Andrej Nikolaidis


Sarajevske Sveske br. 34

translated from Serbian by Will Firth

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.
Paul the Apostle, Romans 7:18-19

The cathedral bell was sounding midday when the phone rang. They said my mother was poorly. I dropped everything and rushed to the hospital.
My mother lay motionless as if she was sleeping. Her grey hair had lost all elasticity and hung from her small head like the fronds of a weeping willow. Her skin was transparent, a sheath of tracing paper around her body. A bundle of green veins reached along each arm to the tips of her gnarled, olive-tree fingers like a vine creeping up a decrepit wall.
“Don’t stand there at the door,” she said when she opened her eyes, “come in and give your mother a cuddle.”
She’d been in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, when everything went black before her eyes and she fell to the floor unconscious. It was a lucky fall – just a centimetre or two further to the left and her head would have struck the toilet bowl.
When she woke up she was in hospital. She immediately asked them to call me, “my son”, she said.
Now she gave me a list and asked me to bring a few odds and ends from her flat – things she couldn’t survive without a second longer in this hospital where they “bring the old and lonely to die”, as she put it.
Out in the corridor I ran into the doctor. My mother’s diagnosis was bad. Cancer had been gnawing at her insides for years. An operation and the right therapy could prolong her life and give her a few more years, maybe even a decade. But that type of operation couldn’t be performed here in Montenegro. They’d have to send her to Italy, and that was expensive.
“With all due respect, Father, you don’t have that money,” he said.
I felt more angry than sad while I walked to my mother’s flat, as if I expected an exemption from the general principle of misfortune – that it wouldn’t apply to me. This arrogance warranted the severest of punishments, even if I had lived the life of a saint. How many times had I replied to distressed parishioners who’d come to me and asked, “What have I done to deserve this?” with the words, “Asking that question!” “It’s so terrible and unjust,” they’d complain. “It is terrible, but not unjust,” I’d tell them.
As usual, the key was under the mat and the blinds on the windows were down. It would almost have been a miracle if my mother hadn’t had a fall, blundering through the dark all day. She painstakingly conserved the dark in her flat: she claimed daylight made her vulnerable because it reminded her of the past.
“I’ve been living in the shadow of my own grave for years,” she said, “I only feel comfortable now in the dark.”
When I visited her last – I admit it was an embarrassingly long time ago – I laughed at her habit of not throwing anything away, of hoarding old, worn-out things in the corners of the room. Growing up in her flat was like growing up in an antique shop. Occasionally I got a smack for knocking over and breaking a nineteenth-century sewing machine or a termite-gnawed stool when I played ball or ran after my electric car. “You never know when you’ll need things: if not me, then you, when I’m dead and gone,” she used to say to her seven-year-old.
I knew early in life that my mother would die one day. She took every opportunity to remind me. One of my first childhood memories is of me lying on my bed in the darkened room and crying inconsolably because my mother would die and I’d be left alone in the world.
Why not open the blinds, I thought to myself, but as soon as I moved towards them I changed my mind. It would be disrespectful. Instead, I turned on the light and began to tackle the layers of relics which surrounded me, in search of the items on the list.
I found everything surprisingly quickly. Everything except for Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World. Unlike me, my mother never thought much of his books, so I had to ask myself what was wrong for her to be wanting Chesterton. She considered him a priggish hypocrite of the English variety: “No one can be more bigoted than Christians,” she used to say. So I couldn’t cease wondering why this was the book she wanted to keep by her pillow in hospital. I finally found the book after a mighty effort, and when I decided to leaf through it a newspaper article fell out. This was the answer to the enigma: my mother wanted the Chesterton book because she kept an article about Mother Teresa in it. The story, pressed like a leaf in a herbarium, presumably moved her to tears.
One hot summer afternoon in Calcutta, as Mother Teresa was heading through the slums, she heard groans coming from a rubbish heap. There lay an old woman abandoned by her son. The woman was dying in excruciating pain and couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t death she was afraid of; what hurt was not the cancer eating away at her insides but the brutality of her son, who’d joined up against her with his wife. He’d fallen under the sway of that evil young woman, who induced him to throw out his mother so she’d no longer be a burden to them – they could then have the house to themselves.
