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from the August 2004 issue

The Devil in the Decanter

In the noble city of Burgfarrubach, a small, malicious spirit had been playing a curious prank for quite some time. Whenever a priest was called in to expel him from the house he was turning topsy-turvy, he would dupe the exorcist by fleeing the premises before his exorcism was complete. And no sooner was he in a new location when another priest would arrive with benedictions, maledictions, and conjurations, then—poof!—he played the same trick.

So it was that no one had ever been able to send him back to Hell once and for all.

Destiny is so powerful, though, that it prevails even in bizarre cases of deviltry; and if it failed to punish him as he deserved, at least it put a stop to the antics of the erratic little imp of Burgfarrubach.

Where? How?

In this same city there lived an attorney who was very clever at cheating justice and his fellow man. One day he was in his office pondering a complicated issue and failing to find the usual self-serving solution. He was cursing and agonizing when, lo and behold, through the open door there appeared a bright little flame. It was a sulphurous little flame, whirling in midair, and headed toward him like a shot. In an instant, thanks to his instinct for self-defense, he grabbed the first thing that came to hand on his desk, which was the decanter of water he poured for his clients to prolong their chatter. As chance would have it, the lifting of the carafe coincided at a certain point with the oblique arrival of the little ball of fire; and the latter slipped inside the former. It sizzled, it jolted: in vain. It stayed put, because the attorney, who was quicker than the devil, affixed the stopper on the decanter, gave it another turn, and sealed it very tightly. Then, fearlessly, he stood and watched. And he laughed.

A fine coup! A marvelous capture! A portentous conquest! Not, indeed, that the crafty pettifogger regarded the little flame simply as a prodigy that, though palpitating and subsiding alternately as if it had the shivers, did not expire in the water but, on the contrary, became brighter. Rather, he rejoiced because, realizing that it was a spirit, he thought he had at his mercy a force that would gain him inestimable power. And he laughed. He contemplated the decanter and the light that sparkled from the water through the glass, and he felt his mind clear as never before; he quickly discerned a sure and easy way to resolve the tangled affair that had been causing him so much worry.

From that day forward he never lost another case. He vanquished all the judges and subdued all the attorneys of Burgfarrubach. And naturally, he never removed the instrument of his good fortune from the decanter; he kept busy converting the cavils, deceptions, and cabals of the law into fine golden coins.

Nor should one think that the little devil, although longing for the day of his liberation, was ill at ease inside the cool of the carafe, since it provided him endless opportunities to see and hear some beauties.

But you can never trust attorneys. The attorney from Burgfarrubach grew old. And one day he ran into the prior of some friars whose monastery was on a mountain far from the city. Having been greeted by the monk with the smile of one whose conscience is at peace, he responded with a grimace and a "Go to Hell!"

No sooner had he arrived home, however, than the insolent attorney began thinking about the encounter; he was upset and felt his blood run cold. To console himself he took a little sack full of coins from a box. Alas! Looking at them he reflected that man could do many wonderful things with gold, except for one: defeat death. Insofar as he was afraid of death, the attorney had no doubt that he, not the friar, would go kicking into the clutches of the Sovereign Devil of all Devils. And with a great fever upon him, he went to bed.

He suffered, worse than if he had been in Hell, until he resolved to summon that monk to his deathbed for confession.

It would be pointless to go into the length and scrupulousness of this confession; suffice it to say that at the last moment the sinner said, "Reverend Father, in salvation of my soul I leave the fruit of all my earnings, licit and illicit, to your monastery. On one condition . . ."

"What condition is that?" the friar asked.

"That you take charge of the decanter, there, on the desk. Inside it is . . ."

"What?" the friar demanded.

"The most evil spirit ever to infest Burgfarrubach."

The good prior remembered the little demon who several years before had kept more than a few exorcists busy; and he supposed it was the same one spraying fire and fuming inside the carafe, but this did not concern him unduly. In his studies and meditations on the life of Saint Hilarius the thaumaturge, he had learned a conjuration that not even the Archdevil—not even Lucifer—could have withstood. A prudent man, nevertheless, he resolved to consult his monks, whom he knew to be wise, having confessed them all himself. Where should they keep the legacy? And the decanter? Did this bequest not pose a danger to the monastery's good name?

