The Torments of Padres Contreras

Victorino Briones

Padre Miguel Contreras was receiving confession from the schoolgirls of Santa Clara when a girl named Nena Dumagan giggled at the far end of the line. More amused than annoyed, Padre Contreras left the confessional to reproach the girl, but she apologized immediately and promised it would not happen again. A quiet hour passed, and then the smell of bathing soap began to overwhelm the box. The odor came from a girl named Clarissa. She was reciting a series of mortal sins written on a piece of paper in a hand too delicate and fine to be hers, and which was perhaps her mother's or nursemaid's. The smell tingled his nose and the back of his neck. Padre Contreras smiled to himself as he remembered a sweet, childhood memory playing with his aunt in the garden.

After Clarissa came Luisa, carrying a small book of prayers in Latin. Padre Contreras became absorbed in studying her tiny hands as she turned the pages, and traced in his mind the pretty, small lines, which formed over the joints of her tapering fingers. After her was Sofia, who had wonderful small feet and round knees that she rested on red cushions her mother had made so she would not ruin her posture.

Padre Contreras savored the sensations as they came to him one by one, with each girl kneeling by his side and offering her two innocent palms pressed together in solemn prayer. He cherished the experience, believing it to be nothing more than a rare moment in a pleasant afternoon that would regrettably pass after resting in his chambers.

The following morning Milagros Bernabe, accompanied by her nursemaid, came to him and inquired if she might say confession. She explained that she had been suffering from asthma on Sunday, and wondered if she could still be forgiven on a Monday. Next week, she said, she was hoping to join her classmates in receiving her first Holy Communion.

Padre Contreras ordered the nursemaid to go out for a few minutes so that he could be alone with the girl. He instructed Milagros to kneel beside him on the floor and to tell him her sins very briefly, because he needed to finish writing his sermon for that morning's mass. Padre Contreras tried to refrain from looking at her, although he could not help himself watch her carefully as the smell of rose lotion evaporated from her skin and filled up the whole room. After she was finished, she stood up, dusted off her skirt, and kneaded her knees with her tiny hands.

When she asked if she could go, Padre Contreras was surprised to hear himself say, "But you must kiss the back of my hand before you can be completely forgiven." Slowly like a snake she bent over and pressed her lips on the back of his hand, letting the curls of her hair fall down from her shoulders and onto his arm. Padre Contreras closed his eyes and felt himself trembling. At last he pulled his hand away and looked out the window as he signaled her to leave. He went back to finishing his sermon but his mind kept wandering. He thought about the girls again--the way they walked with their small feet, the way their scents changed in the suffocating heat of the confessional box, the way their curled hair fell at the side of their smiling faces. Padre Contreras felt seduced by the images in his mind.

Padre Miguel Contreras was in his mid-forties. He had been a handsome man when he was twenty. Back then, he had thick black hair and a trim build. Then during the years after becoming a priest he gained weight and grew bald. Wrinkles formed around his eyes and his hands appeared bony and old. At first he didn't mind it so much. He convinced himself and argued to his friends that as a priest he was immune to the evils of vanity. He knew, however, that he was lying to himself.

In Manila, Padre Contreras taught a group of boys in a school funded by the richest families in the country. He often complained about not having enough time for himself. The students required constant attention and the parents demanded that their sons be given the best education. Several times, he dreamed of a vacation where he could read the books he liked. He wished he could just forget his daily problems correcting test papers and writing a class curriculum. He wanted to begin a journal and write about his experiences. He desired nothing more than to simply enjoy the beauty of nature, perhaps paint flowers in watercolor and write small poems about being old. Twisting and pulling ears of naughty boys, spanking them in his office with a wooden paddle and teaching them not to pick their noses in public were not his idea of a contented life.

One day a letter from his old teacher, Padre Alcantara, arrived. It was an invitation for him to visit the island of Ibarra and perhaps exercise his sense of charity on the poor school children and natives who badly needed the services of a good priest. Padre Contreras had been one of Padre Alcantara's favorite students many years before. He liked Padre Alcantara and the idea of working with his old teacher interested him. He wrote back and said that he would be glad to help out in the congregation. He prepared his things, filled his pen with ink, packed the books that he intended to finish reading and hired a replacement teacher while he was gone from the school in Manila.

