Monday, September 23, 2019

Abraxas by Joseph Cusumano

In the run-up to World War II, Vatican priest Primo Ferrara is assigned to conduct exorcisms at the local mental asylum - but what price is he willing to pay to succeed? By Joseph Cusumano.

September 1939

Ten years as a Jesuit priest, the last seven assigned to the Vatican library, Primo Ferrara spent his days cataloging new acquisitions and making sure that all of the library's holdings were accounted for and intact. Of secondary importance in Primo's mind was his responsibility to verify the credentials of scholars requesting access to the library's massive archives. The oldest holdings dated back to the eighth century, and some of the more recent ones included a request from King Henry VIII for a marriage annulment, a transcript of Galileo's trial for heresy, and a letter from Michelangelo regarding overdue payment for his work in the Sistine Chapel. Somewhat of an introvert, Primo found himself better suited to library work than fulfilling the obligations of a parish priest as he had done for the first three years following his ordination.

Although immersed in one of the largest repositories of ancient works and records, Primo avidly kept up with current events, especially the confrontation between Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini. New rumors about the Pontiff's ongoing power struggle with Il Duce circulated every week within the Vatican hierarchy, but Primo was not one for rumors. Instead, he relied mainly on articles in L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, although he occasionally ventured out to read Il Popolo d'Italia which was published by the Italian Fascist Party. Primo had no trouble finding the "fascist rag," as he called it, at a newsstand near his favorite trattoria on the Via Veneto, but he always discarded the paper well before returning to the Vatican.

During one such outing, early in the afternoon of September 3rd, 1939, Primo treated himself to a large serving of cannelloni alla crema at Trattoria Domenico, the occasion of his 38th birthday serving as the excuse for such a fattening dish. He managed to finish all of it but vowed not to eat again for the rest of the day.

When an outdoor table became available, Primo moved to the courtyard to have a second glass of wine and finish the current issue of Il Popolo d'Italia. The paper's front page was devoted entirely to the German invasion of Poland, now in its third day. The Wehrmacht had already dislodged the Polish army from its bases of operation at the German-Polish border to more established lines of defense eastward. Primo was not surprised by the fascist newspaper's approval of the invasion of Polish soil, claiming it was "completely justified by recent Polish acts of aggression."

After he finished the front page stories, a brief article near the middle of the newspaper caught his attention. Consisting of three short paragraphs, it evoked the memory of an odd event in his own life. The article concerned a young man, Gaetano Bianchi, who had recently died in an asylum on the outskirts of Rome. The asylum cared for patients who were considered incurable and a danger to themselves or others, and in spite of safeguards designed to prevent such an occurrence, Bianchi, age 22, had committed suicide by hanging himself in his bedroom. Suicide being the only sin for which the individual has no opportunity to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance, the news distressed the young priest greatly.

For a few months after he and Monsignore Alexander Lewinsky had discontinued their ministrations to Gaetano, Primo had visited the young man in the asylum. From these visits, he knew there was nothing in Gaetano's bedroom that could serve as a scaffold, but the small newspaper article didn't provide any details nor did it contain a statement from the asylum's administration. Primo wondered if he should inform Lewinsky of the suicide. Having since been consecrated as a bishop and recently appointed to an administrative position in the Roman Curia, Lewinsky was a very busy man.

Primo tore the article out of Il Popolo d'Italia and placed it in one of his pockets. He could decide later whether to share it. After paying for his meal, he headed back to the Vatican, tossing the newspaper into the trash along the way.



July, 1932

"A Jew? They send a Jew to cast me out?" Gaetano spoke in a soft but confident voice and directed his gaze at Monsignore Lewinsky. The slender fifteen year old teen had just opened his eyes after lying in an apparent catatonic state for the first few minutes. He had lain so impassively that Primo initially thought the staff of Santo Spirito Hospital must have sedated him.

Gaetano's bizarre behavior over the last several days had led to his placement in a private room where he would not disturb other patients. Again he spoke softly, forcing Primo and Lewinsky to listen carefully even in the quiet surroundings. "Pompous kike with your purple sash, charading-parading as Christian trash."

The content of his speech aside, he spoke in the manner of a well educated, upper middle class young man. His father was a rising member of the Italian Diplomatic Corp and his mother a former prima ballerina who had been a favorite at La Scala. "The facisti know what to do with a Jew," Gaetano continued. "With wood and nails they'll run you through." Then he smiled and looked as innocent as one of Raphael's cherubs.

