Father Davis knew who it was even before he spoke. On the other side of the latticed screen, the penitent cleared his throat two or three times, swallowing with a soft gurgle of phlegm, and his breathing was loud in the enclosed, dark space. Immediately the priest's collar seemed too tight, and he ran his finger underneath it, feeling his skin grow slippery with his own sweat. He swallowed too, willing his gorge to settle, and the convulsive bob of his Adam's apple against the stiff material of his collar was like a clock counting the seconds until the voice came through the shadows.
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. It has been four days since my last confession…"
Wiltshire, New Hampshire, was one of those villages pictured frequently on scenic post cards of New England. Her houses were centuries old, testament to the sturdy industry of the settlers who tamed her colonial wilderness so long ago, and something of the hard silence of those times had crept into the bones of those who lived here now.
Even so, it was a cheerful place, if somewhat mired in the memories of times gone by. Children played, heedless of history and laughing brightly as they ran to and fro on the green that was still the heartbeat of the town. The Methodist church, the town hall, the historical society, the old theatre, the library were all clustered along its sides. Father Davis' chapel was not part of this congregation, but was tucked away on the foot of the road that continued higher up into the mountains.
He did not mind it. The silence of the woods and the early evenings in the winter bent his thoughts on God, and his parishioners and their concerns were always interesting to him—in a way, he was fortunate to be the only priest within thirty miles, as it allowed him glimpses into life in other towns, rare variety in the isolated community.
Wiltshire was centuries removed from the events that agitated life in other parts of the world, and in the history of the town, there had never been a shooting, a rape, a major theft…the sheriff was kept busy only by rare vandalism by some high school delinquents, some of which came after to his chapel, escorted by solemn-faced parents, to offer stumbling confessions and receive a Hail Mary or an Ave as penance.
But today, as Father Davis stared out over the sea of his parishioners, he knew that a wolf moved among his flock, a terrible creature that had preyed on his sheep and would prey again. His eyes darted from man to man, seeking the face that matched that fleshy voice that lisped over obscene, vile words and disclosed abhorrent sins, hiding behind the screen that tied the priest's hands as effectively as it veiled his eyes.
His congregation was smaller than usual today—he knew it was due to the line of picketers out front, mindlessly furious men and women who assumed that Minnie Willers had been locked in his basement for those three days of terror and searching, when her parents had come to his house at night screaming that it was him, all priests were perverts and rapists and pedophiles and they would see him burn for this they would they would how could he live with himself she was just nine for Christ's sake…
Resentment was a brilliant ember of pain in his chest that he had to avoid fanning at all costs.
His homily was simple, a message of thankfulness for the girl's recovery (though she was not all right and would not be for a long time), a prayer to catch the man who had held her, blessings for the policemen who were tirelessly working to do so, and a reminder that one should not hate the sinner, but the sin. The audience grew restless at that, and he heard more than one voice whisper that the man should be sent to burn in hell, and the sooner the better.
He closed with a prayer and sat through the final hymn, trying not to notice the faces in the crowd before him swimming in the heat from the candle flames, the plumes of incense, and his own exhaustion. He had been awake for two nights, praying ceaselessly, prostrated on the floor of the chapel before the cross, his arms outstretched, begging for guidance, begging for permission to break the sacred covenant that kept him in blindness.
"Is it just? Is it right? Is it moral?" he murmured under his breath, repeating the questions that rolled ceaselessly through his mind, like a dark undertow that threatened to drag him out into the roiling ocean of doubt and drown him.
"Is it right?" His tired gaze drifted up, over the heads of the crowd, floating up on the streams of smoke and heat and light into the section where the choir, adorned in red and gold, stood and sang, their voices lackluster from fatigue and disappointment.
Only one figure stood tall, round belly straining against the stiff satin of his robe, and as their eyes met, Father Davis jerked upright as though a blinding flash of lightening had sparked through the space between them and illuminated his vision in crystalline white.
James Teague…whose hands were always slightly damp with the sweat that seemed to ooze from his every pore, plastering his thinning hair to his scalp, whose voice was always soft, but with that strange undertone, like the harsh burble of a brook running through a subterranean cave, who came like occasionally to confess, always eager to lay bare his sins, but who came back with a list of the same ones…
With the beats of his heart, those two words echoed over and over until he was screaming inside, the sound drowning out the chords of the hymn of praise and he started to gasp, drawing breath to scream when he could not scream, to accuse when he could only forgive, to damn when he was bound to pardon.
How he stood to give the benediction he would never know. All he knew was that he moved, smiled, shook hands, gave blessings and waited. Waited until his hand grasped a fleshy, damp palm and he stared into a pair of clear gray eyes that gazed back at him with cunning innocence, the eyes of a child who knew that he had gained his point, outwitted the clumsy grownups who had sought to deprive him of his pleasure.
As if they were written in fire in the air between them, Father Davis recalled his soft voice, monotonous as a drill boring into his brain,
"…it has been four days since my last confession. I know I should have waited till this afternoon, Father, but I could not. I keep thinking of her, the way she cried, and I am sorry for what I did, Father, honestly sorry, but how could I help it? It was the Devil working in me, and I'll never do it again, I swear, he was stronger than me this once, but never, never again."
As they shook hands, his grin was a galling mask of confiding insolence. For a moment, Father Davis thought he might strangle him, right there. Was there a chance that he could kill him before anyone wrestled him away?
"I would never have kept her, of course I let her go…and they found her before anything hurt her in the woods. I was worried that she might get lost, but they found her…surely that was right of me, wasn't it?"
He thought he would close his fingers about the other man's wrist and hold him until the sheriff, watching the picket line outside, could come and arrest him. But James' hand was gone and his own was as senseless as a prosthetic, hanging heavy and limp at his side. The world around them was muted, occasional bursts of sound beating against his eardrums like distant cannon fire.
When Father Davis staggered and fell heavily sideways, the world rushed back to him. Voices cried out as hands reached to break his fall. He grasped at one of them and whispered, hoarse, "Get Sheriff Eddings and bring him to my office. At once."
In the office, surrounded by books of apostolic law and dogma of the Church, Father Davis felt his resolution waver. Turning his eyes to the cross, he whispered, "You dined with sinners, but never concealed their sin. You offered mercy, but did not withhold justice. Give me the strength you had. Make me do what is right."
"Father?" The sheriff's voice was clipped, closed. The day of the abduction, he had come to the chapel asking for help, seeking knowledge, and had been rebuffed. "You asked to see me?"
He turned slowly, and ended his prayer with a quiet, "God forgive me."