Things That Go Bump in the Night
Franz raised his head from The Way of Perfection, and blinked through the afternoon sun-light to the window of Father Michael's study.
Leaving his books under the apple tree, Franz hurried across the grass to the window and jumped over the sill.
"Yes, Father?" he said brightly.
Father Michael looked up crossly from his ledgers. "What were you doing?"
"Studying, father. I'm sorry…"
Father Michael sighed. "Well, you can make yourself useful. Go to the library and catalogue the tithes."
"Tithes, Father?" said Franz, with a vague feeling there was something he had missed.
"Don't you know what day it is, idiot boy?"
"The first of June."
"And on the first of June," said Father Michael, slowly, as if he were talking to an idiot. "We collect our tithes. From the tenants. On the land."
"Ah, yes, those," said Franz. He knew about the tenants. They lived in the village at the bottom of the mountain below the monastery, and grazed their sheep and goats on the mountainside. Every month the monastery collected its tithes from the tenants to use, Father Michael explained, for the glorification of God. This glorification was a process which to date had eluded Franz, but he assumed it was the sort of thing which would become clear when he took his holy orders. He tried to look as if he hadn't forgotten all about the tithes, so as not to disappoint Father Michael. He found that he often irritated Father Michael, but he didn't mean to.
"Well, go on, then!" said Father Michael. He shoved the ledgers across the table to Franz.
Franz scuttled away, clutching the ledgers. Monday afternoons were when Father Michael was busy distributing alms to the mendicant women of the diocese. He took this work very seriously—in fact, it was one of the monastery's few chores that he didn't delegate to a novice— spending up to an hour in solitary prayer with each mendicant woman of the diocese, and getting very annoyed if disturbed, so no wonder he didn't want to be bothered with the ledgers.
Franz arrived in the library to find his only companion poring over the tithes the claustral prior, Brother John. The claustral prior was muttering. "Drudging around in here with a bloody novice! Who does he think I am?" He looked up. "Oh, hello, Franz," he said. "Lovely to see you."
"Hello," said Franz, perching on a stool opposite the claustral prior. He suspected that Brother John was not, in fact, pleased to see him, but didn't mind.
Franz liked the library. It smelled of books, and he liked the smell of books. He liked everything about books. Reading taught him more about God and the wonders of His Creation. He could happily spend hours in the library, studying the lives of the saints and the history of the Spanish and French missionaries in South America and Canada. Their charity, wisdom, compassion and constancy in their faith in the face of trials and horrors frequently moved him to tears. Even though there were so many books in the monastery library that the shelves were in danger of collapse, Father Michael didn't seem to approve of Franz reading. "It'll never get you anywhere," he would say, rolling his eyes. A lot of the books Franz wasn't even supposed to touch, because, Father Michael explained, they were very old and valuable, which meant, he explained slowly and patiently, they were worth a lot of money. When Franz asked what the books contained, he told him to shut up. Franz thought this a rather odd approach to have to books, whose purpose, after all, was to spread the true word of God to His children, but he assumed it was a Mystery of God. He usually assumed anything he didn't understand was a Mystery of God. Perhaps it would become clear when he took holy orders.
"Where's the abbot?" asked the prior.
"Gone to distribute alms to the mendicant women, I think," said Franz.
The prior looked at the grandfather clock in the corner of the library. "Time for his tonic."
The prior had brought Father Michael his tonic for his gout at the same time every day for sixth months, with what Franz considered a touching devotion. The prior had spent more than forty years at his job, outlasting, Franz had heard, many abbots, and he had gained a reputation for loyalty and competence, and for brewing wonderful herbal remedies that he had learned in his childhood. The tonic didn't seem to be healing Father Michael's gout. In fact, Father Michael's health had deteriorated quite rapidly in the six months of taking it, he had added a wheezing cough and heart palpitations to his gout, but the Lord moves in mysterious ways.
Brother John hurried off to give Father Michael his tonic, and did not return.
Franz tried to apply himself diligently to what Father Michael described as the work of the monastic community, but he soon figured he could read The Way of Perfection with one eye in the mean-time. He soon became wholly absorbed.
That night, when he retired after Vespers to his cell in the west wing, the most ancient part of the monastery, he was still reading when he fell asleep.
He was roused by a scratching noise at the door, as if something, perhaps Bob the tortoiseshell monastery mouser, were trying to get in.
"Bob?" he called. "Bob?"
The scratching got louder, then the door slowly opened and a head peered round. It was horned, with two blazing scarlet eyes like the pits of Hell. It pushed the door open wider and scuttled forward across the ceiling, leathery wings tucked against its scales. It swooped down towards Franz's face.
Franz knew exactly how to deal with demons. He seized the rosary that lay on the wooden chest by the narrow iron bed and brandished it. "Begone, demon!" he called.
The demon paused in mid-swoop, scowled, and flapped off to perch on the window-sill, glaring sullenly and shaking its wings.
Franz, glowing with satisfaction at evil-repelling well done, wrapped the rosary around his wrist for protection and surveyed the vanquished spawn of Satan, considering how best to permanently destroy it. The demon surveyed him grumpily in return.
"Move, please," said Franz—the demon was in the way of his oil lamp.
"I beg your pardon." The demon shuffled over so Franz could take the lamp from the window-cell and light it.
With the lamp in one hand and his rosary wrapped around the other, Franz strode out into the cloister, the demon flapping at his heels.
It was a clear, cloudless night, the moon very big and bright in the sky, bats fluttering back and forth across it. Even in the midst of an invasion from Hell, Franz paused to thank God for the beauty of His creation. The demon huffed impatiently.
"Where are we going?"
"To speak to the abbot. I ought to warn him that the spawn of Satan are stalking the Earth hunting for souls."
Franz opened the door of the monastery chapel. There, slumped on the floor in his night-shirt before the altar, his rosary in one hand, was Father Michael, stone dead.
"He's dead," said Franz, surprised.
"Yes, Captain Obvious." The demon rolled its eyes. "Dead as the dodo. Wait, is that dead yet? I lose track."
"I think so?" said Franz, temporarily distracted from Father Michael. "They haven't seen one for a while." He returned from the dodo issue to the matter at hand. "The rosary didn't work."
"It never does."
Franz laughed. He knew that demons tried to trick mortals, but he expected their tricks to be a bit more plausible than that. "It does. You haven't killed me."
"You're not afraid of me."
"Why would I be?" said Franz. "I have this." He brandished his rosary triumphantly.
The demon sighed. "Exactly," he said, in rather the tone Father Michael used to use when he thought Franz was being particularly idiotic. "It's all in your mind. You think the silly little beads have magic powers."
"They're not silly little beads," said Franz, losing his temper. "It's a rosary."
"Now you're offended. It's difficult to be offended and afraid for your soul at the same time."
Franz thought about it. "So…" he said slowly, looking at Father Michael's corpse. "He didn't…"
The demon ruffled its leathery wings the way Bob ruffled his fur when he'd got the cream. "When it came down to it, no."
"Very well," said Franz. Clearly it was the will of the Lord that he rid the Earth of this demon without the help of Father Michael. "I'll rid the Earth of Hell-spawn myself."
He had heard that if you pierce the heart of a demon with a piece of the true cross, you can kill it, and he knew that the monastery had a piece of the true cross at a small shrine to Saint Paul which pilgrims visited. Towards this shrine he now proceeded.
"So," he wondered aloud, crossing the rectory. "Why do you look like that? If you're an agent of Satan, a devourer of souls, what's with the horns and the talons?"
The demon shrugged. "You tell me. You think I like flapping around the place like an overgrown bat? I appeared to Brother Cuthbert as a rather smashing blonde, but it seems over-grown bat is most clients' preferred dress code for a denizen of Hell."
"Is that what we are? Clients?"
"How would you describe the people I kill?"
"Victims?" suggested Franz.
The demon rolled its eyes. "Oh, don't be so melodramatic. I don't do anything they don't let me. But no, it's never your own fault, is it? You humans. Always whining…"
"They… they let you kill them…?"
