denounce the devil before us, call out the Holy Scripture, and pull the baron from his possession. Instead he hurled the crucifix at the baron’s head, which it hit square on, a spittle of blood dancing in the air as the baron flopped to the ground with a squawk.
The falcon flew from its perch and landed at the baron’s side. The priest and I moved closer with lingering suspicion. We stood on tiptoes on either side of the baron, keeping our distance and our eyes on the door.
The baron twitched to life. “Oh, come on,” he said, sitting up and rubbing the gash on his forehead. “I was only having a lark.”
“I just thought, the townspeople, they’re mad for the devil, we could’ve sold tickets,” the baron said. “And I’ve been so bored, lately. Forgive me, gents, for letting things get a bit carried away.” Blood gushed copiously from his wound.
The priest’s body unclenched as he let his guard down and stepped closer to the baron. I glanced between the priest and the baron, wondering what was happening. “So, you confess you were pretending the whole time?” the priest asked.
“More or less,” the baron said.
I began to protest. “But—”
“I knew it!” the priest exclaimed, vindicated.
After we returned from the baron’s castle, the priest set me with ink and parchment and instructed me to draft a report for the bishop detailing our encounter with the baron, his feigned demonic possession, and the priest’s successful attempt to root out the deceit.
“Be sure to note that I was certain of the baron’s trick from the start,” the priest said. “I was never fooled!”
The bishop arrived four days later. When he entered he immediately strode around the room and began to conduct his inspection. After measuring the height and girth of the candles, he approached the bells and examined them closely for color and gleam. He picked up each between his forefinger and thumb and rang them gently next to his ear. “Hmm,” he said after each ring. “Oiling is wanting.”
During this testing of the bells the priest presented my written account of the baron’s exorcism and stepped back, a subtle exultance in the bob of his heels, while the bishop read. The bishop, I must say, did not exactly hide his annoyance at being interrupted. As he read he furrowed his brows, tightened the thin line of his lips, and produced a soft huffing through his nose.
“The baron—what is the meaning of this?” the bishop asked.
“You see—” the priest began, preparing to regale the bishop with our, or at least his, success.
“What do you mean, pretending to be possessed?” the bishop asked.
“Yes, you see—”
“To be possessed?”
“I’m afraid so,” the priest said. “But do not worry, we—”
“And you . . .” The bishop looked down at the parchment to quote verbatim. “‘Exposed the ruse’ by having your . . .” He glanced at me skeptically. “By having your apprentice perform a ‘fake exorcism,’ is that right?”
“As if there were fake, as opposed to real, possessions?” the bishop asked.
“Father, what kind of man pretends to be possessed by the devil, as if he desires it?” Rubbing his forehead, the bishop tossed the parchment aside. “Strikes me as the behavior of a man possessed, no?”
While the priest mouthed wordlessly though somewhat frantically in response to the bishop’s admonishment—not unlike the baron, I must say— I sidled behind the bishop inconspicuously and, administering a drop to each so that they might ring unhindered by friction, I finally oiled the bells.