Prior Demetrius stared at the light entering through the stained glass windows of the Cathedral. This case proved much more difficult than he had thought at first. They had started early in the morning; now the sun was setting, and they had not yet reached any conclusion.
“I suggest that we review the facts, Eminence. This is quite a singular case; I have to say. Nevertheless, it is a potential case of demonic possession; we cannot afford to treat it lightly.”
Bishop Drake nodded approvingly. The emeralds that adorned his golden pectoral cross and the amethyst on his ring glittered under the candlelight. “The possession supposedly took place when Elisabeth Morroy, found guilty of witchcraft, was burning at the stake. The accused stood among the crowd and stared at her while she was consumed by the fire.”
“What makes the defendants think that the demon – if there was one – chose to enter the accused rather than anyone else among the bustling crowd?”
“Numerous witnesses confirmed that the eyes of the accused glimmered in a strange, fearsome way as the fire was reflected upon them. Moreover, it was reported that the witch called him by his name – then she uttered something unintelligible that sounded like a curse. The possibility that whatever demon inhabited the witch passed into the accused at that moment is too strong to be ignored.”
“Did the witch repent at any moment? Was there any sign of remorse or contrition on her behalf?”
Bishop Drake thought for a moment before answering. “No,” he said firmly. “She never repented; she did not even pray. She only spat and cursed the Holy Names.” He crossed himself – the mere mention of such blasphemy was a sacrilege.
“Eminence, it is generally accepted – as well as mentioned in the Holy Scripts – that once a demon departs the body of the possessed the latter shows relief and repentance as his soul is freed from the burden of Evil. In this case, there was no sign of contrition. Had Elisabeth Morroy been involved in the Black Arts of the Occult under the influence of a demon that inhabited her, she ought to have shown remorse as soon as the demon left her. Nevertheless, she never repented. This proves that her soul was evil; she probably was in consensual league with a demon rather than involuntarily inhabited by one.”
Bishop Drake nodded in approval. “A reasonable assumption, Prior Demetrius. Nevertheless …” He stroked his beard and for a moment, he seemed lost in thought.
He wanted to finish this trial and announce a decision. A condemnation would be good – people would chat about it and forget the rumor about the landlord having raped a peasant girl, leaving her pregnant. On the other hand, he did not want to offend Prior Demetrius. His Order was powerful; also, the prior had a doctorate in canon law and his name was respected. This is why the bishop had invited him to participate – to stress the importance of the trial.
“There were various reports of theft committed by the accused.” There would be enough gossip about the hearing to take the attention off the landlord’s scandal – Bishop Drake would personally take care of this.
“Eminence, theft is in the nature of the kin of the accused. I am afraid that this is no solid proof of possession – unless he stole jewels or items for magic rituals or ingredients for magic potions.”
“No. He just stole food.”
“Then the accused was only acting according to his nature. Possession would lead him to perform some extraordinary doings such as aggression on adults or children; involvement in magic rituals and so on. Were any such doings reported?”
Bishop Drake gave his beard another stroke. “Actually there was something out of the ordinary. Numerous people reported having vivid nightmares when the accused was in proximity to their abode. He disappeared as soon as he was seen, and nobody has been able to capture him, though.”
“What kind of nightmares did those witnesses see, your Eminence?”
“Why is this important, my son?”
Demetrius took a deep breath. “Eminence,” he said in a grave albeit quiet voice, “nightmares could indeed be due to an attempt of a demon to corrupt a pious soul. The majority of this type of nightmares is associated with temptation. The ones who have those nightmares struggle so as not to yield to the pleasure offered to them by Evil. Fighting the demon results in the unpleasant nature of such dreams. Nevertheless, nightmares can also have other causes such as a heavy dinner prior to sleep or guilt about some sinful action committed by the sleeper. Maybe we should consider inquiring about the nature of the nightmares allegedly caused by the accused to find out whether there was temptation in them.”
Bishop Drake frowned. Some of the people who had reported having erotic nightmares were nobles or rich merchants; all of them were extremely generous with the church. Also, the young sister of the landlord had confessed having love dreams that involved one of the knights that served her brother. The young man was an excellent warrior, but his lesser origins would never allow any kind of relation with the young woman. Bishop Drake himself had recently a few extremely immoral dreams about the young sister of the landlord whom he saw quite often as he was her spiritual guide and confessor. No – he had to avoid at all price having anyone digging into this.
“You are right, Prior Demetrius. Dreams are so difficult to interpret – they can hardly be considered as evidence. Most of the time, the meaning hidden in them is impossible to ascertain. We should try something else. I would suggest torturing the accused if only we could find him. I think of offering a reward for his capture…”
“I don’t think that this would be wise, your Eminence. We must be fair in our decision. The accused cannot talk; therefore I fear that torture will be to no avail. Your Eminence, we should not forget that the accused is our Lord’s creature. To condemn a creature that does not possess the gift of speech on weak evidence or without proof could bring the wrath of our Lord upon us.”
Bishop Drake crossed himself again. He did not wish to attract the wrath of the Lord on him and be condemned to spend Eternity in Hell.
“You are right, Prior Demetrius. What do you suggest to do to find out whether the accused is genuinely possessed?”
