Saturday short story (for Halloween): Brother Michael, by Bernadette How
"Suzy hoisted the dagger above my head..Blood pooled out of the priest's mouth, and dripped onto his gown": an exorcism set in Singapore by Whangaparaoa writer Bernadette How.
Everything I heard about Suzy recommended an exorcism. She was a violent child, given to chewing her own flesh and eating her hair. The social welfare officer described her as malnourished, dishevelled and wretched. What he saw of her through the kitchen window of her house at 9 Jalan Gembira chilled him to the bone.
“She has devil’s eyes,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“It was like she had no eyes, but they still stared at me. Then I saw the mark on her face — the red lightning the people told me about. She’s like a child of the devil.” He drew a breath and rubbed his forehead like he was trying to erase the memory of the encounter. The fan above him whirled on the end of an unstable rod and squealed like a trapped animal with each rotation. His snivelling manner, and the room that reeked of stale cigarette smoke and sweat, drove me to battle with an obstinate window.
“Mr Tan, what do you think is the trouble with Suzy?”
“Her kampong people say that she is possessed by crazy spirits. I … I think she is definitely possessed.” The fan squeaked, and he darted another nervous look upwards.
Suzy was 10 years old and shared her mother’s last name because no surname was recorded for her father. Her mother, Emmanuelle, was Eurasian and now deceased. Emmanuelle’s sister, Rosalind Mendez, was a seamstress. As the sole living relative of the child, she had legal custody foisted on her. There was no evidence of this Madam Mendez having ever been married. As I had no recollection of Suzy — and it had been eight years since I last lived in Kampong Wak Hassim — I could only conclude that she must have been an addition to the kampong after I had left it.
The next day, I left my office shouldering the same postman’s satchel I took with me when I left our kampong. The shoulder strap had frayed, and it wore a motley collection of stains gathered over the years but it held my clothes, paper work and my vestment for mass on Sunday.
The bus ride was as uncomfortable as I remembered. The old bone shaker rounded the bend at Nee Soon village then screeched to a halt at the top of Jalan Hantu. I alighted beside the old rubber tree that still stood guard at the entrance of Kampong Wak Hassim. The ground beneath the tree was a carpet of shiny brown seeds that were speckled with beige markings. I scooped a handful — they weighed nothing much at all — and their smooth oval shapes were easily mistaken for beetles. When Fatty was three, I had showed him how the seeds got very hot when you rubbed them against each other. He stuffed his pockets with the seeds and shot home; his shorts clattering with every step he took on his mosquito-eaten legs. I wondered if he would be happy to see me again. I hoped the surprise would not be too much for Mother and Grandma.
I passed Nenek’s house with its roof, a pastiche of zinc and rust. Her herb garden had spilt onto the dirt road so her jamu business must have been well. At Bongsoo’s house, I glanced to see if he was at his front steps. He often sat there picking at his toenails with a rusty old blade — the same blade he used to peel and slice mangoes which he sold at the local market. The old man was nowhere in sight.
Jalan Gembira was a dead-end road and staring straight at me from its culmination was the house I had to visit very soon. The grey shutters of the windows on either side of the closed door were shut. It didn’t look like anyone was home so I carried on down Jalan Hantu to the sound of sheets flapping in the wind. I had never seen so many lines of white sheets —except in the backyard of our seminary. Mrs Muthusamy’s laundry business was clearly thriving. The tent with the altar for the seventh lunar month festival stood a sparrow’s hop from the rows of washing. I had forgotten that it was the Month of the Hungry Ghosts — what a time to contemplate an exorcism!
Up ahead, I spotted the wiry shape of a man in a short sarong and a singlet. In one hand, he held a brush which he used to baste the sticks of satay on the charcoal burner. In his other, he held a fan which he used to whip the flames so they leapt up and kissed the sticks of marinated meat. The aroma wafted to where I was, and I sauntered over and waved. Pak Samat looked up and smiled. “Hello, Father. How are you? You want some satay?”
