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Garden of Lies and Thorns of Truth
By Eileen Goudge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Eileen Goudge
All rights reserved.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
Sixteen-year-old Rose Santini, huddled inside the dark confessional, felt her kneecaps shift painfully against the hard wooden kneeler. Familiar things, the mingled scents of beeswax and incense, the faint singsong murmur of evening vespers drifting from the sanctuary, yet she felt like she had her very first time, scared to death. Her heart thundered in her ears so loudly she was sure Father could hear it even without his hearing aid.
She thought: I know what you're expecting, Father. The usual stuff kids tell you—I lied about finishing my homework, I ate a hot dog on Friday, I cursed my sister. Oh, if only that were all ...
What she had done was a million times worse. A mortal sin.
Rose clenched her fist tightly about her rosary, the beads biting into her palm. She felt flushed and hot, as if she were coming down with the flu. But she knew she wasn't sick. This felt so much worse. What were cramps and a sore throat compared to being doomed forever?
She remembered Sister Gabrielle in first grade telling her that confession was like washing your soul. Rose had seen herself stretched out on a table while a priest stood over her, sleeves rolled up and hands soapy, scrubbing away, and then giving her Penance, a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers sprinkled on to get out her extra spots.
But today her soul had to be so black no amount of scrubbing would get it clean. The best she could hope for was a dingy gray, like on those TV commercials where they used the wrong detergent.
"... it's been two weeks since my last confession," she continued in a small whisper.
Rose stared at the screen before her. She could just make out the shadowy profile of the priest on the other side. She thought of how, when she was younger, she'd believed it was God Himself in there ... well, almost ... more like God speaking through His messenger, sort of like a long-distance telephone call, only a lot farther away than Topeka or Minneapolis.
Now, of course, she knew it was only old Father Donahue, who wheezed his way through Sunday Mass and whose hand smelled of cigarettes when he pressed the Host onto her out-thrust tongue. But knowing it was creaky old Father still didn't take away the tight feeling in her stomach. Because somewhere it was God who was passing judgment on her. He might cripple her in a car wreck, or wipe her out entirely with cancer. Look at that poor girl Sister Perpetua had told them about, the one who lapsed in her faith and thought she was pregnant, only to be cut open at the end and found to be carrying not a child, but a hideous tumor (it even had teeth and hair, Sister said) the size of a watermelon.
And at the very least, there'd be purgatory. She imagined God recording her sins in a thick black ledger with pale lined green pages, like the book where Sister Agnes marked tardies and demerits. Purgatory had to be like school—everyone went. It was just a question of who passed and who failed.
Rose recited in a rush, "Oh, Lord, I heartily detest all my sins, because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of my love."
She took a deep breath.
Father Donahue muttered something in Latin, then fell silent, waiting for her to continue.
Rose shifted her weight from one knee to another, and the wood let out a loud creak. In the unbearable stillness it sounded like a pistol shot. This might kill him, she thought. Give him a heart attack, PRIEST SHOCKED TO DEATH BY TEENAGER'S CONFESSION.
A pulse throbbed on the side of her neck. Her mouth felt very dry, and she thought longingly of the half-finished roll of Lifesavers in her purse. Butter Rum, her favorite. But that was a sacrilege, too, thinking about candy at a time like this.
She tried to think of a soul-cleansing thought instead. Thick heat clamped about her like a sweaty fist, and an ooze began at her armpits, working its way into the pinched flesh around her bra, an old one Marie had given her that was at least two sizes too small. She thought of Saint Joan, roasting at the stake.
Martyrdom. Rose remembered the day Sister Perpetua had first told them about it. Fifth grade, and they'd been half-listening to Sister droning on, as they nodded over their dog-eared copies of Lives of the Saints.
"Girls—" Her voice dropped suddenly to a dramatic whisper. Rose's back stiffened to attention. "I have a very rare and sacred relic to share with you. I'm going to pass it around, and you may each kiss it."
She made the sign of the cross, then withdrew a silver locket from around her neck. It had been hidden under her black habit. What else was under there? Rose wondered. Breasts? Pubic hair? But the only picture that came to her was of a shapeless sack stuffed full of the Kleenexes Sister was forever tucking up her sleeve.
Rose, fascinated, watched as Sister pried the locket open with her thumbnail that was square as a man's. Reverently, Sister placed the locket in the dovetailed hands of Mary Margaret O'Neill, who sat at the first desk in the front row. Mary Margaret, in her white blouse with sleeves ironed to a knife's edge, red hair clipped neatly back over her ears, was the apple of Sister's eye, for she already had received the Call.
A jittery silence filled the classroom as each girl, wide-eyed, took the locket, then bent to peck it with a tightly screwed mouth. Sister explained that it was a scrap of flesh from a martyr burned at the stake in Mexico more than two hundred years ago.
