Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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by Jim Rudnick

"Forgive me, father Padrone, for I have sinned," he said softly, his voice beginning to quaver.

Through the curtained window, the priest settled softly against the cushions behind him and Miguel could see that he had partly turned towards him.

"I am sorry, my son, but father Padrone is not here this evening. But do not fear, while I am new to the parish and to Santiago I have heard many confessions... Please pardon my presence here tonight and continue," he said as he looked through at Miguel, the thin curtain providing only a soft focus to his face.

Miguel shifted on his small seat and his hands clasped even more firmly to each other. Father Padrone had been his parish priest for almost 12 years, and he suddenly felt that the new padre opposite him would not be able to find it in his heart to absolve him from his troublesome sins of the past day. As he shook, his right thumb tried to bury itself into the space below his left forefinger while he swallowed once again. Beneath his gaze, his newly bought shoes for Independence Day were now scuffed and dull and his shirt pocket was torn now from it’s upper corner, drooping across his midriff. His day’s finery for the parade earlier was now soiled and fear had driven him to his parish priest.

"May Senior exsisto in vestri pectus pectoris quod super vestri labiae , ut vos may dignitas profiteor totus vestri sins. In Nomen of Abbas , quod of Filius quod of Flamen, Amen," the new priest said quietly, though he did stumble Miguel thought on a couple of words.

Surprised by the much out-of-date Latin, Miguel sat quietly, his hands still gripping each other as he tried to understand why the priest had used the older forms. Father Padrone had explained to him more than a decade ago, that while both Mass and Confession had once been done in Latin that this had fallen into disuse and plain English was now used almost universally. This priest is maybe out of touch, Miguel thought and continued to feel that he could only confess to his long time friend and not to this stranger. This truth was so alien to him this day, that he knew that anyone offered his tale would most likely not take him seriously.

The priest’s voice was a balm for Miguel’s fears.

"My son, has it been so long since your last confession that you do not remember what you must now say..." He awaited Miguel’s choice, seemingly drawing up his legs beneath him as Miguel heard the scrape of leather on the old beaten wooden floor of the confessional booth. Like he’d run out after me if I suddenly tried to leave, Miguel thought....then realized that perhaps he was just reading far too much into this new priest’s motives and returned his attention to the task at hand. He must confess, else all was lost. He cleared his throat, while un-gripping his hands and leaned towards the curtain to speak.

"I confess to God Almighty, to all the saints and to you father, that I have sinned very much in thought, word, deed and omission, by my own great fault. Since my last confession, which was one week ago when I received absolution and performed my penance, I have committed the most grievous sin of all, father – I have brought forth demons." At that, Miguel’s voice cracked as he hung his head, and tears formed quickly in his eyes. He wiped at them with a dirty finger and sobbed once, twice and then quieted somewhat, his shoulders still heaving. The worst Catholic in Santiago, he thought...I am the worst of all God’s children. And he sobbed still.

"My son, please...here...please take this..." and he passed a small handkerchief under the curtain to the sobbing 17 year old. "Do not trouble yourself, my son, you will today receive absolution to all your sins, and besides, I do not believe that you have brought forth any real demons at all. This is not possible even here in Chile in these times, my son," and he continued to try to quiet the boy.

Miguel continued to sob as he tried to dry his eyes and eventually his crying stopped and he shrugged at the priest who had been watching him attentively.

"Father, I did conjure up demons, and they are here in the throngs outside looking for me still. I have brought troubles to all, even you father," he said while his eyes darted about the small booth, as if they were right there in front of him.

"Nonsense, my son, this is just not possible. No one can conjure up demons – perhaps you only think that you did. Or perhaps you were dreaming," the priest said, his voice questioning as if asking for more details on this occurrence.

Miguel shook his head and the priest gestured to him to explain.

