The Escapist

When he entered the place, the setting sun was casting an aura of martyrdom on the saints that had been immortalized in the colorful stained glass windows. Filtered through the glass images, a faint light of mixed colors bathed the nave of the church, giving it a sacred, solemn atmosphere. He was welcomed by the warmth of that hot environment as soon as he took his first steps, as if something old and sandy had caressed his skin. His pores reacted to the heat of that February day, responding with a cold sweat running down his back, making his shirt cling to his skin. He thoroughly believed in the speculations that at last had brought him there. He was also sure of the actions he would eventually take from then on. It was precisely because of his certainty that he disregarded his anxiety as partly responsible for the sweat that seemed to torment his body. Hot like hell! he finally cursed, using his thumb and index finger as tweezers to shake his shirt by the collar, trying to capture a little bit of cool air.

Ironically playing with the notions of heaven and hell, the temperature seemed to be even higher within that sacred, yet poorly ventilated territory. That kind of inconvenience made believers avoid pilgrimage sessions during peak hours—that is why the scene he encountered was a perfect match for what he had envisioned days before. Sprinkled on the large pews, a few sinners and other forsaken souls were perched before the altar. Now, looking at them, he realized that only two types of sorrow could force anyone to humbly show such fervent devotion, regardless of any discomfort: If not for guilt, they had come due to desolation. The promise of pastures did not motivate stray sheep, but they will come when only naked lands remain, he thought. He watched them in contempt and suddenly understood he hated them. He had chosen the right time, after all. 

His firm steps echoed as he walked down the aisle, turning right just before he reached the altar. He stood there, unnoticed by most believers and non-believers who were making too much effort to relieve their own pain and had become unaware of their own surroundings. He could then go on walking absentmindedly along the transept toward a hardwood structure with carved flowers that was sitting at the end of the annex room. The piece of furniture had a main compartment with a door engraved with a large cross, and a side compartment surrounded by a heavy purple curtain made of velvet that hung in a half-circle from the upper part of the main structure. Despite the incompatibly sophisticated nature of the piece, its strategic position in the shadows of the church assured the proper secrecy for its intentions.

At that moment, the curtain was closed, isolating secrets unknown to the rest of the world. Luckily, as soon as the man got closer, a stout lady with a curved back and rough features slid the purple fabric to the side with her dry hands and stepped out of the confessional. She smoothed her long gathered skirt, straightened the scarf that covered her head, and left weeping in controlled sobs. She didn't even notice the man a few steps from her. Unaware of their surroundings, he reminded himself, unable to control a smirk that fate had brought to his lips.

He glanced back over his shoulder while walking toward the confessional. He hid behind the twilight of the curtain and was finally away from the world outside. He was in a new universe sealed by the perimeter of the purple fabric. His toes found the edge of the little bench and he knelt down, resting his head against the grid that separated him and the parish priest. Following his instincts, he cleared his throat in an attempt to make his presence known before he started speaking.

“Bless me, father.”

“May God bless you, my son,” the clergyman replied from his side of the wooden cubicle.
Despite the low demand from believers during summer, the simple-mannered parish priest with tired eyes remained faithful to his ecclesiastic duties. An advocate for fasting and observance, the taciturn priest was well-known in all neighboring parishes—both by the priesthood and members of the community—as a well of wisdom and serenity. Many sought his comforting words when faced with a problem and truly believed in absolution if he had declared the penitence. Everybody came to this priest for his knowledge, and it was for his knowledge that the man had come to him.

“Tell me, my son, what sins do you wish to confess?” the father continued, ceremoniously.

“Well, father...” the man said indifferently while making sure his back was straight. “I carry the load of many sins... And such a heavy load it is indeed! However, I did not come to talk about them. Let us leave them at rest, for they are not a problem now. They are but harmless sins...” he was reticent, as if trying to remember something. “Actually, they would be helpful. Yes, they would be of great help! Listen to what I will tell you! But, father, don't let me ramble and lose my train of thought. I usually digress. No, father, I did not come to talk about my sins. I have another objective. I am here to talk about God's sin.”

