Jefferson Slagle

Evenings when the tourists have gone and Fra’ Giles and I have said Vespers and taken our small dinner of rice and wine, I find refuge in the ossuary. One by one, I take the skulls from their places and weigh them in my hand. I ask each to confess its sins, then I brush away the dust and replace it carefully. It is easy to lose track of the hour in a place where time fades into eternity and the only marker of its passage is the sunlight creeping up the walls of the airy sanctum. Fra’ Giles takes perverse pleasure in catching me off-guard as I sit in the half-light, questioning my ancient parishioners. Once, he stole so quietly upon me that the first sign I had of his presence was the imperious hand that clasped at my shoulder.

            “Brother,” he said. “It is time for confession.”

            I attempted to shake free of his grasp, but he was younger than I, and his hand remained where he had placed it. I would not look at him. “I am working,” I said.

            Fra’ Giles surveyed the ossuary. Scores of skulls arranged along octagonal walls rising toward Signor Ricci’s murals of the good and the evil gathered in heavenly glory. The remains of long-dead victims of leprosy and plague. Criminals beheaded for their evils. He looked away, his face warped with disgust. “These bones can do nothing for us. They are in the Lord’s hands now.” 

            “We pray over the souls of the dead, must we not tend to the physical remains that have been entrusted us?” I asked.

            “Surely you would not tend to these earthly remnants at the cost of your own soul?”

            “The price of my soul is between me and the Lord.”

            Fra’ Giles did not answer. The weight of his hand on my shoulder meted a quiet judgment. Mingled aromas of incense, ancient funerals, melted beeswax laced the crepuscular air. Outside, teenagers buzzed past the quiet sanctuary on Vespas. Fra’ Giles released me and walked toward the vestibule, the shuffle of his sandals brushing among the evening bones. 

            Three years before I was born, the man who called himself the Iron Prefect set himself as the sun over Italy’s sky. The multitude of bones scattered across fields and farms and piled in mass graves by the unholy trinity of the Prefect, the Fuhrer, and the Generalissimo dwarfs the collection of the church’s ossuary. My first memory: Papà, dragged away from our farmhouse in the Provincia di Mantova by the brownshirts. Mamma, holding me on the threshold. A single gunshot. The startled, panicked bleating of goats, blending with our wails of anguish. 

            I joined the partigiani. I wish I could say I opposed the Prefect because I saw him for what he was, but the truth is I cared only for what I had seen him do to my father; to me, a child. But I was a coward who could not bear to face the consequences of my acts. I sniped. I skulked in trees and on rooftops and among dolomite columns. Like a god I held life and death in my hands and treated each as the smoke of a candle. Never did I hear the sigh of the soul expiring, the wail of mourners. Never did I feel my hands stained with blood. I mistook vengeance for justice, reveled in my own condemnation.

            It was April or May—the dates run together, but the blossoms were on the grapevines, exquisite buds and threads sheltered beneath overarching leaves, the pale, floral scents of pear, apple, melon, the promise of wine. My fellow partigiani and I spent a week on the hill above the village, drunk on the heady air, grasping at a splendor we could not hold. The castle we had taken as our headquarters was nestled among forested hills. Men trooped back and forth along the dusty road that furrowed the valley, a constant andirivieni of marching to and from battle. 

            I was stationed in a shallow cave in the limestone cliffs overlooking the village square. I took twelve-hour shifts with a man I knew only as Gazza, his nome di battaglia. He was gregarious and popular among the men, attributes that seemed poorly suited to the silent, slinking vocation of the sniper, but his aim was precise and when we changed posts during the midday pausa and again in the darkness following matins, he greeted me with a lopsided smile and a recitation of opening and closing and a birdlike flittering of hands that always ended with a single finger placed below the deep green ring of his right eye: “Mi raccomando,” it said. “The informatore is mine.”

            But for weeks, our man refused to appear in the piazza, and I passed the hours chewing the end of a cigarette for the nicotine and watching the slow rhythm of the people below. The tobacconist, the gelataio, the baker stepped from their shops to sweep the sidewalk, then disappeared inside to flip the signs that hung in their front windows. Children skipped to and from school in small packs. Old women shuffled out of the Byzantine maze of streets that emptied onto the piazza and crossed the paving stones to the church. (I did not wish to imagine what these pious vecchiette prayed for inside.)

