by Sylvia Hiven






From Issue 15 (Nov 2011)

As we stepped into the bedroom, I thought Father Callahan had exaggerated.

Indeed, the stench was bad; the odor of stale vomit and human waste lay like a veil in the room. And yes, the man that sat in the bed was a mere skeleton, his hollow cheeks pasty despite the amber light from his bedside lamp. But he had his hands clasped around a crucifix, and while his eyes were dark with fear, there was no sign of the devil in him.

It will not be what you expect, Marion, Father Callahan had said. You might think you know what is evil, and what is not, but it’s not that simple. This battle might cost you your faith, as it has many others.

Yet, from the lucid look in the man’s eyes, I felt I had stepped into a winning battle.

“Father.” His voice came raspy, like nails scratching over brittle parchment. “Praise the Lord.”

“Don’t fret, Mr Keefe.” Father Callahan walked to the bed, put his Bible on the table next to it and enveloped the man’s hand with his own. “This time, we’ll cast it out for good, God willing.”

The man nodded. He looked towards the door where I stood. “Another seminary student.”

It was a statement, not a question, and there was a slight edge to his voice. I felt heat rush into my cheeks. “Sir, if you would rather I was not here, I’d be happy to lea—”

“No, stay. Father Callahan is a man of faith most abundant, but another warrior of God can’t hurt. What’s your name, boy?”

“Marion Quinn, Sir.”

“Marion is one of our most promising students,” said Father Callahan. “His faith runs deep.”

“Did it not in all of them?” The edge was back in Keefe’s voice. Father Callahan ignored the question. Instead he took Keefe’s hand, which still clutched the crucifix, and turned it over. Even from six feet away, I could see the raised burns in his palms where he had held it. I couldn’t contain a gasp.

“Holy symbols burn it now,” said Father Callahan. “That’s good. It means we’re beating it. How else has it been manifesting?”

“The smells started this morning.” Keefe nodded toward the bedside table, where there was a vase of dying roses, their slender necks bent in submission to some unseen force. “And all day, the flowers change between wilted and blooming. But Father…” He paused, raising his liver-spotted hands to his cheeks. “My face. She’s changing my face. I look in the mirror, and I see flashes of her. She’s getting stronger.”

“Well, we’re getting stronger, too, Mr Keefe. The entire congregation has been praying for you, and we have Marion here — a strong soul. If this demon manifests tonight, it might very well be the last time it shows its face.” He patted Keefe on the shoulder, then turned to me. “Come, Marion, let’s go downstairs to the kitchen. We must prepare.”

“I apologize, it is probably a mess in the kitchen. I sent the housekeeper home when the smells started. If the demon manifests…” Keefe paused, and shuddered. “Martha is old, and has been with me since my wife died. I didn’t want her to see that monster take me over.”

“We are not here to worry about your soiled kitchen,” Father Callahan said. “We’re here to bring peace to your soul. Is there something we can get you before we begin? A glass of water, perhaps?”

“No, Father. You being here is comfort enough.”

Mr Keefe smiled as he spoke, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes — as if he didn’t believe it himself.

The kitchen was a disaster. A pile of dishes fermented in the sink, flies buzzing about it, and pots and pans sat unwashed on the stovetop. Father Callahan, familiar with the surroundings, took my coat and hung it on a hook hidden on the back of the kitchen door.

“Tell me, Father,” I said, straightening my cassock. “How many times have you visited Mr Keefe?”

“Maybe a dozen times in the past few years.”


“Yes.” He slipped his stole around his shoulders. “He’s been attacked several times by this demon.”

“He called it ‘she’.”

“We don’t know its name, but it manifests as female.”

“It’s always the same demon?”

Father Callahan glanced at me with a disapproving frown. “You must realize, Marion, Satan’s forces are stubborn. This demon wants him, and it will not give up until either Keefe gives himself to it, or we cast it out. Just as you and I are passionate about our cause, they are equally passionate about theirs.”

“And what is their cause, exactly? Of all the souls for the taking, why possess this man?”

“Mr Keefe is a man of means. It’s not uncommon for demons to aim to possess those who can give them powers on Earth. They could do much with Mr Keefe’s influence.” He straightened his back and handed me the Bible and vials of holy water. “But this isn’t seminary school, Marion. No more questions. All I need you to do is watch and pray.”