No. All were of the opinion that the legacy should be accepted; for they had great need of it. As for the carafe, they deferred to the prior's abiding judgment and divine mercy.

Thus, upon the death of the attorney, the little sacks of coins were transferred to the location of those honest servants of God; and the decanter, to the prior's little cell. Smiling a bit at the fear the more ingenuous brethren had experienced merely upon seeing the decanter, he thought: "We haven't managed to send this evil spirit back to Hell because it has never been possible to detain him until the end of the conjurations. But now he's here inside, good and tight; and to his annoyance he'll have to hear what Saint Hilarius the thaumaturge has taught me from beginning to end. Then, when I so please, I'll release him to Lucifer's house either by removing the stopper or throwing the decanter to the ground." And almost as a test he began to recite the exorcism that he believed irresistible.

But when he came to, "Out, damn spirit, from this body! in peace—," he was forced to interrupt himself. The carafe, resting on the bench, seemed to light up with joy; and there arose from it a laughter so jocund, so keen, that the good prior's arms fell to his sides. He was terrified. The thought had not occurred to him, poor little man, that Saint Hilarius's exorcism was directed at the diabolical invasions of the Christian body—"Leave in peace this Christian soul"—not those of a decanter of clear water. And the poor little man suspected—no, understood—that he could not trust the remedy he had believed infallible.

Should he, then, keep the decanter in his cell?

Mercy! What a peril! What a horror! He never had a peaceful night again: flames before his eyes; a strange cackling in his ears; and, what was worse, temptation after temptation.

He urgently needed to free himself of the onerous bequest. But how? Should he break the decanter inside the monastery? What if the spirit returned to his old habits and hid here or there, infesting this or that cell, with no completed, effective conjuration sufficient to drive him out? Should he break the decanter outside? The sacred stories referred to terrible examples of revenge the dark spirits would exact if they fled to defenseless spaces: ignitions of the air paralyzed holy men or struck them dead; sudden whirlwinds abducted innocent creatures who were never seen again; and frenzies due to instantaneous horror caused respectable priests to fall ill for the rest of their lives.

Vexed by such doubts, the prior sighed, wept, and struggled day and night against the temptations. He prayed, and he invoked divine assistance.

Finally, to his comfort, he reread in the Holy Scriptures that it was sometimes useful to resort to cunning even with great devils. Now, in order to send the little imp—small, yes, but insolent and frightening—back to Hell, he would have to make him heed an entire conjuration. If the most effective conjuration was that of Saint Hilarius, and if Saint Hilarius's conjurations had a certain effectiveness in personal invasions, the cunning and the victory lay in finding a person the spirit would enter, and would take delight in entering and inhabiting, upon his escape from the decanter. But if he wanted to avoid any scandal around the attorney's bequest, he could not go tracking down a dark and indecent conscience that would fully satisfy the spirit outside the monastery.

In a friar, then? Imprison him in a sinful friar? Oh, of course! The devil would be happy to pounce upon a friar, to wallow there inside! And without a doubt he would insist on staying in such an unusual, coveted dwelling (a friar!) even during the exorcism. Then . . . battle won! To Hell, once and for all! No more tribulations about the bequest!

Could this be a wicked thought? A suggestion from the Great Demon himself? Because, mind you, one of those young friars, so wise and pious, would have to fall into sin, and the prior would have to become aware of it at precisely the right moment and confess him. Then, while confessing the young friar, he could not absolve him before completing the exorcism and either opening or breaking the decanter. It would take an irresistible temptation for one of his dear monks!

Well then, did not the lives of the Fathers attest, perhaps, that even temptations could be useful? Useful for testing virtue? Was it not permissible, perchance rightful, to test the virtues of the monastery from time to time? And owing to human frailty, was it not possible, quite likely even, that a wise and pious young friar might err? Yes, it would require great prudence for the monastery's good name to remain intact. Thus, the prior spoke to the brethren with great prudence. He said the road to Heaven would be an easy one if the enticements of the world did not obstruct it; and there would be no victory without combat. The brethren should therefore go into the world for a time. In layman's dress and with the attorney's coins, they—unknown but strong—would brave secular life. If one fell in the struggle, the victorious would help lift him up again.

