My hand is soft in his grip. He does not shake it, but rather holds it, securing our palms together. I attempt to withdraw from the gesture, but he does not let go of me and he is immovable in his stance.
“Mr. Benemerito, I presume,” he says, his voice performing the words before releasing my hand.
I nod, suddenly feeling small on the man’s doorstep. He stands in the threshold of the house in a three-piece suit, one hand restraining a monolithic wooden door behind him and the other gesturing me to enter.
“I’m glad you came, and I am equally pleased to meet you,” he says.
I nod again and place my hands in my pockets while my eyes explore the interior of the foyer. A large chandelier is suspended above our heads, a metal and wooden thing casting yellowed light. It complements the matte tile and dark, patterned wallpaper of the hall, all of which seem to speak to the man’s wealth.
“This is my home, but it is also my place of work,” he informs me. “Allow me to take your coat.”
“Thanks,” I say, absentmindedly handing it to him while craning my neck to search the wooden beams supporting the vaulted ceiling. He places my jacket on a coatrack to my left, and I am suddenly embarrassed by its ragged appearance on the wrought-iron structure.
“I trust you found the house easily enough?” he asks, employing small talk to ease my palpable discomfort.
“Yes, thank you,” I say, remembering the drive to the house as a much more distant experience than it was.
“I don’t usually reach out for visitors, and—to be honest—I’m surprised you came,” he says.
I nod again.
“It seems like you are too,” he says through a smile. After a note of silence, he continues, “Well, this will all make sense soon enough. Please, follow me this way to the office.”
He leads us down a wide and dimly lit hallway, adorned with large plants overflowing their bases and suits of armor standing sentinel at each side. At the end of the hall is a door with a rippled window, and I strangely recall a forgotten fact from middle school science: glass is neither a liquid nor a solid, but something in-between.
“I appreciate your arrival on such short notice,” he says as we arrive at the door, its thick glass leaching yellow light.
“Of course,” I reply, uneasy with my own agreeability. Beside the door, a brass plaque bears the man’s name—something German—and his M.D. credentials. Beneath that, it reads, “Contritionist.” My tongue mimes the word.
“I was a doctor some time ago—a psychiatrist. But even then, I’ve always been a contritionist.” He pauses to read my expression. “What is that, you wonder.” My eyes follow his hand as it reaches for the door. “Let me show you.”
The office is a cacophony of wood textures—the walls paneled in coffee browns and the floor woven together in dark and rich boards. Candles stand lit in sconces suspended from the walls. They cast shadows against cabinets and shelves lined with books, objects, and framed art.
“Can I offer you a drink?” the doctor asks from a liquor cabinet at the side of the room. “Bourbon or scotch, perhaps?” He pours a caramel-colored liquid into a glass tumbler.
“Scotch,” I say.
The doctor smirks like a tailor confirming an estimated measurement. He nods and hands me the tumbler he already poured.
The weight of the glass feels good in my hand, solid like an anchor amidst the turbulence of the office. I move from one bookshelf to the next, studying his memorabilia but unable to make sense of any of it. A browned leather square catches my attention. It is pinned against a white cloth under a glass frame, but there is no title to the piece. The edges of the square look like they’ve begun to curl.
“Skin,” the doctor’s voice punctures my examination. I turn and find him seated behind a robust desk, leaning back in his leather chair. More artifacts stand on shelves at his back like little legionnaires.
“This is skin?” I ask, raising my glass to my lips before I finish the words.
“Yes,” he confirms.
“Whose?” I shoot back. The word fires from my mouth before I mean to release it.
“Well, I am not at liberty to share that. The nature of my work is confidential,” he says, taking a sip from his drink.
“No, I mean, why do you have someone’s skin?”
“This is what I do. I am a contritionist,” the doctor reports, as if he were stating an obvious conclusion.
I look back to the skin in the frame to learn more of its story, but it is absent of any. From the corner of my eye, I notice a jar sitting on an adjacent shelf. It has a finger floating in it.
“A finger? What the fuck?” The words are rotten on my tongue and fall from my mouth.
“A ring finger,” the doctor corrects.
“Yeah, a fucking finger,” I choke out.
“Not just any finger. A ring finger,” he specifies again.
“What’s the fucking difference?”
“All of these things,” the doctor waves his hand at the shelf behind me, “they’re all symbols.”
“They’re body parts,” I contest.
“The nature of my work,” he starts, “is to help people find forgiveness. These artifacts are a penance, a testament to the deep remorse of a suffering person. They’re the embodiment of guilt, externalized and removed from the body.”
I shake my head at his answer. “Guilt for what?”
“For whatever the person believes they are guilty of—errors of commission, errors of omission, and everything in-between.”
I shake my head again. “You’re a psycho,” I snap, raising my eyes to meet his.
“Psychopathy is an entirely different matter.” He gauges my tolerance for the discussion before continuing, “I provide my clients with relief. They arrive burdened with remorse for what they’ve done, but they leave here liberated from it.” He seems pleased that I’ve listened to his explanation. “People pay a high price for this,” he raises his finger to highlight his point.
“People pay for this?” My hand carelessly collides with a small box on a shelf and causes it to rattle.
“Teeth,” the doctor says in response to my quizzical look. “Yes, people pay for this.” He reads my face again before continuing, “I am retired, and I would do my work for free. But it does not work if people do not place a value on my services.”
I stutter some nonsensical sounds in disbelief and then give up altogether. I place the doctor’s scotch on the shelf next to the box of teeth and turn towards the door to leave. As I begin to make my way, I realize he does nothing to stop me. He does not call out for me, does not plead with me to stay, and does not threaten me; he watches.
