Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church towers high above the surrounding structures like a tall elder brother in the middle of his younger siblings. You’ve never been inside the church though you drove past it every day on your way to work. It is an old church, the tall church bell tower in front attests to its age. You walk into the compound feeling a little apprehensive. As you walk past the freshly cast stature of Pope John Paul II near the entrance, you feel your heartbeat increase. To prevent your hands from trembling, you make a fist, ignoring the holy water stoup at the door and walking in briskly to the right of the church where you can see some people seated.
You squeeze in beside a woman in the last of three pews. The woman drags her buttocks on the wooden surface to make space for you without looking up at you. She is in prayer, you suspect or perhaps meditating on her sins. You whisper an apology for distracting her as you settle in and look around.
The inside of the church is the opposite of its exterior. You are surprised that there are air conditioners, the floor is tiled and the pews have kneelers made of foam. The altar looks magnificent with flowerpots and bright chandelier lights hanging down from the ceiling. You remember how, while growing up, you served as an altar boy at your local parish: how proudly in red cassock and white surplice you bore the thurible, as you headed up the procession into Mass on Sundays. It feels like a long time ago now, like some distant memory of an inconclusive nightmare. You were going to be a priest, then suddenly, you stopped going to Mass.
Nobody could understand. Nobody was patient enough to ask the right questions. If only they had known the pressure and guilt you had endured all those years, you think. But you feel justified for the actions you took then as much as you feel for the one you are about to take. It ends today, you reassure yourself as you raise your frame and lean on the wooden rest. The lady beside you is no longer meditating. She is reading some prayers from a prayer book. You notice for the first time that her hair is freshly braided in narrow rows and there is a scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel dangling down her neck. You decide that you like her. She reminds you of Aunty Mabel who survived the car accident that killed your Father when you were twelve: her long slender fingers, the way her eye sockets tapered at the edges, her mild inviting cologne.
You shrug out of the thought, not wanting to remember, not wanting to be drawn in by the sinking sadness that made you a man overnight. The accident punctured your mother’s heart and let all the happiness in it leak out, drop by drop until she was now empty like a squeezed orange. Instead, you quickly run through the confession process in your head, approach the priest… kneel down… make a sign of the cross and say: “Father forgive me for I have sinned.” You repeat it over and over until it is your turn.
There is no confessional in the sense of a kneeler and a screen separating the penitent from the priest. There is just a chair opposite the priest. As you approach, the priest openly yawns. You feel sorry for him. Sitting there, listening to tales of iniquities must be a very boring assignment. You assume the vacant chair, make a sign of the cross and recite your well-rehearsed opening lines. Then it dries up. Your mind goes blank. The only thing that you can think about it Sonia. Her beautiful face comes dancing through your mind, teasing you, accompanied by the haunting clatter inside your head. You fall silent.
“Go on,” the priest says, stretching out his stole which is folded around his knees.
You look up at his face and the sound in your head reaches a crescendo. You want to press the sides of your head to keep it from exploding.
“Father, I am a monster.” The unapologetic tone in which the words escape your lips surprises you.
If your words startled the priest, his next response does not suggest so. “All of us are humans: we have our weaknesses and during those moments when we fail, it is normal for us to feel like monsters. But our God is a merciful father and has granted us the rare gift of salvation through His son, so that we don’t see ourselves as monsters anymore but as children of God. So go on my son – unburden your heart to Him.”
You do not think he understands what you mean. Your gaze moves away from his face to the tiled floor. There are tiny black ants moving around, carrying sand particles in a single file across the floor. You let a few seconds pass before you speak again. “A few days ago, I met this lady at the mall. We got talking, you know, and I bought her a drink. It was raining by the time we were finally set to go, so I had to drive her home. She invited me in and one thing led to the other and…”
“You fornicated?” The priest interjects, sounding triumphant that the story was finally out and then yawning, as if to remind you he is tired and not interested such typical stories.
