Scratch

For Anna Raj, poetess extra-ordinaire

           

            Molly McKey shifted restlessly in her bed.

            She stared up into the blackness above her and shivered. The sounds had started again. She ventured out from beneath her covers only a couple of feet, her brown eyes peering into the darkness as she twisted her tiny body and fumbled for the nightlight switch beside her bed.

            Silly, she thought. You’re 14 and still using this blasted nightlight. Well, at least none of your friends knows about this. None of ’em knows what a fraidy cat you are, scared over squirrels in the attic. Really, Molls!

            She had first heard the noise––a low scratching, as of claws upon wood––several days ago. When first she’d heard it, she thought nothing of it, barely regarding it at all. When it came again, she tried to be dismissive, making excuses and trying to rationalise it away as perhaps the slenderest edges of the oak trees’ narrowest branch tips, fingering the roof of the old house as they moved gently in the wind. Her mother had made some idle comment about pruning those oaks. But this had come to naught, and Molly had been secretly glad.

            Yet when the scratching came a third time, the girl told her mother and voiced a concern about squirrels––or worse, possibly raccoons or even rats––in the attic.

            “Ridiculoush,” her mother had slurred, a cigarette in one hand and a tumbler of Scotch in the other. “That attic’s tight as a drum. Been inspected.”

            “You sure, Mom?” Molly persisted, running a hand through her long, brown hair. “This place is old.”

            “Renovations, kiddo. Remember? Nothing to worry about. Mr Morgan said so.”

            Mr Morgan was their absentee landlord. Molly marvelled that he would rent the house as cheaply as he did. But yes, it was old, and the veranda had loose boards. Morgan would send over his ne’er-do-well son for the occasional repair or odd job. But it was always at least two whole days after Mrs McKey called, and when he arrived, Phil Morgan, Jr was often as drunk as she was.

            Molly thought for a moment and realised she couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen her mom sober. Mr McKey had left them years ago, and when that happened, Molly’s mom crawled into a bottle. Her job as secretary to a local construction firm didn’t pay well, and when she came home, Mrs McKey would head straight for the Scotch. Molly knew her mother was miserable and that she really should know better than to engage in such behaviour. But Molly also knew better than to poke the bear. She’d discovered that the hard way, and so she left her mother alone.

            The situation had led, several years ago, to a rôle reversal of sorts: Molly took care of the house, the cooking, the cleaning and her mother. Molly was bright, sensitive and mature, and she knew somebody had to step up to the plate and be the responsible adult. Might as well be her. Nobody else applying for the job. She knew her mother was smart––very smart––and she was in fact qualified to do more demanding, better-paying work. Yet she did not, and she was slowly destroying herself.

            Molly thought briefly of her father, who had vanished like a ghost from both their lives. She hadn’t seen him in years, and she realised she didn’t miss him at all.

            Now the scratching was back, and Molly had in fact lost count of how many times she’d heard it. It returned in some force, its basic pattern now repeating itself in three-second intervals.

            Scratch, scratch, scratch…Scratch, scratch, scratch…

            Molly pulled the blankets up to her chin and counted.

            One, two, three…One, two, three.

            Her mother was down the hall in her bedroom, snoring loudly. Molly had no wish to wake her or cause her alarm of any sort. Her mother’s life was hard enough.

            But knowing she would burst if she failed to tell anyone and knowing not where else to turn, Molly confided in her new best friend, Agnes Nordmann. Aggie was the same age, and she had been the first girl to befriend Molly when the McKeys arrived in Brandenburg about a year ago. Aggie was level-headed, philosophical and clearly wise beyond her years, so she was a natural choice for a confidente.

            Aggie won’t laugh, Molly had thought at the time, several days ago. She likes me, and she’ll understand. Plus, she’s a Catholic––a real Catholic––not like us. Maybe she can help.

            Molly and her mom were of Irish Catholic extraction. But they’d been away from the Mass for a couple of years now. Mrs McKey obviously no longer believed, and Molly herself was plagued by doubts.

            Of course, as Molly mused, who wouldn’t drop their dumb, old church like a hot rock? The priest was ludicrously informal (“Call me ‘Bob’!”), had no sense of the sacred, and the music was absurdly unsingable and absolutely execrable. Father “Bob,” who rubbed most people quite the wrong way, taught that Jesus was not God-Made-Flesh but only a teacher with a few good ideas that we could all follow quite nicely and comfortably. And indeed, as the prickly priest often speculated, maybe Jesus Himself was in need of mercy, or perhaps He never even existed at all.

            Strange man, Molly thought, rubbing her eyes.

            But Aggie was different, and she went to a different kind of Catholic church, as Molly discovered. St Anthony of Padua was not far down the road, just outside of Brandenburg along Route Nine, off in the woods that had grown up around the area in the long decades since the chapel was built. Indeed, as Aggie had said, this wasn’t far from Molly’s house. But Mrs McKey had no reason to drive out in that direction in her rickety Buick, and so Molly had never seen the place.

            Aggie told Molly that St Anthony’s was different and that it was, in fact, the way all Catholic churches had once been up until the upheavals of the 1960’s. At St Anthony’s, there were no Father “Bobs,” with their misguided, miseducational ways. The pastor was a manly Frenchman, Fr Michel LaChance, nephew of the famous Archbishop Marcel LaChance of the ultra-orthodox Society of the Knights of St John the Apostle. The Mass was in Latin, and the beautiful music was Gregorian chant.

