I walk this road quite simply because there is no alternative. I think, even now, if there was somewhere else to go I would take another route. But all other options have been exhausted. I try not to think of the distance because, weary and hungry as I am, I just can’t contemplate the physical effort required to walk so far. And so I shield my eyes from the noonday glare and put what little energy I have into taking each next dusty step.
What a sight I must look, my hair matted with whatever dirt and undergrowth I’ve slept on for the past few weeks. I know I stink, and not just because I haven’t been able to wash or bathe. The muck is clinging to my clothes and skin; some is even stuck in my hair. “How are the mighty fallen,” I exclaim aloud. My voice startles the birds twittering in the long grass at the edge of the road, and they fall momentarily silent before resuming their chirping, unconcerned by my troubles.
Disgust and anger struggle within me – a tussle between shame and blame. I’m a disgrace. Everything that has happened to me, I have brought on myself. Or have I? What was my father thinking, when he agreed to my request? What kind of father fails to exercise proper control over his son? If he had said a simple no at the time, I would have had a tantrum and a sulk and then got over it. This is all his fault.
Or is it? Would I really have got over it so easily? Not with that self-satisfied prig of a brother breathing down my neck like a goody two-shoes. That was the real reason I had to leave. My brother was making my life intolerable. This is all his fault.
I’m sure all the neighbours have their own opinions about all this. I daresay I’m the black sheep of the family, not worthy to be part of their community any more. But what do they know? They have no idea what drove me to leave. They never saw the digs or heard the snide remarks muttered as we passed each other in the gate. It’s all their fault, my father and my brother, this is all their fault.
Except it isn’t. Whoever heard of a son demanding his share of the inheritance while his father’s still alive? What was I thinking when I made the ultimatum? I might as well have told him I wish he was dead. And what do I have to show for it now? My father worked all his life for that money and I haven’t invested it in one worthwhile thing. It’s all gone and I haven’t got so much as a pair of shoes on my feet. This is all my fault.
And so it goes on, step after shuffling step, blame and shame, blame and shame. More to the point, what on earth can I say that will prevent them from just driving me away? I bet they’ve gone round bad-mouthing me to all the neighbours.
No, that’s not fair. I bet my brother has. But I’ve never heard my father say a bad word about anybody, not even people who cheated him or failed to repay what he lent them. Whatever he thinks of me, he will have kept it to himself. But I’m sure my brother will have spread enough ill will for both of them.
I have to think of a narrative that I can be saying to my father as I approach, before I get close enough for him to answer me back. Half of me wants to shout, “This is all your fault – you and that stuck up brother of mine!” But he’s hardly likely to give me a hearing if I do.
Better switch from the blame narrative to the shame narrative. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” I’ll only be echoing what he’s thinking anyway, so I guess he won’t argue with that.
What if he turns his back on me anyway? Better think of a follow-up remark so he doesn’t just slam the door in my face. “Make me one of your hired servants.” At least that way I’ll have bread enough and to spare. And I can retreat into the servant’s quarters every time the urge to slap my brother’s smug face becomes irresistible.
And so it goes on, step after step, the thoughts swirling round and round in my head like the maelstrom at the foot of a waterfall. Somehow, step by step, step by step, blame and shame, blame and shame, the miles get swallowed up.
The fields along the side of the road just here belong to my father – I’m nearing home. I look up, in time to see one of our neighbours, a wealthy landowner, directing some hired workers in the field. He sees me, makes an exclamation of disgust, and turns his back. I’m confused. What is he doing in my father’s field?
Gradually, the appalling reality dawns on me, and for once the shame reverberates in my head, completely drowning out all thoughts of blaming someone else. Evidently, my father has had to sell some of his land. Because of the share of the money that I took, some of our family’s fields, the land that has been ours for generations, has had to be sold.
I slow my pace as I slouch up the road, not yet daring to look at the house I used to call home. Is there even any point going on? But where else can I go? There is nowhere.
Confused, uncertain, I hesitate, not daring to go on, not caring to go back. And then, suddenly, there he is in front of me. He throws himself at me and wraps his arms around me, pulling me close to his heart and holding on tightly. “My boy, my boy,” he cries in a voice choking with emotion as he buries his face in my hair and the twigs and pig muck scrape against his cheek.
Without lessening his grip on me at all, he turns his head and calls over his shoulder, “Quick! Bring a robe and a ring! Get some shoes! Kill the fatted calf and prepare a feast! This son of mine” (and he squeezes me so hard I can barely breathe) “this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”
I start to blurt out the words I’ve been rehearsing: “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before I can go any further he places a hand on the back of my head and squashes my face into his shoulder, making further speech impossible. And hugged in that relentless grip, both the blame and the shame quietly pack their bags and slink away. Whose fault is it? Who cares? There’s a love right here that erases it all and wipes the slate clean.