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Striding along with her head down, Lilia shuffled along Via della Chiesa in clog sandals to her first-grade class. The grit of the pavement scuffed her already-worn soles. Lilia stared at her feet and could almost imagine a new pair of shoes. Her tear-filled eyes squinted as she looked down the road. Her school appeared to blur, vanishing into the trees that lined the street. 

   Lilia drifted into a daydream. Like her school, she wished she could disappear, too. Lilia missed Little Rose so much, and she wasn’t looking forward to another round of religious studies. 

Past the fenced cement playground stood the elementary school, on November 11th Street, a stone’s throw from Lilia’s front door. Rising two stories in the center of the piazza, the school flanked the only clothing and fabric store and was catty-corner to La Bottega. Lilia let out a familiar sigh of discontent as she walked into her first-floor classroom. 

   Catechism was mandatory for the children of Mussons. Before regular studies, Padre Giuseppe Muninni led the lesson, teaching fundamental doctrine with questions and answers about God, the commandments, mortal sin, penance, prayer, and salvation—a challenging experience to sit through for a group of seven-year-olds.

   “Who made you? Does God exist in other people? What does every sin deserve?” he asked. The room turned cold, and nervous tension rose. The children fiddled in their seats, fearing the priest. Should they disobey him or incorrectly answer a question, he abused them with a hard slap in the face or smacked their hands with his wooden ruler. Drawing her thoughts and attention inward, Lilia rested her cheek on her fist. She tuned out the priest’s sermon until all she could hear was a muffled sound. Chipping away at layers of green and yellow paint on her desk, she prayed for time to pass—but the hands on the clock never seemed to move.

   “Lilia, how can you glorify God?” Padre’s malignant tone startled her. 

Caught off guard, Lilia jolted her head up and blurted out, “Ah, I…I don’t know, Padre.”

Grabbing her by her white-collar, Padre shook Lilia, snapping her out from her dazed state. “Had you been listening, you would know the answer!”

   Lilia trembled in her chair. Rubbing her sweaty palms on her black dress, she felt her heart race. Padre raised his ruler and circled the room, fixing his menacing eyes on his students. The children shrank into their seats, hiding their hands from his sight. Padre filled his chest with air, and raised his head, signaling a position of superiority. He swirled his ruler above the class, “You shall love me and the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

    Padre’s beatings were routine. Although afraid, the children felt they deserved his punishment. Driven by ego and arrogance, Padre flexed his stern religious beliefs and used his power to force his twisted discipline onto the children and families of Mussons. The children’s parents viewed him as a god among men.

Consumed by guilt, fear, humiliation, helplessness, and shame, the children bowed their heads, resigning to his commands.

   “As you are to God, so shall you be to me!”

Lilia quickly drifted off daydreaming out the open window, wishing to escape this compulsory hell. At the foot of her dead-end street, Saint Osvaldo, the village parish, reminded her of the powers that be. Lilia breathed another sigh. Caught between worlds—the control of her mother and the authority of the church—Lilia felt small, oppressed, and insignificant. She couldn’t understand why God had put her here, only that she had to find a way out.

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