This Shoal of Space:
Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship
(World's First E-BookPublished On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)
a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker
by John Argo
Part I-Chapter 2
Part II-Chapter 66
On Saturday, ZoŽ and Max went for a long drive up the coast.
They picnicked on the beach and a light rain forced them to run for the car. ZoŽ felt relieved to be away from San Tomas. On Sunday, their ritual: Breakfast at a diner, then Mass at St. Cosmas, visit to Mother for lunch, and finally the afternoon free. ZoŽ, stopping at home to pick up a forgotten $10 bill and Max's comb, planned to go to a rainy-day matinee with Max (Captain Cosmos and The Galactic Secret; oh well, she couldn't take Max to see Love Secrets of Suburbia, so guess what had to give). She listened to her phone answering device.
At first she did not recognize the thin voice that hovered somewhere between frail and brave: "ZoŽ, I must speak with you urgently. Please call me as soon as you can. Okay? Oh, and this is Father Lawrence O'Malley of St. Cosmas Parish. The number is..."
She called, and a very elderly but spry voice answered. "Father! This is ZoŽ. I'm returning your call."
"Oh yes, my dear. How have you been?"
"Well, to be honest, up and down."
"So I gather. And Max?"
"He's okay. Five years in remission. You remembered us!"
Father Lawrence had been the Catholic staff chaplain at the hospital during Max's illness. He had spent a lot of time with the boy. "How is the sacramental life?" Father Lawrence asked.
She flushed. "Well, we don't always make it to church. When we do, it's to St. Cosmas."
He said: "I had a rather odd request from Bishop Mulcahy. Don't know entirely what to make of it. He wants me to hear your confession. He specifically said to offer you the Eucharist."
She felt stunned. "What brought that on? And why?"
"Could you do an old man a great favor? Stop by my house soon and we could talk about it. Like this afternoon?"
"This evening," she promised.
It was still daylight when Father Lawrence greeted her at the door of the small rectory and led her to the equally small living room that was cluttered and dusty, its furniture old, the doilies suggesting some of the elderly parish women came to clean once in a while. On the mantel piece stood one of those tall glass bubble clocks in which brass balls spun and rocked back and forth, a delight for the imagination of an earlier century.
Father Lawrence, wearing a shiny old cassock that tended toward gray rather than black, was thin and ascetic-looking. His bony nose and rocking-chair jaw looked fragile. Here and there, the rice paper skin was speckled with something rose or chocolate or ink blue. He folded his hands over his knees, exposing a wide brass wristband and a timepiece whose lens was battered to a snowy consistency with nicks and scratches that seemed to suggest time for him was no longer of the essence. His intelligent brown eyes seemed ready to leap from their bony caves. His lips, compressed in a smile, acquired a troubled shape as she told her story.
He raised a hand. "Let me begin by saying that everything we will talk about will be covered by the seal of the confessional. That means it's between me, you, and God. I can't tell the bishop, the pope, the police, or anyone else a word you tell me. Even if you were the worst murderer in the world, every priest is so bound under penalty of eternal damnation in hell. You can feel safe sharing your heart with me."
"I'll try," ZoŽ said.
He put on his mauve stole, prayed a moment, and waited.
"I don't know what to say," she told him.
Haltingly, she recited every indictment she could think of. I have been angry because... I had lustful thoughts about... I haven't been to church because... She ran out of ideas.
"Is there more?" he gently asked. He had his eyes closed and hands clasped, and had not looked at her.
"I can't think of a thing. Wait." She covered her face with her hands. "Something deep inside of me feels sick. There is something inside of me, a terrible something. Or someone. And there is a memory that is there, that wants to come out, but it's very ugly, and I wish it would come out, but I won't let it. I think I murdered someone, or watched someone get murdered, I don't know which. I'm seeing a shrink and..." (she began to cry) "I don't know how much longer I can stand this!" She, rebel, wild one, slid down on her knees and buried her face in his lap. She bawled like a child, soaking both of them in tears.
He stroked her hair. "God loves you very much, ZoŽ. Reach down, pull this thing out, hold it under the light, no matter how shameful or dirty it is. God will forgive you without any conditions. You must trust me. That is the truth."
She labored hard. Her breath came in dry heaves. But the awful clot of memory would not loosen from the arteries of her soul. She wanted so badly...
He put his hands on hers. There was surprising strength, almost a desperation, in his grip. His eyes stared into hers and she could smell his breath (chalky, sour).
"Father, I want to know about the time when Frank died. I don't remember anything. If anyone knows, you do." The clock ticked slowly and loudly, with brass balls turning inside.
"Try to remember, my child." The brass balls spun and swung hypnotically. The air was like tap water. The gray light was severe. ZoŽ's heart pounded.
"You need to keep up your sacraments, my child. They stand between you and the devil. Between good and evil. They stand between life and death."
