Dana Jean Rider

Thy Just Punishments



I wake early on Sundays. It’s an old habit, though the toll of the church bell hasn’t called me in years. In my dreams, I walk around my old church until the familiar darknesses—those twins of shame and guilt—consume me. Until I’m nothing more than a puff of incense left to embed its reek in a Sunday-best dress. I wait patiently for punishment.

Sometimes Caroline is there. We wear our plaid school uniforms.

I remember how she looked: dark-haired and skinny, a testy creature composed entirely of joints. I remember how her appearance grew sleeker as we aged. I remember the moment I first understood that she would be desirable.

Less of my own looks or growth comes back to me, but I remember how it felt. I remember the oppressive calm of the church and Caroline as a tiny speck of light leading me through a dark tunnel.

Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.

All of these memories are inseparable from one another.

Yesterday, I was at the organic market. Across the street, a Catholic storefront, one of the last in the city, that sold unblessed communion wine and crackers amid gilded vessels for prayer and holy home decor. As I emerged from the grocer, arms laden with potatoes and beets, a man in a long black coat exited the shop, tucked his collar up against the wind, and walked down the street. He placed his bag of purchases tenderly on the passenger seat of a wizened sedan, got in the driver’s side, and drove off.

He did not look at me, so I cannot be sure it was the priest.

I am still waiting for punishment, I think, for my first brush with evil.

By the time I returned home to make the phone call, I was equally convinced it could have been either of them—him or her. As truly as time itself passes, my memories fold in on each other. Everything comes back to me out of order.

* * *

What came back to me first was summer becoming autumn, with leaves cast in gentle loops across the barren stone churchyard. The harsh peal of the schoolbell bouncing off ceramic tile floors, reverberating through rows of metal lockers, and halting at the midcentury brickwork. My first day of twelfth grade at the Academy of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin.

Just after morning lessons started, Caroline’s head popped into the window of the classroom door. I recognized her high-set ponytail through the frosted glass. Sister Therese handed me a bathroom pass without suspicion.

I was a good, obedient girl. I believed in God and the devil.

The locker-lined hallways were poorly lit between classes to save on electricity, but I saw Caroline dart into the girls’ bathroom at the far end. I followed, relieved that I would not be lying to the sister.

We were alone inside the bathroom. A crucifix crowned the single mirror, as though to shame schoolgirls applying stick lip gloss.

“Hi,” she said, digging through the pockets of her grimy sweatshirt—a guaranteed uniform demerit. “You got my letter?”

Her letter had arrived taped to my second-story bedroom window two weeks before the end of summer. I briefly entertained the idea that Caroline was a witch until she told me that she used the ladder that leaned against my aunt’s garage. I don’t think I would have minded having a witch friend, anyway.

“So, you found it?”

“From my brother’s friend,” she said as she fished out a tiny glass bottle full of clear liquid, stoppered by a cork and a red wax seal with a five-pointed star.

“Is that really—?”

“Yes,” she declared. “Unholy water.”

The announcement, so bold and ineloquent, made it all seem pretend, even then. Under the steady gaze of the crucifix and the bathroom’s sodium light, I could be certain that nothing would come of Caroline’s plan.

“Okay, sure,” I said. “So, when do you want to do it?”

Caroline raised her eyebrows in her way—the way that reminded me how naive I was. “Now, Elsie. Obviously.” She pocketed the bottle and took my hand, pulling me out the door, where my objections were consumed by the stillness of the dark hallways.

The Annunciation parish complex was shaped like a cross from above. The church made up the vertical body of the symbol, with the school and rectory on either side as its arms. The school side was disconnected above ground—from a bird’s eye, one arm of the cross disembodied—and the space between served as a common entrance to the church.

When we students attended Friday Mass, we found the church via a long, windowless tunnel that ran underneath the public entrance. We accessed the tunnel from the corner of the lunchroom, its dark maw taunting us as we fed on under-seasoned casseroles.