This was Primo's first encounter with Gaetano. Lewinsky had already made several visits, but there had been no appreciable change in the youth. Taking the hostility in stride, Lewinsky started to pray aloud. He began with the Lord's Prayer, and Primo joined in. Gaetano simply smiled back at them. Then Lewinsky began a different prayer, one that Primo had recently read but not memorized. It began with an entreaty to the angel who had cast Lucifer and his minions into hell.

Saint Michael the Archangel, Most glorious Prince of the Heavenly Armies,
defend us in our battle against the principalities and powers,
against the rulers of the world of darkness,
against the spirits of wickedness.

Primo saw Gaetano's smile instantly evaporate, and a murderous intensity distorted his visage. Although Primo knew it to be impossible, it looked as if the young man's facial bone structure was rearranging itself. Lewinsky continued to pray.

May the God of Peace crush Satan beneath our feet,
that he may no longer hold men captive.
We offer our prayers to the Most High,
that without delay, He will take hold the dragon,
the serpent, the one known as Satan.

Gaetano rose from his bed as if weightless and advanced toward the two priests. Primo stepped back, but the older priest raised his voice to finish the rite.

We drive you from us,
whoever you may be,
unclean spirits,
all Satanic powers,
and infernal invaders.
God the Father commands you.
God the Son commands you.
God the Holy Spirit commands you.
Be gone, Satan! Enemy of man's salvation, be gone!

There was a long moment of silence. The two priests stared at the young man expectantly. Gaetano stared back. Then he did something not described in any of his medical records. Lifting his face toward the ceiling, he howled like a wolf, and it was a perfect mimicry. Loud and confident, it made patients within earshot wonder what lunatic had brought a wild animal into the hospital.



"Monsignore, he's not possessed. He's crazy!" The two priests were seated in Lewinsky's oak-paneled study. "That rhyming speech of his occurs in patients with schizophrenia." Primo waited for a response, hoping he had not failed to show appropriate respect to a superior. "I have a cousin who is schizophrenic," Primo continued, "and he sometimes speaks in rhymes just like that."

Lewinsky, who had a habit of closing his eyes for several seconds before speaking, was silent for a moment, but then posed a question. "Do you remember what Gaetano called me?"

"Yes, Monsignore. He said you were a Jew. But that's just part of his craziness. Obviously, you're not Jewish. "

"I'm every bit as Jewish as Jesus was," the older man replied. "My family fled Russia after a pogrom left our village in cinders. We settled in eastern Poland, in Bialystok, which is where I grew up."

"You're a convert to Catholicism?" Primo was amazed.

"Yes, partly because of the kindness of a parish priest in Bialystok. When we arrived, we were in desperate need and he helped us."

"Did your entire family convert to Catholicism?"

"No, just me."

"Aren't you afraid for them, with Nazi Germany at their western border?"

"Of course I am. Ever since Hitler became Chancellor. I've pleaded with them to leave the country, but they're confident that if Hitler ever threatened Poland, the French and the British would come to their aid."

"They're all still in Poland?"

"Yes. But back to my point, how could Gaetano, a boy in his mid-teens, born and raised in Italy, know that I was Jewish? That's what he called me. And he wasn't just letting me know that he knew. He was taunting me with it."

Primo had to acknowledge the animosity and uncanny accuracy of what Gaetano had said, but he hardly considered it to be proof of demonic possession. And wasn't it precisely this type of thinking that caused many in the Vatican community to look askance at priests who were willing to attempt an exorcism? In Primo's mind, true demonic possession doubtlessly occurred, but was exceedingly rare. The vast majority of cases initially suspected to be possession were nothing more than the product of superstition and hysteria, both of which were all too common in Italy. Primo's own mother, a devout Catholic, still wore an amulet to protect herself against the malocchio - the evil eye - and other curses. Although Gaetano's taunt had been accurate, it could only be coincidental that Monsignore Lewinsky was of Jewish descent.

Then Lewinsky interrupted Primo's musings, explaining that when an exorcist tried to banish whatever fiend possessed an unfortunate individual, the demon might attack the priest by focusing on the cleric's own sins and guilt. For the elderly priest, the point of vulnerability was his lingering suspicion that he had converted to Catholicism primarily in response to a benevolent Polish priest and had never really accepted the most fundamental tenet of Christianity, the divinity of Christ. In one small corner of his mind, Lewinsky regarded himself as a fraud and a liar, but he rarely contemplated the matter, let alone shared it with someone else.