            Aggie often found herself picked upon by the catty types at Brandenburg High School. Girls whose parents clearly had more money, thus allowing them to dress richly in the latest and most meretricious styles, would mock Aggie’s sartorial choices. She wore only modest blouses and calf-length skirts. Her blonde hair, a sign of her Austrian heritage, was natural, unadorned by any but the simplest of headbands; it was long, straight and clean, and indeed it shone like the sun, but Aggie had never been to beautician. She wore no make-up and had neither desire nor need of any for her skin was milky, clear and perfect. Molly wondered jealously what her secret was. Maybe it was simply good genes.

            But whenever Aggie was picked upon, a curious thing happened, or so it seemed to Molly. Aggie would smile sweetly and look the beastly girl right in the eyes. She would then say something perfectly bland and innocuous, perhaps even thanking the girl for her “kindness,” or else her eyes would narrow, and she would lean into the other girl and whisper something in her ear––something Molly could not hear, and Aggie would not tell her. Then the other girl would burst into tears, turn on her heel and stride quickly away, leaving Aggie behind smiling broadly.

            As Aggie told Molly, most of her friends were home-schooled, as their parents did not trust the negative influences rife in public schools. But Aggie’s father was dead, and her mom worked long shifts as a nurse at the local hospital to support her family, so home-schooling wasn’t an option. Aggie had seven other siblings, so money was tight. But one thing Molly did understand clearly: even though Aggie attended public school, she was different. She was wise, and she would understand.

            And so one day recently, after school, when Mrs McKey was still at work, the two friends had found themselves sitting upon Molly’s bed in her upstairs bedroom.          

            “Aggie, can I tell you something? Promise you won’t laugh?” Molly had said hesitantly.

            “Of course,” her friend replied.

            And then Molly told her everything. Aggie listened patiently, her lips in a serene, partial smile.

            “Well,” she said, when Molly had finished. “Let’s take a look.”

            In the hallway, they found the fold-up ladder that led to the attic. They stretched toward the cord above them and, with some effort, pulling to-gether, managed to bring the thing down. Aggie held Mrs McKey’s flashlight.

            “Lead the way,” she said cheerfully, offering the flashlight to her friend.

            “N-no,” Molly stammered. “You go first.”

            “All right,” said Aggie, and she marched gaily up the steps with all the lightness of a ballerina, as Molly thought in her amazement.

            In seconds, Aggie was in the attic. Molly could see light from the flashlight spinning round the room above her.

            “C’mon, Molls.”

            “OK, OK.”

            She emerged into the attic and could see by the flashlight’s beam that there was a bulb in the ceiling, right over the entryway. A long cord dangled from it. Molly tugged it and nothing happened.

            “Yep,” said Aggie, “already tried that. Guess this flashlight will have to do.”

            She moved it round the room in a sweeping arc. Molly beheld bookshelves and boxes. In one corner was a dressing mannequin, its torso-only appearance something of a chilling surprise, prompting a small gasp from Molly. And there were piles of old clothing.

            Aggie shone the light upon the dirty floor. Dust and débris there were aplenty, including bits of insulation. 

            “But no signs of any animals,” Aggie announced.

            “Mmm?”

            “Nothing, Molls. Just thinking aloud. Look, see? No holes in the floor or the roof. And you can tell where Mr Morgan’s son must have been, not long ago, patching up things during those minor renovations your mom mentioned. But there’s no animal droppings on the floor and no dead animals, thank goodness. And––no scratches.”

            Molly scanned the floor by the flashlight’s puny luminescence, her stomach lurching slightly. The floor was indeed old and worn. But there were no signs anywhere of animal claw marks, nothing indicative of any creature, large or small, scraping against the attic floor; nothing but the younger Morgan’s footprints on the dusty floor.

            “Look here,” Aggie said presently.

            Right in front of them, near the entry, was an enormous wooden chest. It was open, and in it, as the girls now saw in the dim light, were several stacks of old books. Aggie moved the flashlight closer.

            Suddenly the girl frowned and made the Sign of the Cross.

            “What is it, Ags?”

            “Molls, I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”

            Aggie’s hand trembled slightly, as Molly noticed, as she moved the flashlight over the books. They had to be antiques. They were hardbound in the heavy style of the 19th century. On the spines, Molly could dimly make out letters but not whole words, and the covers were bereft of words at all; they were adorned only with curious symbols: an up-side-down pentagonal star here, a crescent moon there.

            “Aaah!”

            Molly jumped. On one book was a very different design. It was a finely wrought image, in fact: a goat’s head, with red, staring eyes.

            “You OK?” Aggie asked, a hand upon Molly’s shoulder.

            “L-let’s get out of here,” Molly whispered.

            “Deal.”

            Beneath her covers now, Molly recalled how that day they went straight down to the kitchen and sat at the breakfast nook. Aggie poured Molly a glass of water, and they talked.

            “I don’t want to think about what this could be,” Molly said quietly. “Like something out of one of those movies.”

            “Something––what?” Aggie gently.

            “I don’t want to say it.”

            “Say it.”

            Molly glared at her friend.

            “Something––something––demonic. There. I’ve said it, OK?”

            “We don’t know that for certain.”

            “Yeah, I know. And I’m the last one to believe in––”

            Molly stopped. She began to cry. Aggie put her arms around her.

            “I’m not like you, Ags,” Molly said, brushing her long tresses from her face. “I’m not a believer. Mom’s not either. Big time. And yet––”

            “Maybe you’ll see it when you believe it.”

            Molly looked up at her friend. Aggie gazed back at her with that serene smile again, a look of sheer compassion upon her angelic face.

            “Take this,” she said, offering Molly a napkin to dab her eyes. “And this.”

            “Huh? What’s this?”

            The girl held out a small, black pouch. It had a spring clasp, and Molly opened it.

