About 4700 words
Round felt hat crushed in one huge paw, a giant man plodded up the stair toward the chapel door in nodding quiet steps. He cast his eyes about like a hunted animal, wide open, quick and tense. When he reached the entrance door he tightened his mouth, and lightly bounced the palm of his hand upon the heavy brass knob as if testing a stovetop for heat, afraid of burns. The door burst outwards and almost struck him. He lurched back, a Colossus on tiptoe dancing in work boots, and his hand caught the edge of the door right before it hammered his face. Two stolid nuns chattered their way beneath his gaze and glided by with no discernable feet down the steps into the street, arms folded under their cloaks. The sisters wasted no notice of him, apparently assuming something so large as he was obliged to be part of the building. He clutched at the top of the door then edged his head around the heavy wood to blink into the darkness. He drew breath like a skin diver, plunged under the lintel and came up for air on the other side. He stopped there, breathed deeply and frowned about until his eyes found the priest, a little man with oiled hair and flaccid jowls who leaned, legs crossed at the ankles, on the end of the last pew by the confessional. His arms were also crossed, elbows cradled in his palms.
Father John glanced down without moving his face, pinched back the edge of his black sleeve and rolled his wrist to check his watch. He pursed his lips. It was almost time for Vespers, far past time for the cleaning women to finish in the sanctuary. That little covey of cackling hens were, in his humble opinion, not quite as reverent as they should be in this holy space. They seemed to think the Lord’s carpets were no better than anyone else’s. He’d talk to the Bishop about that. No. No, he’d ask the Bishop to speak with the Mother Superior. The nuns were supposed to handle that sort of trivia, weren’t they? So that he and Father Roget could tend to their flock, doing the Lord’s work? The Lord with a Capital L, and come to think of the Capital L’s work, why on earth was he here chewing on air when there was a sermon waiting to be written. The theme was already hammered out on his typewriter, ‘Haste and Arrogance, taking time for thy neighbor.’ Now if this interminable confessional hour would ever end, he could get on with it.
Father John’s nose was suddenly pulled upwards by a sneeze. He barely snatched his pocket tissue in time. He stifled a tiny ‘snit’ into his tissue, dabbed his nose and looked up just in time to catch one of the cleaning women flick a smiling glance at him. What was she smiling about? Probably enjoying that he was allergic to their floor oil. It would be just like those little hens to indulge themselves in that kind of small-mindedness. Hmmph.
Father John touched at his nose one last time and sniffed toward the woman who had smiled at him, then heard a floorboard groan behind him. His eyes followed his ears around up the aisle and were filled by what he saw. His insides froze and withered. A human mountain loomed with eyes fixed on Mohammad. He genuflected with the trembling tenacity of the trapped and firmly swallowed the rising pill of panic in his throat. Oh God-with-a-capital-G help. If only he knew how to begin. As large as the man was, he could not imagine asking, ‘What can I do for you, my son?’ even if he was the priest. Not only was the man gargantuan, but now that he drew near, Father John saw weathered furrows surrounded his eyes.
The man stopped. A lump of felt suffered in the man’s hands at the level of Father John’s eyes. Father John thought that lump could never be resurrected. Not as its previous incarnation as a hat.
Hesitant heavily accented sound resonated deep from within the man’s chest beneath his rough woolen jacket. “I need to confess, Father.” The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed like a dark sweaty yo-yo and his hands re-crushed the felt lump like Father John would a ball of paper. “I think.”
“You think? Yes?” Father John clamped his hands tightly together behind his back to keep them from shaking and stiffened his quivering smile.
The twisted lump of felt suffered again. “I don’t … I’m not sure. You see…” the immense head twisted to one side. “A while ago I watch a man die. He was not a friend of mine, but I’m not sure if I may have been at least a little bit at fault?”
Any faint remaining tattered trace of inner conversation froze and faded from Father John’s mind. He laid one hand gently on the man’s arm and held his hand out toward the confessional. He stretched what he hoped looked like a smile.
The man glanced at the confessional boxes, nodded to his shoes and shuffled toward the little boxes.