Good God! What stumbles! What somersaults! When the young friars had returned from the cities and he had confessed them all, the prior did not know which to choose as a replacement for the execrated decanter. All had fallen, and how! Oh, the human misery! Oh, the power of the Demon! All had stumbled, all of them! And each would respond to his reprimands, "The victorious brethren will help lift me up again."

The prior was dismayed, but he hoped the sacrifice of one friar would hasten the cure of his ailing brethren and, at the same time, the anxiously desired liberation. In a panic at the awaited event and in a frenzy to free himself from the prolonged distress, he ran to get the decanter. After lining up the brethren before him, the prior (the devil take him!) dropped it . . .

Then came a crash as of the simultaneous shattering of one hundred decanters, a burst of flame, an atrocious scream amid the smoke, the stench of sulphur, and a wail that changed into mad laughter . . . Horrible! As the smoke began to dissipate, they saw—aghast, all the friars saw—their prior convulsing on the ground, his eyes out of their sockets, foaming at the mouth . . . possessed. Good God! The prior possessed!

Terrified by this sound punishment, and remorseful in their hearts and souls, some assisted the wretched man while others threw themselves to their knees to implore mercy from Heaven. They wept. Still, the horrendous torment did not cease! The older friars set a good example by confessing their guilt loudly, performing acts of contrition, and rebuking one another in turn, to be worthy of the absolution they imparted to one another in turn. Once absolved, they would attempt the test of the exorcisms.

They attempted. There was one who, having placed his hands on the head of the possessed, invoked the assistance of the saints, angels, archangels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and confessors; and another who hung a papal bull from his neck with the names of the Omnipotent—Elohim, Sother, Emmanuel, Sabaoth, Agia, Tetragrammaton, Otheos, Athanatos, Jehovah, Saday, Adonay, Homusion—and with great signs of the cross threatened the demon and cried, "Leave, foul one! Leave, viper and basilisk! Scorpion and iniquitous spirit, get out! Out!"

But no. The spirit of infamy would not depart. At times, the possessed would laugh sarcastically, speak in a strange language, tremble while spitting and gnashing his teeth, or curse like a Saracen.

And there was one who covered his head with a stole and sang the psalm Vicit Leo de Tribu Juda; and another who anointed him with the wax from the Paschal candle and recited antiphons and oremuses.

In vain! All in vain!

There was yet another who read a Gospel passage about Jesus driving away the demons; and another who sprinkled the possessed—watered him, really, and thoroughly—with holy water.

In vain. The union had created strength. The poor young friars pondered how to work together, but the invading spirit seemed more powerful than the famed Simon the Sorcerer.

They tried all sorts of things. That night they flagellated themselves on their bare backs, and the next day they fasted—always in prayer. The following day they went to the city and throughout the countryside bestowing the attorney's money in charitable acts . . .

In vain. Discipline, abstinence, fasting, orations, and alms were of no avail; nothing worked! What a devil! What an extraordinary demonic power!

The prior had failed to anticipate all that might happen. The little spirit, endowed with an immense energy, a resistance that even the greatest demon would have envied, remained obstinate and tenacious in the place he had coveted most: the body of him, the greatest offender, who had sent the others into sin. Nor did the brethren know any longer to which saint they should devote themselves. Some, however, sustained by hope and faith, awaited a miracle from one day to the next: the intervention of a messenger from God.

One morning, after perhaps a month of such anguish, the lay brother who was spading the vegetable garden sighted a venerable-looking man astride a venerable-looking mule coming From Above. Having arrived as he had, and having tied the mule by the ankle as he had, the solemn pilgrim advanced toward the porter's lodge.

"I am," he said, "Doctor Papenwasser, professor at the University of Koenisberg, and I have come here to lecture you brethren on the 'purgative of the faculty of abstraction.'" Purgative! The gardener and the porter began to shout, "The messenger from God! The messenger from God has arrived!"

They had noticed. All the monks came forward to greet him with reverence and benedictions. They—the more educated ones—did not even lose faith upon learning who he was; in fact, they were more convinced than ever that he had been sent from Heaven. He was a doctor, a University Doctor, and a professor at the University of Koenisberg! Were they not right, then, to consider him capable of all knowledge?