I reach for the door handle and notice another jar sitting on a small cabinet at my side. It contains a snake-like looking thing, like a finger but less jointed. The absurdity of it steals my attention.
“A penis,” the doctor calls out from his desk.
“You cut off someone’s dick?” Contempt forms as spittle at the corners of my mouth.
“No, no. The man did it himself. My role was to assist. Penis removal requires immediate cauterization, or it can result in death.”
“Why would some dude cut off his own dick?”
“Good. You are intrigued,” the doctor smirks. His enthusiasm reveals a hint of his native accent. He rises from his chair and stands briefly before sitting upon the edge of his desk. He is tall enough for his legs to remain rooted to the floor.
“As I said, these things are symbolic of things beyond themselves. They are not the remorse, but representative of the remorse.” He motions to the penis in the jar, “This man committed infidelity.”
“So, he cut off his dick?!”
“He took a drastic measure to liberate himself from his shame. The remorse was intolerable, and he contracted with me to pay a price hefty enough to buy his own forgiveness.”
“And that works?” I ask, briefly forgetting my indignation.
“If a person believes it enough,” the doctor answers. “Atonement by mortification of the flesh is not new.” He focuses on my expression and invites me to return to the interior of the office. “Please, sit, and I can share more.”
Against my better judgment, I find my feet hesitantly trudging in the contritionist’s direction. The weight of one hundred body parts spread about the room press upon me. In coordination with my pace, the doctor returns to his chair behind the desk.
“Talk therapy is talk. This is action,” he encourages.
I find a place on a tufted leather chair. The floor is even, yet it feels like he towers over me. “But I’m not looking for forgiveness,” I say.
“No, I know that,” he acknowledges. The tension of our meeting eases into the space between our exchanges. As he waits for me to continue, he catches my glance at a knife displayed behind his desk. He rotates his chair to take it and places it before me. “Go ahead, you can touch it.”
“No, thank you,” I say.
“May I, then?” he asks.
I shrug, trusting the doctor not to cut me.
“This is a ceremonial dagger—a Kris.” He holds it in his hands, avoiding contact with the metal of the winding and waving blade. The handle is a dirty shade of white, painted over in strict angular designs. “It is an Indonesian dagger,” he informs me, “and it was given as a gift—a token of gratitude from someone who benefited from my services.”
“Do you cut off—“ I start.
“No. It is not a surgical blade.” He shakes his head. “While it is certainly capable of piercing, this is not for excising from the body.”
I reach for the knife and hold it in my hands.
“Be careful not to touch the blade,” the doctor cautions. His reaction seems reflexive.
“Is it that sharp?” I ask.
“No, but the oil on your hands—” the doctor begins before quickly resigning, “You can touch the blade.”
I roll the knife over, mesmerized by its beauty. It’s like holding a museum relic. “I still don’t understand. What do people want forgiveness for so badly?” I ask, returning my attention to the doctor.
“For some, it is merely cause and effect. For example, the man whose penis now resides in a jar, he cheated on his wife. When she discovered the affair, she was—” the doctor waits to find the right words before finishing, “she was displeased.” The doctor shifts in his chair, growing more comfortable with the discussion of the case study. “And in the man’s remorse, he told her that he would do anything to make it up to her. So he did.”
I look at the doctor blankly, expecting a punchline. “Did it work?” I asked.
“Well, she did not take him back, because she wanted a husband who could please her sexually. That angered him so much that he no longer felt remorseful for his indiscretions.”
“But he’s worse-off now than he was,” I contend.
“But he no longer feels remorse, and that is what he paid for,” the doctor says with a raised finger, again emphasizing a lesson of some kind.
My gaze passes him, scanning the shelf of organic things lining the wall. The appendages are difficult to decipher in their alien context—an eyeball floating in a glass; a photograph of a hand impaled upon a spike; an ear artfully removed, flayed, and pinned upon a framed canvas.
“Let me tell you about a more complicated case,” the doctor begins. “Imagine a woman in her mid-forties—a beautiful woman—who has lived her whole life in accordance with the rules society wrote for her. And from childhood through to modern-day, she has lived with crippling depression. She labors to get out of bed in the morning, just as she exhausts herself to accomplish the most mundane chores, and yet there is no reward in any of the pleasantries of life.” The doctor reaches his hand out to me, expectantly.
“How does that happen?” I ask, returning the knife.
“This is a good question and an important one.” The doctor glances at the dagger in his hand and inspects it before continuing. “We have dialogued regarding every aspect of her life, and yet we can find no original sin—so to speak—to account for her misery. Sometimes, a family passes forward its anxieties and traumas intergenerationally until they burden one designated sufferer for the family. This usually results in a tragedy of some kind—disease or addiction, a violent act of murder, or an accident that ultimately ends in death, and this is important,” the doctor points his finger to the ceiling, “because it is only through this kind of trauma that a family can finally grieve and find catharsis to ease multiple generations-worth of pain.”
“So, what does this have to do with the woman?” I ask.
“She is so strong—has been so strong—that she never allowed that tragedy to manifest.” The doctor holds the silence after his statement.
“She cannot sacrifice for the family. She just suffers. Her thoughts, her feelings, behaviors—they’re all so knotted up and intertwined that she cannot pull on a thread to untangle herself.”
“OK,” I say. “But, even so, I still don’t understand what any of this has to do with me.” My eyes meet the doctor’s. “Why am I here?”
“This woman,” he starts again, “has decided that she is finally willing to do anything to free herself from the cycle of her family’s pain. She is ready for something to burst.”
“Great,” I scoff with impatience, “so why am I here?”
The doctor shifts the dagger in his hand again, tightening his grip on the ornate handle. “As it turns out,” he states, “you’re her first-born son.”