Mother Teresa stayed with the old woman all afternoon, evening and night, trying to persuade her to forgive her son. The woman moaned until morning and then, before she died, whispered three words in Blessed Teresa’s ear: “I forgive him.”
That’s typical of my mother, who’s able to put on such a long and perfect scene: to preserve an article for years, to pretend it’s all about her, the centre of the universe, to put it in a book which tells the difference between me and her, and to send me in a dramatic moment to get that book – actually the article in it – which will tell me what I have to do. Yes, mother, I get the message: I’m not Mother Teresa in our story, but the bad son, while you’re the old woman thrown on the rubbish heap.
I thought what great satisfaction she’d derive from re-reading the article for the umpteenth time and imagining she’d ultimately forgive me, the flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood, the one to whom she gave life, for going and becoming a priest against her will, for condemning her to a life without grandchildren, and for leaving her to die in hospital without the medical care which could have saved her life.
I could have spent hours more looking through her flat, that perfect arena for the archaeology of nostalgia. But I had to go back to the hospital before the end of visiting hours.
Mother was sleeping. Taking care not to wake her, I quietly lowered the bag of knick-knacks and the illuminating tale of forgiveness onto her bedside table, and left.
When I visited the next day, my mother made a point of expressing her displeasure that I hadn’t come until the afternoon. She refused to speak to me, so I sat for an hour beside her bed, while she sulked like a child who can’t have any sweets. My excuse – that I had commitments, that people expected help of me and that I had to give it to them, putting their needs before mine – was not acceptable. I could have known: every mention of my vocation just provoked her wrath.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, stroking her hair. “Tomorrow morning”.
I had no reason to hurry home, so I dropped in at a nearby bar and ordered a glass of wine. I sat on the terrace and watched the passers-by. The square was crawling with tourists. They’d wander the Old Town for a while, marvelling and snap shooting, and then return to the cruise ship, which would take them back to their lives. You can always recognise tourists by the way they desperately try to convince themselves and others that the region they’re passing through is unique and wonderful and that they’re happy amidst that beauty. Only photographs will remain of all they see and experience, yet in the end they won’t know where or why they were taken there. Of all the ways of not learning about the world, travelling is the most expensive and least dignified, I thought to myself.
They jostled in front of St Tryphon’s cathedral for the best angle to take photographs. Several of them pointed their lenses towards the fortress on Mount St John high above the town. They gaped at the cliff on which it was built, rising up vertically behind the cathedral, as if the whole mountain stood in its defence. How many men had lost their lives carrying quarried blocks of stone up the mountain; how terrifying must the fall have been for those who took a false step or collapsed under the weight; what horror must the other bearers have felt when they heard the scream of their falling workmate and the sickening thud as his body hit the cobbled streets of the town. What we admire we also fear, while what we love we also pity. Love comes with compassion: what we haven’t pitied, we haven’t loved. Love is concern – that’s the whole story. Whoever looks for romance in love is living in delusion. And how misguided are those who call out for “free love”! All this talk of love is intolerable, and adding “freedom” in the same sentence obliterates everything for miles around (except for fungus and foolishness, which are indestructible anyway). Wanting free love can only mean one thing: that we want to be freed of love. Because he who loves is anything but free.
I had to think of this when I saw an old lady taking pictures with the craftsmanship of a Playboy photographer, pictures of... me! I took a sip of wine, stared at the tips of my shoes and basically carried out a typical series of movements to signal that she should end this unwanted photo session. But she kept me in her focus all the time, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her actions made me feel uncomfortable, which should have been plainly obvious by then. I looked reproachfully into her lens, but that didn’t prevent her from photographing further. “Like possessed,” I thought to myself. I gazed at the newspaper in front of me in the desperate hope that the lady would be gone when I raised my eyes. Needless to say, my hopes were thwarted. The old lady captured me from every conceivable angle; at one point she even knelt down as lithely as a young girl and a moment later climbed into a flowerbed. Finally she packed up her camera and left, giving me a smile on the way. I’m no expert, but I could have sworn it was a seductive smile. Any residual doubt was dispelled when she blew me a kiss, which caused a riot of laughter on the terrace. The waiter turned up at the table and felt it appropriate to crack a joke. The waiters on the coast consider themselves witty, for some reason, and like to present their observations with an air of philosophical authority.
