The very old man sits up in his bed and turns his face toward his bedroom window, eastward to where the sun will come up if it ever comes. Only a gritty swash at the soul of the horizon suggests morning. The days bring a little trouble and good God knows what else.
The very old man gets out of bed and snatches a hefty cedar stick – bone white in the darkness of his bedroom. He dips the tip of it into a clay pot of oil by the door to the outer twilight. He then tips the stick into the little lamp by his door and starts a good torch fire. This, he thinks, will be the only light in the whole of the world this morning.
Rolling from the door to his house is a dusty path that peels out to the absolute of the horizon. If the sun rises, it issues from the vanishing point of the road itself. It is this road that the very old man walks now, one hand warmed by his torch, the other tucked into the rough folds of his robes to keep from freezing. The wind tosses about dust and sand and stones and ash and it tosses his great grey beard like tongues of flame.
From behind, a voice calls, “Father, it’s early.”
The very old man keeps walking and says nothing.
“Come back and sleep, Father. I’ll walk you there myself when it’s dawn.”
But the very old man has not slept in many months.
“He’ll not be there,” the boy mutters as the very old man strives away from the house out into the cold and the morning.
His eyes are old but strong; they are set deep and bloody cracks split their whites at this early hour with this early wind. They trace along the line of land with great concern, as if reading the scroll that contained the secrets of the cosmos. His torchlight rummages through his near surroundings, illuminating only bushes, rocks and loneliness. It cannot penetrate much of the road ahead at all, but there is no one there, the very old man knows. A silver split at the meeting place of land and sky is empty and it oozes out into nothingness.
“What was I saying?” The old man asks no one. He has been speaking in time with his plodding steps that sway his self, pendulum-like. He cannot trust his wandering mind, conjurer of memories and hope. At rest, it summons old images of working in fields on hot days with his two boys on either side of him. They would bind golden sheaves of wheat with leather straps, knotting them just so. These sheaves were stacked in a wooden cart and the boys play fought with the staffs while he hitched the donkey. A crack and a cry; the younger’s face had been smashed and was a mess of blood. He had gathered the boy into his arms and pressed the boy’s sopping head against his own and said, “I’m right here. I’m right here.”
The very old man comes to again; the night has greyed into shapes. Still he grips the torch in his hand, holding it so that the base of its flame is level with his eyes. When his mind strays, it strays to young days. When alert, all is brokenness; shouting, slammed doors and promises to never return. The last he’d seen of the youngest had been his stubborn back with a hand reaching awkwardly behind it, grasping for the door to slam it shut tight. In his other hand, he knew, was a pouch with his inheritance in it. Unable to find the door, the boy had snarled an ugly snarl and walked out, away, down the road, under a noontime sun.
The world is still dim. The road is still bare. The sun is shy. The wind whips bare branches of thin trees about, like fingers grasping at bread flung from passers-by. Grit coated hills lump against one another on either side, and the bleatings of animals tempers the silence. The day, he thinks, is as good a day as any for the boy to come home.
On this same road years ago he had found his younger boy looking over a lamb from his own meager flock. The lamb was quite dead; its head split down across one eye and to the nostril, everything inside spilling out. The culprit was the boy himself, a soaking club sagging in his hand. He looked up at his father and began wailing regret, he had not meant to, it wasn’t his fault, he was so sorry, so sorry. The boy’s sobs sunk into sniffling when he found the club plucked from his hand and tossed away. “There now.”
He stops where the road splits in two, meandering off towards other houses and families and such. Clouds swallow the sky whole and everything today is greys and silvers. The wind blows against the very old man’s face and chills two wet streaks of the eyes. He looks out toward where the sun would be if the sun were to show face. There is no stirring in the stretch of emptiness between him and the utter east, so he shuffles down and sits himself on a large pathside rock and shifts his torch to the other hand, holding it high.