The Drowning

A short story

They stayed in the yard while Alphonsus went in. He fumbled for a candle at the back of the nave, still half waiting for hands to seize at him from the dark. But in the weak light the church was still. He entered the confessional, snuffed the candle, and slid back his screen.

"Are you there?" Alphonsus said.
"Aye, Father."
"Then go ahead."
The voice began its mumbled recitations, and as he waited, Alphonsus rubbed his eyes of sleep and wondered about the elder John Flanagan and whether he had lived through the night. Alphonsus was feeling light and electric, not quite anchored in the dark. He realized that the man had stopped talking
"Go ahead," Aiphonsus said.
"Father, I've breached the Fifth Commandment."
Alphonsus was silent. He was sure the man was confused. "Do you mean adultery, then?" he said.
"Tell me the Fifth Commandment."
"Thou shalt not kill."
Alphonsus felt strangely calm. This was the first time he'd encountered such an infraction. A killer! He silently recalled the seminary lessons: Forgiveness is the priest's task, punishment the law's.
"Who?" Alphonsus said.
"I don't know his name."
"Who knows about this?"
"No one, Father."
"Not your friends outside?"
"Not even them. Only you."
"And where is the dead man?"
"In the woods near the lough."
"Is that where you killed him?"
"That's where I did him, Father."
Alphonsus leaned back against his bench. He told himself to go slow.
"And while you were standing over his body there in the woods, were you feeling remorse for your act?"
"I felt sorry I had to breach a commandment."
"Was it self-defense?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"What manner was that?"
"That we are all in danger, Father."
"Some men, to prove their remorse, might turn themselves in."
"Aye," the voice said. "Some might."
"And why not you?"
"Others will be involved. Others who don't deserve such troubles."
"How so? Troubles from whom?"
"From the Black and Tans."
"Oh, my," Alphonsus said. He ran his fingers along the starched smoothness of his collar.

Matters had taken on a more troubling dimension. He now understood that the dead man was a policeman from the RIC, the Royal Irish Constabulary. Four years had passed since the Easter Rising in Dublin, and in this four years of undeclared civil war the RICs, seen by many as agents of British rule, had often been targets. The RICs were Irishmen, but more and more the younger men had left the ranks, some openly disavowing their ties, others simply slipping out, often to England. Those who remained were the older hands, who after years of service were not sure whether to be more afraid of the Irish Republican Army or of a lost pension. But with each new death of a constable came more recrimination and violence.

The Black and Tans, since they'd been brought in from England, had begun a policy of retribution that was as simple as it was vicious. When a policeman was killed, the Tans generally burned the village nearest the killing. Alphonsus did not need to calculate the distance to the shores of Lough Ree: as a sport fisherman, he knew the lough, a landlocked elbow of water a mile wide and eleven long.
"Father ... ?"
"My penance?"
Good God! Was this how simple it should be? Alphonsus was speechless. Penance? He sat for a long time, thinking, wondering whether he could somehow find a way to consult with someone. What was the penance for such an act?

"I can grant no penance yet," Alphonsus said. "I want you to return here at the same time tomorrow night. I want you to do nothing except pray. Take no action. Now, where is this body?"

"Father, I don't know if…”
"Good Lord, man!. Tell me where this poor lad is, so he can receive the sacrament due him!"
"Do you know the path to the rock formations on the east side of the lough?"
"I do."
"He's twenty or thirty yards north of the path, about a quarter mile up from the shore."
"How did he get there?"
"He was answering a call for help."

The man fell silent. Alphonsus could hear his breathing. "Father?" he said. "Father, I thought you had to grant penance."
"Not in the case of the Fifth Commandment," Alphonsus said. "Most people have no experience in this." He quivered at his own lie, but his voice remained firm.

As Alphonsus sat in the confessional, listening to the receding footsteps and then the slam of the church door, he rubbed his hands on his knees, trying to calm himself. Indeed, he was thinking of the town of Balbriggan, which had burned a few weeks before at the hands of the Black and Tans.

But, Alphonsus wondered, could this man who had spoken to him in the confessional truly be repentant, having known what his actions would lead to? Alphonsus thought not. But he had, from his training, clear guidelines: as much as he wanted this man to turn himself in, he could not require it. And doing so probably wouldn't help, once the dead man was discovered. The Black and Tans, so called because of their odd makeshift uniforms of khaki army trousers and black RIC tunics, were men in whom the cruelty of war had become ingrained. They were being paid ten shillings a day, good money, but still they often sought as payment the suffering of those they saw as enemies, which was nearly anyone Irish.

Alphonsus relit his candle. The movement of the shadows in the boxed closeness of the confessional made him think of the lick of flames. The Black and Tans' terror felt close at hand. Why should anyone be absolved?

In the morning he offered sunrise service to a handful of sleepy elders and then returned to the rectory for breakfast. The housekeeper, Mrs. Toole, had brought in a two-day-old copy of The Irish Times, and over his toast he went through it slowly, looking for news on the Troubles. In the village he had heard talk of how the Black and Tans had taken to roaring down Dublin streets in a lorry, wildly firing their weapons; in Kiltartan a woman was dead, hit by stray shots with a child in her arms. But in the Times he found no mention.

He changed into his gardening clothes. His flower beds faced the woods, and at the edge of the trees he had vegetables. He spent hours here, for the priesthood had not proved to be excessively demanding. Many days he stood at his fence, watching the movements of the drawn carts and of his parishioners, the cottiers coming from the clodded potato fields. Far off, on an open meadow, unfurled bolts of linen bleached in the sun, long white bars against the hard green. Today, in the garden, he contemplated the early-morning confession, and the meeting that night. He felt ludicrous standing here in the garden, but at the same time he wanted to be nowhere else, for he was alone.

Down the rutted lane that curved behind the near cottages he saw Sean Flynn, the retired schoolteacher, walking his dog. The animal, runty and of no clear breed, dug at a rabbit hole. Flynn, leaning on his cane and softly cursing the dog, saw Alphonsus, and ambled up.
"Mr. Flynn."
"Have we been fishing this week, Father?" "I confess I haven't. But soon."
"Father, the weather's turning cold."
"I know, I know. It's pitiful that 1 haven't."
"Today, then."
"No, I have some matters."
"Father, clear your mind."
"You really should."
"I think I will, Mr. Flynn. Really."
"Yes, today."

It would be his reason, then, to go to the lough. In the house, packing his equipment, he slipped in his stole and oils. He put on a clean cassock and adjusted his biretta, his priest's crown with its hard sides and pompon. Mrs. Toole was down below, dusting in the dining room, and he went to the kitchen to pack a jam sandwich. "I'll be off fishing now," he said.
"Today?" she said.
"Why not?"
"With Mr. Flanagan on his deathbed from that horse kicking him?"
"Urn, well, I'll be back by midafternoon. I heard he’s doing better."
"Really? Who told you?"
"Mr. Flynn. We were just talking outside."
Mrs. Toole went back to dusting the china cabinet. "You and the fishing," she said.
"Every chance I get," Aiphonsus said.
"You're fishing dressed like that?"
"If anyone does need last rites, I don't want to do it in my fishing clothes. I shan't be long, anyway."

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