These particular confessional boxes were unconvincing little things. They were temporary. The permanent stately stalls had been carted away for what the restorers called ‘refinishing’. They should have been back by now. Father John witnessed with foreboding as the broad mountain of rough gray wool advanced on the flimsy structure and peered down through the tiny gray curtain that served as entry door.
The priest slipped neatly into his side of the confessional, lifted the edge of his cassock and placed it carefully across his knees with the tips of his fingers. He waited. His foot bounced, tapping his heel against the floor. Then Father John heard wool slide on wood then a cracking groan of boards under stress from the other side of the wall by his shoulder. He braced one hand against the wood as the tiny box leaned, heaved like a ship slewing sideways beating against the wind. He winced, visualizing the kneelers bearing that kind of weight.
“Father? You there?” The low voice beyond the screen resonated in the tiny chamber.
Father John slid the tiny door open between them in the darkness. “Yes, my friend. I am here. I was … just not certain you were.” He silently assigned himself five Hail Marys as the obvious lie slid from his throat.
“Umm … bless me Father, for I have sinned, it has been … some … some long time since my last confession. You there, Father?”
“Yes, my s… I’m here.”
“This new priest over from our parish …”
Father John cleared his throat to interrupt. “I’m sorry … my son … but the confessional is not the place to complain about your priest. If you have a complaint you need to do that in your own parish, to your own bishop.”
“Oh, he’s not there, Father.”
“Then why are you here?”
“That’s what I came to see you about, Father.”
“He’s gone. That’s what I came to see you about.”
Father John scratched his forehead and bit both his lips pressed together and shook his head slightly. “First you didn’t want him and now that he’s no longer there you want him back? I’m sorry, I don’t understand and again, that’s a matter for your bishop. You said you …”
“Father, the reason he’s gone is the reason I need to talk to you. He is the dead man. This is the reason I come.”
Father John felt his face stretch tight. He swallowed, coughed into a sudden dry cold silence and wheezed breath back in through his constricted windpipe.
“Oh yes, I’m here.”
“Are you all right over there? Are you choking? If you are, I know to do that hemlock thing; I learn it very good in a night class. I take care of people.”
“I’m sure you do. I assure you, I’m quite all right. Please continue.”
“You need some water, maybe?”
“No, no, I’m fine. Please go on.”
“It’s my daughter.” The priest heard the big man shift in the tiny cubicle. “You see … she …” The gruff voice cracked in the darkness.
Father John blinked into the shadows. “If you can, tell me what happened from the beginning.”
More wool-on-wood shifted around. A foghorn blasted directly in his ear and nearly deafened him. After he blinked and cleared his ears, in his mind’s eye Father John saw the man’s pickle fingers delicately handling a piece of tissue. He suppressed a snicker. An innocent in the body of Goliath. Perhaps.
“It began when she met this young priest.”
What? Father John struggled to keep his voice in control and even. “Yes?”
“The place, the church we come to first when we come here to this place, it is the only place we could find to kneel to God, the only priest we could find inside how far to walk to church. My wife, she not like him from the beginning, but I say he is only young and not like our old priest we grew up with so of course she’s not going to like anybody else. I tell her this and she gets that look in her face. I just close my mouth; there’s no budging once that look comes.”
Father John crossed himself and began a quick prayer to the patron saint of patience and immediately prayed for forgiveness for being unable to remember the saint’s name.
“What did she not like?”
“My wife she says he had a wild look to his eyes. She says there is more behind his eyes than there should be in a priest. I do not see this, but I do not look for it. I think he’s a young man, very active, very involved with the things a priest is supposed to do, so I think he’s a good man, just a little on the side away from what I’m used to, and this is a new place, so who knows what folks are like, so give him a chance, who knows?” Father John felt the sliding shift of wool against raw wood at his shoulder. “And so I go on with my life, go on with getting the farm going with my cousin and we getting by. Not rich, not too many new clothes, not enough money for more children. Sorry to say that Father, but we work hard and have dreams, you know? Then one day I see the priest, he’s talking to my next to youngest daughter. She has always been … been … she takes the impressions?”
