[NOTE: A lot of folks in other countries see the site at unsual hours, and I didn't want this week's special event to get buried under other posts and be less visible over the weekend, so I moved the two relevant posts to the top. This should also make it easier for folks who want to participate but who couldn't read the story during work hours. For an explanation of what we're doing see here.--ja]
Through and Through
ALREADY when he walked in through the side door, there were new people sitting here and there, separately in the Saturday afternoon dimness. The air was cool, and smelled of floor-wax.
He almost peered at the shadowed faces, irrationally hoping one might be hers, come back these seven days later to try for a different result; but most of the faces were lowered, and of course she wouldn’t be here. Two days ago, maybe—today, and ever after, no.
The funeral would be next week sometime, probably Monday. No complications about burial in consecrated soil anymore, thank God . . . or thank human mercy.
His shoes knocked echoingly on the glossy linoleum as he walked across the nave, pausing to bow toward the altar. In the old days he would have genuflected, and it would have been spontaneous; in recenter years the bow had become perfunctory, dutiful—today it was a twitch of self-distaste.
There were fewer people than he had first thought, he noted as he walked past the side altar and started down the wall aisle toward the confessional door, passing under the high, wooden Stations of the Cross and the awkwardly lettered banners of the Renew Committee. Maybe only three, all women; and a couple of little girls.
They never wanted to line up against the wall—a discreet couple of yards away from the door—until he actually entered the church; and then if there were six or so of them they’d be frowning at each other as they got up out of the pews and belatedly formed the line. silently but obviously disagreeing about the order in which they’d originally entered the church.
Last week there had been five, counting her. And afterward he had walked back up to the front of the church and stepped up onto the altar level and gone into the sacristy to put on the vestments for 5:30 Mass. Had he been worrying about what she had said? What sins you shall retain, they are retained. Probably he had been worrying about it.
As he opened the confessional door now, he nodded to the old woman who was first in line. The others appeared to be trying to hide behind her—he could see only a drape of skirt and a couple of shoes behind her. He didn’t recognize the old woman.
He stepped into the little room and pulled the door closed behind him. They wouldn’t begin to come in until he turned on the red light over the door, and he needed a drink.
The little room was brighter than the interior of the church, lit by a pebbled glass window high in the wall at his back. He opened the closet and shook out his surplice, a white robe that he pulled over his head. Then he undraped from a hanger the stole, a strip of cloth like a long, double-wide necktie, purple silk on one side and white on the other; and he draped it over his head and down the front of his surplice, with the purple side showing. The audience demands the costume, he thought as he bent down to snag a bottle of Wild Turkey from behind an old pair of shoes.
A couple of little girls out there, he thought. Chinese-restaurant-style confessions, those will be, one from column A and two from column B: I quarreled with my brothers, I disobeyed my parents. They look to be a little young yet for impure thoughts.
He unscrewed the plastic cap and took a mouthful of the warm bourbon, letting the vapors fill his head before he swallowed. And for their penances I’ll tell them, Say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.
No use in being imaginative. Once he had told a young boy, For your penance, I want you to tell your mother and father that you love them. Later he’d learned that the boy had found this flatly impossible—apparently in the boy’s family the declaration would have been taken as a symptom of insanity—and the boy had lived in silent fear of Hell for two weeks before his family had finally gone to Confession again, at which point the boy had taken the same old sins to another priest, one who would reliably give the conventional sort of penance.
Confession is good for the soul. I still believe that’s true, he thought. It can make life easier to bear, after all, letting in the fresh air, sharing your secrets with another. But not when it’s so tied in with the dread of Hell. That woman last week—
He took another sip of the bourbon to take the edge off the memory. And it hadn’t been his fault—how could he have known how strangled she was with scruples and legalisms? She didn’t need—hadn’t needed—a sympathetic human being to talk to; what would have served her best would have been an 800 number—If your sin has to do with the 6th Commandment, press 6 now.
