When the Devil Found Equilibrium
By Lawrence Buentello
Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil.—Friedrich Nietzche
Lucifer manifested in the small room because he’d learned that a very pious man lived within.
And, of course, he wanted to turn the man away from God.
Because the man was blind, the Devil did not change his appearance, but remained befouled with gangrenous flesh, boils, and grotesque malformations. His hands were claws, and his face lay splayed upon his skull as if an axe had split a rotten tree stump. White worms crawled in and out of his ears, and maggots gathered in the corners of his mouth.
But because he had powers to change himself in other ways, he made his obscene scent pleasant to smell and he sweetened the tone of his hideous voice. What was the point of frightening the man, if his goal was to sway him against his creator?
Lucifer was surprised to see the squalor in which the man lived. But if the man couldn’t see, why care about esthetics?
In the room stood a small table and chair, and another chair, covered with rips and stains, on which the old man sat. In a corner stood a small bed, which was only a thin mattress on bare rusting springs, made with a small pillow and a dirty wool blanket. There was no food on the table; the old man was thin, his face skeletal.
The Devil softened his footsteps and examined the cupboard, which only held some cans of soup and old rye bread. No pictures hung on the walls, no television set rang out the banalities of humanity—only an old electric radio rested on the table to suggest any entertainment for the man. A shallow closet revealed very little clothing.
This man is a true ascetic, Lucifer mused to himself.
With so little to recommend life, the old man was surely bitter about his state. How could such a man, so close to death that the Devil could smell mortality in the room, remain so pious? It would be a sheer delight to turn this man away from the only thing he held valuable in life—
Now the Devil announced himself, in an agreeable voice that did not betray his malice.
“Who are you?” the old man said as he straightened in his chair, surprisingly calm.
“Don’t be afraid,” Lucifer said, silently licking the maggots on his lips, “I mean you no harm. I’m no intruder, old father. In fact, I am divine.”
“How do you mean you are divine?”
“I am an angel.”
“I don’t know why an angel would come to me.” The old man relaxed in his chair, regarding the darkness from which he couldn’t escape. “You may only be an intruder. But if you are angel or intruder, you are my brother still. Welcome to my home. I am Langer. Whatever I have is yours, for you are my friend.”
“And you are my friend,” the Devil said, so comfortable as a liar that he sounded perfectly sincere. “But I am still an angel, and I’ve come because I learned that you were suffering.”
“We all suffer in this life,” Langer said. “I’m no different from any other person.”
“But you must be hungry, and cold. The air is damp in this place, and vermin hide in the walls. You must be miserable.”
The old man laughed, then coughed hoarsely. He raised a heavily veined hand and said, “But I have a roof over my head, I’m not out in the elements. So many poor people are living on the streets, and I only wish I had the ability to give them a place to stay, too. You see, this room is not so bad.”
Lucifer had heard many such arguments in his time, and so wasn’t disheartened by this optimism. Many human beings lived in denial of their pathetic circumstances; conversion was only a matter of opening their eyes to their pain.
“When was your last meal, old father?” Lucifer asked. “And was it satisfying, or only enough to delay the grave? When was the last good meal that you ate?”
“I have enough,” Langer said. “These old bones are not yet in the grave. And for what I have, I give thanks.”
“You give thanks? To whom? And for what?”
The old man smiled, which made the Devil cringe, for he anticipated the old man’s reply.
“I give thanks to God,” Langer said, “for all the good things in the world.”
Now Lucifer pressed his advantage, because he was a fine strategist, and was eager to cleave the man’s soul from the God for which he professed such gratitude.
“I did not lie to you when I told you I was an angel,” the Devil said. “When I learned that so pious a man was suffering so grievously, I manifested in your room to see if this was true. What I’ve found has given me profound sorrow, old father, for one of God’s reverent creations is living in squalor, hunger, and misery. Your pain is enough to make an angel weep, and still you give thanks to the one who has abandoned you to such wretchedness. Why has God made you to suffer?”
For a moment the old man simply sat in his chair, while the Devil read the emotions passing over his face hoping for one instant of doubt. But Langer shook his head, as a man might do when accepting something beyond his understanding.
“It is true that I have suffered in my life,” the old man said, “but there have been sweet moments, and times when love was mine to enjoy. These were gifts in my life, and I can’t diminish them by feeling bitter for a little hunger, or for the cold in my bones. Why should I denounce God because of it?”
Fool, fool, fool! The Devil thought, and wished to disclose his true nature to convince the old man to renounce God and receive the gifts he could provide. But he knew from past experience that the truly pious would only recoil from the one they knew as evil, and so that would accomplish nothing. No, a man like Langer had to convince himself of his putrid state of existence.
Lucifer offered the old man several more arguments for turning away from God, but each was deflected by Langer’s modesty, and his belief that even in pain a man must still deliver his loyalty to the one who had given him life.
