Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
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The Devil Is In This House

by Peter Cushnie

--knock knock--

"Yes? Who is it?"

"It's Sister Helene Marie, Mother Superior. May I speak with you?"

Sister Helene. Mother Superior sighs and frowns. Sister Helene represents one of the less pleasant aspects of her duties: having to deal with a novice whose vocation is in doubt. Mother has seen many of these come and go; young women--girls, really--who enter the sisterhood without truly understanding it; girls pressured by religious families, girls who see only its pageantry and noble ideals, girls who think they are being "called" when, in fact, they are running away from something, some unhappiness. Then they chafe under the privations of the order. They become homesick, longing for parents, boyfriends, and familiar places. Many succumb to the urgings of womanhood, the need for husbands and families or just good old-fashioned sex. Some are simply too independent of mind, possessing too great a sense of self to become true members of the religious community.

At the other end of the spectrum are those whose devotion borders on the fanatical. These are most often found among the converts to Catholicism, the ones who feel they have something to prove. Fortunately, they are rare, but she has had to deal with a few of them, wanting to shake them and tell them--what is it the young people say today?--lighten up, Sister. Chill.

Mother is certain that Helene Marie does not fall into this latter category, even though she is a convert. She is not yet sure just where Sister Helene does fit, but, alas, it is her function to find out.

Other problems attend Sister Helene. Lately, the other novices are displaying a strange unruliness; a kind of general and ill-defined misbehavior and--what is most troubling to Mother Superior--petty and often cruel treatment of Sister Helene Marie in particular. Clearly, she is not one of the in group. Mother does not like the idea of there being an in group in the first place, but she knows very well that the convent is all too often and in too many ways a microcosm of the world outside and underneath the frippery of the habit they are still women.

She erases her frown and says, "Of course, Sister. Please come in."

Sister Helene Marie opens the office door and enters. Mother Superior, a matronly and comforting woman of advanced years, smiles from behind her desk. Light from a nearby window twinkles in her spectacles, but also has the affect of obscuring her eyes and preventing Sister Helene from knowing where the older woman is looking. This affect is disconcerting.

"Please sit down, Sister," Mother says, motioning with her eyes to a chair. "Well, now. What can I do for you?"

Sister Helene does not sit. Instead, she paces the office, fidgeting with her rosary, seeming not to know how to begin whatever it is she has to say. Finally, she says, "Mother, I--I'm afraid."

"Afraid, Sister? Of what?"

Silence. Then, in a whisper, "Of--of the Devil, Mother."

Mother Superior pauses as she takes this in and considers her possible responses. Then she says, "As well you should be, Sister, but why do you tell me this now?"

The younger nun fidgets even more nervously with her rosary. "Because--because I believe--I believe the Devil is in this house."

Mother Superior is stunned. She did not know what she expected, but it was not this. For a moment she is tempted to laugh. The Devil, indeed. How ridiculous. Stuff and nonsense, the whole idea of it. But no, one must be careful here. That's the Devil himself talking, isn't it? Gaining strength from our doubt and disbelief. At last, she says, "Sister, explain yourself."

Sister Helene does.

... It was late. She thought it very strange, and certainly inconsiderate, that someone would be in the chapel playing the organ at this hour. Then, as she lay in her bed listening, trying to puzzle it out and even wondering if she had missed some special late-night service (it would not have surprised her if she had been deliberately excluded, the way things were going), she became aware of something else that was not right: the music itself. As much as she could hear of it through the walls, she sensed a disturbing, discordant quality; a wrongness that made her suddenly afraid. The sound had a peculiar sucking characteristic to it. Yes, that was really the only way to describe it, as if the music were not coming from the organ as much as being drawn, or sucked, back into it from the air; as if--and this was really crazy--as if the music were being played backwards, like some old rock and roll song from the sixties, straining to be different.

She got out of bed, put on slippers and, without turning on a light, went to the door of her room and placed her ear against it. She hoped to hear the other sisters coming from their rooms to investigate. That, at least, would relieve her fear of having been excluded from something, but no doors opened, no slippered feet scuffled in the hall, no familiar voices rose in question. Except for the music, all was silent.

As much as she did not want to investigate the music herself, it was impossible to return to bed as if nothing were happening, not with that infernal sound going on. She opened her door a crack and looked cautiously into the hall. As was appropriate for this time of night, it was dimly lit and empty. She stepped out, looking to the right and then to the left.

