by Sigal Samuel
I walk quickly – as quickly as one can possibly walk while balancing a raspberry gelato, being jostled by tourists, and getting scorched by the hot Italian sun. A passerby knocks into me and I curse under my breath. What was I thinking, coming here in August?
Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.
I cross the Arno and make my way over to the Piazza della Signoria, where I pause in the shade for a few minutes. My tongue licks at the last of the gelato while my eyes lick at the sculptures on display. My gaze lingers on one sculpture in particular: Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women.
After a moment, I snap out of my reverie and continue walking. I am on a mission today and have no time for daydreaming. I walk toward the Duomo. A famously beautiful structure, its pinks and greens shine delicately in the sunlight, but I don’t stop to admire its architectural splendours. The afternoon sun is burning me alive.
I step into the cathedral. Immediately, cool air greets my cheeks and neck. Vast, silent, empty space surrounds me – a relief after the heat and the strident tumult of the tourists outside. The dimensions are huge and a sense of height overwhelms me, takes me by surprise. This is so different from the cramped, low-vaulted synagogues of my youth.
A few steps into the cathedral, I find myself standing in front of a painting of Dante. He is holding up his Divine Comedy, and is flanked by Hell and Paradise – and one other structure that looks strangely familiar to me. I squint and take a closer look. There on Dante’s left is the Duomo itself, the very cathedral I am standing in right now! I smile. I may only be twenty years old, and I may only be a Canadian tourist with a maple leaf emblazoned on her backpack, but I know that Dante was dead long before the Duomo was ever built. This painting shows Dante within a Florence that he couldn’t possibly have seen in his time. Again, I note the recurrence of a feature I’ve been seeing in much of this country’s art: a certain chutzpah on the artist’s part, a daring willingness to insert oneself – however anachronistically or inappropriately – into the depiction of powerful religious scenes. Like Michelangelo, who painted his own face into the Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel, and worked his own self-portrait into the heartbreaking sculpture I’d seen just that morning, the Florence Pietà.
I smile broadly to myself – and then walk on, as I remember what I’ve come here to do, and why I’ve come to Italy in the first place: the novella. My first serious stab at writing. The novella I’m researching for, the novella I’m working on, the novella that takes place in Italy. My protagonist, Cristina, is a Catholic girl who’s been raped and is struggling to come to terms with that trauma. She’s convinced that it’s her fault, that she somehow tempted the boy into abusing her. She decides to go to Confession. Again, again, again. Makes a series of zany pilgrimages to all the great cathedrals of her country. Confesses, like someone suffering from OCD, at each and every one. For a crime she did not commit.
Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.
I take a few steps forward and see a bunch of people, mostly elderly women, sitting in one of the side chapels. It’s Sunday afternoon and they’re gathered for Mass. Nervously, I take a seat in the back and look around. The woman sitting beside me has woolly white hair, and the veins on her hands are startlingly sharp in outline.
I am definitely the youngest congregant here, and this makes me nervous. Will they know? I turn ever so slightly toward the woman beside me, and squint at her through my peripheral vision. Can she tell I’m not one of them?
The Mass starts. The singing is beautiful, even though it’s in a language I don’t understand. So different from the singing in synagogue, I think to myself. As the melodies waft around me, sonorous and otherworldly, I think back to the days when I was a little girl and used to stand under my father’s prayer shawl during Friday night services. My father used to kiss my forehead under the white shawl, while the congregants sang joyful melodies in Hebrew. That was before I stopped going to synagogue. Before I stopped observing the Sabbath. Before I decided to be a writer, which in my mind was synonymous with bohemianism, secularism, the subversion of norms, and most importantly, leaving home.
Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.
When Mass is over, a few of the women get up to light candles. They mutter inaudible prayers over the flames. I glance around, trying to assess the ratio of candle-lighters to non-candle-lighters. Should I or shouldn’t I? I’m convinced that I’m standing out, that everyone is looking at me and thinking, “She’s an impostor! She’s not here to worship!” They’re right. I sneak another glance at the old woman beside me; does she suspect anything? What is she thinking? “That girl is a fraud, a spy; she’s here to do research!” She’s right.
I get up and light a candle. Then I light another one. I hold my palms over the two flames, feeling their heat. Remembering what it felt like to light the Sabbath candles on Friday nights. The tremendous peace that would descend upon me. It’s been a long time since I thought of that. I sit back down.
Over to my left, there are four of those – what do you call them? Stalls? Booths? Confessionals. Oh god, I don’t even know the proper terms! As a Jewish girl growing up in Montréal, my exposure to Catholic rites has been minimal – practically non-existent. Sure, I’ve climbed the steps to Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and taken a quick peek into its intimidating interior on a school field trip, but that’s pretty much it. Confessionals. People are drifting over, one by one, toward the confessionals. I hold my breath and study them. When they get in there, do they sit? Kneel? What? I try to figure it out by squinting at their shadowy silhouettes. And once they’re in there, can the priest see them? How transparent is the lattice dividing his part of the confessional and theirs? Will he be able to see my face, will he know that it’s an act?
