Her first memory was one of her mother, exasperated, demanding “Why can’t you be good? It’s not hard!”
Dominica, then aged a mere three, had wondered what her mother had meant by ‘good’. It wasn’t as if she had purposely been ‘bad’: it was just that anything she did scared Mama in some way. Her mother called her her ‘changeling’, because, she told the small child, she looked little like either of her parents, not that Dominica knew her father. Dominica’s thick raven hair framed a heart-shaped milk-white face with coal-black eyes. Sometimes, when she was in the midst of a rare rage, the blackness of her eyes seemed to glow red. Although not realising the significance, Dominica could understand Mama’s explanation. Mama was fairly nondescript: mousey brown hair, with common-place eyes and weather-beaten skin. The few photographs Mama showed her of her father depicted a fair young man. Again, nothing out of the ordinary; nothing to explain the contrariness of Dominica’s colouring. Despite accepting Papa’s absence, she spun fantastic tales to account for it.
Now six, Dominica tried copying her friends, none of whom received such a reaction for any of their behaviour, but this only made matters worse. Mama, never far from her rosary, reached for it more when she realised what Dominica was doing. Dominica, daunted by Mama’s muttered Hail Marys, wondered why she only ever annoyed her mother. Although still young, she understood that this was, somehow, linked to Mama’s favourite place: the cold stone building obscured by stained glass and incense. It made Dominica feel sick. The people within predicted trials and tribulations. Dominica preferred the light and laughter of outside. She couldn’t understand her mother’s fondness for the ominous shadows. Granted, there were a lot of candles. But Dominica, who loved to watch the flickering flames, was never allowed near them – unless Mama needed to pray for a dear departed.
Whenever Dominica stared, fascinated, into the heart of the tiny flames, someone in this bleak place would shake his or her head dreadfully. “Blood always shows,” was generally muttered by at least one person. She had even heard “Like mother, like daughter”.
Dominica had once got into trouble for disconcerting one such person by asking innocently “What blood?” She could not see any, and did not understand why it had been said. Her question had been ignored. Dominica had been unsurprised by this: she had been taught only to speak when spoken to, and Mama had been harsh when she had heard of her daughter’s question.
Dominica was similarly confused, and somewhat alarmed, when the chalice was declared the blood of Christ. To her, it did not look remotely like blood.
She had been told, by the gloomiest of doomsayers, that the fire reminded one of Hell’s horrors, and that it was essential to be ‘good’ in order to reach the safety of Heaven, which he indicated by waving his arm somewhere towards the darkest end of the hallowed hall. But Dominica barely heard this reproach. Her black eyes reflected the dancing flames, a look close to complete contentment descending on her face. Somehow this frightened the man. He quailed, turning away. Thereafter, people began to look askance at her. For some reason that she did not understand, the other children there avoided her, refusing even to talk to her. If she ever got close, the mother swooped and carried off her frightened angel.
Dominica had never been Mama’s angel: just her changeling. Unlike the ‘angels’, Dominica had no siblings, nor was she allowed friends to visit. It was just her and Mama. Although she had once asked about Papa, Dominica did not know what had happened to him. Mama had simply left the question unanswered, but the tears in her eyes had told Dominica much. Something bad had happened to Papa: he must have gone to Hell. Only that could explain her mother’s reaction.
Yearning for the love of her unknown father, Dominica found comfort in the flames, panicking her mother. More and more, Dominica heard that hated instruction “Be good!” It seemed to her that it was all she ever heard from Mama now. More frequently too did she have to be present when the most malevolent of Job’s comforters visited – that same man who had first identified her as one to ‘watch’. Lecture after lecture did this small girl have to sit through, each one describing different aspects of Hell’s infernos and the need for salvation. Dominica, entranced by the fires, failed to see the attraction of a goodness that extinguished such warmth and beauty. To her, it seemed that redemption meant permanently inhabiting the oppressively silent basilica shrouded in fearful incense. Besides, Hell was where her father was. He, she was sure, would not resort to incessant prayers like Mama. Nor would he make her say hers at bedtime, when all she wanted was the sanctuary of sleep. Mama always supervised her evening prayers. Likewise with the morning, when all she wanted was to play.
Mama, brought up amongst nuns, had been grateful that the local convent ran a school. Dominica dreaded it. She wanted a respite from the interminably long Masses, but the sisters were harsh to those who did not attend daily, in silence, or who did not listen attentively to the homily, or who failed to memorise the catechism. In all honesty, Dominica preferred Sunday, when she did not have to sit in front of a window depicting the Last Supper, with Judas Iscariot hanging from a tree in the background. It was captioned “Blessed are those who follow in Christ – to the Glory of God our Father. Amen”. The church had graphic portrayals of Christ’s last walk through Jerusalem to Golgotha, culminating in his crucifixion, behind the altar. Towards the belfry, near to where Dominica’s class were forced to sit, were hideous representations of Hell and all the demons of Satan, torturing the Wicked. The images gave Dominica nightmares, but failed to make her behaviour ‘good’.
She wondered about the priest’s oft-quoted use of “Stay on the path ahead, follow the straight and narrow. Don’t stop, don’t look back, or the Devil will catch you up.” She didn’t understand and nobody bothered to explain. She wondered why; she thought the priest was talking directly to her.
One summer’s afternoon, she had found the priest and Mama in the front room standing in front of the large crucifix on the wall. Ascending from her playroom in the cellar, Dominica had instinctively remaining hidden by the half-open door. Near the door-frame was a laminated card bearing the inscription People who listen at keyholes rarely hear well of themselves. Dominica, used to seeing it, ignored it.
“Do not fear, my daughter, she is young and has much to learn. Your sins have been forgiven; Satan will not again tempt one so godly,” she heard the unusually soft, but recognisably strident tones of the priest. He seemed to be reassuring Mama of something.
“I fear, oh, how I fear!” Dominica knew her mother was crying; she could hear the sob in her voice. There was a tiny chink as Mama reached for the beads hanging at her waist. Dominica stayed where she was, hoping to hear more.
There was a muffled “My child! I was never so bad!” of which Dominica could not identify the speaker, and something further, as there was a pause before the priest said?
“No: it is too late. It is not for him to disrupt her life now. He will prevent her safe passage to the Father. She knows only the one true faith; to destroy that would be murder.”
Her mother must have said something; the priest quietened, then reiterated “She knows only the God-fearing…”
A movement distracted her. She began to feel sick – she detected the faint scent of acrid smoke, the smell of recently extinguished candles. The dead weight of anxiety settled in her stomach: she dreaded the forbidding Heaven-sent agent of the Lord.
“Where is she, spawn of Satan that she is?”
Dominica, realising with a jerk that the harsh tones of the priest referred to her, fled through the open front door. She knew she wasn’t good: that much was obvious, but that she was Satan’s child? Despite her love of fire and the desire to know Papa, she knew without a doubt that to be Satan’s child was infinitely bad. Worse than anything. She thought back to her catechism and the fierce denunciations of all things damned from the pulpit. There was nothing, she was sure, that Mama or the priest could do to save her.
Dominica turned a corner. She heard footsteps. She stopped; she glanced back…
Don’t stop, don’t look back, or the Devil will catch you up…seemed to echo around her…
A strangely familiar but unknown man was there; he was barely a hundred yards behind her. His eyes glinted like onyx and his hair reminded her of black ink spoiling a new page.