"Oh yes, I have done just that...but let me explain father...it all began just before lunch today, on Fiestas Patrias on our Independence Day parade route. You do not know me, father, but I have been a member here of this parish since I was 5 when father Padrone found me out on the streets and took me into the Franciscan mission here at San Francisco Church. I had been on the streets since my mother had died earlier that year and he was able to provide me with much help and even gave me a bed to sleep in on some rainy nights. He taught me all that I know, father and it was he who made me go to the Church school since then. He educated me in all things, father and I even know much about the Church and the holy fathers too...Father Padrone saw to it that I was a good Catholic. And I know in my heart, father that it was not his fault – do not blame him for my chosen path, but I have turned into one of Santiago’s best pick-pockets and while I have confessed my sins to father Padrone, he was always unable to talk me out of what I do. And I am very very good, father...so good that I can pick and choose my victims and am able to live well for a young man in our city." He prided himself on his abilities and he wanted the new father to know that the choices that he made were his alone....and no one could blame anyone else for his path. Father Padrone had preached long and hard for him to change, but to no avail.

"Yes, my son, I understand but I too will try to get you to mend your ways. But that does not explain this demon conjuring you spoke of," he said, pressing his point again.

"Well today, you know, during the big parade, I was stationed down on the Alameda, right at the corner where the parade turns the corner from Santa Maria where the crowds are thick and it’s a pick-pockets delight. I had already found several...er...I had been out there for about an hour or two and I was walking along the Alameda towards the Church. I could see the Municipal Theatre up ahead, you know right where the closed up Internacional Hotel is located? The one with those great gardens in front now all overgrown and all locked up driveways? Do you know the spot, father?" Miguel asked as the father nodded.

"Yes, my son. There are huge barred gates across the two driveways and I have seen the people seated on the low walls between them, their shirts bulging between the bars. Yes, I know that sadly neglected spot. Was it here that you..." and he let his voice trail off.

"No father, I was merely passing by and slowed to watch the dancers from Temuco with their wonderful plumage and golden feathers. They were dancing so well to the music from their walking Samba band, that I slowed even further, father and tried to move up the sidewalk to be against the barred driveway. I noticed and thought it odd even I remember, that there were people behind the bars too, inside the grounds of the closed hotel, but I thought that they were special guests of someone because they had such a great spot to watch the parade from. They seemed to be as much into the parade as all present were if not more – they were dancing along to the samba beat and they were gulping down drinks from big mugs and singing to each other. I overheard one yell that this was the best parade they’d ever seen, while another couple beside them nodded and said in the past 50 years anyways. They looked too young to be that old, father, so I knew that they were just joking. The man almost directly behind me and a bit to my right said to his lady that this trip was the best they’d ever booked which was because our timeline was so original. I don’t know what he meant, father but there were nods from most as I saw. Two were even right up to the bars of the gates themselves, their arms pushed through and waving at the dancers as they coursed through the street before us. It was a bit strange again, I thought that 8 or 9 people had such access to these old grounds but they obviously knew someone, father and they were partying right along with everyone else. I paid them little further attention as the dancers moved past and then returned in linked chains to again get cheers from the crowds in front of me. They came right up and onto the wide boulevard sidewalk almost up to me with my back to the gates and they danced and danced and the music was pounding out that latin beat and everything was so loud that I had forgotten to be looking over the crowds for my next target when I heard shouting directly behind me.

It was those people behind me, and they were all shouting and yelling something and the music was so loud most of it was drowned out, father, but I heard someone near me screaming about "he’s not breathing...he’s not breathing..." and others yelling to "press Return....press Return" and they all were agitated and then a few of them moved towards a man standing almost directly behind me and to my right a bit. As I turned further to listen that man collapsed and fell back against the bars, only a arms-length away, and I could see that he was turning a dull blue and then the others were right there with him and they were all shouting things about "Return...hit Return" or "...we must go back..." and I didn’t really understand and then I saw this purplish icy light suddenly that flowed from around them and the sickly man turned his gaze at me. Father, I could see that he was very bad...and then he slipped further towards me, his head now protruding between the bars as other arms tried to support him and pull him back within their circle. All the while, from the street the music was driving at me and I had that purple light in my eyes, and then I saw it around the sick man’s neck, a large silver locket almost within my grasp. And so I did just that; I grabbed the locket and yanked back as his friends dragged him upright, and pocketed it quickly. I am good at what I can do, father, and I was still the only one this far back on the sidewalk and up against the driveway gates and I was the only one who saw what happened too, father. The man and his friends never saw a thing – then they just disappeared into that purple light as the strangest wind sprang up and flowed outwards from where they’d been. Then they were gone and so was that purple light...just gone." Miguel’s voice wavered a bit then, and his thumb burrowed still into his palm. He looked up now and through the curtain expecting some kind of querying from the father, and he was not unrewarded.