Over a period of several days the two priests continued to discuss Gaetano's bizarre behavior, but they were unable to agree as to what ailed him. Eventually, Primo felt compelled to tell Lewinsky that he no longer wished to participate in the exorcism. When the old priest simply nodded in silence, it was clear to Primo that his refusal had been expected.

Conflicted and troubled by the entire affair, the young priest tried to focus on his duties at the Vatican library but wondered why he had initially agreed to assist Lewinsky in a fool's errand. He hoped it wasn't merely a desire to court the favor of a superior, especially one he barely knew. That type of thinking was leading his countrymen to march ever more precisely to the fascist drumbeat.

Primo also found himself wondering about an aspect of exorcism that had never been mentioned during the entire course of his education and training for the priesthood. Nor to his knowledge was it addressed anywhere in the vast collection of church documents that surrounded him. Was it possible, over the centuries, that there had been instances in which the rite of exorcism, fervently prayed in bona fide cases of demonic possession, had failed? Might there have been, at some time in the past, written accounts of these cases, accounts which had been expunged from the Vatican library and other repositories? And what of the hapless priest and the possessed individual? What had befallen them?



May, 1931

The year 1931 saw the overthrow of King Alfonso XIII of Spain who during the course of his 45 year reign had managed to lose dominion over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. In Germany that year, Hitler's brown-shirted thugs battled the German Communist Party for control of the streets, and the economic chaos assailing the Weimar Republic bolstered the ranks of the Nazi Party. The National Socialists would soon be the dominant voice in the Reichstag.

But in the town of Assisi, north of Rome, Elena Moro had other concerns. Her elderly husband Valerio had been fighting a losing battle with pneumonia over the past week, and was now having difficulty taking solid food. On the morning of the eighth day of his illness, Elena found him breathing rapidly through pursed lips, his skin felt very warm, and he had no interest in his cigarettes.

Elena placed a sizable piece of chopped veal into a glass jar and set the jar into a pot of water on her stove. She brought the water to a gentle simmer, and as the veal slowly cooked, its juices accumulated undiluted in the bottom of the jar. When she judged the veal to have given up all that it could, she removed the jar from the hot water and poured the broth through a sieve. After allowing the steaming liquid to cool a little, Elena added salt, pepper and freshly-crushed garlic. Although the world-wide economic depression made fresh meat hard to come by, she was able to prepare a full bowl of this concentrated nourishment, and by patiently spoon-feeding the broth to Valerio, Elena got him to ingest the entire serving. She thought he seemed comforted by it.

But Valerio became weaker as the hours passed, and shortly before sunset, he became unresponsive. After confirming that her husband yet breathed, Elena dashed from their flat to the apartment building across the street where the Rossi family lived. Alicia Rossi, a distant cousin and good friend, immediately sent her son to fetch the parish priest and then she accompanied Elena back to her flat. Alicia was appalled at the sight of Valerio. He had lost his normal color and now appeared dusky.

"Why didn't you call me before? I would have helped you take care of him," Alicia admonished. "We'll be lucky if that new priest gets here before he dies!"

"Valerio was better than this until just now," Elena answered in her own defense. "I think something in addition to the pneumonia has happened to him." After a pause, she added, "Our new pastor is young and I'm sure he'll make it here quickly." Then Elena began to straighten up the flat before Father Primo Ferrara would arrive. She couldn't let him see a messy home no matter how tired she was. Thank heaven the landlord finally patched and repainted the kitchen ceiling, Elena thought.

Alicia's son, Pepe, raced through the village streets as fast as his legs would carry him. On reaching the piazza in the center of the small town, the teenager headed diagonally toward the opposite corner, skirting the fountain and statue of St. Francis of Assisi. In the waning sunlight, he couldn't see the glistening surface of the cobblestones near the fountain and took a nasty spill. When Pepe got back on his feet, a bolt of pain shot through his right ankle, but he limped on as quickly as he could toward the parish church.

Finally reaching the rectory, he pounded on the front door until it was opened by an elderly nun who informed him that, "Father Ferrara isn't here. You can try the soccer field."

