The devil's foothold
Three demons perched on the edge of a big-city skyscraper. They often met at this particular pinnacle at the close of a day swapping stories and sharing experiences that they'd had during the last twenty-four hours. The sun was setting. It was twilight.
"I deceived a mother," one of them named Givin began. He had a sharp voice. It sliced through the faint cacophony of the traffic in the streets below, although the noise of vehicles had diminished somewhat during the Covid-19 pandemic. "I deceived a mother," Givin repeated, 'into thinking she ought to pick up her child whenever he cried." Waiting for approbation, he eyed his compatriots expectantly as a soaring jet flew overhead.
"How did you deceive her?" the middle demon asked, mildly curious, "Did you put the fear of Covid into her mind, making her believe that crying might evolve into the pestiforous virus?" He guffawed at his own joke.
Smugly glancing sideways and grinning, Givin swung his thin legs against the cement ridge of the tall building. "No, I didn't need to use that ruse," he responded, "and she wasn't that difficult to persuade really. The woman was quite ready to be deceived. I passed doubt and fear through her rather self-absorbed mind, highlighting the exhausted state she would be in if she did not get the child to quiet down. I called attention to the fact that she needed to get up at six the next morning to drop the child off at her mother-in-law's house before she went off to work."
A car honked in the distance far below the superstructure.
"Following this," Given went on, "I deluded her into thinking that if she did not give in to the crying, she would probably have a Children's Aid official call – someone who would question her ability as mother or care-giver."
The two other demons chortled.
"Admirable tactics," praised the third demon, whose name was Prevaricator, "and ones I have on occasion used myself."
There was a restful pause and then Givin dug his elbow into Tar Heap. "So what did you do today, Tar Heap?"
Tar Heap had a smooth voice, a voice that ran without interruption, an even, regular voice. "Well, I walked through a super-market."
Givin and Prevaricator said “ah” in such a way as to indicate that they knew exactly what he meant.
Tar Heap continued with a rather detached but even flow of words, lazily stretching his arm up to the sky. "It was crowded today with regular Saturday shoppers. You know, the harried parents who hadn't seen much of their children; those who were too busy to do groceries during the week because of work. Consequently, there were lots of little kids walking about or sitting in shopping carts demanding this and that and everything without being reprimanded."
A pigeon cooed nearby, settling in a corner of the roof. Tar Heap took a stone out of his pocket and flung it at the creature, but he missed. The bird flew off. He continued.
"There was one child, about five years old I think, although it's sometimes difficult to tell now because of the masks they are made to wear, who threw a wonderful tantrum. He stamped his feet, waved his arms about, and hollered loud enough to make the cashiers raise their eyebrows. The father and mother of the little stripling were tremendously embarrassed, so the little devil, if you'll pardon the expression, got his way. He wanted some special name-brand cereal. You know the kind, where the sugar content is sky-high, the kind which will probably send the nipper over the top again as soon as he eats it for breakfast. Other children were watching him and I could see little wheels turning in their heads."
"Well," Givin responded, "that's what we want, isn't it?"
"Yes," Tar Heap agreed, even as he pitched another stone at a bird, "and although on the one hand a scene like that makes me want to explode with satisfaction, on the other hand it irritates me that parents are making our job so easy these days. I don't feel challenged any longer. Victory comes too easily."
"Quite true, and well-put." The gravel-voiced Prevaricator stuck in his oar: "Yes, quite, quite true. Even Christian folks are just not clamping down on rules that once seemed to be standard. They don't punish consistently. I've seen fathers condemn something one day and not blink an eye the next. And spanking," he rasped on, "spanking is rarely applied to backsides any more. Naturally I rub my hands in glee over that, but I can see where Tar Heap's coming from."
"As a result of years of our lobbying," Tar Heap added, as he lay back contemplating the evening clouds, "the law says that the use of any implement other than a bare hand is illegal, and hitting a child in anger or in retaliation for something a child does is not considered reasonable and is against the law."
Givin and Prevaricator nodded in agreement.
"Christian parents," Tar Heap went on, "are being influenced by that kind of talk. They're afraid of being charged by social welfare people."
"If you'll permit me," Givin said, glancing sideways at Tar Heap of whom he was in awe, "I'm not sure if I totally agree with that."
Tar Heap remained silent and, thus encouraged, Givin went on. "I'm sure that laziness, that vice of vices, has something to do with it as well. Mix laziness together with what people call 'reasoning' and the result is something that tastes like Dr. Spock."
"Ah, Dr. Spock," Prevaricator rubbed his sooty chin in sweet reflection, "the man was the salt of the earth."
Inspired, Givin now stood up, balancing precariously on the edge of the high-rise. In a falsetto voice he emulated a mother talking to her child. "Come on, son, you knew better than to cheat on your test. You don't have to get high marks, but I would just like you to try your best. If you will just promise me that it won't happen again, I won't even mention it to your father."
Tar Heap and Prevaricator clapped their feet with enthusiasm at this example. Givin took a bow and sat down again but went on talking. "Most parents think a little 'reasoning' with a child, and I'm talking toddler as well as teenager, will result in correct choices."
