[SETTING: A church that was once on the edge of the ruin, stained glass broken like rows of teeth, wood floors warped and hiding soul caches, but restored after the appointment of FATHER AGAPITO DE ROSALES, the parish’s PRIEST. Now, though lacre falls thick outside and gathers on the sills like falling snow, the smiling faces of saints keep the cold night at bay, and candles glow around the altar.
ENTER the PENITENT, like a stranger. Scarecrow-frail in a coat no more than a scrap of shadow, hands in his pockets and hunched in on himself, as if around a wound. Shuddering, not from cold or fear, but the way a wild creature twitches in its dreams, stretches it jaw toward unseen prey, and gnaws the empty air.
A darkness sit in his eyes, a blackness like ink or sickness spilled through the red of his veins. He enters like a stranger, yet the PRIEST knows him.]
PRIEST: It's you -- [rushing past the pews, pulling the penitent into his arms -- into a tight, giddy embrace -- then releasing him] You're returned! Have you been to see your mother yet? She told me she was worried for you -- she had no word from you for months! Couldn't you have written a letter, at least?
PENITENT: [mouth shifting to and from a smile, like the shuffling of cards, like a habit half-forgotten] Your face -- [a jab of a laugh] You should see it. You just look younger, you know, when you play the fussing, fatherly reverend! Scolding me to write my mother! You haven't changed.
PRIEST: [youthful indeed, and shining in candlelight, curly hair like a halo] ] Well, what should I change?
PENITENT: Nothing. [a full-body shudder, then a forced easiness] Nothing -- tell me, Father. If I sent a letter, how would mother read it? They didn't have braille typewriters where I was. Is she still using hers?
PRIEST: She is, and doing very well with her articles ... but anyone in our parish would have been happy to read it for her. You know that.
PENITENT: And you can't imagine what I would write, that I wouldn't want just anyone in the parish to read it.
PRIEST: Where were you, then? What have you been doing with yourself?
PENITENT: What does any young man do, when he leaves home? [a smile to show teeth] I've been sinning. I've come to seek the rite of confession.
PRIEST: You mean the rite of reconciliation. I suppose it's fitting, after so long an absence. We still don't have a booth ... I can put up a screen, if you like ...
PENITENT: I like a face-to-face confession. It feels more honest.
[And so the PRIEST leads the PENITENT to the altar, draws hands death-pale and trembling into his own, warm and brown. He invites his parishioner, his penitent to pray.]
PENITENT: Bless me, for I have sinned. I confess to God Almighty, and to you, Father, that I have sinned by word and by deed and by desire, and by my own fault, my most grievous fault ... in soul and body, in dreams and hunger, in scars, stains, and chains.
I have mutilated myself so I may never be healed. I have drunk myself to death and back, and pierced my heart with skyglass. I have drowned too soon, and sought to drown myself again, and again and again until the Number was Seven.
I have mutilated my soul -- taken God's so-called gift to men and sullied it so that even a devil could see no light or joy in it, so that even a Judgment could pierce its skin and find no savor. I have severed myself from myself, twisted my being from my body, and not once, it cannot be once, but the Number. But Seven.
What family I had, I estranged myself from. What friends I had, I turned against me. I have sowed deception, and courted betrayal, welcomed isolation and imprisonment. And every time I escaped, because the Number must be Seven.
Even now, it is poison to care for me. I bear the flame that will be St Arthur's. Any who follow me will hunger, and I can give them no meat, only tallow. Any who follow me will thirst, and I can give them no drink, only the wick that sings up the throat. We will be strangers to the world, and I can give no one sanctuary, no raiment but threadbare soul and scars like the ones I own, and the memory of chains.
I ... don't think I can stop.
PRIEST: [shocked and saddened, horrified and fascinated -- all these flit across his face, plain as day would be if sun still hung above London]
[then, soft as snowfall] Why?
PENITENT: … Why? What does it matter why? Sin is sin, isn't it?
PRIEST: It matters to me.
PENITENT: Does it matter to God?
PRIEST: God knows. [clutching, steadying the PENITENT’s hands -- steadying himself] God has seen your heart, and will forgive you your sins, if you let Him. But first you have to let Him -- to do that, you turned to your priest, didn't you? You turned to a man who cares for you as God cares for you, but whose hands you can hold and whose voice you can hear, who can pronounce you absolved so you can believe it. I want to see your heart, too. I know I'll forgive you, too.
