By Eitan Benzion
Good is heaven. Evil is hell.
- William Blake
For fifteen years the man had confessed with the same tone and the same downcast forlorn gaze in the same confessional to the same priest and at the same midnight hour and with the same words, the same sin.
“I’ve done it again, Father, and this time I have to stop.”
“Tell me about it.”
At which cue the man invariably gasps the same sharp breath and, wheezing on the drawn out syllables of his habitual and nasty tale, begins to speak aloud the pathologic thoughts: that at first he had not wanted to. That, in fact, he had not wanted to the entire time. “It’s what we’ve discussed, Father,” he’d say, “The sin which dwells within me…”, to which the priest murmurs a few hrmphs of assent, shuts his eyes and trembles, invites the man to go on.
That he had not wanted to. That at no point had he actually wanted to. But that, as he found himself making the preparations, he had a perfect understanding of what was taking place in him and of what would come to pass. The usual bargain. That he would pick a girl and follow her, would break off the stalk at the last possible second, find a dog or a cat to do it to instead. This was the man’s own way of putting it, do it to, the actual act having been spoken aloud only once, during his first confession to this priest a decade and a half ago. The man skirted the word delicately and desperately, and his shoulder’s reached their most forlorn hunch when the commission of the sin itself became necessary to describe, a fact which the priest had long ago discerned, watching the man’s silhouette, a diminishing shade seen through the perforations of the confessional booth’s divider. The man would always present these portions of his account with a kind of squeamishness, a disposition which did not at all reflect his inner feeling, but was rather a projected expression, one which he hoped the priest would pick up on and uncritically accept. The man never interrogated himself as to the cause of this deceit, and had even come to believe in its genuineness. If he had investigated into the authenticity of that squeamish pose, a pose which he assumed automatically, without reflection, he would not have been too surprised to discover that its appearance was nothing more than his acute sense of propriety, a kind of politeness and awareness of mores which was nothing but the duplicity that a lifetime of scientific experiment on the human race had engendered in him and turned into a second nature, just as would happen with any such man who had a little less than the normal quantum of conscience. In short, he did not want to offend the priest, neither wanted the priest to think of him as a callous man or to turn the priest off with a surfeit of gory details, and so calculated a disposition that would be reasonably reflective of what he, the man, believed to be the typical human regard for these matters. This was itself quite typical for the man, typical being precisely the type, the genera, the species and family of all his outwardness'.
So the priest forgave him this little sin, the little sin of lying without thought, a lie which the priest did detect and did see through quite clearly. The priest never brought it up, never once considered prodding the man to confess or even acknowledge it. To do so would have been redundant, unhelpful and, really, too laborious, too draining for this old priest. Here he was, sitting in the confessional and listening to a murderer of women for the thirtieth time in half as many years, listening, forgiving as much as he might, restraining himself from calling the police or administering a poisoned sacrament (it was the man’s habit to request that he take communion after these confessions, a request that for the last seven or eight years the priest had always granted). Here was the priest, indulging in what was surely sent to him by God as an obscure and monstrous moral penance, a test designed to stretch the outer bounds of Christian charity and fatherly love, and that— as the priest maintained in his private nighttime prayers— was absolutely, incontestably, non-negotiably enough. “That,” he would say to God, “is all that I will do. If it is less than is expected of me, then You and I can discuss it when we meet in limbo.”
The priest had drifted off into the consideration of these facts and trembled again as he recalled himself to the present. The man was aching over what he called his “voodoo moves”, the way in which he would take each successive, hesitant step of his own ritual, never thinking of breaking it off. “The sin which dwells within me,” again. The priest opened his eyes and sighed.
“But it’s after that’s worst of all, Father. I come here, to you, and I confess it, empty. I go back to the world and feel nothing. I cleave, cleave, cleave to the prayers you teach me, just hoping if I say them enough times I might stop doing what I do. I wake up out of a sleep with no dreams and find I’m halfway through the Jesus prayer, like I was saying it the entire night, reciting it, all the time I’d been asleep for. ‘Mercy’, that’s always the word I’m on. When I’m sleeping and trying to be a good boy. That’s how it was this last time, on Thursday, when it happened. ‘Mercy’.”
“You should pray more,” says the priest, feeling the dumbness of his own speech, the way it sits like cotton in his mouth. “You must, must stop this, my son.”
“I was reading the bible, Father, and I read the verse, the one we’ve talked about-”
“No, my son-”
“But what it says, Jesus said it, so it’s sanctified.”
“I do not sanctify it, your self-mutilation. You will have accomplished nothing.”
“Sure I will.”
“No, nothing! Nothing save turning your back from the thing you are called to do, your duty to the Lord.”
“But I ain’t been punished.”
“Punished for what? The sinner should feel their sin, regret it. I do not believe you’ve even thought about your sin.”