The soccer field wasn't far, but more time slipped by as Pepe was forced to move progressively slower. To his great relief, he found Father Ferrara on the field, playing bocce with some of the parish men. On learning of Valerio's condition, Primo raced to the church to retrieve a small leather pouch containing the consecrated oil used to anoint the faithful in Extreme Unction, the last of the seven holy sacraments. The town of Assisi was his first assignment after graduating from one of Rome's most respected seminaries, and from the moment he had arrived, Primo had been a dutiful shepherd to his flock.

Only a few minutes later, Elena Moro greeted him at her front door and immediately escorted him to the bedroom where Valerio lay. But the young priest's heart sank the moment he saw his elderly parishioner. Primo was too late.



April, 1945

Italy's fascist nightmare came to an end when Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were shot and killed by members of a resurgent Italian Communist Party. Their bodies, transported to nearby Milan in the back of a truck, were hung upside down in a piazza from a steel girder at a partially constructed Standard Oil station, but not before a furious mob mutilated, spat, and urinated on the corpses.

Primo recoiled from the image on the front page of the newspaper. Did they really have to include this gruesome photograph? he wondered. The dictator's face, heroically portrayed for two decades in countless posters throughout Italy, had been monstrously disfigured. Primo tossed the newspaper aside in disgust and tried to refocus his attention on the issue at hand. The Right Reverend Alexander Lewinsky, now highly positioned in the Roman Curia, had directed him to interview a young woman, and Primo was sorting through all the information that the bishop had recently provided.

Gina Calabrese, a 28 year old war widow living in the working class neighborhood of Testaccio, had been found taking a bubble bath at the home of her employer. Fortunately for her boss Paolo, it was he rather than his no-nonsense wife who had discovered Gina in the bathtub. After recovering from his initial shock, he was puzzled and more than a little disappointed to see that the shapely young woman hadn't bothered to remove her clothing. The police took her to Santo Spirito hospital, and by the time Paolo's wife returned from the market, all traces of Gina's visit had been erased.

Following a brief evaluation by an admitting physician, Gina was escorted directly to the psychiatric ward where she proceeded to gnaw on pens and pencils she snatched from the staff. She was eventually seen by Dr. Donati, the longtime chief of the psychiatric department, who quickly arrived at a working diagnosis of schizophrenia. Gina was only slightly past the usual age of onset for this illness, and her odd tendency to suddenly redirect her gaze for no apparent reason prompted Donati to wonder if she was hearing voices. The young woman also had the ability to speak in a language which no one on the multilingual staff could understand or even identify. Since his newest patient had been born and raised in the Roman neighborhood of Testaccio and had never left Italy, Donati surmised that she must have constructed the language herself. Then, on the fourth day of her hospitalization, Gina did something that Donati had witnessed only once before in his long tenure at Santo Spirito Hospital. She lifted her face upward and howled like a wolf.



They just don't do that! he told himself. At least not in broad daylight. With its antennae twitching rapidly, it crawled up Gina's right shin toward her knee. Primo glanced up at the young woman's face, but found neither fear nor revulsion. Instead, Gina's response to the roach was to lift the hem of her skirt above the surface of her skin as she lay atop the bedspread. Fully aware of the priest's scrutiny, she winked and smiled.

Rome's subtropical climate had a way of punishing those who weren't scrupulous housekeepers. The slightest lapse of diligence drew roaches of varied sizes and colors. On previous visits to the asylum, Primo had found the institution to be well-kept. In addition, the residents weren't allowed to bring food into their sleeping quarters. Yet here was a roach so large he could see the hair on its legs from the foot of the bed. The ugly little beast continued upward on the inner surface of Gina's thigh, and still she made no move to brush it off. Overcome with loathing and fear, Primo took a step back. And then Gina was awash in a wave of pleasure.

Nothing in his career or his recent preparations had readied him for this. Not the writings of exorcists over the centuries, not the prayers he had memorized to perform the rite, not even the strength he drew from the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. I doubt Kafka could have imagined what I just witnessed, Primo told himself. Can I pursue this and hope to retain my sanity? Were he not a pious individual, Primo might have cursed Lewinsky for assigning him to the exorcism, and the more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that the bishop's selection of him was an act of revenge.

It didn't help at all that Gina was a classic dark Mediterranean beauty as Primo's mother had been. Worse, the young woman appeared to sense his attraction to her. On his first two visits to the asylum where she now resided, Gina had chosen to wear clothing that provided more than a glimpse of décolletage. During those visits, Primo had spoken to, questioned, and prayed over her to no apparent effect.

