The elderly priest shuffled down the flagstone floor of the church, as he had done year after year, every day since his ordination fifty years prior. He could traverse the route with his eyes closed, and indeed of late he did exactly that. His one poor eye drooped to his cheek, and no matter how hard he tried to control it, the muscle would not respond. He squinted in the dim lighting out of his one good eye, but there was nothing out of the ordinary to see.
His destination was the same, the beautifully carved confessional at the end of the aisle. If he was honest with himself, it should be bright red in colour, rather than the honeyed-brown hue it had taken on over the years of polishing. The confessions of sins that booth had heard, had made the priest blush in his youth, but now merely elicited a sigh. The red curtains at least hinted at the true nature of what was spoken to his ears within the booth.
This morning, a cowboy from the local jail had requested a last minute confession. He was scheduled to be hung at noon, and it was already half past eleven. Rushed confessions were not his favorite as they tended to be a last minute gush of evil deeds performed over the lifetime of the condemned, regurgitated in a horrific rush.
He might need to give this poor soul short shrift. They would be anxious to get this hanging over with, as the crowd had already gathered at the site. Delays made for poor justice. Too much time waiting made for anxious crowds, who began to second guess the guilt of the criminal to be hung. Riots had started for less reasons than a delay in justice.
And the crime this time? A stagecoach robbery. Wells Fargo had little pity and even less mercy for those who would attack and rob a stagecoach, even if everyone was left alive. Theft of a stagecoach was a federal crime and the penalty was instant hanging with little in the way of a trial. The local sheriff had the authority to sentence to death all those thought involved, on the testimony of a handful of witnesses.
As he hobbled the last few steps to the booth, his swimming eye brought into focus two guards, sporting long guns, who stood to either side of the confessional booth, where the prisoner was already ensconced. The deputies nodded at the elderly priest and one leaned over and opened the door for him to climb into the interior. The door shut with a click and he settle himself onto his bench with a sigh. He rubbed his sore knee for a second while he caught his breath and then reached up to slide the tiny window aside, to hear the confession.
Silence greeted him, although he could hear someone moving on the other side of the screen. The moment stretched and then he leaned towards the window and said “I am here, my son or daughter. You need but speak, I am listening.”
The shuffling continued for a moment and then stopped.
The priest took his good ear away from the window and peered through the mesh of the screen. A face stared back at him. A familiar face. A face that barely reached the edge of the window.
“Grandfather?” the voice quivered. “Is that you?”
A child stared back at him. His grandson of eight years old.
English idiom: “Give or get short shrift” – (to) give (or receive) cursory attention or little time…Literally, shrift refers to confession to a priest, who gives absolution and penance, and short shrift to the brief time allowed for this sacrament to a prisoner before execution. Shakesphere so used it in Richard III (3:4), but it came to be used more loosely in succeeding centuries (late 1800’s).
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