This story is by Anjali Pandey and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
A luminous rind of pale yellow had already begun to encrust the orange-tinged flesh of the translucent sunbeams that playfully darted about the master bedroom of Judge Hawthorne’s mansion. Weaving nimbly through the pleats of the silky white shears that adorned the bay window, the nascent rays of morning light skid across the marble floors and collided sporadically with the broad pillars, expensive statues and antique furniture that constituted the lavish decor of the chamber. In the aftermath of their careless frolic, much of the room lay drenched in the bleeding splatters of a warm glow and, yet, a single portrait that dominated the back wall somehow remained unstained by the brightening beams of sunlight.
As they crept towards the edge of the finely carved oak frame, long shadows that dangled from the canopy of the nearby bed lashed out fiercely to grapple with them. Simultaneously, slithering across the exquisitely chiseled features of the youthful, masculine countenance in the photograph, the darkness tightly tethered the framed image and dragged it into its depths, successfully withdrawing it from the normally ambled paths of visitors’ wandering gazes. The natural radiance of the young man’s personality that blazed at the core of his brilliant blue eyes was, however, difficult to diminish and as the judge fastened his silver cufflinks in place before his dresser mirror, those very eyes suddenly seized his lowered gaze and brought it to rest on their reflected image in the glass. Slightly taken aback by the aggressiveness with which the neglected photograph had commanded his attention, Judge Hawthorne blinked once in bewilderment. Positioned beside his own in the mirror, its reflection channeled a resemblance dampened perhaps only by a difference in age. The image belonged to his son, Jonathan. Although the judge had been consistently and deliberately frugal with the attention he showered on the photo in the past two years, he was not to be intimated by this errant display of audacity. For what his subconscious calculated to be eternity, he persistently bore into his son’s steady gaze with his own, reviving the spirit of a contest in which his opponent, be it the most hardened of criminals, was eventually forced to concede. This time, however, victory was less enthusiastic to impart its blessing and Hawthorne was confronted with a relentless stubbornness that could easily have afforded the basis of the phrase, “Like father, like son.” It was only the shrill tinkle of his housekeeper’s voice announcing breakfast was served that scaled the elapsed time estimate down to a few minutes. Sweeping the file for his latest case from the dresser, the judge descended the stairs to the kitchen.
The inquisitiveness that sculpted the judge’s expression when he began his inspection of the case file was soon dispelled through a disappointed shake of the head. The lack of novelty that infiltrated every aspect of its contents, whether it was the crime, persons involved or proposed motive, drew his disdain. A young man, around 23 years of age had been charged with the murder of the elderly owner of a small dispensary. On the night of the crime, the accused had been seen attempting to persuade the victim to allow him to purchase some cough medicine on credit. The owner had emphatically refused on the grounds that the young man had not yet been able to settle his account from six months back. Witnesses then saw the young man leaving the dispensary looking somewhat haggard and flustered and he was the last person to be seen at the store before the old man was discovered there the following morning, lifeless.
Though the judge could not definitively rule on the defendant’s guilt from the information at hand, a confirmation of his culpability would warrant no surprise. He was, after all, one of meagre means and to Hawthorne, low funds could be equated with low morals and the potential to commit lowly deeds. As harsh as this perspective was, the judge held it steadfastly and it was generally unyielding to exceptions. The legal scaffolding that braced his ideology had invariably abetted the construction of an unwavering belief in the Just-World Hypothesis: people get as they deserve. By this principle, there could be no relevant commonality between him- an upstanding, law abiding member of society- and the likes of the defendant, Edward Miles was his name, who, snared in a tangled mass of laziness and other ill qualities, failed to merit a rise in the ranks.
Outside, the pace of the Christmas Eve snowfall had accelerated with a vengeance and the judge hastened to depart for the courthouse so as not to be late for the first hearing of this fresh trial. Unfortunately, the grudging weather did not issue an empty threat. The main highway was closed and Hawthorne was compelled to travel a route that wound through what could be, in the politest terms, described as, “the more worn part of town.” The shabby buildings were huddled together as if to prevent the frigid winds from seeping between them and numbing the entire locality. The narrow sidewalks were flooded with unkempt people in tattered coats, hankering desperately for a few coins at the windows of the fancy cars that had been diverted in their direction by the blessings of the stormy heavens above.
His thoughts elsewhere, Hawthorne lowered his window and deposited a handful of change in one of the many chipped cups that bobbed eagerly beneath it, a careless air steering the motion of his wrist as he completed the gesture. Glee instantly illuminated the face of the women who had been the fortunate recipient and she gushed warmly, “Bless ya sir, may yer young ones bring glory ta yer name.”
The seemingly pleasing statement stung the judge’s ears like shards of a cruel taunt fragmented by the harsh hiss of the winter wind and he winced at the improbability that the intended boon would ever fructify. Glory to his name? Johnathan, his only child had refused to even bear it. In an attempt to extinguish the pain the memory inflicted, Hawthorne clenched his eyes shut as he recalled the night his son had left home. After many long discussions had morphed into debates and finally erupted in arguments, Johnathan had decided to turn his back on his father’s insistence that he study law and resolved to forge a livelihood as a painter. He had grown intolerant of his father’s disregard for his passion and of the notion that his chosen field of study would shame the legacy of his family. Members of previous generations had long held high posts in the legal profession and enjoyed the wealth that accompanied them. The unwritten law that all successive bearers of the Hawthorne name follow suit was to be upheld unquestioningly. To aspire to became a painter, his father had warned, would warrant him a life of hardship and penury. The poverty to which he referred was not merely one of funds, but implicitly of drive and integrity. The confusion in Jonathan’s heart was never clarified as to which his father despised more: his favoured profession or the social stature of those who struggled with it. Whichever it may have been, the soaring dreams that Judge Hawthorne had conceived for his son were, at present, grounded on the filthy pavement with those of the poor who swarmed his Mercedes, denied of the privilege to ever take flight. In the two years since Jonathan had rejected his identity, Hawthorne had neither seen nor heard from his son.
Eventually, the judge’s vehicle pulled up at the courthouse. Gradually, people began filtering into the room and the low murmur of voices hovered in the air. The lawyers and the jury all having taken their seats, the judge rapped his gavel on the bench to signal for order and requested Mr. Miles, the defendant, be brought in. As the young man took the stand the judge’s shoulders drooped as though for the first time in years they could no longer support his proudly lifted head. A nostalgic haze descended over his tear brimmed eyes as he gazed into the blue eyes of the accused before him. They had somehow resisted the wear of whatever physical illness appeared to plague him and remained bright and vibrant. Slowly, the judge rose to his feet and muttered in a barely audible whisper to the bailiff, “I…I can’t oversee this case…” before disappearing behind the heavy doors that opened into the corridor.
In the stand below, Jonathan Hawthorne’s feeble frame crumpled slightly under the force of his cough. Steadying himself against the rail he mopped his cheek with the back of his hand in an attempt to erase the wet trail a single tear had left behind. It was forbidden for a judge to preside over the case of a family member, and his father, being the proud, upstanding individual that he was, was not one to bend the rules.