            The man I was commanded to dispatch appeared just before the dinner hour, lurking at the edge of the piazza. A group of boys, just released from communion classes, spilled out the church and into the square and according to some inscrutable process shaped themselves into an impromptu soccer game. The man lingered a moment beneath the blue awning of the locked and quiet bakery, watching the calciatori and the streets that opened onto its expanse, then vanished again into the jostling dinnertime crowd. The moment of action had passed me by. 

            Then, just before the bells rang for matins, the piazza dark and empty, a moonlit shadow appeared out of the narrow alley directly across from the church. Fedora, dark pants, starched white shirt. He leaned against the wall, heaving with the effort of running—il informatore. I raised my rifle and his face filled the circle of the scope. He turned to speak to someone down the alley, then stepped into the street. I pulled the trigger and lowered my rifle and surveyed the piazza. The man was down. 

            Another moonlight shape appeared at the cleft of the alley—a small boy, hands at his mouth, his wail of agony too far away to hear. The throbbing aria of frogs, the scent of the grapes in the heavy, damp night air. A phrase hissed in my mind like an accusation: Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones.

            When I returned to my squadra and word made its way up to the leaders of the divisione, I was rewarded for my accomplishment with a letter of commendation that I folded into a tight phylactery and interred in the bottom of my trunk. The green-eyed sniper with whom I had shared my post in those weeks slapped me on the back and gave me my nome di battaglia: The Wasp. Our comrades roared with triumph and gathered around to offer their congratulations, but a memory held me fast: the boy’s shattered expression when the man dropped to the pavement. The press of the throng around us pressed Gazza and I face to face, only inches apart, and I saw in the way those eyes fixed my own that he read in them the lamentation of my heart.

            This is what time and contemplation have made of me—a man who sits alone among old bones and turns over old stories like silent penance. I hear the voice of Fra’ Giles in the vestibule and pocket my cloth and screen myself behind a pillar of the baldacchino. He appears at the far end of the sanctuary, leading the dozen boys of the Holy Communion class. One by one, they stop at the font and dip a hand in the holy water and make the sign of the cross, then Giles leads them across the nave to the confessional. The children peer nervously into the stall as he speaks. I cannot hear his words at this distance, but the speech is as familiar to me as the faces of these young penitents. I have stood watch over generations of their families—christened children, officiated over Holy Communions, sanctified marriages, seen new generations born to those children, and finally administered the Extreme Unction. In a few days, when Giles has finished with them, I will administer the host and the wine to these children, though I will not likely live to bless their progeny.

            Fra’ Giles’s voice rises, and I can make out the words now. “He who sees all knows your hearts, children. You cannot lie to him, and you cannot lie to the priest at confession. You cannot hide what you have done.” The children shrink away from him; a small boy at the back stares at his shoes, too scared to look the friar in the face. Fra’ Giles ushers them toward the door and the children funnel out in a tight, quiet knot. I leave my nascondiglio and pass behind the altar to a window in the apse. One of the boys has stashed a soccer ball in the small park that borders the sanctuary, and they pass it among themselves on their way to the bus stop.  The quiet, nervous boy stumbles behind them, weighed down by an oversized backpack. I would like to talk with this boy. I would like to reassure him of God’s love as well as His discernment, but even this halting child is far too nimble for my old skeleton. So I remove the cloth from my pocket and take my place among the bones and the memories.

            Three months after the kill, the war ended. I slept in alleyways and beneath bridges, sustained by cigarettes, grappa, and the charity of a baker who packed leftover ciabatte and focacce in a paper bag and placed it on her back step each evening for me to collect. I might have turned the rifle on myself but for that old sniper’s cowardice. I do not know how much time passed this way. 

            A cool June morning, face down against the pavement, drunk. An old man prodded at my shoulder with a cane. Bastardo! I shouted, kicked out. Then I saw the man’s robes, his old, soft eyes, the withered hands that clasped the head of the can with sacred regard. The man’s name, I would later learn, was Padre Ignazio, and by some Providence he had been assigned to open the mahogany doors of the Pontifical Gregorian University before the Angelus that morning. He took me gently by the arm and raised me from the pavement. I was admitted to the sala magna for the first time, and led to the rector, who took my confession and offered me a cell among the novitiates. 