Rose, waiting for it to reach her, had churned with morbid curiosity. What would it look like? Could she bring herself actually to kiss it?
After an eternity the relic finally was passed to her. It was horrible, far worse than she'd imagined. Black and shriveled. Like a burnt shred of pot roast picked off the side of the pan. She could almost smell the smoke, the rancid stink of scorching flesh.
And then Rose had been struck with a terrible thought: My mother. That's how she must have looked when she died. God, oh God. And because of me. If I hadn't been born that night, she'd still be alive. That must be why Nonnie's always telling me the mark of the devil is on me.
She couldn't kiss it. Not even with Sister and the whole class watching, waiting. She would die first.
And for weeks after that she had not been able to eat cooked meat, either. Just the thought of it made her feel like throwing up.
Rose, in the cramped darkness of the confessional, imagined now that she was that martyr. Burning, her body roasting slowly beneath her white blouse and pleated navy skirt. Is that how my mother felt? Did she suffer horribly?
The burning sensation now felt even worse. Moisture trickled between her breasts, and she caught a whiff of her own perspiration, a stink like scorched rubber. Angelina deserved to die, that's what Nonnie said. Sinned against God, and He punished her. Her grandmother's hateful words scuttled inside Rose's head like the mice behind the kitchen wall at night.
No, it can't be true. I don't believe it.
But what if it was true? Would that make her tainted somehow? Was she marked by her mother's sin just like the human race had been by Eve's?
Yes, she was marked. After what she did last week, well, now she was sure of it.
But how, how could she bring herself to confess it? So much worse by far than any sin she'd ever committed before.
Start with the venial sins first, she told herself. Work up to the mortal sin slowly, that way maybe it won't come as such a shock.
The first part she knew she could recite in her sleep. The same sins she'd been confessing since her First Holy Communion, but with a little variation here and there.
She swallowed hard against the dryness in her throat, and it made a clicking sound in her ears.
"I lied to my grandmother. More than once," she said.
Inside her head the silence that followed seemed loud as thunder.
Then came Father Donahue's faint rustling voice, and yes, it did sound a bit like it was coming over a long- distance wire.
"What kind of lies?" he asked kindly, a lighthouse keeper guiding a lost ship through dark waters.
Rose hesitated. This was the tricky part, where the safe water ended and the rocks began. If she told Father about all the lies she'd told Nonnie since her last confession, she'd be in here until Easter, two weeks away. No, she'd have to pick just a few.
Rose squeezed her eyes shut, ran a sweaty palm down her pleats. This was the part she hated most—actually having to describe her sins. And how in heaven would she confess her mortal sin? Did priests even know about such things?
She took another deep breath, and let the air out slowly.
"I lied about the book," she said.
"Catcher in the Rye, by J, D. Salinger. I checked it out of the library. But Nonnie said I couldn't read it because it was in the Index."
She thought about Molly Quinn, her best friend, calling the Index of Forbidden Books the "Shit List." A book, Molly explained, didn't have to be filthy actually to be on the list, it just had to contain four-letter words. And everyone was always consulting the Index, the Sisters and the kids, which made no sense, until one day Molly told her why.
"Go down to the public library," Molly had said and laughed, flashing a mouthful of metal (she claimed she could get WABC and WNEW on her braces) and hooking her long blond hair behind her ears. "Go see which books are always checked out."
Father gave a dry, polite little cough. "And you read this book even though you knew it was against your grandmother's wishes?"
"Yes, Father." Rose sighed.
"You committed two sins then. Failing to honor your grandmother as well as deceiving her."
"I honestly didn't see what was so wrong with it! I mean, what Holden Caulfield was trying to say ... well, it wasn't about sex really—" Rose broke off, horrified. Holy Mother of God, did I really say that? Aren't I in enough hot water as it is without shooting my big mouth off?
Father Donahue cleared his throat. "You must trust in the wisdom of your elders, my child," he admonished gently. "And keep in mind that the dictates of the Church are not yours to question."
"You may continue."
"Uh ... that's all I can remember. Father." Another lie. But what was the use of explaining? Father Donahue couldn't understand what it was like for her at home.
Rose pushed her hair up in back to get some air on her neck. She remembered Nonnie braiding it for her before school when she was in kindergarten, pulling it back so tight it stretched the skin across her temples and left her with a headache. But by lunchtime, it would all be sprung loose anyway, a mass of wiry black curls corkscrewing every which way.
Like a little Gypsy, Nonnie would mutter, tight-lipped, every morning declaring war on Rose's hair. With each painful yank of the hairbrush, Rose couldn't help being reminded how different she was from everyone else in the family. A freak, with her olive skin, impossible hair, and huge black eyes.
