Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas, I beg to be forgiven.
I said this to my wife and pressed my hand to the silica. She looked into my eyes, hers glassy and saddened. Her hair hung unbrushed over most of her gaze, tangled over her nightgown and ended at her elbows. She stood up from her bed and walked to her side of the wall. She pressed her hand to mine. The silica softened and molded to my palm. The wall grew as thin as love and necessity. Her warmth transmitted through its thin sleeve. I could almost feel her skin,
“I will take this to confession as well,” I promised.
I watched her eyes roam over my shoulder, and her mouth smile as if she swallowed bitter water. She glanced at my bed, unmade, the mugs and bowls scattered around my study chair, the browning spider plants hanging in front of my windows. No, her smile looked more plaintive than rueful. Knowing her, I suspected she was wishing I’d tidy up so she would enjoy a better vista when she looked at me, or she wondered if I used soap when I carried the dishes into the solid walled portion of my lavatory. I dumped them in the sink and rinsed them, and sometimes yes, I used only hot water or hand soap and water. What did it matter, now that we were separated at all times?
What made this bearable were the translucent walls, the one between our showers had been an expensive luxury upgrade. On Saturdays, I often climbed out of bed, polished my side of the shared wall with glass cleaner, hoping she’d notice my bid. Usually she rose up and pushed her bed to the part of the wall against which mine rested. We did this between eight or nine am, depending on our obligations. We pressed our bodies against the glass in the shower or in our beds until the silica molded to our bodies on either side, and we felt each other’s warmth. She’d stroke against some portion of the silica, now thin as the screen protectors of our personal devices, and I could almost feel again what I’d felt as a child, before the required separation. Human touch.
The tidier my space in those intimate moments, the longer she lingered. We left our hall walls opaque when many older couples set them all to transparent to invite sun to flow through the entire house. Because my mother lived in the far corner of the house, with her own indoor garden, her own food generator, her own lavatory, we honored one another’s privacy. My mother woke earlier than us most days, unusual for a woman of her age. Before we emerged she set all her walls to transparent, turned on the two-way mic, began playing nature sounds or old hymns on her speakers. She spent most of her days this way. I was often in my cell, working on church business, the fluttering of her paper in my peripheral vision. I watched in peace at times while she lifted her cup of coffee with those pearlescent hands aged with veins and spots.
“Good morning, my little sun,” she said when I greeted her over the mic system.
One at a time, my wife and I passed through the airlocked halls, waiting for the purifier to recycle the air before we stepped in and walked to our separate little cabs. My mother called these “bars of soap.” They drove us to this or that appointment, most of which we completed by noon daily.
On Mondays, my wife helps in our children’s classroom at their boarding school. She reads stories and teaches free art lessons from a parent cubicle. The children ask if their art is abstract enough. They paint themselves reversed, each other as a series of layered shapes resembling people. She teaches that with all things, “the Answer is in the Questioning.” Before she presses her palm to the silica to touch our twins goodbye, she recites what all adults now say to the children.
“I beg to be forgiven.”
“God forgives and I forgive,” the religion teacher taught the children to reply. I wonder what kids at the other institutions say.
On days when my loneliness overcomes me, I trace her movements about the city. Her cab stops and starts at city art installations. I ask her about these at night while we eat our dinners in the shared atrium, each of us wishing we had prepared one meal together, as we did before the children went to school. She explains how her team is programming the Monet projection to look real. They believe they can make the garden be more immersive. They’re adding scents and sounds, but the scents must be synesthesia- evocations, since actual scents would interfere with purified air. They can only project texture until the engineers can transform the silica “insurance glove” to be more moldable. And self-sanitizing. Some months back they projected a Renoir and a Thomas Eakons that looked textured, but those paintings are smooth and glassy, she told me. Daubed oil and mixed media present texture problems. For now we cannot touch with the insurance glove between us and the art. It would create pressure that would degrade the original. The silica only remolds when touched by mammalian warmth on both sides.
Its flexibility remains limited.
“I beg to be forgiven,” I said to her this morning as she passed through the airlock to her cab. She replied with the same. Then I took my “bar of soap” to the church. There I followed the narrow airlocks to what is now everyone’s confessional. Some time back, we Orthodox Christians did not use confessionals. I would place a stole over the penitent’s head and rest a palm on the stole. Eyes averted, the penitent would see only the icon of the Good Shepherd or the Gospel. He would confess. I would say the prayer of absolution. He would kiss the cross on the stole. Thus I bore witness in place of a congregation of the private sins of men and women. Now I hear confessions inside of the confessional, though not in semi-dark, nor am I shaded from the penitent.
