It is a little known fact that the Church Of England has a small but expert team of clergy and medical people devoted to the Ministry of Deliverance.
Thus, the comfortable world of cassocks and candles and Evensong and church fetes is peculiarly well equipped to deal with the whole messy business of demonic possession.
And whilst they are most keen that the whole business of controlling this particular brand of evil is termed ‘deliverance’ – i.e., a process which involves the ongoing counseling , care and mental health of the person at its centre – the world at large still perceives the Ministry as good, old-fashioned, cross-wielding exorcism.
The House of Bishops’ Guidelines for Good Practice in the Deliverance Ministry 1975 (revised 2012) specifies that when people are “distressed by what seem to be continuing experiences of evil within them or around them,” deliverance may be just exactly what they need.
So when the phone rang in Cragleigh Vicarage, somewhere deep in the wilds of Surrey, England, Dominic Renton, vicar of that parish and one of the Bishop’s specialists in the Ministry of Deliverance, was not entirely unprepared for what he listened to on the other end. The Bishop was cordial but concerned. He had received a phone call from a man on the outskirts of the village who had been experiencing some unusual problems over the Christmas period.
The diminutive little clergyman, with spectacles perched upon his nose and an air of academia hovering fustily about him, always seemed to his flock an unlikely candidate for an exorcist. But he took their impressions in good part. Because as the Bishop knew, he was the best there was.
The sermon for the first Sunday after the New Year must wait, as must the visit to the OAPs home just up the road for tea and scones. The Curate could take Evensong. It appeared that Dominic and his team were needed to attend to the rather pressing matter of a haunted mirror.
Forty minutes later, he stood outside the house of Dylan and Meg Bourton, flanked by his best and most affable ally in these matters, Dr Eileen Smithson. Sixty-four, filled with all the conviction of the early church and built like a battleship, the doctor was a wise and well grounded member of the ministry. She and Dominic worked and prayed seamlessly together on the most challenging cases referred by the Bishop.
Dominic knocked on the door, to be answered by a pale man in his early fifties. “Mr Bourton?” he asked. “We’re the Deliverance team from St Catherine’s. Perhaps we could come inside to talk about what has happened?”
Dylan told them everything, leaving nothing out. He had an incisive mind, and even when the bounds of reality seemed so relentlessly elastic, he kept his goal in mind: to recover Meg from wherever she was. He put before them the research document he had obtained on General Ilyasov, and the diary excerpts from a prominent Russian socialite regarding the General’s wife.
And if his hands trembled as he related how he had named Lidiya Ilyasov, and the events which answered his direct challenge, he held his voice steady. He felt overwhelmingly grateful to these quiet, understated people for their grave, level attention after these last hellish weeks.
Dominic and Dr Smithson listened carefully. The vicar thought for a short while and then spoke.
“You’re absolutely right to have contacted us,” he said softly. “Clearly the arrival of this object in your household has devastated you, and your wife even more so. I am so sorry it has come to this, but we can do something about it. You said you felt powerless under the influence of this woman, but you are not. I want you to know that we can do something. Things may never be as they were before. This experience has brought forth untold strengths and ingenuity in you, and our research says those who have been inhabited by someone else often take very careful counselling to recover. You will be very different people from this moment on. But you will come through this.”
He and the doctor talked quietly whilst Dylan went to make tea. They were accustomed, every now and then, to finding a situation which needed extremely careful assessment, before taking strong and decisive action. They must be sure they were taking the right path.
At length, they prayed: for it is with light that one dispels such carefully summoned and constructed darkness. And then, the three padded upstairs to see Meg.
It was not only Dylan who could hear those repugnant whispers any more, it seemed. A weight lifted from his shoulders as he watched the two visitors reaching a quick assessment of the severity of the situation. For the creatures, whatever they were, had long since breached the mirror, and the ceiling, walls and shelves and drawers were alive with the sound of great claw-toed scrabbles, of slithering clamber and muttering unintelligible profanity. And there on the bed lay Meg, bathed in sweat, her eyes wide open but unseeing, her head writhing back and forth, her eyes black as the night.
