short story #30
I had a hard, hard time with this one. I rewrote it twice, neither attempt very successful. The most difficult part was the ending. The premise, I think, was promising and it was the nucleus of the idea I started with…I just couldn’t figure out how to end it despite hours of solitary walks through the streets of Pamplona. But I had to end it — the story was getting dry and agonizing to write. I might revisit it in the future or maybe even develop it as a chapter for some novel. If this story serves for anything it’s to show that, paraphrasing Hemingway, 1 page of masterpiece always comes with 90 pages of shit.
When the priest entered the parish office the old lady stood fuming in front the glass doors of the conference room, her plump torso heaving, her eyes wide and victorious, silent as though confident her triumph would speak for itself. Behind the glass doors sat her trophy by the table. The priest recognized the small feeble frame of that boy. He was one of the altar acolytes who helped during Sunday Mass. He now sat with his hair in a disarray and his shoulders jerking in sobs and his head bowed down. Even when the priest had drawn close to the glass panel to look in at him he wouldn’t look up.
“So this is him,” the priest said.
“Yes, Father. The felon. The little satan himself.”
“Little satan. Only the spawn of the devil could have committed such an act.”
“You’re sure he did it?”
“I saw him at it with my own eyes. Oh Lord. Vouchsafe thy mercy on us, we humbly implore thee.” She crossed herself.
“Let me talk to him,” the priest said.
“Shall I fetch the prayerbook?”
“The rite of exorcism.”
“What? No. Please. There will be no need for that.”
“The holy water?”
“What? No, Señora. Please stop. I do not need anything I do not have with me now.”
“Father, I hope you understand just how severe this boy’s sin is. Murder? Rape? Those are but dry grass in comparison to desecrating the very Body of God.” She crossed herself again. “I’d expect nothing less than an excommunication,” she said. “Personally I’d give him a beating with a good stick just to teach him a lesson.”
“Señora, please. Listen. Let me talk to the boy first, how does that sound?”
The old lady balled both her fists. “Father, I understand that you are new here. And a young priest to boot. But I’ve been working here enough years to know that leniency is but a disservice to the flock entrusted to your care. God is not only merciful. He is also just.”
The priest did not answer. He turned away from her and stood looking in at the boy who still hadn’t raised his head. She lost patience. “Father Federico would have agreed with me,” she said.
At this he turned to her, his arms now extended stiff at the sides as he said, “Well I’m not Father Federico. Did you ever consider that?” The old lady backed off. It was as though it was only now in that exclamation had she fully taken in the solid imposing stature of that young priest who now loomed over her.
He sighed. He softened his posture. “Señora please,” he said. “This will be the last time. Allow me to talk to him alone before we decide to do anything.” As he opened the glass door of the conference room and entered he heard her mumble something about young priests and idealism and the justice of God.
He sat on the chair across the boy. The boy kept his head down but now he turned his eyes up at the priest, sniffing. The young priest did not say anything for a while. He just sat observing the boy. Face wet and puffy as he’d long been crying. The upper fold of one ear throbbing red from where he’d been pulled. The lunarlike crescents of fingernail indentations mottling the frail arms. His hair once combed to a schoolboy sidepart and fixed firm and glossy by the cheap hairgel which came in plastic packets by the piso in alleyway tiendas now tousled like a pathetic parody of some cartoon character off a japanese show. Beholding this deplorable spectacle the priest said to himself, “He’s not the one who needs the exorcism.”
The child looked up at him. He must have heard. “Is it true, father?” he said.
“You are going to exercise me?”
“Get rid of the devil in me.”
“Who told you that?”
The boy looked past the priest and the priest turned behind to follow his gaze. The boy was looking out through the glass at the stout pearshaped figure of the woman whose back was now turned towards them. The priest sighed and then looked at the boy. So much fear in those eyes. “She did, didn’t she,” the priest said. The boy didn’t reply. He’d again bowed his head.
“Do you think you need it,” the priest said.
“How do I know?”
“Do you think it was the devil that made you do it?”
The boy shook his head. “Well then,” the priest said. “We won’t be needing an exorcism today.”