"Umm...my son, people do not just disappear; perhaps with all the hubbub of the parade and those dancers and the throngs of people everywhere, perhaps your attention was diverted momentarily and you didn’t notice them disappear behind all that foliage towards the rear to try to get their friend some help. I do not know what happened, my son, but this most likely just a case of your not being as aware of your surroundings during our national parade day...that is all, my son. And where is this locket that you stole," the priest , "...where is it now?"

"But father, if that was true, then what happened next could have never happened," he said as he shuddered once again, and went on with his story.

"I moved through the crowds then over to the side streets and finally I found a taxi and went to Pio Nono and then to our bodega where....well, father, where people like me feel at home. It’s sort of our own local club, father, where we can be ourselves and we can sup and brag about our lives out on the street, father. It’s almost home really, and it was there that the demons appeared at my bidding," Miguel said, his voice catching.

"We love Fiestas Patrias day, father, because it brings out so many people to the parade route and then all through the night everyone is celebrating and partying all night long. For a pick-pocket father, that is the time that we can take a month’s pickings in a few hours and those pickings are good for one like me. Today, was just a day like that, father and I had done well, that I went back to the bodega only a bit confused about what had happened at the hotel intruding on my mind. I got there well after lunchtime...and already there were many there, some friends some enemies but the seats filled up fast and Maria had trouble bringing out wine to each new table as they poured in after the parade had ended around 3:00 pm. Till then, I just sat and drank and traded stories with friends but I never mentioned the hotel and the sick man until later. In fact, had Barto not shown up, I might have never failed you and the Church," Miguel said his voice quiet now and when he looked over at the priest, he saw the father waving his hand for him to hurry and continue.

"Barto and I are enemies, father. We do not get along and for months now he has tried to outdo me at our trade. He constantly crows about my prizes and belittles them all. Once when I picked a Rolex – a solid gold Daytona, he said it was a replica and who’d want same. Even when I showed all the wad of bills from Ramón my buyer, he said that I’d sold other things to pad my take. He wants to be the best, father, but I am the best and for that, he will never give up till he’s on the top of the mountain; but I am too good for him to challenge me out rightly," he said with some pride in his voice. "Being able to pick a tourist’s pocket is a skill that comes only with much much practice, father and I have never been caught, never even been thought of as the stranger who has violated anyone by taking some of their belongings. I am good, father, and Barto knows it. Miguel’s left palm was sore from the digging that his thumb had been doing and he rubbed it on his thigh, the soiled pants leg scratching the now bloody gash. He waved his hand trying to alleviate the stinging but that didn’t happen.

"And then what happened, my son?" asked the priest, leaning a bit towards the boy in the other half of the confessional booth.

"Barto came to my table and emptied his pockets for all to see, father. He had 8 wallets, some of which were swelled with currency and two small ladies change purses too; he had a gold watch, a Cartier and two heavy gold men’s chain bracelets. His take for the day was excellent, even I had to admit. And he sneered at me and asked if I’d done as well. And I had father, better even, as I emptied these large cargo pockets on my pants. I had two watches and one again was a Rolex, from a Canadian tourist who never appreciated it because he didn’t even put on the security chain. And I too had wallets, only 6 mind you but all were overflowing with Chilean pesos and two were jammed full of US dollars too. All in all father, we were about even, and Barto swelled up his chest and was just about to crow about that, when I remembered the silver locket and I threw it on the table as the final item I had gotten today. And that got a snort from Barto.

"What, we pick children’s lockets now," he said, and reached for it. But I was quicker.

"Barto, you wish to look at my goods, and you do not ask anymore as the rest of us do? Perhaps you were going to throw it away as it’s obvious you think it has no value?"

He straightened up quickly, like a soldier at attention, and shook his head.

