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Prodigal

I shiver uncomfortably. The long, heavy crocheted blanket keeps slipping off of my lap and pools onto the floor. I grab at it hopelessly and finally give up the pursuit. Shiver I must, and if I must, I will with all my might and main.

The nurse sobs quietly in the corner, kneeling down, mumbling, incomprehensible and inert. It’s hard to think with the undercurrent of her weeping pervading the silence.

The room feels too spacious and empty, too cold and dark and whispery. There’s not enough light to combat the distant, malevolent shadows closing in on me. The windows let in a cool, impersonal glow, sharply cutting across the paneled floor. I’d rather no light at all. It does nothing to comfort me. I toy with the thought of starting a fire, but the fireplace lords itself so imposingly on the far side of the room that I lose my courage. Better to sit and freeze than to cross the seeming miles to the gaping mouth littered with ashen remains.

I rub my nose ruefully. It’s like someone stuck a slab of ice on my face.

Finally, the welcome sound of the creaking door that I’ve waited forever to hear. I hastily stumble, flinging the wrappings from my booted feet. Looking up I see the doctor. His small eyes seemed buried in layers of crinkly wrinkles and his bushy eyebrows insult the name of eyebrows. More like eye bushes. In perturbed and harangued shock he takes me in.

“I came as soon as the nurse telephoned. The roads are ice…what are you doing here?”

I gulp. “The nurse ‘phoned me, and I came. Please—she’s really in a horrible condition.”

“So you hear,” the doctor eyes me with maniacal hatred. “You didn’t even re-light the fire in your mother’s room?”
“N—no. I…” I hadn’t even realized the receding frame of light from the doorway.
He furtively stares at the distant door. He refuses to meet my eyes.


“I’ve seen cases of this flu ever since winter began. It’s been brutal. Son, I don’t know if I can save her. It all depends.”

“On what?”

He meets my eyes squarely. “On her will to live.”

I gulp a second time and it’s my turn to avoid his blatant stare. I have not seen her, for the meeting will be too painful to bear. Her thoughts must be of severe loathing of the hottest type, a fire sustaining her waxing life for this long. I wonder desperately if my guilt will ever lessen.

I wake from my melancholy thoughts and become aware that the doctor is no longer beside me, aware of the stinging cold and his muffled ministrations in the next room. I sit again. There’s nothing to do but wait, to sit and hope against all logic and reason that her death can be averted. I lie down and bang my head painfully on the bench. Better to sleep now when there’s nothing for me to do than to be tired later at the crisis.

I wake to violent, frenzied shakings. I cry out as pain stabs my cold, stiff body.

“Up,” he commands. My eyes swim into focus. The doctor.

“Wha—how long have I been asleep?” I mumble.

The doctor pulls me up and I wince. “Too long. There’s little time.”

He propels me to the sick room and feeble light frames the doorway. I hesitate. Do I really want to go in there? No, no. I want to run into the frozen night, away from sick women and harried doctors, away from the small town I petulantly ran from long ago. But I take small, inching steps toward the door and grasp the knob almost fearfully. I may be a coward, but better to face the dying woman than the furious, disapproving eyes of the town’s members.

I shuffle in. The low bed contains a skeleton of a woman. Her swooping cheekbones and dark marks under her eyes betray her disease; stringy clots of hair fan over the pillow. Her watery eyes are crusted with mucus. She can hardly open them. In pained fever she moans weakly and snuggles under the piled quilts, biting her white lips, shivering violently.

I have a second impulse to flee but again the doctor pushes me further in with force that send me flying into the bedstead. I bang my knee and cry out. She wakens and tries to focus her eyes but I can tell she doesn’t see me.

“Hello,” I breathe with immeasurable awkwardness.

“Ugghh,” she grunts. She lifts a white claw almost imperceptibly and beckons me forward. I approach in irrational fear.

“Wh-wh—who—is it you?” she whispers.

“Yes,” I say and bend toward the sunken face; despite my fear, I softly press my lips against her forehead.

She pronounces failing syllables with the last of her strength. “My s—son is home. And safe…” She lifts her revitalized eyes to my face searchingly, as if trying to take me in for the last time. I look away as she dies, wondering at the perpetual love she fostered for me, gaping in the raw pain, and the realization of its sudden lack.




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