The Confessional: A Short Story

MontrealConfessional

An elaborate carved oak confessional sat in a corner of a large and beautiful church. It was the Church of Our Lady of the World in Montreal, the center of Catholic French Canada.

There were several confessionals in this cavernous house of worship.  The congregation, holding onto the older ways of the Roman Church, still frequented the booths to obtain absolution for their sins, perceived or otherwise.  The old French priests sat in the center portion, and on busy sinful days, would lean first one way than another to hear two confessors, one at a time.  He would slide open a small wooden grated screen and lean toward the sinner.

The interaction, perhaps in French, went something like this:

The penitent: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been (giving a time) since my last confession”.

The Confessor: “Go ahead”.

After the litany of transgressions was spoken, the priest would offer a few words of advice or encouragement.  He would then absolve the sins, in the Name of God the Father, God the Son and The Holy Ghost.  Then came the penance; which was often a few prayers, or, if the sin was great, a deed or command from the priest to go out and make things right.

“Go, and sin no more”, was often the departing words from the priest.

The confessional hours were Wednesday’s from 4:00 until 5:30pm and on Saturday from 2:00 until 5:00pm.  For especially troubled souls, a private appointment could be made with any of the priests available.

Hugh Ballard sat in a corner of a pew, in the apse section of the church.  He was alone save for a few praying and troubled souls that shunned the nave and wished to keep to the more deserted corners of the great church.  This is the place that Hugh liked the most.  He was mostly alone with his thoughts.  He also had a direct view of a certain elaborate carved oak confessional.  From his place at the end of the pew, he would wait until 5:05pm, every Wednesday, when she would walk down the right aisle of the nave and enter the confessional.

Hugh had first seen her several months ago when he was making an attempt to translate the Latin quotes that were written high on the wall above the altar.

Winter had set into Montreal.  The cold blasts of wind from the St. Lawrence River drove people indoors, to the shops along the Rue Sainte-Catherine; the bookstores, the bistros and the churches.  Montreal had more than it’s share of houses of worship.

She caught his eye as she walked down the side aisle toward the confessional.  Her mid-thigh coat was a bitter lime color trimmed with faux rabbit and her black woolen tights fitted nicely into mid-calf boots of fleece-lined leather.  But it was her hair, an enticing blend of auburn and chestnut, moderately curled, that blended with the tassels of her wool nordic style cap that caught his eyes and kept them on her for too many minutes, too many minutes to qualify as a glance…but long enough to be called a stare.  Her overly long scarf hid her chin and neck. Hugh estimated that she stood 5’3″ in her socks.  Hugh was 6’2″.  She would fit nicely under his arms in a passionate hug.

On more that one occasion, their eyes met.  Once, when she left the confessional, he caught her glancing over at him as he sat and read in his chosen pew.

Hugh had very dark brown hair that curled behind his ears.  He often skipped shaving,  giving him a slight air of an artist or graduate student.  His eyes were hazel and, to most women, worth the time for an endless gaze.  But, at 5:04pm on Wednesdays,  his eyes were scanning the front door for her appearance.  At first, he would sit about half-way down the nave pews, and when he sensed her walking down the aisle, he would cross himself and get up to leave.  This move would put him almost face to face with her.  He would use the two or three seconds to look into her eyes, study her cheeks and hear her take a breath.  Being a man of quick thinking, he would time his inhales so that he could smell her…her lack of perfume…just her.  He detected a faint body heat from her walking in her warm coat.  That faint body heat often carried with it her scent.  The scent that separates one person from another, however subtle.  And to Hugh, her scent was pleasing beyond explanation.

Once or twice their eyes caught each other.

He also had a fraction of a second during this moment when he could see her hair from only inches from his eyes.  However, after several of these attempts of proximity, Hugh began to feel that he was taking a risk.  He needed to see her from another location…from a corner where she would not notice him.  That very last thing he wanted was to have her think that he was stalking her.

No, that could never happen.

So on each Wednesday, he would find a place to pray…that is to watch her.

As she turned the corner by the confessional was a marble column that contained Holy Water.  She would dip her fingers into the clear liquid and cross herself before pulling back the heavy velvet curtain and going in to tell the Confessor her failings…her sins.