She licked her lips. The words croaked out. "Yes, Father."
He closed his eyes. Prayers flurried from his lips and she could tell this was no ordinary confession. The words were slurred and rapid. They lacked novelty but were instead an engine of formulary and incantation millennia old. They were spoken, and already ancient, when legions still rode out from ancient Rome; spoken when Byzantines ruled from their high walls, when medieval crusaders butchered each other in Europe; spoken against alchemists and witches and sorcerers, whispered in every city and on every continent of the world. The whispering went on and on calling upon the three persons of God and all the saints, male and female, among them the old, the adult, and children, some of them even deceased infants filled with holiness; as well as the many classes of angels and archangels.
She almost grew drowsy. His grip on her hands never relented, and her skin began to sweat. The Exorcism continued relentlessly. Names fell around her in a chalky sour-smelling snow fall. Strange ancient names of men and women, boys and girls, who had been torn limb from limb by lions. She could almost imagine the sound of chains, the smell of hot gory sand, the roar of a hundred thousand cruel throats under a sky colored mother of pearl. They had lived lives like she or Max but in other places and other times. They had been pierced by miraculous wounds or healed without medicine or had walked out of flaming ovens. They had died and were immured and sometimes after fifty years could be unburied and their flesh was undecayed and the air around them filled with a smell sweet as rose petals. Others had been turned on the rack, dragged through muddy streets, tortured in rainy towers, cut or torn to pieces. All of the dark madnesses humans could perpetrate upon one another. He called on them now asking the power of their holiness to push back the snarling teeth of the demon. "...I, Lawrence, priest, adjure you, Satan and all evil spirits if you are present in this child of Christ, depart immediately to your place of damnation, the lair of your endless torment, the flames of your burning pain that can never end, the fire of your self-loathing, the unquenchable thirst of your eternal tortureÖ
"And I, Lawrence, in the name of Jesus Christ," he said raising his hand in the sign of the cross, "absolve you from all of your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." At last the heavy grip lifted from her hands. "ZoŽ, I have just performed an ad hoc exorcism, and you have received God's forgiveness. Do you accept the divine reconciliation?"
She said without thinking: "Yes." She felt safe and pure, like a child with simple beliefs. She could almost imagine Mommy and Daddy coming in now to take her home. But the Cold Thing was still there. And the terrible memory, a blur with no name, a blot of pain at the core of her soul. Father Lawrence held up a white wafer the size of a quarter. "This is the body of Christ, ZoŽ."
She recoiled. What is this? snarled the eel in the pool at the back of her brain. A brief vision flashed: A jackal face with five horns. The sunlet from the pagoda floated up.
Father Lawrence looked troubled. "ZoŽ, God has cleared the slate for you. He asks you to accept Him. We do this in remembrance of Him, as he instructed."
She said: "Father, I don't think the slate is clean. I can't." She shied back from the shining white wafer.
"Trust me," Father Lawrence said. Sweat erupted in big droplets on his forehead.
She stuck out her tongue.
He looked at her closely. His hand trembled as he laid the wafer on her tongue, and it made a little sizzle, melting. She tried to pray, with all of her heart, but God's door seemed closed, and she swallowed the tiny bit of mush convulsively.
Father Lawrence rubbed his thumb gently on her forehead. "ZoŽ, I want you to pray every day. I want to see you in church every Sunday. And I want you back here in a week. We need to explore this a little further. The bishop asked me to report back to him, and I'm uncertain how to tell him about our meeting this evening. Are you sure you're all right?"
She stood up and straightened her skirt. "I think I'm okay." But she wasn't sure, deep inside. He let her out, and it was clear he was hiding much uncertainty. "Come back next week," he urged.
"I will," she said, noticing that the flowers in his garden were huge, like faces hungering for something, as she left to go to Mother's house.
"The BOY is not FEELING well," Mother said in her kitchen.
ZoŽ put her gloomy meeting with Father Lawrence behind her as she commanded: "Max, stick out your tongue."
ZoŽ glared over her shoulder. "See, Mom? It's pink. Not coated at all. He's healthy."
"I feel kind of tired," Max said.
"Did you sleep last night?"
He considered. "Yes and no. I slept, but there were these dreams."
"Yes. It was like a horror movie, and I knew it, so it wasn't particularly scary. It was more like a dull headache." He rubbed his chest. "Or heartburn or something."
She shook her head. "Mother, I would like you to stop making us feel like hypochondriacs."
"Hypochondria is self-inflicted!" Mother glared back. Her head was covered by blue-silver hair in curlers like the head-chargers in some of Max's plastic creepy monster kits.
"Oh what's the use?" ZoŽ said throwing her hands up and striding into the kitchen shoving chairs out of her way.
Mother gathered her things. "You should be grateful to have me."
ZoŽ was ready to walk out without saying goodbye.
"We are, honest," Max said for both of them.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.