In his early years as a priest, he had seemed to feel heavier after hearing confessions, especially the marathon sessions before Easter, as if some residue of the absolved sins clung to him; and he had whimsically speculated that clouds of evicted sins polluted the air afterward, interfering with TV reception and making cars hard to start. Now he just felt tired afterward, as if he had spent the afternoon helping a lot of people to get their checking accounts unscrambled.
The woman last week hadn’t wanted any help, not from him. She had sat her thin frame down in the chair across from his, awkwardly, tucking in her skirt and glancing around, clearly uneasy about the face-to-face style of Confession. She’d have been happier with the old booth arrangement, he thought, whispering through a screen so that priest and penitent saw each other only as dim silhouettes; though she had hardly looked more than thirty years old. He took one more mouthful of the liquor now, and then screwed the cap back on and put the bottle away.
She had made the sign of the cross and then started right in, exhaling as she spoke: “Bless me, Father, I have sinned.” Her voice was shaky. “My last Confession was . . . at least five years ago, before ’96. I’ve meant to come—it’s scary, though, a big speed bump to get over—last week I went to a wedding—” He noted that her left ring finger didn’t have a ring on it; “—and there were family people there, people I hadn’t seen since college. I took Communion. At the Mass.”
He had nodded, and when she didn’t go on he raised his eyebrows.
“I took Communion while in a state of mortal sin,” she said.
“The Eucharist provides forgiveness of sins,” he told her. He had preferred Eucharist to Communion ever since Whitley Strieber’s book about space aliens had taken the latter term as its title.
“Father,” she had said uncertainly, “not mortal sins. Which I’ll get to a lot of, here, I hope. If you’re not in a state of grace, Communion is like sugar to a diabetic—uh, damaging?” She spread her hands as if to catch a ball.
He had smiled at her, and he hoped now that his smile had not been patronizing. “God understands—” he began.
“But it’s God, literally coming into us, right?” she interrupted. “If there’s oily rags and newspapers around, you’ll catch fire from the heat of Him, your soul gets scorched, right?” She laughed nervously “And I’ve got a lot of oily rags in my soul. I don’t like the idea that I’ve . . .” She shook her head and closed her mouth.
“Sin,” he had said expansively. “What do we mean by it? Isn’t the only real sin cruelty, to others—or to yourself?”
For a moment neither of them spoke, and he hoped this wouldn’t take too long. How many more people were waiting out there? “I came a long way to get here,” she had said finally. “I didn’t really think I’d get this far. I don’t need to talk about ‘What’s sin?’ with some guy. I’ve done some terrible things, and right now I think I can say them out loud; I think. I want absolution.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m not going to absolve you for something that isn’t a sin.”
Her mouth was open in evident disbelief. “As a favor to me,” she said.
“No, it’s ridiculous.” He noticed her bony hands clutched together, and it occurred to him that she might be an addict—amphetamines, probably “Don’t trouble yourself over these—”
“‘What sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven,’” she said, her voice getting brittle, “I remember that part. And ‘What sins you shall retain, they are retained’ You’re telling me you’re retaining this one.” Her smile made her cheekbones prominent. “I bet you’d retain them all, if you heard them. I bet none of them are sins anymore . . . according to you.”
“I’m not retaining anything! So far I haven’t heard anything you’ve done wrong. Tell me—”
“No.” She had stood up. “This was a mistake.”
And she had walked out.
And on Thursday morning she had been found dead in a back pew of the church. Dead of an overdose of drugs—a speedball, he’d been told, cocaine and heroin. Her parents were long-time parishioners, and her funeral would be in this church. Luckily she had not left a note.
How long will it take, he wondered as he reached for the switch that would turn on the red light over the door outside, before people are ready to abandon the crude supernatural templates that obscure God’s love? When will they see that God is in all of us, and that what we most need is to forgive ourselves?
The knob turned, and the door swung inward and a little girl in blue jeans and a green sweater stepped in, Reeboks scuffing the carpet. She appeared to be about eight years old, with short-cropped dark hair.
He wondered if she had shoved in ahead of the old woman he’d seen at the front of the line. The girl’s face was narrow, with horizontal wrinkles in the lower eyelids already.