Arriving in Ibarra, he found the island just as he had hoped it would be. He enjoyed long siestas in the afternoon. A cup of hot chocolate was always ready when he woke up. Two servants were at his disposal to assist him around the church. Padre Alcantara merely needed someone to serve mass from time to time, and that was no problem at all for him. There were no smelly, mischievous boys who fought and punched each other. He was instead put in charge of a group of girls from the school of Santa Clara, to whom he taught Latin, History and Science. Also he listened to their confessions and assigned them prayers as penance.

After only two weeks in Ibarra, Padre Contreras wondered about the idea of perhaps taking over the congregation as parish priest once Padre Alcantara was gone. While he was enjoying himself in Ibarra, he forgot that the devil lurked in the most pleasant of places, especially during idle and unguarded moments of happiness.

On Sunday morning, the girls dressed in white skirts, green belts, and black shoes and returned to receive their first Holy Communion. His strange feeling of delight had increased with anticipation. When Sofia opened her mouth to receive the bread, sticking out her wet tongue, bending back her lily stem of a neck and closing her eyes in submission, she became the very image of the Blessed Virgin.

Padre Contreras trembled in shame at his urge to kiss her, embrace her, and bury his face in her long hair. His heart raced and his breathing deepened as blood rushed into his head and clouded his eyes in a black haze. The altar boy had to nudge him in the side to revive him from this trance. Quickly, he put the communion bread back into the chalice and, providing no explanation, rushed outside to take a breath of fresh air in the church garden.

The delight he had been feeling for a week suddenly turned into a torment that continued unabated. That night, he followed the Vatican's prescription of one slice of papaya three times a day for seven days, flagellated his back with a rope, and repeated the rosary four times every hour while thinking about his mother, but none of these remedies worked. Every morning he woke up drenched in perspiration and exhausted from dreams of little winged, naked girls and giggling voices inside a room of black curtains.

Such devils they are, he told himself; yet, as he wished them all into the fires of hell, he could not deny that he also wished he could join them in their contortions over the fires and red coals.

On Monday he was called to administer last rites to a dying patient in Doctor Cenizal's clinic. Afterwards, just as he was leaving the clinic, he happened to glance over a scientific journal with an article entitled, "Ice: Cure for all".

He read how ice had become a revolutionary medicine in the twentieth century. Ice, he read, could preserve meat and vegetables, could provide cold tea and lemonade as well as a palliative for headaches and brooding tantrums. Scientists in Russia had even discovered that ice could preserve the human body well past the future, perhaps even into eternity.

The article went on to tell the story of a young couple in Siberia, of how the husband had disappeared suddenly after their wedding, and of how he reappeared thirty years later frozen inside a block of ice, still possessing his boyish fifteen-year-old face and smile. Although the wife had remained faithful since her wedding night, she quickly came to resent him because he was now more beautiful than she was, and filed for divorce soon after he was discovered. The author of the article predicted that ice might indeed become the miracle remedy of the next fifty years, curing everything from ingrown toenails to cancer. Padre Contreras decided that he would write to the author immediately.

In his letter of inquiry to the journal, Padre Contreras first explained that as a priest he was curious to know whether reserving the body also meant preserving the soul. Then he asked if ice could eliminate lust, perhaps by its application over the genitals. Could it shrink the phallus to dysfunction without having to resort to castration?

That night while he was finishing writing the letter, his mind began to wander again. The white paper reminded him of Nena's pale cheeks, the black ink had the same shade as her eyes. A moth flew close to the candle on the table and he noticed how the smoke rising from the flame resembled Sofia's hair. A cool breeze entered the room through the open window, and he felt small hands caressing the back of his neck and brushing his hair. He imagined pairs of eyes peeking and staring at him from the corners of the room.