Today, however, Gina was not so much the temptress as someone who sought to mock his every sensibility. Just as Primo began to recover from his initial shock at her bizarre act of bestiality, the roach crawled down from the young woman's pelvis onto her right thigh and then into the palm of her hand. Gina lifted the insect toward Primo as if offering it to him. The roach, its antennae twitching frenetically, moved to the edge of her palm, and for a moment, Primo feared that it would leap or fly onto his face. Then the ugly little beast simply vanished.

Had it been real? Primo wondered. Was it only a hallucination and her ecstasy only an act? If so, it was no comfort to realize the demon could alter his very perception of reality. Why is God permitting this to happen? What purpose can it serve?

Primo was so shaken, he left Gina to the demon, and sought the shelter and comfort of a nearby basilica, Santa Maria della Scala. Once in the nave and surrounded by works of devotional artistry, his equanimity gradually returned. And with the strength he drew from prayer, Primo came to a decision.

On returning to Gina's room late in the afternoon, he experienced a sense of déjà vu but could come up with no explanation for it. Primo pushed the feeling aside to concentrate on the new path he would take. The young woman lay asleep. This suited him just fine; he could at least begin the prayers of exorcism without being assaulted in some fashion.

Although Gina remained asleep for awhile, Primo knew that at some point he must awaken her. Opening a leather valise containing accoutrements for this special task, he selected a crimson pouch with gold drawstrings. From this he withdrew a crucifix which held a relic of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order to which Primo had pledged himself. He brought the crucifix to his lips, invoked the intercession of St. Ignatius, and kissed the body of Christ on the cross. Girding himself for whatever would happen, he approached the bed upon which Gina lay, and while bending over her, placed the crucifix firmly onto her chest.

Her eyes, only centimeters away, flashed open wide and Gina let loose a scream so loud that something deep inside Primo's skull shook as if it were about to break loose. She spewed saliva-laden curses at him and "whatever whore shit you out!" Lifting from the bed, she sent the crucifix onto the floor and hovered vertically above it, still bathing him in spit and threats. To his shame, Primo could not bring himself to advance and retrieve the sacred artifact from where it lay beneath her, and he cringed as she let loose a stream of foul-smelling urine onto the crucifix. But now with the demon most manifest and any trace of the young woman seemingly cast aside, Primo gave voice to a demand that would not be denied.

"By all that is sacred do I command you. Name thyself!"



What many would consider to be an exceptionally incongruous pairing, that of alcohol and prayer, was working. His hands became still, and he was able to complete a thought before another interrupted halfway through. In Primo's mind, there was clear scriptural precedence for this peculiar method of self-ministration. Had not wine and prayer been integral elements of the Last Supper?

Presently, he set the wine aside and retrieved a large tome, A Compendium of Demons. Its physical characteristics alone, including hand-painted illustrations, beautifully lettered text and engraved binding, would have justified an astronomical price at Sotheby's or Christie's. But no auction house would ever get its hands on this treasure, and only a privileged few knew of its existence. The single copy produced by a cadre of Capuchin monks after years of painstaking labor in the mid-1600s had been commissioned by the Vatican, and once received, was rarely removed from its vault under the Sistine Chapel. Even Primo had been unaware of the book's existence until Bishop Lewinsky had procured it for him.

Although fascinated by the compendium, Primo initially found its massive contents to be of limited use. That is, until the demon divulged its name.

"Abraxas!" it had snarled.

The compendium contained several entries regarding the Church's encounters with this particular demon over the course of centuries, and Primo was able to confirm a suspicion he had held since his first exposure to exorcism. There were indeed multiple instances in which the rite had failed, instances which the Church was loathe to acknowledge.

Most concerning of these was an account from 1510, attributed to a monk at the Maulbronn Monastery in southern Germany, stating that "A pyrrhic victory over Abraxas is the most for which the exorcist can hope." The narrative chronicled an exorcism in which the attending priest had labored to the brink of mental exhaustion and despair. At the last, he succeeded in freeing the possessed victim only by making the devil's bargain. The priest invited Abraxas to take possession of a far more valuable individual, the exorcist himself. A few months later, the possessed priest ended his life in the same manner Judas had chosen.

