My Father's Return

It had been five years since my father left that the men returned. I was old enough to remember the day the legionnaires appeared in the village. Everyone’s work ground to a halt as the men dropped their nets or their tools as the cloud of dust approached in the distance and everyone gathered in the village square in fear and anticipation. Those memories were both a blessing and a curse to me, for I was old enough to remember them pull those of able body aside, my father not once looking down at us but resolutely, sadly straight ahead. My brother, just four years old at the time, suffered equally in his ignorance. My father’s face was a mystery to him for five long years, a blank space behind the family name; he never knew the man he was before – not unkindly, but a quiet man of a serious and gentle nature. His only memory of that day was of how our mother cried that evening after the Romans had taken their quota of men and marched back down the road. The total equalled one in every five.

And now, as a cloud of dust once again appeared on the road, cries ran through the village that the men had returned. On hearing the news my mother fell to the floor, hysterical. She had already taken another man to her bed, assuming after the first year my father’s fate was not a favourable one. I had more faith – as long as my father’s pension was still received I knew he was alive and resented my mother’s decision. Those years, however, were not the time for domestic battles as all hands were required to compensate for the missing men in the face of floods and poor catches. I worked alongside the stranger in our household on the family plot and as my brother grew he joined the fishermen on the banks of the river helping where he could. Privately, I still felt my anger and my disappointment in my mother, longing for my father’s introverted, tender company. More than once my mother brushed my hair aside, remarking how much I reminded her of him: a statement that deeply pained us both.

But the man who returned to our house was not the man who left. As nets and tools were downed once more, we converged on the square uncertain of what to expect. Some of the men ran, tears streaming down their cheeks and embracing their home soil; others walked slowly, wearily, as if weighed down by their foreign uniforms. Not all the men returned, and there was a great wailing and beating of the ground where mothers and wives had been given the grim news.

My father walked slowly, almost casually, to where we were waiting. My mother stood before him, shaking, hesitating, not knowing what to do or what to say or whether to reach out to him; he looked down at her, his face glistening with road dirt and sweat and eyes full of a frightening vacancy, and merely said: “Let’s go home.”

He had aged, far more than I had expected. His hair had greyed and he was stiffer in his movements; his gentle patience had been replaced with a quick temper. As we sat around our hearth, eating the stew of vegetables and rabbit bones my mother had hurriedly prepared, no one dared to say a word. Part of me longed to tell my father about everything that had happened whilst he was away: all the news of the village, how well the plot was doing and how I planned to buy some goats and hire a local boy to tend them as soon as I’d saved up . . . I could tell from my brother’s expression he too had many questions to ask but was too unsure of himself with the father he didn’t really know.

My father slurped down his broth, eating with the hunger of a giant. The food seemed to revive him, and he cast his eyes around the hut before staring at us individually. There was no fondness in his gaze, nor rage or sadness or joy; it was cold and analytical, as if he was seeing everything for the first time. Every time his eyes fell upon my mother she let out a tiny whimper like a beaten dog, her hand shaking her bowl so much broth slopped over the side.

He turned to me. “How is the plot of land?” he asked, the question neither friendly or hostile.

I looked up to meet his gaze and the lack of familiarity there made me want to shudder but I held strong. “It’s going very well, Father. We had some floods early on but the soil seems to have come good since and the crops are fetching a good price on the market.”

My father leaned back and nodded slowly. I notice he still had a dagger on his belt, its exotic angles and embellishment clearly neither a local blade or an Imperial Army issue – a war trophy. He placed his bowl on the floor and took a long draught of ale from his cup. My mother stood up, unsteady on her feet and moved to take his bowl and as she reached for it his had shot out, grabbing her arm with a grip that sent his knuckles white and her whimpering to her knees. I felt my heart freeze in fear as he pulled her towards him. “And you, woman,” he hissed into her face, “you I’ll deal with later. I’ve got some people to see.”

He dropped her and she scuttled to the corner, clutching her already bruising arm and gasping in shock. My brother and I leapt up from our stools and watched as he strode out over the threshold, knowing our life had taken a dangerous turn . . .

My Father's Return

stillbeing

Abbotsford, Australia

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Artist's Description

This was written for a competition last year where the brief was to write a story set in a village. I went through a bit of a stage in 2009 writing about the Romans and related issues in preparation for NaNoWriMo so it seemed only fitting. It’s a little melodramatic but ehn, I guess that’s how it goes.

Sadly, there was a very strict word limit as I had a much, much longer storyline in mind for this so I might work on it again later.

  • All constructive critique welcomed!

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