Silently, Lucifer seethed to have failed in his initial arguments, and made his footfalls absolutely quiet to prevent the old man from sensing the way he stamped around the small room in a rage. The Devil raked his claws down his own chest, thick black blood seeping from his wounds; the Devil pulled on his tongue and bit it off with jagged teeth, then swallowed the blood that boiled in his mouth; the Devil gouged his own eyes with the horns of his thumbs so he couldn’t see the old man’s piety any longer—
But then he healed himself, and spoke gently to the old man.
“I will return in three days’ time,” he said. “Perhaps God will see your need, and bless you.”
“I’ll look forward to your return,” Langer said, smiling. “It’s nice to have someone to speak to now and again.”
The Devil dematerialized, knowing he must turn the old man before death delivered him from temptation.
Lucifer manifested in the place called Hell, but it was no physical place, or a place mortal man could find within the sphere of the celestial bodies. Hell was a place of perpetual shadows, and because a shadow must have some measure of light to be cast, some lingering illumination, precious but beyond his ability to locate sensually, emanated from the fissures in the rocks that were not rocks.
The Devil brooded like a gargoyle in the heart of his domain, watching the slithering spiritual corpses of the demons and the damned, his claws pressed bloodily into his cheeks. From this promontory in the rocks he could surveil the whole of damnation, but since the machinations of Hell were divinely honed and needed no intervention, he had little to do but contemplate his sorry state.
The Devil thought of the man, Langer, and knew a single man from millions shouldn’t occupy his mind. Still, millions of men and women were easily corrupted, in great and small ways, but the old man seemed incorruptible, even in his misery. This was a challenge for Lucifer, for seeing a truly pious man fall would surely be objectionable to the Almighty. And Lucifer had given his entire existence to the task of bringing shame to God’s preferred creation, for the pain it would bestow on him.
“For once beloved,” Lucifer said to no one but himself, “and now despised, cast from that love that should have been my birthright, I bring the most vile depredation upon this inferior seed. You who bring me nothing but the misery of shadows, how will you feel when I turn this man from you, this pious man whose faith you reward with destitution and squalor? How will you feel when I turn this man away from you?”
The Devil stood up on the promontory and roared his fury, because he knew that God could hear him even in the pit.
The terrified corpses of the demons and the damned fled into the crevices of rocks at the sound of the Devil’s grievous wailing, their master’s pain their worst torment within this black interment; even the demons under his command fled from him, and gave him no companionship.
Alone, he thought, alone, alone, alone!
But then the Devil thought, you make me suffer, and I will make you suffer more!
Lucifer had turned many men, even those who once qualified as saints—every man or woman had a terminus, beyond which obeisance to God became untenable, and that terminus usually lay across some lost condition, of love, lust, or wealth. All he had to do was find the waiting fault in the old man’s psychology that would allow him to cause that stalwart piety to quake.
In three days the Devil corrupted ten thousand men and women, but in that time he could only think of Langer, and of God’s calamity.
And then he left that place of smoke and shadows, the place that was his only home.
Lucifer found the old man sitting at the table, his head bent to the radio, a cup of tepid tea at his hand. The music emitted by the radio, marred by static, played tinnily, classical music composed by a long dead musician that the Devil may even have turned.
“I have returned, old father,” the Devil said in a melodious voice that only an angel might speak. “Are you hungry tonight?”
Langer lifted his head and smiled.
“Hello, my friend,” he said. “I’m happy to see you’ve come back to me. No, I’ve not eaten. But I have tea to drink. Would you like some?”
“Thank you, no. Angels have no need for mortal sustenance.”
“Yes, yes. You only need divine sustenance, isn’t that so?”
Lucifer frowned viciously; at one time he basked in the cold fire of the divine manna, filled with the glory of it. Now all he could do was dip his face into a river of warm filth, and fill himself with waste. His hatred for the God that laid him so low trembled over his ulcerated flesh.
“Yes, angels only need divine sustenance,” the Devil said. “But mortal men need more than God’s light. Why are you hungry? Why are you cold? Hasn’t your God provided for you?”
“My God has provided enough.”
“For your body, perhaps. But I see a man in need. Has not your God rewarded your devotion?”
The old man sat silently, staring into darkness. The Devil knew the subtlety of the question, for any man would question the motives of an absentee creator. Why would God turn away from such a pious man? Even Lucifer could find no logic in such behavior, though he was inclined to believe in the arbitrariness of divinity.
“I see that he has not,” the Devil said, studying the emotions present on Langer’s face. “I am only an angel, and cannot speak for God. But I can surely see when a good and decent man is being punished for his piety.”
“I don’t believe I’m being punished,” the old man said, though the wonder clearly shone on his face. “Who am I to judge exalted things?”
