The Confession Box
By Joseph Guderian
After a night of rain, the morning sun was out in Algavir. Luis Uribe was watching the activity at the burned-out church from the window of his modest white plaster house that stood at the foot of a hill facing Saint Teresa’s.
“Now they’re removing what remains of the altar,” he called to Lucia, in the kitchen washing breakfast dishes. “They must be working for Gabrielle, the artist. Who else would want broken blocks of marble?”
His wife called back, “They’re bombing Madrid again. There was a report on the radio.” She leaned into the doorway. “Luis, don’t go to the winery today. They may send you to the city.”
“They’d never send their precious delivery trucks anywhere today. But maybe the militia destroyed the winery and my job with it. Who knows?”
He turned back to the window. “Look at them. The vultures now are removing the benches. What good is half burned wood to them? The church must be stripped clean by now. When they’re finished, I’ll go to look at the bones.
Lucia entered the room. “I won’t stay alone, Luis. I’ll go with you.”
“You’ll go if I say so,” he snapped, sitting and lighting a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, and in a raspy voice, groused, “Another day without pay.”
“I wonder what happened to the priest,” Lucia said sitting across from him.
“I wonder how many dead bodies are lying in the streets,” he said. The gunfire went on for two hours. Where’s Sotelo? He said he would come by this morning. He will know.”
At the mention of Sotelo’s name, Lucia shifted in the chair and said. “The sounds of the guns stayed with me all night. I didn’t sleep a wink.” She was looking for a sign of passion on his face with the suggestive thought of a sleepless, frightened woman next to him in his bed. Instead, she watched as he jumped from the chair and entered the kitchen she’d just cleaned to brew more coffee.
Luis isn’t any different than the other men in Algavir, she thought. No better; no worse. But he’s not as bad as my father, who kept my mother pregnant and made her his slave. How the women laugh at the Hollywood movies. Can you imagine a Spanish woman pushing a man around the way American women do? Sure, tomorrow I’ll tell the bastard that I’m going to Reno for a divorce.
Soon after their wedding, Lucia carried a neighbor’s newborn baby into the house to show him. Luis became angry, shouted at her to take the baby back, that he had no money for children. “It’s not your child to raise, Luis,” she’d told him, but from that day on, he was the one to follow the cycles of her menstrual calendar, not Lucia.
She began to examine her body in the mirror after a bath. It’s a good body, she always concluded. My breasts are full and firm. My waist is tight and narrow. I take care of my body. I am a desirable woman. And I want a child, she said to herself many times. Yet, he sleeps with his back to me. I know he has a whore. But he is right. Having a child with this war raging…
She thought how different it would be if they lived in Madrid. Soon after their marriage, they’d gone there before the war began. The women seemed so free and happy. Luis was a different man. He was coping well with the depression that was sweeping Spain. Now the depression was in his head. She never spoke to him at that time about moving to the city. Others from the town had moved and never returned. But now Madrid is being destroyed by bombs.
There was the sound of honking horns and roaring motors. She went to the window, and Luis called out, “What’s going on?”
“Trucks rushing by with men crowded in the back.”
“The Rebels are in pursuit. It’s such madness,” he said at the kitchen entrance. “Factions within factions fighting for control. Every one of them is the enemy. Imagine, burning down the holy churches. God will never forgive them,” Luis said returning to the stove.
“Would Franco’s army destroy our church?” she asked when he came to the window, a cup in his hand.
“Why not? Franco could blame the Reds and increase his support. Hitler burned down the Reichstag and blamed the Jews,” he said, sitting and lighting a cigarette. She went into the kitchen and he sat staring at the wall, seeing it as the side of a cage trapping him in a bog of impotence.
Like many of the town people, he had mixed feelings about taking sides when the war started. The Republic promised a better life for workers but the leaders were drifting toward communism and collectivism.
“We don’t want to end up like the poor peasants in Russia,” he’d said to Lucia after Franco’s army invaded, “but our life may not be any better under the Fascists.”
“Won’t we still have the church with the Fascists?” she’d asked.
