by Robert Weibezahl
Judge and Jury first ran in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine in 2003.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” George began to recite even before Father James had finished sliding open the ornate grille that separated penitent from priest in the confessional. “It has been two weeks since my last confession.”
Even through the veil of the grillwork, the young priest immediately recognized both the voice of the older man, anguished yet respectful and his smell, always an odd mix of Old Spice and anxious perspiration. Few parishioners bothered to make their private confessions these days, and no one with the frequency of George. He came at least twice a month, not so much for penance as for solace.
“I don’t know how much longer I can bear it, Father,” George said. “I just want to kill her. Someday I’m sure I will.”
George uttered emphatic words like these each time he visited Father James’s confessional. Yet, outside of the ostensive anonymity of the booth, no such declarations ever came from the timid man’s lips. He attended Mass each Sunday with the object of these violent thoughts, his wife of oh so many years, as if all were fine. She was an unlikable woman; Father James would have had to concede, if pressed–domineering and humorless at best. And if the stories George told the inexperienced priest during these confessions were true (and he had no reason to believe they were not), the woman harbored a violent streak just beneath the steely surface. But it was not his duty to judge. That was God’s province.
So, as usual, Father James listened in silence, with as much patience as he could manage given the claustrophobic warmth of the stall. He had heard it so many times, each time offering what to him seemed sound advice. George could go to the police. There were social services for battered husbands. There might be the possibility of an annulment for, despite the length of the marriage there were no children. Some time ago, he had stopped making such suggestions, because George always had an excuse at the ready…he could never go to the authorities…it would be a sin even to consider putting asunder what God had joined as one.
In point of fact, the callow priest felt quite at sea when faced with a parishioner like George. He had been ordained only three years before, and he had little experience of women, alien creatures he preferred to keep at arm’s length in the chaste and celibate life he had embraced.
From the other side of the screen, the weary priest heard the annoying clicking of beads, the onyx beads of the rosary that George always clutched while he was in the confessional. It was a large set, almost as large as those rosaries that had dangled from the waists of all the nuns who taught him as a boy. It was a bit ostentatious for an ordinary parishioner to carry around such a rosary, the priest had thought on more than one occasion. But he mustn’t judge.
What could he do for George? Nothing, really. Absolution was not really needed, for he didn’t believe this mild-mannered man would or could ever make good on his wild threats, but the intention of the act was sin enough for George and he demanded penance. Just say three decades of your bloody rosary was what Father James thought, but aloud he served the penance in the more obsequious tone his parishioners expected. He was, after all, their earthly link to God.
Perhaps it was the oppressive heat, unmitigated by the faulty air conditioning, which finally brought about the inevitable. It was Friday night and he was tired after the week’s work. From the moment he arrived home, she had been on a tear. George tried tiptoeing around her mood, but it was impossible to escape within the close confines of their small tract house. After dinner, which he had cooked and she had disparaged, he had hoped to watch TV in the arid silence of detente, but she would not hear of it. There was laundry he could be doing. He did the laundry. She was not about to wash the dishes. He washed the dishes.
She harped on every little thing, even more than usual, if that were possible. Did it just seem that way because of the heat and his fatigue, or had he finally just had enough? Surely it was not his intention to raise high the cast iron frying pan, still coated with fat from the sausages he’d cooked for dinner, and bring it down with all the force he could manage on her nattering skull. It might have seemed ironic that, as the flat heavy pan knocked her to the floor, no sound came from this woman who never before had lacked for something to say. But he was not one to appreciate irony, certainly not at a moment like this. His hateful and hated wife lay lifeless on the floor and he knew just one thing–without question, this was a mortal sin.
The panic that swept over George at that moment was not caused by fear of the law or its consequences. He feared only the now certainty of eternal damnation. He ran from the kitchen, where the motionless body lay its wound still oozing with blood, and fled to the small bedroom where he had slept alone for years. There, on his dresser, stood the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that his mother had left him. It was a large statue, made of plaster of Paris painted in slightly garish colors. In the muted light and the strange exhilaration of the moment, it seemed to him that the child’s red-painted heart was visibly palpitating against the blue folds of its gown. George pulled the onyx rosary–another legacy from his sainted mother–from his pocket, and he flung himself onto his knees before the statue.
