By Veronika Corvine
Roland stood outside the door to the special room. He was naked, he was trembling, and he was scared. He knew his flock was behind the door, needing him to take care of them; but he was terrified that if he entered, he would do something horrible.
The old floorboards beneath his big feet creaked under his trembling weight. Nervously, he tried to still his shaking limbs, worried that the vulnerable little creatures behind the door would hear him and become disturbed. Roland calmed his own breathing and forced himself to remain very still, so he could hear what they were doing in there. Faintly, oh so faintly, he could hear the rustle of their gentle movements, and their soft whispering.
Clearly he recalled his therapist’s words: You have to be very careful, Roland. You have to watch your temper. Most people know the strength of their bodies and their emotions, but you often don’t realize until it’s too late. This is what has gotten you into trouble before, and it will again… if you don’t remember to be gentle and calm.
Roland met his therapist after an arrest for assaulting a co-worker, another maintenance person at the hotel. That had been a terrible thing, and Roland had almost lost his job over it. He barely remembered hitting the man; all he could recall was what had led up to it. The younger man, perhaps twenty years of age, was lazy and careless, and preferred baiting Roland to doing any actual work. One day in the lunch room, the young man hid Roland’s lunch sack and laughingly told him he was doing it so Roland could “get rid of that big ole’ gut of yours.” Roland patiently kept asking for it back, remembering to say “please” each time as his mother had taught him, but he could feel himself getting angry. It’s not fair, he thought to himself. I’m saying the magic word and he still won’t give it back. It’s mine, and I said “please.” It’s not fair.
Finally, the fellow grew bored and pulled Roland’s lunch sack from a locker against the wall. Tossing it carelessly in Roland’s direction, he muttered, “There ya go, ya stupid bastard.” The last thing Roland recalled was the word stupid reverberating in his skull as a red film bled over his vision. He came to in the back of a large van, with handcuffs on his thick wrists and blood splattered across his knuckles and down his coveralls.
At the police station Roland was asked what had happened. He had to tell them that he didn’t know. (The other man had regained consciousness in hospital, but couldn’t speak because his jaw was broken.) In all likelihood, Roland would have had to stay in jail but his boss, Mr. Sandhu, came to the police station and spoke up for Roland. He related that Roland had been provoked, and that the injured man had been lazy and looking for trouble; he assured the police that Roland was a hard worker and a trustworthy person who just had trouble relating to people the way everyone else did. Thanks to Mr. Sandhu, Roland was assigned a probation officer and ordered to go to counseling; Mr. Sandhu signed some papers and offered Roland a ride home. On the drive to Roland’s small old-fashioned apartment, Mr. Sandhu said Roland would have to do everything the probation officer and the therapist said or he would not be able to keep him on at the hotel. Terrified, Roland promised to do everything he could.
The therapist was a sympathetic woman with large brown eyes. Her name was Louise, just like Roland’s mother. Instead of asking Roland what happened, she asked Roland to tell her how he felt the day he had the fight. Roland told her he had felt just like his awful days back in the schoolyard, when gangs of tough kids would corner him somewhere and taunt him for his slowness, his stupidity, his big bottom. Sometimes they would throw things. Roland’s mother always counseled him to ignore them and he tried hard to do as she said, but one day the bullies managed to pull Roland’s pants down in front of the girls. His vision went red. That day, the schoolyard bullies learned that behind Roland’s puppy fat and large rear end was a very strong, very angry boy. The resulting injuries to the bullies, in addition to Roland’s abysmal performance academically, resulted in Roland leaving school at age twelve and never returning.
Over the next few weeks, Louise attempted to give Roland some suggestions which she said would help him keep his temper. She constantly reminded him that because he was big, he had powers over others which could seriously hurt them, particularly because he could lose control of his emotions so easily. One day he had to shamefully admit to her that the red film had come over him just because he burnt his toast in the toaster. When he recovered, his toaster was in pieces all over the floor and the offending piece of toast was stuffed down the sink drain.
Louise got an idea. She told Roland that he needed to spend time with others who were so much smaller and weaker than he, that he could not fail to understand his power over them. She said that Roland would learn “by association” that he had to be gentle and caring. “You need something to take care of, and I know just the thing. I’ll have it all set up for you when you come for your appointment next week,” she said.
The idea excited Roland tremendously, and he was pleased Louise wanted him to do something with so much responsibility. But that night, he lay awake in agitation. What if the red film came over him, what if he disappointed Louise? Since the death of his mother five years previously, he had only had Mr. Sandhu to please but Mr. Sandhu had Roland looking after a hotel. Roland knew about setting up tables and chairs at weddings, and hanging decorations at parties. He knew how to set up microphones and speakers for presentations. Sometimes he had to bring a mop and bucket if some child had too much cake at a party and threw up; sometimes he had to unclog toilets and mop floors. Mr. Sandhu’s hotel was made of bricks and steel, and Roland supposed he might do some damage looking after a hotel but nothing that would bruise his knuckles or bloody his coveralls. He was fearful that he would fail at Louise’s task. Then he got a brilliant idea – an idea so brilliant he couldn’t quite believe he had thought it up out of his own dumb head. I will find my own special project, he thought delightedly. When I see her next week, I’ll have my own special task and I’ll be able to tell her I’ve started the project myself. And I’ll show her how well I’ve been taking care of it for a week already, and she’ll be so proud.
