“Nothing will happen to you here. Tell me how I can help you.” The young priest’s quiet, compassionate voice – the one he’d practised for this occasion – filtered through the gaps in the ironwork which separated them. He sat there, the power of the little box which surrounded them both resting with him. As his heart beat faster at the thought, he felt inspired. He felt powerful. And he knew she still sat there, like ice. She must be frozen, after all those hours of walking to and fro, past the church doorway.
“I do not belong here. No-one can help. Please forgive me.”
He could see the shape of her white dress shifting, ready to leave, but he would not let his first confessional end so abruptly. The excitement pulsed through his veins.
“Do you want to tell me about it? I’m not here to judge.” She sat still again. Through the wall, he could hear each breath, moving time on by no more than a second or two. He had always considered himself a patient man. Why, then, did he not want to wait? His face flushed, quivering under the skin as she began to speak.
“I…I kill my husband.”
The priest stiffened in his seat. Killing is wrong. His heart beat faster, as he sat in silence. How could she do this – destroy the man she had married? He took a deep breath and closed his eyes momentarily. God would judge. He, a lone virgin priest, would listen. “Was it an accident? You can tell me what happened.” The ironwork allowed a sigh and a murmur to seep through.
The priest waited, shifting his body around a little within his robes. This was not what he had expected at all. He thought back to his own confessions, as he’d skulked around behind the ironwork as a teenager. Lustful thoughts – yes, lots of those – and the more recent ones, about wanting control, feeling dominant and superior – and so powerful. He had been told this was natural, a good thing in his position. Nevertheless, he could identify with these worries. But this? Would she relate her story quickly, and then leave? He hoped she would.
“I am in love with a man. He waits for me now, I think.”
So that was it, was it? She killed her husband because of adultery. That was the cause. Then she must be condemned, mustn’t she? The priest glimpsed her red finger nails as she brushed her hand against her face; and his heart groaned under the weight of his conscience, as he tried not to despise her.
“But my family, they send me here, to this country. My husband gives them money – a lot of money. They will be able to eat for a long time. They say I have to go with him, and be his wife. It would be better for me here. He is a good man, they say. He is alone, lonely. And he will send them more money.”
The priest shifted again, as he caught sight of the outline of the young woman’s long, swarthy legs. She crossed them and her dress rode up a little higher, onto her thighs. A tingle ran spitefully from the base of the priest’s spine, to the top of his neck. “Your husband – was he a kind man?” He bit his lip. He was there to listen. Silence answered him for a minute or more and he berated himself for his own curiosity. When the silence broke, he received no answer to his question.
“I am sent here, but to the house on the hill, away from your small town. He says not to listen to what the people say, if they talk about me. But I never hear them. I cook; I clean my husband’s house. And I give him what he wants. When I am in his cold, hard bed, I lay and pretend the man I love is with me. But I cry sometimes, to know he would wake one morning and come looking for me, and not find me. I am a good girl. He has never touched me.”
The priest sensed the red finger nail reaching up and running underneath the woman’s eye. And he looked away, anywhere but at the silky soft strands of her thick, black hair as the sweet smell of hairspray wafted through the barrier between them. Killing was wrong. He knew that.
“I write him a letter once, the man I love, to tell him where I am. But I learn to hide things better afterwards. My husband, he burns it. He says my family will get no more money if I do not love him, and I must love him because that is why he brought me here. So I love him. Every night I love him.” The priest just caught the whisper which followed. “And I hate him in the daytime.”
The priest bowed his head. Hate was wrong – compassion was the important thing. But how could he have compassion, when he had no empathy? What did he know about feelings of any kind? Again, he thought of his own confessions. Lustful thoughts. Dirty thoughts, the old priest had called them. And the old man had punished him – he had hurt him, here in his mind. But he could punish now, couldn’t he? He had the robes, the power. A squirm entered his stomach and remained there, irritating him.
“Then there is something happening. I feel happy, even when I am sick. I will have a baby. It will be mine, and there will be something for me to love in this house on the hill, so I am not alone here any more, and it does not matter that the people stop talking when I go past them.”
She was not alone, here, in this confessional box. He was listening. But as he looked at the walls, the panels closed in around his mind, suffocating his thoughts. He was alone, here, with the smell of her perfume tantalising his nostrils, enticing his breath to lift his ribs and his heart to bash against his bones. He wanted to feel happy for her, but the red nails flitted past the gaps in the metal pattern, and he flinched.
