THE CHURCH HAD BECOME a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather and stains had been lying on the concrete floor the past five years, though not lying where they had been shot with Kalashnikovs or hacked to death with machetes. The benches had been removed and the bodies reassembled: men, women and small children laid in rows of skulls and spines, femurs, fragments of cloth stuck to mummified remains, many of the adults missing feet, all missing bones that had been carried off by scavenging dogs.
Since the living would no longer enter the church, Fr. Terry Dunn heard confessions in the yard of the rectory, in the shade of old pines and silver eucalyptus trees.
"Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin. It has been two months from the last time I come to Confession. Since then I am fornicating with a woman from Gisenyi three times only and this is all I have done.
They would seem to fill their mouths with the English words, pronouncing each one carefully, with an accent Terry believed was heard only in Africa. He gave fornicators ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys, murmured what passed for an absolution while the penitent said the Act of Contrition, and dismissed them with a reminder to love God and sin no more.
"Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin. Is a long time since I come here but is not my fault, you don't have Confession always when you say. The sin I did, I stole a goat from close by Nyundo for my family to eat. My wife cook it en brochette and also in a stew with potatoes and peppers."
"Last night at supper," Terry said, "I told my housekeeper I'd enjoy goat stew a lot more if it wasn't so goddamn bony."
The goat thief said, "Excuse me, Fatha?"
"Those little sharp bones you get in your mouth," Terry said, and gave the man ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. He gave just about everyone ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys to say as their penance.
Some came seeking advice.
"Bless me, Fatha, I have not sin yet but I think of it. I see one of the men kill my family has come back. One of the Hutu Interahamwe militia, he come back from the Goma refugee camp and I like to kill him, but I don't want to go to prison and I don't want to go to Hell. Can you have God forgive me before I kill him?"
Terry said, "I don't think He'll go for it. The best you can do, report the guy to the conseiller at the sector office and promise to testify at the trial."
The man who hadn't killed anyone yet said, "Fatha, when is that happen? I read in Imvaho they have one hundred twenty-four thousand in prisons waiting for trials. In how many years will it be for this man that kill my family? Imvaho say two hundred years to try all of them."
Terry said, "Is the guy bigger than you are?"
"No, he's Hutu."
"Walk up to the guy," Terry said, "and hit him in the mouth as hard as you can, with a rock. You'll feel better. Now make a good Act of Contrition for anything you might've done and forgot about." Terry could offer temporary relief but nothing that would change their lives.
Penitents would kneel on a prie-dieu and see his profile through a framed square of cheesecloth mounted on the kneeler: Fr. Terry Dunn, a bearded young man in a white cassock, sitting in a wicker chair. Sideways to the screen he looked at the front yard full of brush and weeds and the road that came up past the church from the village of Arisimbi. He heard Confession usually once a week but said Mass, in the school, only a few times a year: Christmas Day, Easter Sunday and when someone died. The Rwandese Bishop of Nyundo, nine miles up the road, sent word for Fr. Dunn to come and give an account of himself.
He drove there in the yellow Volvo station wagon that had belonged to the priest before him and sat in the bishop's office among African sculptures and decorative baskets, antimacassars in bold star designs on the leather sofa and chairs, on the wall a print of the Last Supper and a photograph of the bishop taken with the pope. Terry had worn his cassock. The bishop, in a white sweater, asked him if he was attempting to start a new sect within the Church. Terry said no, he had a personal reason for not acting as a full-time priest, but would not say what it was. He did tell the bishop, "You can contact the order that runs the mission, the Missionary Fathers of St. Martin de Porres in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and ask to have me replaced; but if you do, good luck. Young guys today are not breaking down the door to get in the seminary." This was several years ago. Terry left the bishop shaking his head and was still here on his own.
Excerpted from Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard Copyright© 2000 by Elmore Leonard. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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