Away from the Flock
by Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen
“It doesn’t hurt.”
The two boys hit Andrew’s legs again.
“Did it hurt now?”
Andrew shook his head, his eyes moving from one to the other. They were all about seven or eight.
“How about this?” One of the boys scratched Andrew’s face.
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“It’s my turn,” Andrew said. “I’m gonna kick both of you and you aren’t allowed to cry.”
The two boys looked at each other. One of them turned and ran away from the low bushes, to the water. Now he was in full view of several other children, and one of the adults.
“Come back here,” Andrew shouted. The boy started running by the water, along the tree line. The geese ran away from his path.
* * *
“And you? Are you going to run too?”
Andrew was watching the boy, eyes wide like a stalking cat’s. He put his tongue between his teeth.
“If you hit me,” said the other boy, “I’ll tell Father Achon I found you with your pants down.”
“So tell him.”
“And you were grabbing yourself.”
Without warning, Andrew launched at the other boy and hit him between his legs. The boy’s surprised grunt escaped along with the air in his lungs, and he folded himself in two, on the ground.
Andrew stepped away from him. A vague, distant clamor reached him as he looked at the scattered children throwing stones in the pond, or running. One tall figure in black stood watching him from the other side, and his robes fluttered in the wind.
“Get up,” Andrew said to the boy on the ground. “We’re going back. If you say anything I’ll cut off your dick in your sleep.”
Goose Neck Ridge Retreat was right on top of the hill, its main building hidden between red maple trees and oaks. With the boys gone to the pond, it was still and quiet when the middle aged woman with wheat-color hair came to stand in front of it. She could have gone unnoticed, small as she was, had she not been the only woman entering the building in many hours.
In the large hall, she examined the oversized Jesus in the style of naive paintings that stretched across the entire back wall. A flock of geese was flying above his enormous head, and in the corner of the painting, a fox held a goose by the neck.
“You have a boy at the retreat?” a man’s voice said.
She turned, startled by the bald man next to her.
“I’m looking for Father Achon,” she said. Her voice was as diminutive as her small frame.
“He’s at the lake, with the boys. Five minute walk that way,” he said. “You can’t miss it.”
She turned around and left the building. As she went down the steps, she seemed to remember she was in a hurry. Her face hardened. On the path through the woods, she was running.
At the pond, geese quacked out of her way as she came into the clearing. The grass was groomed. Benches and trees aligned along the water’s edge. Children, and two men in black robes congregated near the benches.
Her son, Andrew, ran toward her when she was close enough to be recognizable. He stopped midway, looking behind him as if asking for approval from the two men. He waited for her and took her hand, and they walked together to the group. She stopped and sent the boy back with the children, saying simply, “Wait for me there.” He joined the others, but kept his eyes on his mother.
She was looking at the older man, Father Achon. He lifted his head as if to smell the air. She took a few more steps and stood in front of him, all the children watching. His hand patted the round head of a child.
“Miss Garrett,” he stated. He lifted his hand to quiet the boys.
She didn’t say anything for a while, but did not look away.
“You came to see Andrew?” he said with slight impatience.
“Can I talk to you?”
Her voice was brisk.
“Of course.” His face expanded in a generous smile. “I’m here.”
“No. I mean, can we walk together,” she said. She looked at the pond, taking a deep breath.
“God’s path is open to those who choose to take it.” He smiled at the boys, then turned to the very young man next to him. “Brother Michael, stay with the children. Will you tell them the weeds story, please,” he added, his voice secretive. “Parable 12,” he said louder.
He stepped toward the woman. He was tall, strong. She did not look up but started walking, as his hand reached toward her back, to guide her. He had to quicken his pace to keep up, as she started on the small trail around the pond. They would be in plain view of the group the whole time.
“Jesus said, whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me,” he explained, keeping his voice calm and kind as if talking to a child. “We do not encourage parents—”
“How is Andrew?” she said over his voice.
“—to join us at the retreat.”
“Yes. How is Andrew?”
He looked at her. His eyes narrowed:
“He is well. He prays, he reflects. He is good in the game room.”
She looked at the group they were leaving behind. Benches and trees were filling the distance between them and the flock of children. Her face turned sad.
“Andrew likes games,” she said. “That’s why I wanted him to go. He spends hours—”
“Yes, you did right by him,” Father Achon nodded.
She looked at him, walking a few feet to his right.
“But you let them play.”
“We have games to strengthen their bodies, and games to open their minds,” he said. His chest buoyed him to look even taller. “We have team games. The children learn to be humble. You see, Miss Garrett, even St. Augustine didn’t think he could live the Beatitudes. Then he saw simple people, humble people live in self-denial.” He looked down. “That’s when he knew he could do it.”
