A father reminisces about what happened to him forty years earlier when, after confession, for “the first time I knew that I had committed sin.” The occasion for this recollection is the sight of his seven-year-old son being prepared by nuns for his first confession: The father knows that his son does not really believe in the practice—it is “a kind of game” between the nuns and the priest. The father recognizes that his boy, who often calls his father “A Pig,” is “a terrible liar,” given to tantrums. However, the father’s love allows him to understand and value the son’s childishness.
Given hindsight, the father knows that someday his boy “will really do something wicked” and will be overcome with fear. He recalls how he experienced terror when, as a boy, he falsely confessed to an old and feeble priest that he had committed adultery. It was the priest’s reaction to this confession that generated the terror that the narrator knows his son will one day feel: “Then horrible shapes of understanding came creeping toward me along the dark road of my ignorance”—the priest had mistaken him for a girl. To escape, he was ready to tell any lie: “I was like a pup caught in a bramble bush, recanting and retracting,” desperately seeking the words of absolution and penance.
The father recollects vividly his fear and guilt, his sense of being polluted: “I knew that from then on I would always be deceiving everybody because I had something inside me that nobody must ever know. I was afraid of the dark night before me.” He realizes now how the innocence of his son resembles “that indescribably remote and tender star” that he glimpsed in his isolation. This insight converts his son’s mischief into a precious sign of a necessary but now past and irretrievable stage of spiritual development.