“She’s a bit older, Father, but like they say: An old bird makes good broth!” quipped the sophist with the tray, making sure his voice was heard all around.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Evil rampaged inside me as I lay in my sweat-soaked sheets. I gripped the bed with both hands so the torrent of awful images and shameful thoughts wouldn’t carry me away. Some time before dawn I jumped out of bed because I finally felt the scourge of shame. I knelt beside the bed and gave myself up to prayer.
“You worry too much, Father, you’re a good man,” Marika said as she served breakfast.
This woman has been with me for twenty years. In fact, I’m her only family. Her husband left her after she had her third miscarriage. She was forty and had nowhere to go. That’s how she ended up here with me. She always treated me with gratitude, although I was actually the one who couldn’t have imagined life without her. She was a pure and care-worn soul; her words were balm to me.
Yes, dear Marika, I am a good man, I thought to myself. Last night this good man hated his mother – not for the first time by any means, nor for the last. I dreamed that I stood over her bed as she lay dying. I didn’t feel pity or even a hint of the sadness that overcomes any decent man when his cat dies. My mother lay there dying and an anger raged in me: she was even abusing me with her death, I yelled inside myself – she’d done all she could to leave me with a mountain of regret when she was gone, a remorse which would stalk me like a shadow till my dying day. I’d spent my whole life oppressed by an awareness of the enormous debt I owed her. And now, as she lay dying, she was trying to make it even bigger. As long as she was alive I could hope to return that debt one day. But her death would cut short that possibility and leave only the debt, hard and heavy.
As a child I used to play football with the other kids straight after school. Time passes quickly when you’re playing. Only when it was too late did I remember that my mother was waiting and would worry about me; she’d stand by the window and fear something had happened. I left the game and ran home in panic. Sweaty, muddy and breathless I entered the hall, and there she stood, all in tears.
“Don’t you know how worried I was?” she sobbed as she embraced me. “Don’t you know I have no one in the world apart from you?” She knelt before me and kissed my hands. “I wouldn’t be able to live a second longer if anything happened to you. Promise me you’ll never do it again. Promise me you’ll always think of mother in future.” Then I cried too; I hugged her and gave her my word, which wasn’t worth a tinker’s curse back then, just as it isn’t today. At dinner, she was crying again. She didn’t say why, but I knew all the same. We didn’t speak about my father, who’d left us, but he was always there: his absence was the pause between my mother’s sentences, the cold half of her bed, the empty chair at the head of the table, the part of the photograph which was cut out, the shadow which – as obstinately as I awaited it – never fell on the door of the room where I slept and never leaned over me and stroked my forehead.
There are many more memories, and they all seem the same. Each ends with my mother’s care and sacrifice. As she lies dying she clutches the key to my fetters in the hands folded on her chest. I want to prise those hands apart and tear from them the chain that binds me to her. I break those fingers. They snap like dry kindling. Now her hands are wrenched open, no longer the hands of a regent – more like dead spiders turned on their backs. But the hands are empty.
That, dear Marika, is what this good man thought last night. But there’s never enough good in this world, which is why he gave himself up to fantasies about theft. His thoughts left his mother’s deathbed and flew to the late old Tonćo Bošković.
A week before my mother ended up in hospital his relatives came to get me in the dead of night and take me up to Gornja Lastva because he wanted to speak his last wish.
“Tonćo sent for you because he won’t make it through the night. He’s afraid of dying without speaking with you one more time,” they told me as we went through the hall. I was sleepy and anxious because no one ever rings at my door with good news, especially not at three in the morning.
“Tonćo’s confessions have become quite a tradition,” I told them. “He’s confided me every sin several times already; he’s been dying for a decade and most of his friends and peers have passed away.”
“He really is dying now,” they insisted.
When they took me in to see him, Tonćo whispered me his last wish, but not before bidding the last of his teary-eyed relatives to leave the room.
“I don’t believe a word they say,” he told me, “I can hear them celebrating down in the kitchen now. As soon as I’ve breathed my last they’ll be popping the champagne corks.”
Old Tonćo had decided to leave a lot of money to the Church. “I worked as much and spent as little as I could,” he said. He was leaving the children a lot: houses, land, boats, and some money, which he knew they’d splurge as soon as he was in the ground. He wasn’t worried about them; he wanted to leave something to God. On the wall there was a picture (actually a tapestry on a local theme: several boats at sea, with Kotor in the background) and behind it a hidden safe. It contained two hundred thousand and seventy-six euros intended for God. He smiled, despite his pain, and held out the key to the safe.