The doors to all the other sisters' rooms stood open.

She hurried to the nearest one and looked in. "Sister?" she called softly. "Are you in here?" But the room, like the hallway, was empty. She went to each one, seven in all. None were occupied.

Then, under the music, she heard another sound: a low, sibilant sound like that of whispering, the whispering of dark secrets being told in the night. Her skin raised up in bumps and in that moment she was convinced the whispering was about her.

She moved toward the chapel, still wearing only her nightgown and floppy slippers, her mouth and mind busy in hurried prayer. Approaching the open door slowly, she looked in.

The only illumination came from candles, fat black candles that she had never seen before and which, in spite of their large number and placement about the chapel, seemed to create more shadows than they dispelled. Seated at the organ, its back to her, was the figure of a nun. All the seats, too, were occupied by nuns.

The wrongness of everything she was seeing and hearing intensified with her closeness. It crept toward her over the floor and walls; living, seeking, tendrils of something that had no business here. She felt her insides squirming and slithering as something invisible gripped and twisted. She began to sweat. Her bowels threatened to empty in a foul, watery gush, but she controlled it. It was that music, more than anything else. Instead of lifting her up or providing her with moments of thoughtful meditation, this music--if that was what it truly was--had the reverse ability to plunge her body into illness and her soul into despair. It was the antithesis of everything she wanted to believe in and stand for and, although in the private places of her mind she doubted Hell's existence, she knew in that moment that if Hell did exist and if it possessed its own music, it would be what she heard now, and she was hearing it in God's house.

Then it stopped.

The figures in the pews turned to her.

They had no faces. The wimples contained only blackness, a palpable blackness that was itself an entity.

Then the figure at the organ turned. It did have a face...

Sister Helene begins to sob as she tries to describe the thing at the organ. Mother Superior senses hysteria building in the novice and comes from behind the desk to comfort her. Sister Helene is too troubled to notice the fear that has deepened the lines on the older nun's face during the narration, or to feel the slight trembling of the veined hands upon her shoulders. Finally, Sister Helene calms enough to continue...

... and it smiled at her, this thing at the organ, dressed in a nun's garb. Then it raised an arm. The habit's sleeve fell back, but what came out was a bird's foot, scaly and taloned. It beckoned to her, as if to invite her to join the service. The seated figures raised their arms, too, but no clawed things appeared. Their sleeves held the same emptiness as the wimples that bound their heads, if heads they were. The empty habits motioned that she should be seated among them. The whispering grew louder and louder until it was no longer a whisper but a shrill babble; a gibbering, singsong madness. Sister Helene put her hands over her ears and screamed.

Then she ran.

She ran back to her room and slammed the door. It could not be locked from the inside, or she certainly would have done so. Instead, she took the room's only chair, an uncomfortable, straight-backed thing she never used and propped it under the doorknob, the way she had seen in so many movies. Then she hurried into bed and hid beneath the covers, trembling and praying like a crazy woman, trying desperately to convince herself it had only been a dream, begging God to let it be so.

Somehow, she slept...

* * *

"In the morning, in the light, I was almost able to believe it hadn't happened. Almost, but there was more.

"That day it seemed as if all the sisters were refusing to speak to me, even look at me. When my eyes did happen to catch another's, they seemed to be hiding something malevolent. I tormented myself. I could not believe--could not allow myself to believe--that those events had been real. I began to think it an affront to God and the others to even think such a thing. I felt guilty in my heart. I thought, 'Do you see the others as so weak they can be taken over by the Devil, and you the only one who can resist?' But another thought, even worse, followed that. I was jealous. I wanted to know why I had been left out. But that was madness. I worked myself into a terrible state. 'You're evil and corrupt,' I thought. 'You're a bad person who will never see God! Even the Devil doesn't want you!"

"When it came time for confession, I almost ran there…"

... Confession was not mandatory, but non-attendance was frowned upon and noted nonetheless. In her private heart, Sister Helene had often thought it silly for women in their position to have to confess. Living as they did, who had time or opportunity for sin? And she honestly believed she held no uncharitable thoughts in her heart, though that idea itself was prideful, wasn't it? And pride was a sin. 'They gotcha comin' and goin', she could hear her father say. 'Damned if you do, damned if you don't.' Sometimes it all made her head whirl. Prior to joining the order, she had not thought much about sin, had not dwelled upon the many ways to be wicked. How ironic, she would now think, that the concept of sin would become her constant companion here in this bastion of supposed goodness. The idea of sin, if not the fact, enveloped them daily, a miasma seeping from the very ground on which the convent was built and they were guilty simply by virtue of their existence. It seemed unfair. But no such philosophical points troubled her now as she entered the chapel. The room seemed normal at this hour, without so much as a candle drip in the wrong place to hint at what she had seen.

