The Last Confession (2014)
Catalina Cosme hadn’t been to church since she was a child eleven years ago. After some hesitation, she made her way up the steps of the Basilica of St. Denis and entered the massive foyer.
She came dressed in her brother Philippe’s old clothes. She didn’t want to attract attention to herself. Almost everyone in society considered her lifestyle to be a sinful one of pleasure. As it was, she did attract quite a lot of attention. She kept her gaze lowered in the church, but she felt the eyes of those around her gazing at her. She knew why, Philippe had always said she looked like a beautiful boy in his clothes. Her lush auburn hair was far too long to try hiding, even as she braided it and curled it into a bun.
She joined a line of parishioners waiting to be confessed, her breath growing faint the closer it came to her turn. She was far from reforming into a papist. She didn’t consider her life to be a sinful one, and she’d learned to ignore the outward condemnations of those who didn’t know her, who only knew her reputation, and of the clergy. It was their own personal fear of Hell that made them vile towards the people they considered lowlier than themselves – people who, like Catalina, weren’t afraid to partake in idle entertainment.
Yet she was standing here in church as if something was wrong.
It was too late to run away; the person in front of her slipped out of the confessional.
Though indecisive, her feet moved her forward and into the compartment. She made the Sign of the Cross – out of memory rather than habit – and listened as the voice on the other side of the screen whispered a blessing.
“Welcome,” said the priest in the prolonged silence. It was a deep voice that made the delicate hairs on Catalina’s nape stand on end. Strange that a place like a confessional could feel so personal. The dark atmosphere enhanced every sense apart from her eyes.
“Hello,” Catalina echoed. It had been years, she didn’t know how to begin, her fingers fidgeted together in the silence.
“Are you seeking absolution for anything?” the priest asked.
“No. Not really.” Catalina answered, uncertain.
“Not really?” He sounded amused.
“I don’t feel ashamed of the life I live,” Catalina said pensively. “I haven’t wronged anyone. What I would need absolution for?” Besides, the idea of confessing sins was a way for the clergy to learn her secrets and use them to control her – she thought absently.
“I don’t know your voice. What is your name?”
Catalina cleared her throat in slight discomfort. Often it had been expressed to her by men that she had a sultry voice, and at times it made her sound suggestive – even when she never meant to be.
“Evilith,” Catalina lied. She couldn’t reveal her true name, not with the reputation she had in the city.
“Evilith…” the priest repeated thoughtfully. “What brought you here?”
“Often I came to this very church in my youth,” Catalina said, evading his question.
“Why did you stop?”
She shrugged. “Would anyone want to enter a place where they are unwelcomed? Where they are told that they are without redemption?”
“No one is without redemption,” said the priest. “As human beings we are burdened with the idea of sin. We forget that to be imperfect is to be human. People can change, Evilith. Before I entered the monastery, I spent my days avoiding school and church to gamble and whore.”
Catalina laughed under her breath, her eyebrows lifted in surprise. It was the most unexpected thing she’d ever heard from a priest – while she knew some priests to be even bigger whores than herself, none of them ever admitted to it. And there was something hallowed in the idea of a priest that made them seem infallible.
“Ah…” A smile curled Catalina’s lips. “And now you’re a hopeless reformer, condemning others who live the same depraved, hedonistic lifestyle that you once partook in,” she remarked sardonically.
She heard the laughter in his voice.
“My advice I freely give. It’s up to you if you want to heed it.”
“Some people have no choice but to return to a life you would consider to be sinful. It’s a matter of survival.”
“Find a new career.”
Catalina laughed softly again. “You speak as if it’s so easy – then again, you are a man and a prominent figure in the community.”
“You’ve bantered with me the entirety of the time you’ve spent in here. If you have nothing to confess, why are you here, Evilith?” he asked again.
Catalina tried to come off as indifferent. It was hard for her to admit, but ever since she returned to Paris she felt alone. There was no one she could really talk to, and living under her benefactor’s whim felt like a prison. Sometimes it felt as if her heart was going to burst out of her chest if she didn’t open up to someone. But there were personal things she wouldn’t disclose to even the one closest to her. She felt she could confide in a stranger; this priest didn’t know who she was, she would lay out all of her burdens and then disappear like a ghost.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” she admitted forlornly. “The Church offers sanctuary – even to someone as depraved as myself.”
“Do you have a place to stay?” asked the priest.
“I do.” Catalina answered – though she didn’t call her current residence a home.
“I won’t ask you about your profession,” the priest said after a moment of silence between them. “You can just talk if you like.”
