I myself, my dears, have generally found that to resist the devil is not difficult if I am certain that the creature before me is the devil, but it does tax my wits sometimes to find out if he is really the enemy or not.
(William Hale White)
“That was a bad thing you said, Jonah. Do you know why?”
Jonah looked at his accuser with eight-year-old fresh eyes, an innocent and terrified sparkle penetrating his glasses. The man sitting across the table furrowed his brow, his deep Spanish eyes piercing Jonah’s blues, almost shattering his spectacles.
“No, I…don’t.” He crossed his arms chilled, tucking his young hands underneath.
“You have welcomed the Devil into my house. Do you know who the Devil is?”
Jonah’s eyes widened. Of course he knew. His mother always asked about the Devil when something shocked her. Like the time she had found a large spider setting up camp in the fridge. He recalled fondly how she had whispered, “What the Devil?”
“The Devil is a spider.” Jonah sat up a bit taller, as tall as his three-foot frame could lift him. “But my mother removed him. He’s gone.” He smiled reassuringly.
“No, Jonah, the Devil is not a spider. And he can’t be removed.”
Jonah slumped low in his chair, dangling his legs off the side. His feet didn’t touch the ground. The table hadn’t yet been cleared of dinner. In fact, the food waiting patiently to be finished grew cold with each passing second. Jonah had disturbed the meal.
“The Devil is far worse than a spider. He is not someone we want in our home.”
Jonah sat across the ravaged table as if waiting for a verdict. While his judge stared at him, stoically, Jonah’s lips trembled at the creases. His glasses slid down his nose but he left them there to teeter off the edge. He was afraid to move, lest he should disturb the Devil.
“There are phrases, certain figures of speech that should never be spoken aloud. We think they are all well and good. But they aren’t. They are the Devil’s potions. And when we say them, we only welcome him to come wreak havoc. Do you understand?”
With deep regret, Jonah shook his head no.
“Repeat what you said to Danny a few moments ago.”
“After Danny sneezed.” His interrogator grew impatient.
Jonah smiled through a slight giggle.
“I said God bless you, of course.” His shoulders relaxed with a deep sigh of relief, but as the words meandered across the table, stumbling over fried fish and frigid mashed potatoes, he wished he hadn’t. Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him, a slight scurrying of light feet. Turning quickly, he poked his narrow face around the back of the chair. But he saw nothing, save for the television hues reflected from the next room. The others had been asked to leave the table and by now had surely retreated to the safety a cartoon. He wanted to join them.
Jonah turned his head back slowly, conscientiously stifling his breath so as not to disturb the silence that had now settled upon the table. His lecturer looked sternly, reproachfully back at him as if expecting something. While Jonah’s eyes focused on the table to avoid eye contact, he was suddenly startled by what he found there: a series of long, slender fingers slowly curling over the table’s edge. The muscles that lined the joints constricted with the pressure as the creature pulled himself up from under the table and sat down next to Jonah’s judge.
Jonah let out a faint cry of surprise but his distress went unnoticed. Their tardy guest turned a keen eye on Jonah, raising a lengthy index finger against his sardonic grin. He then turned to their oblivious speaker droning on unfettered by the new arrival.
“The Devil tempts us with words that pull our attention away from our responsibilities, though the words themselves would have us believe otherwise.”
The creature shifted its legs, elegantly crossing its right over its left and resting its long, triangular chin on a closed fist. It turned a piercing gaze upon Jonah and kept it there as the speaker continued.
“The Devil is cunning and calculated, Jonah. Don’t ever let worldly customs convince you otherwise. They are worldly because they remove our focus from a life of Grace.”
Jonah was shocked, watching as the creature nodded in ironic approval yet opened its mouth in surprise. As its lips formed an oval, its cheekbones rose higher. It reacted to the speaker’s accusations as if overhearing a perfect stranger speaking about it in a most intimate way. It looked more amused than anything, listening intently.
“He does not care what comes of us, as long as we don’t enter the Garden.”
The creature shrugged.