            “Ah,” she said. “Of course. Haven’t seen one of these in a while.”

            It was a beautiful black rosary, more beautiful in fact than any Molly had ever seen. She pulled it carefully from its pouch and regarded it with wide eyes.

            “You know,” she said, her lips forming a sheepish grin, “I never actually learned how to use one of these things.”

            Aggie smiled.

            “That’s because you weren’t at a parish that taught real Catholicism!”

            “You know, I’m beginning to think you’re absolutely right. They de-emphasised the rosary. Heck, they de-emphasised so much. A lot of the kids didn’t know what a rosary was.”

            “Well, you do,” said Aggie, smiling supportively, “and I’m going to show you what to do with it.”

            And so, she showed Molly how to pray the rosary. Molly tried to learn. There were bits she couldn’t quite grasp, and her memory of much of it was hazy. But now, alone in the dark, she found herself reaching across her nightstand for the smooth bits of Italian wood, beaded firmly to-gether and centred by a silver crucifix and a St Benedict’s medal.

            Aggie’s words echoed in Molly’s head:

            “Remember, as Padre Pio used to say, ‘The rosary is the weapon.’”

            “O God,” Molly said softly. “O God, please help me!”

            She clutched the crucifix at the centre of the rosary. Slowly and reverently, she made the Sign of the Cross.

            Scratch, scratch, scratch…Scratch, scratch, scratch…

            More of Aggie’s words echoed in her head.

            “Scratching: it’s a curious phenomenon, but it’s also far commoner than people realise. It’s especially common among people about to convert. And you want to convert, don’t you? Or in your case, revert to the True Faith.”

            At the time, Molly had paused. But she now knew this was true.

            “Yes.”

            “OK, just so you know, the scratching is sometimes the Devil’s way––or, much more frequently, the way of his demonic slaves––to try to get into your house and into your life. Demons often make their presence known by scratching––on your walls, your ceilings, your closet, you name it. It’s a way of simultaneously playing with you, piquing your curiosity and frightening you; sort of their calling card or knock upon the door, if you like, saying, ‘Lemme in.’

            “Whatever you do, you can’t treat them lightly. Don’t ever think this is some sort of joke or a game. Never, ever try to play with them, contact them or invite them in. Huge no-no. Stay away from the gateways: Ouija boards, books on Satanism, bad music and bad films. And I think you’ve a pretty good idea of what those last two are. They’re very easy to spot, and they’re everywhere these days. And I think you know to avoid them.”

            “Yes.”

            She smiled at the thought of what a good friend Aggie was.

            Scratch, scratch, scratch…Scratch, scratch, scratch…

            Heavy tears welled in Molly’s eyes and in seconds ran down her cheeks. She was shaking. She crossed herself again and began to pray, her voice barely above a whisper.

            “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord…”

            And the scratching stopped. 

***

             In the ensuing days, a strange calm came over Molly.

            It was like nothing she had known before. It was a peacefulness of spirit that she had never thought possible. She was now praying her rosary on a daily basis and praying ever harder for her mother as well, that she would stop abusing drink, that the darkness and sadness inside of her might go away for ever.

            Through it all, Aggie was an absolute rock. Molly leaned upon her, confided in her and cried on her shoulder. Aggie taught her friend more about prayer, about the real Church and about waging war against the powers of darkness. Inspired by her new-found faith, Molly put more effort into her studies and her grades improved dramatically. She also learned to become a better friend to her other classmates.

            With their combined allowances, Aggie and Molly went to purchase some modest blouses and skirts at the local thrift store. Molly took on a newfound interest in superior sartorial choices, and she found the new/old garments in amazingly good shape and available surprisingly cheaply. Good to know for future reference.

            But she was stunned by Aggie’s generosity. The girl offered to buy all the clothes outright for her new friend.

            “But Ags,” she protested, “I can’t let you––”

            “Yes, you can,” Aggie replied, her face serene with a beatific smile. “Take the money you would have spent and give it to the poor.”

            Molly frowned slightly, thinking.

            “St Anthony’s. The chapel fund for the poor.”

            “Well chosen,” said Aggie. “We have more poor families than you might think. A good use for that. As Fr LaChance would say, ‘God bless you for your charity.’ And that, after all, is the whole meaning of our Faith; in a word, ‘charity.’”

            Molly smiled. Aggie was right. But of course she usually was.

            Presently, Molly emerged from one the thrift store’s changing rooms, clad now in a new outfit. The skirt was well below the knee, and the blouse revealed no cleavage. She looked indeed as though she had just stepped out of the 1950’s.

            Aggie beamed.

            “You look fantastic, Molls!”

            “You really like it?”

            “Your Irish Catholic ancestors would be proud of you. And certainly, I’m proud of you. You’ve come a long way. And you wouldn’t have done that had you not been receptive in the first place. You are developing a fine sensus Catholicus.”

            Molly blushed slightly.

            “Thank you.”

            In a trice, they were handing over several large bags of clothing to one of the clerks. Molly donated all of her former clothes to the thrift store, and she knew it had been well worth it, lugging the bags all the way from her house to downtown Brandenburg. The clerk took the bags and smiled at both girls.

            “Thank you,” she said. “God bless you both.”

            “And may He bless you as well,” said Aggie, smiling in return.

            Molly smiled, too, regarding her friend in silent amazement.           

     Of course, Aggie warned Molly that she would find out pretty quickly just who her real friends were. Some would understand the changes in her as she became more religious. But others would retreat and withdraw from her or even become openly hostile.

            “But don’t worry,” Aggie reassured her. “If they leave you over something like this, they were never genuinely your friends to begin with. And graduation is not four years away. After that, you’ll never see ’em again. So look on the bright side!”