"Not at all, Miguel. I merely sought to see the item, I intended no harm to it." The etiquette for our bodega was quite simple, really. Any of us who presented goods for perusal had to be asked if they could be picked up and looked at, and in this small manner we prevented any helping of ourselves to other’s goods. He did however, peer down at the locket. I swigged some more of my wine, not enjoying the taste but as something to detract from Barto’s questioning.

"It seems to have some buttons on the one side, what do they do? And from whom did you liberate such a great piece of jewelry?" he asked sarcastically.

That question I would not answer, I knew, but the buttons had escaped me in my initial glance at the locket as it hung around the sick man’s neck.

"Ah yes, those buttons I have not yet tried. Perhaps I will await time later to do that," and I looked around at the faces of others around me. They all protested quickly and suggested that I not delay and let them see the inside of the locket as the buttons would obviously open up same. Pictures one said who favored Barto, there would only be pictures inside while another said it could hold drugs or another said pesos who grinned at me in support. I grinned back, as I was shouted at to open up same and I picked up the locket, father and so help me I did not know what lay ahead.

The locket was the size of a men’s pocket watch and about as fat as well. Along one side, there were three buttons each outlined in a softer more silvery tone. And nothing else. The locket was smooth on both sides and hung from a now broken chain that was nearly out of the loop up at the top and the whole thing weighed at most as much as a 5 peso coins. I turned it over a few times, enjoying the anticipation and then slowly pressed the top most button.

Around my table suddenly, there was that same purple icy glow emanating from the locket out about 20 feet or so. While my eyes blinked twice as I tried to focus on the light, I turned the locket in my hand first this way and then that, and the purple circle wavered very little...like somehow it was poured out of the locket and then couldn’t be moved. I looked down at the table top and wine in my glass, and everything had the same purple tinge to it – even me, father sitting within that 20 foot circle, my own skin and my clothes had the same purple highlights as did Barto and the rest within the circle and even some others at the fringes of that circle around me. Press the next one, someone cried out, as I realized that this glow was the same glow that I had seen at the hotel earlier that day, and suddenly for no reason, I was scared. I began to shake my head, and twisted the locket to try to re-press the same button to shut it down when Barto spoke.

"So the great Miguel steals a kids toy and tries to con us all with it’s immense value. I say the locket is worth nothing – anyone else agree?" His voice and his look around my table was met with some nods of assent.

"But wait, Barto" I said figuring that the only way to truly test what the locket was worth was to push the next button. I must do this, I remember thinking, though I knew deep down, father, that I should not – I pressed the second button from the top.

And hell broke loose father as all of a sudden that same wind blew outwards from the locket and I dropped it on the table as it suddenly got hot as well. From nowhere father there were suddenly demons around me and my friends and we were surrounded. And these were true demons, father," Miguel said as his voice took on a hollowness with these memories..

"They had some kind of reflective black armor around their bodies, father, and each wore a helmet of some glass that I could not see through. Around their waists was a wide leather belt that had pouches and snap swivels that carried what looked like tools of some kind and their feet were clad in black boots that laced right up their shins. And then I saw what they were all holding...some kind of thin rod...like a sort of magicians wand that they pointed at first one of us and then another, as if they were trying to decide on whom to mutilate first, they held us immobile. At first, they said nothing...but then one spoke in stilted sounding English, father.

"We know one of you has one of our..our....locket. And now that we know where in this timeline it is, we will continue to come back here till we find out who took the locket and we get it returned..." he said, his voice calm but threatening pain if not obeyed....and I felt sick just then.

