Burn This Ribbon
By James Gyure
Young boys in dress suits sometimes look like scale models of old men, and in this time-curled photograph, I resemble an immigrant grandfather, all broad nose and double-breasted jacket. My mother posed me just within the full Spring weep of the backyard willow, enough sunlight penetrating the shadows to make me gleam and squint, tilting my head in the glare – baggy white First Communion suit, white shirt and tie, white shoes, hair so blond it could be white.
Everything shines, as bright and crisp as the wimple of the ancient nun who pinned a tiny white ribbon on each boy’s lapel, and leaned down close to whisper: Burn this ribbon! Burn this sign of your new purity if ever you let mortal sin blacken your soul!
When the shutter snapped, I worried that I had jerked, shut my eyes, somehow ruined the picture.
The photograph is about four inches square, with deckled edges, the date in a tiny font: May 1960.
The photo is black and white.
The Baltimore Catechism was an antiseptic blue.
On the cover, with wrinkled white creases and edges thumbed with use, Christ was naked, except for a cloth the size of a folded bed sheet, draped across his groin as he rose through the air from a stone doorway in a dazzling burst of light, his feet never touching the bodies that lay bent and crumpled beneath him.
I took the catechism home in my book bag, and practiced with my mother.
Why did God make you?
God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.
She turned the pages. What is mortal sin?
Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God.
The catechism had dozens of questions.
The stairway had eight steps.
Narrow and steep, they took me from the kitchen to the unfinished dark cellar and old coal furnace. The light switch was a round knob with a rubbery torque and suspicious click suggesting that each twist might be the very last time it worked. On narrow shelves tucked into the stairwell was a random assortment of detergents, floor wax, a tiny can of lighter fluid, silver polish, bars of Octagon soap.
What did I know of sin? How many times did I trudge to the cellar with my ribbon, and tug open the heavy door of the furnace, thinking of fire, considering the flames?
The parish priest, Father Emmett O’Leary, had thick white hair and a florid face, smoker’s breath, and a girth so expansive that I figured he always wore a black cassock because regular clothes wouldn’t fit him. I dreaded his sermons at Friday Mass, filled with mumbled asides and disjointed recollections, while I fidgeted in the pew, staring at the angels on the ceiling with their trailing scrolls of Latin phrases. At first communion practice, I counted the buttons on Father O’Leary’s cassock, thirty-three small black buttons. I could hear him wheeze as he moved among the second graders lined up in the church aisle, tapping our shoulders with his nicotine-yellow fingers, quizzing us, and murmuring corrections with words we couldn’t make out.
This was when we lived in the ninety-year old house on Davis Street. One side of the dim and dreary cellar sloped upward to a dark ledge of dirt and rocks spilling out from the wall. On the opposite side, lit by two bare light bulbs, were the wringer washer and rinse tubs. The cellar was bisected by on open ditch that ran from the washer to the far wall, where it disappeared under the whitewashed stone. The ditch filled with soapy water when my mother did laundry. I helped her feed towels and undershirts and sheets through the wringer. Once, she and I were startled to see a rat crouching in the suds in the widest part of the ditch, confused about which way to run. I grabbed an axe from under the steps, but, too frightened to actually lift it high enough to have any impact, I mostly just tapped the axe blade on the rat’s back until it bolted into the darkness beyond the wall.
Around a corner was the big furnace. I helped my father shovel glittering coal into its hot mouth, and my brother and I had to take turns cleaning ashes from beneath the grates.
I was eleven years old when I came across the half-forgotten ribbon in a small tin box I kept on the bookcase in my room. It was mixed in with a miniature deck of cards, two silver dollars from my grandmother, a rosary, a Safety Patrol badge from school, some souvenir bookmarks, and the plain pewter ring I had stolen from my Uncle Joe’s bedside stand.
I was twelve when I discovered a tattered paper bag in my mother’s dresser drawer, two thin books inside, Intimacy: A Guide for Married Couples, and Private Love. They must have been over twenty years old. Some of the illustrations were just line drawings, as dispassionate as a textbook, but the descriptions and instructions, even the ones I couldn’t understand, were more arousing than most of the pictures in the magazines I found hidden in my brother’s room.
An image of sin bloomed in my head, and I worried about which was worse: rifling through my mother’s things, searching for something clandestine, something suppressed; or, once I found the books, going back again and again, feeding a young boy’s secret and unwitting lust.
The ribbon felt as light as a coin in my palm. In the confessional, when I pulled shut the heavy velvet drape, it was too dark to see. There was a stale cigarette smell coming from the other side of the screen. I never mentioned the books, nor asked forgiveness. And I never burned the ribbon.
But I thought about the fire. I considered the flames.