“Sotelo told me that Spain is nothing more than a pawn on a chessboard in a match game between the big powers.”
Why does he think so much of Sotelo, she’d asked herself at the time. What would he think of him if he knew the way Sotelo touched my breast one day last week.
Lucia pitied the confused look on Luis’s face. It was the face of depression, and at the same time, the face of a man crying for action. She had little understanding of politics aside from what he told her. Politics was for the men. Her role had been set for centuries. Her rules of conduct passed on for generations.
Luis sat and smoked while she finished the laundry, spreading the clothes on a line behind the house. When she returned, he said. “Come, let’s walk to the church.”
There were four people a street away talking when they left the house, but Luis did not pause to speak to them. Instead, he took his wife by the hand and started up the hill. The patterns of dried mud, dark brown waves winding down the center of the hill on the light pavement, reminded him of the tiled streets of carnivale he’d seen in pictures. As they approached the church, there was steam escaping through holes in the roof —the result of the morning sun mixing with the damp interior. Luis thought there might be fire still burning inside.
He opened the door and peered into the darkness. “There’s nothing burning. We can go inside.”
“I thought the church might smolder forever,” Lucia said.
They were appalled by the havoc before them and retched at the stench where once the sweet smell of incense filled the air. Remnants of scorched wood was scattered about. The walls and the Stations of the Cross were black and unidentifiable. In the front of the church, the altar was gone; shards of broken glass from the rose window and parts of smashed statues littered the floor.
As their eyes scanned the destruction in silence, they were startled by a figure moving out of the left apse.
“It’s Giral, the old schoolteacher,” Luis said. “What’s he doing here?”
Giral walked toward them, staying centered along what had been the main aisle between the benches, the aisle Lucia had walked as Luis’s bride. They continued forward to meet him.
“I’m Luis Uribe. You may not remember me. I was one of your students. It was a long time ago.”
“I remember the name. Do you have children in the school?”
Lucia answered for them immediately. “No sir. We have no children yet. Do you know who destroyed the church?”
“The Fifth Regiment, the communists. It saddens me as much as it does you. You know I’m a communist? Everyone in the town knows. But I don’t take orders from Stalin like the Brigade. He likes to torch churches. I prefer to burn them down with reason. I came here to cry, not to cheer.”
“It’s an unforgivable act,” Luis said. “I can’t support either side in the war. Spain is just a pawn in a game of power,” he said, echoing his friend, Sotelo, and then added, “Who do you think will win?”
Fed up with more talk about the war, Lucia turned away, and her eyes fixed on the transept to the right. She was surprised to see the confession box standing undamaged in the shadows, apparently protected by the vaulted ceiling of stone and perhaps overlooked in the dark transept. The center door to the priest’s space was still intact. The heavy purple curtains still hung undamaged over the open sections on either side.
She waited as Giral answered her husband. “Uribe,” he said, “this is a war that neither side can win. One side is in bed with Stalin and the other with Hitler. It’s not a battle between good and evil. You are right. Spain will be the loser. But you surprise me. Here, you stand in the house of a forgiving God and yet you speak of an unforgivable act?”
Luis stammered trying to respond, “If I were an atheist like you—
“Senor,” Lucia interrupted. “The confession box is still here. Look.” She pointed to the right. “It wasn’t destroyed by the fire or by the people who took the benches for the wood. How do you explain it?
“Superstition?” Giral suggested, unconcerned. “Damaging or looting a symbol of forgiveness might have been seen as the ultimate unforgivable act. Good day. I must go now.”
As Giral walked to the exit, Luis said, “The old man may be a communist, but he feels the same way I do about the war.” He walked toward the transept and turned to Lucia as she followed.” I haven’t been in a confession box since I was a child. It’s enough for me to pray the mass.”
She nodded and said, “I was terrified of the priest when I was a child. I didn’t know what to say. I’d make up things, little things, just to have a sin. I think my mother was listening. She always smiled at me when I came out to say my penance.
“Let’s play a game, Lucia. We’re all alone in the church. The old teacher is gone. We can disprove his idea about superstition and it will rid you of your fear. I will be the priest and hear your sins. Go into the confession box.
