Friday, October 2, 2015

Ode to St. Michael

They believe nothing, these modern people, so I must tell them of the eternal truths which our church has revealed and will not stop revealing.

The devil exists, however much we would prefer that he didn’t, and to deny him or to ignore him allows him to grow that much stronger. And how do I know? Because I’ve met him.

I was fourteen at the time, and I, with my friend Georg Erdmann, had won a scholarship to study at the St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg. So we set off together to walk the 180 miles to our new school.

Yes, I said walk—since how else were we to get there? True, a passing farmer with his cart would take us to the end of his fields, or perhaps into the nearest burg, if it was market day, but mostly we walked. At night, we would sleep in the fields, or perhaps beg permission to sleep in a barn. And so the days passed pleasantly: we were young, we were excited, we were seeing the world for the first time, and it excited us.

Mostly, I think we were full of wonder. There are two children near me, of about the same age as I was then, and they are predictably playing video games. I glance at their faces, and they have the dulled look of an opium smoker. Nothing amazes them, not even the wondrous device that both stimulates and sedates them.

For me, every experience was new. I saw flowers growing by the road, and they were not plants but jewels. The stars at night shone only on us, and each one was a piece of God’s love that he had mounted just for us. Even the fatigue, at the end of a day, had a special divinity to it: we slept well no matter how rough the bed, if indeed there were a bed.

All was well until the day that Georg, who tended never to look where he was going, took a fall, and badly twisted his ankle. A farmhouse was quite near, and I helped him to its door.

I felt it as soon as I entered the house, and had Georg not needed a place to rest, I would never have stayed a minute in the place. For the sense of evil was palpable, from the moment we saw the sullen, suspicious face of the wife to the moment we said farewell to her drunken oaf of a husband. Because you could feel it—the menace in the air, the hatred, the fear and the lies. It was a house of pure evil.

“Ye both can stay, but you’ll have to earn your keep,” said Otto, the husband, and referring to me. I was willing, but what could I do? I could sing, I could play the violin and the harpsichord—but farm life I knew nothing of.

And so the next morning I was up at dawn, and began toiling: there were the slops to feed the pigs, there was the hay to be forked down to the cows, there was an endless succession of tasks large and small that kept me busy.

All this was good enough: I was young, I was healthy, I liked the feeling of work. What didn’t I like? The constant feeling of being watched.

Was it real? Was I imagining it? I know not, but it was nonetheless powerful, even if it were unreal. I felt Otto’s eyes on me at all times, and I would turn, only to find him looking at something else. But what accounted for that strange feeling that everyone knows so well of being observed?

Nor was it just when Otto was present that I felt under observation; even alone in the barn, in the fields, everywhere, I felt eyes watching me. I would whirl around, always to be confronted with nothing.

Soon, the feeling of being watched was supplemented by the sound of a low mutter, speaking a language I knew, but too softly to make out words. Was it just I, or did others hear it too? I asked Georg; he heard nothing.

I began to sleep badly, despite being tired from the work on the farm. And it was then that I could hear Otto, in the room next door, arguing with his wife. At first, it was impossible to understand what he was saying; later, it became impossible to ignore.

He was drunk at the time, but that was hardly the point. He accused his wife of having a roving eye, of desiring every man but him, and of having relations with anyone who would have her. Nor was that all; very soon the insults were followed by slaps, then punches, and then—most grisly of all—beatings against the wall.

The next day, the wife would appear with bruises and black eyes; she would limp with her eyes cast down about the house, doing the tasks of cleaning and cooking. The last was a particularly vexing point, since we were both fourteen, and the needle on the appetite meter tended to be stuck at “ravenous.” And so we were constantly told that we were eating them out of house and home, that we were a burden, that they didn’t know why they didn’t turn us out. Were we grateful for their generosity? We tried to be, but really, we could not.

Oddly, Georg was less offended by all this than was I. Because, through lack of sleep and the situation in general, I became irritable and snappish. Unexpected sounds rattled me, the barking of a dog at night gave me nightmares.

Then, the smell began.

Like everything else in that accursed place, it was there before I knew it. I did not so much start smelling it than I realized that I had been smelling it—and for some time. Nor was it a smell—it was more like an invading agent. No—that’s not quite it, either. It had the feeling of something that would permeate everywhere. It was the smell of an animal who had died, and whose unattended corpse was rotting in the hot summer sun.

As I grew more and more distracted, I grew more and more careless. I began dropping food; this would provoke long tirades and bitter accusations. And then, I noticed that Otto was now openly looking at mean, with slitted eyes that seemed to concentrate the hate and spite. Nor did he attempt to disguise his hate; he muttered profanities under his breath quite openly.

He grew more abusive to his wife, calling her a slut and a fallen woman and a whore quite openly in front of us, nor did he attempt to hide the fact that he was beating her.

It came to a head late one night of exceptional fury, when he was raging at his wife, calling her a filthy bitch and accusing her betraying him. I could stand it no more, and shouted from my bed for them to be quiet. Instead, he erupted with rage, and in a matter of seconds, it seemed, he was standing at the bedroom door, with his wife beside him. He was holding her on tiptoes by her hair.

“SO TAKE HIM, YOU CUNT, TAKE HIM IF YOU WANT IT SO MUCH!” he shouted, and then he shoved her toward me. I dodged and she fell. And that is when he started the most violent beating of all.

There was very little we could do. We were both 14, and one of us was still injured, though on the mend. And we were gentle youths—we had come from homes of good and sober people, where drunkenness and vice and low living were nowhere to be found. And so we stood in horror at the near murderous assault the wretch was delivering to his wife, when very easily we could have found an object and hit him over the head with it.

“Get out,” called the woman to us, “get out of the house.”

And that is when I met the devil, for Otto turned, then, and I saw the red eyes of hate, I saw the sulfurous flames darting round his head, and lastly…I smelled the horrible, offensive odor of hate and death that had tailed me all those days. Yes, I saw the devil, and the devil saw me, and there was no Otto there, and the devil knew that very well, and knew that I knew. He looked at me, he acknowledged me, and then…

…he spat at me.

We stumbled out of the house; I half carried Georg away from that house, and down the road that took us away, but that didn’t, since I learned this from the devil. Once met, a part of you will ever stay in the devil’s hands.  


(St. Michael's day was 29 September; Michael is revered as the guardian of the church, and the archangel who wrestled with the devil and won.)