Tar Heap dropped a pebble down multiple floors, boisterously yowling as he did so, "Sure, and if stones could fly, right?"
"Remember the fruit?!" Prevaricator added. After the rowdy laughter had died down, Prevaricator cracked his knuckles thoughtfully. "Beating around the bush, shilly-shallying," he said, "is my specialty, as you know. But lately I rarely have to resort to wiles to pervert the truth." He cracked his knuckles again. "The truth is," he went on, "and I use that word lightly, the truth is, many families don't read the Bible any more, let alone trust what it says."
"Life is a bore," Tar Heap yawned, "and I'd give anything for a good day's work in which I knew I'd personally brought several people a few steps closer to damnation."
"People are degenerating wonderfully well without our help, and that's a fact," Givin concurred, "although today I did nudge a man, a church-goer mind you, towards not loving his neighbor by using the Covid fear factor."
His fellow wretches contemplated him quizzically.
"His next-door neighbor had lost the key to her house. She walked over to his place to ask if she could use the phone to call for help. After she rang the bell, he only opened the door a crack, asking her to step back as she spoke." Givin paused for a moment and then continued. "As he stood in the doorway, contemplating whether or not he should help his neighbor, I let him hear a cough in the shadows of his mind; I let him begin to feel feverish; and I let him detect the onset of a headache. The woman was wearing a mask, but after listening to her problem, the fellow gave in to his fears. He shut the door in her face, refusing to let her use his phone."
"To quote old Solomon," Prevaricator declared, "there is nothing new under the sun, is there? Personally, I really get a kick out of the fact that so many people are hypocritical. You know, they say one thing and do something else. Love your neighbor with your mouth, but when it comes down to action, well...." He stopped short.
"I know what you mean," Givin accorded, "I really like it when I watch families sing hymns and psalms in unison. And then later in the car, or in the rec room, or wherever, they turn on the radio or a CD at full blast to music that would have made old Martin Luther blush."
"He didn't blush that easily," Tar Heap contributed, chuckling as he spoke.
"Well, you know what I mean," Givin replied.
"And I love it," Prevaricator added, "when parents tell their kids to keep the rules just for the rules' sake. I mean a son or daughter says, 'Why do I have to go to church?' And the father replies, 'Because I say so,' or he says, and I love this answer, 'Because there's a service,' and then the father sleeps through the service. Those situations make my job so much easier. It's so much simpler to entice progeny with parents like that away from all those horrid virtues. You guys know the virtues I'm referring to here – virtues like love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, patience, gentleness ..."
He stopped suddenly, his rough voice breaking. "Sorry, guys, I always have a hard time saying..." His voice broke again and Givin and Tar Heap shuddered simultaneously.
Tar Heap let out a long sigh and eyed Prevaricator with something akin to idolatry. "I understand," he soothed, "but look on the bright side. There's not many left, not many at all."
"Not many what, you dummy?!" Prevaricator retorted, unhappy that he had been caught in a moment of emotion.
"Not many competent parents," Tar Heap added, embarrassed that he had expressed himself inadequately. He looked away from Prevaricator to Givin, with whom he felt he was on equal footing, and went on. "I mean, most fathers and mothers, like the couple I watched today at the supermarket, lack the desire to take their kids to the woodshed. What I mean is," he went on rather philosophically, "is that they'd rather suffer flea bites than scratch for fleas."
"And all families," Givin grinned at Tar Heap, "are totally infested with fleas. And having fleas is not sin but a disease. Isn't that the way it's perceived?"
"The way what is perceived?" Prevaricator snorted.
"Fleas," Tar Heap and Givin answered in concert, slapping one another's bony shoulders.
"You're both crazy, and you're not making any sense!" Prevaricator's voice was dangerously prickly. Tar Heap and Givin eyed one another a trifle nervously. Prevaricator was, after all, more powerful and an echelon up on them.
Givin changed the subject. "Most people don't really believe in us anymore and yet here we are, sitting on top of the city."
"Yes, here we are," Tar Heap agreed, "and that lock-down is making our work so much easier. Churches are closed and it's hard for people to empathize, encourage and all that stuff."
"That is why this should be a good year," Givin went on, standing up as he spoke, shading his eyes from the glints of the setting sun. No one spoke for a minute and Givin felt it was time to end the conclave. He stood up. "Well, toadies, time's a-wasting. I'm off."
"Where are you going?" Tar Heap asked.
"To a nearby bar. I understand some youth group is sneaking out to have a get-together spiced with beer. You doing anything special tonight, Tar Heap?" Givin was poised on the edge of the skyscraper as he quizzed, ready to leave.
"I'm helping a youngster get addicted to some internet game," Tar Heap answered, "not that exciting, but well worth the trouble."
They both glanced down at Prevaricator who was still seated. He responded to their unasked question. "I'm attending a board meeting where a teacher is on trial for suspending a student from class because he used bad language and because the student's computer was found to be riddled with porn. Most of the board is leery about backing the teacher because the student is the son of one of the school's wealthier patrons."
"Ah!" Both Givin and Tar Heap feigned speechless admiration. He was after all, bigger and louder than they were.
"Meet you here tomorrow, guys?"
And the sun set on the city....