. . . an per oblationes sacrilegas infantes Dæmonibus offerentes poßit ipsa Hæresis augmentari . . .
. . . whether these demons are able to abet their heretical powers through unholy oblations of children . . .
—Malleus Malificarum (Witches’ Hammer, 1486)
I was just home from school when a woman all in black nearly knocked me down. There was a stain on her dress, a drool mark, probably, I thought, from an hors d’oeuvre at the funeral reception.
“Mrs. Neville, Albert’s not here.”
“I was hoping he wouldn’t be.”
“Do you want my mom . . . ?”
“No, I want you.” She shut the front door behind her, trapping me in my own living room.
“I’m sorry about Annie.” I wanted to shift the conversation onto some kind of conventional ground. Annie was Albert’s dead sister.
“Did he tell you if I was next?”
“Am I next?”
I couldn’t move my arms or legs or remember any of the words you say to the bereaved. All the things I knew and must never say pressed against my forehead and my tongue, words turned into blood and phlegm and migraine, hiding themselves as physical things to keep from being spoken. I had the insane idea that it was Albert doing this to me: he had cast a spell over me to make me stay quiet.
“Next what?” I lied.
The dead girl’s mother, Albert’s mom, grabbed my collar and shook me hard—”You tell me, goddammit!”—her face in mine. She smelled like dead flowers. I clenched my eyes shut but then felt her become still. When I peeked again, she was staring, horrified, out the driveway window. Her grasp loosened. I stumbled backward. She uttered a small, hoarse cry, turned, fumbled with the door, pushing and pulling without having properly turned the knob, and then, after one last glance backward, her face like a lightning-struck tree, she ran onto the street, throwing the door open to stutter against the casement.
Not yet breathing, I turned toward the window to see what had alarmed her—as if I didn’t know, as if I were an innocent—and there, of course, was my friend Albert peering in, all bloody, as he hovered in midair, supported by nothing at all.
Fiat, fiat, fiat. I remember these things against numbing inertia, as if trapped in a dream that won’t let me wake. I picture Albert, my first childhood friend, thin as stretched dough, the neighborhood patsy. We toddled and rode tricycles together. I took part in his shaming and belittlement until I was nine or so, when I began to think about good and evil. Little children are devils.
Around the same time I started to protect Albert, or, at least, to abstain from abetting his torture, he arrived at a different solution to his difficulties: he immolated ants, then mice, then cats. It disgusted me but seemed to empower him, the way practicing karate empowers some people. But with Albert, it wasn’t moves or muscles that intimidated, only a crazy look in his eyes. Don’t mess with me, it said, and bullies got the message. They joked about it, but backed off.
“Look at them, Benjy. Who’s the sissy now? They know I can kill because I can kill. I think I’ll kill Butchy’s dog next. That’s who I’ll kill.”
That was the first I heard the word “next” used that very particular way, as when, much later, Mrs. Neville asked me, “Am I next?” Butchy’s dog did die soon after, and other animals went missing, including the Nevilles’ boxer, Nolo, whom I saw them bury in Albert’s back yard, in the frozen ground that winter.
Then his baby brother Morris.
“Look at what I can do!” We were walking home from school. He stepped in front of me, faced me, stopped me, looked to see that no one was looking, then jumped up—and stayed there. I thought at first that he was standing on tiptoe. “Look at my feet, doofus.”
So I looked at his feet, and I gasped. They were six or so inches above the sidewalk. Albert giggled wildly before standing the usual way. “You want to be a writer, huh, Benjy? Write this.”
I was astonished, then angry. “Stop goofing around.” It was some dumb trick, of course. “What’s wrong with you? Your sister died two days ago, and you’re playing magic tricks.”
“Lighten up. People die all the time.” We were walking again. “Is it my fault if some stupid baby falls out a window. Where was my mother, huh?”
“You’re blaming your mother?”