“It is not just that father,” you say, mildly annoyed. “Yes, we did fornicate… but while I was… I mean, when we were at it, I had the image of another person in my head the whole time.”
“It’s not unusual for men to think of other women when they are with someone else.”
“That is the problem father. She is not another woman. She is a child.”
You watch boredom creep out of his face and a new look of interest rush in, and this propels you to continue, and let it all out. You remember that night: how Sonia’s face had been all you saw while you made love to Amanda, the lady from the mall. Her tingling laughter sounded like moans of sexual ecstasy, her tiny fingers ran all over your back, digging in, taking you further inside.
“Who is Sonia?” The priest asks, concern creeping across his eyes.
“She is… she is my colleague’s daughter. She is seven years old. I give them a car ride every morning.”
“And you feel sexually attracted to her?”
“Yes, father. Not only her – all girls of her age that I meet, I feel the same way. Sonia is just the newest person who I have continuously seen. Have you ever seen a seven year old girl father? Their innocence, their beauty, the sweet melody of their voice. Are they not just heavenly, father?”
“Yes, children are heavenly my son. But not in that way.”
“That’s why I said I’m a monster. How can I think of little girls in this way, if I am not one?”
The priest paused, his brows furrowed as he stared at you. “How long have you been feeling this kind of urge?”
“Since adolescence – my first wet dream.”
“And when you feel these urges, what do you do?” The priest is now at the edge of his seat, leaning close to you, as though sniffing your cologne.
“I have never hurt any girl,” you respond in sharp denial of what you feel is a veiled accusation. “I have never acted on it. I have always helped myself out when it gets too much for me to handle.”
“You mean, you masturbate?”
You nod in agreement feeling too embarrassed to acknowledge it in words. As though to make a case for yourself, you add: “I fight it, father. Believe me I try. All these years I have battled it. But the demons are so strong they overpower me. They haunt me. I can’t win. But I try.” Your voice is cracking, your breath is becoming rapid.
The priest leans closer, placing his left hand on your shoulder. “Calm down my son. Who else is aware of this? Your parents?”
“I could not tell anybody father. How could I? Who would understand me?” You think of how you feel reading the news of a paedophile caught, how everyone responds with horror and disgust. You remember how you once attempted to push an argument among your friends that men who sleep with young girls shouldn’t face total condemnation until they have told their own stories, and every one disagreed with you saying it was insane to even conceive a justification for such barbarity.
“You have come to the right place. It might seem impossible to you, but God always makes a way. The Scriptures tell us that though our guilt may be as dark as scarlet, He will make us as white as snow. Listen son, we can get help for you, and we can work to defeat those demons.” His words are spoken so calmly and without any judgement, that your heart flutters with hope. But it is now too late, you think. Too late for redemption. “It is too late for me now, father. I have just come to make peace with God before I go.”
“Don’t say that my son. It is never too late for the Lord to save you.”
You realise he does not understand what you mean when you say it is now too late for you. But you are not ready to reveal what you have done. He will find out when the note you left on your table at home is read, you think. Instead of explaining, you grunt an “amen” as he whispers some prayers, and you nods as he asks you to recite a dozen Hail Marys as penance, before instructing you to return to the church tomorrow for counselling. You look at your wrist watch as you get up and begin to walk away. At any moment now, the effect of the syrup would set in. You hope it will be quick, just as it had been promised on the suicide website. You hope the heavens will accept you since your last breath will be inside a church.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo (@) fiction writer and op-ed columnist lives in Lagos Nigeria. His works of fiction and socio-political commentaries have appeared in many publications both online and in print, including Prick of the Spindle, African Writer, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Saraba, Kalahari Review, Story Time, NEXT, and Pixelhose. His novella, Whispering Aloud, was published in 2007 by Spectrum Books. His collection of short stories, The Funeral Did Not End, was published in Nigeria by DADA Books in 2012. You can see more about him on his website.
This story was published in collaboration with Bahati Books, an e-book publishing company that aims to bring to global readers captivating and well-written African Literature by African authors.
Related country: Nigeria
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