When we returned to Keefe’s bedroom, he was sitting up in the bed. His hands writhed about each other like pale doves, anxiety sheeting his face.

“The flowers,” he said. “Father, the flowers. She’s on her way, I can feel her.”

The flowers, that just minutes earlier had hung half-withered, sat perky and colorful in their vase. There was a strong scent in the room, but it wasn’t the smell of roses; the room was enveloped in the thick scent of a familiar spice I couldn’t place.

Father Callahan walked to the bed. He handed Keefe the crucifix. “Hold this tightly, and pray with us. With God’s help, we will burn this creature out of you if it shows itself.”

There was a momentary sound of sizzling, and a swirl of gray smoke wafted out from between Keefe’s clutched fingers. He grimaced, yet kept the crucifix in his fist. Father Callahan sat down in a cushioned chair, Bible in hand.

I remained standing in the doorway, unsure of what to do.

“Put the vials on the table, Marion. Then take a seat.”

I did as asked, leaving the vials on the bedside table and sinking down into a chair in a corner of the room. Keefe lay back down and closed his eyes. His lips moved in mute prayer, reduced to hints of whispers.

I looked expectantly at Father Callahan.

“Relax, Marion,” he said. “It does not burst in through the door, it steals in on its tiptoes. It usually takes a while. Just pray.”

He lowered his head and fell into the citing of prayers alongside Keefe. I mumbled the words with them, trying to take his advice and relax, but my eyes wandered to the flowers by the bed. Were they growing stronger? And what was that scent? Ginger?

Hours passed. Keefe remained motionless in his bed as the scent swelled and diminished, like breaths of the demon threatening just beyond. The praying ceased; Keefe and Father Callahan both dozed off, their breathing in sync. The crucifix in Keefe’s fist had ceased its burn.

I didn’t realize that I had dozed off as well until a whisper startled me awake.

“Marion? Wake up.”

I sat up in my chair, rubbing my eyes. Father Callahan was still asleep across the room, gentle snores escaping him in bursts. He had not spoken; it was Keefe.

But it wasn’t Keefe, either. It was her.

I watched something ripple beneath Keefe’s skin. His pasty complexion lightened, taking on the hue of lilies rather than parchment. A foreign face gradually merged into his features and possessed him with softness, throwing light into his tired eyes. Beneath the covers, his scrawny limbs rounded and filled to something I instinctively wanted to reach out and touch.

What sat before me was a woman of soft beauty. If she was a champion of Satan, she was his fairest warrior. I knew I should be afraid but all I felt was fascination.

In the now slender hand, the crucifix ceased its burn.

I opened my mouth to wake up Father Callahan, but no words crossed my lips. It was as if an invisible finger was laid against them, commanding the words to dissolve in my throat.

“Please, don’t say anything. Just listen.”

“Demon.” My words flowed without protest when they were meant for her, not to alert Father Callahan. “That’s all you are. I won’t listen to anything you have to say.”

“If you are a man of God, you must hear me. I am not what you think I am.”

I looked into her eyes, trying not to let their beauty intimidate me. “You are the Deceiver,” I said. “I know what games you play.”

I flipped open my prayer book and with trembling fingers searched for the page that Father Callahan had pointed out to me as particularly powerful. When I found the right page, I began to push out the words in clumsy Latin.

The demon spoke calmly. “Don’t you think that if those words were hurtful to me, Father Callahan would have cast me out by now? They are the words of God, and I am a child of His. Those words cannot throw me out.” She held up her hand, in which the crucifix still lay. “Do you not wonder why the burning of this stopped when Keefe’s mind gave way to mine? Or why the flowers bloom in my presence?”

I sat still for a moment, looking at her outstretched palm. It was uncharred.

“It burned you earlier.”

“It burned him. It did not burn me.”

“Then you will not mind a test?” I snatched one of the vials of holy water from the bedside table and unscrewed the cork. “Can you withstand water blessed in the name of our Savior?”