“Everybody makes such a big deal about it. She was only a baby, for Christ’s sakes. She wasn’t even human, practically. ‘Goo goo ga ga.’ And anyway, death isn’t real. All the religions say it, but then when somebody dies, they think it’s a fucking catastrophe. Nobody has the strength of their convictions, Benjamin. Except me.”
I felt cold all over, not for the first time and, God help me, not for the last. “You threw her out the window.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Albert, what did you do?”
Now he whispered, “I’ll show you again.” He floated up. “This is what it paid for, Benjy. She was barely even alive. Now she’s dead. So what? I can levitate.”
Fiat, fiat, fiat. I stayed clear of Albert after that. I felt scared all the time. At home, when I looked at my mother, my father, my little brother, they seemed to be automated cadavers. My own feelings became strange to me. I never smiled anymore—I only pretended to smile, or pretended to laugh, or to pay attention, or to be sad. But, alone, at night, I shivered under the sheet and cried.
“What’s wrong, Benjy?” My mother had heard me. I buried myself in the blanket and said nothing. At last, she stroked my head, kissed me, and, sighing, left. Her kisses tormented me.
“Why is Benjy acting so funny?”
“Just eat your Wheatena, Carl.”
“Don’t like Benjy acting funny.”
I didn’t eat my Wheatena, either. Those days, I barely ate anything. I had a horror of windows, especially if Carl was near one. I was afraid that I might toss him out of it, kill him, kill my little brother, my mother, all of them. Or one of them might kill me. And the kids at school—weren’t they looking at me funny? Whispering about me when they passed me in the hallways? A part of me thought, this is great material, write this down—but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to light up that part of my mind, the crazy part, the Albert part.
One day he cornered me in the boys room at school when nobody else was there. He stood just inside the door, blocking any escape. For a long time he did nothing but stand there smiling, while I tried to harness my breath. Then he drifted up almost a yard—and I knew that someone was dead. He must have read it on my face. He said, “My grandfather was so old, anyway.”
I tried to push around him to the door, but Albert clutched me from above and held me hard around the shoulders. “This is nothing, Benjy. I can get so much higher, so much stronger. Only, you know what I have to do, don’t you?”
“I don’t know anything. Let me go.”
“Come on, Benjy, you’re my best friend. Don’t be like that. You know—did you write about me yet?”
“Let me go.”
He landed heavily, pulling my head and shoulders down with him, so that I ended up as if bowing before him, my face against his chest, and then he shoved me down onto my knees—“I’m warning you, Benjy!”—and let me go.
Maybe I should have called the police right then, not mention the levitation business, which would have marked me as a nutcase, but what about those murders? Set them on the track. Tell them—what? That the killer had confessed to me? That he was the little boy?
But no, that would throw me into the middle and make me Albert’s number one enemy. I would be next. I couldn’t call the police, but, otherwise, how could I put a stop to him? I would call someone else.
Fiat, fiat, fiat. There were no cell phones back then. We were barely past party lines, when you might pick up the phone and hear someone who lived down the street in the middle of a conversation. The phones still had round, clicking dials, and phone numbers had no more than six digits, of which the first two were letters, like HA for Hamilton or HO for Hopkins. Our number was HAmilton 3901. The Nevilles’ was HOpkins 1462. I hunkered down on the kitchen floor while everybody else was watching TV, and I dialed Mrs. Neville, Albert’s mother. I tried to make my voice sound gravelly and deep.
“Yes—who is this?”
“A friend. It’s about your son, Albert.”
“What about him—is this you, Benjamin?”
“No. Your son, Albert . . . ”
“Who is this?”
“ . . . killed your daughter and your father.”
“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Are you out of your mind?” Sobbing hysterically: “What are you trying to do to me?”
Then the dial tone. She had slammed down the receiver.
I hung up, and I was sneaking out of the kitchen, secret agent, to join my family at the TV, when the phone rang. “I’ll get it.” It must be Mrs. Neville. No telling what would happen if she got hold of my mother or father. “Hello?”
