By Christian Chicoye
A little ways from Mount Pleasant, amid the glamour of a newly built strip mall, sits a grand testament to the devout. The ancient relic climbs into the heavens and covers the town with its gothic spire, transforming the nearby shops into a collection of lightless squares. Its somber bells ring out across the borough as a siren’s call to those who attend its service. From the archway, a homily can be heard rumbling in its walls. The baritone voice skirts the ceiling and descends upon the mass of crowded pews while the sworn, in their Sunday best, rise from their seats and parade down the aisle, their palms to God as they approach the raised pulpit. Like a mother bird, he lowers the tiny bundle of Christ into their waiting hands. It is only after this ritual that I, a bearer of the priesthood, take my place in the confessional chamber.
It was a colorless afternoon when I first heard her voice. Rainy bullets were striking the capital as the townsfolk, smothered in their raincoats, made their way into the church. There was a harpsichordist there, a young and amiable woman in a green knit dress, who worked her fingers around the delicate strings of her instrument while another priest, a frail frame in his billowing robes, stood behind the lectern and read a passage from Romans. The congregation followed along with their pocket Bibles.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy… and peace… as you trust in him,” he bellowed, “so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The end of each verse was showered with amens.
At length this pattern of verse and amen continued until the homily had ended. A hymn was sung and the audience massed into the aisle to receive their pieces of altar bread. As they processed, I retired to the chamber and waited. It was not long before I heard the door of the patron’s chamber open, shut, and a heavy weight rest on its kneeler. The disciple on the other end let out a light cough before voicing their confession.
“Forgive me, Father,” the frail voice spoke, “for I have sinned.”
The inflection was strikingly familiar, soft and sleek as the wind. Its cadence sliced through the lattice like a blade and cut into the reaches of my soul. It was a voice that reminded me of my mother.
In my infancy, she would take me to church and we would recite verse together. In the evenings, she would sing me sweet, hymnal lullabies before I slept. She was there when I first sat in confessional and there when I became a man of God, a woman who supported my religious ventures until her very end. And although her passing did leave in its wake a season of torment and misery, it was only that. Brief. It was only when the voice in the chamber stopped that I hastened back into reality. I thought for a minute, uttered a short penance, and dismissed her.
That night, exhausted, I lay awake thinking of the woman in the opposite chamber. Unable to put my thoughts to rest, I stumbled out of bed toward the bathroom sink and splashed my face with water to relieve my eyes of their bitter sting. In the washroom mirror, I noted the faint circles under my eyes and the sickly pallor of my skin. Unnerved, I promptly returned to bed. I could not help but turn her voice over in my head until I fell into the embrace of sleep. Still, there was something unsettling about the entire ordeal.
Although she showed neither remorse nor any semblance of compassion for what she had done, I still looked forward to her arrival. Why? The voice! I couldn’t stand it! It had become my undoing. What once was a soothing lullaby had turned into an illusory nightmare.
The days that followed were uneventful, and passed as quickly as the clouds of a hot summer. And since it had only been a few days since my brush with the woman, I was all the more surprised to hear her, once again, on the other side of the chamber. I didn’t listen this time. The little I do remember is of no importance, as these trivial confessions did little to shape my perception of her person. I was enamored by her voice and her voice alone, and merely listening was enough. To her most recent confession I feigned reproach, gave a quick penance and sent her away. Throughout the day, even as patrons filled the chamber across from mine, her voice still echoed.
I felt myself beginning to wane. I could bear it no longer. Did this woman have no heart? Every other day she would arrive to discuss some new, deviant behavior. And although she showed neither remorse nor any semblance of compassion for what she had done, I still looked forward to her arrival. Why? The voice! I couldn’t stand it! It had become my undoing. What once was a soothing lullaby had turned into an illusory nightmare.
In order to strengthen my resolve, I desperately needed to disclose these issues with someone of similar condition, and who better than another priest? I decided to visit a church a few towns over; a quaint little monument in the center of George’s Square. It was a busy Sunday then, and there were several patrons lining its vestibule, fanning themselves while they waited for entry through the corridor. I made myself small and slipped in with the crowd. After some time, the group pushed forward and spilled into the adjoining room. I hastily made my way toward the confessional, turned the latch of the patron’s chamber and stepped inside.
Until then, I had never realized how imposing those caskets were, their padded kneelers and varnished, wooden walls. I knelt on the rest, crossing my arms and placing them on the shelf in front of me. It was silent, silent enough to where I could hear the muffled breath of the priest in the opposite chamber. I cleared my throat and began my confession,
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Three weeks have passed since my last confession.”
“What brings you?” was the hoarse reply.
“Every other day at around noon, a woman sits across from me in confessional. Her voice sounds like that of my departed mother, and I can’t help but focus on it. I fear that this obsession may be interfering with my livelihood.”
Although it lasted only a few seconds, there was a short, blistering silence. It hung in the air, as if the priest were savoring it. Digesting it. He took a heavy sigh before starting again,
“You’re a priest, then?”
“And how often do you think of this woman?”
“Far too often.”
It was like pulling teeth. It pained me to admit it. The toll this took was far beyond the scope of my description.
“Alright. Two ‘Our Fathers’ is your penance. May God bless you.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Unsatisfied, I crossed myself and left the chamber, exiting the church as the congregation filed back into their respective pews. The sound of a harpsichord tumbled out of an open window. I walked home in the dark.
Three Sundays passed, and I had not eaten in days. I neither had the will nor the desire to. Last night’s stew sat cold on the stove and the bread had already gone stale. The contents in the fridge were beginning to fester and rot. The apartment was a mess and the desire to put a face to this voice continued to haunt me. At length, I decided I had had enough.
It began like any other day. I arrived at the church, as I always did, at a quarter to noon. I walked past the harpsichordist, the pastor, the priests, and the congregation before stopping at the confessional. My heart jumped. I could scarcely contain my excitement as I crept into the chamber. It would be any time now that the woman, the woman with my mother’s voice, aired her confession.
Suddenly, the chamber jostled. I craned my neck into the lattice but could not make out anything in the black. My hand lay pensively, steadily, on the latch of the chamber door. I stayed there, crouched in the dark, ear to the grate, fingers constricting the latch like a serpent, until, until…
I heard it.
“Forgive me, Father, f—”
With all the force of an ox, I tore the chamber door open and jumped out. The harpsichordist stopped her tune, the priest paused mid-homily, and the congregation turned, reflexively, toward the back of the room. I did not care. My arm shot out toward the latch of the second chamber door. I flung it open.
There are few things in this world that make men fall to their knees in despair. That make a man’s blood run cold and his veins turn stiff. Little compared to these when my eyes, and the eyes of the congregation, fell upon the empty chamber.