“Do sit down,” he told her.
He had forgotten to put a stick of Doublemint gum in his mouth, but she didn’t appear to notice any smell of liquor, and he’d remember to do it before the old woman came in.
She climbed into the chair, and her shoes didn’t touch the carpet.
“Bless me, Father,” she said, “I have sinned. My last Confession was too long ago to remember. These are my sins—I killed myself on Thursday” She looked at him mournfully. “I know that’s very bad.”
He was aware of cold air on his face—his forehead was suddenly dewed with sweat.
“That’s not funny,” he said, “a woman did—was found dead—”
“I want absolution,” the little girl said. “I want the sacrament. I came a long way to get here. I didn’t really think I’d get this far.”
Abruptly he remembered that the door to the confessional opened outward.
He turned to look at it—it was closed now, and its frame didn’t appear to have been tampered with any time lately—and when he turned back, it was a white-haired old woman who sat opposite him.
He jumped violently in his chair, inhaling in a whispered screech. High blood pressure made a ringing wail in his head, and his peripheral vision had narrowed to nearly nothing.
He blinked several times, and exhaled. “Who are you?” he asked in a rusty voice. His fingers were tingling, gripping the arms of his chair.
“And before that,” quavered the old woman, “I took Communion while in a state of mortal sin.” She had been looking down at her bony old hands, and now she looked up at him; and her eyes were empty holes in the wrinkled parchment of her face.
Through the holes he could see the fabric of the chair, bright in the afternoon light from the window at his back. She wasn’t even casting a shadow.
It’s a ghost, he told himself as he made himself breathe deeply. It’s the ghost of that woman who was here a week ago. Priests have seen ghosts before.
He flexed his legs under the surplice. He didn’t want to find that his legs had gone to sleep when he made a bolt for the door. He would say there’d been an electrical short, he smelled gas, felt faint, and if they found the Wild Turkey blame it on the Vietnamese priest.
But the old woman had reached out one papery hand as slow as drifting smoke, and now touched his knee; he shouldn’t even have been able to feel the touch, through the fabric of the surplice and his slacks, but the impact punched another shrill wheeze out of him, and numbed his whole leg. His heart beat several times very fast, then seemed to stop; and he began panting in relief when his pulse began beating regularly again, though it was still fast.
“And before that,” she said, in the same frail voice, “you took Communion in a state of mortal sin.”
He remembered a Tennyson line: The dead shall look me through and through. It was probably true—he had not been to another priest for Confession in . . . months . . . and he took Communion many times a week, at every Mass he said.
She might kill him if she touched him again. Would it be deliberate, did she mean to hurt him?
He was dizzy, and he became aware that he could feel the late afternoon light on his face—but he was sure he hadn’t turned his chair around in the spasm of her touching him. He blinked, but he couldn’t see anything except a gray fog. Quickly he darted a hand to his right eye, and his dry fingers found only a hole in a numb, crackling surface.
“Bless me, Father,” came his own voice from a few feet away, “I have sinned. My last Confession was a thousand years ago. I want absolution.”
He jumped with all his will, but not physically—and then his hands were gripping the arms of his own chair, and the window was at his back and he could see again, and it was the little girl in the chair across from him now.
“Don’t—do that again,” he whispered. His heart was hammering again.
“I firmly resolve to sin no more,” the little girl said, “and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.”
She can’t do anything deliberately, he thought. She can’t sin anymore, she’s dead. She might kill me, but with no more moral responsibility than a sick dog would have.
She was waiting.
His sister baptized dogs and cats—just a lick of spit on a fingertip to make a cross on the furry forehead, a whispered I baptize thee . . . Why couldn’t he just say the words here, give this lost revenant what it wanted? Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis . . . but those were the old Latin phrases; these days it was I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
But this thing can’t have contrition, he thought, it can’t repent. Its living soul is with God—this is just a suffering cast-off shell.
But it is suffering, as dogs and cats do, and they don’t have souls either.