But it was Albert. “Gee, you’re stupid.” In the background, Albert’s mother sobbed and screamed incoherently while his father tried to calm her down. “Did you think anybody would believe you?” Albert was actually chuckling. “I warned you, Benjamin. By the way, bucko, it’s not just family that makes you stronger, you know. I could get power from killing other people, too. Not as much, of course. The closer they are to you, the more juice, see? But after family, maybe—have you thought of this, Benjamin?—a best friend.”
That same year, I had been fascinated, like everybody, by the Army-McCarthy Hearings on TV. It was summer, and school had just ended. I would watch awhile, then go outside and play, often with Albert, then watch some more. Joseph Welch and Joe McCarthy were like King Kong and Godzilla. Though I couldn’t understand a lot of what they said, I felt the heat between them. Welch didn’t have the bluster of Senator McCarthy, but he was the bigger man. Welch’s power came from his steadfastness. At one point, McCarthy called him a “pixie,” but Welch was the one with his feet on the ground. He was upright, a Titan.
That was a wonderful summer. I collected acorns and ground them up in my grandmother’s old coffee grinder, then leached out the bitterness by soaking them overnight. They made a surprisingly good little bread. In July, for my birthday, I got a pair of six guns on a cowboy belt with holsters that strapped to my thighs. I got a black shirt with cowboy piping and a pair of black pants to go with it. Just like Lash Larue.
That night my mother came to my bed a second time as I trembled under the covers. She stroked my back, and it was as if she were drawing a magic circle, invoking the spirit that tormented me, until it cried out, with my voice and body, “I’m afraid. God, God, I’m afraid.”
“Of what, dear?”
It was impossible—no, forbidden—to say. “I was reading about witchcraft,” I lied.
“Oh, Benjy, you shouldn’t read things like that before bedtime. You know how sensitive you are.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s all make-believe, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is.” She fondled my hair, and I wished, for the life of me, that I could dissolve into my mother’s caress, be a baby again with the simplest of problems and the simplest of solutions, a bosom, a bottle, a kiss.
“But suppose there really were such a thing. Suppose some evil person had his claws in you and wouldn’t let go. What would you do, Mom?”
She started to laugh. “You really are a writer, honey. That imagination of yours!” But my gravity stopped her, and she became deadly serious. “Well, I suppose—bell, book, and candle.”
The deep black of my bedroom was giving way to night vision. I could see, not colors, but the chiaroscuro of a child’s night in bed—my mother, or the shape of a mother, anyway, kindly attending me. “Ring the bell,” she said, “shut the book, then blow out the candle.”
She held me in her heart. I echoed: “Ring the bell, shut the book, blow out the candle?”
“That’s it. Then there are some words in Latin, ending with ‘Fiat, fiat, fiat.’ ”
“Yes. It means, ‘Let it be,’ like ‘Fiat lux,’—‘Let there be light’—the first words that God ever said. That’s all there is to it. Evil doesn’t stand a chance against even the simplest signs of goodness. You know that, don’t you, Benjy?”
“Yes! Fiat. Yes!”
Probably, this is all fiction, false memory, ideas fixed in my head before I could reason, and now that I’m old, they seem actual. I shouldn’t have written this down, and I shouldn’t write down what I’m about to write down, because writing solidifies, reifies, limns phantasms into actual beings. It can’t be true that my childhood friend flew over housetops, as I “remember” him doing, that he murdered his family, that I exorcized him, bell book, and candle, as if he were a devil, as if I, come to that, were any better than he, any more beloved of God.
I remember him skinny, a scapegoat for Butchy and the other common-or-garden bullies of anybody’s childhood. I remember the reversal, when he scared them away, and they stayed scared. I remember that I was scared, too. But wasn’t Albert Neville just crazy, full stop?
One “remembers” lots of things that cannot be true in fact. I recall, as a small child, reaching into my play barrel twice in a row and removing the selfsame toy. I remember, as an adult, once, stumbling drunk, playing a record I never owned. And how many times, embracing a dream girl, have I waked with an armful of bed sheets? Or seen deer running across the road that resolved to shadows and glare?
