By Edele Winnie
It was just before Easter and she was walking down the street on one of her usual walks, trying to burn off that terrible energy that tormented her . It kept her awake, it made her smash things and sometimes behave inappropriately.
There was nothing special about the Catholic Church, it was just another one of them. She would have called it middle aged, if she’d thought about it, for it wasn’t a hundred years old and who builds churches now?
It was the sign outside that had cut her eye. All day confession, it said. For the Easter holiday. All day confession. She could not resist.
It smelled like a church- a little musty, a little like people, kind of candlely. There was a sign that said ‘confessions’ and a pointing arrow.
There was no one waiting. The curtain to the confessional was open. She stepped inside, knelt down, closed the curtain. She had no idea what she was going to say. She waited, for she heard no sound from the other side of the wooden screen. And then, a door, someone shuffling, someone sitting themselves down. Did priests kneel or sit while doing their confession thing?
“Welcome.” A male voice said, then silence.
Oh shoot, was she supposed to start? She’d never actually been to confession before- but she’d seen it at the movies.
“Hi -O.” She said.
“How long since your last confession?” He asked.
She hesitated- where was the anger, the hate that usually propelled her? She realized that she’d intended to cause trouble- to break things, to offend the priest. To hurt him. But it was not there now, it was gone and she was at a loss.
“It’s all right.” He said. “It’s natural to be a little nervous. We all make mistakes. All of us sin. But God forgives.”
“A mistake isn’t a sin.” She said, and then added, “it was a mistake to come in here.”
He made a soft sound. “You don’t have to stay. If you feel- conflicted.” He was quiet then. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”
“I don’t know.”
He waited and when she didn’t say anything for a bit he continued. “Think about it. Come back if you want. Bless you, go in peace.”
She didn’t say anything. She pulled the curtain back and stepped out. There was a seated old man waiting- he got to his feet. He was bent over and white haired. She walked outside and kept walking. She felt strangely ill at ease- and that was unusual. She was usually raging or quiet. This was somewhere in the middle. Grey.
Her walk took her quite far, to the end of the road where there was a park. She was still rather puzzled. She sat on a bench there, and watched the squirrels and then some children who came to play.
The whole thing seemed to be balanced on the idea that somehow she had done something wrong, and God, this invisible deity, would forgive her for this. She supposed if she were not forgiven then God would send her to hell. It didn’t seem like a very good system. This God guy was making the rules, and then punishing you if you didn’t say sorry to him. But what if He didn’t exist in her world?
She looked over at the children, and felt a warming wave of revulsion for the putrid complaining little brats. At least she was still alive, and had normal feelings. She was disturbed by this confession business and she knew it. But what to do?
Usually she acted out. When she saw something that was wrong, she labelled it, pulled it down, burnt it. Burnt it. That sounded like the thing to do. She could burn the church!
She set off half-heartedly to get some petrol. The problem was that you weren’t really being deceived. You really weren’t getting anything. You said some stuff and a priest said that God forgave you. Exchange of meaningless words. If you believed in all that, it was a real exchange, she supposed. But who’d believe it? She wanted to destroy it, but it was empty- like kicking over a sandcastle on an empty beach. What was the point?
The warm days of early Spring were bringing the motor heads out, with their lawnmowers and aerators and weed whackers and it was simple for her to walk into someone’s garage and fill a water bottle with gasoline while Mr. Lawncutter was trying to get his motor started on the other side of the house. Nothing like the smell of gasoline in the afternoon, right?
She walked back to the church, whistling. Which was unusual, she thought, as she didn’t usually whistle. The all day confessions sign was still out. She tried to slide the water bottle into her pocket but damn stupid girl’s pants had tiny pockets. Big enough for her lighter though. So she just carried the water bottle, with its light amber liquid load in full sight into the church.
The confession booth curtain was closed. She could hear the low murmur of an older woman’s voice confessing. What could the woman have done wrong, she wondered? Curious, she crept closer, right up to the curtain and listened.
“I wished that my husband would get hurt. I took money from his wallet. I drank all the wine. I kissed my best friend’s son.” The woman was saying.
She started laughing. Right there, right outside the confessional, laughing loudly. That was sin! Feeling normal feelings! What a crock!
The confessional curtain opened and a bleary eyed heavy set woman got painfully to her feet. She was angry. She slapped the young woman’s face, a stinging blow that took her breath away.
“You!” The older woman growled, but words had failed her and that’s all she could come up with. “You!” She snapped again, and then gave up and walked angrily away.
She was standing there, the stinging pleasure of the slap still tingling on her face. “I’ll burn your house down!” She called half-heartedly after the older woman. The theme of the day was fire.
The priest came out of some priest door and appeared beside her. She looked at him, expecting anger, but he seemed calm. He was a middle aged balding man with a hooked nose.
“Come with me.” He said
She followed curiously. The priest led her to the main church area, and they sat in the front pew before the altar. There was a life sized Jesus up on the cross, looking depressed and bored.
“You were here earlier.” The priest said. “What is it that you want?”
She rolled the water bottle full of gasoline across the pew towards him. “I came to burn the church down.”
He slowly picked the bottle up. “Why are you giving this to me?”
She frowned. She had given it to him, hadn’t she? She’d meant- she thought- to shock him. But in reality she’d given him the gasoline. She wasn’t going to be burning anything down.
“You want help.” He said. A comment, not a question.
She didn’t. She wanted to burn the place down. Laugh in the face of sin. She wanted to tell him that his church was a joke. To point out that even Jesus looked like he didn’t want to be here. Priests were lying stealing child molesters.
“Yes.” She said.
He exhaled a long slow tired breath.
It’s what you’re here for, she thought. Don’t be so selfish, priest.
He was looking up at the Jesus on the cross. “There is no help.” He looked at her then. “There is only the help you give yourself. The help that you make yourself. Somebody else can say it, but you listen and repeat it and believe it. You can think that it’s the voice of God, and maybe it is. But it’s your voice that repeats it. Your words. You have to help yourself. You only listen to yourself.” He rolled the bottle of gasoline back across the pew. It stopped rolling when it hit her leg.
She didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t what she had expected. She didn’t know what she had expected, but it wasn’t this. Just this morning everything has seemed so clear. Now everything was clouded. Grey clouds. Fog. She looked at the gasoline in the plastic bottle.
“Go in peace.” He said. For some reason, there were tears running down his cheeks. “I will pray for you. I will light a candle. A candle for your soul.”
She picked up the bottle and stood. The priest remained sitting. She looked up at Jesus who was looking elsewhere. She walked out.
She went to the park at the end of the road and it was there, beside the children playing, that she poured the gasoline and set herself on fire.