Why was she appearing as a girl and an old woman? Why was she so widely avoiding the appearance she’d had when she’d come to Confession last week, the appearance she’d had when she’d died? Was it too traumatic?
And suddenly, with something like the intimacy of sore muscles. he knew that he was responsible for the form she took; when she walked in, she had been an uncollapsed wave of possible appearances, all the appearances she’d ever had; it was his guilt that had collapsed all the percentages of possibilities down to this small ‘‘one.” A few moments ago he had even forced on her the appearance of an old woman, which was just a sheet of old skin because she would never actually live to that age.
Would a better priest, a better man, have seen the woman as she had appeared last week, when she’d been alive?
The world, before the first sentient man left the Garden of Eden and looked at it, had not yet been defined by attention—it had been a spectrum of worlds-in-potential that had not included humanity, an infinity of possible prehuman histories; but by the time Adam stepped out and turned his attention on it, he had sinned mortally, and so the history that came to the fore as the actual one was a history of undeserved suffering and death. When Adam’s foot touched the soil, when his eyes took in the landscape, it stopped being many potentials and became one actual: a landscape that had been a savage killing-ground for millennia.
Light turns out to be particles if you measure for particles, he thought, waves if you measure for waves. Adam had helplessly measured for misery. What sort of world would a sinless first man have found pre-existent out there? Animals that had never starved, cats that had never killed?
I’ve measured for . . . evasion, he thought. Even last week, here.
“Ego te—” he began; then halted.
She might kill him if she touched him again. And where would he be then? A moment ago he had told himself that her soul was now with God—but what if it weren’t? What if it were still sentient, but somewhere else?
What if Purgatory and Hell are real? It had been a long time since he had entertained any such notions; in fact it had been a long time since he’d believed in the existence of any sort of actual Heaven.
But this dead penitent sitting in front of him made all sorts of horrible ideas possible. Did he want to die right after using his priestly powers—thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek—to perform the mockery of a sacrament? He had started to do it—Ego te . . .
And I’m not in a state of grace anyway, he thought, if all these damned legalisms actually apply, if all the awful old supernatural stories are true!
He wasn’t aware of being scared, but he was shivering in the warm room, and his hands were tingling.
I’d probably go to—everlasting punishment!—and a snakeskin half-wit piece of me would join her in her lost ghosthood, to be another specter forever haunting confessionals, looking for impossible absolution. Visible, perhaps, only to other doomed priests.
“Can you have a firm purpose of amendment?” he asked her unhappily. “Can you . . . mend your ways, go and sin no more?”
The little girl held out her hand; not threateningly, but he flinched back from the offered touch.
“I came for the sacrament,” she said.
He was suddenly sure that there was no one waiting outside the door—the others he had seen had only been her, fragmented as if in a kaleidoscope, and this conversation was taking place in some corner outside of normal time. If he were to open the door, pull it open. he’d see beyond the door frame only the gray fog he had seen when he had been in the shell of the old woman.
“There’s nobody else,” she said. “Nobody else talks to me but you. Hollowed be thy name.”
The dead shall look me through and through.
“Give me the sacrament,” she said. “Deliver us from evil.” Or to it, he thought.
Her hand came up again, but hovered between them as if undecided between touching him and making the sign of the cross. “Okay,” he said.
The hand wavered sketchily in the air, and then subsided into her lap.
God help me, he thought. If I’m not dead already myself, and beyond all help.
He stood up slowly, his head bobbing; and the little girl just watched him solemnly. He stepped to the closet and slid from a high shelf one of his sick-call kits, a six-inch black leather box with hinges and a latch.
He returned to his chair and sat down, and he opened the box on his lap. Inside, tucked into fitted depressions in red velvet, were a silver crucifix, a silver holy-water sprinkler, a round silver box that held no consecrated hosts at the moment, a spare folded stole . . . and a little silver jar of oil.
It was olive oil, and it would probably be rancid by this time, but he recalled that the oil in this kit was real Oleum Infirmorum, blessed by the bishop.