The sorcerers and devils of the Witches’ Hammer, Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer’s fifteenth century account of devil worship, were certainly chimera, flowers in the sky. I guess we are no different, all these centuries later, from the superstitious, cowering hordes of medieval times—at least I am not. I ought to be ashamed myself, an accountant—that’s my occupation, Accounts Receivable, at a large printing house. If any of my co-workers spouted the kind of stuff I’ve written here, I’d laugh him out of the office, I and everyone else, and he would deserve it.
What bunkum I’m indulging! I even imagined that I saw Albert Neville just the other day. I saw him reflected in a store window, I didn’t remember who he was at first, and when I turned to look at him, of course, of course, he was gone. Bell, book, and candle be damned, fiat, fiat, fiat—all a person needs is common damn sense.
I’m not afraid of devils. This is the twenty-first century. I have bad dreams, like everybody, and, like everybody, I go overboard once in a while, I remember things upside-down and backwards, and I am fool enough to write them down. Maybe I’ll be smart enough to tear it all up, and then you’ll never see this.
Fiat, fiat, fiat, bell, book, and candle. My room was black under a black moon, black outside my window and black in my heart as well. I pretended to be comforted by my mother’s words. I was not comforted, I was aroused and confused, panicked beyond any degree I had thought possible. But I wanted her to go back to her own bed and leave me alone to fight the demon. I was not so old, after all: I wanted my Mommy! But, at the same time, I was as old as the world, as old as the split of all and everything into the good and the evil. I knew, however young I might be, that, in this struggle, I had to fight alone. I waited till the hour of the wolf, 3 AM, antipode to the crucifixion, which happened, they say, at three one afternoon.
Fiat, fiat, fiat. I crept from my bed and out to the cellar and the living room, gathering materials, bicycle bell, the “A” volume of the encyclopedia (in a hurry, anxious not to be caught out), and a storm candle we kept against blackouts. They were secular, pedestrian items, not at all the holy things that Inquisitors must have intended, but I hoped against hope that they would fill the bill against a malefactor like Albert Neville. I stashed them under my pillow along with a box of stick matches.
I drifted in and out of sleep, my mind an Indian dream catcher, glancing, when I could, at the bedside clock, fiat, fiat, fiat, and checking under my pillow. Were my spiritual tools still there? And now were they there? And now?
Just before the hour of the wolf, a rustling at the window woke me, and there, sure enough, Albert hovered, moonlit under no moon at all, glowering. I threw aside the pillow. I rang the bell. As I fumbled with the book, he shattered the window and bounded into my room. I slammed the book shut. Now for the candle. You have to light it, is the problem, before you can snuff it out. and I was all thumbs, trying to pull open the box, take out a matchstick, and strike it against the cover—it was one of those ones that you have to strike against the cover. Albert reached for me. I shifted out of his way. I struck the match. I lit the candle.
“What are you doing?” He lurched backward. The tiny flame eviscerated the black room, disemboweled the dark, Albert’s bristling dark. “I’m your best friend.” He lunged to grab the candle out of my hand before I could . . . but I snuffed it. I licked my thumb and stabbed it into the flame and the hot wax, restoring the dark, extinguishing the light. “What have you done?” He fell to the floor.
I stared at him writhing at my feet. “No, Albert, you, what have you done?”
“All my stuff is leaking out. It’s not fair. Give it back.”
“Butchy or whoever finds me will kill me—just like it used to be.” He groveled there for a long moment as the moon rose and the night cold seeped in through the broken window. Then: “Oh, my God! Sissy, Gramps, Mummy!”
“Your mother too?”
“Yes, just now.”
I heard sirens outside, sashes clacking open, doors flung wide. Albert hugged my legs, crying. I didn’t know how to comfort my friend, what to say to him. “Fiat,” I said, “fiat, fiat.”
My mother came in then. “Benjamin? Albert? Albert, honey, does your mother know you’re here?” She came to bedside and embraced us both. “Oh, Honey,” she said to Albert. “It can’t be all that bad.”