The final page of this entry, a dramatic illustration rendered by of one of the Capuchin monks, was based on horrifying visions experienced and subsequently described by the lay victim. The Capuchin friar had created a detailed drawing of Abraxas, an image so bizarre that it caused Primo's hands to tremble. Abraxas was a hideous chimera. Atop a herculean human torso was the head of a wolf. Below the pelvis, each of its three massive lower extremities was composed of the thick trunk of a python, the head of which rose menacingly from coils on the ground.

Other entries in the compendium described the tactic to which then-Monsignore Lewinsky had been subjected while working with Gaetano Bianchi. Abraxas deterred and demoralized his antagonist by throwing the priest's own sins and failings back in his face, the humiliation all the more effective if others were present. Wisely or unwisely, Primo had chosen to work without an aide while attending to Gina Calabrese. He remembered how much Lewinski had been affected by taunts regarding his Jewish origin although he never fully understood why they had so stung the older priest.

Shortly before falling asleep that night, a troubling thought interrupted Primo's final prayer of the day. Gaetano Bianchi might well have been possessed by Abraxas, and the failure of that exorcism most likely led to the boy's suicide. Lewinsky had fought Abraxas and lost. But if Lewinsky had access to the compendium, he must have known that there was only one way to break the demon's grip. Had the monsignore simply refused to offer himself in order to save the young man?



On entering the asylum two days later, Primo had been greatly relieved when the staff presented the crucifix to him. It had been cleansed of any trace of the recent sacrilege and it still contained the relic of St. Ignatius. But mere minutes later, upon entering Gina's room, any sense of relief quickly dissipated. Abraxas launched at once into a verbal assault that would become Primo's undoing.

"You keep wondering why God permits me to hold this woman despite your pathetic entreaties." The growl emanating from Gina's vocal apparatus made Primo's skin crawl. "It's because God never intended for you to be a priest at all! You're simply not worthy and never were." The young woman spoke while swaying on her unmade bed, eyes still closed and dressed only in a summer nightgown.

Abraxas can sense my thoughts, Primo realized. Although he had wanted to be a priest ever since adolescence, Primo had harbored doubts of ever being worthy of ordination. Of ever having a divine calling. Of ever serving as a reflective surface where others might glimpse, however briefly, the Creator's love for them.

Gina was still being quartered in a separate room because of the effect she had on other residents in the asylum. When Primo had entered her room, her breakfast lay untouched on a nearby table. She had acquired an aversion to food, and the staff had learned the hard way not to force feed her. After two weeks of minimal intake, the effects on the young woman were alarming. No longer comely, her eyes circumscribed with dark circles and her collar bones protruding, Gina was being drained at an alarming pace.

"First you failed Valerio," Abraxas continued. "You were too busy amusing yourself in childish recreation to hear the old man's confession or administer Extreme Unction. Yes, I know all about Valerio. The only thing you did properly was to assign the blame to yourself. Had you been in the rectory instead of playing games, you would have arrived at his bedside in time." Primo was unable to respond, and maybe there could be no response. He had failed and was aware that his very refusal to absolve himself reflected a woeful lack of faith in the ever-forgiving nature of his own Creator.

"And you can't have forgotten Gaetano, who committed suicide in this asylum," Abraxas reproached him. Hearing this, Primo understood the feeling of déjà vu he had recently experienced on entering these quarters. It had been in this very room that the youth had lived his final months before hanging himself.

As Primo reeled from this realization, Abraxas continued. "You also abandoned Lewinsky, your superior, who was terrified to face me alone. Had you been present, Lewinsky might have mustered the courage to prevail." Abraxas allowed only a brief moment of silence to pass before delivering his coup de grâce. "And you've done nothing to save this young woman."

With this, Primo descended deeper into despair than at anytime in his life, and what faith he had in the Almighty wasn't going to save him. Even fallen angels had faith. Could any creature be more certain of the existence and omnipotence of the Creator than Lucifer or Abraxas?

At some point, a female staff member entered the room and removed the untouched breakfast, but Primo's introspection was such that he had begun to lose his sense of time and place. Desperate for any source of solace, he moved to the room's only open window and took in the bright sunlight. A breeze cooled his face and neck, and he became aware of an inviting wooded area some 50 meters distant, untouched by human disruption even during the war. And as he stood motionless, a pure white dove landed on the windowsill. Chosen as a symbol of the Holy Spirit by Renaissance artists, it was a most beautiful creature, and Primo took care not to frighten it.