As Caroline and I approached the tunnel that day, we heard the lunch ladies puttering around and chatting, and she signaled for me to be quiet. The sounds of clanking metal pots echoed off the high walls, concealing the clunked heel-falls of our uniform shoes. Each step was a threat that we might be revealed. Strange to be alone in the tunnel, where we usually passed single file on our way to Mass.

Once a year, we used the tunnel for tornado drills. I can still see my past self, crouched against the brick wall with her hands above her head, safe from the singing alarm horn and from the storm.

A cloak of incense—frankincense, myrrh, benzoin—surrounded us as we climbed the stairs to the church’s left transept. At the top of the stairs, the golden glow of the sacristy, calling us away from the plot, nothing but fluttering moths in the dense darkness of the nave, beckoned toward the violent heaven of an electrified trap.

Across the church—the transept pews, the vacant space before the altar—a shadow lurked near the entrance of the rectory. My eyes were still adjusting to the holy darkness, and Caroline was pulling me along before I could decide whether the darkness in the doorway was human, imagination, or worse.

“Caroline, wait,” I hissed, but then we were slipping through and among the backmost pews, and I looked instead at their gleaming wood.

I recall the sensation of my starched skirt sliding against it as I took my place at my mother’s side on Sunday mornings. The thought drains into the tense doubt at the back of my throat in the memory.

Caroline strode ahead. She was no longer dragging me, but neither could I stop. I chased her plaid skirt past the tall, arched columns that ran around the circumference of the church. We passed the Stations lining the hall—an embossed Christ peered down at us in varying stages of agony: flagellated by a Roman whip, then from underneath his burden, then nailed to it. His eyes were tiny jewels and did not seem to me to entirely condemn our presence.

The atrium at the back of the church was still. A wide-mouthed stone vessel of stagnant holy water stood in the center. I helped Caroline remove the cover, an ornate wooden dome. We swayed under its weight and set it at our feet delicately, wary of any echoes that might carry.

The baptismal water inside was fetid, its sacred mildew stench breaking the spell of silence the incense had cast. The moment of truth lingered in our held breath.

On Sunday morning, before she died, my mother would don her high-collared church dress and hold my sweaty palm in one hand while she dipped the other into a pool of holy water. She traced a cross upon herself: forehead, chest, and two shoulders, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. She dipped again and knelt down, tracing the same cross on me with a quick finger to my lips—a reminder to be silent.

Back in the atrium, I felt the eyes of God upon me and said, “You’re not really going to do it,” and I meant it as a question, but Caroline’s sharp glare told me she heard it as an accusation. She pulled out the bottle and popped off its wax-sealed cork, and, before I could reach out to stop her, dumped its contents into the basin.

* * *

Before my mother died, she used to take me on long nature walks after Mass, asking that I behold each creature and plant with attentiveness to its divine nature. This was not my childhood interpretation of our Sunday sojourns, but looking back, I believe that is what she wanted me to understand. She wanted me to know God as something greater than the church.

Once, on a rainy afternoon, she exclaimed in joy and ran ahead of me down the muddy trail. She pointed to the pungent earth, where a large toad was perched as a king surveying his subjects. I giggled and reached my hand toward the thing, expecting it to startle and hop away, but my fingers made contact and sunk through its cold, dry, dead skin like softened butter.

Before my mother pulled me back, I watched a fly pull itself with sharp, miniscule legs from the toad’s eye socket, sprouting like a seedling.

“Do frogs go to heaven?” I asked as we walked back down the trail.

My mother gave me a long, sad smile and said, “Yes, dear.”

* * *

Another memory of Caroline. Three months before the holy water, in the final weeks of the previous school year.

She had transferred to our school halfway through eleventh grade, taking her place among many of us who had known each other since our earliest recollections of childhood. Her position was unenviable, but I did not try to befriend her. At the time, I was not outgoing enough, even for that—she looked sullen and irritated, and I had taken to avoiding my classmates as a rule.