“Selamat pagi, Pak Samat.” I called out. He squinted in my direction. I moved into the shade of his attap awning. Several of his customers turned to look at me so I waved to them.
“Eh? Eh, Keong? Is that you, Ah Keong?” He put the brush and fan down and stepped out of his kitchen.
“Ya, Pak. How are you?” I stuck my hand out and he pumped it with his strong and oily grip.
“Have you been home? Seen your Mother and Grandma yet?”
“No. I’m on my way there.”
Samat took the sticks of satay off the heat and placed them on an enamel plate dressed with cut cucumbers, red onions and rice cakes. He added a small bowl of peanut sauce to the plate and signalled to me to wait while he delivered the plate to his customers at the table.
“They miss you very much, you know. So now, what must I call you? Father? Is that right?” He busied himself layering more sticks of satay on the stove and basting the meat. Then he threw a handful of onions, cucumber and rice onto a platter and flashed a big smile at me.
“No, you just call me Keong. I’m only Brother Michael to the people at church."
Samat nodded and laughed. “Listen, you wait a little while. Let me cook this satay, and you take home. You must all celebrate tonight.” He fanned the fire with vigour and the meat sizzled and the oil spat so I stepped back from the heat.
“Thank you, Pak, but ...”
“Don’t say no, Keong. I can tell you that Fatty will be very happy to see you but he’ll be happier when you turn up with satay in your hands.”
I had to agree. I asked him how Fatty was.
“Oh, your brother’s not so little nowadays. Taller but still a bit chubby, you know.” His face softened, and he laughed. “He and that Anil … they get into all types of trouble. Mostly it’s Anil, you know. That boy has more ideas than people have kutu in their hair.”
By now, I was eager to get to Mother’s house. I left Samat’s with a large platter of satay in one hand and a plastic bag of peanut sauce in the other. At the house, Grandma was sweeping the dirt from the front porch to the ground below. She was dressed in her usual dark blue trousers, and light blue blouse with the mandarin collar and frog buttons. Her silver hair was wound into a tight bun hidden under a tortoise shell and secured by a bone pin. She must have heard the crunching of my footsteps on the gravel because she looked up.
I was already up the steps when she dropped the broom and walked towards me. We both stopped. When I saw the flood of tears that emptied itself down her face, I put the food down on the table beside the door and fell to my knees by her feet and wept.
“Stand up,” she said, “stand up, Ah Keong.”
She held my face in her hands and studied me the way she used to when I was a boy. When we went into the house, she said that Mother had gone to put some sauce on her roast duck which was on the altar to the Hungry Ghosts. As for Fatty, he was out playing with Anil.
“He will be pleased to see you, Keong. But your mother,” she said, wiping her face with her handkerchief, “she will be a mess when she sees you.”
I helped Grandma set the table for our satay feast, and she brought out other foods she had prepared for dinner. She had many questions about my life as a priest and much to tell me about their lives. Her voice quavered when she told me that there had been scarce news from Father, who had moved to Penang with a woman he had met in a gambling den.
When we heard raised voices outside, we rose from our seats and saw Mother marching Fatty home. He was nearly the same height as Mother although it was hard to be sure when he was being dragged by his ear. Mother was furious about a roast duck and Fatty was told that he was to go without dinner that night. I thought that cruel considering the banquet on the table.
Mother walked in alone. When she saw me, she launched herself at me, burying her face in my chest. She grabbed my neck and howled like an animal in pain; her wailing worse than those times when Father had pummelled her with his fists. I clung to her and over and over, I begged her to forgive me.
Fatty didn’t recognise me until I called him what I always called him — Fatty. He seemed sure then of who I was and let me hug him. I didn’t notice the snotty mess he had left on my cassock until later that night.
Mother forgot Fatty was not supposed to have dinner that night so we all feasted on Samat’s satay and Grandma’s fried fish and vegetables. Mother and I talked through the night and I explained why I was there. She frowned at the mention of Madam Mendez and warned me that the woman was vitriolic.