I confess differently. The monk who hears my confession projects on the wall, a translucent version of himself, listening from the monastery in Essex.
Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas, I beg to be forgiven.
I called my father confessor before I heard confessions this morning. I confessed what I had told my wife I would.
He gave an obedience, a discipline to practice, a rarity for him to ask of me. “Fast for three days. Pray. Afterwards, take no wine or food except bread, salt and water for a week. Go out into the woods and walk ten miles a day before you serve any services in the evening and after the morning services.”
“Father, I cannot. They do not allow city folk like me into the woods. We are too contaminated.”
“Then either sit in silence for the same amount of time, doing forty prostrations every hour, or turn your walls to woods, get on your treadmill and walk. I do not ask what is impossible. Find a way.”
I stung with shame. If I completed my obedience at home, my wife and mother would know of it. I had broken faith with my wife and still needed to be reconciled. She would know how seriously my Father Confessor believed it to be. Further, my mother would think of me as a little cabbage again. A child in trouble for a sin that I’d secreted from her. She would see my walls turn to forests, my stumbling away on my walking mat, or sitting in candlelit silence doing prostrations. She would draw her own conclusions.
I had shame to bear. “There is no other way, Abouna?” I asked.
“There is wisdom when we utter, ‘the Answer is in the questioning,” he replied
I had not questioned. I’d lived as though I had the Answer.
“Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas, I beg to be forgiven,” I said.
He intoned from his cell far off, “ ...I, an unworthy priest, through the power given to me by him, do forgive and absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Afterwards, I served the Liturgy. Our rubrics now trace holy mazes through and around the altar. The central and essential portion of the service is the preparation and reception of the Eucharist, the Body and the Blood. Once the celebrant, usually myself, has blessed the chalice, little bots bear it aloft. Anyone receiving watches it ascend over the wall of painted icons. Once it descends to a glass table before the celebrant, worshippers say the final prayer together and approach, one at a time from their airlocks. Like a baby bird opening its mouth, they stretch back their head and neck. Thus from the redesigned cup, does the Body and Blood flow into the body of each of us.
I served the service. I kissed my fingers and touched the silicon-covered icons and prepared the Eucharist. While I prayed, I pressed the holy buttons to bring forth the bread and wine. I blessed but did not touch the host, used the mechanical knives to make the cuts. At the appointed time, I genuflected to the four worshippers beyond and said, “Forgive me, a sinner,” then I let the Chalice dribble the Body and Blood of Christ down my throat. While it ascended and descended, I turned and walked through the center doors. I still had to dispense the Eucharist. The two old ya-yas, the young man in his utility-worker coat and the weeping mother approached in turn.
I came home in my cab with a plan. I would close myself in my cell, light candles and begin my prostrations. It would take four hours, I calculated, to walk a brisk ten miles. My wife would return, and surely be surprised to find me either exercising or prostrating all afternoon.
I wanted to complete one thing first. I went to my cell and stared toward my mother’s room. I wanted to cross the house, to enter my mother’s room and brush my fingers across her sleeping cheek. There she napped, mouth akimbo, snoring lightly. I wanted to fix her smashed, lopsided curls, pat her gnarled hand, and place a kiss on her soft cheek. I wanted to sneak out, recycle the air, and pray for the best. Then I wanted to enter my wife’s room, lay down across her bed, inhale her scent, dream for a few minutes of the visits granted us in the name of fulfilling our religious marital vows and civic duties. I wanted to make love to her. To nuzzle the sheets where her neck left the smell of her hair and her skin.
Then I wanted to go into my cell and start my obedience. I would let the scent of incense, beeswax, and my body wash away my passions.
In my cell, I lit a match and a tealight. I placed the candle under the brass incense plate. The nuggets of incense I sprinkled onto the plate softened in the heat and exhaled warm, clean church scents. I looked at my hands.
I saw a small red scab on my knuckle. Had I lit the candles at church wrong? Had I struck a match accidently against the nerve-dead areas of my skin?
“I beg to be forgiven, God,” I said as I sank to my knees. “Why these boils and burdens? Why this suffering? Why this loss of feeling?” I didn’t mean the feeling I lost due during the sickness, when my skin calcified and nerves died. I meant my soul. The mic in the wall heard me and spoke back, “The Answer is in the questioning.”