Dominic signaled Dylan to stop by the door. Downstairs, he had given him an edict Dylan had never in his life before had: pray, Dylan. Bring light where there is such powerful darkness. That is how you battle creatures such as this.
Dylan watched, transfixed, as the two very ordinary people who had sat with him in his living room began a conversation with a woman who had been disappeared for 130 years. The vicar’s voice was filled with authority, the doctor’s face set with determination as Dominic spoke.
“Lidiya? Lidiya Ilyasov, I believe you to be a very sad and a very angry woman. We acknowledge this: you do not need to posture. In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I command that you let this woman go: she has never lifted a finger to wrong you.
“It is time for you to tell us your story, if you choose.”
For days the house had echoed with the sounds of movement; but more terrifying still was the sudden and utter silence, the stasis, in which Lidiya Ilyasov held that English house now. She suspended her fury and all her minions, to hear the little English clergyman speak, and he did not seem unnerved. The room, and all in it, were suspended, held in waiting, for Lidiya’s tale.
And then, the reflections in the mirror began to move.
First a tiny, imperceptible eddy, and then greater and more powerful currents, a maelstrom of colour and sound, until a finally, a picture began to form. And this time, the woman was not sat observing those in the room. She was unseeing of them, dressing herself, ready for a magnificent evening, in glittering black, with shimmering jet at her ears and throat. And behind her, clear as day, was an older man.
It is one thing to hear a demon, but it is another thing entirely to see one.
Used to the bludgeon in his working life, General Alexandr Ilyasov had long since settled on it as the best tactic in his domestic affairs, and would visit Lidiya for hours before their public engagements to exert bullying tactics, to rant and rave, and increasingly to resort to petty acts of minor violence. He worshipped her still, but the line between love and hate in Alexandr Ilyasov was paper-thin, and he began in equal parts to long for, and loathe his wife.
Lidiya should perhaps have been more on her guard. Her husband’s acts of brutality had so often been sanctioned as he ravaged border villages in the name of Mother Russia. Young women had disappeared before, on his watch, never to be seen or heard of again. But powerful men can cover their tracks, and he was a clever and meticulous man.
One day, the general came to her room for his customary rant, dressed all in his magnificent army best, a scarlet great coat with great gold tassels at the shoulder and long, strident boots which gleamed in the candlelight of Lidiya’s room.
Lidiya was growing bored. These spats never came to anything, it seemed. She sat at her dressing table, and he observed that she was magnificent, though her eyes were lit with malignant spite. She was putting glistening jet earrings to her ears, and about her throat sparkled with more gems of the same kind. She had never looked, he thought, more untouchable, or more dangerous.
As they both gazed, rapt, at her reflection, the sounds of scrabbling in the room became marked. And in Lidiya’s favourite dresser mirror – not in the room itself, but in its recreation of silver-mercury plate – the general began to detect movement.
He took a moment to comprehend that what he was seeing in the mirror, the glimmers of light and shade, the shapes and forms, were not in the room. He cast wildly about him to find their likenesses in the reality of his wife’s room, but there was nothing there. The General and Lidiya were completely alone.
And finally, Alexandr Ilyasov felt the stirrings of an alien emotion to himself; fear gripped him. Because the creature in the mirror was something vile, a creeping thing covered in luminescent slime of some kind, malignant and baleful as the moon. And as he watched he saw its rheumy eyes cast about for something. Or someone.
The thing was looking for Lidiya Ilyasov.
His terror and revulsion lent an almost superhuman, brute resolve to his actions. “Woman, did you invite this hellish creature into my house?” he cried, voice breaking with fear and loathing. In an instant, a knife hidden within the folds of his coat shone in the candlelight. The general, cuckolded by this repugnant creature, was blinded by a rage he could not, and did not choose to quench. And Lidiya was to learn, that night, that of all the ways to enter that shadowy afterlife which fascinated her, dismemberment was the least desirable; because Alexandr was experienced in engendering every frequency of agony. He took her voice first, that she might never utter one cry for help; and the mirror looked on as the general clinically took her apart, limb by limb.
