A Smell of Burning (A Short Story)

She smelled strongly of burnt toast.

“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The priest made a sign of the cross.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” A long pause followed. “It’s been two years since my last confession…” Another pause.

Her voice sounded rough, like she was a smoker.  He could not guess her age.  He wondered at the burnt smell that seemed to be emanating from her even through the screen.  It didn’t smell like tobacco, or weed, or cigarettes, or wood smoke.  She didn’t really smell like burnt toast, now that he analyzed it.

She just smelled…burnt.

The priest shut his eyes, and waited.

“I…a…,” she whispered.  “Sorry.  It’s hard to talk.  About it.”

“I understand.”

“It’s sort of…You won’t tell anyone?”

“I am bound to secrecy under the seal of confession.”

“You won’t be afraid?”

“I will not.”

“O.k.” He heard her take a deep breath.  “I’m a dragon.”

The priest digested this statement.  He could hear her breathing hard.  The smell of burning was sharper.

“Literally or figuratively?” he asked at last.

“I’m scared to look at myself in the mirror.  I’m changing…”

“Daughter, are you suffering confusion?  Have you been to see a psychologist?”

“No, please, you have to believe me.  I really am a dragon…”   Her rough whisper died away into carpeted silence.  Hidden by the screen, she began to cry softly.

The priest had been slowly growing aware that the screen was growing hot by his cheek, but he ignored it, putting it down to the broken air conditioning.  At her words, he suddenly looked at it.  It was a metal screen, perforated with tiny holes to let in a voice, but hide the viewer.  It was starting to glow orange like the wires in a toaster.  He leaned away from it and fingered his rosary in his pocket.  The burnt aftertaste wafting off her had given way to a more distinctly burning smell.  Smoke fingered through the holes.

“What makes you say that?” he asked softly.

“I look in the mirror and…blackness looks back, with fire eyes.  I have power over life.  I’m terrifying.  I’m terrified.”

“What sins have you committed?” He edged his chair away from the partition an inch or two.  He reflected phlegmatically his cassock might be smoldering, grateful it wasn’t synthetic.

“I killed a man,” she said.

Into the stuffy hot silence of the confessional she added, like an afterthought, “and ate him.”

The silence drew out, stifling.  Through the walls, muffled, the priest grew aware he could hear sirens wailing.  Sad, urgent, yet dispassionate, like tortured wails of robot dogs.

“Are you ashamed?” he asked.

“Only about eating him.  That wasn’t necessary.”

“Was it necessary for you to take his life?”

“He was going to take mine.”

“You can still be ashamed for taking a life…”

“I’m sorry for eating him, but it was him or me.”

“Was he was trying to defend himself?”


The screen was glowing red.  He felt sweat adhering his black cassock to his back.

“I cannot offer you absolution without your contrition.”

“Give me absolution, Father.  God cursed me, and I can’t help myself.”

“You are here, aren’t you?” the priest replied.

“I’m here to hide.  He was a cop.”

The priest tried to keep his breathing steady.  The sirens were faint, but he thought they might be growing nearer.

“You murdered him.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I know.  That you have not knowingly lied to me is the grace that might save you.  They are right behind you, but you are not here to hide.”

She nearly laughed.  “If I’m not here to hide, then what am I here for, Father?”

“To choose a master.

“I don’t serve anyone.”

“You are someone.”

“You’re saying I serve myself?”

“We are all of us either slaves to our selves, or servants of God.  We all choose to serve either power, or love.”

“I thought you would help me…”

“I am.  I am telling you the truth.”

“Truth is what you make it.”

“Truth is that it is wrong to murder, just as it is wrong to lie, or believe that being a dragon somehow makes you exempt from the consequences of your actions.”

“What gives you the right to tell me what I am, or what is or isn’t true?”

“The authority of God and the evidence of my eyes,” said the priest, a bit dryly.  “You wouldn’t be in here if you didn’t have some comprehension of both.”

“You don’t fear me?” her voice was barely human.  “Everyone does, once they believe.”

Her throaty, scratching voice grew softer, deeper, hushed.  There was a strange rustle in it that, despite the heat assaulting him, caused the priest to feel like a clammy finger was being run down his neck.  He felt himself shivering from the coldness that lay in wait behind the incandescent screen.  But his skin was blistering on the right side of his face, neck, and hand.

“I do believe.  But not in you.”

“I thought priests had to believe in things they can’t see.  What do you believe in, Father?”

Wracked by a coughing fit, the priest rasped hoarsely, “I believe in God’s mercy.”

Outside, sirens yelled over each other with the hysterical triumph of many dogs running.

Car doors slammed.

“I don’t see God’s mercy in here, priest.  Do you?”

The priest did not move from his chair as the screen bubbled and began to ooze in shining globules.  He didn’t move as metal dribbled down like scorching water into the wall-to-wall carpeting, charring holes into the hem of his cassock.  Smoke filled his nose.  He didn’t move as a hand curled around the edge of the confessional barrier, flexing talons, long and gold.  Fingers armored in silver scales glittered darkly, as they caught his reflection in a distortion of blackness.  Curved claws dug into the wood of the partition.

The priest shut his eyes, and waited.