I rose early the next morning and set off to visit Suzy and Madam Mendez. At the house, I noticed the stains that ran from the window sills down the front wall and the steps that were badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Otherwise, the house was tidy. No one seemed to be about so I knocked on the door and waited. When no one answered, I knocked again. After a while, I checked round the back of the house but just like the front, all the windows and shutters were closed. I gave the front door another hard bang.
“The crazy lady’s not home!” a gruff voice called out from a distance. I turned around and saw Old Man Bongsoo, bent in half, a stick in one hand and a bucket in the other. I walked over to introduce myself but he said, “You’ve been away too long, Ah Keong.” Then he toddled back to feed his chickens that were squawking in their run. I didn’t bother to ask how he knew I was back — word travelled around the kampong like a bad cough.
He stood stirring and pouring food scraps into an old laundry tub. The chickens dived for the food — squawking and shoving — pecking away at the swill. I enquired after the whereabouts of Madam Mendez. He pointed his stick in the direction of Sungei Ujong and told me that the crazy Serani woman and her child had gone to the Siang Liang temple at Kampong Ampang.
“What is she doing there? Isn’t she Catholic?” Why would she take her child to a Taoist temple?
The old man shook his head. “She’s no Catholic. She only goes there to get free food from the St Vincent de Paul charity. She’s crazy — she’s not stupid!” He continued to wobble his head like his chickens.
‘”What about the child? Is she crazy or is she evil?”
He thought for a moment then said, “Ya, some people say she’s crazy. Others say she is possessed by spirits.” He waved his swill stick at me. “I tell you, Keong, that mother of hers, that’s the really crazy and evil one. All day screaming and swearing, locking that child up in the house like a prisoner …” He returned his attention to his chickens, and the rest of his words were mumbles.
I wondered if I needed to head over to the temple. As if he had read my thoughts, Old Man Bongsoo yelled, “Best to hurry over there, Father, if you want to save a soul.”
“Why? What’s happening there?” I asked him. He just waved his hand at me to push off.
I borrowed Fatty’s bike and cycled up Jalan Hantu, then along the main road before turning down the steep gravel road to Kampong Ampang. Sungei Ujong separated the two kampong and now and again, I caught a glimpse of ours through the thicket of angsana and casuarina trees. The houses in Kampong Ampang sat on the rise facing north and were so high off the river that they could afford not to be elevated on stilts. Some were placed on low stumps and only needed a few steps to get to their front doors.
The roof of the Siang Liang Temple was a bright green that was hard to miss. Through a pair of red wooden doors came soft murmurs and a man’s voice chanting in Teochew. During a stint in Melaka, some of my parishioners there spoke that dialect. The prayer hall looked like it could hold about fifty people. It was now half full.
I walked along the edge of the crowd and saw the Taoist priest, cloaked in yellow satin, draw a dagger out of its sheath. He raised the weapon above his head where the sunlight struck it through the fretted windows. His voice, sharp and commanding, called out to the demons; challenging them to defy him. I scanned the hall for his master but could only see the bright red wooden altar that held some of the Taoist deities. There was Guan Gong with his crimson face, suited in full armour and armed with his guan dao — a broad-bladed sword on a long handle like that on a spear. Beside him stood Bao Gong — Justice Bao — with the black face and the third eye. He was said to avenge the wronged and was the only god who could descend into Hades to mete judgement on the wicked. The third deity on the altar was Shi Mao Gong — the Monkey God. He made mischief and wreaked havoc wherever he went. Joss sticks stood upright in brass urns in front of the deities — their incense smoke snaking upwards to the ceiling.
The priest held the dagger in one hand and wrapped his other hand over the blade. The people in the room gasped. A woman with dark brown hair and skin the colour of milk-tea, stood in front of the priest. Her jaw was tense, and she appeared to be struggling with something on the floor. I inched my way forward until I made it to the front of the crowd. The priest walked over to a low table where a chicken lay straining at the strings that restrained its feet and wings. The priest raised his incantations and lifted the bird by its head and lopped it off with one swipe of the dagger. The carcass fell back onto the table, and the blood spewed out of its neck. The people directly in front of the altar retreated, and an ear-piercing scream sent them backwards several more steps. Even I retreated, and when I looked down, I saw several red pin dots on the front of my shirt.
