This story is by Lindsi McIntyre and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The road home had never seemed so long in his youth but then, he’d never had to walk the path as a child. Carriages, and when he was older, horses, had carried him easily across the hundred acres that made up his father’s estate. Now the dirt road stretched out beneath his feet in an endless ribbon, winding through the prosperous vineyard that stretched to either side.
The manor was still far out of sight.
Blisters sent stabbing pain shooting into his legs with every step. The strips of cloth wrapped around his feet, ripped from what was once his tunic, did little to protect them from the stones along the road. His bare back burned under the midday sun. At least the ache in his stomach had eased somewhat, though a belly full of dirt brought its own discomfort.
There had once been a time when he’d dressed in the finest silks and eaten the richest foods. Benoni bit the inside of his cheek as heat rushed to his face. How had he fallen so far? No. It was a fool’s question. He knew the answer. Frivolous spending. Laziness. Pride. All of that and more had led to his downfall as surely as an ax fells trees.
Benoni had lost everything. It had been in the midst of that desperation, while his eyes hungrily watched pigs feeding from their trough, that he’d realized the idiocy of his current predicament.
Why was he subjecting himself to such humiliation? All he had to do was return home and beg for forgiveness. Surely Father will see how destitute I am and have pity. That thought had carried him to the once familiar road with a step lighter than he’d had for several months.
But now, only miles from his destination, doubts assailed him. What if he doesn’t want me? Of course, he wouldn’t. Not as a son. His stomach churned painfully. But surely…Surely he’ll at least agree to make me one of his servants. That would be enough.
The sound of hooves pounding the earth at his back brought his head down. The thought of being seen, worse recognized, sent his head spinning as blood rushed through his veins. The rider passed by without incident and carried on his way. Benoni sighed in relief.
He wasn’t ready. But he would be by the time he reached the manor. His gaze landed on the dirt layered over the cloth wrapped around his feet and the frayed edges of his pants. Tears stung the back of his eyes. He hated the thought of showing up dressed like a beggar, but he didn’t have anything else to wear. Besides, wasn’t that what he was?
He bit his tongue and leaned his head back fighting off the tears. He was not going to cry. As if I need to add tears to the mess Father will already find arriving on his doorstep. Not to mention the added shame of it.
Benoni regained control. Down the road, he spotted the rider already several feet ahead. The man had picked up the pace after passing. No doubt wanting to get away from the beggar in the streets behind him as quickly as possible.
Benoni recognized the purple stitching along the man’s pearl white tunic. Father’s man. Only one of many servants. The sharp look of his clothes and the healthy look of his horse proved that even the role of his father’s servant was to be envied. Again Benoni’s spirits buoyed. The pain in his steps was a small price to pay for the promise of life.
But why would he want a servant like you?
The thought flashed through Benoni’s mind out of nowhere distracting him from the path. A particularly sharp rock stabbed into his heel. He fell to one knee with a cry of agony. But far worse was the pain that shot through his chest. Why would he want such a servant? Tears, from pain surely, began to slip from the corners of his eyes and dripped onto his knees. He didn’t bother wiping them away. The man on horseback disappeared around the corner up ahead.
Benoni stayed on the ground where he’d fallen. He couldn’t bring himself to stand and quickly lost track of how long he knelt there, but at some point, movement drew his gaze back to the road ahead. There, at the top of the hill the servant had vanished behind some time before, a man stood overlooking the road. A man whose bearing Benoni would have been able to recognize anywhere.
His father’s eyes swept the street below and came to rest upon him. Benoni froze. He had felt the power of those eyes many times before, usually warmly, yet now it felt as if his father was looking into his very soul. Searching. Finding. Judging. Heart pounding, Benoni held his breath.
Then his father turned and walked away.
Benoni collapsed. His fingers dug into the dirt. Tears flowed freely down his cheeks, leaving muddy trails along his fingertips. It was over. His father had abandoned him. Not that Benoni blamed the man. Wasn’t I the one to turn away first?
Yet the pain. The pain of it.
The sound of footsteps, rushing so quickly they kicked every rock in their path, pierced through the wave of self-pity. Benoni looked up to find his father sprinting toward him with a smile on his face bigger than Benoni had ever seen before. The man’s perfectly trimmed hair whipped wildly in the wind. His silken robes, always kept so stately, fluttered about in an inelegant display. He looked like a mad-man.
Benoni was so shocked he didn’t think to wipe the tears from his cheeks until his father was nearly to him. The speech he’d practiced in his head spun away like threads fraying in the breeze as his father fell to the ground and pulled Benoni into his arms.
“Son. My son. You’re home.”
Benoni had never seen his father cry before. Now tear tracks ran through the dirt that had covered the older man when he’d joined Benoni on the floor. The sight twisted his gut and nearly sent his dirt dinner back up. “Father-” He cleared his throat. “My Lord. I am not worthy to be called your son. But if you could see it in your heart to take me as your servant-I’d spend the rest of my life making things up to you.”
His father shook his head. “I won’t hear of it.”
Benoni’s heart sank with his gaze. So, this really was the end.
“Ben. You’re always going to be my son.”
Benoni looked back into his father’s eyes and saw the same warmth, the same joy, and the same love that had always been there throughout his life. That love, and the tears flowing freely from those grey eyes, released the pitiable stopgap he’d placed on his own.
His father hugged him close once more. “And nothing. Nothing. Will ever change that.”
Benini cried into the older man’s shoulder until his chest ached from the pressure of it. Until his head felt it would explode from it. He cried more than he had ever cried before. He cried until he couldn’t cry anymore.
Once the tears were spent he sat back, belatedly realizing that his pain had muddied his father’s robes even further. He wiped ineffectively at his cheeks and looked up, feeling like a child. His father smiled down at him as if he were. Instead of patronized, Benoni’s chest warmed and the pain there eased.
His father pulled him to his feet. “Come on. Let’s go home.” Benoni leaned heavily on his father’s arm, while his father held the extra weight with ease. Then the two slowly made their way down the road together.