‘First Confession’ by Frank o’Connor
In this Irish story, as Jackie struggles to make his first confession, the sympathetic priest shows that the best way to handle the problem of sin is with the right mixture of gravity and good humor.
Irish culture at the time of this story was strongly imbued with Catholicism. When the sister in the story occasionally uses exclamations with God’s name and religious terms, they come from a place of religious awareness and familiarity far unlike impious exclamations in today’s modern culture.
This story is intended for readers mature enough to understand this difference. Readers should also understand that the priest’s sympathetic approach to helping the boy overcome his fears is subtle and is meant to be taken humorously. Recommended for 11th and 12th grade students. |This short story is one of several that are paired with the Bayley Bulletin Winter Quarter Short Story Contest.
It was a Saturday afternoon in early spring. A small boy whose face looked as though it had been but newly scrubbed was being led by the hand by his sister through a crowded street. The little boy showed a marked reluctance to proceed; he affected to be very interested in the shop-windows.
Equally, his sister seemed to pay no attention to them. She tried to hurry him; he resisted. When she dragged him he began to bawl. The hatred with which she viewed him was almost diabolical, but when she spoke her words and tone were full of passion and sympathy.
“Ah, sha, God help us!” she intoned into his ear in a whine of commiseration.
“Leave me go!” he said, digging his heels into the pavement. “I don’t want to go. I want to go home.”
“But, sure, you can’t go home, Jackie. You’ll have to go. The parish priest will be up to the house with a
“I don’t care. I won’t go.”
“Oh, Sacred Heart, isn’t it a terrible pity you weren’t a good boy? Oh, Jackie, me heart bleeds for you! I don’t know what they’ll do to you at all, Jackie, me poor child. And all the trouble you caused your poor old nanny, and the way you wouldn’t eat in the same room with her, and the time you kicked her on the shins, and the time you went for me with the bread knife under the table. I don’t know will he ever listen to you at all, Jackie. I think meself he might sind you to the bishop. Oh, Jackie, how will you think of all your sins?”
Half stupefied with terror, Jackie allowed himself to be led through the sunny streets to the very gates of the church. It was an old one with two grim iron gates and a long, low, shapeless stone front. At the gates he stuck, but it was already too late. She dragged him behind her across the yard, and the commiserating whine with which she had tried to madden him gave place to a yelp of triumph.
“Now you’re caught! Now, you’re caught. And I hope he’ll give you the pinitintial psalms! That’ll cure you, you suppurating little caffler!”
Jackie gave himself up for lost. Within the old church there was no stained glass; it was cold and dark and desolate, and in the silence, the trees in the yard knocked hollowly at the tall windows. He allowed himself to be led through the vaulted silence, the intense and magical silence which seemed to have frozen within the ancient walls, buttressing them and shouldering the high wooden roof. In the street outside, yet seeming a million miles away, a ballad singer was drawling a ballad.
Nora sat in front of him beside the confession box. There were a few old women before her, and later a thin, sad looking man with long hair came and sat beside Jackie. In the intense silence of the church that seemed to grow deeper from the plaintive moaning of the ballad singer, he could hear the buzz-buzz-buzz of a woman’s voice in the box, then the husky ba-ba-ba of the priest’s. Lastly the soft thud of something that signalled the end of the confession, and out came the woman, head lowered, hands joined, looking neither to right nor left, and tiptoed up to the altar to say her penance.
It seemed only a matter of seconds till Nora rose and with a whispered injunction disappeared from his sight. He was all alone. Alone and next to be heard and the fear of damnation in his soul. He looked at the sad- faced man. He was gazing at the roof, his hands joined in prayer. A woman in a red blouse and black shawl had taken her place below him. She uncovered her head, fluffed her hair out roughly with her hand, brushed it sharply back, then, bowing, caught it in a knot and pinned it on her neck. Nora emerged. Jackie rose and looked at her with a hatred which was inappropriate to the occasion and the place. Her hands were on her stomach, her eyes modestly lowered, and her face had an expression of the most rapt and tender recollection.