My mother died midway through eleventh, only months before Caroline arrived, and between the two events some pitiable alchemy took place that drew evil toward me in the form of my peers. Already I had been a scholarship kid, the single-mothered charity case, and the sorrow I wore on my face did me no favors. Mostly, they attacked with words, but occasionally it was worse. A boy I had previously shared a chaste dance with at a school-sponsored social night slammed my fingers in a locker. The shock hurt more than the impact, but my left hand looks slightly cobbled at the knuckles to this day.

Despite our age, the school still held recess, the thirty minutes during which we were all ushered outside to a small grassy field. If you dared to sneak around the far corner of the school building, you might glimpse the sisters smoking cigarettes, one of their few sensual pleasures, wind tossing back the tails of their habits.

I sat alone near a patch of dirt, picking at pebbles in the ground and tucking the shiny ones into the pocket of my blouse. I dreaded the inevitable approach of a many-legged creature in Mary Janes and knee-high socks. The girls spoke to me as they always did, called me motherless and hideous and whatever other insults they could wrack from their brains that day.

Then, Caroline was there. I hadn’t seen her approach. “Say it again,” she demanded. The girls hesitated. They observed her untucked blouse and dirty fingernails, marking her as troublesome—her expression a dark, sharp challenge.

When she first came to me, Caroline was a creature slayer, a white knight. She was Jesus, sticking up for the whores.

The pack leader replied, “We don’t have to listen to you,” but Caroline took a step forward and the group stepped back. They left, and it was just us. Caroline sat down beside me.

I began to ask her why she had done it, then switched to thanking her mid-sentence.

“It’s whatever,” she said. “They are boring.”

For the remaining weeks of the school year, we were together. We spoke of our families. She had a younger brother who had been tossed from every school in their hometown. A prankster. Her mother had moved them far away and enrolled them both in Catholic school with the hope that nuns might stamp out poor behavior. Caroline’s mother remained suspicious all the same. Her home was one of surveillance.

In return, Caroline wheeled things out of me that I hadn’t shared with anyone—my mother’s death and the zealous aunt with whom I lived. I never told her how my mother died, but she seemed satisfied by the mere fact of it. She didn’t ask about the absence of a father in my lineage, for which I was grateful, because I knew nothing of him.

My home couldn’t have been less like Caroline’s. My aunt preferred to ignore me and allow the church to serve as insurance against misdeeds.

“You’ve been going to Mass since you were little,” she said during our lunchtime retreat to the girls’ bathroom, where we sat cross-legged on the floor. Sister Elizabeth was on lunch duty that day, and she usually forgot to look for us.

“My mother loved church,” I said. “We went every Sunday, but my aunt makes me go on Friday evenings too, even though I attend with school earlier in the day.”

Caroline wrinkled her nose. “Twice in a day? I can’t stand just one a week.”

I didn’t tell her that the hymns in cavernous chorus reminded me of my mother.

Caroline lifted a spoonful of vivid green peas and considered it. “So,” she said. “Do you believe in God?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, the whole thing—a big, bearded man in the sky and his son who came back from the dead. The miracles and saints. All this stuff about heaven and hell.”

“Um,” I said, trying for the first time in my life to consider an alternative. “I think so. Yes, I guess.” The line of her lips told me I had answered wrong, so I continued, “I haven’t really thought about it before.”

Her expression leveled. “It’s a bunch of garbage. It’s not real, none of it.”

As if summoned by blasphemy, Sister Elizabeth rounded the corner into the bathroom. Her voluminous cape cast shadows over everything as she scolded us back into seats at the lunch table. “You eat with everyone else, no hiding away.” She stalked off to confiscate an oversized scrunchie from a girl at a nearby table.

“I hate this place,” Caroline muttered.

I replied, “Me too,” and thought that would be the end of our brief voyage into sacrilege, until I got her letter that summer.

* * *

My mother believed that the world was getting sicker and eviler because Vatican II, the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, had decided to remove the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel from Mass. Whole congregations used to intone, Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray.