That last sentence, inoculated in spitefulness, made the old man momentarily numb. Once recovered, he got so close to the grid that his nose almost touched it. He squinted to try and see the face that was hiding in the shadows on the other side.

“Well, my child, God is kind and unfailing. Never—I say never—there will be any sins committed by Him.”

“That's where you're wrong, father. Yes, there is a sin. One single and isolated case of wickedness. Isn't it evident when we take our false steps: theft, murder, rape, corruption! Well, not even corruption can be more silent than this sin. You know, we can't see it, father, for it is so subtle, so elegant that nobody notices it. But I tell you, there is no cruelty bigger than the one that inhabits Him.”

“I do not agree with anything you say, son. However,” the priest pondered, “if I mean to help you with your affliction—because you surely seem afflicted—I first must understand you. Tell me, what seems to be the sin that you have attributed to Him?”

“He gave us eternity. Simple as that. Nothing more. Nothing less,” the man said slowly in a joyful whisper.

With such impactful revelation, the priest backed away from the grid that separated him from the stranger, noticing he was treading dangerous waters. Dangerous, not for the waters, but for the company it brought. For a few moments, they could only hear the believers outside reciting “Our Father” at the altar. Surely the man was smiling on the other side of the lattice.

“Please understand me, father,” the man broke the silence. “I need you to understand the path I am about to take. The sphinx said, 'Decipher me,' didn't it, father? Well, decipher me, father!”

“And will you devour me too if I fail you,” the priest retorted.

“Do not be hasty, father. You will only know after you understand me.”

To the priest's ears, every sentence being uttered sounded like a bear trap. He needed to be careful where he stepped.

“Right you are, son. I shall try to understand you. Better, I will understand you, young man, even if I don't agree with your theory. Still, in understanding you I will be complying with your request. I will tell you: I have spent many years preaching and have met many men whose beliefs were shaken too. But you... There is something different about you, my boy. You are telling me that our blessed eternity, a treasure granted to the chosen ones, is a misfortune? That it was God's sin to offer it to us? I must confess I am curious... Tell me, how could eternal life be something bad?”

“As I had said, it is subtle and elegant, but still a sin. And it could only have been conceived and practiced by a deity. Most would only notice it after the fact... Tell me, father, how old are you?”

“I am seventy-four.”

“Well, seventy-four. Please help me do the math, would you? It took you seven years before you were able to go to school as a child. There, you learned how to read and write, and about basic human sciences. You went down that road for eleven years. To account for any margin of error, let's throw another three years in there, for your peregrinations, until you decided to become a priest. Am I right? Well, three, five, then years—it doesn't matter. They are insignificant to the final result. Let's leave it at that... Where were we? Oh, yes, the beginning of celibacy! Let's assume you spent another eight years at the seminar until you were finally ready for priesthood. We can safely say you were a priest by then, can't we? Not only because you were wearing the soutane, but because you carried the knowledge of priesthood within you. You see? I said 'knowledge.' Keep that in mind... Moving on, you have spent years and years preaching, living and most certainly learning. This process continues until today, in this very same moment you are here before me, at seventy-four years of age, learning... Now, let's imagine you were to live another seventy-four years, but you grew tired of the religious life. You left it all behind to become an engineer. In all these remaining years you would acquire the knowledge required for an engineer to earn a living. Nevertheless, we shall not forget the wisdom you carried within you as a priest. So, in this fictional future, you would carry both the knowledge of a priest and that of an engineer. So far, we have only used one hundred and forty-eight years of eternity. You see where I'm going, father?”

“Honestly, I cannot see it, young man. How could knowledge ever be something bad? You are only a little confused and got lost in your thoughts. Let me help you.”

