Just last Sunday el padre felt the keen appeal the rites had always had, especially when nailing himself, in a manner of speaking, upon the very cross formed by the meeting of the nave and the transept.
But when he took himself to bed and informed his housekeeper that he was not to be disturbed, several visitors of several stripes must have forced themselves in. It felt, as he listened to them, as if not only his love of rite, of ritual, but his tolerance of transgressions large, small, and imaginary, had deserted him. It seemed, to a man with the soles of both feet already feeling the flames, temporal he hoped, that they were telling him more than they had to.
Life had taught him that those who had something to confess generally kept it to themselves, that those who enter, or exit, the confessional wracked with tears just wanted to be heard. Or seen. After sixty years on the job it was hard to imagine anyone more desperately lonely than a priest but, apparently, some are.
His first uninvited guest was Aurora—or was it Rosalba?—a not-so-young woman he had known since she was a child.
There he was in his humble cot, propped up with pillows that, adequate as they had been for a lifetime, were suddenly uneven. Hard-edged. They must have been stuffed with straw, straw with a definite odor of dead chicken. Chicken, the meat of those who don’t only go without on Friday. And there she was, kneeling—without the slightest intimation that he no longer had a single sacrament, not a hint of one, to grant—at his deathbed.
He could hardly hear a word, though it did seem she was moaning about, not what she might have done to someone, but what someone had done to her. Should he reach deep within to find remission for that? Should he compel himself to make a certain sign over her? To assign a hundred muttered venerations to one rather special lady of Guadalupe? Maybe, instead, with the last little bit of force left in him, he’d just slap her on top of the head.
But on she went.
What should he, a country priest, call her drivel? Hogwash? Perhaps, thanks to the abundance of his leavings, the bull would have a better word. El padre had the impression his persecutor had been claiming persecution for half an hour, hanging her head lower and lower as her voice rose higher and higher. All he could see now were stiff gray hairs starting out from her part, pushing stiff black hairs into eternity, and a dry scalp rising from her skull like some historical parchment, perhaps a Dead Sea scroll, climbing clusters of hairs with a life of its own.
“Ah, yes, my child, do go on,” he managed. “I’m dying to hear the end.”
Perhaps it had been his turn to mutter, for Rosalba, or Aurora, possibly telling herself she had only imagined his words, felt encouraged to continue.
“Oh, I know, some say they were born on the wrong side of town or the wrong side of the tracks, but all sides of Pueblo Viejo are the same and the train will never come here. I must have been born on the wrong side of the moon. Is it possible?”
El padre, savoring a brief blessing of