Then a black Lancia sedan pulled into the circle drive at the main entrance to the asylum, and when its chauffeur rushed to open one of the rear doors, a tall figure in a lavender cassock emerged. For a moment, the man glanced in the general direction of the window in which Primo stood. It was Bishop Lewinsky. Primo recoiled from the sight of him, and the dove flew away.

The bishop is a coward, Primo told himself again. Had he not abandoned Gaetano to the pit? Had he not been afraid to face the demon again? Has he not thrust me into this nightmare? And I'm losing! Losing everything. If I capitulate as Lewinsky did, I'll be no better than he is!

Primo turned from the window fearing that Abraxas had heard every thought, felt every emotion, and the smile on Gina's face did nothing to assuage his dread. But the smile itself was a ploy, one that Abraxas had used successfully in the past. The moment had come to destroy another hapless priest whose pride hungered for victory no less than a drowning man hungered for air. The demon spoke. "There is only one way you can succeed."

And with no conscious deliberation, Primo responded. "Take me! Take me instead."

Slowly, the room began to revolve around the priest. The open window at his right came into view, then the door, the table, the emaciated girl in her nightgown, and the window again. The only sound was that of a distant howl. Or was it merely wind?

Primo's sense of himself also changed. For the first time in his life, he became aware that his own consciousness had limits or boundaries; it didn't extend infinitely into the aether. He knew this to be true because something began to occupy the edges of his mind.

Almost imperceptible at first, the new presence caused him to draw inward, to gradually surrender more of the realm which he had always taken for granted. But the demon's advance over one of Christ's own was unhurried. Not born of any compassion, the measured pace was intended to forestall to the last possible moment the panic and flailing that would arise when Primo fully understood what he had called upon himself.

Yet, as that moment drew near, the encroachment began to slow and then halted. As if listening through a baffle, Primo discerned a distant screaming or shouting and wondered if the voice was his own. But it couldn't be. The speaker, whatever his intent, was shouting in an eastern European tongue. And as Abraxas retreated from Primo's mind, Primo was able to identify the speaker. It was Lewinsky.



Father Ernesto Rossi's mind was at ease. When the assistant chief librarian submitted and discussed his list of proposed acquisitions for calendar year 1946, his boss seemed entirely lucid and cogent. Rossi and the other staff members were still overly solicitous to Father Primo Ferrara although it had been more than a week since their chief had been discharged from the hospital. Now with the bandages removed from his head, the part of his scalp the surgeons had shaved was sprouting thick black hair. Primo's memory for the recent past was still somewhat fragmentary, but his overall improvement was welcomed with considerable relief.

On first regaining consciousness, Primo had found himself supine in bed. A thin young woman was leaning over him with an excited smile on her face. "Oh thank God! You're awake!" She grasped both of his hands, bent over further and kissed his forehead. "They said you might not make it." She poured a small amount of water into a cup, gently lifted his head from the bed, and allowed him to drink. "Slowly, slowly," she cautioned him. His throat was terribly dry and the water a blessed relief. After a few more sips, Primo tried to speak but it would be a while before he could do much more than make croaking noises.

The woman gently lowered his head back onto the pillow and held his hands until he drifted off. His last thoughts before falling asleep were those of concern for his mother. Why is she so thin? Is there a shortage of food?

When Gina returned the next day, Primo was sitting upright in bed and feeding himself. But his memory was impaired, and Gina had to introduce herself. "You look like my mother," Primo responded. Gina took no offense on being likened to a much older woman; she was delighted by his improvement.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Other than the throbbing at my right temple, I'm okay. Why are there bandages there?"

"You fell and hit your head on the table. There was blood all over the floor from a gash in your scalp, and you were unconscious. I'm the one who found you. They took you to surgery and cut an opening in your skull to remove a blood clot that was pressing on the right side of your brain."

"I was bleeding inside my skull?"

"Yes, but you're okay now. Everything's going to be alright."

Primo was silent for a bit, then said, "I remember having this terrible dream that something was inside my head and it was pushing me. I kept backing away from it, but it kept advancing." Gina leaned over and took hold of his hands.

"It's over, completely over. You worked a miracle! You saved me."

"I did?"