Catalina smiled a little. “I understand why people feel inclined to talk to you,” she said.
“Yes… You once had a terrible reputation, too, and you still found God. It gives hope to those of us with smudges on their souls,” she said.
She lowered her eyes and stared at her hands folded on her lap. “I’m nineteen now – it’s been over a decade since I’ve been to church,” she began. “I used to live in a backend alley of Paris with my mother when I was a child. I knew only little about her work; she took on private clients – most of them were wealthy women with porcelain skin and silk hair. They’d risk coming into our dilapidated flat for the sake of ridding themselves of an unwanted pregnancy.”
She hesitated before continuing; the priest remained silent, and she fretted that she’d already said too much. Abortion was a capital crime in society.
“One day the king’s guards came for my mother,” she continued. “I followed the cart that carried her down the cobblestone street to the Place of Grève where the public had gathered to watch the execution.”
Catalina reflected on that moment as if it had been yesterday when her mother was taken. She couldn’t see her face; her long, disheveled red hair hid it as she was hung by the gallows, her body writhing grotesquely in its effort to survive the strangle.
Catalina shut her eyes tight to block out the memory.
“I returned home that night,” she continued, slowly opening her eyes again, “my feet blistered, my hair and rags dripping with cold rainwater, and curled up in a corner of my bedroom where I cried myself to sleep. I awoke hours later to a soft hand touching my shoulder, and a veiled figure dressed completely in black standing beside me….”
"Catalina," a soothing voice behind the veil had said, "I am Madam Poisson. I’m going to take care of you now."
The memory of that day continued to that night when Catalina had been taken by the mysterious woman to the village of Gerberoy in Picardy. Upon reaching her chateau, she’d pulled off her veil, and Catalina was struck with both awe and horror. Never had she seen a more beautiful woman in all her life, yet her beauty had been marked. Catalina could not fathom who would have committed such an atrocity. She averted eyes when she realized she had been staring at her for too long.
"Do I frighten you, my child?" Madame Poisson had asked, but Catalina shook her head.
"No,” she’d answered, without raising her eyes. “You're the most beautiful lady I've ever seen."
Madame Poisson’s laughter was the most captivating thing Catalina had ever heard. "You're the first to call me a lady, my dove."
She’d come close and took Catalina's small chin between her slender fingers and examined her closely.
“Look at me, child.”
Fretfully, Catalina had raised her green eyes and met the woman’s dark ones.
“Such a beauty…" Madame Poisson had said quietly, almost to herself.
“She took me away to live with her,” Catalina uttered in her memory. “She taught me how to read and write, dances and music. She offered me a life of privilege that I never had before.”
Catalina purposely left out the name of her mistress and the part of being mentored in the enchanting world of the courtesans. Her transition hadn’t been the easiest; she’d brought up to believe that physical pleasure was sinful, and now it was meant to be celebrated.
“What brought you back to Paris?” the priest finally asked.
Catalina met his gaze through the screen and tried to see his face in the dim.
“I’ve already said too much,” she muttered. “Do you realize you have an influence on drawing people into a confession?”
“It’s one of my most grievous faults,” he admitted.
“I thought it was your profession.”
“I said I would only listen for now, Evilith.” He nonetheless blessed her, whispering words in Latin. Catalina hesitated to leave. It had been so long since she’d spoken to anyone so intimately, it almost gave her comfort to know that there was someone willing to listen to her.
She slipped out of the confessional and passed through the doors of the main entrance of St. Denis towards the street, where Maurice, her coachman, was waiting for her. The bells were tolling, and a congregation was gathering for the service.
Catalina’s hair fell loose as she stepped into the carriage. Maurice took up the reins and they were off through the crowded avenue. The boulevard was amass with rich and poor; men in frock coats and high-heeled shoes; women in gowns with escorts beside them; rioters flinging scraps of rotten food at the garrison of musketeers; bodies being dragged in the streets; the air filled with stench and noise.
Catalina had long ago ceased to stare out of the window. She’d known both sides of Paris, and no matter how rich or poor the individual, the living was just as filthy in its own regard.
She resided with Lord Guy in his flat in La Courneuve. He was a private man, and his apartment was always dark like the clothes he wore. The one quality about him was that he did not like to be bothered. He’d been gone all week, God only knew where. Catalina knew quite a lot of men who enjoyed telling her about their work, though she never dared to ask Lord Guy about his. Aside from spending countless hours in his study, he often left the chateau without a word. Sometimes it took her an entire day to finally realize he was gone.
Maurice parked the coach on the walkway, and Lord Guy’s manservant came out to meet her.