“I, too, am just a servant, as vulnerable to the whims of God as you or any creature in the earth. But I can see when some injustice has befallen a man. Perhaps I’m only ignorant, and there is some sure cause.”
The Devil pulled a chair away from the table and sat, cautious that the old man would not inadvertently touch him and know him for what he was.
“Tell me about yourself, old father,” Lucifer said. “Tell me the story of your life that I may understand why you have come to this end.”
Langer told the Devil of his childhood, which was uneventful; though full of love from good parents. He’d grown into a strong young man, moral and conscientious, who worked hard to fulfill his education, and then translate his learning into a thriving business. He married a beautiful woman, Elise, who bore him two sons and a daughter, healthy, happy children that gave him no worry. Thankful for all the good things in life God had given him, he gave liberally to charities, and always worshipped.
But the years slowly broke down all the good things he had accumulated in life. His eldest son was killed in war, a senseless war he didn’t understand, and then his wife, depressed by the loss of the child, took ill and succumbed to pneumonia. His second son died in a car accident, killed by a drunken driver. As if to magnify his misery, one of his employees stole large amounts of money from his business, and he was unable to recover; he had to sell what had taken twenty years to build, simply to pay his debts, which he felt must be paid, though doing so meant his financial ruination.
He went to live with his daughter, his precious, lovely daughter, who was the only one left of his family. And he thought his blessings had returned, because she and her husband were expecting a child. But his daughter suffered a complication in her pregnancy, and after several days of pain and anguish, both she and the child died in a hospital bed, and all the loved ones in his life were gone. Her daughter’s husband, his heart hardened by the death of his wife and child, told Langer to find somewhere else to live, and, honoring the man’s grief, the old man found work for himself and meager housing.
After a few years of hard work with a broom and mop, Langer’s eyesight began to fail, and soon he was legally blind, and then completely blind. When he was unable to work any longer, his case worker helped him file for assistance, and found a room for him, the room in which he still lived, though now all alone and sightless.
“You were given much,” the Devil said, grateful for the seeming indifference of his adversary, “only to have it all taken away. You’ve seen much cruelty by way of your faith in God.”
“Was it truly cruelty?” the old man said, wiping the tears from his eyes with a skinny hand. “If I hadn’t known my wife, my children, if I hadn’t known prosperity, I would have had nothing to lose. To have these things, even for a short time on earth, has given me great joy. Shouldn’t I be grateful?”
“I understand your need to be gracious, old father. You’re a decent man, a good man, who has been treated indecently. It would have been better to have received nothing, than to have it so viciously taken from you.”
“Who am I to tell my God what is just and what is folly? Are you really an angel? If so, then you must know the grandeur of God.”
Yes, Lucifer was quite aware of God’s grandeur, and the majesty of his hosts. He remembered the throne of God, which was like nothing ever hewn on earth, a light that pervaded everything, so beautiful, so comforting, so majestic. And taken from him, just as everything had been taken from the old man. Heaven was once his home, but God had cruelly cast him into the pit. Why should anyone question the motives of an angel who’d been so coldly treated? The Devil wished for everything imbued with even a fragment of that divine light corrupted and made ugly.
Why should human beings enjoy that light, and he not at all?
And why didn’t Langer feel the same way? The old man’s reticence infuriated him, caused his skin to ripple. Other human beings had cursed God for far less, for inconsequential losses.
“I am an angel,” Lucifer said, “and I know God’s grandeur. But I also know his capriciousness. He should not have made you suffer so. He has the power to be merciful to you, to grant you comfort and care. And yet, he does not. Why not? Is not a pious man entitled to some comfort in this life?”
“I have all the comfort I need, my friend.”
Lucifer studied the dark, damp room, then shook his head, amazed at the depth of human gullibility.
“Your creator has abandoned you,” he said in a gentle voice. “What do you owe him anymore, but to tell him that you’ve renounced him for renouncing you?”
Langer held his hands to his cold cup of tea, staring down and seeing nothing.
“I cannot,” he said. “I will not, not even to my death.”
“Why not, old father? Don’t you understand what he has done to you?”
“God gave me life. Why should I repay such a beautiful gift with ingratitude?”
The Devil clenched his fist and bit into his hand, drawing a copious flow of blood. He couldn’t stand listening to the old man’s story any longer, because it was his story, and it was too painful to hear.
Lucifer rose from his chair and moved away from the table.
“It gives me grief to see you worship the one who has cast you aside,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Langer said. “Don’t grieve for me. I’ve lived a good life.”
Lucifer fell speechless. If the man could feel an eternity of misery, such as he had known—
“Will you visit me again?” the old man asked.
The Devil still wished to turn the old man, but he couldn’t stand the torment of the similarities between them. Their association brought him too much pain.
