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We called it the Little Religion because there were only four members: Gina, the baker’s wife; homeless Owen; Pally, the chestnut farmer; and my brother Curt.
They held services in the town square at noon each day. They were quiet with their worship. The four of them would sit in a circle on the grass, talking in whispers and holding hands. It became a common sight to see them there. Other than that, they spent their time doing ordinary things. Gina would help her husband in the bakery. Owen would wander the town looking for odd jobs. Pally would be on his farm. Just typical, regular things. Curt was the only one who seemed to disappear for long stretches of time.
The only other odd part of the Little Religion was that they never slept inside. Whether it was warm or pouring rain, all four of them could be found sleeping under the stars.
The rest of us in town went to church every Sunday. Once, I saw Curt walking down the dusty path away from the church as we walked towards it. I raised my hand to wave to him, but mother quickly slapped it away. My parents didn’t like to acknowledge him at all since he stopped going to church. But Curt still smiled and waved anyway. His kind eyes fell on me and he said, “Many sunny nights, Justine.”
I warmed at the sound of my name in his voice. I had always loved Curt. He was the perfect big brother. When mother and father kicked him out of the house, I mourned as if he had been killed. Now I only saw him in passing. But every interaction was precious to me.
That day at church, the sermon was about otherness. It seemed to be a common theme as of late. I only half listened. Instead, I watched Gina’s husband, Rick. He sat in the front row, absorbing every word. I think he felt an added pressure to appear devout since his wife no longer attended services with him.
I can only guess that everyone was trying to stay as close to God as possible. The church had never been fuller since the Little Religion sprang up. And then there was the issue of the rumors.
“They worship Satan,” I heard mother whisper to father one night. “I heard they sleep outdoors so they can be closer to Lucifer.”
“Aye, the men at the shop were tellin me so as well. They say Pally has been killin off his goats and then fuckin ‘em before they even go cold.”
I tried to sleep, but I had horrible nightmares of dead goats. One of them rose up and gored Curt in half. I kept closing my eyes and seeing Curt bleeding out of two identical holes in his chest. Even still, he was smiling and telling me, “Many sunny nights, Justine.”
The rumors continued and got worse. My friends would murmur about Gina killing the baby rabbits in her garden and then carrying them around in her mouth. It was said that Owen snuck into people’s houses at night and left blood trails on the furniture. A grain farmer blamed Pally for his bad crops, accusing him of putting a curse on his family.
And then there was Curt. It was agreed that he was their leader. My teacher explained factually that Curt had sold his soul to the devil and his penis had grown two feet long. His carnal appetite was insatiable and he took young women into the woods for unholy relations.
I knew this wasn’t true, but I said nothing to any of it. I knew that if I spoke out of turn, the rumors might turn to me.
This is how it was for a time. The Little Religion continued its small rituals and cultivated a growing fear in the townsfolk. Rumors and accusations flew from every mouth. But it always ended at words. The practitioners were clearly not welcome, but nothing had physically changed.
That is, until Matilda joined the Little Religion.
Matilda had small eyes the same color as her mousy hair. She had nervous fingers that were constantly moving. She had a bad habit of cracking her knuckles during the quiet parts of church. She was twenty four and still living at home. Her social abilities lacked any sort of grace, but we put up with them. After all, she was the daughter of the minister.
When awkward, lonely Matilda sat down with the Little Religion at noon one day, the town erupted in disgust. The accusations had been confirmed. They had corrupted poor Matilda. They were trying to ruin the ministry and cast out God’s children. Suddenly we cared about the stocky daughter of our minister.
And I have to admit, something also changed in me. It wasn’t hatred or fear like the others – it was curiosity. That night, I snuck out of the window and walked along the edge of town. I walked by the bakery and saw Gina sleeping soundly on a bed of rocks. Her face was peaceful. I passed Owen swaying drunkenly on a bench. He sang nonsense words and sipped brown liquor out of a bag. I made my way to the church where Matilda was trying to get comfortable on the sweaty ground.
“Hello Matilda,” I called to her quietly.
She rolled over and smiled at me. For some reason she seemed less odd. Her face was softer and her demeanor less austere. Her voice carried on the windless night, “Hello, Justine. Out for a walk?”