“But is it true you’re going to have to excommunicate me?”
“What? I suppose she said that too.”
The boy nodded without looking up. “She said it’d be the last time I’d ever step foot on this church. That there’s no worse sin in hell than what I’ve done, stealing the body of God.”
The priest turned and looked at the woman whose back now rested on the panes of the conference room, the soft folds of flesh squished flat on the glass as of raw dough draped in plastic wrap. If he’d had eye lasers, he thought. He shook his head and turned back. “You’re not going to be excommunicated,” he said. At this the boy perked his head up and looked at the priest. “Those hosts you took weren’t consecrated,” the priest said.
“Not yet turned into the body of Christ. It’s what the priest does at the altar during the Mass.” He held up his arms, his hands together and fingers pinched and palms facing toward him as if holding an imaginary host. “Without the consecration the hosts you took are practically pieces of baked flour and water. I don’t mean to say you didn’t do anything wrong. But no one ever got kicked out of the Church for stealing some bread.”
“But I wonder. What did you do with them?”
“Do with what.”
“I gave them to my younger siblings. To eat.”
The boy didn’t reply. His eyes darted down.
“How many?” the priest said.
“The three unopened packs left in the sacristy.”
“I mean siblings.”
“Six. Did they know what they were eating?”
“Probably not. I crushed them up before giving it to them. Besides when you’re that hungry you stop caring what goes in your mouth. As long as it’s something to eat.”
“And t never occurred to you to ask me for help?”
The boy didn’t reply. For lack of words the priest stood up and walked to a bookshelf where they stored for the parish’s catechetical sessions the cheap colored children’s bibles and the lives of the saints and prayerbooks and aging newsprint booklets with the basic tenets of the faith. He picked up one of the bibles. On the cover a crudely drawn orange-skinned Christ flocked by likewise orange-skinned children. Let them come to me. To these belong the kingdom.
“Why only the hosts?” the priest said. He turned back to the boy.
“I’m surprised you didn’t take home the wine as well.”
At this the boy looked up, head shaking and eyes wide open in horror as though the priest had proposed something most despicable. “No, father,” he said. “Not the wine. Not alcol. My mama said that’s what got us all into trouble in the first place.”
“She have a drinking problem?”
“No. Not her. My pa did.”
“Did? He still alive?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since last week. That was when he left us.”
“Why did he.”
“He had to. He had to run. He’d been coming home drunk, see. And then that night my mother come to scold him and that’s when he started to whack her with his belt. Whipped her hard. The buckled side. And he’d have killed her too, I think, if our neighbor hadn’t come in and helped us. He heard the screams. He came and called the police. But by then my pa had long gone.”
“I’m sorry,” the priest said.
“It’s not your fault, father.”
The priest smiled but the corners of his eyes gleamed with a soft sadness. As though afraid of an outburst of emotion he turned back to the bible in his hand. He thumbed through the pages, the images flitting in a multiform blur like some disjoint flipbook from the cartoons of old. The temptations in the desert. The multiplication of bread and fish. The angry Christ in the Temple. The God crucified. He put the bible back in its place and turned back to the boy.
“I’ll let his off with a warning for now,” the priest said. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again. Besides, if you need help just — ”
“That won’t be necessary, father.”
The boy took out a white folded cloth he’d had on his lap under the table. He handed it to the priest.
“What’s this?” said the priest.
“My altar server uniform.”
“Why are you giving it to me?”
“My mama told me that it wouldn’t be right for me to continue anymore. That it would be too much shame for me to continue serving at the altar of the Lord when I’d stolen from his very house.”
“Tell her I’ve pardoned you.”
“No. I’m sorry. Too much shame for the family, she said. When mama makes up her mind it’s as good as the mandments.”
“I’d want to stay, father. But I can’t.”
The boy handed his uniform to the priest and went out of the conference room and out of the parish office. The old lady looked watched the boy leave and then turned to look at the priest. The priest stood alone in that conference room, the white uniform laying collapsed on his arms like the shell of a ghost departed back to its original domain.