The church sat atop a sea of freshly fallen snow, looming out of the dusk as Sean approached. The previous night’s storm had blanketed the graveyard and had covered the winding path up to the front door. Sean’s footprints followed him in a straight line; the most direct route to God was across the dead.
He stamped his feet clean of powder once he was inside and paused to compose himself. It was as cold in the church as outside but at least he was out of the wind. Flickering candles picked out the altar, rows of silent pews, a font, but gave up little heat. He hadn’t expected to feel the warmth of the Lord’s love but its absence disappointed him nonetheless. Stepping into the confessional he awkwardly made the sign of the cross as he sat down.
‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was…’ He faltered. He couldn’t recall how long it had been since he’d confessed. It was a habit he’d slipped out of after he’d married Aoife and especially after Mary had been born. She’d been a difficult one, arriving early and struggling through her first few months, beset by illness. They’d almost lost her a couple of years ago in the winter of ’33. She was gripped with fever and he, Aoife, Dr O’Halloran and Margaret, his new health visitor, had sat with her in shifts, wrapping her in cool towels. Father Flynn had come down from the church and sat with them, leading the prayers. Twice she’d stopped breathing. Both times Margaret had revived her, forcing breath back into her lungs even as Flynn began his final administering.
‘It’s alright Sean. Take your time. You’ve been through a lot.’ The priest spoke in a reassuring but firm, low tone.
‘My last confession was three years ago, Father. Before the wedding. Before the wedding and now, here we are, after the funeral. Perhaps if I’d come more often? Been more diligent?’
‘God forgives. He sees the repentant man and he forgives. He didn’t take Aoife from us because your faith was found wanting Sean.’ Flynn sighed. He had never had cause to question his own resolute belief and he sometimes wondered if some understanding of doubt would better equip him to bring the waverers in his congregation back into the fold.
‘I know Father. That’s why I must confess.’ There was a long pause as both men sat in silence. One searching for the right words, the other giving him the time to find them. Sean lowered his voice to barely a whisper. ‘I knew she was messing around. I saw the way he looked at her. Joseph Ryan. Up from Cork originally he was. Always boasting about how he’d be leaving for America one day. It was hard for her, you know? I was at the school all day and she never really took to motherhood. When we nearly lost Mary something changed in her, it was like she was scared of getting too close to her again. When I found out about the baby… Found out it was his…’ Sean broke off, shaking his head. A sudden draught made the candles in the church leap and lean, some of them blew out and the confessional pitched further into darkness.
‘What did you do child?’ asked Flynn.
‘I took her to that place in Ennis,’ he answered softly. ‘The parlour of Parnell Street, that’s what they call it. No questions asked. Pay your money and your wife’s mistake goes away and you never speak of it again. Except something went wrong. Was that your God, Father ? Was that his punishment for her for adultery? Or for both of us for killing the baby? Is that why he took her as well?’
They both sat silently for a long time before Flynn offered up a prayer and talked of penance. He remained in his seat long after Sean had left. Against all that he’d been taught, against all that he knew, this was the worst sin he’d borne witness to. It was an affront to God. And yet, sitting there in the dark, he felt the first pinch of something new. Doubt.