“Yes, thank you Father. She is impressionable. I asked her what she talks about with the priest, and my wife she elbows me in the ribs and says that’s none of your business. So I just ask my daughter if she’s ok. She gives me this look and walks away. I think oh boy, I’m in it now. This is some like her mother, you see?”
“Well, from then, more and more I see that she and this priest are talking a lot. Nobody tells me anything, but I’m thinking, she’s gonna be a nun and there are worse things. Not what I would have wanted, I’m thinking a man should have grandchildren, but who am I? I say to myself, ‘who am I to say?’ It’s their life, right? It’s a thing that a man could be proud of his daughter doing, right?”
Father John was silent. He had seen too many parents outwardly enthusiastic when their children took vows while semi-inwardly they stewed, wanting their children to supply grandchildren. And thoroughly enjoyed the martyrdom of the ‘my daughter the nun, oh how we sacrifice, so feel sorry for me’. He remembered his father’s eyes.
A low grunt from across the screen brought Father John back and he felt the confessional wall flex inward toward him from the stress of the bulk inside the tiny cubicle.
“Tell me about it, my son.”
“I do love my daughter so, your grace.”
“There’s no need to call me ‘your grace.’ I’m just a parish priest, not a bishop. How old is she?”
A quiet sob and the foghorn, quieter this time, echoed from the dark.
“Hello? Are you all right?”
Sniff. “Yes, Father.”
“How old is your daughter?”
“She is 18, but she is much younger in her heart, much younger in her head, not serious like her sister who is not so old but works so hard.”
Father John felt weary. Sibling comparisons always brought his heart to a stop.
“This priest, he talks to my daughter more and more. And my daughter, she talks to my wife more about the church, about the suffering of the saints. The sermons also talk of this. In church I am so not easy, not so comfortable with this thing, I am not so good seeing my impressionable girl listening to this, her hands clasped in front of her like this, just like this, and her tears streaming down her face.”
In the dark, Father John could not tell what “like this” was, but a prayerful posture, with hands clasped tightly in front between full Italian breasts bloomed in his mind’s eye. It was an image he savored. He loved to see women in that prayerful pose, especially older Italian women. He did not allow himself to think why. “Did she ever speak to you of wanting to become a nun?”
“Not to me, but to my wife oh yes, many times. And my wife, she says to my daughter, very soft, I am not supposed to hear this you know, but she says to my daughter, ‘In some ways it could be better than marriage.’ And I know what she means, she is so tiny, my wife. Though Julie is not so tiny as her mother is, Julie take after me just a little.”
Father John cleared his throat. “How long did this go on?”
More softly this time, “How long did this go on?”
“I’m thinking, Father.”
Father John contemplated eternity.
“Umm … I think about two years, Father. More or less. I’m not too good with the time like that. My wife is, I am not, it’s not something I do well.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“The numbers do not stick in my head the way they should, the way my wife she says they should, the way she expects me to remember things, you’d think she thought I was…..”
“What happened next?” Father John’s best voice of understanding took on an edge. “What specifically did the priest do?”
“He … ”
Father John bit his cheek.
“He turned my daughter against me.” The deep voice hurried now. “I know young girls do not stay young girls, they grow up into women; that’s the way of the world, that’s God’s way, I know. For it to be that way the woman then must leave the house of her parents, I know this. I don’t like it much because I love my little girl so much, but that is the way of it, and I know this and I accept it.”
“So what did he do? What did he say? What?”
“He started talking to my little girl about the ways of the world. When he does this he praises things not like me, and he says the bad things about how I work with my hands for a living and he keeps the talking about saints that hurt themselves. I mean it seems to me, Father, that sainthood is something a person is, not something a person should be taught to be, should be trained for?
Father John plucked at the single point. “The saints that hurt themselves?”
“Yes, the ones that wear the hair shirt, the ones that strap their own backs, and the ones that starve themselves. Especially the ones that starve themselves she takes to heart. She starts not eating what she used to eat. And the more my wife pleads with her to take care of herself, the more I say she should eat and get some rest. The less she eats, the less she goes in the sun, the more our sweet little girl wears the black clothes. The priest sees this in our daughter when we come to church and he smiles.”