She approached the confessional. She needed to unburden herself, to be comforted in the familiar ritual. There were other nuns in the chapel, engaged in prayers. Their backs were to her and they did not look up. She heard their whispering and felt a chill, reminded of her... experience.

Someone was in the booth ahead of her. She waited. Looking around, she thought that perhaps the chapel was not, after all, quite normal, but somewhat darker than usual. She knew that it was bright and sunny outside, but the light coming in through the stained-glass windows failed to dispel a gloom she did not normally associate with this place. Shadows seemed deeper and more abundant. Even sound was different. The whispers of the praying nuns seemed louder than they should have, possessing a hissing sharpness. Finally the curtain to the booth stirred. A nun exited, her face turned away and hidden. Sister Helene entered the booth. The dark, heavy curtain closed silently behind her, as if on its own, but she did not permit herself to think about that. She knelt in darkness, a darkness too deep for the middle of the day, even in this cramped booth. To orient herself, she felt for the grill on the wall that opened onto the waiting priest, but it wasn't where it was supposed to be. Her hands scrabbled on the walls of the booth in sudden anxiety. Her left hand brushed the curtain over the entrance, but now the curtain felt different, not like the yielding cloth that could easily be brushed aside, but something firm and unyielding and the mad thought came to her that she was inside a coffin, buried alive, and that she would scratch and claw at the lid until her fingernails broke and bled and scream until her throat was raw and the air gone--Then her hand found the opening she sought. Palms against the wall, she pressed her face against its mesh surface, breathing deeply, much the way a miner in a collapsed cave would do when suddenly finding a chink in the rocks that confined him. But no light came through to dispel the confining darkness, no fresh air to cool the perspiration that ran down her brow and soaked her underclothing. The darkness remained complete, as deep as the darkness in the Sisters' habits in her wild dream (?) of the night before; the air fetid.

And it was quiet. Too quiet. She was about to conclude that no one was there when she heard noises; strange scuffling, rustlings, and sliding, as if some large animal were on the other side, not the familiar sounds she expected such as the pages of Father Lloyd's paperback novel being turned as he read some science fiction novel while disinterestedly hearing confession, or the relaxed greeting of handsome Father Joseph. Oh God please let it be Father Joseph. She hurriedly made the sign of the cross and forced herself to continue the ceremony, though now she would have preferred to flee the booth entirely. She said, "Forgive me. Father, for I have sinned." She heard heavy, wet, breathing and something moved closer to the grill between them. Warm air--a breath?--struck her face and she thought of dead animals. She recoiled.

Then a voice, low and cultured, like some great British actor: "Yes, you have sinned. Haven't we all? But I don't think you properly understand the nature of your sins, Sister Helene, so I shall explain. You see, deep down you reject the idea of your inherent and perpetual guilt and hold seditious ideas of your basic goodness. Even when you are here in this booth, you are never entirely certain you need to be. You have even entertained the thought that you are master of your own soul and should kneel before no other. No, kneeling does not come easy to you and that makes you hard to reach. I know, because I have tried to reach you, but you step around the usual little traps. You are not one to be taken with traps. You must be convinced. That is why you are having such a difficult time in the religious life. You're not really sure that you believe any of it.

"The others were easy. They want to kneel, to subordinate their minds to another, and so they have. Now they live in subordination's darkness. You have seen their darkness, but forget them. They are not important. You have a mind that sets you apart. Do you know that all is not terror and pain in my kingdom? How could I entice anyone of intelligence and quality to serve in higher capacities if it were? That is only for the common herd, the base and weak minded. Other areas of Hell exist of which your church dares not tell you, areas in which the superior mind can find fulfillment. A mind such as yours. And what does your savior offer? The drug of eternal bliss. A narcotized eternity in which nothing ever happens. How will a mind such as yours ever cope? I offer you so much more. Come. Work with me and I will let you rule the others. Do with them whatever you like. Come into the chapel tonight and let me show you a new way."

