Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Weekly Story #36: The Accuser

It's funny, when I wrote this one six weeks ago, I wasn't thinking at all that I'd be posting it the first week of Lent. Or on the feast of St. Theophanes the Confessor (Constantinople, 8th c.). Originally the monastery in this story was dedicated to St. Theophan the Recluse (Russia, 19th c.), but then I saw who was commemorated today and decided it was a sign of something.

The story itself is based on a couple of dreams I had before becoming Orthodox. As far as I know, dreams don't have that much importance in Orthodoxy, so I take them with a grain of salt. Doesn't mean I'm not perfectly willing to use them for a work of fiction.

It's been three years since my Chrismation, but I have yet to actually stay at a monastery overnight. I did ask on r/OrthodoxChristianity how plausible some aspects would be, but for all I know virtually everything that happens here could never happen at a real monastery. Well, that's why it's fiction.

 

THE ACCUSER

Even in the quiet of a monastery, Maria couldn't get to sleep. Joyce was fast asleep in the other bed, as were all the other pilgrims staying the night in other rooms. The icons on the wall stared in silent darkness—the Lord with his open book, the Mother of God with her child, and various Orthodox saints surrounding them. Maria couldn't figure out what was keeping her up. She wasn't anxious, or panicky, had no particular worries at the moment. Yet here she was, awake at 12:30 after only a few hours, and she felt as if she'd been asleep a full eight.

She got up. She had read before that it was a bad idea to force yourself to sleep, and that it could help to leave the bedroom. So she put on a dress, tied her shoes, and slipped out. On the off chance she ran into any monks, they wouldn't want see her in her nightgown.

The common room at the bottom of the stairs still had its lights on. She sat down on the couch. There were only three books on the coffee table, and they were all books she'd read before—one Dostoyevsky and two Kallistos Ware. Maria figured if she were going to be up all night, she at least deserved something new to read, and she'd forgotten to bring any books of her own. The St. Theophanes the Confessor Monastery had a beautiful library full of out-of-print and hard-to-find books on Orthodoxy, and Maria had spent most of her free time that day perusing its shelves. And though she didn't exactly have a monastic calling, she did wish she could stay longer than a day so she could browse even more. But it would probably be closed this time of night.

Or would it?

Sure, the monks wouldn't want to worry about someone poking through their rare books after hours, and some of those books looked pretty valuable. But surely it wouldn't hurt anybody to roam around the monastery grounds for a little while, and check if the library was open. It would do her good to get her blood pumping. And if anyone else happened to be awake, and asked what she was doing, she could just tell the truth: she couldn't sleep.

The door to the guest house was unlocked. Maria stepped down the front steps onto the gravel. Only a few lamps provided any light. She didn't see another soul.

She walked across the courtyard through a cool wind. The spire of the Katholikon—the central church of the monastery—shot toward the stars as the moon cast its watchful glow. There was a strange calm over the monastery grounds… Yet at the same time, Maria got an eerie feeling when she looked into the deep black shadows cast by the trees.

The St. Theophanes library was part of the main monastery building, but at a distance from the monks' quarters and working areas. It had its own entrance, and as it turned out, the door was unlocked. Maria looked for a sign that said "Closed" or "Off Limits," but couldn't find one. And looking through the window within the door, she found the lights were on.

Maria stepped in and climbed the short stairwell. The library was small, but well-kept, with comfortable chairs here and there, some polished study tables, and hand-painted icons on the walls. It was the perfect place to pass the time.

Yet that weird eerie feeling hadn't gone away.

Well, it was just a feeling.

Earlier that day, Maria had found an interesting-looking book on Holy Confession, but hadn't gotten around to looking at it. Instead she had flipped through a biography of St. Maria of Paris and a collection of writings on the Transfiguration. She plucked the book on Confession off the shelf and took it to one of the chairs.

As soon as she sat down, that eerie feeling came back, even stronger than before. There were so many shadows in here. The light was on, but the dark was all she saw. She got up and flipped another switch. Now she could see everything, and there was nothing else here. Satisfied, she dropped back into the chair.

Maria had hoped for some useful advice about Confession. Sometimes she couldn't tell if she was confessing too much or too little, and sometimes unpleasant regrets crept up when she didn't expect it. People she'd hurt, people who'd hurt her. But when she read, she couldn't concentrate through how fast her heart was beating. Something raised the hairs on the back of her neck. There was nobody here with her. Yet why did she feel like she wasn't alone?

Sweat began to trickle down her forehead. She knew she had nothing to be afraid of, but no matter how slowly she breathed, she couldn't calm down. She wanted to run, but where could she go? Whatever it was, she could tell it would follow.

That presence…

It was somewhere behind her.

Slowly, steadily, Maria rose to her feet. Somehow that corner behind the chair seemed to have cloaked itself in shadow. Yet it wasn't even so much shadow—the overhead light was shining directly at it—nor even quite darkness. It seemed more like nothing—a creeping void that threatened to engulf the whole library. Her chest burned with panic.

Almost absent-mindedly, she whispered, "Wh-what do you want?"

The void grew, and she heard a whisper in reply, too quiet to make out. But along with it came a flash of memory. Of an encounter with a man, drunk and belligerent. Of the taste of beer and liquor in her mouth. Of her fist crashing into his jaw. Her big, hairy fist.

Maria shook her head. That never happened. At least, not to her. Sure, her arms had a little extra hair, but that was a man's fist she remembered. Whose was it?