The priest and the man alike were silent. Considered each other.
“Well I’m here, ain’t I?”
“Here, yes. And for what?”
“For… my sinning.”
“But what do you feel, my son? Its absence, the place it hollows out and leaves in you. You-”
“You claim to suffer over this, this… feeling unfeeling. Yes, I understand. That you guiltily know that you go on and go on without guilt. But that is a symptom, one that must be cured before you can ever hope to repent. It is a sign of your… deeper condition!”
The priest took his index finger and pulled it from the velvet upholstery wherein he had dug a hole. He felt the fluster in him unswell from his face and recede below his neck, settle in the antechamber spaces around his heart. Slosh there.
“Matthew’s verse,” he went on, “Was not written for you. Is not for those like you. The sinning organ in you is not your eye nor your ear nor your genitalia. You can not pluck out your soul.”
“I need to pray.”
“Not! Only!” The priest rocked forwards and gripped his own left fist. “You are lost in the vagrancies of a guilt without guiltiness. You confess nothing. Your mind splits like light in water, like a mirror dropped and shattered. Your penitence must be to right your soul, my son, to point it, somehow, towards God and heaven. But it is precisely the feeling of that soul which you lack.”
“But I’m here, confessing.”
“And why? Out of some… some feeling that you ought to be? You regret your sinlessness, not your sin.”
“Well, ain’t I ought to at least stop doing what I do? Ain’t I ought to make it so I cain’t no more?”
The priest measured the man. Measured him even as he had many times before. As he knew he would again. “The one’s you hurt… they are saved, my son, they are saved. I am certain of it. It is your salvation with which I am tasked.”
They again grew quiet. Now it was the priest’s shadow that hunched, withered through the dark light of the divider. The man thought he saw the priest’s ambiguous form wiggle, shift, squirm on its side of the booth, and he detected a cadence of straining in the priest’s voice as the priest began to speak: “As a novitiate, my spiritual father, a man whom I loved and followed dearly… I came to learn that he had a certain problem. He was a… an onanist. A masturbator.”
The priest winced and remembered how grotesque, how diffuse and shallow was the man’s own avoidance of speaking his sin aloud.
“Actually, he was a pedophile,” he breathed all at once, “A vile, very bad man. He was learned, and kind, and I loved him, but he hurt innumerable children. Our monastery had an orphanage, housed in an annex building of which my spiritual father was the rector. I was very young then, and trusting, too moved by naive faith and the glory of our order to believe the rumors, to believe what my own conscience told me. I still dream it, the sight of my spiritual father walking lonely from our building to the annex at night, not even a candle lighting him, his robes like black liquid stirring, glimpsing him go from the vantage of my little window.”
The priest measured the depth and coolness of the man’s breaths on the other side of the divider, measured what to say and how much. It was plain that this man thought nothing of children, but that was not the point of this story, besides.
“Well,” the priest continued, “The time came when the rumors were not rumors and, it seemed, something serious was to going to be done. Done to my spiritual father, you understand, and our monastery with him. I was still very young and could learn nothing, yet, from what was unfolding all around me. I loved him too much, and so when he came to me I… I agreed to help. He, too, quoted that verse from Matthew. There was a certain parish, not too far, a few hour’s drive. There was a priest there who was also a doctor. We knew that he had provided like services to others in the past, and I arranged, quietly, for that priest to attend to my spiritual father’s own disorder. I drove my spiritual father to that other parish. He was not glum, but hopeful, exceedingly hopeful, exuberant, almost wickedly so. Sort of cruel, too happy. I was simple, and loyal, but I saw that there was a mocking way about him. Even then I saw it. He spoke all the way. Talked of his own sin, openly. I believe he felt that he had found, at last, a kind of cure, a penitent medicine. He was very glad, you see, very glad at the chance to make himself right before God. It was castration, of course. Chemical. With acid. The regimen consisted of four procedures, to be administered over the course of one month. I wont describe it. It was painful. The effects were… the loss of his genitals. Severe. Necrosis of the member. And the complete cessation of the sexual urge. Still. He was very glad. And through the violence of it all— not just the procedure, I realize now, but the cause of his receiving that procedure, too— weighed on me heavily, we did leave that place very praiseful.”
The priest, who had begun to retract deep into the mental recesses of his memory, had almost forgotten who he was speaking to and why he was speaking. He glanced up and saw the man rapt, staring straight through a minuscule porthole in the divider and patiently expecting the story’s end, upright and wide-eyed. The priest thought, Fine.