            Molly did notice that Tiffany, Stephanie, Amber and Sloane, four of her fair-weather friends, suddenly stopped talking to her at all. But considering that she spent most time with Aggie, she didn’t miss them half as much as she would have ordinarily. Tiffany, Stephanie, Amber and Sloane gossiped and hissed. Aggie talked. She conversed, knowing the importance of give and take. And when she said something, she really said something. Being round her, as Molly realised, was a benediction and an education.

            Molly realised that she had too often been a foolish follower, chasing after the “in” crowd as its members in turn chased after vain, stupid things in their feckless, capricious way. What did such moronic pastimes truly mean? What did these silly fashions truly mean? Modern American adolescent life, as Molly was beginning to realise, was often nothing more one big exercise in vacuity and conformity, hijacked by the anti-culture and coming up empty in the end.

            Thank God for Aggie. She was a culture unto herself.

 *** 

            One Saturday, Aggie stopped by Molly’s house.

            “Let’s take a walk.”

            “’K,” Molly said agreeably.

            Aggie’s mother was away, working a long weekend shift at the hospital, and she would be gone for hours. Molly’s mom was running a series of errands, and she, too, would be away for a long while. It would be nice for the two girls to spend some of this time to-gether.

            In a trice, they were walking through the McKeys’ backyard and into the woods beyond the property. Autumn leaves crunched beneath their feet with a pleasing crackle. Molly looked up, gazing at the slate-grey coastal Carolina sky. Looking to her right, she beheld two crows perched in branches some 20 feet above them.

            There was a trail that extended into the woods. The path was narrow, only several feet wide, but it was adequate for a slow perambulation. Molly regarded it with some apprehension.

            “Ever been down this?” Aggie asked.

            “No, not really,” Molly admitted sheepishly. “I’ve gone down it a little ways, but I’ve never really had the time to explore it fully.”

            A half-truth. The full truth was that she was a little afraid of this path; quite why, she didn’t know.

Molly looked up again and saw the crows once more. The same two had flitted to another branch directly in front and above the path.

            Molly felt a sudden apprehension, and she couldn’t help wondering: were these strange birds following them?

            Aggie stopped abruptly.

            “What?” Molly asked. “What is it?”

            “You know,” said Aggie, and her eyes narrowed.

            A small wind came out of nowhere, blowing back the girl’s blonde hair. Aggie looked up at the birds and said, as if addressing them directly:

            “Not now. Not to-day. Go away, back whence you came.”

            And with that, amidst a raucous, cawing chorus of cries, the birds flew away, disappearing into the trees. In seconds, their cries could be heard no more.

            Molly’s eyes went wide, but she said nothing. Not at first. What did Aggie just do? Did she in fact do anything?

            “Ags, were you––”

            “Talking to myself,” the girl said cheerfully. “Nothing! Nothing at all. Just banishing gloomy thoughts.”

            They continued walking some distance, and Molly looked up again. Now above the path, high on a branch before them, was another bird: a mourning dove. It cooed at them, looking down at them with seemingly knowing eyes. Molly thought of saying something to Aggie again. But this time, she decided to keep silent, instead pondering this in her heart.

            Presently it was Aggie who spoke.

            “I love this path. Beautiful.”

            “You’ve taken it often?” Molly asked.

            “Yes, and from the other end, its starting point. I was rather surprised to see that it ended up at your house.”

            “When did you––”

            “Not long ago. I like to walk. Think of it as communing with creation and the One Who created it.”

            On they trudged, Molly occasionally dodging grey mud. Somehow, her heart felt lighter now.

Suddenly, Molly heard running water, and soon they came to a creek. Aggie told her that it eventually wound its way to the Cape Fear River, not far away, thence into the Atlantic Ocean.

            “Wow,” said Molly. “You know, we haven’t been to the beach yet. And it’s just right down the road.”

            “We’ll have to talk about that,” Aggie replied.

            Molly looked again at the creek. Five large rocks, their surfaces worn smooth and flat, stood in the midst of the water, forming stepping stones. She gazed at them for a moment, regarding them doubtfully.

            Aggie crossed easily to the third stone.

            “Here,” she said, her arm outstretched. “Give me your hand.”

            Molly did so, and she crossed the stream in a trice.

            On the opposite shore, she looked up again. The sky was suddenly brighter now. The grey clouds had dispersed, giving way to a heavenly Carolina blue.

            “So,” she began, “where does the trail end?”

            Aggie looked up and pointed.

            “There. At St Anthony’s.”

            And suddenly there appeared before them a small brick chapel, several hundred feet away. The trees gave way to a larger clearing, and Molly beheld the church, sheltered by the sentinel watch of five enormous oaks, each well over a century old. In the front yard was a large statue of Jesus, displaying His Sacred Heart. Around it were two sturdy benches and perennial flowers. Molly watched as the sun, now newly revealing itself, glinted off colourful windows of finely wrought stained glass.

            “Wow,” she said softly. “It’s beautiful.”

            “Yes,” Aggie agreed, “it is. Welcome home, Molls.”

            And as her friend turned to her and smiled, Molly had the strangest yet most comforting sensation: that she had come home, well and truly home indeed.

 ***

      Presently they found themselves inside the chapel, sitting in the nave on the Gospel Side. Molly noted that unlike in her old parish, the Blessed Sacrament was here afforded Its proper due. The tabernacle was front and centre above the altar, as God Himself had intended and commanded, not shunted disrespectfully off to the side and who-knew-where.

Molly knelt in her pew and gazed directly at the tabernacle, her hands tightly clasped, tears forming in her brown eyes.

