“This was the story I told myself for years: One night, while the people of Coldhaven slept, the Devil walked out of the sea, up from the west shore … passing the hillside … heading away inland, to nobody knew where. Nobody knew where he was going … Nobody knew where he’d come from, either, but I suppose they imagined some other dimension, some dark place under the earth, and some fault line where the land meets the sea, a gap between this world and another kingdom, another realm, a separate world like the separate world where God dwells, forever in the present tense. But there wasn’t a separate world, there was only this: the air, the sky, the snow … the water, the odd gust of wind finding me … I had always thought that he [the Devil] – or she, or it – was an invention, a corruption of some older and finer presence, some god of the earth, some spirit that stitched everything together, stitched it with sap and blood and birdsong and made it whole. Before it became the Devil, that spirit had been something else – an angel, Pan, the genius cucullatus, some wandering breath of wind or light that touched a man from time to time when he was working in the nether field, or steering his boat through the fishing grounds, far at sea. The people had known it once and they had respected it; then the priests came, and they’d made it into something else. They took that bright, dark spirit and called it Satan, Beezlebub, Baal. The Devil. They didn’t want to be stitched together with rocks and stones and trees, they didn’t want to share their world with animals and birds and sprites. They wanted to be alone and separate. They wanted to own the land and have their God be a man, like them, so he could grant them dominion over the beasts of the earth. I had told myself this story because it was easy, and there was even a grain of truth in it – but there was another story, a story that was exactly the same as the first, except for the fact that it took into account the possibility that those old-time priests and landowners had loved the earth, and that they had also been touched by the breath of the spirit, only it had touched them with a terror they couldn’t overcome, and their love had turned to fear.
Now, in this new story, they woke in the night and they were aware of something in the room beside the bed, and they realized, to their horror, that this thing they met in the fields, or on the fishing grounds, could follow them home and sit, biding its time, under their own roofs. They had thought it existed only out there, an unquiet grave in the meadows where the old spirit lay buried. Now they saw that had been buried, but it wasn’t dead, it couldn’t be dead, it could only be hidden. With no small effort and a willed blindness to the things that moved in the night, in the grass, in their own flesh, it could be concealed almost indefinitely – or so they had hoped. But it couldn’t be hidden forever, and soon it began to reveal itself in all manner of signs and gestures and sly, fleeting hints of terrible beauty and a terrifying wildness. The Devil they knew, and the Devil they didn’t know. And maybe there were times when they suspected the Devil wasn’t a devil at all, but something worse. Why did they see possession in so many of their neighbors? Why were they so keen to drown and burn harmless old women in their market squares and on their shorefronts? Because they were the ones who were afraid of being possessed, they were the ones who thought that the day might come when a decent citizen was going about his ordinary business, walking his fields or steering his boat through the harbor mouth, and the Devil would come and touch him on the shoulder, singling him out and taking him aside so he could see and hear and smell his own true self. There must have been times, in the life of every one of those upright men and true, when he imagined letting go of everything that kept him steady and allowing himself to slip into the incandescent calm of the truly possessed. They must have known how close it was: They could smell the sulfur, they could feel the heat of the flames. They were the Devil’s own; they were his chosen. They knew, in their hearts, that the simpletons and scapegoats they tried and burned were nothing but unholy innocents. They knew, because they tasted the Devil on their own lips, smelled him on their own hands. They woke in the night and something from the fields had followed them into their inner chambers to await its moment. All they had to do was open their hearts.“
– John Burnside, The Devil’s Footprints, pg.207 (U.S.: Doubleday Publishing, 2007)