of the Prodigal Son
by Robert K. Johnson
(for Charlie Brashear)
I halted at the bottom step,
the one my hands reset last week,
and let the servant who had told me
the news about my brother’s return
go back inside the house.
wet with work-sweat, clung to my skin,
and the darkening air was now quite cool;
yet my cheeks burned with the memory
of that bright morning when my brother,
his belongings bouncing on his back,
turned for a moment and waved goodbye
to my pale father and weeping mother.
I remembered thinking, as I waved back:
Now when we sit to eat, my father
will talk to me, not to my brother,
while I perhaps will learn to speak
almost as easily as they do.
My father opened the front door
and hurried toward me. When I saw
his body move more quickly than
on any day since my brother left,
the years my brother had been gone
seemed never to have happened.
a rush of words, he justified
his decision to kill the fatted calf
so that everyone could feast and dance
and welcome his son back home.
he raced back up the steps—then stopped,
returned to where I had remained
and, placing his hand on my shoulder, said,
“Son, thou are ever with me, and all
I own is thine.”
My muscles in
the shoulder that his fingers touched
stopped aching, and I put my hand
on top of his.
His eyes grew brighter
than a candle flame. “But it is right
that I feel such a joy tonight, for thy brother
was a lost lamb who hath been found,
was dead, and is alive again!
Rejoice with me that he hath returned.”
He squeezed my shoulder. I could feel
the heat of his happiness. Ashamed
that my skin was so cold, I nodded.
Because so many of our friends
had already gathered in the house,
I could not make my way to where
my brother sat in his favorite chair
surrounded by four boyhood friends
laughing at his account of some
wild escapade . . . just like old times.
He was drinking wine, of course. And wore
a purple robe he had left behind.
It looked cleaner than a new-bought robe.
So, although he had told my parents
he was leaving home for good, they kept
his clothes ready and waiting for him.
I got a better glimpse of him.
He must indeed have suffered hardships—
he was almost as thin as me.
But he still had that warm smile, a smile
that often made the sternest elders
start to smile too, even though
they had not finished chastising him.
A surge of sadness, like the stab
of pain from a re-opened wound,
blocked the next breath I took. I thought:
Why couldn’t he have found—somewhere—
a comely and adoring wife
whose father, as prosperous as ours,
felt blessed to gain a son-in-law
who was such good company? Have found
a life so filled with happiness
that he never thought of returning home?
My brother held his goblet up
to be refilled again, and I saw
my father’s ruby ring on his finger.
Instantly, despite the words
my father spoke to me outside,
I wondered: Is it possible
he plans to give his younger son
still more? give him a part of the portion
he promised would be mine?
when I gripped the back of the nearest chair
could I stop my knees from trembling.
this time I had to say . . . something.
I picked a pathway through the crowd
to where my father talked and laughed,
surrounded by his friends.
my face and hushed.
“Father,” I said
while beads of sweat prickled my skin,
“I wondered what . . . what dost thou—still
intend to give my brother? now
that he hath squan—hath . . . nothing
of his just portion of thy wealth?”
As if I had
picked up and hurled—
shattered—a bowl brimming with wine,
everyone in the room fell silent.
My father sighed.
“I have always tried
to be just.”
Then a smile
as warm as my brother’s
spread across his face—and told me
the answer he would give my question.
“But,” he said
loudly, “being just
is not the only thing that matters.
Something else should guide our daily lives.
And that is love . . . which we should give”—
he glanced a moment at my brother—
“whether or not the one we love
rewards us, in return, the way
we want to be rewarded.”
my brother looking at me. His eyes
were too bright, his slumping shoulders leaned
to one side, and he had trouble holding
his head erect. But a half-smile
curled his lips.
Turning to where
my brother sat, my father slowly
opened wide his arms. “And love
shall be my guide when I decide
tomorrow how much more to give
An elder standing
seeing the expression on my face,
patted my arm. “Do not be sad,”
he whispered. “You will still inherit
many bags of money.”
I cared a fig about the money.
No . . . what I had lost was more
than bags of shekels, more than herds
of sheep or miles of fertile land.
I lost the hope that, someday, my father
would open wide his arms to me.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert K. Johnson.