“Not yet, father. Not yet. I will let you help me later. Let's see what will be more suitable: My way or your way. You will be useful, this much I guarantee. Now, I want to show you how knowledge is dangerous. As the saying goes: 'Ignorance is bliss.' Have you ever heard it, father? Well, it is indeed. The problem is that you cannot see the magnitude of this situation. You are only looking at a fragment—like people used to think in the past when looking at the horizon and believing that it was where the world was bent. Oh, they must have been so happy then... Happy, I tell you! I'm sorry, but I will have to take that corner of happiness from your soul and replace it with the truth. I know I sound paradoxical, trying to teach you while preaching about ignorance, but this lesson is truly worth it. This lesson is salvation! Please understand, father, you are not acknowledging something crucial. You forgot eternity! That is the main ingredient. Of course, in a mundane existence you would only have another ten, perhaps fifteen years. Don't get me wrong, but you know it's true. Well, let's talk about eternity! It's not a matter of centuries or millennia. It is the entire period existing in time.”

“I still do not see any harm, as you suppose to see.”

“Not now, father, please do not interrupt me. I will lose my train of thought and may not ever find it again! There is no Ariadne willing to help us thinkers, I can tell you that.” The man got closer to the grid, continuing his animated monologue, gesticulating excitedly without realizing that the priest could not see a thing. “We live because there are many mysteries in this world. The unknown. If we knew everything there is to know from head to toe, we would have cast it aside, like a child tired of an old toy. If eternity is an absolute certainty, not only will we know everything from head to toe, but also from the left hand to the right hand. Realistically, we will know every splitting hair of it. Do you see the danger now? With eternity, we will lose interest in everything, because we will have discovered the mystery of existence itself! And, at that very moment, we will reach a state that is far worse than non-existence: Complete and utter indifference! That is the beauty of it all, if we may say such a thing. We have this monster hiding in the shadows of the biggest promise made to Humanity. The biggest harm hand in hand with the supreme boon. That is the sin of God: The burden of eternal life. Now, tell me father, have you deciphered me yet?”

Disconcerted, the priest denied to himself that he had agreed with any of the ideas proposed to him. He recalled what he had said in the beginning of the conversation. I will understand you, young man, even if I don't agree with your theory. So far, he had not deciphered the man and, on top of that, he was afraid he was not longer sure of the second part of his conviction.

“I must say that, even though I do not agree with what you just said, I can tell you it is fascinating. I can see you are a thinker, my boy. You could make a big difference in this world if you applied all you have in different way. This path you have chosen will only make you waste your energy. You see, I'll say it again: It is indeed fascinating, but there are no foundations to this structure you have erected. For example, you seem to be underestimating the amount of mystery that exists in the cosmos and in life. They too are infinite,” the priest said, with a victorious air.

“No, father, I wasn't that naive. I understand pretty well the baggage that it represents. The thing is that we are working with gigantic forces to which we are not used. I imagine knowledge and eternal life as two roads, side by side. Consequently, they'll meet in the infinite ahead of them. Isn't that what mathematicians say? And so it is. In this game, we will find everything out sooner or later.”

“If you reject this argument of mine, I may give you many others. I believe you are also overestimating the ability of the human mind. We are fragile, brittle. We could never withstand the complexity of the secrets that existence has been keeping.”

“Once again, father, you are the one underestimating me... I used to think like you, but that was before I realized that I was wrong in adding the human brain to my calculations. This organ of ours is limited, designed to store mundane experiences. Our other essence, the soul, is ethereal and it is ready for infinite knowledge. Otherwise, the notion of eternal life in and of itself would crumble to the ground. We would be nothing but ghosts who cannot remember the past.”

“Well, so you shall remain in paradise without seeking any knowledge. Spend your days playing the harp with cherubs and you will not be in danger,” the clergyman gave the sentence tensely upon witnessing his two counterarguments being refuted so easily by the stranger, as an expert putting aside an exhausted subject.