Ironically, it was at the hotel the next day that Roland saw his great opportunity. He was on top of a ladder, looking down at a big celebration underway. He didn’t know what it was; probably a birthday or an anniversary, because there were lots of signs up with a number printed on them and he knew birthdays and anniversaries always had numbers connected with them. Looking down, he saw a group of children playing with a bunch of helium balloons. Just off to the side of the big crowds, on their own in a corner, dancing about with no adults paying them any attention. Alone, delicate, and vulnerable.
He waited until the party was almost over before he made his move. He was a little nervous about luring them away, but none of the big people seemed to notice when Roland approached the gay little group with his hand outstretched. Roland was concerned Mr. Sandhu wouldn’t approve though, so he made sure that he and his new friends exited by one of the service doors near the parking lot.
Back home, he let the little ones loose in his living room where they scattered about cheerfully while he prepared the extra room for their special use. He taped over the broken pane in the window so they wouldn’t cut themselves, and he took the cushions from his sofa and scattered them around the room so they would have soft places to rest. Gently, he led them each into the room and he closed the door on them and went to bed, feeling very responsible and good. A half-remembered bible story drifted through his mind, and as he slipped into sleep, he thought I am the Good Shepherd. I tend my flock.
Over the next few days, Roland began to notice how frequently these poor things were left to their own devices at parties. Everyone seemed to want them there but the adults frequently looked right through them, or past them. It was very easy for Roland to take them away, and at the hotel there was no shortage of parties where he could harvest new members for his flock.
He was getting worried about them, though.
At home he rarely opened the door except to let the new ones in, because he was still worried that he might do something to hurt them, however accidentally. The first morning he had gone in to check on them, they crowded around him and one of them bumped hard against the screwdriver protruding from his utility belt. This had resulted in a very bad injury and a deafening noise from his flock. After this he would only enter the room when he was wearing his pajamas or nothing at all.
But he was worrying that perhaps he was not doing enough for them. Keeping them warm, and off the streets, and away from broken glass or sharp objects didn’t seem to be enough. They had companionship (one another) and his intense love from behind the safety of a strong door, yet when he peeked in on them he could tell they lacked the vibrant playfulness they had exhibited at the hotel. They moved around less, and their whispers and excited squeaks had died down to almost nothing. His flock was listless, and their lovely soft skin seemed duller and less smooth than before. Roland thought about feeding them, but had no clue what to provide for them… and, recalling his bad experiences in cleaning up vomit at parties, he worried he might feed them something that would do more harm than good. He had seen people hug their children, and wondered if he should try hugging but was too scared to touch them very often in case he bruised their delicate bodies; also, he had only one more day to go before his appointment with Louise and he figured that the less time he spent with them the less chance there was that he could hurt them before he took them to her.
Last night he had stood outside the door, as he was doing now, naked and scared. “Please, just one more day… just hang on, I need to show her I can take care of you.” The silence from behind the door was dreadful. He had cracked the door open slightly, and in the faint moonlight from the window he saw they looked worse than ever, and that the hot room smelt musty and had a strange underscent that hinted of something foul. Quietly he had shut the door and, lying on his bed that night, he had cried for the first time since his mother’s funeral five years ago.
Now, in front of the door, he had a choice to make. His flock had spoken to him in his sleep. The largest member, the one that had always seemed the gayest, arrayed in bright blue, had talked with him in a dream. Set us free, Roland. You can’t look after us, you can’t help us. We are smothering in this hot room, we are going to shrivel up and die. Set us free.
Could that be the right thing to do? Roland ran a sweaty palm across his forehead, and tugged at his hair. A bead of sweat ran off his protruding belly and he felt it splash on his bare foot, startling him. Just then, his phone rang – shrill and unexpected. He cried out, and ran to pick it up lest the racket disturb his charges.
“Roland? Roland, it’s Louise. Just wanted to make sure you won’t forget our appointment this afternoon… today I have something special for you. Are you still coming?” Louise, safe and ignorant in her expensive office, gently poked the end of her pen through the bars of the birdcage on her desk. The pretty little finch in the cage gave a soft chirp and tried to nibble the pen with its delicate beak. It jumped up and down on its perch, making the card tied to the cage handle (“To Roland, from your friend Louise”) flutter also.
Roland unstuck his tongue from the roof of his dry mouth. His eyes shot across the room to the closed door and, finally, he knew what he had to do.
“Yes,” he said defeatedly. “I’ll be there. Alone.” Before Louise could question this odd statement, Roland hung up.
With a heavy heart, he dressed in his coveralls but left the tool belt lying on his hall table. He gathered up his flock from the special room, and herded them quietly down the stairs. He wept, seeing how sick they looked, knowing it was his fault. They crowded quietly in the back of his big old panel van; three of them lolled listlessly on the old chunks of carpet that lined the floor. Roland dropped the van into gear and headed for Champlain Lookout.
He parked the van at the bottom of the hill and eased his flock one by one out into the brilliant sunshine. He guided them up the hill, taking care that none of them go astray. They all paused at the edge of the Lookout, and stared at the sky above and the glistening blue river below. Roland looked at his flock, and they stared silently back. He brought them to the very edge of the drop.
Set us free, Roland. So said the flock. And in his head he could hear his mother also. Yes, set them free, son. I’ll look after them for you.
Suddenly, a weight lifted from his heart. A brisk breeze lifted his hair, and, grinning madly, Roland tossed his flock one by one over the Lookout.
The shepherd laughed with delight as a dozen brightly coloured balloons left his hands and went up, up to the sky, light as feathers, free as birds.