            For months I walked the Via della Pilotta and the winding steps of the giardini behind the university, accompanied always by Padre Ignazio. There, on a marble bench amid oak and magnolia and climbing rose, he told me the story of his life—his birth in a large family, his dreams of war and greatness, his wounding at Monte Grappa, his conversion and commitment to the Jesuit order. 

            One evening as I sat in the gardens studying the letter of St. Francis to Fra’ Leo, I heard the scrape and scuffle of Padre Ignazio making his way through the trees toward the bench where we often sat together. He settled into the space beside me and sat quietly, eyes closed, while I finished the letter. 

            “Death will soon come for me,” he said in his spindly whisper. He did not open his eyes. 

            “It is strange, this hunger for life.” I folded the corner of my St. Francis and tucked the book into the pocket of my cassock. “When so often it does nothing more than splinter our souls.”

            “Our lives are offerings,” said Padre Ignazio. “I ask myself: is what I offer acceptable to God?”

            “There is no patron saint of snipers,” I said.

            “Don’t be so sure.”

            “Your uncertainty confounds me.”

            Padre Ignazio smiled, his eyes still closed. “What is illuminated in one season of life may turn again to darkness in another.” He patted my leg where the St. Francis lay heavy in my pocket and let his peaceful hand lie there while he drifted off to sleep.

            I met with nearly the entirety of the Roman hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, and finally required a meeting with Cardinal Adami at the Palazzo dei Penitenzieri. He heard my confession and bowed his head a moment before raising his eyes to meet mine. “You have rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s,” he told me. “Now you must begin to render unto God that which is God’s.” He reached into my heart and removed my sin. And I did what I was able to requite his cure. When I took my vows as a poor friar-priest of the Franciscan order, Padre Ignazio whispered to me, “I have felt these months the peace that surpasseth understanding.” Two days later, he died. The peace he found has eluded me.

            I return from lauds to the rapid shuffle of sandals in the hallway and enter my room to find my sleeping tunic hung off-kilter, a drawer slightly ajar. The window left open when I was certain I had closed it before leaving. I am not afraid of any incrimination he may level against me. I’m aware of his petty vices. Long evenings smoking in the gardens among the red poppies. The dark bottles of Brunello di Montalcino he wheedles from the widows he visits in their musty old apartments overlooking the Galleria. His affected piety. These are nothing more than everyday annoyances. What unsettles me is memory, the way the past calls to me like a siren promising certainty, justice, swift retribution for mortal sin. The way it lurks in the shadows, waiting to accost me. 

            Some thirty years ago, a visitor entered the sanctuary. Even in the half-light of the morning, I recognized his lopsided smile and deep, green eyes. He was accompanied by a throng of younger companions whom I took to be children and grandchildren. I pulled my cappuccio over my head and stole among the shadows at the edge of the nave until I reached the sacristy. Their voices dissolved toward the far side of the vault, but a set of footsteps returned. 

            “Hello,” called a young, feminine, tentative voice. “Is someone here?” 

            I held silent, still. 

            “I saw you slip through the door when we came in,” said the young woman.

            I stumped toward the door and opened it.

            “Do you know about the bones?” she asked.

            I nodded, followed her to the ossuary, where her family waited. 

            “The first of our deceased were victims of the plagues,” I told them. “There was a hospital nearby and they buried the dead on the grounds. When the deaths became too many, they built a room to hold the bones. That was nearly eight hundred years ago. The church was attached later.” The white-haired patriarch observed me as I spoke, but said nothing. 

            “All these are victims of the plague?” the younger woman asked.

            “Not all. The hospital added to the ossuary over the years. Every age has its plagues,” I said, “and its victims. Most of their stories are, mercifully, buried by time.”

            The young woman shuddered. “Thank you for your time, Fra’—”

            “Cristoforo,” I answered.

            “Yes, thank you Fra’ Cristoforo.” The family passed on toward the altar at the end of the church, but Gazza lingered behind, waiting for me. 