Gina continued to see Primo every day in the hospital, switching to evening visits when she returned to work at Paolo's bakery. Each time she arrived, he was a little more alert, a little more oriented to time, place and person, so Gina felt reasonably comfortable answering his questions about what had transpired between them in the asylum. She remembered every grisly, humiliating detail of the ordeal. But from Primo's questions, Gina gathered that much of what had transpired was still opaque to him.

On the evening that Primo told Gina he would soon be released from the hospital, she wrote her address on a piece of paper for him and also asked for his Vatican address so they could remain in contact. She made Primo promise to write at any time should he feel the need, reminding him that she was a childless widow, and that with Italy's loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers over the course of the war, was likely to remain that way. She would always be available to him.

Primo was overwhelmed by the welcome everyone gave him on his first day back at the library. All had left their immediate tasks and were waiting for him at the entrance with open arms. At noon, they closed the library for an hour and feasted together rather than eat separately in shifts. The main course was cannelloni alla crema, brought to the library from Trattoria Domenico. For dessert, they indulged in a rich custard, zabaglione limoncello, topped with fresh berries and served in wine glasses. Although no wine was served, Primo was asleep at his desk by early afternoon.

When he awoke around 3:30 pm, he felt refreshed and began to examine the materials left untouched for the past weeks. Thanks to Father Rossi's diligence during his convalescence, there was nothing that required immediate attention, but the massive compendium loaned to him by Bishop Lewinsky was still on his desk. Primo closed the tome and immediately dispatched a note to Lewinsky, informing him that he wished to personally return the book at the bishop's convenience.



May, 1945

The 0.6 liter engine of his Fiat Topolino - Little Mouse - strained to climb a steep segment of the Palatine Hill, which tradition held to be the site at which Romulus established his village nearly 2,700 years ago. As Primo shifted the transmission into its lowest gear, he again puzzled over Lewinsky's odd note instructing him to bring the compendium to the bishop's villa on the Palatine Hill. Shouldn't the precious work be returned directly to the vault under the Sistine Chapel?

The note also asked Primo to come with an appetite, and at dinner the two clerics were delighted by the chef's preparation of the original and less commonly used recipe for ossobucco. This called for the veal shanks to be braised in white wine and flavored with cinnamon, bay leaf and gremolata. After dinner, the men retired to comfortable arm chairs in an oak-paneled study where Lewinsky asked Primo to relate everything he remembered about his encounter with Gina Calabrese.

The bishop maintained his composure throughout the strange tale, his equanimity seemingly undisturbed even when Primo described the hideous black roach and the desecration of the crucifix with urine. When Primo came to the point in his story at which the white dove landed on the window sill of Gina's room, he paused in thought. His gaze was directed to the blue and gold Persian rug beneath their feet when Lewinsky prompted him.

"Primo, what happened next?" Primo looked up, but there was confusion in his face.

"I don't remember any more. I awoke in Santo Spirito Hospital with my head bandaged. Gina was there and she said I had fallen and hit my head on a table. A blood vessel on the inner surface of my skull ruptured and they had to drain a clot that was compressing my brain. Some of what I've told you about the ordeal was related to me by Gina while I recuperated."

The two of them continued their discussion for some time, and coming to the most recent days, Primo assured his superior that he was happy to be back in the library. Finally, Lewinsky congratulated Primo on a difficult job well done, and Primo felt obliged to say that he remained at the bishop's disposal.

On leaving the villa, Primo found the outside temperature to be cool. But filled with food and wine, he kept the driver's window down as he exited the property. With the transmission in low and his foot gently riding the brake, he slowly descended the Palatine Hill, its ancient ruins now barely visible in the darkness. He had no interest in testing the car's ability to handle at speed. Suddenly he slammed on the brake pedal and listened intently. Had he actually heard it or had it been his imagination? He shut the engine off, applied the parking brake, and waited.

And there it was. The howl of a wolf. In the heart of Rome.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting story the reader is absorbed into a time and place. The cockroach scene is creepy and original some dena vu from the exorcist movie. I like how abraxas recounts primo's sins...it reminds me of how depressed people think of themselves no wonder primo believes he's a complete failure. Lewinsky remains mysterious..cryptic ending...is Primo possessed or is he just more sensitive to demons in our midst?

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  2. Nice historical piece with an interesting twist on the exorcism trope. I'm betting that Lewinsky and Primo haven't seen the last of that pesky Abraxas...

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