She bent her head too. Her brows gathered into a frown.
“What is it, Miss Garrett, what are you worried about? Worries make us weak in the face of our challenges. Andrew—”
“Faith.” He looked at the sky. “Do you pray, Miss Garrett? You must know, prayer is not just sitting on your knees in the pew. I see you there every Sunday. Prayer is a way of life.”
“I know.” She looked at the grass, avoiding goose droppings.
“Prayer is what we think about through the day. The strongest faith is not—”
“Are you molesting my son?” she said, placing her body right in front of him, blocking his way.
“Am I what?”
“Molesting,” she hissed. “You are molesting my boy,” she shouted now, her face contorted and ugly.
He stopped in his tracks and looked at the group across the pond, as if they could hear. It seemed as if he were no longer breathing, only listening. Facing him, the mother made no other noise. The trimmed bushes quieted their rustling. He blinked a few times, still looking in the direction of the children.
“Miss Garrett—” He staggered slightly, as if recovering from a dizzy spell. “Please, never say that again.”
She scrutinized the group across the pond, like a bear watching her cub. There, all the children had lifted their arms, looking at the sky. Father Michael’s arms swayed like tree branches in front of them.
“You did not answer the question,” she said. Her voice came out soft and forlorn.
He looked straight at her:
“No. I absolutely do not.”
She seemed to absorb his most minute expressions.
“Father Achon. I’ve been coming to your church for fifteen years.”
“Yes, I know. You are—”
“You know I’m raising a child on my own. You’ve heard all my confessions.”
Sweat had gathered on his forehead, where vertical lines converged in a frown.
“Miss Garrett, we all owe each other love, whatever our flaws are. Love is our debt to each other. We owe taxes to the state, we pay taxes. We owe honor to our soldiers, we honor them. But we owe love to everyone.”
Her head bent as if under a blow, yet her chin was hard.
“You dare speak of love!” she said. “Do not—” She swallowed, trembling.
He stepped closer.
“I will love everyone,” he said, “even those who are evil enough to say such things about me. I will not slight even the lowliest in paying my debt of love. But you have to tell me who said such a thing. And when.”
“Father Achon, why would I believe you?”
The geese were silent.
“I cannot leave my son here, you understand.” She looked again at the group of children. “Not until I know for sure.”
“You don’t believe me? Is my word worth nothing to you, Miss Garrett?” His voice grew strong. “How long have we known each other?”
“Andrew has become withdrawn. He plays all day, those video games,” she said fast, as if to herself. “He is hateful when he plays the shoot’m’up games, and I can’t stop him. He has nightmares. I can’t explain how he’s changing. I thought the retreat would help him.”
“Boys copy each other, Miss Garrett, you know that. They’re young. Young in spirit, young in faith.”
“They are so young!” she said with sudden force.
“Do you know the parable of the ten virgins?” He smiled at her from his towering heights. “Just as those wise virgins, the boys will take with them the oil of faith, and they will take more than they need, to last them in their daily life.”
“Oil!” she grimaced.
He looked at her, dumbfounded.
Her voice broke into a cry. He took her by the shoulder, but she stepped away.
“Miss Garret. I never claimed to understand the ways of God completely,” he said, composing himself again as he talked over her head, into the woods beyond. “An arrogant theologian would say God speaks to him every day. I am not arrogant. I will search for answers until the day I die.” He talked fast, retrieving all the words he could from the pages he sermonized. “Jesus, you see, did not want to bring the Pharisees into his group of disciples. And why? Because they could no longer learn, they had closed minds. He wanted the sinners to join him, because they had much to learn. He could change them. He could teach them to love.”
“A child is not a sinner!” Her teeth clenched to the point that it looked like it hurt. “You can’t call a child a sinner!”
“We are all sinners, Miss Garrett. Will you pray with me for our imperfections? Ezekiel 34:16,” he said, his blue eyes consumed with something from within. “I will seek the lost, I will bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” His voice grew incantatory.
“Enough!” she shouted. “Enough!”
A flash of her teeth sparkled for a second, and her breathing turned into a growl. Then she turned abruptly. She sprung away and left him there, anchored solidly in the ground, rooted and unbent.
He waited for her to be far away, and he let a smile illumine his face, his eyes lifting to the tree-colored sun. Just for a moment. From a distance, he watched as the woman grabbed her son’s hand and pulled him away from the flock. Shaking his head, he followed with storm-blue eyes the woman prodding her sullen child, until they disappeared on the trail back to the Retreat Center. With measured steps, he made his way back.
Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen is originally from Romania and currently lives in McAllen, TX where she is an Associate Professor at South Texas College. She has published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, Calliope, Weave, Scintilla, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, Interstice, and others. She received two Pushcart nominations (for fiction and for translation work).