Without waiting for an answer, I threw the water at her face. It splashed over her features — increasingly womanly, increasingly beautiful — and while she drew a startled gasp, the water did not burn. Instead, it smoothed the few remaining wrinkles on her cheeks, leaving tiny amber freckles in its wake.

“Do you see now? You are fighting the wrong enemy.”

Her words made sense, and I hated it. I blinked, trying to refocus. I knew I should wake the Father, but the glint in the angelic demon’s eyes forbade it. Despite all that my common sense screamed at me, I believed her.

I sank back in the chair. We sat in silence for a few minutes. All I could do was stare at her, and wait for her to speak again. My eyes caressed her, sliding over the sheen of her hair, the angle of her cheekbone, the curve of her breast. To my shame, I felt desire stir deep inside of me, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“I rarely get to rise to the surface this long,” she finally said. “Perhaps it’s because of you.”


“The others never could face the truth. They were afraid of it. But you are a man of pure faith, Father Callahan said. Perhaps God meant for you to see me, and he is letting me linger. Whatever the reason, I will trust it brought you here for a reason — to perform God’s will.”

“And you say God’s will is to let you take this earthly body?”

“It’s only fair. He took mine.” She opened her mouth — her sweet, rose-colored lips — to say more, but was interrupted by the stirring of Father Callahan. Her gaze shot to me, horror shining in her eyes. The keen sparkle in them fell away.

“I can’t stay. Callahan will never see. But I am telling the truth. He took my body, so his belongs to me. Follow your heart, Marion. You know what is evil, and what is not.”

As she lay back in the bed, sinking into the depths from where her soul had risen and closing her eyes, Father Callahan opened his. When I looked back, her beauty had been washed away by the withered features of an old man.

The roses bent their necks in grief, and the scent of ginger was gone.

She didn’t manifest again after Father Callahan awoke.

Keefe didn’t seem to notice that he had been taken over. He lay in the bed, wheezing acrid breath into the room, and I realized with disgust how much I wished she had remained in him.

Father Callahan mumbled a few more prayers before closing his Bible with a sigh. “I suppose it was a false alarm, Mr Keefe. Evil does not seem to want to appear today.”

Keefe opened his eyes and smiled a tired but triumphant smile. “Perhaps it’s your acolyte,” he said. “Perhaps she knows this is one army she cannot fight.”

He looked at me, his gaze stinging my heart like a scorpion. I didn’t know if the pain was my guilt over the growing doubt in my heart, or if my soul saw some dark truth in those eyes that it hadn’t known before.

“I think it’s safe for us to leave tonight,” Father Callahan said, rising to his feet. “We will come again next week. Contact us if you need us sooner than that.”

I also rose, said my goodbyes to Mr Keefe, and exited the room after Father Callahan.

When we emerged onto the street, the charcoal-gray clouds above pelted us with needles of rain. I drew my coat tighter around my neck.

“Poor man,” Father Callahan said. “I don’t know how he can take all the misery that has come along in his lifetime.”

“What do you mean?”

Father Callahan gestured towards the elegant house with a sad expression. “He may live in opulence, but he has lost much. His wife died in childbirth. He had to raise their child by himself. It’s a miracle that he managed to make such a name for himself, with all the difficulties he went through. And then, when she disappeared…”


“His daughter. I don’t know how a man could have survived such a loss, and remained sane. People said unspeakable things, insinuated the most awful…” His voice trailed off in pained compassion. “I know the memories torment him, but when he’s in his darkest hour, and the forces of evil ravage him, it’s his love for Virginia that sustains him.”


Virginia. Ginger.

“His daughter. Gone without a trace. It’s a tragedy.” Father Callahan paused, and opened his umbrella, sheltering us from the wrath of the rain. “So, tell me, Marion, was this what you expected?”

Revelation flushed over me. Though what came out of my mouth was partially a lie, it was also the deepest truth.

“No, Father, it was not what I expected.”

“Will you return with me to see Mr Keefe again, and continue to fight this evil?”

Thoughts whirling in my head, I managed to nod. “Yes, I will continue to fight.”

And I would.

Only I did not know any longer what was evil, and what was not.

Copyright © 2011 by Sylvia Hiven

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Sylvia Hiven

Sylvia Hiven lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia.
Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod, Bete Noire, New Myths, and many others.

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