Hugh began to keep time of her sessions.  She would stay 24 minutes each time.  Hugh, who had not been to confession in many years, thought that was a long time to tell someone your sins.  Then he began to wonder.  What could this beautiful, pure, virginal soul have to confess?  What sins could she have committed?  Was she an embezzler?  A diamond thief?  An art thief?  Surely, none of her sins could have been of the flesh, she was too pure a soul for that sort of thing.

It didn’t take many Wednesdays before Hugh fell in love with the girl.  He had no idea of how to approach her.  What would, or could he say to her?  It was at these times that he lost faith in himself.  No woman as angelic as she would ever so much as give him the time of day.  Hugh was certain that his existence was nothing to her.  He may as well have lived in the backwaters of the Amazon River.

But, his curiosity grew as to what she was telling the Confessor.  So he devised a plan.  This was a despicable plan and he was ashamed of himself for even considering it.  He went ahead and considered it anyway.  He would listen in on her confession.  After all, it was the only way.  Even if he caught the priest in a small alley behind the church in the blackest hours of the night and put his hands on his neck, the old man would never break the Seal of Confession.

Hugh went to a large Radio Shack and began to ask questions.  Eventually, he found out about a small “spyware” shop several miles south of town, in a warehouse district close to the Vermont border.  He purchased a small mic that would transmit voices to the tiny ear set of his smart phone.  Next, he went to a cheap stationery store and bought some patches of goo that was meant to stick posters on walls.  It was guaranteed to hold 15 pounds.

Perfect.

A few days later, he sat and read a book in the apse pews.  He waited until the tourists left.  The church wardens were busy moving people out in preparation for the evening Mass.  A wide column blocked anyone’s view of him and the confessional.  He stood close by as if he were studying a plaque on the wall.  Then, after a quick check around him, he pulled back the velvet curtain and, leaning over, pressed the goo and mic to the underside of the small elbow shelf below the screen that separated the sinner from the Confessor.

“May I help you?”

Hugh quickly backed out and stood facing a young priest.  He hadn’t seen this guy when he checked seconds earlier.

“I…I think I had dropped my wedding ring on the floor,” Hugh lied.

They both pulled back the curtain and looked on the carpet.  No ring.

“Sorry, guess it slipped off elsewhere.”

Hugh was out of the side door just as he heard the chiming bells that told the small congregation that Mass was about to begin.

On the next Wednesday, Hugh was sitting somewhat more distant from the confessional.  He quietly pushed his ear phone in and pulled his hair over it so people would not think he was listening to some punk group in this house of worship.

He turned his phone on and muted the tones.  He could hear the rustling of a books pages.  Earlier, he watched as the elderly Confessor entered the center booth and prepared for the parade of sinners.  He was probably reading his Office, a certain number of prayers that priests were required to read every day.

Then he saw her coming down the side aisle.  It was a mild day and her coat was unbuttoned, revealing a plaid shirt.   Her small breasts, hidden from view all winter, were now slightly visible under her shirt.  He tried to imagine them on her slight body.

She dipped her fingers into the Holy Water and crossed herself as usual, but not before glancing at him and holding the contact longer than usual.  She turned and entered the booth.

Hugh became suddenly uneasy.  What if she had seen too much of him each Wednesday?  What if she suspected him of stalking her?  He knew he wasn’t.  He knew he loved her…but from afar.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” she began.

“Yes, my child?”

“You see, Father, I have certain feelings for a certain man…and I don’t even know his name.  I think he follows me around the church sometimes.  I know he’s here in this church tonight.”

Hugh’s panic grew.

“Do you think he’s following you to do harm to you?  Shall I call 911?”

Hugh’s phone was equipped with a chip that could tell him if another cell phone was being activated.  He heard the signal!  The Confessor had taken his cell and turned it on.

It was all over.  Hugh walk quickly to the side door and broke into a sprint.  Halfway through the park that surrounded the church he yanked the ear phone out and threw his cell into a trash can.  He leaned over to cover it with a discarded meal.  Perhaps this would give him precious time to get many blocks away when the police searched the cans.  He ran like his life depended on it.  He ran until he found himself lost in the tiny side streets of Old Montreal near the river.