“Now, you are being a little simplistic, father. Knowledge is not solely acquired actively. A large part of it sneaks upon us and reaches us passively. Please join me in a fictional experiment. Let's take the average country man as a guinea pig—or as a subject, if you so prefer—, the kind of man who barely learned his ABCs at school. We have many of them here... Well, let's imagine now that, for the entirety of his existence, this man was confined to an isolated plot of land, free of any influence from the outside. Apart from the air-tight nature of his isolation, he is like many men we see around here. Do you believe that, by the end of his life, this man will not have learned a thing? I suppose you would agree with me that, years later, he would have learned the best time to sow and harvest and, with a single glance, he would be able to predict whether the wind will bring any rain. This is all knowledge. Primitive, crude knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless. Here's the fantastic part of this amalgam that I insist in bringing to you, so you can see that it will make a world of difference: Existence! I will tell you, without the shadow of a doubt, that in his eternity this man, this simple man who is merely subsisting, will think about everything that has been thought of by Plato, Voltaire, and Confucius. He will recite the complete works of Shakespeare and Borges by heart, just as well as all those cheap novels that come with obscure newspapers. When you are not limited by time, all possible combinations of sentences and thoughts shall occur to you! Within the limits of the universe, this very same man would have conducted an autopsy of creation itself.

Baffled, the religious man would rather not to question his own convictions, which were unshakable, but to press the intentions of the young man, for those were most disturbingly emblematic.

“If you are so certain of what you say... Tell me, son, why did you come to see me?”

“So that you would convince me.”

“Convince you?” the priest was taken aback. “What should I convince you of, then? What I heard is that you believe in God. So much so that you have created several hypothesis surrounding Him. Am I right.”

“Yes, I do believe in Him.”

“And which is the subject whose foundations are not so concrete within you that you now have room for such doubt?”

“Whether there is a way out. Or, rather, that there is another way out besides the one I have already found for myself.”

“You mean, a way out for the complete apathy of absolute knowledge? What would it be?”

“Father, have you listened to the believers outside? Have you noticed their non-stop praying? Their afflicted whispers? They do not know it, and some even refute it, but it is right there: The way out! No, I am not saying that praying is the solution, but what actually has brought them here: Martyrization. Only it can disconnect a mind from the world, closing it around itself and blocking even the most passive knowledge. In pain, experiencing a lacerating grief, we forget about everybody. We even forget who we are ourselves. There is only the pulsating affirmation that we are! We are something, we want to survive, we want to escape! That is how, father, suffering will set us free. While, in eternity, there is only a never-ending torment.”

“You do not mean...”

“Yes. Hell. Only in hell will my mind be free of the influences of learning and I shall, in fact, simply exist until the end of time.”

“The toll highway to hell charges a high price, my son. Do not say such nonsense! Believe in the Father and take all your distress to Him, for he will remedy it. What you are saying is blasphemy, something beyond your comprehension. You do not seem to be the type that deserves hell. You are only lost in your madness. I shall convince you, my son, I must convince you!” the religious man was panic-stricken and feverishly raised his hands toward the ceiling of the cubicle.

“I hope you can, father. You are right when you say I am short of sins to be sent to hell. I believe the worst thing I did against Him was to question Him. That was why I needed to see you, father. That was why I needed to come here. I know you are just and wise and, if it weren't you, there would be no one left to give me an alternative. Well, another alternative that is, because I said I have already found a way out. It's nothing personal, father, but on my way out I will have to kill you.”

Upon hearing his death sentence, the bony legs of the clergyman started to shake ever so vigorously. A shriver ran down his spine and made his limbs tingle, like hundreds of icy spiders crawling all over him. His heart was racing and seemed to compress his lungs in such a way that he was soon out of breath. 

He suddenly got up from his bench, placed his hand on the handle of the confessional door and roared toward the grid with an artificial wrath, “You have gone too far! Death threats are a police business. I will not spend another second here, because God understands you and forgives you for your self-preservation.”