“Eminence, apart from the case of the accused, we are also dealing with a potential demonic possession of a witch. Quite an odd case, you must admit. Of course, there are many chances that the witch was not possessed; that she was performing magic merely under her own perverted, dark impulsions.” Demetrius paused for a brief while. He knew that with what he was about to say, he was venturing on what could be a slippery slope. He decided to start with the less risky statement. “One thing we could do is to wait until we have more evidence that the accused committed acts more compatible with demonic possession than simple food theft or causing nightmares. Now Eminence…” Demetrius continued somewhat reluctantly, “If we accept that a witch can be compelled to perform unholy rituals under the effect of a demonic possession, then maybe we ought to perform an exorcism and free her soul of the malevolent influence of the unclean spirit that inhabits her rather than to condemn her to burn at the stake…”
The last words of Demetrius pierced the mind of Bishop Drake like a hot needle. He had scheduled at least four witch- burnings in the coming days. One of them was an emergency – the girl condemned to death was the one that carried the illegitimate child of the landlord. He could not risk to compromise or delay this burning or he would bring the wrath of the landlord upon him. God might forgive his sins and give him a chance of redemption; the landlord would never be as magnanimous. Bishop Drake would end up at the stake or beheaded. He snorted as the unpleasant smell of burned flesh filled his nostrils.
“I don’t think that this is a good idea, my son. Most of the condemned women are proven to be guilty. However, you are right; they can speak, and they have admitted their sins. The accused cannot speak and defend himself or confess. Therefore, we will take some more time and find out whether there is more solid evidence of demonic possession. Then we will resume this trial. For the moment, as we are not able to bring this case to a conclusion, I declare this hearing closed, and the trial postponed.”
Prior Demetrius nodded to show that he consented to this decision. Once the formalities had been duly accomplished, he left the hall where the hearing took place.
This is not that bad, he thought. At least he had bought this poor cat accused of being possessed some time. This was the best he could do. To have him declared innocent would be difficult – probably even impossible. He would try to have the cat excommunicated or exorcised to save at least his life.
He walked lost in his thoughts – he had some distance before reaching his convent.
A lawyer in Ponthieu had also managed to buy some time for rats accused of having eaten the crop. Rats were dispersed over a large tract of country and lived in numerous villages; they could not all be expected to know of the proceedings and to appear in court until a summons was published from the pulpits of all the parishes in the area – he said on the first trial. When this was done, and the rats still did not appear, he excused his clients on the ground of the length and difficulty of the journey and the serious perils which attended it, owing to the ceaseless vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats.
The strategy had worked admirably for the rats. But when the young lawyer had tried to save a few heretics from burning at the stake, the master plan had failed miserably – exactly like his own attempt to save the condemned witches. Why was it so difficult to save a human life?
He crossed himself and mentally begged the Lord to forgive him – he did not want to be ungrateful. Cats were mercilessly tortured and killed throughout the country. He could not put an end to this barbarism, but he could try to save the life of the cat he was defending. The Lord had helped him today. He ought to thank Him – not to offend Him with gloomy thoughts.
He felt as though someone watched him in silence. He looked around; a cat hidden among the branches of a tree had his green eyes locked upon him. For a while, Demetrius and the cat stared intently at each other as if they were reading the secrets of each other’s soul.
Then something strange happened deep inside Demetrius. He became suddenly convinced that saving the cat he was defending was extremely important. He could not say why – he just knew it was so.
He took a deep breath and then he stepped toward the gate of the convent.
Time passed. Other, more important issues took over, and the trial of the cat was postponed again and again. As time went by, Demetrius knew that the cat would most likely die of some natural cause rather than being condemned to death by a church trial.
In a small town of the Basses -Pyrénées d’ Aquitaine, there is an abbey called Notre-Dame des Cats. It is one of the oldest convents in France and on one of its walls, there is a strange fresco. It depicts a monk ascending to heaven accompanied by an angel. Only this angel is not an ordinary one. It is a winged cat crowned with a halo. If you ask the monks of the convent what is the meaning of the fresco (which you will certainly do!), any monk will tell you that the picture is connected to an old legend of the convent, also known by most of the inhabitants of the small town and passed from generation to generation.
According to this legend, a long time ago, people thought that cats were evil creatures allied with the devil or sorcerers and demons in disguise. So cats were ill-treated and mercilessly killed. The souls of those poor animals ascended to heaven. The Elder Angels were alarmed to see so many cat-souls; they inquired to know the reason for this. The cats explained how humans treated them. Revolted, the Elder Angels, reported this to God, who was not happy about the cruelty of humans.
God summoned the Court of Thrones and the Holy Apostles. After they heard all the complaints of the wronged cats, the Supreme Court of Heaven decided that the humans who had committed such atrocities ought to be severely punished. God was about to pronounce the heavy sanction when one of the cats stepped forth.
“Forgive me, Lord,” he said, “but you ought not to punish all humans. One of them saved my life by defending me in a trial a long time ago. I beg for Your Mercy upon him.”
“So be it,” said God, who was always fair. “The humans who protected you will be spared from my coming wrath. Regarding the one who saved your life, you can now pay his kindness back.”
On that night, Abbot Demetrius had a strange dream. The cat he had saved a long time ago appeared to him as an angel – he was winged and crowned with a halo. The angel-cat thanked the abbot and said that he would be his guide to the celestial realms. The old man died peacefully in his sleep; his soul went to Heaven accompanied by the feline angel.
Three days after the abbot had passed away, the plague spread throughout the country. Black Death decimated the inhabitants of the town, only sparing the Abbey of Notre-Dame des Cats that Demetrius had turned into a sanctuary for persecuted cats.