“Oh, no, Father.  No.  No.  You see I have come to love him, even though we’ve never spoken.  I am taken by this man.  I want this man, Father.  I want him to take me and make the maddest of love to me.  Please, Father, help me find the right words to say to him.”

“You see, my Confessor, all my other little sins are nothing I feel the need to ask forgiveness for.  I have come today to confess the deepest of and darkest of sins….Lust.”

The Bubble Man of Montreal

He was a dream-maker, a writer of love letters and a magician in a black frock coat; he played out his act in the square in front of the Basilique of Notre-Dame in Montreal.  He was like a pilgrim doing his penance, with the Basilique keeping watch on his movements.

The man appeared, without seeming to come from any place in particular.  The space by the frozen fountain in the Place d’Armes was empty.  I turned my head to look at something and then turned back only to find him preparing his magic show.  He had a plastic basin that was half-filled with water.  There was a dark blue bottle of a soap making liquid.  In his hands, he held a long cord that had several loops along its length.

He seemed impervious to the gusts of cold wind in the square.  These gusts caused most of the people to turn up their collars and the children to reach to their parents for the warmer gloves.

As I stood on the curb of the Rue Notre-Dame, he began his act.  He mixed the liquid and the water, dipped his rope into the basin and, pulling it out, a hundred soap bubbles appeared and were promptly blown away by the wind.

Soap bubbles have always held a fascination for me.  They are indeed very strange objects.  Thin and magically iridescent they became symbolic of three things for me.  They are like dreams, appearing out of no place in particular and making their way through our sleep.  But dreams, like the bubbles can start out perfectly round and then degenerate into amoeba-like motions and become disturbing in their irregularity.  And then they burst, causing us to sit up in bed, shaken and worried about what went wrong with the dream.

They are like love letters.  Created by a motion of the hand and sent on their way.  Most burst like bubbles, but unlike bubbles, real love letters can be bundled in ribbons, boxed and put aside.  Someone, decades from now, will find them and discover secret loves and evidence of connections hitherto unknown.

Finally, they are also like a life.  They are born with a motion, then sent outward to drift, with or without direction and following the whim of the wind, they too, burst.

Curious.

The man had attracted a fair number of people of all ages, but most were children.  It was then that I noticed a pattern.

The young ones had an irresistible urge to pop the bubbles.  They were too young to see the symbolic nature of these amazing creations. They failed to see the future in the wobbly spheres.  They giggled as they ran among the shapes and popping them.

One thing I did not see was any older person chasing and bursting the floating symbols.  They were watching the shapes drift away.

They were watching their old love letters, dreams and magic drift away…only to burst somewhere, around the corner and down some side street.

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A Visit To A Foreign Land

Life was getting a little repetitious at Rainbow Lake, here in the heart of the Northern Adirondacks.  My office Indoor/Outdoor weather station seemed to be having a battery problem.  The outside temperature indicator sometimes showed no digits at all.  Not wanting to check the red-liquid filled thermometer nailed to the post under the deck, I was forced to go upstairs to ascertain the ambient air temperature.  I couldn’t go into the screened-in porch because that was just the same as going outside.  So, I was forced to check the Indoor/Outdoor unit that sits on my window sill above the sink.  I didn’t fully trust that one either because I haven’t changed the battery in 14 years…but it somehow kept giving me the correct outside temperature.

The Radio Shack AA’s really blow my mind, but at least it prevented me from having to find my fly-fishing thermometer and stand on the porch.  I’m telling you this because I didn’t want to go out again when I knew it was -9 F., again for the seventeenth day in a row.  I could see from my kitchen window that there was at least 8 feet of snow on the front deck and I would have to shovel a tunnel (not a path, a tunnel) from the front door to the car.  I didn’t want to attempt this because I haven’t seen the car in about 10 days, so I wasn’t sure it was still there.  Maybe it was stolen.  Maybe my wife took it to Saranac Lake to replace the battery again and forgot to tell me about it.  I didn’t really know, all I could see was a mound of snow about 17 feet high in the approximate location of where the driveway used to be.