A light goes on over one of the confessionals, indicating that it’s unoccupied. Open for business. It’s now or never. I stand up, walk over, and go inside.
I kneel. I can tell by the position of his head relative to my waist that that’s the position I’m supposed to assume.
He says something in Italian. I don’t understand. A bouquet of panic blossoms madly in my chest. Damn it! I barely speak Italian; how will we communicate? I open my mouth – and nothing comes out. Then, in a barely audible whisper, I ask, “English?”
He seems to understand. “No, no...” he says, and my heart drops. So much for my big writing plans. So much for my novella. What kind of writer am I? How could I not have anticipated this problem? Then he says, “Français?”
“Oui!” I say, a little too enthusiastically. Relief floods my body like a dopamine dust storm, pouring through my blood vessels and inundating my nervous system. Of course, having lived in Montréal all my life, I speak French. “Oui,” I repeat more reservedly, modulating my voice and trying to compose my features into a more sedate expression, just in case he’s watching me through the screen. The rest of the conversation takes place in French. I take a deep breath and utter the line I’ve been rehearsing all day.
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. I...uh...I’ve never...”
“Speak up, my child. How long has it been since your last Confession?”
“That’s the thing. I’ve never really been to Confession before. My parents are lapsed Catholics. They baptised me, but that was pretty much it.” Lapsed Catholics – a helpful little phrase I picked up from Wikipedia.
“But when you had your last Communion – surely then –?”
“Oh – yes – I confessed then.” Improvising.
“I see. Well, child, do you have something you’d like to confess?”
“Yes...” I take a deep breath. I visualize Cristina. Her long blonde hair, her wounded eyes, her compulsive, twitching hands, like birds. Caged. “There was a boy.” I pause for dramatic effect.
“He hurt me. Physically.”
There’s a silence. Then he murmurs, “Ah...”
I’ve scripted this all out in advance. I jump in with my next line. “But I think...I think I tempted him.”
“Tempted him? How?”
I don’t say anything. I let him invent his own scenario. Let him picture the flirtation, the seduction, the handing over of apples from Eves to Adams. It’s a story he knows well enough.
“And you feel...guilty about this?”
“Yes,” I say. “And angry.”
There’s another long pause. I can feel him hunch over in pain. His voice is so soft, so sincere. “It was not your sin. It was the man’s sin.” And then, “What happened to you is something terrible. The most terrible thing there is. Your situation lacks beauty.” In my mind, I frantically scribble these last words down – they’re so poetic, I want to capture them, to use them in the novella. Your situation lacks beauty. I can already see the words on the page, black on white, gleaming softly.
Then he asks, “This man, are you still in contact with him?”
I see him nod out of my peripheral vision. “God asks you to forgive.”
“That I should forgive him?” I ask. My voice is heavy with incredulity. I’m acting well now, confidently, pleasurably, perversely.
“Yes. It’s hard, I know. It’s not hard. It’s impossible.”
“Yes,” I whisper.
“You must pray to God to give you the strength to forgive him.” A pause. And then, “Do you pray?”
“No,” I hear myself say. The question catches me off-guard, throws me askew. At that moment, part of my brain buzzes, Yes, yes you do pray – every Friday night at synagogue. But I ignore it.
“Do you read the Bible? Books about Jesus, the apostles?”
“I recommend that you read the Bible. And that you say five Hail Marys every day.” He is silent for a very long moment. Then he turns ever so slightly toward me, as if he’s squinting at me through his peripheral vision. He says, “You are missing prayer in your life.”
I am silent. In point of fact, at this moment I am standing beneath my father’s white prayer shawl, arms wrapped around his leg, tasting his kiss on my forehead, feeling the joyful prayers brush my body with colour, making my world vibrant, making my situation beautiful.
Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.
“If you continue on the devotional path,” comes the priest’s voice as if from far away, “this Confession will have been a very significant thing in your life.”
I say nothing. I nod. Again, again, again.
Then he says, “God has forgiven all your sins. Go in peace, my child.”
I exit the cathedral and sit for a few minutes on the steps outside. My breathing comes in sharp, staccato rhythms that seem to rip the oxygen from my lungs, instead of filling them with air. I am surrounded by the bustle of the tourists, but their voices are quieter now, more muted. They are heading home, arms heavy with trinkets and souvenirs and the thousand little memories gathered in a day. The afternoon sun is setting. My breathing steadies. After a few moments, I stand up and walk back in the direction of the Piazza della Signoria. I reach the bridge and begin to cross the Arno. As I walk, I whisper under my breath, “Hail Mary, full of grace...”
Sigal Samuel is a Montreal-born writer currently based in Vancouver, Canada. “Confession” won Second Prize in the 5th Annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the 12th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2010.
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