Going into Father Steinhouse’s office with Derrick never got easier for me or for Willow. We both needed to gather our will to step inside those walls. I fortified myself by repeating over and over my resolve to stay at Willow’s side, to both companion and learn. Still, going into the private chamber of a priest caused dread. Father Steinhouse never touched a child inappropriately. He thought priests guilty of the crime should be tarred, feathered, and imprisoned. Yet, he abused little girls every day in his belief that they were lesser than. Let me repeat that one’s beliefs are always evident, are always communicated. His too, were suffused in his person: the way he stood, sat, spoke, and looked at her. It was in his clothes, the fat of his hands, the slack of his tired chin.
Willow sat on a chair before the priest’s desk, her plaid school skirt pushed down over her knees, Derrick in a chair at her side. The walls held as many as twenty crucifixion pictures, all in sorrowful colors: charcoals, burnt umbers, deep-night navies, and shades of blood-red scarlets. She considered the paintings, fitting them into three categories: reprints of the old masters but on cheap paper and with cheap frames; oils by fair-enough artists, most better than her own work and likely purchased at starving artists’ sales, and there were several that looked like paint-by-number kits done by children or palsied parishioners.
“Willow,” Farther Steinhouse drew her attention back to his instruction, “you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said in the last thirty minutes.” His elbows were wide on his shiny desktop, and his short, round fingers steepled beneath his chins. “Did you hear that you must make a confession before Saturday? I won’t perform the ceremony, otherwise.”
She wanted to like him, even thank him; he was the shepherd taking them to the altar. He’d been the loudest voice in favor of their marriage, and she believed marrying Derrick was her only chance of having the future and family she wanted. She accepted her guilt, knew she’d been so sick for love that even Derrick’s need for sex had been an acceptable substitute. What she objected to was Father Steinhouse’s insistence that she feel shame and repentant before him. As if the evil thing about her pregnancy was that she usurped church authority. She had sex, used her body as though it were hers, before a priest gave his permission.
Derrick nudged her, wanting the session over as much as she. “I’ve already made my confession.” Agree already, his eyes said.
She told her head to nod, yes. What was the big deal? Throughout her years at Our Lady of Supplication, the nuns routinely ushered all the students, class by class, to confession in September—as if to launder them of their sinful summers—and again at the onset of Advent and Lent, and before saints’ days and Holy Days. She’d confessed a hundred times, always trembling at the gravity of her big sin, the one that never went away, the one she whispered every time she entered his black-draped, coffin-sized confessional: “I told a lie about Papa.” However, being commanded to confess now felt different. Was it forgiveness he wanted for her or to see her on her knees?
The priest’s eyes were narrow. “It’s mandatory before the sacrament of marriage.”
“Yes, Father,” Willow managed. In the charged air, she shifted in her chair, straightened her skirt again, and looked sidelong at Derrick for support. Nothing. He had already confessed and was absolved. He was now blameless. She wondered too, just how much blame Father Steinhouse thought was Derrick’s. Fifty percent or a number far lower?
The tired priest turned to Derrick. “You’re enrolled in public school? The coaches here will miss you, but you understand we have rules.”
“I start next Monday. I’ve already met with the basketball coach.”
Father Steinhouse smiled at Derrick, and his expression fell again on Willow. “We expect our standards to be upheld at Our Lady of Supplication,” he paused for five, maybe six seconds, “especially by our financially-challenged students.”
I wanted to knock the man’s hands out from beneath his chin, to have his head slam down onto the desktop, and do a John-the-Baptist roll.
Willow felt herself beginning to sway. She widened her hands off her lap and onto the sides of her seat and held on. She should have known all along, but had somehow managed to keep the secret from her heart. She was a charity case. Other families, like Derrick’s, and of course, Mary Wolfe’s, paid a higher tuition to cover her costs. Shame burned her cheeks, and her knees began vibrating, trembling the hem of her skirt. The counseling session felt twisted up with things going clear back to Sister Dominic Agnes and being “disfigured,” the black paper chain that still snaked around the first-grade classroom, Mary destroying the Pandora painting out of some rage Willow didn’t understand. The incidents seemed like puzzle pieces she couldn’t quite fit together, and yet she knew they were somehow connected. If only she turned them at just the right angle, this into that, or if she had a few more pieces.
She stood. “I have to go. I promised Papa I’d be home early.”
Father Steinhouse rose and leaned forward on his desk. “If you won’t make your confession, I can’t perform the ceremony.”
Willow had her arms in her coat sleeves. “I’ve made my confession. I didn’t want to say so because I was too embarrassed, but I went to someone else.” It wasn’t a lie. She’d told Papa. He was a priest to her, and her condition hurt him as much as anyone. “I wish I could tell you where I went, but I know you guys take oaths and can’t discuss confessions. If I make another confession,” she shrugged, “wouldn’t that be like calling the absolution he gave me a lie?”
As she walked toward the door, I cheered her. At the same time, I wanted to linger, hoping the priest would realize how even his unspoken beliefs about females, the church doctrine he greedily accepted as his own, bled through and bruised Willow. I ached to discuss with him the church’s insistence that females confess their angers, doubts, and fears (mostly church inflicted) to males. How different might the world be if through the centuries males were required to confess their deeds to women: their wars, genocides, and the perpetrated lies about females in their “good” books. Suppose they had to confess their rapes and acts of incest to women, and women meted out the punishments? On what strange planet did sinners only confess to their equally-guilty cronies?
My war was not with all males. There was always Thomas to remember, beautiful and gentle, and every inch male. A man who could pull me close and without hesitancy whisper, “I’m sorry.” A man who could carry stones up a ladder for a chimney, heft a massive wooden yoke over the shoulders of a pair of oxen, kill a rattle snake with a rock in his hand, and weep over the genocide of the American Indian. A man who thought a woman’s cleaved fingers important enough to document and an infant girl half way around the world worth risking his life to rescue.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish