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Obscurity, The Tenth Chapter
In which daughters must atone for the sins of their fathers.
We last read The Ninth Chapter, in which a bottle of poison was discovered in rather familiar company.
The cathedral burned to ash in the great fire of 1788, so the next morning, the city’s most wealthy constituents gathered in the Ursuline chapel to celebrate the solemnity of Ash Wednesday.
The people sat divided, those of lighter complexions toward the front, and those of darker complexions toward the back. Yet every eye turned toward the widow as she entered the chapel, crossing herself with drops of holy water before she walked toward her pew, the child clutching her hand.
The philanthropist winced from his position of honor. Though he sat before all these constituents and was the financier of the new cathedral soon to be completed, no eye turned toward his direction, no word whispered their thanks, no head nodded in appreciation. Instead, they all turned toward the woman in black, who sat in a pew with the small child beside her.
A canter sang a harrowing hymn, her childlike voice spiraling the words of Providence into a dizzying soprano, reaching higher and higher into the heavens until at last it stopped, the key suspended for a moment in the chapel until a bell rang, the congregation stood, and the processional began. A thurible swung from side to side as the bishop entered, emitting tendrils of frankincense and myrrh into the air, as parishioners crossed themselves in its wake.
There was a silence at first—a breath—and then the bishop spoke most forcefully, his voice echoing a warning to the sinners who sat congregated before him. He spoke with such authority and in such accusatorial tones that many felt he blamed them for the occurrences of the night prior. Overindulgence frequently becomes the cause of repentance and even those souls convinced they had nothing to do with the ménagère’s murder, could find in themselves transgressions if they searched their souls honestly enough.
“The day of the Lord is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” the bishop forewarned. “Those unprepared for the darkness will face their wrath. Fire will devour them. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing will escape it. The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble! The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining!”
The people became desperate, during this examination of the soul, to find themselves blameless, to believe themselves good. And so they did what many who attempt to avoid the wrath of their own guilt do: they placed their blame on another.
Blame is a rather inventful thing. It comes with a creativity that only the most self-preserving mind can concoct. It allows the individual to believe they are spotless before that Great Judge and conspires to convince their fragile minds that there is someone else more deserving of their punishment.
From the very beginning, blame has perverted the human psyche—even Eve, in the garden of Eden, blamed her sin on the snake. So it was that as the entire town sat listening to the bishop speak, their minds invented new reasons for their sins, and they chose for their snake the woman in black.
The widow, however, did not excuse her blame. In her own examination of the soul, she found only the darkest truth of her depravity, and it at once threatened to pull her back beneath. She wept; her attire once again shrouded by the black veils of mourning. She mourned not only her friend’s soul, but her own. For there is no greater sorrow than the truth of one’s own faults, and the knowledge that those faults cannot be undone.
The child sat next to her; his own tears fresh upon his face. He loved the ménagère as the widow did and he had found in her a shared spirit.
Now they were the survivors of a tragedy they had no idea how to overcome and they clung to one another as if they anchored one another to the pew, to the cathedral, to the city, to the world. As if somehow, they might descend beneath the chapel, into the crypts that would house them, down the river that would welcome them, and into the underworld that was ever worthy of them.
And, then at last, hope.
On Ash Wednesday, olive trees which only a year prior had been living, are burned and blessed. The ritual is a humble reminder of the end that will come to each of us in our turn. That another generation will be born, another generation will die, until at last, there will be nothing left of us, no memory of our lives, no remnants of our existence, save the ashes of our bones which will have been crushed into the earth’s most aged crust.
It is with this perspective, that the human being can once again find hope. For if all our good deeds will come to nothing, so too will all our misdeeds. We are only a drop in the ocean—a mere speck in that great plane of existence. One’s actions can hardly affect so great a plan as Providence’s, and so it must be remembered, in the smallness of our time, that nothing truly matters. Even the very worst of our faults will fall through the cracks of time, never to be heard of again.
This is the hope of lent.
“‘Yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments!’ Return to the Lord, your Providence, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil!” the bishop concluded.
Alas, morality is a subjective thing. There is a line between good and bad, and when that line is crossed, it comes with a deep remorse—a feeling that one has lost their sense of integrity. But, as the reader might well be aware, that line has changed throughout the centuries. What one person, in one time, once considered sin, could to another person, in another time, be considered salvation. And that boundary has constantly been redefined.
Over the course of many centuries, the Catholic Church attempted to establish that line, and they used it to establish an enforced morality among their constituents. For a time, it worked. Moral laws were considered legal laws and the people were persecuted, imprisoned, and killed for them. But the French Revolution sought to change that. The political upheaval that would uproot the monarchy, would uproot morality as well and it was in just those crosshairs of time that our widow found herself in.
For rooted deep within her darkest secrets, was an even darker truth. That the sins she committed were not of her own doing but were forced upon her by the oppression that faced her. For before she committed murder, she was abused, and before she was abused, her body was sold to the highest bidder, and before her body was sold, she was a child who had no choice in the future that would be chosen for her. She was raised in cages and chastised when she raged against them.
But rage up against them she did. She clawed through the chains that bound her and forged a new life for herself with the steel. She was a murderer, yes. She was a sinner, perhaps. But if she were the darkest dregs of humanity, so be it. For her immoralities were formed only from a line society had forced her to keep. A line that was designed to keep women from misbehaving.
But misbehave she would. For she established a new line for herself. One that would allow her to rise up against her oppressors and be the fearsome creature they thought her to be. She might live in the shadows, she thought, but that would be their power. She might be a being of darkness, but that would be her strength. For it is only from the hottest fires, that the sharpest weapons can be forged.
When her pew stood, the widow considered the two men who handled their transgressions so differently. The bishop before her who spent the entirety of his life yoked to his past sins, and the captain who lived free of his. In a moment, she felt as though she finally understood the way of the world. That all beings contained both darkness and light, but that it was up to the individual to live tortured by them, or free of them.
When she reached the bishop, she felt a weight drop from her shoulders.
“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris,” he said as he crossed her. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
“Amen,” the widow whispered.
We next read The Eleventh Chapter, in which a scream is heard within the widow’s estate.