“Are you crazy, Luis? I’ll do nothing of the sort.”
“Confession is good for the soul,” he laughed. “It’s time we had some fun. What good does it do to stand here depressed amidst the ruins of Saint Teresa’s?”
“No, Luis, I have nothing to confess.”
“Come on. It’s just a game to play, a pretend game, Lucia. Pretend you’re a child again when you made things up.”
He took her arm and roughly led her to right section of the confession box, pushing her through the curtain and down on the kneeler. He opened the center door and entered. Luis fought off a laugh when he saw his wife through the window clasp her hands together as if in prayer.
“Have you come to seek pardon for your sins, my child?” he said in a deep voice. “Begin,” he prompted when she didn’t answer.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she started and stopped abruptly.
She knelt in silence for a minute, trembling, her eyes starting to well with tears. I am a sinner, she thought. It is my obligation to ask forgiveness of the Senor. In a choked voice, she said, “I am guilty of adultery, Father. I have sinned against God and my husband.”
“What!” he screamed. “Are you making this story up? Is it a lie you’re telling me, woman, another sin?”
“No, it’s true.”
“How many times?” he asked in a high voice filled with fury.
She stammered, “Three times,” she said, her words sounding far away. “It was with Sotelo, your friend.”
“You lie!” he screamed. Luis bolted from the confession box and pulled Lucia out by the arm. He forced her by the shoulders to the wall and smashed her head repeatedly against the stone until it hung limply like a broken doll. He released her and her body slid to the damp floor, streaking blood on the rough stone on the way down. He looked for some movement, afraid to touch her, and then bent over to feel her wrist.
When he felt no pulse, Luis’s heart began beating rapidly and his breathing became forced. He returned to the confession box, removed the chair from the center section, and sat in front of the door facing the fallen woman. His body felt like hot candle wax spilling into the chair. After a time, he calmed down and a cool awareness of what had just transpired filled his mind when a voice echoed through the empty church like the voice of an angry God.
“Uribe! Are you here?
Uribe, it’s Sotelo,” the voice said getting closer.
“There you are,” Sotelo said, spotting Luis shuddering in silence in the shadows staring at him. “Your neighbor saw you walking to the church.”
Sotelo moved into the transept and saw Lucia’s body propped against the wall.
“My God, Uribe, what happened?” he said, rushing to the body.
“She’s dead, Sotelo. I killed her. Don’t touch her. Do you think I can blame it on the Communists?”
“That’s madness, Uribe. Lucia was seen with you this morning walking to the church. Calm down. Tell me what happened.”
“Sotelo, I killed her. She lied to me. Taunted me. She confessed that she had been sleeping with another man. Lies! All lies to shame me. In anger, I pushed her against the wall of the holy church. She died so easily. As if she were relieved. Free. Do you think Lucia wanted to die, Sotelo?”
Sotelo put his hands on the shoulders of his seated friend and said, “I’m not a lawyer, amigo, but it sounds like an accident. But you must not take it to the courts. I’ll help you bury the body in the churchyard. We will give Lucia a Christian burial. The priest is missing. We can do it.”
Sotelo watched his friend’s face brighten before continuing. “After she is buried, you go to the authorities and report her missing. Do you understand? People are missing all over Spain in these times. Look at the priest. Do you understand what I’m telling you? One more missing person won’t mean anything to them. Be comforted, Luis, your wife died in the holy church. We all hope to die in the company of the saints.”
Luis got up, embraced Sotelo, and began to sob quietly on his friend’s shoulder. They stood that way until the sobbing stopped and Luis stepped back.
“You are a good friend, Sotelo. Yes, we will bury Lucia. We’ll do it together.”
Joseph Guderian lives in Northern Delaware. He began to write short fiction at the tender age of 70, after a career in advertising and public relations. Joe says that he's finally writing things people can believe in. His work has appeared in Epicenter and Ramble Underground.
Photo "The Prayer" courtesy of Philippe Ramakers, Eupen, Belgium.
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