Indeed, as they had humbly and timidly informed him of their disgrace, he pontificated, "I understand. I am learned on the matter." And with his mind's eye, he quickly ran through the profound inventory of his brain. He looked at the demonography section, and having found therein the subject for an erudite lesson, added, "I am with you. Provided that we proceed methodically."

The monks believed that to proceed methodically he would first have to be led to where they had restrained, in a little bed, the miserable possessed prior.

Well! That cruel spectacle, which would have softened a stone, did not move the erudite professor in the least. It was as if he did not hear the shrieks, did not see the convulsed contortions, the atrabilious outbursts, and the obscene sneers.

Meanwhile, the professor, severe and tacit, prepared the subject of his lesson: "Demons and spirits in Egypt, Assyria, Chaldea, Persia; in Phrygia, in Colchis; in Thrace—with the Greeks and Romans . . ." (Oh, what a wonderful lesson!) "Operative magic and divinatory magic and divinatory magic—rites of expiation—magical formulae, herbs, and stones . . ." (Oh, what a profound lesson!) "Necromancy, lampadomancy, dactylomancy, lecanomancy . . . " (Oh, what a colossal lesson!) "Ragolomancy, pallomancy, petchimancy, parthenomancy, pegomancy . . ."

Then, having made all of the friars sit around him, the professor began, "Herodotus of Halicarnassus, erroneously called the father of history by the Latin peoples, states that the ancient Egyptians . . ."

The friars were astonished. They did not understand what end such a discourse could have. They had felt that the liberation of the unhappy man was of the utmost importance. They were unaware, the poor friars, that the intention of the erudite is to appear erudite; nor could they have imagined the effectiveness of erudition when it transcends the contingencies of reality.

The professor from Koenisberg had spoken for barely half an hour, and already the monks, sitting on their stools, had bowed their heads on their chests and, with eyes closed, were resting in delicious oblivion of their physical bodies and woes.

Even the possessed prior was yawning. At first they were wide, open-mouthed and plaintive yawns, while his dazed eyes searched for their lost consciousness. Then, little by little, a languor, a beneficial doze set in.

All of a sudden, two-thirds of the way into the lesson, the prior let out a resounding sigh, and afterward, loudly, a cry of joy.

Awakened, the young friars jumped to their feet; they looked; they saw. A miracle! A miracle from the messenger from God! "Laus Deo! Hosannah!" They ran to free the redeemed. And "Laus Deo! Laus Deo!" All kneeled and raised their arms and voices in rendering of thanks to the Lord. Saved! The prior was saved! Te Deum!

But after the Te Deum! was sung, an event occurred that was perhaps more strange than the very liberation which had relieved the oppressed souls. The erudite professor, faithful to his method—according to which he never abandoned a subject without, as he was accustomed to saying, having dissected or exhausted it—resumed his speech from the point at which it had been interrupted. As if nothing had happened! As if he did not care one whit about the bliss that was reviving the entire monastery and the monks' unanimous exultation, which was not unlike a shared resurrection!

Then, indignant, they no longer saw the scholar from Koenisberg as a savior angel, but as the unintentional, unwitting, and unworthy instrument of Providence. So great was the enthusiasm he put into resuming his irritating speech that they questioned whether the malicious spirit had relocated from the prior into him. Thus, to avoid suffering further diabolical experiences, they grabbed their stools and moved toward him shouting, "Away! Out of here! Out of the possessed man! To Hell!"

Oh, how naïve the friars were, despite their recent tumbles while walking through the world!

The devil who had resisted so many years inside a decanter, in such a contrary element, and who had withstood so many conjurations and religious assaults and ritual invectives, had not been able, no, to endure the entire lesson of an erudite German. One wonders whether he might have felt at home inside the professor's body! But no, he preferred . . .

"Away, scorpion! Away, basilisk!"

He preferred, he had preferred . . .

"Away, dragon! To Hell!" the friars shouted.

And for the first time since he had been a professor in Koenisberg, Doctor Papenwasser was forced to break with his method.

He trotted off in the direction of his mule.

But the mule was no longer there. And the rope he had used to tie its ankle was still smoking.

Read more from the August 2004 issue
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