Evil begets evil. This man had never balked at taking another life, or inflicting torture in the line of duty. But his wife had inspired the pinnacle of his destructive capabilities and desires. When he came to, he was staring down at carnage.
He was no stranger to such mayhem. With military precision, and very little display of emotion, he rid himself of the evidence of this loss of control.
All except once piece.
Because Ilyasov had one last plan in his mind before it gave up on him completely.
She loved her talismans, did Lidiya Ilyasov. And so, he smiled, the last sparks of rage igniting across his being, her heart should be her last and final talisman.
The lights of the house on Nevsky Prospekt stayed glowing until well into the early hours of the next morning, as the General removed the base of the mirror, a gorgeous piece carved in the imperial workshops, a mass of wooden fronds of foliage. He hollowed out a small compartment; and into it, he places that artifact so lately alive and vital within a beautiful woman: Lidiya Ilyasov’s heart.
The mirror clouded, and flickered, and the cacophony of voices died. The house was silent. The mirror seemed entirely spent.
Meg’s eyes were open. She seemed exhausted, but herself, for now at least. “It’s still in there,” she said, as if it racked her frame just to utter the words. “Her heart – it’s still there.”
There are advantages to being a vicar with a hotline to the Bishop.
The Deliverance ministry is capable of mobilizing many forces in the name of reaching a satisfactory conclusion for its clients. The mirror stayed silent, as if it had finally said its piece; and Meg seemed oddly sure she would not hear from Lidiya again.
Meanwhile, Dominic had been liaising with the local coroner as regards interments of people – or parts of people – long dead; the St Petersburg authorities had been notified as a matter of courtesy, and what they chose to do with information about a psychopath consigned to history was their affair. Coroner’s Certificate, Notice of Burial and Certificate of Interment were in place.
And on a winsome New Years Day, the two Bourtons stood with Dominic and Dr Smithson at the edge of a deep hole cut in the turf of the tranquil, verdant graveyard at St Catherine’s.
Meg was wearing pvc gloves, ready. The mirror stood next to the hole, awaiting the final intervention.
She took a knife and found the join, which was just as the mirror had shown them, in its base. It took some strength to prize open the compartment, and Dylan leaned in to help her.
As it fell open, a cloud passed over the thin winter sunshine. And a host of small spiders scuttled out from the gloom of the compartment, and away into the mossy wilderness of the churchyard. A small shriveled object fell out onto the grass.
They would not put it in a box, Meg insisted. However diabolical she was, this woman had not anticipated the agony of her final end, and she had been trapped for long enough. It would go into the earth, to return to it, finally free of its place as the General’s grotesque talisman.
And at last, Meg was ready to see the mirror go. She threw the small object in, and its prison after it.
And then the verger arrived to fill in the hole, completely unaware of the twisted tale which had brought these people to this place on a frosty morning just before the dawn of a new year.
They all prayed for some time: and then, as befits the English, they retired to the vicarage for a mug of tea.
Later, when he had sent the doctor off with Meg and Dylan, extending a warm invitation to the next Sunday service, Dominic observed wryly -but only to himself – that he would wager a considerable amount of money that Lidiya Ilyasov never envisaged herself ending up in a Surrey graveyard.
Further liaison with St Petersburg archivists revealed that General Alexandr Ilyasov went to pieces immediately after his wife disappeared. It is perhaps too far fetched to imagine that he felt remorse – his talisman stayed with him until the last; but documents handed over at the house clearance indicate he had taken steps to remove the glass from the frame early on in his time at his forest retreat. Maybe he did not care for its propensity to replay his greatest moment over and over again.
For some reason, the few servants at the house reported, he would not smash the glass. Rather, he had it packaged and sent across the world to relatives in England, and it was not heard of again.
Meg never kept a mirror in her bedroom again. But she never heard from Lidiya Ilyasov, either. She and Dominic became stalwart parishioners at St Catherine’s, and in time became lay members themselves of that most mysterious ministry, the Ministry of Deliverance, vanquishing evil between hot mugs of tea.
It was an unconventional existence.
But that is another story for another day.