The words insinuated themselves into her brain, soul devouring worms. They tempted her. Even more than that, they flattered and honored her; and yes, it would be wonderful to have control of the others, to make them--No! What was she thinking? This was the Beast, the Prince of Lies speaking! It had to be! How could she even for a moment-- "NO!" she yelled. She tried to stand but found the booth suddenly too confining. Like a coffin, she thought. This booth is a coffin! She pushed against the curtain, but it had become hard and unyielding again. She pushed harder and this time it opened, but it swung open, like a coffin lid. She almost fell to the floor when it gave way. She stood and looked around and saw she was no longer in the chapel. She was in a vault, a catacomb, a tomb; some damp and decaying underground place.

I'm in Hell.

"You are assuming that these are my environs, aren't you Sister Helene? But I can assure you that my personal quarters are considerably more comfortable than this, as would yours be. No, what you see here might be more metaphorical of your own present confines. Is your soul not now confined by a decaying creed? Has your mind not been entombed in dogma's coffin?"

This was the voice of the Beast, coming from somewhere in the darkness.

She spun around, looking for it, but saw nothing. She felt its presence, though, flitting from shadow to shadow, now a fly, now a spider in a web, or a scuttling beatle. "Then show me what you offer!" someone shouted into the shadows. She was shocked to realize that it was herself. She heard tittering laughter.

"Ah, no, Sister," came a spider-voice at her ear. "You would only accuse me of trickery if I showed you desirable things, would you not? You would call me the Prince of Lies. And when did you ever ask your Christian god to show you proof? When did you ever ask for a glimpse of Paradise to see if it was to your liking? In fact, when have I ever been asked to give my side of the story? Is this fair?"

She put her hands over her ears and ran for what she hoped was an exit.

"Be with me"! the voice of the Beast followed, speaking in her ear as she ran as if it were right beside her. "Be one of mine. I do not ask you to serve or to kneel or to sing my praises for eternity. I have so much more to offer than that! So much more than your bleeding, sexless martyr!"

Sister Helene ran--

"Do not anger me, Helene! I have tried to be reasonable, but I will have you! You and that pious Mother Superior! You and that cynical, mocking atheist, Father Joseph! I will have you all, one way or another! Do not make me come for you!"

--and ran.

* * *

...She is silent after this recitation, near tears again. "What shall I do. Mother? At the edge of my vision I have seen the Beast disappear around a corner seconds before my arrival. I can feel its presence everywhere, in all the other sisters. The Devil wears many faces, doesn't he, Mother?"

"Yes, the Devil wears many faces, Sister."

"But what should I do, Mother? What should I do?"

Mother Superior resumes her seat behind her desk. "Sister, I-- I think that Father Joseph must hear of this."

"Father Joseph, yes..."

--That cynical, mocking atheist--

"... I like Father Joseph. But he is also a... a psychiatrist, isn't he Mother?"

Mother sighs. "Yes, he is."

"Do you think-- do you think he is really what the Devil called him?"

Mother Superior looks down at her desk and is silent. The she says, "Father is... modern. We have our differences."

"Mother, do you think I'm going crazy?" Sister Helene says in a rush.

The older nun hesitates, then says, "I... I think the Devil wears many faces, Sister."

* * *

Sister Helene is dismissed to await further word. She returns to her cell. She enters, closes the door behind her, turns-- and sees the figure by the window. It wags a talon at her. "You told...."

* * *

Mother Superior is alone in her office later that day as she awaits the arrival of Father Joseph. The only sounds are the ticking of a small clock and the scratching of the old-fashioned fountain pen with which Mother still writes. There is movement at the corner of her vision. Someone else is in the room, though she heard no one enter. "I didn't hear--Oh, no. Oh dear God, no!" She stands and backs away from the figure in front of her desk. She clutches the crucifix at her breast as if she would bend it into a new shape, or squeeze God from it. "You. You! Get out! Get out in the name of the Savior! GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE!"

* * *

Father Joseph is young, one of those modern priests of which he knows this old-country nun disapproves, filled with what she considers unpriestly habits and ideas. And now a cynical and mocking atheist on top of it, he thinks. No doubt Mother Superior agrees with at least that part of the story. She has been relating the novice's tale, challenge and contempt for the priest obvious in her manner. He risks further disapproval by lighting a cigarette, another of those unpriestly habits, not even asking her for permission. Deep down, he knows he is doing it more to annoy the old nun than to satisfy a need for nicotine. No ashtray is provided, so he uses a wastebasket.