She heard the whisper again. And she remembered a woman. Her face was a blur—there had been so many like her, they all ran together. The woman's payment was on the nightstand. She lay back on the motel room bed, and—

"That… That didn't happen." Or at least, it didn't happen to her. She'd sinned, certainly. She'd sinned sexually, no denying that. But with boyfriends. And definitely not for money. She'd become Orthodox since then. She'd repented. She'd confessed. She'd left that behind.

Still the whispers didn't stop. The sounds were indistinct, but they brought with them memory after memory of things she'd never done. Fight after fight. Woman after woman, one-night-stands and prostitutes alike. Lie after lie. They all felt so real. "Stop," she said. "That's not me. I didn't do any of that." She muttered a prayer—"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me"—again and again and again.

The whisper grew louder, and clearer. The darkness was whispering a name. "…Anthony…"

"What? Who's Anthony? Do I look like I'm Anthony? I'm Maria! Just leave me alone!"

Maria backed away, toward an icon of the Resurrection. She touched her finger to Jesus Christ's toe, whispering more and more Jesus Prayers as more and more false memories came to mind. Maria knew perfectly well who she was, and the things she'd done. Screaming matches with her mother, who'd raised her all alone. Rumors she'd helped spread about classmates, until one tried to take her own life. Sleeping with a guy in college when she was already with his best friend. Her sins were hers alone. The last thing she needed was to be burdened with somebody else's.

"Anthony…"

"For the last time, I'm not Anthony!" Maria made the sign of the cross. As soon as her fingers touched her left shoulder, something in her heart changed. Here she was in the presence of Evil, and it didn't even know who she was. A laugh burst from her mouth. "A-Are you really that stupid?" She crossed herself again. "Am I supposed to be afraid of you?" And once more. "You can't even get my name right! In the name of Jesus Christ, go away."

The shadow whispered, "Anthony…" one last time, then faded. Light returned to that corner of the room. Maria wiped her face, and found it damp with sweat. She felt as if she'd run a mile and then gone several rounds with a prize fighter. Whatever had just happened, she couldn't stay here. She put the book on Confession in the box for reshelving and headed for the stairs.

At the same time, a man in a black robe with a white beard was climbing up the steps. They both stopped in the middle of the stairwell. "I… I heard shouting," the older monk said, "and wanted to check and see if everything was okay."

"You're the Abbot," Maria said. "Abbot Timothy. Or Father Timothy. Or Igumen, or… Sorry, I only got baptized six months ago. I don't know all the right terms yet."

"Don't worry about it. The important thing is, are you all right?"

"I'm… I'm fine. I just… I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd come in here and read for a while. Hope that wasn't a problem."

"Not at all," Father Timothy said. "Can you tell me what happened?"

"I just… had a panic attack, is all," Maria said. "But it's over now." She sidled around him as she descended the stairs. "I think I'm ready to go back to…" She stopped at the door. "No… I lied. Father… I think I just had a fight with a demon."

Father Timothy nodded. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"I think so."

She went back upstairs with Father Timothy. He took the same chair she'd sat in before. Maria sat in the chair opposite the coffee table from him. And she told him about her encounter with the shadow.

"…and it kept whispering a name. 'Anthony.' I don't suppose that means anything, does it?"

Father Timothy had listened attentively, thumbing his prayer rope. "I think it does. It just so happens, I'm Anthony. It was my name before I joined the monastery."

"So then…"

"Yes. That demonic attack you suffered was meant for me. I've dealt with that creature many, many times before. I was actually wondering where he'd been lately. But those were my sins you saw. I hope you can forgive me."

"No, it's fine. I mean, I can't imagine you're still getting in bar fights and paying for hookers."

Father Timothy laughed, and made the sign of the cross. "No, of course not. But I am sorry you had to confront my demon."

"Don't worry about it, Father. I just don't get it. Why me? Why would it think I was you?"

"I really couldn't say. Maybe the demon wasn't that bright. Or perhaps… Maria, can you tell me anything about your mother and father?"

"Why?"

"Just curious."

"Well, it's always just been me and my mom. Not much to talk about there. I never knew my father. Even my mom doesn't know much about him. She met him one night, he was gone the next day, and then I turned up. By then, she lost all his contact info. Is that important?"

Father Timothy sat in quiet contemplation for a moment, holding his prayer rope tight. He stroked his beard. "No. Not as much as I thought."

Maria stared at the abbot. It had to be relevant for something, but…

He couldn't be suggesting…

She pulled her eyes away. Never mind. Sure, it was possible, but the odds were just too high.

Maria rose from the chair. "I'm gonna head back to my room."

"Good. I hope you get plenty of sleep. Not just anyone can repel a demonic attack that powerful. Just don't let it go to your head."

"Right," she said. "I'll do my best. You gonna stay in here?"

"I think I will. Nothing like a little midnight reading. Besides, I want to be here if that demon shows up again."

"Thank you, Father." She laid out her hands in front of her. The Abbot made the sign of the cross, and placed his hand in her palm. She raised his hand and kissed it.

"God bless you, my child. And pray for me, a sinner."

Maria headed down the stairs, across the courtyard, back into the guest house. Joyce was still asleep, as were the other pilgrims staying the night in other rooms. Maria gave the icon of Christ a quick kiss and crossed herself. Next time she saw Mom, she'd have to ask if the name "Anthony" meant anything to her.

Maria crawled into bed, and slept deep and still, straight through morning prayers.