To administer “comfort in adversity” is supposed to be – in a special manner – the function of the clergy. The obligation is not always so successfully discharged, as it appeared to have been in Msida, Malta, on the Monday night of the great Aurora Borealis exhibition. The inhabitants of the city rushed out of their houses in the wildest alarm, when the extraordinary manifestations were displayed in the heavens. Some shrieked and trembled, others hopped about, gesticulating violently and crying in tones of terror: “The end of all things is come, what shall we do?” Men and women fell upon their knees, beating their breasts and confessing their sins of adultery and sodomy and larceny. Sofia, the tailor’s wife, revealed she had been, all along, the true hand at work in their small but famous shop. Indeed, Sofia craved acknowledgement, though never normally at the expense of her husband’s reputation. The strange green light had pulled the truth from her. “It’s true – I am at a loss with pin and thread,” her husband Antonio cried. He attempted to flee the scene to await the end times in a private disgrace, but the townspeople intervened. “We knew,” said Gennaro the baker. “You never did do the measurements. It was always Sofia.”
The church doors burst open, and the bells set to ringing with unabated fury. The nuns attempted vainly to stay the panic, but, in such fear for their own salvation, sent at last for the bishop who made for the church at once. Finally, the terror-stricken mob, of which the nuns were now a part, were persuaded to take their places. The bishop began in commendation of the spectacle that had been witnessed. Indeed, that the townspeople had been so determined to rid themselves of sin was gratifying. If such devotion had been excited at the sight of flashing lights in the heavens then blessed be it, but not in the manner of which they were possessed. It was his duty as their pastor and leader in all things both spiritual and worldly to inform them that the display had nothing to do with Divine wrath, being merely a phenomenon quite common in cold climates, though somewhat rare in Malta. The Northern Lights, as they were called, were simply a kind of harmless phenomenon not dissimilar to lightning. Whether the crowd exactly understood the scientific explanation was unclear, as most had been dissuaded from going on with school by the very bishop who stood before them. At any rate, his words had a soothing effect, for the populace left the church in a quiet and orderly manner.
However, on returning to their homes and looking up to the sky it was clear to the people of Msida that the display had not ceased but had intensified. Perturbed by the view, Sofia the tailor shouted, “It looks so much like the burning of a votive candle, but in this horrible witch’s green!” The townspeople heeded this lyrical pronouncement and found themselves for the first time torn between the word of their bishop and a new dreadful fear which seemed to emanate from the undulating green sky itself. The panic resumed tenfold, and the townspeople fell back to the sandstone floor, the bricks of which their ancestors had pulled from the earth and shaped hundreds of years before, and they wailed out against the sky.
In the midst of this crisis, it occurred to Gennaro the baker that the bishop might not be the bishop at all, but the vindictive form of the devil, shapeshifting or perhaps possessing the vessel of their bishop to mislead them into not unburdening themselves of their sins. For, Gennaro told them, if they faced the rapture in sin they would burn for all eternity. Gennaro was known as a trustworthy and benevolent man, since on Sundays and Holy Days he lent the fire of his ovens to cook the ross il forn brought by the women of the town, while they were at worship. As such, the townspeople took stock of Genarro’s revelation with the appropriate blend of shock and despair.
“Oh, if the baker is right, what can we do,” cried Antonio, “if it is only the bishop who can take our confession?”
Gennaro gestured to the soil beneath their feet, where the devil’s palace awaited them, and said, with bitterness, “Yes, it is a cunning plan he has cooked up.”
Sofia the tailor stepped forth and declared she had a plan for a performance. Something to demonstrate they knew the difference between His word and the devil’s.
When the beckoning church bells were rung for the second time that strange evening, it was only Sofia whom the bishop found at the rope, for the rest of the townspeople were hiding in position. “I must confess something,” she said, “I beg you.”
The bishop came out to Sofia amongst the pews, offering his services but at a later date since he was very tired from the journey and the hour was late. The townspeople revealed themselves from their hiding and they descended on the Bishop with the quickest and broadest and strongest of hands. The ropes were bound round his wrists and ankles and fastened to a plain, errant chair. Superstitious as they were, the townspeople thought it too risky to tie a bishop, devil though he may be, to the church’s pews. The nuns came to heed the cries of the bishop and saw for themselves the mournful saints of the fresco ceiling, the shine of the marbled floor, and his grace restrained there like some animal. They neither intervened nor screamed but turned their backs and hid themselves away deep within the church’s chambers. When at last Sofia sent for holy water from the altar to perform the ultimate holy exorcism, the look of terror in the bishop’s eyes confirmed their suspicions.
There, before them, was the devil.