“You and I know that’s the best investment I can make. It is, Father, isn’t it?” he repeated several times.
I was to take the money and spend it for Church purposes. There was just one condition: that I would not reveal to anyone that the money came from him. His children would hate him if they found out. He was a man of the Church – they weren’t. He knew them well: they’d spend everything he left them and curse him if he gave anything to the Church rather than to them. He didn’t want a commemoration or a marble slab – he wasn’t that kind of man.
“If I do some good with the money, that’s between me and God,” he said. “The Bible tells us: Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full,” he recited flawlessly.
Tonćo really did die that night. Since then, his money is up in my attic. I thought about where to put it, and in the end I hid it between the books in the chest which my mother gave me when I started my studies. The chest was a family heirloom and had been in the family for generations, she stressed when she bequeathed it to me. She expected me to look after it well, and I did: I kept it next to my bed with selected books in it. Thieves would find the chest with the money up in the attic just as easily as they would in my room, of course, because nothing can be hidden – I at least should know that. Still, I took the chest up to the attic, hiding it more from myself than from thieves.
My dear Marika... This good man thought all night long about taking the money from the chest and using it to pay for his mother’s treatment. I’ll never be able to earn the money needed for her care by myself. When I took my oath of poverty my mother realised I was condemning her to poverty too. She always considered I became a priest just to punish her.
I can take Tonćo’s money and become a good son but a bad priest. Or leave the money up in the attic and stay a good priest but a bad son. That’s what I can do. However much we hide and dodge and run, in the end all the questions we’ve fled from boil down to just one. There are no two ways about it – it’s either one or the other. The line between the two options is a guillotine which hangs over us our whole life long and which we try to avoid and end up staring at the ground. In vain: sooner or later the game is over and we can no longer deal with the “Christ or Barabbas?” question by putting in a deferral request and forming a committee of inquiry.
That was my inner monologue to Marika, who was busy around the house. She switched on the vacuum cleaner and concentrated on the floors. She didn’t hear me leave the house.
At the hospital the nurses treated me like a good-for-nothing, or worse. They couldn’t hide their loathing and answered my questions curtly. My mother had obviously told them the sad story about her thankless son who was returning her love by letting her die in hospital, depriving her of the cure which was within arm’s reach: just one sea and one fortune away. What could I do? At least the good women would have someone to malign in their coffee break; it’s my job to be there when people need me.
My mother greeted me with outstretched arms. “You kept your promise, you’ve put everything aside and come to see your old mother!” she said. “The doctor’s optimistic; it seems my condition isn’t so bad after all. It’s true that the operation’s expensive, but if you and I make an effort I’ll be with you for a bit longer. You know what they say: a man is young as long as his mother is alive!” Then she had a proposal: “Do you think you could take out a loan to pay for my treatment? It’s pretty easy to get a loan these days.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I replied softly, which she interpreted as a refusal. She could never stand the word no.
“As you wish, my son,” she said, and the tone of her voice changed abruptly. “I can’t do anything more to help myself. Such is life: once you were small and weak in my arms, now I’m old and weak in your hands. I raised you to become a respectable man but, if you think I deserve it, go ahead and drop me into the grave. Everything I did for you – and you know how much I did –was without thought of reward. Is it too much to ask a son to see to his mother’s treatment? Or does your Church think it’s a lottery: whoever’s number God draws gets treatment, while the others die? I don’t have to die, at least not yet. Whether I do or not depends on you alone.”
“I’m a poor man, mother, you know that,” I explained. “I’d give everything for you to get better. But what I can give won’t count as security for a loan. No bank will lend me the fortune needed for your operation. I know, you don’t have to tell me: for some people it isn’t a fortune. But for me it is. All I can do is to pray that God has enough faith in me, despite my sins, to reward me with your recovery.”