            “It only makes sense,” she whispered, keeping her voice low in respect for the Blessed Sacrament.

            “Of course it does,” Aggie whispered in return.

            Molly turned sharply to her friend, who only smiled at her as she knelt in the very same attitude of prayer and contemplation. Was Aggie reading her thoughts? How could she know what Molly was thinking?

            But there was no time for wonder. Emerging from one of two sacristy doors flanking the altar came a bespectacled priest of youthful appearance and medium height. It was none other than Fr LaChance. He genuflected before the tabernacle and then headed straight for the girls’ pew.

            Standing before them, he smiled politely and said quietly, “Good afternoon, Miss Nordmann. And you must be Miss McKey.”

            Molly smiled and extended her hand, which the priest grasped gently and briefly.

            “Y-yes. How do you do, Father?”

            “I am well, mademoiselle,” he replied, his French accent now more prominent. “Let us go downstairs, where we may talk.”

            Soon they were seated at a table in the chapel’s basement, three steaming Styrofoam cups of coffee before them. Molly synopsised the strange phenomena at her house, and oddly, Fr LaChance seemed to know all about it.

            “D’accord,” the priest said softly, lapsing habitually into French. “Je comprend.”

            Molly looked quizzically at Aggie.

            “No, Molls. I’ve told Father nothing at all specific. Only that you and he needed to talk.”

            “I have seen this––problem––before, Miss McKey. We shall not waste time.”

            He raised an eyebrow and peered at her over his spectacles.

            “You have 12 rooms in your house, no?”

            “Yes,” said Molly.

            “Very well,” the priest replied.

            And from beneath the table he produced a cardboard box the size of a large biscuit tin. He opened it, and Molly saw that inside were 12 small crucifixes, each identical and four to five inches long.

            “May I?” Molly asked, her hand hovering hesitatingly over the table.

            Mais bien sûr,” the priest replied. “But of course.”

            She withdrew one crucifix, examining it. The wood was black and the corpus, silver. It was beautiful yet not extravagant. Turning it over, she noticed that it was made in Italy.

            “Twelve is a significant number for us,” Fr LaChance observed, his hands upon the other 11 crucifixes. “Twelve is four times three: Four Gospels, and three, of course, is the perfect number. Life itself is centred round the number three, and it reflects this trinitarianism everywhere. Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Birth, life and death. Beginning, middle and end. Dawn, noon and dusk. Black, white and grey. Red, yellow and blue. The three lines of a triangle. You see?”

            “Yes, Father,” Molly said quietly.

            Aggie merely looked on, her face possessed of a beatific smile and a serene calm, the sort of holy countenance Molly had recently seen on the face of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Aggie had shown Molly photographs of this remarkable French saint, gone for some 120 years now and yet so modern, so accessible. Indeed, as Aggie had said, “Here is a saint for our troubled times.”

            Molly returned her focus to Fr LaChance and his box. Behind his spectacles, his eyes narrowed, and he looked at her intently.

            “Place one crucifix in each room,” he said, “above a door, above a window, perhaps hidden where your mother cannot see them. She would be hostile to this, no?”

            “Yes, Father.”

            “Of course. Hide one in her room, perhaps under her bed, along with this green scapular.”

            From a fold in his cassock, he produced just such a scapular and handed it to Molly. She regarded it quizzically.

            “For conversion,” the priest said, a fleeting look of encouragement in his eyes. “As for your closets, they, too, should be protected. And there are more crucifixes where these came from. We mean to pin down our Enemy, and this is one way to do it. He hates the Cross, as do all his minions. The ancient Romans devised the most horrible, agonising death imaginable. Yet in that moment of seeming defeat and death, Our Lord secured for us the ultimate victory and life everlasting. Our Enemy knows this, and for this, he hates Our Lord and His Cross.”

            Fr LaChance produced another box, identical to the first. He now closed the latter and placed it with the former, stacking them neatly upon the table.

            Suddenly one of the basement doors opened with a short creak and immediately closed again with a snapping thud. Molly jumped slightly.

            “Ah, Father,” said the priest, looking up. “Thank you for coming.”

            A tall, young priest approached them. Fair of hair, eyes and skin, he was clean-shaven and neat in appearance.

            “Fr Francis McConnell,” said Fr LaChance, “you know Miss Nordmann, of course. I would like you to meet Miss Margaret McKey.”

            The handsome priest extended his hand and took Molly’s briefly.

            “Pleased to meet you, Miss. Welcome to St Anthony’s,” he said, and he then added, looking at Aggie, “And good afternoon, Miss Nordmann.”

            “An honour to meet you, Father,” said Molly.

            “Good to see you again, Father,” said Aggie. “And welcome back.”

            “I thought it best there be two of us,” Fr LaChance explained, addressing both girls. “Indeed, that is only proper for what we may have to do. Fr McConnell has lately returned from Europe. He is newly ordained.”

            The recollection of a custom came swiftly to Molly’s mind: kissing the hands of a new priest. Aggie had told her of it, that it was both a sign of respect and reverence and that it bestowed blessings upon the person who did so in sincere faith.

            Molly knelt and took Fr McConnell’s hands in hers.

            “‘The hands that bring me Jesus!’” she exclaimed, echoing the words of St Francis of Assisi.

            Fr McConnell smiled and helped Molly up.

            “God bless you, my child,” he said softly.

            “Father,” said Fr LaChance, “could you please go up to the sacristy and bring back a surplice and stole for each of us?”

            “Straight away, Father,” the younger priest replied.

            And off he went at a quick jog. They heard his long legs bound up the sacristy stairs with ease. He returned in a trice, a small black backpack in one hand. Fr LaChance stuffed the two boxes of crucifixes into the backpack and gestured to the door.

