Birds of Prey

“What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid.”

- Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Father Cutler strained to look dignified but the air-conditioner rattling against the bars in the window distracted him. It blew a cold, stale air into his face and he blinked as his eyes dried in the breeze. When he spoke his voice sounded small, swallowed by the concrete room and the hum of the old GE.

He made a stiff gesture at the book on the table and said, “I read that years ago. It’s commonly recognized as an allegory about the pursuit of perfection but it could also be a justification for self-indulgence.”

Spread across the table was a series of large color photos of women with bruised faces and lifeless eyes. On top of the photos were a manila folder, a crushed pack of Marlboros and a frayed copy of Jonathon Livingston Seagull, open and facedown with creases running down its spine. The back cover was torn and the pages were a faded yellow.

“Yeah,” Royce was slouching in his chair across from Father Cutler and holding the edge of the table. His hands were hard, dry slabs and his fingernails had been chewed to ragged sickles, “I guess you know something about allegories.” He stretched his fingers wide to inspect his nails and his hands were large enough to palm a basketball. “I picked that up at a yard sale a few years ago but listen; let’s skip the birds. I wonder if maybe something else is on your mind.”

Father Cutler looked serious, “I’m using Bach to set the context but there isn’t a topic more worthy of discussion. The seagull follows a very human path, one that teeters between godliness and selfish damnation.”

“That’s cute, Father, but this isn’t about straying. It’s about walking perpendicular to the path.”

The priest opened his hands to the ceiling and smiled, “The line is thinner than we sometimes believe and the laws, whether they are defined by Man or God, are ultimately interpreted by people. And people make mistakes, Mr. Royce, which is why we need God’s forgiveness.” Father Cutler leaned forward and his chair let out a low metallic groan, “You and I, we have seen the worst of humanity and can’t help but imitate what is familiar. We are products of our environment and, believe me, we all have our moments of weakness.”

Royce stared at the priest for a moment then slowly smiled. He wagged a thick, calloused finger at Father Cutler and drawled, “Boy, you are some piece of work. I tell you what; I’m going to get some coffee. You relax here and enjoy the reading material. When I get back we’ll continue confession.” Royce eased his formidable bulk to his feet and lumbered to the door.

Father Cutler frowned and massaged his wrists where the handcuffs were chafing his pale, white skin. He reached out with both hands and began flipping the photographs facedown, one by one.