For a long time the whole idea of God is bewildering to a little girl, but in a dreamy and faraway fashion, you know him. Like the moon and the stars across the night’s long distance, you love and fear him. He watches you, you know this; whatever you do, he can see you. You feel shy before him, and exposed. You take off your clothes in a hurry, ask for bubbles in the bath.
With this oblique knowledge of God, you have a dim awareness of good and evil. These dueling notions hold a mythical power. They have little to do with your life, your new and shabby dolls, the warm and salty smells that waft from the kitchen to wake you in the morning. They are remote, unreachable, like the stuff of fairy tales, dragons and princes and intricate spells that cannot be undone — or could be by some secret key, a trick answer, something absurd or impossible. Staring out at the rain, you catch your small reflection in the glass: you’re just a girl, that’s all.
You are frightened by many dangers. In the picture books, it seems the angels come with streaming sunbeams. When you see the sun drop its rays through the clouds, down and down, right into your eyes if you squint at them, then you know you’re okay for a while. An unseen angel watches you, and you won’t fall off your bike or out of a tree or get run over in the street.
Heaven is in the sky, but you can’t see it. What is visible, then, becomes a symbol of the unseen. Fluffy clouds mean joy and silly laughter; clear blue sky turns longing into hope, and answers your questions with yes and forever. Long days of low, frowning clouds and shivery rains and railing storms mean nothing is safe.
Some boy with a scar on his chin says lightning can strike you, and then you freeze into whatever position you’re in, and the devil comes to get you. The devil wears a red suit and has horns and a pointy tail, and he is everything bad, he does bad things to you — whatever you’re most afraid of. You’re afraid of the devil. At night you keep under the covers, you don’t let your toes past the edge of the bed.
Hell is down but you can’t see it. If you go too far down into the earth you’ll get to China, not to hell. In China people are yellow and smile a lot and bow and ride around in two-wheeled buggies pulled by running men. You could maybe find China but you couldn’t find hell. Still, you might end up there some day. Hell could find you.
You are bad. The long rains nag and nag you, bad, bad, bad. There’s an angry patter on the roof, and your mother didn’t get dressed today, she broods over the ironing. Is God gone away when it thunders and lightnings? Is the storm the devil let loose? Or is God always in charge — and if so, why does he allow this? Does he love and protect you in the storm, or is the storm how he feels today, and what he thinks of you? Maybe God is angry because you’ve upset your mother: it doesn’t matter that you don’t know what you did; there’s always the chance you’ve done something wrong you forgot about. Oh, you’re guilty, always guilty. The sky bears down, gray, black, growling. It snaps, sparks, hurls angry fire down a long crack. Maybe it’s just to remind you — because somehow you never get hit.
The Catholic church is tall and dark and empty and smells like a dusty sleeping cat plus something sweet and ancient. Your friend, the butcher’s daughter, shows you some water in a white stone basin shaped like a shallow shell. She tells you the water is holy, it’s been blessed. Before this moment you’ve seen only normal water, the kind you drink and bathe in. Who blesses it? you want to know, and she says it’s the priest. You know what he looks like without being told. He’s cloaked in a long, black garment that doesn’t keep off the chill. A quick shiver rides your spine. You and your friend look at each other; you work to keep your eyes from going wide. You’re both regular girls. Your bicycles are outside by the stone steps, lying on their sides. Can you enter the dark realm of the huge and the sacred, where men in gowns alter water undiscernably so that merely touching it can — what? Make you pure? Change you in some wondrous, irreversible way, like Cinderella putting on the glass slipper?
Slowly, solemnly — you’re not without a sense of ceremony — you dip your fingers in the water. Nothing happens except your fingers get wet and you get that strange, small sting in that spot between your legs, a prickling that stands for danger and trouble and guilt. Glancing up in God’s direction, you see that the ceiling is a great dark hole — you could fall into it if everything shifted and suddenly turned upside down. You touch the steady wall, cold stone, and your fingers leave a damp stain there and retain the chill when you pull them away. You make yourself walk out slowly. God is like this church, huge and dim, scary and cold, but you’re safe if he approves of you, if you don’t run like a thief, if this water does what it’s supposed to do.
You pedal home hard, fast, exultant. Your legs feel the charge of your new holiness. Maybe you’re blessed now, like the water, and your life will be charmed. When you’re old and have breasts you can become a nun and be nice to everyone, even to awful, homely children who will become good and possibly attractive just from being around you. You’ll be the kind of nun who’s pretty and smiles sort of sadly.
At home your mother’s face changes when you tell about entering the church. Don’t go in there, she says. She’s more frightened than angry. Stay out of the Catholic church. Your excitement freezes, you go quiet, you don’t talk about the water. A private terror blooms inside you. Secretly, you wipe your palm against the leg of your pants.
You saw God Is Dead on a magazine cover and your mother explains it’s not true. You’re not sure. You feel a sense of alarm, the feeling you get about bombs and car wrecks and strange diseases. Things are out of control, sometimes. You finger the spot on your arm where you got a shot to keep from getting sick and dying.
How do you know you’ll go to heaven when you die? If hell exists then someone has to go there, and what if it’s you? How bad is bad enough to go to hell? If your mother cries so often and screams and hits and cries some more, and her face gets red and that vein in her neck sticks out and she hates you like she does, sometimes, then aren’t you bad enough? You did something forbidden with your girlfriend when you spent the night at her house, and last time your mother hit you, you went out and hit the dog, and she made hurt, unhappy, stop-it noises but stayed there, heeled, just as she was taught.
Your mother never hurts you, but you’re always scared of her — scared of her sadness, her anger, the vein in her neck. She is the pit inside your stomach. She is the gauge of your goodness, your worth. Every day it’s hard to come home, but you rush to see how things will be: will you be absolved today?
You don’t want to go to hell, where you just burn and burn forever, enough so you hurt but not so you die. Freezing would be better. You would just sit in a ball and shiver and go numb. You wouldn’t have to scream or writhe.
The other girls get to wear lovely white dresses with lace and veils and walk across town like practice brides. This is called first Communion, something sacred and mysterious that promises more to come. It’s part of the Catholic stuff you’ve been told not to believe. You’d just like to put on the outfit. You know it’s wrong to feel jealous about something you shouldn’t even want in the first place, but then it’s wrong to feel jealous at all.
The princesses in the stories and the waifs who will become princesses never get jealous; they are sweet and uncomplaining. They sing while scrubbing the castle stairs, they hum hanging laundry to dry. When you sing you stand in front of the mirror with a hairbrush to your mouth and act too showy. Maybe you’re pretty but you’re not beautiful like a princess — no, you’re really not pretty at all — and you’re certainly not sweet or uncomplaining.
You bought a small cross with your allowance and hung it over your bed. It’s made of straw, the color of gold. You look at it when you pray. What you want is redemption, though you don’t know the word for that. You tell God you’re sorry, you’re sorry, every day you’re sorry.