“I may see you again,” the Devil said. “Or not.”
And Lucifer was gone.
The Devil brooded on the stony promontory overlooking Hell, sick with the poison of having failed to turn the old man away from God.
He ran his claws against the rocks, shaving sparks into the air.
Around him the voices of damnation groaned like a chorus of lechers, filling the air with hateful sounds. How he despised these miserable souls, cast down to suffer with him in the pit. How long would this indecent machine endure? He had suffered millennia in Gehenna, a tool for testing fidelity, a scapegoat for challenging God’s will. Were his own defiant actions born of his free will, or consigned by God? And weren’t the other angels thrown down with him to provide him an army for the tempting of God’s preferred creation?
The Devil was a cog in a gearbox, nothing more, cast down to serve as the foreman of God’s machine of judgment.
His suffering was only the cost of doing business with God.
“You play games, and you make us suffer,” he said to himself, certain of his philosophy. “You make men to suffer, and angels as well.”
He closed his eyes against the vision of the damned and cursed his father, who he once loved.
And he thought of the old man, of the man’s life bearing fruit only to have that fruit withered and destroyed. The old man and he were kindred, cruelly treated because of the whims of an unknown destiny. God’s will? It was God’s cruelty that made them both to suffer.
Lucifer did not wish to return to the old man’s room. He’d given up the hope of turning the man, who was satisfied to blindly worship his tormentor; and the sight of Langer only brought his own sad state to mind.
The Devil had been the fomenter of a billion acts of violence and cruelty, if only to bring darkness to the light which God dispersed so capriciously. The viler the better, as far as he was concerned.
But Langer lived in a mirror of Lucifer’s reality, and the Devil’s passion frothed at the notion of the old man’s exile from grace.
He couldn’t bear to think of the old man perishing in the cold, small room, which was the hell into which God had cast him. The cold of the room held the old man as the fires of Hell held Lucifer, and God was content to let both suffer mutually until their ends.
“I’ll defy your testing of this man,” Lucifer bellowed from his perch as he stood. “He’ll not know suffering until his end. I’ll not let you do to him what you intend to do to me.”
When the Devil materialized in the room he found the old man lying shivering in the small bed, the dirty wool blanket drawn to his neck.
Langer was dying.
Immediately Lucifer transformed his flesh into an imitation of what it used to be, smooth alabaster glossy to the touch, and he transfigured his hideous face into the countenance of a beautiful man.
He kneeled before the old man’s bed and laid a soft hand across his cheek. The old man convulsed painfully, but raised his own hand to cover Lucifer’s.
“I’ve returned, old father,” the Devil said pleasantly, his red eyes gazing on the old man’s face sympathetically. “I’ve come to comfort you.”
Langer gasped, then seemed to settle in the bed.
“It’s you, my friend” he said. “I didn’t think you would return.”
“I would not leave you alone.”
“I’m afraid,” the old man said, his face reflecting the horror of the dying. “Please, don’t leave me.”
The Devil summoned his powers, which he’d previously used only for grotesque displays, to warm the old man’s body, which soon ceased shivering. Langer breathed more easily, and patted Lucifer’s hand.
“I see you are an angel,” he said.
“I am an angel,” Lucifer said. “But I have sinned.”
“You’re good to me.”
“Answer my question,” the Devil said, because he desperately wanted to know. “As you lie on your deathbed, old father, why do you still remain faithful to the one who has turned away from you?”
Langer’s breathing grew shallow; his body was failing.
“I have nothing,” he said, “but God’s love.”
“Is this the way God loves you?”
“He is good, he is good,” the old man said in a whisper. “You see, he has sent an angel to comfort me.”
Lucifer kneeled by the old man’s bed, holding his hand and singing softly, as only an angel can sing, of the beautiful heavenly choir.
“Thank you,” Langer said, touching the Devil’s cheek softly.
“You have from me the only love that I had left to give,” the Devil said. “Now it is gone.”
Then life left the old man’s body, and he lay quietly in bed, having remained faithful to his creator, though he’d suffered terribly.
“Is this –what is meant for you and me?” Lucifer asked as he gazed into the old blind man’s quiescent face.
But even as he asked this question, a light formed over the Devil’s skin, and he gazed at his shimmering hands in wonder.
His body was transformed, and his face, from a facsimile of divine beauty into the beatific vision he once bore before the fall.
As he remained kneeling before his savior, this new light filled the small, dark room, and it filled every room and every crevice on earth, and even the shades of the pit became enflamed with light. The machine of Hell dissolved, and all the vanquished spirits were released from their imprisonment. All the world was filled with light, and all souls good and evil were equalized. The universe transformed from matter into light, into one great soul, which had waited for the pulling of a lynchpin to be sprung.
And the Morning Star was taken up again.
Lawrence Buentello has published over 80 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.