            “Well, ladies,” he said, “let us be off.”

            Presently the quartet was walking over the bed of oak leaves in St Anthony’s front yard and headed toward the path that “bent in the undergrowth,” as Frost would have said. Indeed, it occurred to Molly that her life had now diverged into two paths. She might well have readily taken the easier, more alluring route, the “cool” road of loose-living acquaintances at her school. But that, as she now realised, was a dead-end road indeed. She knew the path she was now on was much narrower, but it was also an entirely surer route. She had chosen the road less travelled.

            “‘And that has made all the difference,’” she said softly to herself, quoting Frost.

            “Hmmm?” said Aggie. “You say something?”

            “Nothing,” Molly replied, smiling.

            When they came to the stepping stones over the creek, Molly noticed idly that Fr McConnell, longer-legged and perhaps more graceful, had an easier crossing than Fr LaChance. Nevertheless, all four safely made it across, and soon they were at the McKeys’ house.

            Inside, Molly went into the kitchen and made coffee for the two priests. She raised the window over the sink, and a gentle, autumnal breeze drifted into the kitchen. It soon had the pleasant aroma of Viennese coffee wafting throughout the house.

            She then went to find her estranged father’s tool chest, down in the basement. She turned on the cylindrical light, and the dark basement became as bright as day. Where was the tool chest? Ah, yes, over there in that damp corner. Not the best place for it, and she decided instantly that storing it in the hallway closet made more sense. She returned upstairs with the chest, a hammer and a much weathered mallet, along with about 30 nails in an old jelly jar.

            “Well done,” said Fr LaChance, standing in the kitchen, having a cup of coffee with his young confrère. “Miss McKey, I shall leave it to your judgement where these images of Our Lord should go. Miss Nordmann will assist you.”

            Aggie smiled at Molly. It was a look of helpful encouragement and the sort of sympathy that is only shared by true friends.

            “And when you are done,” said Fr McConnell, looking at both girls, “return here and let us know.”

            “Yes, sir,” Molly said, her voice quiet and respectful.

            Off they went. Crucifixes went up, right and left: over doorjamb casings; above windows; usually tucked discreetly away, effectively hidden so that Mrs McKey wouldn’t see them. Molly stood upon furniture, her short legs stretching to reach the higher spots as she banged away with the hammer.

            For Aggie, the hiding part was easier. She placed crucifixes in all the closets, tacking them above casings or behind shelves. She also found an appropriate spot in the basement, a location prominent and yet not. Standing upon a stool and with rather artistic precision, she symmetrically sequestered the crucifix upon a large beam supporting the floor above it. But only if you were turned in the other direction would you see it. The casual visitor or maybe even Mrs McKey herself, coming from the stairs and facing the washing machine, would never see the holy object.

            Soon the girls returned to the kitchen, and they found both priests now vested in their cassocks and surplices.

            From his black backpack, Fr McConnell produced a white candle. This he fixed firmly into a golden candlestick and placed it upon the McKeys’ kitchen table. Molly noticed that the candle had a curious design upon it. Centred perfectly in the beeswax was what appeared to be a rampant lion, holding a sword. Above it was a descending dove: the symbol of the Holy Ghost.

            Fr McConnell moved closer to the candle and leaned over it.

            “Ab illo benedicaris,” he said softly, “in Cujus honore cremaberis.”

            Aggie had been teaching Molly a bit of Latin, which was quite useful for the Mass and indeed for building one’s vocabulary in general. But the priest’s words just now were lost upon her, and she glanced at her more learned friend.

            “Be thou blessed,” Aggie whispered, “in Whose honour thou shalt burn.”

            And just then, a second after the priest completed the sentence in flawless Latin, he snapped his fingers, and the candle burst into a tall flame. Molly gasped, and her eyes went wide as saucers. Some sort of magic trick? No, of course not. Fr McConnell surely had a cigarette lighter––one of those small, modern lighters––too small in fact to be seen from that distance. Yes, that was it.

            “Let us begin,” said Fr LaChance.

            He crossed himself, and the others did the same.

            “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen,” said the priest, his Latin coloured ever so slightly with a French accent. “Adjutorium nostrum in Nomine Domini.”

            “Qui fecit Caelum et terram,” said Fr McConnell, giving the response.

            Remembering what Aggie had taught her, Molly translated the words of both priests in her mind:

            “‘Our help is in the Name of the Lord, Who made Heaven and earth.’”

            Fr LaChance then looked up, his gaze heavenward, as though he could see something the others could not.

            “Princeps gloriosissime caelestis militiae, sancte Michael Archangele,” he intoned, his voice ringing out, “defende nos in proelio…”

            “‘Glorious prince of the heavenly armies, St Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,’” Molly again translated.

            It was almost as if Fr LaChance were somehow reading her mind, as Molly thought. Suddenly he turned to her and said:

            “Miss McKey, come here, please. You are the one who has suffered from these attacks––the phenomena––you have mentioned. Therefore, we must pray that a special grace descends upon you.”

            He produced a vial of holy water, from where Molly knew not. With the vial, he made the Sign of the Cross over her, once more invoking the three holiest of Names. Some of the water struck her face, feeling like gentle rain.

            “‘Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi Dominus, et sub pennis Ejus sperabis; scuto circumdabit te veritas Ejus.’”

    And this time, Molly was utterly lost. But fortunately, Aggie came to the rescue again:

            “‘The Lord will cover you with His shoulders,’” she said softly, “‘and beneath His wings shall you find refuge; His truth shall surround you with a shield.’”

            Frs LaChance and McConnell continued their versicle-and-response ritual. Respectively, they said:

            “Domine, exaudi orationem meam.”