And my mother, who shared this with no one besides me and Father Charlie—the wrinkly priest who smelled like stale incense and whiskey—believed that because Catholics stopped reciting the prayer, the world was ending. Sin was codified and worshiped in popular media; priests were revealed as pedophiles; no one stopped to help a neighbor anymore.

I remember her fear. She used to cry and shake in her room. I could hear her through the walls.

And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.

My mother was dead by the time Father Charlie retired. I often wonder if her death had been what drove the man to leave. The new priest, Father Patrick, was young and full of smiles compared to Father Charlie’s calm solemnity. When the new Father told a joke during a homily, my aunt and her birdlike friends clucked about it for weeks. I never knew what to make of him, the new priest, because I couldn’t see what my mother had made of him first.

* * *

A child’s First Reconciliation is not the celebratory affair of the First Communion, but rather a time to instill in them the importance of regret’s quiet reflection. She enters the small, standalone confessional, where a priest prescribes penance, acts of prayer to complete to ensure God’s forgiveness of your transgressions. The confessionals loomed in my periphery during Mass, a silent reminder that I would be called into their stuffy darkness to simmer in my wrongdoings.

After the unholy water incident, Caroline had seemed disappointed, like she had expected a priest to pop out of the shadows armed with a cane and a Bible and was let down by any tamer result.

I carried the weight of our secret around in a frenzy. When Sister Therese called on me, I jumped and knocked everything off my desk. Pencils clinked across the floor while my classmates giggled—though none tortured me anymore, since I had Caroline. In the corridors, I ran to her side whenever I could, sensing safety in our nearness. My eyes twitched in contrast to her careless laughter. She danced around my despair as a chirping bird around a treetop.

The baptismal font boiled over in my dreams, where we were stalked by a demonic shadow that sprung forth from the rectory. Its mass obscured the light from the oculus, the shimmer of the sacristy, and consumed us.

Caroline and I were standing next to a tall statue of Mary, at eye level with the dead snake beneath her foot, when I brought it up for the third time that week. Caroline’s face darkened. “That was just a dumb prank,” she said. “I told you, none of this stuff is real, so it doesn’t matter. It was just for fun.”

“I think someone saw us.”

“You said that already. I didn’t see anyone. No one knows, okay? It’s over and you’re fine.” She turned away from me, and I was alone under the eyes of the Virgin Mother.

Later that day, Sister Therese announced that we would attend confession the following afternoon, which we did every year as a school to honor the younger students’ First Reconciliation. I pictured myself entering the confessional with Father Patrick and his youthful grin.

A frantic Caroline found me after class. “Els, I know you’ve been worried—but you’re not going to tell, right?” I didn’t respond, and she grabbed my arm. “You can’t.”

Sister Therese appeared in the doorway to rebuke us for dawdling, and I rushed away before Caroline could say another word.

* * *

I spent hours imagining the ways I could be brave inside the confessional. I would offer the Father fake sins—coveting my aunt’s jewelry, gossiping about a classmate. I would sit behind the partition and stare at the wall and not mention Caroline, or holy water, or how the saints watched me with stained-glass eyes.

The sisters arranged us in a line along the walls of the tunnel to wait for our turn to be forgiven. Caroline stood across the way but wouldn’t look at me. She glanced up when my name was called, and I tried to smile at her before I walked up the stairs, but she looked quickly back at her feet.

Inside the church, I made for the nearest confessional, but Sister Catherine spun me instead toward the transept pews. There Father Patrick sat, waving to me from the middle row—evidently, we were not to meet inside the confessional, where I had internally practiced my lies. Instead, the sacristy glowed behind him. As I drew close, my confidence was consumed by the vast chasm of the nave—exposed to the heavy air and colored fractures of light. We were—I was—exposed.

Father Patrick greeted me with a grin full of teeth, and I interrupted his hello. “Why aren’t we in the confessional?”