The woman with the milk-tea skin shifted, and I spotted the screamer. Her long hair hung like ships’ ropes, twisted and knotted about her face. She shrieked, threw herself this way and that and for an instant, I spotted the crimson mark on her cheek — the lightning scar. Suzy. The woman beside her must be Madam Mendez.
Suzy was on her knees, and from where I stood I could see that her skin was fair but marked with welts and bruises. She screamed one minute and howled the next. Madam Mendez clung to the rope with both hands but Suzy strained at it until Madam Mendez’s feet began to slip under her. The priest escalated his chanting, and the girl clawed at the rope and bawled some more.
The priest stamped his foot hard on the wooden floor, and the vibration sent tremors through us all. He stabbed the dagger into the table beside the headless chicken and went behind the brocade curtains by the altar. He returned accompanied by a man dressed in a flowing red gown. The man’s eyes were burrowed in cheeks so sunken that he looked like he spent his life sucking in his breath. The priest pushed a red chair — gilded with gold carvings — to the middle of the room.
Suzy looked up at the chair and whimpered. From the side of the altar, the priest produced a piece of wood hammered through with hundreds of nails, their tips all pointing upwards. He placed the bed of nails on the seat of the red chair.
“Beware, all you demons and denizens of hell. Behold, this is my Master, who has come to break you and cast you out from this worthless child.”
The Master walked to his gilded throne, raised his eyes to the ceiling and screamed. I knew he would sit on the bed of nails but even when he did, I gasped along with everyone else in the room. I had to admire his conviction. His cries quietened down to a droning chant, then he stamped his foot three times, shut his eyes and leaned his head back. When he opened his eyes again, they were white and opaque. I thought back to what Mr Tan had said about Suzy’s “no eyes”. Did she look like that? The thought made me shiver.
“Filthy spirit of lust — I see you. Speak up!” The Master’s voice surprised me even more than his eyes did. It was a thin voice pitched higher than was natural so the strain made it eerie and menacing. “Speak up before I haul you out and cast you into the depths of hell where you belong!” The Master, in his trance, broke into violent shaking and muttering.
Suzy rose up on to her knees, raising both her arms above her head. Her hair was so long it tumbled down her back and brushed the soles of her feet. She opened her mouth, and the voice that spoke turned my blood cold .
“Fool! Vain fool! I am the spirit of the father of this child. You have no power here.” The voice — a deep and powerful snarl — roared as if from the bowels of hell itself.
The Master was unaffected, and when the priest handed him a porcelain bowl, he smashed it down on the arm of his chair. He picked up a piece of the porcelain, stuck out his tongue and sliced it with the shard. Blood pooled out of his mouth, ran down his chin and dripped onto his gown.
I had seen this sort of trick done at Taoist seances. The Master dipped his middle finger into his mouth, and when the priest handed him a strip of yellow paper, he wrote on it with his blood. Suzy swore at him, and he continued to write on more strips of yellow paper. After the seventh strip, the priest held each piece up for all to see. He was quite the showman.
The Master and the priest ramped up their chanting as each yellow talisman was set alight by a candle in the priest’s hand. The Master stood up, took each burning strip and hurled it at Suzy. “Spirit of Lust. White Ghost of the West. Come out, come out and meet your match!”
Suzy fell down on all fours and grunted like an animal in labour. Then she retched and green sputum poured out of her mouth. Everyone jerked back, and I felt my own stomach lurch. She sat on her heels, tilted her face to the ceiling and threw open both her arms. Her eyes were closed — saliva and vomit trailed down her chin.
“Fool! You are no match for me! I am the master. Bow down and worship me!” The voice that roared out of Suzy’s diminutive form testified to the rulers, the powers and the principalities of darkness — the very authority my Jesuit training had taught me to challenge.