My life?  I would go down to my office and start a blog.  After running out of anything to say, I’d come up to the dining room table and make a few Scrabble moves on my laptop.  When I realized I was going to lose again to my lovely daughter in Orting, WA., or my friend in Australia (where it was about 117 F), I’d go find a book to read.  After getting halfway through The Fanged Princess, written by an eighteen year old author, Elizabeth Wheatley, who already had written several other teen vampire fantasies, I would stand in front of the picture window and think of the last episode of “Breaking Bad” or try to spot a wolf or bear crossing Rainbow Lake.  Boredom was setting in.

I needed a vacation.

It didn’t take many seconds to decide where we would go for a weekend get-a-way from the cold and snow of the Adirondacks.

We’d go to north, to Montreal.  Yes, there I could hone my skills in French.  After all, I knew the words for butter, milk, street and stop.  Anything else I needed to know, I could pick up as I went along.

We packed light and after filling the car with 6 or 7 bags, we headed North on the Northway.  It really felt good to put the pedal to the metal and put some miles behind us, after all, the speed limit changed at the border to 100.  Let me tell you, that felt good.  You can’t even do that in any of the states, except maybe Texas or Ohio.  I proudly handed over our passports, careful to keep my thumb over my entrance visa to Somalia.  Sixty-two miles later, we were checking into a quaint Montreal hotel.  We were given a room on the 32nd floor of the Marriott.

One of our first stops was the Museum of Fine Arts and saw some really good art.  Curiously, many of the paintings were done by Canadians.  I couldn’t find anything done by Da Vinci anywhere.

Canadians are a rather peaceful nation.  Unlike the U.S.A., they tend not to start wars.  So, it was comforting to see a horrid weapon of killing turned into an interesting object of art, like this:

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Or this, I think it was called “Contemplation with Flower”

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After we finished at the Museum of Fine Arts, (which was free, I wish to add…the way all art should be) we decided it was time to begin looking for a place for dinner.  We got a recommendation for a place called Dominion.  It was a superb meal.  I went back to the hotel and wrote a 5-star review for the establishment.

While at the bistro, I did run across a few curious things.  Now, I’m not normally a “concrete person”, but I see no need to display an untruth.  After getting my coat, I needed to use the loo (notice my use of a Euro term?).  There by a staircase that led downstairs (always a bad thing to do in a bar/restaurant) was this sign:

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So, I went downstairs in search of water in the closet.  After searching behind some doors, some woman screamed something at me in French after I opened one.  How was I to know Femmes had something to do with women?  My, the Canadians can be so suspicious.  I finally found the source of the water.  Now, I’ve been in not just a few Gents rooms in NYC and many other cities, but nearly all had some kind of copper or porcelain sink.  Not here, at this 5-star establishment.  This is what I found:

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I washed without wasting time (or water) and we headed back to the hotel.  The pool and jacuzzi were still opened and since I was still suffering from soreness in my lower back (I had surgery in December, did I ever mention that in a blog?) I decided I would take advantage of the hot tub.

I dressed for the water, and went down stairs.  I grabbed a US magazine and put my foot in the hot water.  Luckily, no one but the attendant across the large room with the pool could hear my subtle screams and curses.  I know the Canadians operate on the metric system, but I didn’t need a conversion table to tell that the water was about 209 F.  I was sweating even before I got the bottom of my swim suit wet, which took about twenty-five minutes.  I lowered my body, figuring that the Montreal hospitals could do wonders with second degrees burns of my lower torso.  I looked at the bubbling water to see if patches of skin were floating like the chicken fat that used to roll around in the pot of chicken soup my grandmother used to make.  I read somewhere that the human body sheds its epidermis once every seven years.  I was doing all of mine in thirty-five minutes.

But, what finally drove me out of the hot tub was the US magazines articles about Kim Kardashian and her weight loss.  I tossed the magazine onto the pile of French editions of Elle and went back to the room to see how long it would take me to look less like a red crustacean and more like a primate.

Back home, I could now sit at the dentist’s office or hair-cutters and ignore the copies of US magazine.

After all, I already knew that Kim could fit into a size 2 jean.