He looked taken aback for only a moment. “We brought in some extra minds to help,” he said, recovering his smile. “So many students—it’s wonderful. So, I volunteered to work out in the open today.”

When I remained frozen at the mouth of the pew, he spoke again, patting the space next to him.

“Why don’t you sit down?”

I sat at his side, and he folded his hands in his lap. The first adult besides my mother that I was alone with was a priest. I knew the awkward discomfort of confession—but this was different, worse, with its distanced view of the baptismal font. I wondered whether any babies had been baptized in it since our visit. Something radiated from Father Patrick, in his plain dark suit and priest’s collar and amused expression. Something that, in my memory, feels toxic.

“Do you know how to begin?”

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been ten days since my last confession.”

Father Patrick chuckled. “Just ten? That’s right, you’re Betsy’s niece.” His expression got a little tighter as he said it, a reaction with which I was familiar. He was thinking of my mother.

I nodded. “She makes me go all the time.”

“A squeaky-clean soul then, Elsie?”

I tried to smile back at him.

“What sins do you want forgiven, child?”

“None,” I said, too quickly. My plans took place inside a dark confessional, and none of my prepared lies came to me.

Father Patrick cocked his head. “Are you sure? If you have something to say, remember I can’t tell anyone else—though I suppose you already know that.” His eyes glimmered, almost reflective, almost yellow.

I nodded but stayed silent. The secret of the unholy water pressed against my lips from inside my mouth.

He stared at my face for a long time, then at my fists clenched against my plaid skirt. Eventually, he sighed and shook his head. “If you’re certain, Elsie. We’ll chalk it up to omission, and you can say ten Hail Marys for me.” The smile returned. “Please recite the Act of Contrition, then you may go.”

I said the prayer. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. As I spoke the familiar lines, a golden radiance filled my vision, all but overtaking the form of the black-clad priest before me—as a shadow silhouetted in a doorway.

I stood to leave when I was done, but Father Patrick grabbed my wrist—my skin vibrated where he touched me, and I had to resist an instinct to pull away.

“Elsie,” he said, calm gaze meeting mine again. His pupils were tiny and sharp. I braced myself, but he said only: “Caroline is next. Would you please send her to me?”

I measured my pace by the clunk of my heels, feeling Father Patrick watching me as I left the church. Caroline stood in the tunnel with the rest of my classmates and the sisters. “You can go to Father Patrick now,” I said, trying to invest meaning in every syllable, to tell her I hadn’t cracked, but too, that I knew who the rectory shadow had been.

I remember a great shock of helplessness as she passed me—or maybe it’s just me, lurking in my own memory, wishing to help her. She walked up into the church where the Father waited.

* * *

When my mother died and I moved in with her sister, church started looking different. My aunt experienced no connection between God and nature. She despised mud and walks in the woods and king Toads. She took me in out of religious obligation, I think, or perhaps an inherited fear that I would not be raised Catholic in a foster family. She was thoroughly unprepared to raise a child—and to grieve. I believe I reminded her of that—how despite all those hours at the parish, she lacked a sincere enough connection to faith, to God, to confront the concept of death. She gave me food, stability, paid for my schooling—but after the funeral, we never spoke of my mother again.

If anything, it was that—not Caroline, nor Father Patrick, nor everything that happened later—that pushed me away from the church.

This is how I always imagined it would be when I sat down to remember: I can only put off the end of the story for so long.

All of these memories are inseparable from one another.

My mother screaming through the walls at night. It hurt too much to listen prostrate in my bed, so I sat at the kitchen table with my hands folded in prayer. Please leave her be. Send me my mother back. She said her ability to pray so deeply was a gift. She knew God. I wondered if she also knew the devil, but I never asked.

Years later, Caroline and I studying on a stormy night in her mother’s basement—we never went to my aunt’s because it smelled like tuna and church—and she asked me what I knew about pregnancy, trying to be casual. I told her what I knew, not much, and noticed how gaunt and troubled she came to look in the following weeks.