With death in his heart he crept into the compartment she left open and drew the door shut behind him.
He was in pitch darkness. He could see no priest nor anything else. And anything he had heard of confession got all muddled up in his mind. He knelt to the right-hand wall and said: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” Nothing happened. He repeated it louder. Still it gave no answer. He turned to the opposite wall, genuflected first, then again went on his knees and repeated the charm.
This time, he was certain he would receive a reply, but none came. He repeated the process with the remaining wall without effect. He had the feeling of someone with an unfamiliar machine, of pressing buttons at random. And finally the thought struck him that God knew. God knew about the bad confession he intended to make and had made him deaf and blind so that he could neither hear nor see the priest.
Then as his eyes grew accustomed to the blackness, he perceived something he had not noticed previously: a sort of shelf at about the height of his head. The purpose of this eluded him for a moment. Then he understood. It was for kneeling on.
He had always prided himself upon his powers of climbing, but this took it out of him. There was no foothold. He slipped twice before he succeeded in getting his knee on it, and the strain of drawing the rest of his body up was almost more than he was capable of. However, he did at last get his two knees on it, there was just room for those, but his legs hung down uncomfortably and the edge of the shelf bruised his shins. He joined his hands and pressed the last remaining button.
“Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”
At the same moment the slide was pushed back and a dim light streamed into the little box. There was an uncomfortable silence, and then an alarmed voice asked, “Who’s there?” Jackie found it almost impossible to speak into the grille which was on a level with his knees, but he got a firm grip of the molding above it, bent his head down and sideways, and as though he were hanging by his feet like a monkey found himself looking almost upside down at the priest. But the priest was looking sideways at him, and Jackie, whose knees were being tortured by this new position, felt it was a queer way to hear confessions.
” ‘Tis me, father,” he piped, and then, running all his words together in excitement, he rattled off, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”
“What?” exclaimed a deep and angry voice, and the sombre soutaned figure stood bolt upright, disappearing almost entirely from Jackie’s view. “What does this mean? What are you doing there? Who are you?”
And with the shock Jackie felt his hands lose their grip and his his legs their balance. He discovered himself tumbling into space, and, falling, he knocked his head against the door which shot open and permitted him to thump right into the center of the aisle. Straight on this came a small, dark-haired priest with a biretta well forward on his head. At the same time Nora came skeltering madly down the church.
“Lord God!” she cried. “The snivelling little caffler! I knew he’d do it! I knew he’d disgrace me!”
Jackie received a clout over the ear which reminded him that for some strange reason he had not yet begun to cry and that people might possibly think he wasn’t hurt at all. Nora slapped him again.
“What’s this? What’s this?” cried the priest. “Don’t attempt to beat the child, you little vixen!”
“I can’t do me pinance with him,” cried Nora shrilly, cocking a shocked eye on the priest. “He have me driven mad. Stop your crying, you dirty scut! Stop it now or I’ll make you cry at the other side of your ugly puss!”
“Run away out of this, you little jade!” growled the priest. He suddenly began to laugh, took out a pocket handkerchief, and wiped Jackie’s nose. “You’re not hurt, sure you’re not. Show us the ould head. . . . Ah, ’tis nothing. ‘Twill be better before you’re twice married. . . . So you were coming to confession?”
“I was, father.”
“A big fellow like you should have terrible sins. Is it your first?” ” ‘Tis, father.”
“Oh, my, worse and worse! Here, sit down there and wait till I get rid of these ould ones and we’ll have a long chat. Never mind that sister of yours.”
With a feeling of importance that glowed through his tears Jackie waited. Nora stuck out her tongue at him, but he didn’t even bother to reply. A great feeling of relief was welling up in him. The sense of oppression that had been weighing him down for a week, the knowledge that he was about to make a bad confession, disappeared. Bad confession, indeed! He had made friends, made friends with the priest, and the priest expected, even demanded terrible sins. Oh, women! Women! It was all women and girls and their silly talk. They had no real knowledge of the world!