            “Et clamor meus ad Te veniat.”

            “Lord, hear my prayer,” Aggie softly translated, “and let my cry come unto Thee.”

            The priests now walked from room to room. They covered every chamber in the house, including the basement. Fr LaChance liberally sprinkled holy water in the Sign of the Cross, and his vial never seemed to run dry. He would call out the versicles, and Fr McConnell would dutifully and promptly make the responses. Molly and Aggie followed them at a respectful distance.

            Finally, after perhaps half an hour, they were done. The four of them returned to the kitchen. Fr LaChance smiled at both girls.

            “Well, Miss McKey,” he said, turning to Molly, “I don’t believe you will be troubled anymore. Your house had a minor entity––a demonic presence comparatively easy to evict––and no cause for any great concern. It was trying to contact you, to frighten you and generally cause you alarm. Demons like to do that, to sometimes torment the living, as they always torment the souls of those in Hell. But I think now that––”

            And just then, suddenly and out of nowhere, the breeze returned. But this was actually no autumnal breeze, gently wafting through the kitchen window. This was a strong wind, as of a sudden storm. And the candle, as Molly saw with dismay, was just as suddenly extinguished, as if blown out by unseen lips.

            Fingers of fear crept up and down Molly’s spine. Aggie appeared frozen.

            The two priests looked at each other, frowning.

            “Hmmph,” said Fr LaChance, a look of irritation and disgust crossing his face. “That will never do.”

            And he snapped his fingers over the candle. It instantly leapt into flame once more, as if it had never been out.

            Molly again regarded this with great wonder. Her mouth opened, and she was about to speak. But she was silenced by the noise.

            Scratch. Scratch-scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch…Scratch, scratch, scratch…

            It was coming from above them.

            “Of course,” said Fr LaChance. “How stupid of me. Young ladies, we have overlooked the one room in this entire house that is the most important of all for our purposes here: the attic.”

            His face clouded with righteous anger. Clearly he had faced such opponents before, and he knew how to handle them. He marched off, striding down the hallway.

            “Fr McConnell, if you please,” he said, calling after him. “I must be getting old. I am becoming forgetful. Your pardon, ladies!”

            The younger priest obediently trotted after him. Molly watched them both. She looked on in amazement as Fr LaChance grabbed the cord and pulled down the attic door. How did he know where it was? Molly had said nothing about its location, but the priest behaved as if he were well familiar with the house. In a trice, he was swiftly climbing the stairs, with Fr McConnell close behind.

            Scratch, scratch, scratch…Scratch, scratch, scratch…

            Molly cupped her mouth in her hands, suppressing a scream of terror. Aggie was behind her now, and she placed a cool hand upon her friend’s shoulder.

            “Don’t worry,” she said, her eyes relaxed and half-shut, her mouth a placid smile. “‘Pray, hope and don’t worry.’”

            Molly seemed vaguely to remember that once again, here were the wise words of Padre Pio––Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, as he was now properly known, according to Aggie. But there was no time to think of this. Fr LaChance was yelling at them from the attic:

            “Ladies! Aidez-moi, sil vous plaît.

            “Coming, Father!” Aggie called.

            She tugged at Molly’s sleeve, pulling her down the hall. But Molly dragged her feet, and she began to weep. A look of real terror came over her face as they stood at the foot of the attic steps.

            “I can’t do this, Ags,” she tearfully confessed. “I just can’t!”

            “Of course you can,” her friend replied, a supportive arm round Molly’s shoulder.

            “No, I mean I really can’t take any more! I can’t face this. I just––I just wanna run away! Or go crawl under a rock. Just let me go hide somewhere. Please!”

            “Face your fear, Molls. Face it, and you make it go away. Take it on and destroy it!”

            Scratch, scratch, scratch…Scratch, scratch, scratch…

            “Miss McKey, maintenant!” Fr LaChance shouted.

            “Go,” said Aggie. “I’m right behind you. Now go!”

            And she fairly shoved Molly halfway up the steps. Realising there was no going back, Molly trudged reluctantly upward.

            In the attic, the scratching was even louder, as if some giant animal were trying to claw through the floor or ceiling. Molly looked round, but she saw nothing. She covered her ears and screamed in a combination of terror, anger and frustration.

            “Please, Father! Please––make it stop!”

            Scratch, scratch, scratch…Scratch, scratch, scratch…

            But Fr LaChance only looked at her serenely. He smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder.

            “You make it stop, Miss McKey,” he said, smiling again in encouragement.

            From somewhere within the folds of his cassock, he produced another crucifix. This one was much larger than the others and appeared to be made of solid gold. A large, round hole, clearly for a nail, was built into the top of the cross, just above the likeness of the Titulus and its words, Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum. The priest also held out a small, finely wrought hammer and a nail, perhaps four inches long. And both of these items as well had the look of real gold.

            Fr McConnell now stood next to her and showed her what to do, indicating a large beam before her.

            “You know, Miss McKey,” the younger priest said, “this wood looks very like the Cross on which Our Lord was crucified.”

            He rubbed his palms over its roughness, and Molly worried for a split-second that he might get splinters in his holy hands.

            “Father, be care––

            “Now, my child,” Fr LaChance interrupted, holding the crucifix high upon the wooden beam, all while the scratching continued, louder and angrier than ever.

            Scratcha-scratcha-scratcha-scratcha-scratch…scratch, scratch, scratch.

            In his other hand, Fr LaChance offered her the hammer and the nail. His intent was clear. With trembling hands, Molly reached for them. And stretching up as tall as she could, she drove the nail through the hole in the top of the crucifix, just as Fr LaChance passionately declaimed:

            “In the Name of the Father…”

            Boom!