“When all was said and done we drove back. I at the wheel, he in the passenger seat. He, talking. Talking about I don’t know what. Some happy verse that must have given him hope then. We were about halfway home, on one of those long, winding country roads, bracketed on both sides by tremendous pines, I remember that, dark pines with leaves so green and fat on sunlight that they were almost black, one of those two lane roads where you can drive an hour and never see another car, we were there when the storm hit. It came on us all at once. From nowhere, really. It just poured. Come to find out later that the towns downhill of us flooded. We didn’t flood, could keep moving, but the water just thundered down in sheets, like big, flat screens of wetness, one after the other. Huge drops, pop-pop-pop-popping off the hood. Exploding. The headlights couldn’t cast a lick of light through all that rain, and the wipers were old and weak. We were blind, then, and the road was so winding. I think I said that. I was going slow, but my spiritual father, he had gotten tense, nervous. Holding the seat like it might fly out from under him. ‘Just get us out of here,’ he was saying, ‘I don’t like this, don’t like this rain.’ Come to round a bend and realize I’m driving on the wrong side of the road. I realize because of the pair of headlights that jump out at me. Swerve. Just swerve. Hard. We go over the guardrail and into the ditch. I remember… scraping metal. Glass and the rush of air that got sucked in when it shattered. The horn. Something moved next to me. Flew. That was him, my spiritual father, going out the windshield and in the air maybe twenty or thirty feet up and landing on a tree branch, big thick one. Gutted him. Got him right in his middle. And would you believe it but he had skated along the whole thing, kept moving forwards on the branch all the way down to where it met the tree. Nearly widdled the thing of sprigs and shoots. He was there, way up there and off the ground, dead already, of course, or about to be. That branch sticking out of him like a new bone. Looked like he was hugging the trunk. And he was dead. He must have been dead. And I’m in the car, looking up, can’t move, not even understanding what I’m seeing when this bolt of lightning that’s thicker than the tree and faster than anything crashes out of a cloud, jagged and white, pure white, and strikes not the tree or the car or the earth but my spiritual father’s body. Makes it so you could see the bones flashing through the skin, at least for a second. And then the rain just stopped.”
The priest looked through the divider and met the man’s gaze, inscrutable. Some black slant of difference hung across the man’s sunk eyes. The priest had hoped that he had not excited the man, not inflamed his special passion with this tale, but felt that he had needed to tell it. He was nearly panting, felt faint and crippled.
“You see?” he croaked in a coarse groan. “Do you see? He would not right his soul! Only tried to stop the sin, end the sinning thing about him, but didn’t dare to touch what was in him. That is not what God asks of us, not what He asks, not what He asks, and my spiritual father was punished for it. I was shown!”
The priest gleamed a sliver of flesh through the divider and it was sleek and seemed slithering. There was a twist of grin on the man’s face, something cruel and rare, and it was growing across his jaw and making his chin shrink behind the distended suck of a boa’s unhinged mouth. Despite his harlequin look the man seemed peaceful, breathed easy and slow, like the draft of oxygen that’s gone in the aftermath of a great detonation.
“Thank you for your time, Father. You know, I feel alright.”
The priest shook his head and winced. “My son, my son, what is it?”
“You know what I think?” The man was standing now. “I think your spiritual father was judged. Received judgement,” he let the word hit with a bellow and a thud, “The thing that eludes me.”
“But God is judging you,” quivered the priest, “He is. And you come, you come to me for absolution. Are you not then guilty, if it’s absolution that you seek?”
“But it ain’t that, Father. It’s judgement.”
“For what? For murder? For your… pathology? You feel nothing, no? Cannot feel the guilt of your deed, no? And you say that this is suffering?
“I have said so.”
“Then feel it!”
The man cocked his head. He looked long off at something he seemed unable to see. “You know, I really don’t understand you.”
“That is your penance! That is it! If you are suffering, in any way, then suffer! Suffer at that which you cannot suffer for your sins! Suffer however you can. Your innocence, let that be your sin. Your sin itself, your punishment! Enough!”
“I ain’t hurting, Father…” “The sin is enough.”
“… And that’s my problem…”
“The sin is enough.”
“… He don’t judge me.”
“The sin is enough!” “He don’t judge me, Father, He just don’t.”
“Enough… enough… it will be enough.”
The priest was weak and huddled and the man was full and strong. Something in him was pleased just to breathe, to walk, to speak and to be. He was unreflective and considered nothing.
“You want the sin to be the end, Father, but it ain’t. My suffering ain’t like yours. Mine’s painless. The only thing I’ve ever known. The sin ain’t enough. And that’s all there is.”
He left the confessional and gazed over the empty pews. He strode into the world that would receive him, determined to get some sleep. He erected ever-straighter as he passed against the stations of the cross that were stationed to the wall.
“God judges you, my son,” called out the priest.
“He ain’t judged me yet,” said the man. “I ain’t been judged yet.”
Eitan Benzion is hoping to be inducted into Oprah’s book club, make Stephen King levels of cash, and then never work again. His work has either been published or is forthcoming at Apocalypse Confidential and Misery Tourism.