STRENGTH

Rosemarie Hauer


Vincent sat before his opened journal, pensively twisting the pen between his lingers. Slowly uncapping it, he began to write. A familiar footfall from outside broke his concentration, and he looked up to meet Fatherís gaze as he entered the room.

"Iím sorry to disturb you, Vincent, but I need you to talk with Geoffrey and Zach. I know you must be tired from your repair work at the bridge across the Great Chasm, and I would do it myself, but Iíve just received a call from Kanin and Olivia. Luke has run a fever, and they are both worried. Please could you...?"

"What happened between Geoffrey and Zach?" Vincent inquired, recapping his pen.

"They had a fight, and Geoffrey hit Zachís nose so hard that it bled quite profusely. Now they both claim that they hate each other and wonít talk with each other ever again. Mary told me that both boys are deeply upset, but Iím afraid thatís about all I can tell you. Maybe you should talk to Mary first."

"Donít worry, Father," Vincent said, rising from his chair, "I will try to calm the boys as best I can. You go on and tend to little Luke."

"Thank you, Vincent," Father mumbled and was gone.

As he closed his journal, Vincentís thoughts went back to a similar incident between his brother Devin and himself. Devin had accused him of something he hadnít done and pushed him in the process. Even though it went back so many years, Vincent could still taste the rage he had felt as he had lashed out and left three deep gashes on Devinís cheek.

Maybe it would have been advisable to talk to Mary first, but it was late, and if he wanted to talk to both boys before their bedtime, he had to hurry.

Zach was still in the hospital chamber, propped up against several pillows and reading. His features brightened considerably as he looked up and saw Vincent entering the room. Vincent could feel the boyís relief that it wasnít Father who had to come to lecture him. To be honest, he could understand Zach quite well, remembering with a wry smile how uncomfortable one could get when Father was angry. Fighting among the children had always been on top of Fatherís list of prohibitions.

Vincent met Zachís expectant gaze with solemnity, and finally the boy cast down his eyes.

"Will you tell me what happened?" Vincent prompted gently, sitting down on the edge of the cot without taking his eyes from Zachís face. The flicker of uneasiness on the boyís features didnít go unnoticed.

"Geoffrey hit me," he said simply.

Vincent waited patiently, wordlessly for him to continue. When nothing was forthcoming, he coaxed softly, "And?"

"And I bled," came the evasive response.

"So Geoffrey hit you unjustly?" Vincent inquired, raising one brow to enhance his disbelief.

Zach shrugged non-commitally. "I guess I teased him a bit. How could I know that he would react in such an overly sensitive way?"

"You said something that hurt his feelings," Vincent pointed out. "Did it really come as a surprise for you that he acted on the impulse to return his own pain to the one who had inflicted it upon him?"

"I guess not," Zach conceded reluctantly. "It just took me off-guard that he..." Leaving the thought unfinished, he stared up at the ceiling, before he returned his gaze to the book in his lap.

"You didnít expect him to have the strength to actually hurt you, did you?" Vincent surmised.

Zach's embarrassment was evident in every line of his posture. "I guess it was mean to tease someone whoís so much younger," he mumbled evasively.

"Is that what you feel or what you think I expect you to say?" Vincent pressed on relentlessly.

Slightly unnerved, Zack snapped the book shut and put it on the nightstand with a thump. "So whatís your point, Vincent?" he asked with barely concealed exasperation.

But Vincent only kept looking at him evenly, knowing that at this state of their discussion words would only lead to a clashing of standpoints. What he could do to make the boy see his plight more clearly, he had done. From here, Zach would have to work it out on his own.

Reaching out to squeeze the Zachís shoulder reassuringly, Vincent rose and left the chamber.

Geoffrey was huddled up on his bed in the dormitory. When he heard Vincentís approach, he hugged his knees even tighter to his body, refusing to look up. One by one the other children were filing in, returning from their bath and preparing for bed, and Vincent decided that this was not the place to talk about such a delicate matter.

"Please would you take a walk with me, Geoffrey?" Vincent asked softly.

Nodding, the boyís head came up and Vincent could see that his eyes were swollen and redrimmed from crying. Extending one large hand, he helped Geoffrey from the bed, and they left the dormitory, aware that countless pairs of eyes were following them speculatively.

"I hate him," Geoffrey ground out between clenched teeth, as they were barely out of earshot. Thinking it unwise to respond to that right away, Vincent just placed a comforting hand on the boyís shoulder, surprised by the tension he encountered there.

"So would you please just punish me and leave me alone again?" Geoffrey asked tersely.

"I didnít come to punish you," Vincent remarked, slowly withdrawing his hand.

"Then what?" Geoffrey inquired, fidgeting impatiently.

"I came to find out if there is anything I can do for you," he replied simply.

"Yeah, you could teach me how to fight more efficiently," the boy retorted, and Vincent flinched inwardly under the implications of that request. Momentarily at a loss as to what to say, he just walked on beside his young charge. After a while he stopped and squatted down, turning the boy so he had to face him.

"And then?" Vincent inquired intently. "What would you do after I had taught you how to fight... more efficiently?"

"I would make sure that everyone knows that they better stop saying mean things me," the boy said defiantly.

"How would you do that?" Vincent probed gently.

Struggling against the persistent grip of Vincentís strong hands, Geoffrey averted his face. "You of all people should know," he mumbled angrily.

Vincent swallowed hard. He had not been aware that any of the children would look at him that way. Struggling to keep his breathing calm and his voice even, he demanded, "Could you be a little more precise, Geoffrey?" He dreaded the answer. Oh, how he dreaded it! But there was time to deal with his own conflicts later.

The boy turned and looked at him contritely. "Iím sorry, Vincent," he stammered. "I didnít mean for it to sound that way. I... itís just..." He lifted his hands in a gesture of helplessness, and Vincent held out his arms to draw him in. With a quiet sob, the child dissolved into his embrace, his shoulders shaking from crying. "Iím not a bastard," he gasped. "I knew my parents, and they loved me. They just couldnít..." The rest of his outburst was muffled against Vincentís massive chest, as he stroked the boyís reddish shock of hair soothingly.

"You are strong, Geoffrey," Vincent began, when the sobs wouldnít stop. "That is a great responsibility." Geoffreyís head came up, and beneath the tears Vincent could see a new confidence forming. "When others provoke you," he continued, "you will feel the urge for retaliation, for hurting them just as much as they hurt you."

"So what do you do when you feel that way?" the boy asked hopefully.

"I try, just for a second, to look at myself through their eyes," Vincent answered candidly. "Then I can usually guess why they do what they do; whether they are a real threat to my life or to that of others, whether they just want to hurt me out of spite, or whether they carry some unsolved problem within themselves that makes them lash out mindlessly. Then I try to act accordingly."

"Wow," Geoffrey said admiringly. "And does it work?"

Vincent shook his head, hiding a smile. "Not always," he confessed truthfully, "but at least afterwards I have the small consolation that I tried." He knew that these words could only be an intimation of the complex thoughts and emotions every act of violence entailed, but they had to do. For now they just had to be enough.

"Maybe Zach called me a bastard, because he doesnít know his own parents," Geoffrey mused aloud.

Relief flooded Vincentís soul, and he hugged the boy to him once more. This time, he seemed to have found the right words to guide the child towards a more mature point of view. "Probably," was all he could say, too moved to tell the boy right away how proud he was of him.

"I hit him pretty hard, didnít I?" Geoffrey boasted smugly as they made their way back to the dormitory.