When she finishes her recitation, he says, "Hmm. Many people take this devil business very seriously, cloven hooves, pointed tail and all. For them, the Devil is very real, a physical thing, not merely a symbol. It is, of course, a convenient excuse for failure, among other uses, such as frightening people into obedience, so one should not wonder that belief in it still flourishes. Strange, but of all the novices, I would have expected Sister Helene to be the last one to see devils hiding behind bushes. You know, Mother, I really wish you nuns would take your religious training with a few large grains of salt." He knows this is the wrong thing to say to her, but, like smoking the cigarette, he cannot resist.

Mother Superior says nothing, but the set of her face speaks eloquently. He sees this, but plunges on, determined not to be intimidated. "Sister Helene is displaying textbook symptoms of stress, Mother, and the devil she has been seeing is merely a manifestation of that stress. Consider that she wakes during the night, not fully awake and not quite asleep. This is the perfect time for ‘waking dreams’ and hallucinations; a time when sleep and wakefulness blend and the individual cannot distinguish between the two. Outside the convent walls, normal people who have this experience often believe they have been kidnapped by space aliens. For much of our culture, space aliens have replaced angels, but these girls, so steeped in the culture of the Church, still cling to the religious symbols. And so, what we see in Sister Helene, is not uncommon among nuns, especially young ones, full of youthful idealism about what the religious life should be. She's upset because she has discovered that the other sisters can be, in spite of their professed dedication, petty and cruel in their treatment of each other, and so she attempts to explain this corruption, as she sees it, in terms she can understand, terms she has learned from the Church itself. In her mind, this can only be the work of the Devil, and so she fantasized the chapel and confessional incidents."

"Very neat," says Mother, in an uncharacteristic use of the vernacular. "Is that your final diagnosis?"

"Well, really, Mother, is there any other way to look at it? This is not the fourteenth century."

"Indeed, it is not," says Mother Superior with something that sounds like regret to Father Joseph. "Perhaps if it were, this situation would get the attention it deserves."

Father's brows furrow. "Are you serious? Would you return us to that medieval hysteria, Mother?"

She says nothing.

"Well, it's getting late," he continues, "and I have other things to do. We'll talk about this again in greater detail. And, of course, I will be talking to Sister Helene." He moves to leave. Mother is staring at him with stern repudiation. He says, "Ah, Mother, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm too quick to write off this young nun's experience as stress, isn't that right? You think I'm going to talk a lot of psychobabble to her, give her some pills and send her on her way, isn't that right?"

"Aren't you?"

"Probably, because that's probably all she needs."

"Won't you even concede the possibility that there might be another explanation? That perhaps she really--"

"No, Mother, I will not. Please put that medieval concept out of your mind."

Mother's face has taken on a very un-Christian hardness. Father looks at his watch. "I must go. Please send Sister Helene to my office this evening after she has finished with her duties," He hurriedly exits, relieved to be out of the old woman's presence. She gives him the creeps.

Mother Superior is alone.

The arrogant fool, with all his modern, atheistic ideas. Priest, indeed. The man mocks the cloth; mocks the very church he professes to serve. And in doing so, he mocks me! ME! The figure of Mother Superior stands and enters an adjoining lavatory. There on the floor lies the plump body of a woman dressed only in underclothes. Its skin is flabby and sickly white from years of inactivity beneath the habit.

Where its face should be is only a red blotch, protruding teeth, and bulbous, staring eyes. The standing figure looks down at it, then into the mirror above the sink. The face of Mother Superior looks back. An arm extends from the folds of the habit. It is the foot of a bird. With two talons, it pierces an earlobe and pulls. There is a wet, sucking noise as Mother's face is pulled away from the Beast. Then it is hooked on a corner of the mirror.

The Beast fumbles in the habit for something else, saying, "Now, I know I put that thing somewhere..." then pulls forth the face of Sister Helene. "Ah, there you are." It is then hooked on the mirror next to the face of Mother Superior. The Beast arranges the mouths into smiles. "Yes, Sister Helene will see the good Father tonight, and together we will try to bring the wayward priest around to a more realistic view of how the universe operates.

"Some people are so hard to reach."

From outside the office comes the sound of feet moving down the hallway.

"But right now, it is time for chapel."


2013 Peter Cushnie

Bio: Mr. Cushnie has been writing stories off and on since the 1980s and finally decided to let this one see the light of day. We're glad he did.

E-mail:Peter Cushnie

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