            “There are stories that should be told, as well,” he said, hands fluttering, once his people had drifted out of hearing. “People who do what is right in difficult times. Heroes.”

            “How can we know what is right in the moment we act?”

            “Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house.”

            “You quote scripture to a man of the cloth?”

            “You have been a man of many vestiti, but what is inside”—he thumped an open palm against his chest—“has always remained an enigma.”

            I dismissed him with a wave of my hand and turned back toward the sacristy. 

            “Brother Wasp,” he called. “I hope you find the redemption you’re looking for.”

            I saw, then, my sins stalking me, as they had been all these years. The feel of the cold trigger against my finger. The power and certainty of righteousness. A man falls down, a child looks up in torment. All of us, damned in a moment.

            Yet are we not promised a second life? 

            A decade later, I received a delivery via post. The long, narrow parcel was addressed simply to “The Priest” at the street and number of the church. I peeled back the stiff, brown paper and slid the sniper’s rifle from its wrapping and fitted the butt against my shoulder. Here was power. Clarity. Justice. I set the gun on the bed. A sheet of paper fluttered to the floor, and I bent and retrieved it. The hand was unsteady and thin, like my own. “A relic for your collection,” read the note. “It truly was God’s work, my friend.” 

            We have no comprehension, I wished to tell him, of how God works.

            I was afraid. Not of the gun as a weapon, but as a temptation to return to the simple clarity of my old life. This was not the trial I needed to fear.

            My room was no sanctuary. I carried the gun to the crypt where the bodies of our deceased confreres have been laid to rest in their robes and cintures. I removed the single key from my tunic and opened the gate and secreted the rifle behind an ancient sarcophagus. I return often to clean and oil it as I do the censer, the situla, the processional cross. Sin though this may be, none of it is my confession. 

            At night, I lay in my cell and replay that the scene in that Mantovan square. The shadow that precedes the informatore out of the alley. The quick heave and catch of his chest shirt beneath the white linen shirt. The last look of delight as he peered into the darkness. The surge of righteous judgment as I leveled the rifle. The howl of the broken child. I pray to be released from the bitterness of memory. I am an old man; Giles has taken over my daily responsibilities. Only the bones will mourn my absence.

            When I arrive at the door of the confessional to meet the Communion class, Fra’ Giles is already waiting inside, the children forming a wandering line that leads toward the opposite door.

            “Brother,” I say, “I am here to take confession. You may rest. I will send the children to you when we finish.”

            “But I am already here,” he says, standing cruciform in the confessional door as though to block my way. “And you need rest more than I.”

            “Nonsense. It is one of the few things I can still do.” I smile at the children ranged behind him. “And it brings me joy.”

            “We have already begun.”

            “I am the priest of this church, Brother, and I will take these children’s confession.”

            Fra’ Giles bows in assent and steps aside to allow me to enter. He watches as I step into the confessional and close the curtain.

            The children’s confessions are the simple faults of youth—I disobeyed my mother, I struck my sister, I told a lie. Their hesitancy at confessing these peccadilloes is part of my enjoyment of the ritual. Then a small boy enters, dark haired, hesitant—the boy from the game of calcio in the yard, the one who trailed behind the others.

            I greet him in the name of Christ, but instead of speaking the first words of the confession, he asks a halting question. “Is it Fra’ Giles, behind the screen?” His voice is small and uncertain.

            “I speak in the name of Christ, my child. The voice of the Lord. My earthly name is unimportant.”

            “But you’re not Fra’ Giles. I know his voice, from catechism.”

            “Do you wish to confess, my son?” I asked. The child behind the screen waited. “Forgive me, father…” I prompt him.

            “Do all priests speak for God?” the child asks.

            “Yes, my child. I am the voice and the hand of God. He knows your sins already. Confession is to clear your own conscience. You cannot hide from Him. Tell Him all.” 

            The boy squirms on the other side of the screen. “And what if a priest did a—a bad thing? A thing God said was a sin?” 

            A cold shock of fear. The words well up in my mind like a long-dry spring: Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones. “Tell me, child, your confession.” I prompt him again: “Bless me Father, for—”

            “—I have sinned,” he finishes. “These are my sins.” Here, he pauses. “I’ve been an evil boy.”

