He worked all day in the fields, starting when the dew shimmered on the cool grass and pausing only to drink a little water in the high heat of the midday sun. Great, dark circles of sweat, dried now, stain his cloak and the blisters on his hands are open, oozing. He’s spent, exhausted and under the exhaustion simmers a low-level frustration at all that remains to be done. Looking up, he notices that slowly, one by one, the
servants are dropping their tools and heading toward the house.
Soon he’s alone in the field, the only one
He finishes his
row then stops to tidy up the poorly finished work of a hired hand. Mumbling to himself, he thinks how nice it
would be if they could hire someone as diligent, as neat in their work as him. Someone who shows up on time and
doesn’t quit til the job’s done and maybe even works an extra hour or two. He smiles a wry smile, imagining a whole
field full of workers, carbon copies of himself moving in lock-step to get the
job done the right way.
The image is quickly followed by the thought that just two of him would be enough and his smile fades as the memory of his brother
returns. With the memory comes a surge
of anger that swells from somewhere deep in his gut, rising like bile before he
quickly and automatically swallows it back down.
He has a headache that’s made worse by the glare of the late setting sun and his shoulders are tight and
stiff. With a sigh, he turns toward the
He walks slowly,
dreading the quiet dinner with his father who too often sits staring into the
distance. When he’s not staring he talks longingly about old days when the two boys bustled through the house and
fields together, tumbling along after their father like puppies, eager and excited. Though shaded with joy and laughter, the stories are too familiar and from a past too distant to feel real and the most the older brother can muster in response is a sullen and sulky silence. Every time he launches into his own story about a detail of the day’s work he’s haunted by the uneasy feeling that his father’s isn’t really listening. Loosing confidence, he slows and lets the story hang unfinished over the table, like a question that has no answer.
Climbing the small slope toward the house, he senses a hum of energy in the air, something like the pause before a long-awaited storm. In the distance, the servants appear to bustle with excitement. One runs past shouting and another runs in the opposite
direction wearing a look of surprise and astonishment.
With the excitement comes music, loud and cheerful, that gets louder with every step and grates on
his already aching head.
The music is pierced with shouting and singing as though a party were in full swing.
Grabbing the sleeve of a servant running by, he demands to know what’s going
servant’s look of joy vanishes as she stares into the older brother’s questioning
eyes. The feeling that she’s been caught doing something she shouldn’t is immediate, but she pushes it
down, trying to regain her cheer. Breathlessly, she explains, “Your brother
has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him
back safe and sound.”
Her words don’t make sense.
He stares at her, not comprehending.
Taking advantage of the moment, the young girl runs off, back toward the house, visibly shrugging off the older brother’s dark look as
she draws closer to the music and dancing.
Scraps of the
servant’s words, “Your brother.” “Your
father.” “The fatted calf.” echo inside his head as he
tries to make sense.
When it finally
dawns on him his back stiffens and he draws back, pulling himself up to full
height as he looks toward the house. His heart that was already
brittle, stiff and sore turns to stone and sits heavy in his chest.
“Your brother.” “Your father.” “The fatted calf.”
The duty, the devotion that carried him through the long, aching day, gives way without warning to a deep rage. He turns and strides off into
the quickly falling darkness like a lost soul.
He paces behind the house. He can’t go home, yet
he doesn’t know where else to go, so he broods like a storm cloud on the
Then his father is there, his face full of apology and understanding and unspeakable joy at the
younger brother’s return. Had his father commanded him to join the party, he would have obeyed, but it’s the
old man’s pleading, his unwillingness to just leave him alone in the cool
darkness that forces open the cloud of furry that’s been growing older
motivations and his deep sense of being unloved come pouring out in a torrent
of rage. A deep complaint wells up from within his heart, “Listen!” he barks, raising his calloused hand, commanding the attention that’s already his, “I’ve been working like a slave
for you.” His voice is high, sharp and piercing and spittle flies with his emphasis.
His tirade continues, each sentence flying at the old man who stands with watery eyes, his hands hanging at his sides, palms up, as if in preparation for an embrace.
The party continues, the music rising and dropping in the background as the son spews the anger and hurt that has been his companion in the years since his brother abandoned them both.
Finally, embarrassed and sweating, he’s done and stands, breathing heavily, eyes averted. He’s told his version of the story and waits empty-handed for his father to confirm or deny it.
“I’ll leave,” he thinks, in the pause that comes after the fading of his words. Desolate, he lifts his head briefly as if in challenge before turning his muscled body toward the night.
Light as a feather, his father’s wrinkled hand shoots out and catches his sleeve, holding it tight with the fierce strength of love as he speaks the only word he knows can break the darkness, “Son,” the old man said, “son.”