            The sound of the nail pounding into the wood was somehow deafening. It echoed as if Molly were not in the attic at all but upon a hilltop.

            “And of the Son…”

            Boom!

            “And of the Holy Ghost…”

            Boom!

            And suddenly, the hinged attic window burst open, as if thrust by unseen hands. A great gale of wind burst through the attic, scattering old papers, clothes and more. The priests put protective arms round the girls, and their cassocks and cinctures blew as if they were in a storm.

            And Molly heard the scratching sound yet again. Only this time, it sounded as if it were somehow––retreating, like some demonic animal scuttling away in fright. It faded away, until at last it was gone alto-gether. With it, the wind vanished as well. And the window closed itself neatly and tightly––swinging shut again on its hinges almost politely and apologetically, as Molly thought, as though it were sorry for its rude outburst.

            “Amen,” said Fr LaChance quietly, and he then grinned at all three of them.

            “We’ve done it, Miss McKey!” Fr McConnell shouted. “You’ve done it!”

            All four of them embraced and laughed. Tears afresh streamed down Molly’s face. She thanked Aggie and the priests. But most of all, she thanked her Lord, Who had wrought this miracle. The demonic disturbance was gone for ever, as Frs LaChance and McConnell assured her. And she knew in her heart that this was so. She sensed it.

            The black pall that had hung so long over her house and her heart was lifted. It was gone, vanished as if it had never been.

             ***

            Some days later, on another bright, autumnal Saturday afternoon, Molly walked into the kitchen and found her mother at the kitchen sink. She was opening a bottle of Scotch, and for a moment, the girl’s heart sank.

            But then something strange happened.

            “Not what you think, kiddo,” her mother said brightly.

            With some small touch of ceremony, Mrs McKey unsealed the bottle and looked at it for a brief second. Then, with a flourish, she turned it up and poured the entire contents down the drain.

            “Good riddance,” she said, and a wide smile spread across her creased face.

            Molly couldn’t believe her eyes. She was ecstatic. She burst into laughter.

            “Oh, Mom! Mom! Thank God! Oh, thank God!”

            She ran to her mother and hugged her.

            “Yes, kiddo,” Mrs McKey said softly, “thank God indeed.”

            Presently they found themselves sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. Studying her mother’s face, Molly was amazed by how lined and prematurely aged it was. The alcohol and depression had conspired to give Mrs McKey a worn-outedness, well before her time. But now, though her face was still creased with old cares, it looked far brighter than it had in years. Her eyes were clear, and it was just as clear to Molly that whatever had had hold over her mother no longer did.

            Some time later, the doorbell rang, and Molly ran to answer it.

            When she opened the door, her jaw dropped.

            “Hiya, kiddo,” said a handsome man with greying hair and a rugged, lined face.

            “Daddy!” she cried, and she leapt into his arms so hard, her legs wrapped round his waist as she had done as a little girl, that she knocked his cowboy hat to the ground, and they both dissolved into loud laughter.

             ***

            The next day, after Mass, Molly stood before the steps at St Anthony’s. Both her parents were with her, and they stood arm in arm, smiling.

            Aggie came running up.

            “Molls! Did you hear? There’s a brand-new documentary about the life of Archbishop LaChance, Fr LaChance’s uncle. They’re gonna show it at the local cinema, and––

            “Sounds great, Ags. But right now, I’d like you to meet my parents. Mom, Dad, this is Agnes Nordmann–my best friend.”

            Aggie looked up, clearly quite surprised.

            “Hallo, Miss Nordmann,” said Mrs McKey.

            “Pleased to meet you, miss,” said her husband. “I understand that you’ve been helping my daughter quite a lot.”

            “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr and Mrs McKey,” said Aggie. “Welcome to St Anthony’s. We’re very pleased to have you both here.”

            “She’s too modest to say it, Dad,” said Molly, her arm round Aggie’s neck, “but the truth is, yes. She’s been an enormous help–an inestimable help–to me. I wouldn’t be hereyou wouldn’t be here–but for Aggie.”

            “Well,” said Mrs McKey, “we’re very grateful to you, young lady.”

            Aggie smiled.

            “Think nothing of it,” she said. “Welcome home.”

             ***

            In the woods on the edge of the church property, unseen by anyone, perched high in an oak tree, two crows watched as parishioners filed out on to the pavement. They cawed loudly and maliciously.

            Across from the crows, perched in another oak some 15 feet away, was a mourning dove. It cooed peacefully, as if in reproachful response to the crows. But the big black birds cawed in return, flapping their wings in an angry display.

            The crows looked again at the church. Then they looked back at the dove. Only now, the dove was gone. And in its place, sitting heavy and imposing upon the same branch, was an enormous red-tailed hawk. It let loose a mighty scream, which sounded like:

           McKeeeeey-aaaaaaaa! McKeeeeey-aaaaa!”

            And with that, the hawk leapt into the air and flew straight at the crows. With terrified caws, the black birds took off at once, flying as fast as they could, with the hawk in close pursuit behind them. The birds flew far out over the Cape Fear River, the huge bird of prey keening angrily behind the crows, and soon all three disappeared.

            No one knew this, of course. But the crows were never seen again.

            As for the hawk, he, too, found a home at St Anthony’s and made a good living ridding the churchyard of mice and voles. He soon found a mate, and a large nest could be seen in the uppermost branches of one the church’s century-old oaks. And the following spring, three chicks could be seen, poking their heads from the edge of the nest.

            St Anthony’s, it seemed, was a wonderful and welcoming place for all sorts of families.

By Thomas Lark          

       

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