PENITENT: I'm not convinced God does see. I'm not convinced God does forgive.
PRIEST: Were you ever convinced?
PENITENT: No. I went to church because my mother needed a guide and someone to read her the hymnals -- that was before a fresh-faced, meddlesome priest from the surface moved in and went about ministering the sick, stopping by every week for sweets and scripture. Then I suppose I was interested! … But still I was unconvinced. I was interested in knowing the man himself, the man who cares, the man so young he could be my brother, yet whom everyone called 'Father.' I wanted to pick his youthful brain with questions, more than I wanted to come to any answer about God. In another life, I'd have gone to university and pestered my schoolfellows in the commons, but I only had this church, I only had this priest. Of course I had no friends.
PRIEST: Is that why, then? Were you unhappy with the life you had? Is that why you tried so many times to destroy it? [ quietly, seriously ] If there was something I missed, something more I could have done for you and your family, I need to know …
PENITENT: No. [pulling his hands away, so sudden it seems like violence ] No. Christ, you won’t let the question alone, will you?
PRIEST: [with hands still outstretched ] Have you ever let a question alone?
PENITENT Here’s a question for you, then: has God created an unjust world?
PRIEST: He … created a world with injustice in it. But no, I don’t believe He created an unjust world
PENITENT: Hah! [turning, pacing] There’s a clergyman’s answer. And what does that mean -- the world isn’t unjust, but has injustice in it?
PRIEST: … I haven't been a clergyman for long … and I've had the care of a parish of souls for even less time than that. I know only a piece of God's world. This church, as you said -- the people who came here to pray, to praise God and to plead with Him. I know the rats who lived in the walls while the chapel was crumbling, arming themselves against inspectors ... I remember sitting with them for tea, telling them my mission. I remember that’s when they decided to rebuild their home, and how they offered to help me build my own. I know the Clay Man who learned to read from the Bible, and whose foreman beat him until he broke. The others said said he looked like one of the Unfinished, and they couldn’t trust the Unfinished -- he had to run, and this is where he found refuge. He holds the missal sometimes for Mass. I know the woman who misses her son.
PENTINENT: [stopping between the pews to hold himself against the trembling; he lifts his head, but lets the PRIEST continue]
PRIEST: God knows more than I do. He sees more, from the beginning of time to the end of it, so He sees the world for all that it is. It would be too cruel for me, to speak to a victim of injustice, and deny it was unjust. I can only see and speak to the parishioner in front of me. I can only work in the world I know ... work to make it better than it was before. But God has seen every injustice, and He has seen that every injustice will have an answer. He created the world so that every wrong will be righted, so that goodness will be rewarded, so that hope will be answered. If not in this life, then in the next.
PENTINENT: [slowly ] So an injustice in the world is like a debt, is that it? It tips the scales ... but you imagine they can be tipped back again. Someone need only settle the accounts. And God, in His wisdom, has already devised an accounting. An accounting can be postponed, but not indefinitely.
PRIEST: I don't know if that's it -- I don't know if it's something transactional. [a shake of his curls, an abashed smile ] I don't know what it will be, because I'm not God. But I know that God has promised a Day of Judgment, and every living thing will have reconciliation. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and none shall hurt, and none shall destroy, not in the Mountain of the Lord. What injustice there is now ... it will end. Are you troubled by injustice? Has someone done something to you, to make you isolate yourself?
PENITENT: I don't care about any personal injustice. I did, once. Once I thought I was owed another life ... I thought my father-in-flesh wronged me, wronged my mother, and it was injustice that he should be free to walk on the surface of the earth while we poorer creatures crawled like worms beneath it ...
PRIEST: You've never told me about your father.
PENITENT: And I won't now, O Father Confessor. It doesn't matter. It's a debt that could've been paid, even if he never paid it. He needed only to raise us up. And if God's ways are so mysterious, well, perhaps a debt could be paid still. Perhaps on the Day of Judgments, we will settle our accounts, and have our reconciliation. I don't find it likely ... but it isn't impossible. What troubles me are those debts which it is impossible to reckon.
PRIEST: Why should it ever be impossible?
PENITENT: Now you’re asking the right ‘why’! A crime must be known, to be reckoned with -- why isn’t every crime discovered? I could tell you stories. Tell you seasons of blackmail, tell you of the sins of men and all men do to conceal them ... tell you of the wicked and the prosperous, the powerful. You see, when a powerful man consigns his inconvenient children beneath the earth, first he makes sure no one will miss us ... [pausing, turning so once again they’re face-to-face] You're shivering, Father.
