“Do you ever wonder,” someone once asked me, “if there really are such things as demons?”
I remember it clearly, as if it all happened yesterday. Tony and I were playing chess and I was winning, which is no surprise to me because in all my memories I win at chess. I shouldn’t say so, of course, because you’ll start wondering if I’m a reliable narrator and this is, unfortunately, an absolutely true story. I always tell the truth here. That’s what makes it all so distressing.
One of the things I’ll say about Tony is that he did make a fine cup of tea and always right when you needed it the most. I wonder if it was because I always received the cup with calm humility, as if receiving a benediction, before telling him seriously that he was a scholar and a gentleman, even though we both knew that this was probably a wild exaggeration.
I should also mention that Tony had a tenaciously inquiring mind. W e shared a certain tendency to get really interested in a subject and spend weeks or months learning everything we could about it. We were bored, of course, and we were poor, and what else was there to do but read books on strange subjects, or make serious attempts to get to the bottom of troubling questions? Like whether or not there really were such things as demons?
The other thing is that this wasn’t a strange question to ask me because at that time I was working my way (hell-bent, you might say) toward becoming something of an academic expert on the subject of Faustian literature. It was kind of a phase I was going through for a few years.
Then I ended up researching science stuff at an Ivy League university.
I think that leap suggests two possibilities; either
I stopped being interested in Faustian Literature and moved onto something completely different, or
I really got to the bottom of Faustian Literature.
Whatever. Let’s not make this dark. The important thing is that I had some knowledge of certain matters, though I don’t like to talk about it, particularly not at this time of day when the shadows are lengthening and the sun is settling down in the hills and already there is a vague, cautionary chill of night in the air.
But Tony and I discussed it then thoroughly. It was late, after all, and we had time on our hands because we were only kids, really, and all the nice girls were taken.
And somehow, in a fit of bravado, Tony decided to find out whether there really were demons walking the earth.
I remember pointing out that he had certain advantages. “People don’t do this stuff any more,” I told him. “So if, hypothetically, there actually are devils walking about disguised as regular people, then they’ve probably gotten more careless and sloppy lately. They won’t be expecting a mad motor-scooter like you to come looking for them.”
So Tony decided to keep his quest a secret. “After all, there really is no reason I should want them to see me coming. If they exist, that is.”
“If they exist.”
And then, being me, I just forgot about the whole thing. I was vaguely aware that he was reading a lot of stuff about demonology, animism, herbology and all sorts of other topics that the serious people of the world, those aliens who wear neck-ties professionally and go about speaking fluent business gibberish, would probably have dismissed as frivolous.
I don’t remember how long it took him but this all happened in the pre-Google era. Back then, when you wanted to know something you went off to a library and had pained conversations with librarians who would, of course, help you find your particular piece of esoteric knowledge for the price of being looked at like you were a prize lunatic.
Eventually, after many visits to the university library, Tony found one interesting old book that alleged that, if a person chews a piece of John the Conqueror Root, devils and demons would be revealed.
More searching, more questions, more amazed glances exchanged between librarians. “John the Conqueror Root? Botany? You want level two …” Looks of pity, questions about whether you have enough for the bus fare, etc.
The plant, Ipomoea jalapa, is not native to Australia and it took Tony weeks of calling different nurseries to find even the scarcest rumor of its availability. In the end he managed to locate a place in the Yellow Pages, a herbalist on the far side of town that allegedly had the plant in stock. Tony rang and rang, but nobody ever answered.
“I’m going to go suss out this place. Want to come with me?” Tony asked.
“No, mate, I do not,” I replied. “The last thing I want to see is a demon. Safe travels and be sure to let me know how it all pans out.”
Hours passed and it was late in the day when he turned up at my house, sad and empty-handed.
“I got down there but the bloke reckoned they were all out of the stuff. Hadn’t had it in for years. Told me it’s hard to get in Australia.”
“Something odd happened out there though. Wait - what are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m drawing a duck,” I said.
“I just have a feeling that the ability to draw ducks will come in handy one day. What happened?”
“The odd thing you mentioned.”
Tony had left the herbalists feeling despondent. The thing about uncovering ancient mysteries is that they’re only ancient mysteries because everyone else has already given up on them. Take alchemy, for instance. Who wouldn’t want to be the person who works out alchemy? Headline: “World’s First Successful Alchemist Declares His Predecessors Were Just Dicking Around."
Tony wasn’t twenty steps from the herbalist’s shop when he found himself passing by a vacant lot. It was just some nondescript stretch of long grass, discarded bricks and broken bottles. And in that vacant lot, in its very middle, was an old man. He waved at my friend and began to amble over to him. Tony didn’t like the look of him. He seemed a lot like an angry, drug-addled old biker. He wore an old leather jacket with actual chains hanging from it, as well as a very unfriendly look. Just some old homeless guy, thought Tony.
“Do you,” the strange old man asked my friend, “accept Satan as your lord and master?”
“Do I accept Satan?” Tony wondered with an amused smile. “Um, let me see.”
He pretended to think about it. “Um, no. No, I don’t think I do. Somehow.”
“And why’s that?” sneered the man, after a brief condescending laugh.
“Well, I think it’s because if you’re going to believe in the devil then you would logically have to believe in God, wouldn’t you? So if you’re going to pick between them, wouldn’t you rather side with the big guy? The winner? The one who wants everyone to love each other and be happy and not the guy who wants everyone to have a really bad time?”
The strange man looked at him in contempt, turned and walked away laughing a creepy laugh.
“He was a pretty weird guy,” concluded Tony. “Listen, what do you say we go get some souvlaki?”
“Wait,” I said.
“I can wait but I’m just a bit hungry.”
“No, wait,” I repeated.
I stared at the air in front of us.
“So let me summarise. I want to get this straight.
“You’re saying that, a minute after you attempted to buy John the Conqueror root, which, according to American hoodoo folklore, grants one the ability to see through the disguise of demons, you were approached by an unfriendly and sinister individual and asked whether you had affiliated yourself with the interests of Satan?”
My friend stood for a little while peering out the window. The evening sky was turning the color of honey. He shuffled from one foot to another for a while. Then he sat down distractedly and we lounged there, musing.
So in the end nothing came of that idea.