"Well, sure," said the demon, in a tone which once again reminded Franz of the late Father Michael. "Otherwise, they'd still be alive, wouldn't they? Like you."
"Well, you're still alive. Because you won't let me kill you."
This conversation was interrupted when Franz nearly tripped over the corpse of Brother Simon, who was very pale with two puncture wounds in his neck.
"Did you… exsanguinate him?"
"Oh, yeah," said the demon casually. "Psychological complex. Sister's kitten bit him when he was five. Had a thing about fangs ever since."
"What were those two words?"
"Psychological complex? Yeah, they won't discover that for a few years."
Franz thought about this. "So, you can change…" He might not understand exactly what the words meant, but he thought he caught the general idea. "To whatever someone's most afraid of…."
"Uh-huh." The demon smiled smugly.
"Or…" He thought of Brother Cuthbert's blonde and flushed. "Whatever they most…." He trailed off.
"Want." The demon lowered his voice to a whisper. Sweet, coaxing, insistent. "Whatever you want. I'll give you anything you want…"
"But you can't," said Franz gently. "I don't want anything from you."
"Nothing in the world…? Nothing that you need with your whole soul…?"
"No," said Franz. "All I want is to serve God."
"I can make you an abbot. A bishop. The Pope…"
"I don't think you understand what it means to serve God," said Franz thoughtfully, emerging from the rectory into the courtyard where the monastery fountain tinkled merrily under the stars surrounded by corpses.
"Have you killed everybody in the monastery?"
"Yes," said the demon with great satisfaction. "I feasted tonight."
Franz crossed the courtyard unperturbed. If it was the Lord's will that he destroy this denizen of Hell alone and unaided, that was what he would do.
"Where are we going?"
"The shrine of Saint Paul. There's a splinter of the true cross there, and if you pierce the heart of a demon with a piece of the true cross, you kill it."
The demon snorted. "Superstitious nonsense. There must be enough pieces of the true cross floating around monasteries to build Noah's Ark."
Franz was indignant, and shocked. He was also, for the first time, starting to wonder if this demon would be as easy to destroy as he had expected.
He paused, considering.
"It's no good keeping secrets," said the demon smugly. "I can read everything in your mind."
There was a moment of fear, as he remembered that the demon could, indeed, appear as whatever its clients most feared. Then he remembered that the demon had never yet shown any sign of knowing what he was planning, and suspected that reading everything might be another trick for mortals, to make him afraid.
Franz thought of Bob as a little, wriggling, mewling orphan kitten, tiny and helpless and paddling against his hand with his little paws as he licked warm milk from his finger. "What am I thinking of now?" he demanded.
And he could tell from the demon's frustrated scowl that it had no idea. He smiled slightly, more confident now, knowing that God was protecting him from the demon's attempts at trickery. When the demon saw him smile, Franz saw for the first time, flickering across its wrinkled gargoyle face, fear. The hunted had become the hunter. Because he had God on his side.
The demon, deciding that the tempting possibilities of Franz's soul were outweighed by the danger Franz posed to the demon's own existence, opened his leathery wings and braced himself for flight.
It's all in your mind. By the gate to the monastery, in front of the shrine of Saint Paul, was a small, rather flimsy wooden box, in which the pilgrims put their donations for lighting a candle at the shrine. This was the only thing in reach of Franz's hand. He knew what he had to do. With no time to do more than mutter "Ave Maria," he threw it with all his might and the might of God at the demon's head.
The demon's head exploded and its crumpled leathery corpse flopped onto the shrine of Saint Paul.
In the morning, the pilgrims going to pray at the shrine found Novice Franz sleeping peacefully at the feet of the statue of Saint Paul, Bob sleeping peacefully in his arms, the headless corpse of a demon beside him and a whole monastery littered with the mortal remains of monks behind him.
He spent the rest of his life a hermit at the shrine of Saint Paul, resisting all the Church's attempts to honour him, saying simply "It was through the grace of God". Bob became very spoilt and was only too happy any honour—and scraps of food— the pilgrims would bestow on him.