“He sets traps through our days to make us stumble, to pull us away from that which we are promised.”
The creature winked.
“He is evil incarnate, and to open ourselves up to him, we are made the fool.”
The creature exhaled in boredom, leaning its elbow on the table. It put its chin on an open palm and began to drum its fingers against its cheek. The narrow tentacles slowly wove in a ripple against the leathered skin. Jonah paid close attention to their sharp fingernails.
“Jonah, do you understand?”
It was as if Jonah had stopped listening himself. He couldn’t shift his gaze from the enchanting new guest.
“Are you listening to me?”
Jonah tore his attention from the spectacle and laid it on his interrogator, mustering all of the energy he could to smile faintly in accordance.
“Do you have any questions?”
Jonah looked back at the creature who nodded in encouragement.
“What does the Devil look like?” Jonah stared at the creature who sat up tall in its chair, placing its hands neatly on its knee, elbows out, and inhaled dramatically to raise its chest in pride.
“He is a detestable fiend, a combination of things dark, dirty, and miserable.”
The creature exhaled in disappointment.
“But he can disguise his wretchedness when he sees fit. He can be anything he thinks we want him to be.”
The creature, or as Jonah then realized, the Devil, sat upright and curled his lips slowly into the most sinister of smiles. His eyes sparkled red below a quick wink and a click of his teeth. Jonah watched as his skin began to peel away, like coiled wood shavings falling below a fearsome razor, first on his arms, then up toward his neck and around his eyes, faster and faster. Those eyes maintained a firm gaze on Jonah who had leaned down to look under the table. The floor was spotless, save for a few random dinner crumbs intermittently among the shag green.
“What are you looking for Jonah?”
Jonah’s thick, blond curls peeked up from below the table first, followed by the boy’s crystal-blue eyes and finally his chin. He didn’t know how to respond, or more importantly, who to respond to. Sitting with perfect posture, poised on the other side of the table, were two identical men looking at him through the same dark eyes. They shared a dimple in the left cheek and a forehead scar just visible below the hairline. Both looked like Danny’s father; but Danny had only one.
The father on Jonah’s right proceeded with the lecture.
“Don’t be fooled. The Devil can disguise himself in even a simple phrase like ‘God Bless You.’ The point is, that when he does, he plants his seed.”
The father on his left took in a quick breath to add his own expertise to the topic of discussion.
“He settles inside our core and once there, can do whatever he likes. We become powerless.”
The first father didn’t seem to notice the second’s intrusion. In fact, he carried on as if no one else had spoken. And for all intents and purposes, no one had. Jonah was afraid to say a thing.
“I know you meant well when you gave Danny those seemingly kind words. But I think it’s important you understand the consequences of blind assumptions. If we don’t learn these lessons young, we’ll never learn them.” He grabbed his glass and took a drink, the ambitious proselytizing leaving him quite parched.
The father on the left continued. “Mistakes are made all the time; we must learn to decipher those encouraged by the Devil in order to diminish the possibility of future mistakes.”
He returned his emptied glass to the table. “And I think it’s fortunate that I caught your mistake. We can curb a life time of unnecessary mistakes by this one simple lesson.” He rubbed his hand against his forehead, wiping away the sweat. Then he looked up toward the dining room light and held his gaze there, deep in concentration.
The other father resumed. “Once the Devil has been unleashed, he will not go away. He will infiltrate your life when you least expect it, just when you’re assured he has gone.”
Jonah moved his little blond head from one speaker to the other, desperately trying to filter the incoming ideas through his susceptible and tired mind. His hunger had long since passed, a feeling of anticipation now settling upon his stomach in its place. Both fathers had apparently finished their lectures and were staring at him with a strangely unsettling smile. Then, simultaneously, they pushed back their chairs and stood up from the table. In perfect unison, two degrees of the same vocal tone amplified as one loud, booming voice, they explained to their wide-eyed listener,
“I’m going to grab my cigarettes. I’ll be right back.”
