By Caitlin McGregor
With artwork by Carabella Sands
Church pews soak up sweat. I don’t know of any other wood that soaks up sweat, not the way church pew wood does. When you kneel down on the kneeler, and grip the back of the pew in front with your clammy hands, you can feel the sweat of generations of churchgoers before you, absorbed by the top layer of the wood. Decades of sweat soften this top layer, so you can scrape your name into it with your fingernail.
Mum is cutting a wad of chewing gum out of my hair with a pair of kitchen shears.
‘How in God’s name did you get this in your hair?’
‘I don’t know! Ow! You’re hurting me!’
Mum holds up a little ball of masticated purple goop covered in hair.
‘That,’ she says, ‘is disgusting.’
‘Violet Beauregarde did it,’ I mutter.
‘Violet Beauregarde,’ I say, ‘In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’
‘For goodness’ sake, child,’ says Mum, ‘You can’t do stupid things like that just because you read about them in a book. Here,’ she passes me the hairy gum, ‘deal with this.’
Dad is rattling a jar of bloody teeth and laughing.
‘I don’t know why on earth you wanted to keep them,’ says Mum.
‘Not so wise anymore,’ says my uncle.
The teeth rattle and rattle and the grownups are laughing, and I don’t know why they’re laughing but I laugh too. I laugh and laugh until my cheeks ache.
‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned.’
I am sitting on a little plastic chair the school brought in. It squeaks whenever I move. He sits in his priestly chair, like a king on a throne.
‘When was your last confession?’
‘This is my first time.’
He exhales and inhales loudly, his nose hairs reaching to the light and then bending back into the dark part of his nostrils.
‘What sins would you like to confess?’
His eyes are pale and bloodshot and won’t let go of mine. Even when I look at my knees, I can feel his gaze burning the top of my fringe.
‘Um. Well, last week I took one of my brother’s m&ms out of the pantry. And ate it myself.’
‘Theft. Okay. Good. What else?’
‘I told Mum that I’ve been eating my sandwiches at school, but I’ve actually been throwing them over the fence.’
‘Deceit Mmm. Yes. What else?’
‘Um, that’s it.’
It’s hot and stuffy and I can see little drops of sweat on the backs of his hands.
‘Do you want God to forgive your sins?’
‘You need to confess all the sins you can think of.’
I cross one of my legs over the other, peeling my right leg off the damp chair like a band aid off skin. I don’t want to tell him.
‘You can tell me,’ he says. His lips are cracked. He wets them with his tongue.
‘Last Tuesday, in bed, before I went to sleep.’
‘I had some thoughts that… I shouldn’t have had.’
‘What was the nature of these thoughts?’
‘They were about having, doing…’ I can’t look at him. I drop my eyes and confess to a little scab on my right knee instead. ‘Having sex.’
‘Ah. Mmm. I see. And what did you do, when you had these… impure thoughts?’
The scab on my knee cracks open a little, and weeps.
‘Y-yes. Oh – please – tell God I’m very, very sorry!’
He shifts in his chair and raises his hand. I flinch, but the hand doesn’t come back down. It stays in the air, quivering, covered in age spots and wispy white hairs. He’s mumbling with his eyes shut.
‘For your penance,’ he says as his eyes open and his hand drops to his lap, ‘You need to pray three Hail Marys to the Blessed Virgin and resolve never again to steal, lie or succumb to impure thoughts.’
‘Yes, Father. Thank you.’
‘And eat your sandwiches. Remember, God sees all that is done in secret.’
After confession, my dad and I walk back to our car and I do a little jig. ‘I am sin-free! I am sin-free!’
Dad looks at me and raises his eyebrows.
‘Was that boasting?’
‘Oh.’ I am never clean for long.
My favourite aunt smokes on the back verandah when she comes over to visit. She buries the cigarette butts in the dirt of an old plant pot so Mum and Dad don’t know she’s been smoking.
When she stays for dinner, she tells stories that make my parents frown and cough. Sometimes she talks about sex, and Mum says, ‘Not in front of the children!’
I know about sex already, though. I know that it hurts, and that if you do it lying against the bonnet of a car you get bruises on your back. I know that the man gets to decide when it’s finished. I know that afterwards, at home, when you get undressed to shower, your undies have a little bit of blood on them.
My aunt grins and shrugs and says, ‘Sorry, sis.’ We go back to tearing the lamb meat off the bones with our teeth.
We sit and face the statue of the man being tortured.
The man in robes holds up a cup and tells everyone that there’s blood in it. The blood has come from the tortured man. The man in robes chants about the blood, and afterwards everyone walks up in a line and drinks some of it. Someone sings and shakes a tambourine.
If we squirm or whisper to each other, the grownups tell us to be quiet and turn around, face the front. To behave in church you have to look at the tortured man and the cup of blood.
I have nightmares all the time about that tortured man. The blood on his face and the nails in his hands. Every Sunday we come back, and see him up there with nothing on but a cloth nappy, and I try to tell myself it’s just a story, it’s just a statue. But it’s not just a made up story. It’s real. The procession moves towards the cups of blood like a snake, and no one says ‘Not in front of the children.’
The pain between my hips makes me gasp and kneel down on the kneeler. I don’t know what’s happening to me.
‘Get up!’ hisses my dad. Behave in church.
I grab the pew in front and pull myself to my feet. The wood takes the sweat from my palms, accepting it silently like a sacrificial offering.
I look up at the man hanging from the cross behind the altar. I can count his ribs. There is blood on his hands.
Sweat trickles down my sides from the pain. I bow my head and scratch my name into the wood of the pew, concentrating on the letters to keep myself silent and to stop myself from falling a second time. I feel something wet between my legs.
‘Oh my God, gross,’ someone behind me whispers. ‘Look at the back of her dress!’
At the altar, the priest raises a cup, and prays that mortal men might be worthy of having blood shed to give them life.
I say, ‘Amen.’
Caitlin McGregor is a writer from Melbourne. She is a creative writing student at Melbourne University, and an intern at The Lifted Brow. Her work has appeared in both Australian and overseas publications, including The Lifted Brow, Scum Mag and The Bohemyth. You can find her on Twitter at @caitlinmcgregor.
Carabella Sands is a Baltimore born artist and writer.