PRIEST: So are you. Let me shiver -- I'm listening.
PENITENT: Then ... imagine a child. Left to die in the woods, starving and shivering, like you, like me, praying for mercy. Isn't that child owed something, for God and the world to be just? Isn’t that child owed food, warmth, and an answer to her prayers? Isn't that child owed life? Tell me.
PRIEST: [soft ] Of course she is.
PENITENT: But who can bestow life to the dead? The dead do rise down here, but I've seen passengers on the slow boat steal the breath of the weak to sustain themselves. The wicked prosper after death as surely as they do in life. Pretend, anyway, that this is a child of the surface. The snow will fall from the sky and bury her, and no one will know where her body lies. No one will bring her justice. The world will forget the crime, and the debt.
PRIEST: Not all the world. Not the one who made it.
PENITENT: God, you mean?
PRIEST: Who can bestow life to the dead? [finding his conviction ] In asking, you’ve already given the answer. The one who spoke to the sister of Lazarus, and said ‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?’
PENITENT: God’s son, then. [another edged smile ] You’re right -- I knew you’d give the clergyman’s answer, and I set you up for it. But what does it hinge on? A little snow isn’t enough to bury a debt. Tell me, Father, is there anything that can? The one who made the world will know the truth of it, of course … but is there a way to change the truth of the world, to hide a crime even from God?
PRIEST: How can there be? Nothing is more powerful than God ... nothing is surer than His truth ...
PENTINENT: Tell me, then. What is his name?
PRIEST: [with innocent confusion ] Whose name? God’s?
PENITENT: The Name of the One Who Was Eaten. Let's say someone hid that child somewhere deeper than the snow. Drowned and devoured her, snuffed out her immortal soul so it would never reach heaven, took her name out of the world and out of God's sight, too. No one to bestow her life. No one to answer her prayers. Even on the Day of Judgments -- but it's one child, that's all. What do you think? Can't we have reconciliation without her?
PRIEST: I wouldn't want reconciliation without her.
PENITENT: So you agree with me! You surprise me, Father. You'd reject God's promise for the sake of one lost soul? Tell me, would you rebel?
PRIEST: If I believed it was as you say ... if I believed a wrong like that had committed, and it would never be righted, and not even God could right it ... if I believed even one soul was kept from the day of reconciliation ... then it wouldn't be what He promised. And I wouldn’t want it. You can call that rebellion, if you like. I'd look for another way.
PENITENT: And if there were no other way?
PRIEST: I’d still look for it. [rousing himself from that strange certainty as if from a dream ] But if nothing like that has happened, if it will never happen, then of course I would never turn from God ...
PENITENT: Now, now -- I told you, what troubles me isn't what has happened or what will happen, what troubles me is what's impossible to happen. More hangs on that 'if' than you realize. Can you tell me it's impossible?
PRIEST: I don’t know if I can.
PENITENT: Let's stop imagining a child -- the image is too bathetic, anyway. Imagine a being higher than us, but not so high he can be free from the Chain. Imagine he was erased from all record, erased from the world. What troubles me isn't even that the hiding of a crime could prevent reconciliation. What troubles me is that reconciliation may happen regardless.
You see, I know God is greater than I -- you needn't lecture me on that. He made the world so -- how did you put it? Every wrong will be righted, and goodness rewarded, and hope answered. It's a wide world, but He has it in hand. He knows how all things connect and depend on each other, because He made it so. One crime forgotten, and God can remake the balance, resolve the harmony, and make it so it always was. How wise and how just are His ways!
But one crime forgotten means His accounting is ... off. One crime is a crime that hasn't been reckoned, that can never be reckoned, because to reckon it would be to ruin the harmony God created around its absence. It means all the world was built to cover a crime. It means even reconciliation was grown from the grounds of injustice. It means we will all be accomplices come Judgments' Day.
PRIEST: But I don't understand. Even if the world were like that, even if it were unjust, why would you hurt yourself so, and seven times over?
PENITENT: To settle the question. It could be for my own self-satisfaction -- if something hidden from God can be found by men, then of course it was never hidden absolutely. A reckoning is possible. Reconciliation is possible. Finding the hidden thing, the blasted Name, that's the proof. I'm a proud man, and I like to think myself clever. If I destroy myself with cleverness, what of it? I've sinned, and the wages of sin is death. I'll pay my own debts, too.