Big, too. Not like her sisters, both dainty as Ginny dolls. None of the clothes Marie and Clare handed down to her fit properly. They strained across her chest and hips, riding up in awful-looking furrows, making her feel as big as King Kong. But what could she do? It was a sin, Nonnie said, to waste good clothing because of vanity. Besides, they were too poor to throw anything away.
Once when no one was home, Rose had peeled off all her clothes and stood in front of the speckled chifforobe mirror in her bedroom. She knew it was a sin to look at yourself that way; Sister had said so. But she couldn't tear her eyes from her dark nakedness. Dark all over, even where the sunlight never touched her. Her heavy breasts the color of the Old English polish Nonnie rubbed over the furniture on Saturdays, with nipples big as saucers, so dark they looked almost blue. And hair. A great coarse black bush of it rising from the mound between her thighs. Darker and curlier, even, than the hair on her head.
Rose had touched herself there, feeling a dart of ashamed pleasure. Blessed Virgin, where had all of this come from? Marie and Clare had cornflower-blue eyes, and beautiful wavy hair the color of ginger ale, like their father's. Even Nonnie, withered now and freckled with liver spots, had once been blond and almost pretty in a solid, Germanic way—the proof, however unbelievable, lay in the brown-tinted photo in a pewter frame perched on the knickknack shelf over the sofa. Nonnie's parents. Rose had been told, had come from Genoa, where Teutonic blood had mingled with the Italian to give Nonnie her fair coloring and pale blue eyes.
Dizzy with a kind of horrified pleasure, Rose had gone on touching herself, exploring the moist cleft buried beneath the springy black hair, then moving her hands up to cup the weight of her heavy breasts against her palms, watching her nipples stiffen like two raisins. Ugly. I'm so ugly. No one will ever want to marry me, touch me like this.
Nonnie said it was "bad blood" that made her so dark, hinting that it had come from Rose's mother. But how could that be? Mama had been fair, with light brown hair, and—judging by an old winter coat of hers, which Marie wore now—she'd been small-boned, too.
Rose had found an old snapshot of her parents tucked in the back of Nonnie's photo album. And it was that picture—not their stiffly posed, artificially tinted wedding portrait—she carried inside her head. The fuzzy image of a young woman in an old-fashioned dress with boxy shoulders, leaning against a ship's rail, her head tilted back to look up at the tall man beside her, handsome in his sailor's uniform. Laughing, obviously in love, her gloved hand held up as a shield against the sunlight, throwing a shadow across her eyes. All you could see was her bright windblown hair, and the happy slash of her lipsticked mouth.
Bad blood. If I didn't get it from Mama, then who?
The gloominess of the confessional then seemed to creep in through her pores, filling her with despair. Like the nightmare she'd often had of falling through a black space full of shooting red stars, of hands that would reach out to catch her, then evaporate like mist as soon as she tumbled into them.
Then Rose remembered something. Brian telling her that all that bad-blood and evil-eye stuff was just an old wives' tale.
He says I'm good and smart. That he never knew anyone who could do crossword puzzles and card games as good as me, or could think up things, like when I figured out a way to get free tickets for my fifth-grade class, even for Sister Perp, to see the Yankees cream the Red Sox.
In her mind, Rose could hear Bri's admiring voice—Jeez, Rose, who would've thought to write Casey Stengel a letter saying the Yanks could use all the extra prayers they could get after last season?
"Are you certain, my child?" Father Donahue broke into her thoughts.
She bit down on her lip. Should she tell him? Now?
The hot weight of her sin felt as if it were burning a hole in her stomach.
"I took the name of the Lord in vain once," she confessed, chickening out at the last moment.
She'd lost her temper at bossy Marie—she was always after Rose to tuck her blouse in, stop slouching, do something about that hair, and for heaven's sake, pick up your half of the room.
Rose had exploded. "If you want the room looking like a goddam army barrack, you pick it up!"
Nonnie, in the kitchen, had overheard.
Rose winced at the memory of being forced to kneel on the kitchen linoleum, saying rosaries and begging the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, and anyone else who would listen to please forgive her most grievous sin. God, all those hours. The pain shooting up from her bruised knees. The humiliation. And afterwards, not being able to stand up. But Nonnie would never see her cry. No, that Rose would not let happen. That would have made her humiliation unbearable. So, on her hands and knees, she had crawled to the bathroom, locked the door, and cried her heart out, masking her sobs with the water rushing from the bathtub spigot.
"In nõmine patris et filu ..." Father Donahue launched into the final blessing, gently reminding her that there were others waiting their turn to confess.
Rose panicked. Her mortal sin, she hadn't spoken one word of it. Now God would be sure to punish her!
Excerpted from Garden of Lies and Thorns of Truth by Eileen Goudge. Copyright © 1998 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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