“Aye. I can’t sleep.”
She sat up gracefully. “I used to have a hard time sleeping as well. Until I found the others.”
“The others?” I had stopped walking and now stood almost directly over her.
“Yes, Curt and ‘em all. I feel free for the first time.” She grinned. “You should try it, Justine. Just head to the cave past the fields on the north. You’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Images of dead goats and sex floated through my mind. “Aye, maybe I will. G’night, Matilda.”
“Many sunny nights, Justine.”
I wanted so badly to go back home into my bed. I knew what to expect there. In the far cave I knew nothing. If I trusted what the townsfolk told me, Lucifer himself could be there, waiting for me. But what if Curt was there…
My feet made the decision for me. I started my way across the fields. They were wet with the humidity. Summer’s woolen blanket had draped upon the town. Even this late at night, I began soaking through my dress. My stomach protruded and nearly burst the center buttons. The fields were wide and empty. They had once been home to a plethora of horses, but a break in the fence had been too tempting for any of them to stay. No one had moved any other livestock here. It just sat sullen and green. The nettles reached for my shins, but I carefully avoided their touch. I found myself at the mouth of the cave in no time.
There was a fire illuminating the stone walls. Men were speaking from deep within the cave. I hovered near the entrance. I recognized one of the voices as my brother’s, so I entered cautiously.
“And what did you want me to do?” Curt sounded annoyed. I moved with my hands along the walls to keep me upright.
“Tell her no! Tell her to go the fuck home.”
I didn’t immediately place the other man’s voice. I wondered if it was Pally, but I could have sworn I saw him snoozing on a hay bale outside his farm.
“I couldn’t say no, not in front of the others.” I heard movement from the men as if they were pacing.
“Now what, Curt? You’ve ruined it. You’re going to get her killed!”
“It’s not my fault you can’t control your people!” I had never heard Curt yell like that. My spine tingled uncomfortably. I shifted behind a boulder and the scene lit up before me.
Curt stood angrily opposed from a man who had his back to me. There was a scattering of food and other household items on the floor of the cave. The fire beckoned to me with flame licked fingers. I crouched down a bit more.
Curt put a hand to his head. “Look, I can fix this. I’ll drive her out.”
The man stood still. “I think it’s too late. The townsfolk are to the point of violence. They want you and yours gone.”
“Fine!” Curt extended an open palm. “Pay me what you owe me and I’ll leave.”
The man laughed. “You think I’m still paying you after you co-opted my daughter?” The minister turned and his face was plain to me. His features were twisted into something less than kind. I should have been shocked to see him, but instead, I felt a knot rising in my throat.
Curt stepped forward. “We had an agreement. I start this little cult, get the others to flock back to your church, and you give me enough gold to get Justine out of here.”
“You stupid boy.” The minister loomed over him. “Justine is practically popping. You think I’d ever let her leave with you? I know your secret, you-”
Curt decked him square in the jaw. The minister fell like a tree in a storm. I gasped, and Curt turned to see me. “Justine?”
I stepped forward slowly, my dress clinging to my abdomen. Curt rushed to my side. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” I looked down at the minister. His jaw was crushed. Blood pooled at his head. I turned back to Curt with tears in my eyes. “I thought you left because of me.”
“No, no. I would never leave you. I just knew we needed money to get out of here.” He came to my side and cautiously placed a hand on my belly. “I confessed to the minister the day after you told me. He gave me two options. Either be exposed, or do this little religion he had cooked up. He figured the town needed a common enemy to get ‘em back to God. But it was all for you, Justine. It always has been.”
I took his hand in mine. It felt good, strong. I bent down slowly, careful of my swollen belly, and plucked the keys from the minister’s belt.
“I know where he keeps the collection plate. That will be more than enough to get us off to the next village.” I looked into Curt’s eyes. My love’s eyes. “We will raise this baby like we always wanted to.”
His face softened and a tear fell. “We’ll get back to those sunny nights, Justine. When it was just us falling asleep beneath the stars.”
We walked out of the cave holding hands. It was still dark, but we had many miles more to walk until morning. As long as I had Curt beside me, I knew I could do it. I felt a small kick and knew God was beside us too.
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