PRIEST: Do you really believe that? [passion rising in his voice ] ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ Nothing you do, nothing can make you unworthy of the life God’s given you -- it’s not about worthy or unworthy. It’s not about debt, or desert, or reckoning! It’s a gift .
PENITENT: What use is a gift wasted on wickedness? Why shouldn’t a wicked man give it back?
PRIEST: Why should he have to die? God doesn't want the death of the wicked, 'but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’ Confess when you need to confess, repent when you need to repent, but live .
[The PENITENT steps closer, as slow then as sudden as cracks spread through ice. He seizes the PRIEST by his ecclesiastical collar, and he kisses him on the mouth.]
PRIEST: [says the PENITENT’s name, when they part, so soft and so close no one but they could hear it; in his eyes there is a question ]
PENITENT: ... You believe what you say. The scripture you cite, though every day God’s Editors tear it apart and stitch it back together -- like Frankenstein’s monster. How do you know it won’t be blasphemy tomorrow?
PRIEST: Then I’ll be a blasphemer. [determined, after the quiet shock of the kiss ] Life is a gift, and I believe you should live it.
PENITENT: [shoulders shaking, as if restraining laughter -- or tears] You know something -- I have no faith in Christ. I have no faith in God. But I want to turn to Him, if He stands behind you. I want to be absolved in your eyes, and His. I want to be reconciled. But what use is reconciliation, if it's reconciliation with injustice? That’s what I ask myself, and I can never let a question alone.
PRIEST: ‘And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world’ -- that’s scripture, too. You don’t have to be certain to be saved. Ask the question! Ask the question, but live. Please live.
PENITENT: I want to be saved. [sinking until his head comes to rest upon the PRIEST’S chest ] I want you to save me. Is that why I came to you? I have no faith in mankind, either. I’ve tested too often whether London would betray me for baubles, and betray me it did. I've seen how petty Londoners are, how little they care for anyone else so long as they have what's theirs, and theirs alone. They don’t care to pay their debts; they wouldn’t think to cover anyone else’s. What would London say to me? ‘Live your life, because it’s yours. What does old injustice have to do with you?’ If London even cared to answer -- there’s no point in asking. But you, you care. You cared for my mother.
PRIEST: So did you. [with a voice full of love] So do you. You have a caring soul. You shouldn't be ashamed of it -- you shouldn't be hiding it behind pride and cleverness, or even behind your own sinfulness.
PENITENT: I barely have a soul at all. [a ragged laugh ] You think I'm hiding, Father? After all I've confessed to you!
PRIEST: What you’ve confessed ... sounds painful, and frightening. It’s hard for me to understand. But what's hardest to understand is how a man so good could value himself so little. You care for victims of injustice, remembered and forgotten. You care for the fates of beings beyond you or me. Can’t you care a little for yourself? Care for your own soul, care for what’s left of it. You don’t have to give up on everyone else’s, but it isn’t your job, either. [squaring his shoulders, smiling down at the PENITENT with the assurance of a reverend and a shepherd of men -- but on a young man’s face, it looks only like bravado ] The care of everyone's souls is the job of your priest.
PENITENT: [laughing, shaking ] What a burden to take.
PRIEST: I’ll take it. And yours, too, if you share it. We’re face-to-face, under the Seal of Confession, so let’s be honest with each other ... please. No more riddles. No more evasions. Tell me what’s troubling you, really.
PENITENT: What shall I tell you, when telling is a sin? I’ve told enough -- I’ve spread the Eaten faith, which isn’t a faith at all. It’s a faith denied. There was a promise: all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of the thing ...
PRIEST: Tell me. Tell me, and it will be well.
PENITENT: [looking up, touching his lips, in memory of their kiss ] Tell me , Father. Would you take a burden of suffering so no one else need suffer it?
PRIEST: [without hesitation] Of course I would.
PENITENT: I thought Christ alone could do that. Didn’t you say He was the man to bestow life to the dead, to settle their debt? And He did it with His blood. I do what I can with mine.
PRIEST: You aren’t dead, not yet. I'd bestow life to you, if I could -- I’d bleed for you, if I had to. I don't want you to hurt alone anymore. [in the tone of a confession] I love you.
PENITENT: [a slow and broken smile, moved by a will that isn’t his own ] Then shall I betray you with a kiss, my Christ?
[At last, the whisper -- everything has been bending toward this, and if God has a plan, this, too, is in it -- the stage we have set fades to black with the inks of the undernight, and here is its]