“So that’s what it’s come to!” my mother hissed with contempt and raised herself up in the bed, suddenly full of energy. “That’s what you’d do for your dying mother, is it? Pray for her health? I’ve never been good enough for you. You’ve had my all, every drop of my blood, every bone in my body and every waking breath, but that was never enough: you wanted your father, the one who left you, the one who ran away from me to his bitch and never tried to get in touch with you. You wanted him, although you had me. And since he didn’t want to see you, you decided to search for him. You ran away from me to your father, the Church. You’ll see what fathers are like: this one will leave you too, just like the other. You hid like a mouse in a hole, that’s what your Church was good for. But the adversities just keep coming. Now your mother needs help, but you’ll say your hands are tied and you have your sacraments and services. If you helped me you’d betray the law you follow. You’re not a son, but a Pilate. You’re washing your hands of me, that’s what you’re doing – washing your hands of your mother! Look how clean his hands are, how immaculate! And how could they be otherwise when they’ve been washed with a mother’s tears! Get out of here. Go and pray to your God. Get out of my room, I never want to see you again,” she shrieked.
Drawn by the noise, the nurses came at me like a swarm of flies. They buzzed around me, shouting and jabbing me with insults, and finally shoved me out of the room. “Shame, shame,” the hairy black nurses chanted in chorus as they sent me down the corridor abashed and despised.
When I tried to visit my mother the next day, I was prevented by the hospital staff. “Sorry, Father, but the lady was explicit: you’re not to see her,” the beefy security man said. She’s turned the whole hospital into her audience, I thought – an audience which will testify to her suffering and my callousness. The resoluteness of that hunk in uniform barring my way left no doubt that my mother was excelling. No wonder: she’d been playing the role of the long-suffering, abandoned woman all her life.
Days passed, and still I was banned from visiting her. Although I saw through the game, she’d attained her goal: that I acknowledge my responsibility and guilt. She was my mother, after all, she was ill and needed help, and this wasn’t the time to be spiteful. I called the director of the hospital and tried to convince him that the ridiculous ban on visits should to be lifted. He remained firm and cited the hospital’s strict regulations, adding that my mother’s request was “certainly unusual, but to an extent understandable”. I realised that my mother was playing for all or nothing: either I’d arrange for her treatment in Italy or I’d never see her alive again. She was putting on an act to make it seem that her life and death depended on me, as if it was my responsibility. First she convinced herself of this, then everyone else, and in the end I had no choice but to go along with it.
More than once I thought of going up to the attic, taking the money and putting an end to this travesty. No one would notice. No one apart from me even knew about the money... No one? No! So I couldn’t do that. The money didn’t exist, at least not as money of mine, so the option of using it for my mother’s or my own needs was an illusion. What I termed a “travesty” was nothing less than the Devil himself up in the attic, tempting me. The morals of old stories which we easily recognise when they relate to others suddenly blur when we become the protagonist. As soon as I rejected the possibility of using the money to pay for my mother’s treatment I’d want to get rid of it: give it to the poor, hand it to another priest – anything, just so as to cast the temptation from me. But then I’d be ashamed of my weakness again.
Getting rid of the money just because it tempted me would mean acknowledging my inability to resist temptation, I realised that much, despite the sleepless nights in which everything a man thinks he knows comes loose and is turned inside out, and we find ourselves in fear of what we thought was rock-solid; we find ourselves foreign and false. Then I’d feel again that all the love-thy-neighbourliness I preach was worthless if I didn’t practice it as concern for my nearest and dearest. “And who is your nearest?” a voice would ask me. “Who could possibly be nearer than your own mother?” All our principles, all that saves us from going the way of the flesh, all that keeps us from the curse of death and decay, is in the flesh and blood. “Why is it that you can’t get to sleep at night?” the voice would ask me. “And why, when you finally sleep, do you dream the same dream over and over again: you go up to your mother’s bed and see something writhing beneath the white sheet, you pull back the sheet and see a thick, black snake coiled up there in place of your mother. What does that dream warn you of: the mother in your dreams or you who dreams them? Who does that dream reflect on if not on you, the dreamer?” said the voice I couldn’t escape.
One such night there came a knock on my door. Summer rain was pouring and the fellow was as wet as a church mouse.
I know my congregation well. After all, the town’s small and everyone knows everything about everyone else. But I was sure I’d never seen this man before. I gave him a towel to dry his hair. We sat down in the kitchen. I offered him a glass of wine but he declined with a jerk and a look of disgust, which made me think I’d offended him.