“Mademoiselle,” he said, opening the door for her. “Monsieur Guy has returned.”
The news was sudden and unwelcome.
“Where is he?” Catalina asked.
“In his study. He wishes to see you.”
Catalina hastened out of the carriage into the flat and went immediately upstairs to her room. The maids entered shortly and helped her dress into something suitable. She stared at herself in the mirror, smoothed back a loose strand of hair away from her face, and then retreated downstairs to the study. Her heart raced as she quietly knocked on the door.
“Come in,” came the low, scratchy voice of Lord Guy on the other side.
She entered to find him seated by his desk with a single candle lit, another of his menservants stood stiff as a statue beside him. Guy lifted his single right eye at her briefly, and Catalina tried not to shudder, before lowering it back to his papers. He scribbled several signatures and then handed them over to the manservant.
Guy wasn’t a charm to look at – much less be around; half his face was mutilated, and he had a tendency to behave badly when a mistress displeased him. Madame Poisson’s scar was a constant reminder against men with horrible tempers. Still, the price he’d offered for her had been unmatchable.
Upon her return to Paris, Catalina had stayed in a brothel-house run by Madame Poppa, an old friend of Madame Poisson’s and a former courtesan herself. It was a house of sin and every night was a party of every kind of depravity imaginable; young men as well as old men surrounding her, pouring her drinks, kissing her hand as though she were the Head of St. Peter.
It was Madame Poppa’s job to find wealthy clients for each of her girls. The contract with Guy was for an entire year; it had already been several months now.
“It’s good to have you back, Monsieur,” Catalina managed at last in the silence, lacking any conviction in her voice.
“No need for formality, Kitty,” Guy said, dismissing the manservant. He sank back in his chair, his gaze settled on her. “Come here.”
Catalina took a few careful steps toward him, and he reached for her hand.
“How have you been occupying yourself in my absence?” he asked.
Catalina shrugged. “I’ve been reading,” she replied.
A faint and rather menacing looking smile curved Guy’s cut lip.
“Always reading,” he murmured.
Catalina tried not to quaver, but her hand was shaking – more so when she tried to steady it.
“Go have some breakfast. I’ll join you later,” Guy said, releasing her.
“Yes monsieur,” Catalina breathed, and immediately withdrew.
It was no surprise when Lord Guy didn’t show for breakfast. Catalina only pecked at her food, her appetite had been diminished.
She spent the afternoon reading in the courtyards and wandering dreamily through the awning where breakfast had been served only hours before. She didn’t notice Lord Guy sitting by the empty table. He caught her in his arms and sat her on his lap.
"Catalina," he breathed in her hair and he kissed her cheek.
Catalina smiled at him, and then went on with her reading.
"What book has you so intrigued that you should turn your eyes from me?” Guy brought his hand to a stray little curl that hung down her cheek and smoothed it behind her ear.
Catalina lowered the book onto her lap and looked at him.
“Let me kiss you,” she said, and without awaiting his approval, she cupped his prickly cheeks and kissed his lips. She smelt the wine in his breath.
She parted from him, and her eyes met his right eye before it glanced away from her bereft. She stroked his dark hair longingly. She had to think of some way to make him happy. After months of being his, even with his bad habits, she had grown to care for him.
She slipped off his lap, taking her book with her, when he grasped her hand.
"You don't have to ask for my permission every time you wish to kiss me," he said, almost exasperatedly.
"Forgive me, Monsieur," said Catalina.
"No, no," he half whispered, letting her go. "Go off and play now.”
Catalina frowned a little, sometimes he made her feel as if he were talking to a child. She didn’t argue with him though. In truth she was more than happy to be dismissed.
She shut herself up in her bedroom for the afternoon, and set up some parchments and a quill on her desk by the window. It had been so long since she’d written anything. It used to be easier; once she’d been inspired by little things; the yellow roses in Madame Poisson’s gardens, the scent of her mistress’ perfume, the anatomy of a man when man was still a mystery to her. How could one create art without inspiration?
She thought on what the priest had said earlier about people changing, of becoming someone else. During her years as an apprentice to Madame Poisson, she’d learned the stories of women like Veronica Franco – the most renowned courtesan in all of Venice – and how she had been a poetess, and how her writings had been so good that many believed she was an enchantress. It was the idea that a woman had written books, a woman who, like herself, had been a courtesan – that inspired Catalina to write.
After a few hours, Catalina set aside her quill to stare out of the window. The afternoon light was fading, and dread was growing in the pit of her stomach.
It was another night surviving Lord Guy.