            “We all do evil things, my child, but that does not make you an evil boy.”

            “Father Giles said so. In the sacristy, after he showed us the paten and the chalice, and the other children went out and he told me to stay behind. It was only the two of us. He said I was evil and I had wanton eyes and I must do penance.” He pauses again, longer, and I hear what sounds like crying.

            “Did he say how he would punish you?”

            The child weeps audibly now. “He lay down on the floor and he raised up his cassock and he told me I was to touch him there, where you’re not supposed to.”

            “And did you, did you do it?”

            “I didn’t want to.” It is difficult to understand him through his loud, gasping sobs. “He told me disobeying him was disobeying God.”

            “But in the end?”

            There is nothing but quiet weeping from across the screen. I see his child’s head nodding. His face is shrouded in the darkness—a mercy. 

            “You have committed no sin,” I say. “May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints and also whatever good you do or evil you endure be cause for the increase of grace and the reward of life everlasting. Amen.”

            The boy leaves the confessional and is replaced by another. I do not remember the remaining confessions. The old perfume of incense and melted beeswax have soured in my nostrils. I retire early to the ossuary, disregarding my hunger and the crash of the bells in the tower across from my perch and the calls of Fra’ Giles summoning me to dinner. His voice echoes among the bones the rock walls. The polished skulls of sinners whisper to me in the voice of Cardinal Adami: render unto God that which is God’s.  I think of Giles’s hands placing the body of our Lord on the tongues of innocents. Of my own hands, red with blood. As sunlight leaning through the windows of the cupola reddens the bones of the dead, I silently recite scripture. I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. I watch the eyes of the skulls, and they open to me a place beyond the grave. I think on Signor Ricci’s murals, the old drama of salvation and damnation suspended above me on the ceiling of the sanctuary. My prayer, Father, is a simple one: bless this craven, skulking coward.

            I rise from my perch and make my way to the crypt and gather the tools of one last sacrament. I choose a nest overlooking the risotteria and the hairstylist and the grocery, their iron cancelli rolled down over the doors for the evening. The bursts of poppies in the garden blush scarlet in the darkness. There is no scent of grapes on the air tonight, only the exhaust of cars, the incense that rises up from the empty chapels. The buzz of teenagers on motorini.

            A brown-robed figure approaches a bench, sits, withdraws a cigarette from the pocket of his shirt. The ember glows like a watchtower in the night. I know the steps of this sacrament more intimately than any earthly exercise. Dip a round in the oil. Per istam sanctan unctionem et suam piissimam misericordiam. Fit the cartridge into the weapon. Indulgeat tibi Dominus quidquid per visum et tactum. Fix the ancient silencer. Benedicat te omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus.  

            A Vespa circles the new hospital and rounds the block behind the church, its exhaust buzzing loud in my ears. I pull the trigger and lower my rifle and survey the piazza. The man is down. I hear the voice of Cardinal Adami all those years ago: render unto God that which is God’s.

            One ceremony remains to perform. I shroud the corpse in a long linen altar cloth, hoist it into one of the stone sepulchers in the crypt, wait several days. I inform the bishop that Giles has abandoned his assignment. Years will pass before someone discovers the body. When it is clean, they will remove each bone from the crypt and place it in the ossuary with the others. Then, the sacrament will be complete: the skull will take its place on the shelf with its fellows. 

            As for me, I will pass my evenings in the ossuary in peace, as I always do. Fra’ Giles has been replaced by an affable Ugandan with the priestly name of Paolo who will take on the day-to-day work of the ministry, with a new brother he is training. My only remaining duty is here, in the ossuary. I no longer brood over the question of what sins lodge in these bones, what tales the impassive jaws might tell. I am closer to them than to the living, an accomplice to their silence.  

            Across the dusk-shadowed roofs of the city, the glittering Alps beckon like a vision of the heavenly glory. I feel death drawing closer. I see how it moves. I know, Father, that soon You will come for me, too. I believe myself ready.

Jefferson Slagle is a former resident of Milan, Italy and professor at a Franciscan college in upstate New York. He now lives in a small town on the Idaho side of the Tetons, where he teaches writing and literature. His work has been published in River Teeth and Creative Nonfiction.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021