Father Patrick lecturing to us about the responsibility of the faithful in the wider world during weekly meetings with classes of us seniors about to graduate. We were to carry God in our hearts as we went to college and found jobs. We were to ask ourselves what good we could create in the name of the church. His eyes followed Caroline across the classroom when she left to vomit. While she was gone, he hovered near the doorway like a shadow.

My mother killed herself the year before I met Caroline. She asked my aunt to watch me for an evening so she could attend confession, then went into the attic of our small home, lit seven candles, and slit her forearms along the vein from wrist to elbow. My aunt dropped me off at home after my mother didn’t come pick me up. I made a peanut butter sandwich; I turned on the television and watched a PBS nature documentary. I noticed the attic door was open.

She clutched a crucifix to her chest as she died and left a Bible verse chicken-scratched on a notebook. Revelations 2:10. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. I don’t know whether she really attended confession first, as she told my aunt, or if that was it.

* * *

After Caroline disappeared for her confession, I went to Sister Catherine. “Father assigned me penance. May I start my prayers now, in the church?”

The sister looked me over and seemed to decide that my good record told the truth. “Return to the line when you’ve finished repenting,” she said, stalking off toward some commotion in the lines of high schoolers.

I raced back up the stairs, but no one sat in the pews where I had spoken to Father Patrick. I turned and saw them—Caroline walking into the confessional while the Father held the door. He saw me standing there and considered me. A wide grin split his face. He closed the door, sealing them away.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. I knelt in the nearest pew and watched the confessional door. Blessed art thou among women. Five minutes passed. The priest’s smile hung behind my eyelids like the halo of a camera flash. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. The scent of incense grew caustic, its venom reaching into my lungs as I called to the mother—my mother—her gentleness in turn invoking divine protection. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.

Pray for us sinners.

Now and at the hour of my death. Amen.

The door opened. Father Patrick’s hand rested on Caroline’s shoulder, and they spoke quietly to each other. At a gesture from him, Caroline looked my way. They were both grinning. She walked over and he stood with his hands in his pockets, watching.

“Let’s go,” Caroline said, lacing her arm through mine, still smiling.

“Caroline, I—”

“Hush, Elsie,” she giggled. “It’s okay.” She took my hand and led me toward the tunnel.

“But the water . . .”

“I told you, Els, none of that is real.”

As she pulled us away, I looked back at the Father. He remained in the doorway of the confessional, smiling, one arm raised toward us as though in a blessing.

* * *

Patrick was both the finger that blames and the punishment. He was the sin again, too, in a never-ending cycle. Our cycle. My cycle. My mother’s cycle.

This is what I’ve told myself all these years, and it’s true—he, the adult, the mentor, and her the devious child seeking to test the cycles of sin and punishment. But something else is true, too, and it’s only now that I’ve been able to name it. I needed the cycle to be complete, for the demon we woke to be vanquished. So, I turned them in.

I told Sister Therese of my suspicions about a month before graduation, after I observed quietly—in that bullied, orphaned way of mine—the way they stood too close, and the difference in his smile when he regarded her. Caroline knew that I knew and had taken to reminding me of all the good she had done in my life—how miserable I had been without her. She was right and would be right again.

Caroline was expelled three days before our high school graduation. She said horrible things to me when we last spoke, nearly twenty years ago. That I was the evil, the poison that drove my mother to rush toward death. I mourned her, but somewhere inside me the completion of the cycle sang in triumph. Patrick was excommunicated—or so I thought, until today. A quick internet search found him serving another parish not so far from the one I was raised in—so it must have been him, leaving the store.

I dust off a prayer for strength, having chosen to do good or failed to do wrong. I dial the number I’ve found for her, my friend, Caroline. The line rings thrice, then a woman’s calm voice apologizes for lack of service.



Dana Jean Rider writes short stories. She is a student in the MFA program at the University of Nevada, Reno.