“Frequenting the alter won’t get you a by.”
I frown and focused on the floor.
Eva always makes this difficult, every single year.
“You know what sorry means?”
My heart does a number, a fast dance down to my stomach.
“You know what it means, do you?”
My mouth wobbles like a goldfish, like my goldfish, Hank. Me, 83, alone and the cat already gone. Hank and I lived together like two hamsters on opposite sides of a wheel: seamlessly, that is, until one of us runs too fast and we both fall off the whole thing.
“You don’t,” she says.
My head snaps up.
I had been thinking of Hank. One flush and he’d disappeared. Cat or not, it had been time to go.
“Why do you torture me like this?”
My hands fan out all of their own accord, revealing nothing in their midst but open air.
Eva looks at me, and my mind races back.
Icy eyes her own color. They’d blazed themselves into me too, long ago, or was it yesterday? They’d been fighting, dancing around like ping pong balls, looking for a way out.
But her eyes now, cool, in control. They are taking off the layers of my pretensions. No more niceties with her. In my head, an image of me shivering out in the cold, her gaze blasting right through the skin, sinew, muscle. I try to pull my clothes back on over me, to shield my naked body from her penetration.
None of it: her eyes are slicing through, deep, down. She must have been a surgeon before.
“Hank,” I say aloud.
“Who?” she asks.
I let my hands, which have again grown tight together like interlacing roots of neighborly trees, drift apart.
“Hank,” I say, as if it should be obvious.
Then the flash again. Hand to the forehead.
“Is it a migraine?” she asks.
I want her to forgive me, really, this time. But I don’t want to…suffer. I know her terms though.
“You’re just playing with me.”
She snaps her hand down like it’s the starting flag of a high-speed car race.
You don’t need to do that.
I hesitate. Hank is back home now. He’s been too long without me. The food in his bowl has grown big and globulous, catching little bubbles in its orb, attaching and attracting them like moths to the flame. Hank hasn’t eaten for days.
“I…I don’t feel…” I say.
It’s not fake. It’s the truth.
I understand what brought Judas to the garden, and I understand what brought him to the field. Guts spilling everywhere, the silver spewed all down the steps.
Don’t be like him.
One voice in my head. One.
He didn’t ask. He played your game. Took it to the noose. Don’t go there.
That feeling inside myself, as if my guts were too, about to burst out of their packages, all of their own accord.
How many times had I been here, in this exact position, prostrate before the judge?
Eva looks at me. Her nose is long like a horse’s. It takes forever for her disdainful eyes to send their message down it. Like a marble traversing a long chute, it starts slow, then picks up speed.
“You…” she spits.
To say forgiveness is a fix-all, that it can be applied at any time with the same results, well, that’s false.
To say repentance is the same, that’s an even bigger smear on the face of truth.
Neither is so. Their absence is like yeast: it works its way through you from one little granule to two, and soon produces spores that pierce through your very heart.
“Hank,” I whisper.
She’s not listening.
She’s already gotten up from where she'd been kneeling. Or was she sitting? I can’t focus well enough to see.
“This church won’t save you, Mom.”
She sounds like the yeast has spread. Like it’s produced offspring. Like it’s coming out her mouth.
The words come up dry.
Not my own voice, not by a long shot.
“I…I…” It was too debasing to go on.
To know I did what I did, because I…because I…not with failed good intentions, not by mistake or happenstance, but out of pure…
Eva’s word slices into me.
She’s in front of me now, practically bending over me. Her tongue is a serpent’s, forking out toward mine, about to touch my lips, testing its prey for strength. If only they would open. If only they would produce more than words…
The flash again. My hand to my head. Hank. Hank again there, floating upside down. How had it happened? And me bent over the bathtub, long long ago.
All in an instant it had come back to me. The drinking, the rage, the…the…the…and five-year-old Eva running in, curls bouncing, then all the sudden wet as she plunged her hands down into the fiery furnace, down into the bathwater, fighting me hard.
I don’t know what to say.
The scar up above her right eyebrow. How she cracked hard into the bathtub. How I made her lie down after, toweled her off, put ice on her forehead. How I shushed her. How I explained everything away, how I pleaded.
How he floated there, on top of the water, pudgy skin blue already.
“Hank,” I say.
And tears turn my eyes to glass.
Layers and layers and layers of apologies. Chunky layers of guilt like wet bricks, stacked one on top of the next on top of the next until I’m ready to be buried alive.
The heaviness has become…
I slump down in my pew.
“Forgive me,” I whisper. “Forgive me, please.”
Eva has already walked out, long long ago. Years of carrying the secret spores all on her own. Years of empty threats: she’d never really do it.
I look up. The voice, the noose, the stained glass where no light shines through.
“Forgive me,” I repeat. My voice is hoarse.
His eyes so much like Eva’s.
54 years of penance, but they’re still as bright, still as desperate, still bouncing to all four corners of the tub, looking for a way out.
A pain shoots through me.
“Oh father, forgive me, please.”
I think about the noose, the only way.
The voice again.
What would it take? I wonder.
I look behind me.
Eva is tapping her foot, waiting for me.
I look at her, a tear slips down my cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I truly am.”
A light glistens through the stained glass. I look up. It illuminates the thorns on his brow, piercing down right into his skull, over his right eyebrow. All in an instant, he looks up. Those eyes. Were they really…? My head jolts away, then slowly back.
He stares down, his eyes no longer dancing around in panic.
“Peter,” I whisper, then I break down in tears.