“I am very sick. One day, I forget to bring his tea to him when he wakes, and he is very angry. He hurts me, calls me names. And he pushes me down the stairs. There is no more baby.”
A sickness billowed in the priest’s throat. The bile stung his tonsils, at her pain and at his own mistake. He – he was the one who needed forgiveness. He was only there to listen. His conscience, his craving for moral dominance had failed her. “Your husband – he must have been sad. He must have felt guilty?” He could detect her hand, clenching and unclenching, digging those red nails into her palms.
“He is still happy. He smiles, you see. I bleed and he is happy. I do not look at my husband’s grey hair and beard any more. But he wants me to love him again and again, even while I am crying for my baby. All I want him to do is sleep, and not touch me with his big hands when I am crying for my baby that he killed.”
What could he do now? Who should he judge now? Killing is wrong, he knew that. So why did he feel empty inside, as empty as the grieving belly of this woman who smelled beautiful, looked like perfection personified, and had been touched by all the evil in the world? All he could do was listen. He knew nothing; he had no power, here in his tiny box. Listening was all he was capable of.
“I give him some tablets, so he will sleep and not climb on me and press his body on my belly. He does not know, because the whisky – it is too strong. It smells dirty. And I give him the tablets, and he drinks it all. He sleeps. He is still sleeping. He sleeps for three days and does not move. I have a letter in my pocket. I can send it now to the man who loves me, who waits and is looking for me.”
The priest stared, transfixed, as her wide, dark eyes blinked fast through the iron-work, and her scarlet lips protruded through the pattern. Could he touch them, to see if they were as hot as they looked? He sat on his hands.
“But my family, they need their money. I am a good girl. I must find another man, like my husband, who wants me to love him. They will be waiting, my family.”
The priest’s head moved forward involuntarily towards those large eyes. A salty tear ran the length of her eyelashes and rolled onto the metal which separated them. The priest scooped it up with his finger, and smiled.
“You understand, do you?” The young woman’s hands came up to the barrier. He could see her palms pleading with him and he was unable to prevent his hands coming out from beneath his garments and pressing themselves against hers. And for that moment, the confinement of the confessional and of his new robes were absent as he looked into her face.
“I am unable to help you.” He turned away, but those eyes, those beautiful dark eyes burned into his back. “I have given myself already to the One I love, and He shall judge you, one day. I cannot…cannot.”
What could he do, exactly, this little, lone priest? He could judge her. He had done, hadn’t he? He had made his assumptions about her. Showing compassion in his voice would be enough, along with the punishment, of course – every priest’s dream, surely, to wield the stick of power. But it was not enough. And he wanted to do more than listen. He wanted to be a man. But that path had become shut off to him, now, hadn’t it? And he had become exactly what his fierce father and doting, proud mother had expected him to become. He, too, had done his duty for his family. But at what cost?
He felt the warmth from her hands through his garments. His body stirred deep inside as her hands crept upon his arm while he closed the door on the confessional box. She had waited for him, then? Her hand was hot, like her lips – they still looked hot. He stopped looking at her, and turned towards the coolness of the nearest stone pillar.
“You have made me feel better, now you have listened. Maybe it will not make me ache so much inside now.” He raised his eyes to meet hers. They were brighter than they had been before, but in hers he caught sight of a reflection of the dullness in his own. “You are a nice man. I understand. I go now.”
She smiled, and her teeth glowed pure and white, as she turned and walked from his confessional, and from his life. He stood there, watching her legs, and her white dress, and her thick, long, black hair. What would she do with her husband, he wondered? He listened to the empty echoes, cast around the centuries-old stonework, as her shoes clicked away from him, towards the heavy, solid, dependable door. And he wanted to help her, but he was married to this building, this little box. His defenceless body fell towards the pillar and he flinched at the coldness of the stone. His stomach ached as he caught a last glimpse of her high heel disappearing out of the door.
He brushed once again past the icy stone and opened the door to his confinement. And as he sat inside, he looked and looked, but there was no-one on the other side to listen.
This story was originally published in the competition anthology The Beginning by Chapter One Promotions (now defunct), and is, in part, an imagined and possible continuation of the story of Suki who appears in my short story ‘Casualty of a Situation’, which was published by Quality Women’s Fiction and Inktears, and is included in my short story collection, The Reason for Everything and Other Short Stories.
You can read more about The Reason for Everything here.
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