"Dios mio!" he exclaimed, waking from his hallucinations. He rushed inside the closet and stood mute in the dark. He felt his clothes brushing against his arms and face, and he thought he was surrounded by the girls, who whispered love words to him. He prayed hard to the Virgin Mary to protect him. He prayed all through the night until he fell asleep crouched on the floor like an abandoned child.

The following morning, after dropping the letter off in the post office, he sought the advice of Madam Beatrice, a well known fortune teller, when she came to him for confession, as she did each week. Padre Contreras had no reservations in revealing his problem to her because he knew she had no morals and because the only reason she came to confession--or to church at all--was to indulge her religious daughter, whom she loved.

Madam Beatrice suggested a young and innocent whore, a naive yet discreet girl whom he could employ as a cleaning lady by day and as his pleasure toy by night. "Surely", she added, "you can supply her with enough biblical arguments to persuade her she's doing God's work".

Padre Contreras was shocked. He was a priest, he told her, not a pervert, and although his thoughts were impure at the moment, his actions so far were all quite moral. What he needed, he said, was perhaps a potion, a root and leaf concoction, an antidote of frogs limbs and bat wings that would protect him against devilish seduction.

"Hah, Padre!" she exclaimed. "I can cut off your balls. That would surely do the trick."

After listening resignedly to her confession, he sent her away without questioning her further.

After a month of anxious anticipation, the reply to his earlier inquiry finally arrived. With the letter in his hand, Padre Contreras rushed into his room, locked the door, and tore the envelope open. The letter was typed and composed in a formal style, beginning, "Dear Father Contreras: What I have written in the article in the magazine may have sounded strong and powerful, even outrageous, but although ice is a miracle drug, it is no match for lust. Lust, unfortunately, is an affliction that causes so much heat in the chest that certain poor individuals have been known to die from it and were found during autopsy with their very souls burned." It was signed by Professor Kravitz from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Padre Contreras tore the paper to pieces and threw them out the window. Then about six o'clock in the morning on Sunday, just an hour before celebrating mass, two altar boys found Padre Contreras inside the confessional box embracing three empty bottles of sacred wine. He was lying on the floor half-naked and reeking of alcohol that, as the boys quickly guessed, was not only the mass wine but also cheap whiskey. Another priest delivered mass in his place, and afterwards Padre Alcantara, the head priest, confronted Padre Contreras and ordered him to come to his office after he had cleaned himself up.

Padre Alcantara entered the office, sat in his large, high backed chair behind the desk and said, "Would you like to confess anything?"

Padre Contreras narrated his torment in an outpouring of grief and shame. He recounted his carnal imaginings, the devilish girls, the slices of papaya and his inquiries into ice, and explained how each exploration of a suggested remedy had ended in failure. Readily he admitted the sins he had contemplated, adding that he would accept any punishment that would purge him of this lunacy.

Finally, he exclaimed, "I wish I was dead! I wish God would just throw me in Hell and forget about me."

Padre Alcantara calmed him as he cried and told him that since no harm had been committed no punishment was necessary.

"What should I do, padre?"

Padre Alcantara instructed him to be strong, to find redemption in Mateo 26, and to continue with the three slices of papaya each day. He ordered him to return to his duties in three days. "That should give you enough time to recover from your pains, Miguel. I think that you'll be all right after a few weeks.

Padre Contreras nodded his head in acknowledgment, then knelt and kissed Padre Alcantara's hand. He closed the door to the office behind him. Taking his white handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his face, he took a deep breath to regain his composure. Only then did he realize that when he was crying inside the office no tears had fallen from his eyes. At that moment he began to wonder why he needed to be tormented when pleasure was possible. For the first time in weeks he smiled and felt relief. finally yielding to temptation, he was eager to return to the confessional.

© 2000 Victorino Briones

Victorino Briones is a physician from the Philippines presently living in Arlington, Virginia. He arrived in America in 1998 and took the exams for medical certification during that year. In 1999, He was accepted in Boston University's Creative Writing Program under Leslie Epstein. The course also gave him the opportunity to attend Saul Bellow's class, to meet the American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Dereck Walcott, and Susanna Kaysen. Presently he is finishing his novel, "Ven and Nena," which is a memoir of his parents.

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