And together they marched off, almost hand in hand, except neither acknowledged the other. Or maybe they were indifferent to each other. Jonah couldn’t tell as he watched them walk away, his short fingers clutching the chair’s back. Before he could reassess what had happened and attempt to calm his fears, the fathers returned to the room. One sat down on the chair closest to Jonah’s right, while the other walked behind Jonah to sit down on his left. The fathers now faced each other. And suddenly, as if they had planned the routine but moments ago, each simultaneously removed a cigarette box from his left pocket, flipped open the top, pulled out one cigarette and gracefully placed it between his lips. Then, moving his hand over to his right pocket, each retrieved a silver lighter and flicked open the top with a quick, automatic movement. The quick rubbing of fingertips against metal conjured blue flames and each father carefully placed his cigarette’s tip in the line of fire. Both inhaled until each cigarette boasted the same bright, cherry-red sparkle at its end. Had they been able to concentrate without squinting their eyes and cocking their heads to the right, Jonah thought, they would have been looking straight at each other.
Then, returning the lighter and the cigarette box to their pockets respectively, they pulled the cigarette from their mouths and exhaled a thin veil of smoke. The filaments resembled cotton balls being pulled apart. The fathers watched the swirls dissipate, then turned to Jonah and spoke together, perfectly synchronized.
“The truth is, there are dangers at every corner in life. And life is full of corners, Jonah.”
Jonah nodded but failed to look directly at either speaker. He could no longer tell who was who.
“But it is not impossible for us to deter some of these dangers before they arise.”
Both turned back toward each other, inhaled their cigarettes again, and let out a slow trail of steam.
“We must constantly be thinking critically.” They moved their cigarette-holding hands in rhythm to their words to emphasize their passion.
“We cannot let our guard down for a moment. Sadly, we cannot always trust our instincts.”
Jonah closed his eyes to shelter them from the sting of surrounding smoke.
“When you engage in a confrontation of wits, you must question your first impulse.”
They inhaled then exhaled again, the smoke wrapping its vapor tongue around the table. Jonah let out a soft cough but quickly covered his mouth to stifle it.
“Did you say something?”
The boy shook his head no and slouched further down into his chair. The fathers continued in perfect synchronization, unconcerned by the interruption.
“Danny’s sneeze a moment ago was a confrontation of wits. I wanted to say those three faithful words. But I knew better. I was able to hold back, to question my first instinct and to catch the Devil’s hand. Had I spoken those words, I would have opened Danny’s heart to that hand.”
They replaced their cigarettes to their mouths, puffed a few puffs and sat pondering for a short moment. Then they both turned back to their small, timid audience, took in the same quick breath and asked,
“Do you think you can do that, Jonah?”
Jonah continued to look straight ahead, held there by the direct penetration of the speakers’ gazes against his temples.
“Can you catch the Devil’s hand quickly enough to say no to him?” They repeated.
Jonah turned slowly toward the father on his left, extending his frightened eyes upward as the father raised his cigarette to his mouth. He then turned slowly toward the father on his right, closing his eyes as the father removed his cigarette and released his foggy breath. Both fathers then sat back patiently, letting their cigarettes hover above the table, the red tips flickering calmly.
Jonah turned his head back to the father on his left.
“Yes. Yes, I can.”
Both fathers smiled back in approval; their work was done. But the father on Jonah’s left deviated from the choreography. He triumphantly stuck his cigarette into the mound of potatoes in front of him and rose from the table. Approaching Jonah, he stuck out his hand to the boy.
“I think it’s time you joined Danny.”
Jonah placed his tiny hand inside the father’s and rose, relieved that he had made it through the interrogation. Turning toward the hallway, Jonah smiled up at the father who placed his palm down upon the boy’s narrow shoulder and walked with him to Danny’s room. Behind, the remaining father stared awestruck from the table.
“Jonah, where are you going? I want to say one last thing.”
But when Jonah looked back to answer, he found no one there to respond to, save for the cigarette dangling off the edge, half lit and slowly dwindling. The smoke fought to penetrate the cold surfaces but ultimately lost…