There’s blood on the snow where the three-legged hound killed a rabbit. The snow is two feet deep and still falling with deceptive gentleness through a blue-grey sky. The ice on the road makes walking dangerous, and the frigid air whitens my breath and chills my marrow, but I must venture out today.
My only child, Stephen, was sighted in the town yesterday. Maybe returned to see his friends or to help his mother. Not to see me or to help me. It’s been ten years since I’ve heard his voice or held his thin body against my chest. That was when he was in school, still under my roof and under my thumb, a delicate boy with pale hair and anemic skin tinged with blue, like ice over water. I did what I could to harden and strengthen him, but with little success.
Then in December he turned eighteen and turned his back on us. No, on me. My wife still spoke to him and sent him money in secret.
When I found out, I lost my temper. “Don’t make it easier for him!” I yelled. “Insist that he come home if he wants help.”
“He has all the power now, Jacob,” she said dully. “You had it before, but he has it now.” I didn’t understand what she meant. Not then.
She promised to obey me but I found out later that she’d lied. We parted soon afterwards without rancor. Letting her go was easy. I no longer loved her.
But Stephen, bone of my bones, whom I love as I love myself, I cannot let go. His loss hurts like steel in flesh, like snapping tendons. I’d rather lose a foot.
Still, I’m a powerful man. My love will prevail. I will bring him home.
The dark quiet of the church calms me with its stone pillars, slate floors, and scents of incense and candle wax. I’m nervous being back here. I’d have preferred to stay away but my mother needs to see me, and she’s too ill to travel.
I hope she’ll be well enough to make our planned meeting at noon. I believe she’ll be comforted to see how I’ve grown. I’m a husband, now, and a father and a scholar, with a deep voice, more muscle, and even a wispy beard.
I hear the door scrape and bang and rise to meet her. And then I realize with a shock that it’s not my mother. My father has come instead. I step back, wishing to fade into the background, but I must stand out like an albino rabbit against scorched ground.
“Stephen!” His voice rings in the cavernous nave. A shaft of light illuminates his face, the florid skin, the coal eyes that glow with an inner heat, the charcoal beard now dusted with ash.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” I say.
“But you’re my child.”
“I’m not a child,” I protest in a boy’s voice.
He sighs deeply. “My son, then.” He pauses. “That’s not something you can give up. Not like being a friend or a husband. Being my son is written into every cell of your body.”
Irrefutable logic, his stock in trade. Irresistible force. That’s why I left. Having no answers to his questions, I felt myself dwarfed, defeated, culled.
But I have an answer now. I square my narrow shoulders, and ask, “Should I throw those cells, and myself, off a cliff? Would that get rid of you?”
He steps back, his face a shade lighter. Have I hurt him – with the idea that I would rather die than accept my ties to him? Was hurting him part of my plan all along? I don’t like to think so. I prefer to think of myself as a gentle soul just trying to survive.
“Suit yourself,” he says with a large shrug and turns away.
He moves more slowly than before, feet wider apart, as if he’s afraid of falling. I’ve won, I think.
But then he turns and approaches me again. My muscles tense, waiting for the blow.
He opens his mouth twice before beginning. “I love you, Stephen,” he says in an unfamiliar voice. “If you need to be apart from me, do it, and with my blessing.”
I watch him, unsure how to respond. I will not be grateful. What he’s giving is not his to give. I don’t need his permission to leave.
And yet… If he’s telling the truth, he’s offering to withdraw that shadow of his resentment that has cast a gloom over my existence for ten years. It would be something to escape that.
The boy, man now, I suppose I should say, stares at me for a long time, trying to discern my meaning. Are my words genuine? Have I really changed? Or is this a ruse to ensnare him, just another attempt to regain control?
I hardly know how to answer these questions myself.
I want him to believe me, I know that. I want him to believe that I’ve changed for the better. Because I love him.
But what is love?
Love is two desires battling in my chest. I want him to be mine and I want him to be happy. The desires thrust against each other like fighting mastiffs, tearing flesh, snapping bones, trailing blood-laced saliva.
I examine Stephen’s face. Being away from me has made him stronger. His weakness was my doing.
Then suddenly one dog whimpers and submits. One desire has proved stronger.
I turn before Stephen is forced to reply, stumble down the aisle, and push through the heavy door, out into the winter light. I’m almost blinded by the sun, smeared behind the egg white sky reflected in the glittering snow. I close the door without looking back.
I’m a strong man. Like Stephen. I can learn to walk without a foot.