“My mother was an evil woman,” he began his confession. “I could give many explanations, but isn't it always so that evil is explicable, while good remains a mystery? Other people didn’t try to understand my mother; they simply shunned her and tried to avoid her poisonous tongue and sharp claws. But they didn’t know what I knew. She was orphaned at an early age: her father was killed at the Jasenovac concentration camp and her mother died soon afterwards of an unnamed disease. After the war she was adopted by her uncle, who had searched for her and her sister for months in the ruined country which still reeked of smoke and rotting corpses. Her uncle had a wonderful wife, who treated the girls as daughters of her own. One day she caught a bus to Sarajevo. She never came back from that trip because the bus was waylaid near Foča by remnants of the scattered Chetnik army and she was raped and killed. When the girls’ uncle found out, he left them some money and a message saying “Please forgive me”... and shot himself in the mouth. She grew up in orphanages, only to marry when she was seventeen. This man deserted her after leaving her with a son. He left her with me and also with scars from the cigarettes he put out on her body. People took the scar on her forehead as a mark. My wife, for example – you guess correctly that she and my mother didn’t get on – believed that the devil marks his own. In our twenty years of marriage she never stopped cursing herself for marrying the son of a woman who had evil carved into her forehead.
“I don’t want to make excuses for my mother. Living with her was hard, although my wife did try. As my mother grew older, she became more and more venomous; she could spill blood with just one word. When she fell ill, I didn’t have money to pay for her treatment. My wife refused to nurse someone who’d abused her all her life: she wished the old woman would die a slow and painful death. My son took her side – he was always mummy’s boy, trained to hate his father from an early age. So what could I do? I left my job and took my mother to our old house in the village. I told my wife and son that I was going away for a short time, that my mother was seriously ill, at death’s door, and that it was my duty to stay with her now that she was so poorly; I couldn’t simply cast her out, whatever kind of person she was; I told them I’d be back as soon as she was buried.
“My mother lived another six months. Before she died she asked me to beg my wife’s forgiveness for all the pain she’d caused. When I returned home I found that my wife and son didn’t want me back. She had a new man and he had a new father. ‘The day you left us because of your mother, you lost us. Go back where to you came from,’ they told me.”
“All I want, Father, is for you to tell me if I did the right thing. Was it wrong of me to stand by my mother?”
He was sitting opposite me, staring at the floor as if he was ashamed to look me in the eyes, and tears ran down his cheeks. I went up and stood beside him.
“You did the right thing,” I said. He looked at me with gratitude and kissed my hand.
“Stay here, you don’t need to go out again in a storm like this,” I offered.
“I have to go,” he replied. “You’ve removed the burden from my soul; now I can finally go.”
“Where did you say you were from?” I called out after him. I thought I heard an answer, but his words were muffled by the howling wind and beating rain.
I didn't go back to bed. I made some coffee, shaved, put on a new robe, brought the chest down from the attic and waited in perfect tranquillity for the morning to come. Then I set off to the hospital with the money for my mother’s treatment.
Her bed was empty. I almost fell unconscious. The nurse held me for a moment to steady me.
“She passed away this morning. I’m sorry.”
“What happened?” I asked, but she couldn’t say. She sent me to look for the new nurse who’d been with my mother when she died.
“She’s in the wash-house down in the basement. You can take the lift if you like.”
The nurse was startled when I spoke to her. She was loading bloodstained bed linen into a machine and hadn’t heard me coming. I asked her if the woman who died that morning had left any message for me.
“Pardon me for asking, but who are you?”
“Her son.”
“That can’t be,” she replied. “It was sad to see a frail old woman leaving in such grief. All gaunt – just skin and bone – and bathed in tears. You know, Father, in my job you see a lot of things that a happy person never sees. So much pain and death pass through my hands. I wash so many human remains to give to the coroner. I no longer remember the faces and the words. All of that changes a person, and I even forget who I am myself. You and I are similar in a way, you could think. People confess to us both, don’t they? But, my good Father, I bet they lie to you there in the confessional. As long as they think they still have time, they lie. You know that, I’m sure. But people don’t lie to me: when they’re raving and delirious in the throes of death, they don’t lie. What they say, whatever they say, is their truth. So don’t lie to me, Father: tell me who you are and what you want, because I know you’re not her son. When I asked her if she had any family who she wanted me to call so she could say goodbye, she just clenched her teeth and shook her head. And last night, before she died, she kept saying one thing over and over again: ‘I should have had a son.’”

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