And when the time came for him to make his confession he did not beat about the bush. He may have clenched his hands and lowered his eyes, but wouldn’t anyone?
“Father,” he said huskily, “I made it up to kill me grandmother.”
There was a moment’s pause. Jackie did not dare to look up, but he could feel the priest’s eyes on him.
The priest’s voice also seemed a trifle husky.
“Your grandmother?” he asked, but he didn’t after all sound very angry. “Yes, father.”
“Does she live with you?” “She do, father.”
“And why did you want to kill her?” “Oh, God, father, she’s a horrible woman!” “Is she now?”
“She is, father.”
“What way is she horrible?”
Jackie paused to think. It was hard to explain. “She takes snuff, father.”
“And she goes round in her bare feet, father.” “Tut-tut-tut!”
“She’s a horrible woman, father,” said Jackie with sudden earnestness. “She takes porter. And she ates the potatoes off the table with her hands. And me mother do be out working most days, and since that one came ’tis she gives us our dinner and I can’t ate the dinner.” He found himself sniffling. “And she gives pinnies to Nora and she doesn’t give no pinnies to me because she knows I can’t stand her. And me father sides with her, father, and he bates me, and me heart is broken and wan night in bed I made it up the way I’d kill her.”
Jackie began to sob again, rubbing his nose with his sleeve as he remembered his wrongs. “And what way were you going to kill her?” asked the priest smoothly.
“With a hatchet, father.” “When she was in bed?” “No, father.”
“When she ates the potatoes and drinks the porter she falls asleep, father.” “And you’d hit her then?”
“Wouldn’t a knife be better?”
” ‘Twould, father, only I’d be afraid of the blood.” “Oh, of course. I never thought of the blood.”
“I’d be afraid of that, father. I was near hitting Nora with the bread knife one time she came after me under the table, only I was afraid.”
“You’re a terrible child,” said the priest with awe.
“I am, father,” said Jackie noncommittally, sniffling back his tears. “And what would you do with the body?”
“Wouldn’t someone see her and tell?”
“I was going to cut her up with a knife and take away the pieces and bury them. I could get an orange box for threepence and make a cart to take them away.”
“My, my,” said the priest. “You had it all well planned.”
“Ah, I tried that,” said Jackie with mounting confidence. “I borrowed a cart and practiced it by meself one night after dark.”
“And weren’t you afraid?”
“Ah, no,” said Jackie half-heartedly. “Only a bit.”
“You have terrible courage,” said the priest. “There’s a lot of people I want to get rid of, but I’m not like you. I’d never have the courage. And hanging is an awful death.”
“Is it?” asked Jackie, responding to the brightness of a new theme. “Oh, an awful blooming death!”
“Did you ever see a fellow hanged?” “Dozens of them, and they all died roaring.” “Jay!” said Jackie.
“So if I were you I’d take my time and think about it. In my opinion ’tisn’t worth it, not even to get rid of a grandmother. I asked dozens of fellows like you that killed their grandmothers about it, and they all said no, ’twasn’t worth it. . . . “
Nora was waiting in the yard. The sunlight struck down on her across the high wall and its brightness made his eyes dazzle. “Well?” she asked. “What did he give you?”
“Three Hail Marys.”
“You mustn’t have told him anything.”
“I told him everything,” said Jackie confidently. “What did you tell him?”
“Things you don’t know.”
“Bah! He gave you three Hail Marys because you were a cry baby!”
Jackie didn’t mind. He felt the world was very good. He began to whistle as well as the hindrance in his jaw permitted.
“What are you sucking?” “Bull’s eyes.”
“Was it he gave them to you?” “ ‘Twas.”
“Almighty God!” said Nora. Some people have all the luck. I might as well be a sinner like you. There’s no use in being good.”
Image CC Emilio Labrador