In the confessional booth, young Bernadette could be alone. She could dispel the snakes from her heart, let them slither away, be good again. She liked the dark cubicle with its envelope of warm air, the clean line of light at the bottom of the curtain, and the remembered scent of incense from Sunday Mass. She could taste the smoke on the back of her tongue as she tried to swallow the holiness.
She had impure thoughts about Danny, wanted to kiss his mouth, but they were not married. They were only classmates in seventh grade. He always got A’s on his math tests; she got A’s for her reading homework. She understood many thingsspelling and penmanship and symbolsbut she didn’t understand love. Her mother loved her father but she screamed at him and threatened to leave him.
Bernadette had heard them fighting this morning when she was standing at the top of the steps.
“She didn’t mean anything to me,” she heard her father say.
Bernadette went to the bathroom and glanced in the mirror of the medicine cabinet. What she saw was the head of Medusa writhing with snakes. She was afraid she would turn herself to stone or worse: turn them to stone.
She knew she was frightening herself with reading stories about dragons and beheadings. She touched her neck above the pretty Peter Pan collar of her blouse and felt the smoothness and pulse at the throat. Never could she behead someone, never.
“Monster!” she heard her mother yell. “Liar.”
In the hall Bernadette twisted away and stumbled over Puff. He meowed. She wanted to yell at him, “Bad cat!” She wanted to kick him for getting underfoot, but he trotted away. As she watched him disappear around the corner, she felt sorry. She loved Puff, had saved him from the neighbors’ house with their too many kittens. And Puff loved her, purring in her lap as she wrote out her grammar worksheets at the table.
She remembered one of her parents’ fights last year. When she got the art award in sixth grade for the pastel painting of the dragon and the princess, her mother, sitting alone in the audience, smiled widely. Later, her father was sheepish at dinner. Her mother didn’t look at him. Bernadette was disappointed that he’d missed the ceremony, but she knew he worked hard at the insurance agency, bringing peace of mind to customers.
“Pass this to your father,” her mother said as she pushed the plate of meatloaf at her.
“This smells delicious,” he said, staring down at the tablecloth.
Her mother still wouldn’t look his way. “How are things at the office? How’s Judy?” Her father didn’t answer.
“May I be excused?” Bernadette said. “I’m not hungry.”
Her parents’ fights scared her. She’d decided maybe she could save all of them yet. She could try to get better grades in math and history, as her mother entreated her to. Bernadette would promise to study harder, clean her room, bring in money by babysitting, practice her piano lessons.
This very day after confession, she would hurry home and go to the corner of the living room and plunk her hands down on the keys of the nicked piano. Her mother liked “Claire de Lune,” which Bernadette called “Claire the Looney” to make her mother laugh.
As Bernadette waited for the priest in the dark, she saw a beetle scuttle under the curtain at the front of the confessional booth. She wanted to step on the bug, but she was kneeling. The beetle scurried around and scrabbled on its tiny feet back to the light under the edge of the curtain and out of the booth.
She could hear the whisper-hissing in the compartment on the opposite side of the confessional, but she couldn’t hear the sins the person was listing, maybe an old man confessing his adultery last week, maybe an old woman confessing how she killed her mother 50 years ago. Bernadette would tell Father Joseph about her sinful desires for Danny, about not practicing piano, about wanting to kick the cat. Father Joseph slid open the wooden partition, the shadows rearranging themselves on the grille. He leaned in, his ear to the grille, and sighed. His mouthwash was strong, reminding her of the mixed smells that lingered on a gray old man dangling a whiskey bottle as he staggered past her and her mother. This was yesterday when they strolled to Isaly’s to buy Neapolitan ice cream cones. Her mother had averted her eyes but, under her breath, said, “Dirty bum.”
Bernadette began the ritual. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was a week ago.”
Father Joseph sighed again, and now she was sure she smelled alcohol on his breath. Why wasn’t he ashamed of his drinking, she wondered. Why should she tell her sins to him? Why shouldn’t he confess to her?
She dashed out of the booth. She wanted to run home to her room to read about Perseus and Medusa again. She needed to learn more details about beheading. How could it be done without looking into a person’s eyes?