“No... No... Please, father, sit down. From now on, please do not yell. We are at a church after all, aren't we?” the man said, ironically. “I have had my gun pointed at you from the first moment we started talking,” he knocked on the wooden wall of the cubicle with the barrel of the gun. “I cannot see you clearly, but I doubt that a shot through this grid would miss the target, and we are in a very small space... Please, sit down. I did not say I would kill you on the spot. Give me an alternative and I will let you live. The thing is, I do not wish you dead, but above all I do not want to go to heaven. If this is the only way I will achieve my utmost damnation, so be it. I will not think twice.”

“No, my son. No! Listen. Listen to yourself... It's madness! Oh, it is madness that has taken a hold of you! Do not destroy your life with the aberrations that live in your head. If you shoot, soon the believers outside will hear it and call the police. No, do not throw your life away!” the priest pleaded for his life, sitting back on his bench hidden inside the concessionary. Despite the lack of light, he could now swear he saw a metallic reflex in this direction.

“Maybe you haven't understood my plan, father. If so it is, if there is no other way, your blood will not be the only one spilled here today. After I kill you, the second shot will be mine”

“Oh, God! Sick! You are sick! For the love of our Virgin Mary, stop this madness! Alternative? There is an alternative. There are several alternatives. My son, suicide is an abominable sin. It means rejecting the life that was given to you by God. Killing yourself will lead you down the path you wish to follow, yes. But, please, do spare my life!” The sniffling cry of the priest brought some moist to his dry mouth after his tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth, reminding him of his worst days in fasting.

“As far as I can see, seventy-four years of soutane haven't made you less of a man, am I right, father? 'Kill yourself, but let me live.' This is the answer of a coward, but I will accept it. However, there is a hole in this plot... Let us not forget about purgatory! If I follow the way you are showing me, I will take the chance of having our Benevolent Father sentence me to such a place. And we well know that the penitents there do nothing but think and rethink their mistakes, and there is learning in such reflection. Later, once they are purified, these penitents ascend to heaven. No! I cannot go that way, father.”

“No... No... No! Think, think. Oh, yes... Do you believe in reincarnation? We, as Catholics and Christians, deny the existence of other mundane lives. However, we cannot impose truths to the after-life, can we? Can we? Many religions talk about it. In India, they even worship those cows! Cows! Haven't you seen those spiritists and their regressions? That is your way out, young man, that is your way out! Do not fear, because after death comes oblivion, which will open the door to a new life experience. Therefore you will never ever be able to achieve complete knowledge,” the clergyman at last completed his thought, cyanotic. He was gasping for air, taking deep breaths. His urgency was so overwhelming that he did not even mind the humid warmth running down his legs.

“You denied your morals and now you deny your faith? Unfortunately, I learned a lot from you today, father. Above all, I learned how human we all are. But now you brought something new to the table: I hadn't taken reincarnation into account. Maybe... Yes, that could be a way out...”

“That is it! A way out! Hallelujah! Now listen, my good man, please listen. Let's go outside breathe in some fresh air and renew our spirits. Please, see the beauty of life. There is always a solution to our problems. God works in mysterious ways, right? Forget about hell, because there are still so many lives ahead of you, clean of any past memories. We shall both live, and that is all that matters. Now, let's go. Get up and let's go. We still have a beautiful day outside, don't we? Tell me, don't we? Don't we?”

“I'm sorry father, but I never said I would take that chance.”

VITOR DE TOLEDO was born in the State of São Paulo in late August, 1987. From an early age, he became mesmerized by the creational potential of literature, which allowed fantastic worlds and characters to occupy his mind. 

He started to write when he was 16 years old, but says he is wise enough never to let those first manuscripts see the day of light.

He became a surgeon dentist in 2009, but has remained passionate about books. Today he publishes his writings on Recanto das Letras [Nook of Letters] and takes part in literary challenges promoted by Entre Contos.

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