“Yes, Father, he smiles.” A deep cough. “Smiles like he pleased at her pain. He smiles at her white skin and the circles under her eyes then at my wife and me. Like he is happy to see another suffer. I know he’s a priest, Father, but he seemed more like demon to me when he smile at me as if he knows I am in pain to see my little girl suffer and he enjoys that pain too.”
“Who is this priest?”
“There is no more worry about him, Father.” A slow, even tone. “It is for that I have come to see you.”
Father John spoke very deliberately, very softly. “Tell me what you mean.”
“Who is doing the confessing here, eh? I tell you when I get to that.” Two cracking thumps on the confessional wall stopped then restarted the heart of Father John.
“I am so sorry Father, I should not speak in this way to you.” The foghorn blew again, muffled. “I am so sorry.”
“Take your time.” Father John sat as still as he could, afraid to set wrong ripples into the quiet. “Take your time.”
“Thank you, Father.” The great bulk shifted rough woolens against the thin wooden walls. The voice now spoke slowly and echoed as if he spoke down into his hands. “After that, it really … got … my little girl would not eat. She’s a growing girl. She won’t eat and she won’t tell us why. She loses weight. We take her to doctor. The doctor he says there’s no sickness. He says he can see she does not look so good but it just looks like she isn’t getting enough to eat. And I say to the doctor but she has no appetite. He says that he can find nothing, but he says if she doesn’t get more food she’s gonna be really hurt and he has read of cases where people die.”
Another shift from the other side of the thin wood, then a thump.
“What is it?”
“Nothing Father, the walls in here, they get too close sometimes. And when I think of my little girl dying, it gets too close inside too.”
“What happened after that?”
“That night she eats okay and my wife and I, we feel much better and everybody goes to bed. I wake up late at night and I hear something, but I can’t make out what. So I get the club for the baseball that I keep under the bed and I’m walking as soft as I can to find if it is someone in the house. I hear the noise it is coming from the bathroom. I go there and there is my daughter with her head over the john throwing up.”
“So she was sick?”
“I think so too, but just as I put my hand on the door I see she has her finger down her throat. This makes no sense to me. I stand there thinking, not so easy for me. And then go back to my bedroom and lay down again and now I am not sleeping, I am awake and wondering about this.”
“I cannot imagine what you felt.”
“Father, I cannot now imagine myself. I tell my wife about this thing. She is very quiet and she tells me that I do the right thing by not talking to her about it right then. And I tell you, it is not often my wife tells me I do something right.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh, yes, it is so. It is so much so. And I tell her that I do this because I cannot think of what to say, so maybe it is better that I not say anything right then and wait until I have had a chance to think. Then my wife, she comes up and kisses me, kisses me right on the cheek. And I think that maybe she loves me again. So I kiss her back, as soft as I can on her cheek. It is so nice.”
“What happened next with your daughter?”
“I come home and my wife is sitting on the sofa and I know something is wrong.”
“How did you know something was wrong?”
“Because she is sitting on the sofa, did I not just tell you that?”
“My wife she always moves, always doing something, never sit still. I used to say to her ‘sit down, you’re gonna hurt yourself, come here and let me hug you’ but she just keeps moving and tells me she has things to do. But it’s ok, I’m not so young any more and she suffered pretty good with having my children.”
“So when she was just sitting on the sofa you knew something was wrong.”
“There is a look on her face I have never seen. I come in the house, talk like normal, you know about talking to your wife… I guess you don’t, but anyway I talk about working, about moving the cows to another pasture, the tractor it’s getting to need a front tire and she says nothing. I ask her what is wrong. She does not answer. I ask again what is wrong and the tears roll down her cheeks and she holds out her hand. There is a little book in her hand. I take this book and I look at it and it is all about the suffering of the saints and how every person shall try to be like them, how every human should suffer and this little book, it says that the best, the most holy way to suffer is by not eating.”
“Fasting, yes. Thank you, Father. And all the parts about fasting in this book, they have the pencil lines under them. My wife finally begins to talk, she says she and Julie Rose they have had the fight, that Julie Rose she has said the priest he has given her this book. My daughter she has left the house maybe not to come back. I do not know what to do.”
“This priest, our holy man, I think is hurting my little girl. The doctor says if she does not eat, she will suffer problems her whole life. The priest I cannot talk to, I can never see him alone.”
“Have you thought about seeing a family counselor?”
“What does another person know about my family that my wife and I do not know? I am thinking I need to talk with this priest, but I cannot think of how to do it. Then I think, this priest, he is a walker, takes very long walks, he loves the exercise. He has talked about this in his sermons; how close to God he feels outside and that he always walks in the same place if someone wants to join him. So I go out to the woods where I hear he walks. There are the many trees there of course, but there are also rocks and the waterfalls. It’s very nice there, Father. Very nice.”
“Did you see the priest?”
“I am sorry Father, but I am trying to tell you, eh?”
“Please go on.”
“Thank you, Father. So I start walking on this trail. The trail it goes up and down and I am getting hot, so I take off my coat. I come around this little bend in the trail and there is this log laid out like a bridge across the deep place in the rocks, I don’t know what the deep place is called, with the stream in the bottom of it.”
“It’s all right; I know the kind of place you mean.”
“There is a little handrail attached to this log across the stream. The priest, he is coming across from the other way, he is in the middle of the log. He’s coming over to my side except he stops when he sees me. He stops in the middle of the log.”
“He is surprised to see me, I think, and he acts like he is afraid of me. He says for me to keep away from him. I say I only want to talk and he says keep away and he’s getting very excited and then he slips.”
“The wood it is wet and as he is backing up he slips and grabs the railing. The railing, it is not so good and it breaks and he’s hanging on the end of this piece of railing. You’d think they’d make the railings a bit stronger than that, you know?”
“He was really not all that strong for a person that supposed to be in such good shape. Me, I love the wine and all the good things that God provides that my wife makes for me to eat, and I have the big middle, but I think I’m stronger than that.”
“What happened next?”
“Oh. Sorry, Father.”
“Did you help him?”
“Anybody else I would have, I swear. Any other person I would have helped right away, I told you I have the training because I want to take care of people. But Father, for some reason I just stand there like a statue. I think about my daughter sick and dying. The priest he says for me to help him. I stand there thinking about my poor little girl wasting away. He shouts at me to help him.”
“And I start to, and I am saying to him as I walk to help him that I want to talk with him about my daughter and he says…he says…”
“He says to me that my daughter she belongs to him and God now, that there is nothing I can do about it and that I need to help him to save my immortal soul. I stop and say…”
“Yes, I stop and say what do you mean by that and he says words to me that a priest shouldn’t say and his hands they are no good any longer and he falls.”
“Falls? He fell? Is he all right?”
“That’s right, Father. He fell. And no, he is not.”
“He is not all right.”
“No, Father. I told you there was no need to worry about him any longer.”
“I go down into the place where he fell, the ravine, you called it? When I get to him there is a big cut on his head and he is not breathing. I feel his wrist for the heartbeat and again there is nothing.”
“Father? Father? Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, I’m quite all right. Please, tell me what happened next.”
“You’re sure, Father? Your voice, it don’t sound so good, it sound kind of different. Like I said, I can come over there and help you if you need, if you want. I know how to take care of people, I told you that.”
“No, no. I’m sure you do, but no, I’m quite all right. Please, tell me what happened next.”
“I leave. I get my coat and I go home. I come back through the woods and I am thinking he is now in God’s hands, this man who was supposed to be a man of God who enjoyed hurting my daughter and seeing my family suffer. But…”
“But it bothers me Father, it bothers me, this thing, this thing I did not do, to help him when he hangs there telling me it is right that my daughter she suffers. I cannot think deep enough.”
“I just came to talk to him. Just to talk to this man who wanted to hurt my daughter and my family.”
“Father, I cannot think deep enough to rest my heart and my mind it will not let go. So you tell me, Father. Did I sin?”