"We were all spellbound father, as those cursed demons held us all silent and motionless, till Barto screamed "Miguel...Miguel stole the locket!" and pointed right at me and in my panic as those wands were all turning towards me, I exploded into action and threw over my table and tried to bury myself underneath. Then Barto slipped in his haste to find footing on the now wine covered floor and fell on top of me and the table as everyone exploded into motion and scrambled and tried to get away and the purple glowing circle emptied quickly as we all climbed all over each other to escape out of the doors and even the windows, father. I crawled along under the table and along the floor trying to climb over someone as a purple bolt fired from one of those wands cut through the space I’d just been standing in while Barto screamed. As I scrabbled along the wooden floor, I heard the sizzles of those bolts near me while my hand bumped into the locket and I rolled on my side and quickly stabbed the second button from the top and then the first button too and the purple glow dissipated and the demons disappeared as well. Quick as that, they were gone, and the ones of us left were suddenly not being hunted. Quick, it was father, and I stood shaking and looking at my friends. Around me, were a few of the bodies of those who’d been hit by those lightening bolts – just unconscious someone said and they seemed to have no burns on them at all. Still, we all were gasping for breath, for some return to sanity and most turned away from me but some just said to throw away the locket...it was the devil’s toy and the demons would come back each time those buttons were pushed. And I agreed with them, father...and after much thought and reflection I decided to come to you for confession and to ask for absolution of same. As I made my way out of the bodega, and up the street, I turned back only once to see again that same purple icy glow coming from the bodega’s windows and knew that they had returned. I didn’t know what to do nor where to go...so I hid out in the crowds down along Alameda again for awhile. And then I realized that the only way I could ever find peace over this was to come in to the Church and to confess to Father Padrone. And now, he’s not even here, father..."

Miguel again shifted his weight as a cramp in his left foot made him stoop down low to knead same and when he did he glanced under the bottom of the curtain that secluded the priest during confessions. He could see the priests cassock and his amaranth red cincture and he was surprised at the coloration of this now out-of-date garb; father Padrone always wore a regular suit with white collar and sometimes on warmer summer days just the clerical shirt and collar. This priest was wearing full ecclesiastical garb, meant for special masses and communion only, and the sash was wrong in color too for a priest. Father Padrone had passed on much knowledge to Miguel, but he said nothing; this father was hearing his confession and that meant that he would know how to stop the demons from ever visiting again regardless of how he was dressed.

"Do I understand then, my son, that you still have this locket? Do you have it with you here and now" the priest said, his voice now calm and comforting.

"Yes father, I do. I brought it here to my own Church because I thought that father Padrone would hear my confession and know what to do." Miguel’s voice was soft coming back to the priest and he listened attentively as the priest leaned even more towards him.

"My son, everyone here knows that you are a good Catholic, and that you honor the rituals and traditions of the Church, Miguel. Everyone I asked about you told me this...uh...including Father Padrone, Miguel. Now I must insist, that I see this locket. Could you pass it over to me?" the priest said with benevolent tones.

"Um...father, I don’t know....I, well, I...

"If it’s absolution of your sins that you seek here, Miguel, then it is important that you know that as a condition of that, that I will have to ask you to let me at least see this locket. And what is more than that, Miguel is that I feel that you regret very much your act today of taking this locket, do I understand that to be true, Miguel?" His eyes behind the curtain were bright and they stared directly at Miguel.

"Father...yes of course father! I wish I had never taken such a thing. If I could give it back father, I would...I swear by all that is holy, Father. This is true, and it is my wish, father....and yet, I...I know that father Padrone would not ask such a thing of me –"

"But today, I am the priest hearing confessions, Miguel. You must do as I say – as the Holy Catholic church commands," he said his voice now held a commanding tone.

Miguel bowed his head.

"For these and all the sins of my past life, I ask pardon of God, penance, and absolution from you, Father."

"And now, Miguel as a good catholic, I can ask that for penance, you recite later this evening one Hail Mary as your penance. Now, the locket if you please..." His hand was beneath the curtain and stretched into the small space before Miguel, and he could see the cassock sleeve looked far too small for this large an arm.

Miguel was confused for a moment as his penance was so slight but fished in his pocket for the locket. He turned it over in his hand a few times and then asked one more question.

"Father, will you know what to do to keep these demons away?" he asked again softly.

The priest nodded, his head almost right up to his side of the curtain as he extended his other hand under the curtain as well.

"Yes my son, I know what to do....now here, give me the locket and then hold my hand as we recite your acts of contrition together..."

As both of the priest’s hands came through the curtain, Miguel dropped the silver locket into one palm which was jerked back through the curtain quickly while the other was held open for Miguel to clasp as he began to recite the prayer.

As the priest gripped his hand firmly like he’d never let go, from the other side of the curtain, a purple light suddenly filled the booth and the curtain began to billow inwards...as he heard the priest laughingly say "...and now to make your wish come true, Miguel..."


© 2003 Jim Rudnick

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