A wind ripped through the open doorway, and Suzy’s hair blew forward, reaching like fingers towards the Master. The crowd parted, and some people dropped to their knees. The skin on the Master’s face was stretched tight over his bones, and though his lips moved, nothing was audible.
Suzy spoke again. “I am the master. How dare you challenge me! I will make you bow before me!”
The hairs on my arms and neck stood up like needles. I knew the force that had arrived in the hall — we had met once before when I was an observer of an exorcism. The dagger on the table moved to Suzy, and she gripped its handle with both hands. With one movement, she cut the rope that held her to her guardian. Madam Mendez screamed — her face ashen with terror — and she flew down the aisle. I turned and saw how empty the room looked now.
Suzy aimed the dagger at the Master and the priest. “Fools! Kneel before your master and worship!”
The words shook the room, and darkness descended like a storm cloud that oppressed us. I felt the full weight of the temple pushing down on my shoulders until my knees began to buckle. I cried out, “Holy Jesus, all saints of heaven, help me!”
Then I heard a voice shout in my head, “Put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand!”
I watched the Master and his priest wrestle under the force until they both sank to their knees. The same force continued to crush me.
The voice in my head roared, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” I pushed up from my knees — my hips and back bearing the weight — until my eyes felt like they would breach their sockets.
Suzy raised the dagger over the heads of the priest and his Master. I tried to call out to her to stop but my throat was being strangled. When she lowered the sword to the Master’s face, his eyes — no longer white and opaque — screamed horror and defeat.
The voice in my head sank down into my chest. Then it rose again with a ferocity that propelled me forward, and out of my mouth the words thundered, “This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I will strike you down!”
Suzy spun around to face me, and then she charged at me with her dagger. I raised my crucifix, and she stopped. “Who are you, priest, to stand before me? Do you wish to be possessed by me?” she said.
This new voice — rich and sultry — laced its notes around my loins and drew me toward it. I stared into her eyes that were like gold firing in the kiln. I searched them for the child within her but she was nowhere to be found. The crucifix in my hand burned, and I opened my mouth so the words reverberated in the room. “Behold, the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. God arises; His enemies are scattered, and those who hate Him flee before Him!”
Suzy hoisted the dagger above my head and spoke again in her mocking, dulcet tones. “Priest, bow down before me as the others have.”
Fresh pressure ground down on me, and unseen arms crushed me from all sides. I locked my quaking knees and gripped the crucifix with both my hands. I heard the words that roared out of my mouth. “Behold the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lion of Judah, the offspring of David — the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into my hands. The wicked shall perish at the presence of God.”
Suzy’s eyes turned crimson, and her rage was palpable. “Get ready to yield, servant of the false god,” she bellowed.
A heat formed at my feet like I was standing on a bed of burning coal. It rose up my legs, increasing in force until I opened my mouth, and a voice erupted, “It is written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The crucifix glowed like a forger’s iron and seared my hand. Suzy collapsed to the floor, and the dagger crashed down beside her. I stood over her with the burning crucifix. “We drive you from us, whoever you may be, unclean spirits, all satanic powers, all assemblies and sects. You have no place here. Leave this child, and go back to where you came from. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I command you — be gone!”
She looked up at me. “Have mercy on me,” she moaned, “I am a spirit seeking a home.”
“Exorcizamus te, Om is immundus satanica potestas. Humiliate sub potential manu Dei. Vade, Satana!”
Suzy seized the hem of my trousers. Her body convulsed, and out of her mouth poured the ectoplasm — green and putrid. Then she lifted her head off the floor and cried out, “Set me free!” Her body slumped back down, and she was unconscious.
The darkness in the room dissipated. I crouched down to inspect the frail form of a child. When I managed to prise the crucifix from my hand, my fingers and palms were scorched raw. Suzy’s eyelids fluttered and I thanked God for that child with the lustrous eyes.
Next week's short story is by Rhydian Thomas.