“I believe in God the Father Almighty…”
Whether minutes passed or hours, he would not have been able to say. In the throes of his prayers of contrition and shame, nothing as ordinary as time could intrude between him and his maker.
“Oh, God, oh my God, what have I done?” he sobbed between the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers. He was so enraptured in prayer, it was little wonder he at first did not hear the rumbling or feel the swaying of the ground beneath the floor. If it had been a smaller earthquake, it might have passed without his ever noticing it at all, but it was a furious trembler that shook the ground for at least thirty interminable seconds, liquefying the earth beneath a large portion of the city. The noise of the quake was small compared to the cacophony of furniture falling, dishes tumbling and smashing to the floor, nails screeching from the wallboard, plaster raining down from the yellowed ceiling, roof beams collapsing beneath the weight of shingles they had supported for half a century.
As he pitched and rolled on the floor, George’s first thought was that this surely was divine retribution for his sin. But when the shuddering subsided and he was able to sit up amidst the rubble of what had been his home less than a minute before, the bewildered man realized it had been just an earthquake. The coincidence of events struck him as oddly funny and he laughed as he had not been able to for most of his lifetime. Strangely calmed by the ferocious jolt to the earth, he surveyed the room, slowly taking in the melee of shattered windows, of beams protruding from the ceiling and walls, of furniture moved inches and even feet inward away from the walls toward the center of the room. Miraculously, the painted statue stood unharmed on its usual perch on the chest of drawers. It was the kind of a small miracle George had spent a lifetime seeking.
The door into the room was badly out of plumb, and he forced it open and crawled out into the hallway. He climbed to his feet, wiping the debris from his clothes and the dust from his eyes. With just a glance, he could see that the rest of the house was a shambles, fit only for demolition. What could he salvage from this wreckage?
But when he reached the kitchen, George was confronted by the enormity of what he had done. Still there on the floor, the woman he hated, the woman he had killed–when? What time was it now? –lay amidst an almost inconceivable jumble of broken crockery, shattered glass, splintered wood, pulverized tile. Remembering what had happened, he gagged and backed away from the inert body. He must get out of the house.
He stumbled through the gaping hole where plate glass doors had led out onto the concrete slab patio. The beads of tempered glass that riddled the ground crunched beneath his shoes as he cut up the side of his property to the front yard. He ran.
He ran for many blocks, past houses decimated like his own and others that seemed to have escaped most of the massive damage. The sounds of sirens grew louder, then faded, then grew louder again. He passed other people, who stood stunned alongside the rubble that had been their homes just a short while before. Absorbed in their own tragedies, no one took notice of this man as he ran past.
He ran for ten minutes before he realized where his instincts were taking him. The church was now just ahead on the next street…Father James…he must see Father James…he must tell Father James…
His lungs burning, he stood before the familiar faux gothic oak doors of the church, now ripped from their hinges. The building had suffered its fair share of damage, the stubby bell tower had tumbled to the lawn and much of the stained glass was ruined. But entering, George found the interior of the church remarkably preserved and deserted. No one but George had come here for sanctuary from the disaster. He ran to the rectory, which still stood next door, and tried ringing the bell. He pounded on the door. There was no response. Father James must be out helping people. That’s what a priest does.
George returned to the church, took a seat in a pew near the back, and waited. The nave was virtually dark, dimly lighted only by the shrouded illumination of the banks of votive candles that flickered in the alcove chapels. He would wait here for Father James and the others to return and then he could confess his grievous sin….
George stared at the red light from the sanctuary candle and tried to make out the details of the crucifix that hung on the wall beyond it. How many times had he sat in this church and stared at this crucifix, yet now he could not remember what it looked like, how big it was, the look of anguish on the face of the betrayed Jesus. He saw only the face of his wife, twisted and ugly before death, twisted and ugly after. She had made his life hell all those years, but he had stayed with her because it was what he had to do. Now she was gone, and his life would change into a new kind of hell. He’d confess, he’d go to prison. Simple enough, but if only it could be undone.