In recent years he had come to the conclusion that the oil had no efficacy on its own—whether it was olive oil or motor oil, blessed or not—and was simply a comfort to sick people with heads full of Biblical imagery; but now he was cautiously glad this was precisely the prescribed kind.
“I’ve got a lot of oily rags in my soul already,” the little girl said. She was frowning and shifting on the chair.
She looks me through and through, he thought. “I’m going to give you the sacrament,” he said, forcing his voice to be steady.
He unscrewed the lid of the little silver jar, and leaned over it. “God of mercy,” he said, “ease the suffering and comfort the weakness of your servant—uh—” He looked up at her with his eyebrows raised. He could feel drops of sweat on his forehead.
“Jane,” the girl said. “This—isn’t Confession.”
“Jane . . . ”
The breath caught in his throat as he abruptly remembered what would shortly be required of him here.
After several seconds he exhaled and went on, bleakly, “Jane, whom the Church anoints with this holy oil. We ask this through Christ our Lord.”
“Amen,” said Jane. “This is last rites.”
“Yes,” he said.
He would have to touch her. The sacrament of Extreme Unction—or Anointing of the Sick, as they called it now—would require that he touch her forehead.
Her light touch, through two layers of cloth, had nearly killed him a few moments ago. This would be virtually skin-to-skin, with only the insulation of the oil.
And was this just another mockery of a sacrament? The rules permitted this sacrament to be administered to a person who appeared to have been dead for as much as two hours, who might in fact very well be dead, since no one could be sure precisely when the soul left a body that had died.
But two days?—and anointing this, while the body was at a mortuary somewhere? Briefly he imagined explaining it to his bishop: But she was still speaking!
He dipped his right forefinger into the oil and lifted it out—but just sat staring at it while two drops formed and fell silently back into the jar.
He thought of his sister, baptizing cats and dogs; and he thought of Adam, who had imposed suffering and death on all soulless things.
And he dipped his finger again, and leaned forward. “Per istam sanctam unctionem—” he said, and he touched his finger to Jane’s forehead.
Her skin was as cold as window-glass, and though he felt no impact and his heartbeat didn’t accelerate wildly this time, his finger and then his knuckles, were numb.
He drew the sign of the cross on her forehead with the oil and went on speaking, remembering now to do it in English, “—may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Jane was motionless, looking up at him.
“Amen,” she whispered.
Oil trickled down and collected under her eye sockets like tears. The numbness was gone from his hand, and he dipped his finger again.
With his left hand he took hold of her right hand—it was as cold as her forehead—and then made the sign of the cross on the back of her hand.
“May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up,” he said.
“Amen,” she said again. Her voice was remote now, as if she were speaking from the far end of a corridor.
He reached for her other hand, but it was gone; her face, alone, hung over the chair like a reflection of sunlight on a wall, and for an instant it was the face of the woman who had come in here a week ago.
He couldn’t see her mouth move, but he heard the receding voice say, “And what’s my penance?”
Five Our Fathers? Tell your parents you love them? You don’t get a penance with Extreme Unction, he thought—but she seemed to need it. He was at a loss, and cast in his mind for some prayer out of the Bible.
Only after he had said it, and the face had seemed to smile and then disappeared, did he realize that what he said had not been from the Bible:
“Go gentle into that good night,” he had told her. “Rest easy with the dying of the light.”
Bastardized Dylan Thomas! But it seemed to have been adequate—he was alone in the room.
When his pulse and breathing had slowed to normal, he made the sign of the cross, spotting his surplice with oil, and he thought, was that all right?
There was only silence in his mind for an answer, but for once it was not an empty silence.
And so he sat motionless until the door opened—outward, giving him a glimpse, as he looked up, of the dim church beyond.
A young man stepped in hesitantly, sniffed the air, then shuffled to the chair that had so recently been Jane’s.
“Bless me, Father,” the young man said huskily as he sat down, “I have sinned.”
And the priest listened, nodding, as the young man began talking, and he absently replaced the lid on the oil jar and put the sick-call kit aside.
© 2003 by Tim Powers. First appeared in The Devils In The Details (Burton, Mich.: Subterranean Press). All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.