On Ash Wednesday, everyone is made equal. Everyone goes to church and line up counting the beads of their rosaries as they pray. Everyone is repentant, preparing themselves for the priest putting ashes on their foreheads and saying the shocking words, “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” After the anointment in dust, the penitent feels helpless. The body is not important. “In the end what we care for most lasts only a brief lifetime, then there is eternity.” The soul survives when the body dies. When the people get used to the idea of their bodies being so perishable, they get comfort in the thought that their souls will live forever.
Antonio and his friends hurry to catechism. They had to deal with forty days of lent and then “the shining goal, Easter Sunday and first holy communion!” Antonio thinks of little else in his life during these days. He finds school boring compared to the mysteries he’s learning about in his catechism classes. “I saw very little of Ultima, or even of my mother and father.” He thinks that one mistake could plunge his soul into an eternity of torment in hell. He is so frightened by this thought that he has nightmares about himself and other people he knows burning in hell. He is especially tormented by thoughts of Florence. He questions the idea of hell, wondering why Florence should be damned when he knows all the answers of the catechism. He is answered by the knowledge that Florence does not accept the religion.
One day he begs Florence to try to answer when the catechism is called out. Florence says it would just be a lie. He says that if he tried to answer the catechism question, “Where is God?” he would have to answer, God is everywhere including in the worms that eat Narciso and the bed of Tenorio and his evil daughters. When he is despairing, Samuel comes up and suggests that Florence should learn about the golden carp. Samuel says that this summer, Florence will learn of the golden carp.
On that day, the boys go to attend the ritual of the Stations of the Cross. At the first station, Father Byrnes prays to the bulto (shape) on the wall that represents Christ being sentenced by Pilate. The second station is devoted to Christ receiving the cross. Horse sits beside Antonio carving his initials into the back of the seat in front of him. Horse doesn’t pray to the stations. He only prays when the priest walks by him. He is sitting by the third station, that which represents the third fall of Christ. The priest is kneeling at the first fall of Christ. Antonio feels sick from the smell of the incense. Next Friday would be Good Friday. Lent has passed quickly. On Saturday he would go to confession and then receive the sacrament of communion on Easter Sunday.
Antonio hears Abel whispering the question about immaculate conception. Father Byrnes moves to the station where Christ met his mother. Antonio feels sympathy for the Virgin. He tries to shut out the sound of the boys explaining to Abel that immaculate conception means having a baby without sex. The priest moves to the second fall of Christ. Christ’s face was imprinted on a cloth. When Christ fell in carrying the cross, the soldiers whipped him and the people laughed at him. Antonio hears the women in the church moaning their prayers but is distracted by the children who won’t listen.
The priest is now at the seventh station. “Christ was speaking to the women.” Antonio wonders if that is why the women pray so hard. The priest comes close to where Antonio is sitting. He can smell incense on the priest’s gown just as he always smells herbs on Ultima’s clothing. The incense is suffocating and the candle is hypnotizing. Horse had stared at it too long. He leans on Antonio and says, “A la chingada (god damn it), voy a tirar tripas--” (I’m going to throw up). Now the priest is at the station of the crucifixion. Antonio can’t feel the agony of the vision today. Horse is leaning on him and gagging. He has to carry Horse out of the church. Florence gets up and helps him. Outside, Horse vomits.
The children get through the last week of catechism. It is the hardest because they get depressed with the fasting and the strict penance. On Good Friday, school is out. Antonio goes to church with his mother and Ultima. The saints’ statues are covered with purple sheaths. It is packed with women all dressed in black. They are all suffering in the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering on the cross. When the words are spoken, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Antonio feels pierced by the pain and loss of a dying universe. Good Friday is a day of despair at the death of God’s son.
On the next day, Saturday, however, everyone’s spirits are lifted by the approach of the day of resurrection. The children will have their first confession that afternoon. Antonio gets a new suit of clothes since everything should be new for the first communion. His mother is very excited. She sends him off to his first confession and he meets up with Samuel. At church, they meet the group of children waiting to go in. They are all asking each other if they had passed the quiz the priest gave them. The priest had asked the dimwitted boys easy questions, but had asked Antonio very difficult ones. They all yell out that Antonio knows more about religion than anyone. They decide to practice going to confession and want Antonio to play the priest. They all throw their jackets on Antonio’s back in imitation of the priest’s robes. Antonio finally consents to being their priest. When he does, he notices Samuel has turned his back to them.
Horse insists on going first. He kneels before Antonio and the other children gather around to hear his confession. As he hears Horse saying the first words of the confession, he remembers hearing Narciso’s confession before he died. Antonio tries to get the others to leave Horse privacy in his confession, but the other children hit him over the head telling him to go on with it. Horse thinks a while and then says he saw Miss Violet going to the toilet one day at school. He had peeked through a hole in the wall. Horse rubs the front of his pants as he tells the story. He says he also saw a teacher. He rubs harder as he talks. He says he saw Mrs. Harrington. He yells out, “It was bigggg--!” and then falls trembling on the ground. The girls insist on Antonio giving Horse penance. Antonio tells him to say a rosary to the virgin as his penance. Antonio feels sick. The weight of the jackets makes him sweat and Horse’s confession and the way the others are acting makes him sick. He can’t understand how the priest can handle so much sin. He remembers the story of the golden carp: “The weight of the sins will sink the own into the lake of the golden carp.”
Antonio looks for Samuel who did not join in the game. Bones jumps forward, eager to confess a sin as if it were a correct answer in class. He says he saw a high school girl and boy having sex in the grass by Blue Lake. He is proud of his sin and smiles at the others. Vitamin Kid scoffs at this sin, saying he sees them every night under the railroad bridge. Horse is angry that Bones’ confession is better than his. Bones begs Antonio to recognize that it is his sin. Antonio gives him a rosary to the Virgin also. Bones is upset to get the same penance as Horse since his sin is bigger. He jumps on Antonio and chokes him. Antonio gives him more penance for touching a priest.
Next the children make Florence confess. They all grab him before he can run
and make him kneel before Antonio. Antonio tries to get out of it, but
is forced to proceed. When he asks Florence what his sins are, Florence
says he doesn’t have any. The other children yell at him, saying everyone
has sins. Agnes and Ernie twist Florence’s head back. Horse, Bones and
Abel hold him down. Antonio tries to get him free because he can see that
Florence is in pain, “but the trappings to the priest’s costume entangled
me and so I could do very little.” He pleads with Florence to tell him
one sin. When Florence shakes his head, Antonio is frightened to see that
Florence really believes he is without sin. All the others pull his hair
and tell him to confess. Finally, Florence heaves up and throws them off
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