So many years he had restrained himself, what had possessed him finally to kill her…? And on this night…? The timing of the earthquake could be no coincidence…God showing his anger… Yet why would He wreak such a violent revenge upon the whole city because of the private sins of one insignificant man…? Perhaps the quake was meant to serve a different purpose…maybe God had meant to protect him, help him cover his tracks…why, the earthquake might easily have killed her if he had not. Maybe she wasn’t killed by his blow; maybe it was the earthquake that had really killed her…? Either way, could the police suspect it had not been the trembler and the falling debris that had slain her…? The police would never charge him with the crime. God would forgive him his transgressions…
But what about the body…?
The way it lay there on the kitchen floor, would it look as if she had died in the quake…? Where had he left the skillet that he had brought down upon her head…? He should go back to the house and make sure everything looked right…he couldn’t leave such minor details to a busy God…and if he weren’t at home, the police would wonder why…
George left the church and hurried back through the streets to his house. Now he was more aware of the other activity in the neighborhood, and he took greater care not to be noticed by anyone he passed. On his street he spotted neighbors outside their homes, but he remained in the shadows, crept into his backyard, and climbed back through the opening where the patio door had been. There she was still, sprawled face down on the kitchen floor, dried blood from her wound staining the cracked tile. He spotted the handle of the frying pan, which lay a few feet away, buried under a mound of broken dishes and twisted appliances. It was safe there…no one would think to pull it out and look for traces of blood…
What next…? Should he leave the house, wander out into the neighborhood, pretend to be in shock…? The police would come into the house to look for her, to see if she were all right…they would find the body, tell him she was dead…he could feign disbelief, confusion, grief.
But once he left the house, they wouldn’t let him back in…. It was too dangerous; on the point of total collapse…what should he take with him…? Small things that would not arouse suspicion… His rosary, of course…where was it? In his panic he must have dropped it on the floor in his room.
He went back to his bedroom to look for the holy beads. He did not see them anywhere near where he had been praying. He got down on his knees and began pushing aside the debris of plaster and dust, which had mixed with coins, papers, and other small bits and objects that had been strewn by the force of the quake.
The rosary had to be here. He forced his trembling hand into the small space between the dresser and the floor, and his fingertips touched the cool, familiar smoothness of the beads. He grasped the strand and slowly worked it toward him, but a few of the beads were caught on something and resisted his tugs. He couldn’t leave the beads behind.
Some would say that the aftershock that came at that moment felt stronger than the earthquake itself, although the seismologists at the university would use their sophisticated equipment to prove otherwise. But in many houses in the city, it was strong enough to finish the damage the first trembler had begun. In George’s little house, more plaster fell, more glass shattered, and the painted statue of the holy child, which had been miraculously preserved the first time came tumbling from its resting place, falling on its owner’s skull with a vengeful and fatal force.
Father James was disturbed, though not surprised by the sparse attendance at the funeral. It was apparent that the mild-mannered man and his harridan wife had not had many friends.
George’s death had saddened the young priest more than he would have expected. After all that time spent together in the confessional, he felt as if he’d really known the older man and he was sorry for the violent way in which he had died. He hoped death had come swiftly and painlessly. In heaven, for where else would the poor faultless man be, he would find his eternal reward. At least now he was spared the earthly purgatory of his wife’s torment. With so many of the damaged stained glass windows boarded over, the inside of the church was darker than usual. But there was still enough artificial light for Father James to make out the faces of the few people who had bothered to come.
She sat in the front pew, her head heavily bandaged, a glassy stare in her eyes. She had suffered a serious injury to the head and, mercifully he supposed, had no memory of the ferocious impact of the earthquake that had knocked her to the ground. When the rescue team had found her, she had been unconscious for more than three hours. Her less fortunate husband was found dead.
Though he hated to admit it, George’s death had lifted a considerable weight off the young priest’s shoulders. As horrible as it was, perhaps it had been the only possible way out of the ugly situation the poor man had endured. This was the kind of divine mystery Father James was not equipped to unravel.
Anyway, it was all now out of his hands. He had more pressing matters to attend to. So many in his parish had suffered great loss because of the earthquake, and his job was among the living.
For the dead, God serves as both judge and jury.
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