From around November ’19 to January ’20, my writing saw its most productive period. I have finally decided to share some of the by-products. However, this particular piece is the reworking of an old one— one that, amazingly enough, does not make me want to tear my eyes out when I come back to it, unlike the majority of most of my work. I hope that this one is all the better for the change.
A man stands over a bed. His undone collar, the spreading damp stains under his arms, his belly swelling through his half-tucked shirt, contrast starkly with the cold sterility of the room, the gleam of the white tiles under his scruffy shoes, the sweet pungent scent of antiseptic that pervades the air.
His little boy lies in the bed, still; more still than he has probably ever been in his entire life. Even when the kid was lost to the blissful embrace of sleep, the man reflects, he’d be tossing and turning, rocked to the rhythm of his little boat of dreams. A muted chuckle escapes him, in spite of himself.
The boy’s eyes, once perpetually sparkling with the brilliance of his insatiable curiosity— now veiled by the darkness of his eyelids.
His skin, once aglow with the flush of youth, the colours of sunrise— now drained of blood, the colour of ash.
His chest, barely lifted by the air that whooshes in and out of his nose; his breath, only a whisper.
The man’s fingers twist together, over and over again. His heartbeat drums against his ribs, his insides are searing, and he gulps down the broken sob that threatens to choke him with every breath he takes.
He is only a crusty old man who had gone all these years without bringing anyone into his life to cherish or love, because he’d never figured that it would be worth the trouble; until this little one had run headlong into his arms and found a home in their embrace— and his small shrivelled heart couldn’t help but make space for the kid, and swell with the intensity of this new feeling that warmed him in a way he’d never fathomed possible.
It is unthinkable. Unthinkable that the kid should lie here, draped in this hospital white, almost as tranquil as death itself— it feels as unreal, as unnatural, as terribly wrong as though the sun had abruptly blinked out of existence, and plunged the world into an impenetrable darkness. For he was the last person the man could have ever imagined to be shrouded in this inexplicable stillness.
It isn’t that he’d never worried for the boy before. The boy had always been so bursting with life that it would inspire a flicker of effervescence in anyone else in the vicinity, no matter how long gone their more youthful days were. With that unending supply of excitement, it seemed that every kind of escapade and misadventure sought him out, rather than the other way around; and there was always a small part of the man that quailed from every scrape he got into, that thanked the high heavens that he hadn’t gotten into trouble that was much worse.
But it was always so hard to keep it in mind— when the boy had always been so wild with energy, alight with enthusiasm, burning with curiosity. When his legs never tired of running, when his mind never slowed in its relentless drive to probe the secrets of whatever intrigued his searching gaze; when he always, always bounced back from where he stumbled.
The man realised that he’d always seen the kid as something else altogether, something larger than life, almost a force of nature: the invincible, the unstoppable, the irrepressible.
It was like he’d been not just a boy, but a bonfire, stirred from smouldering embers to leap into existence in a spectacle of vivid red and gold, and every onlooker had been entranced by the almost living colours; but in their spell they had forgotten that the flames would eventually flicker and fade, returning to the dying embers that they had come from. Even in his wildest dreams he had not conceived that so much of energy could ever be stifled, that such a raging fire could be extinguished, in the space of a single breath.
Never before had there been occasion to notice the slightness of his stature. Never before had there been reason to notice the babyishness of his face— or that ridiculously juvenile tuft of hair that always stuck up from his head.
Now, with him curled up under the sheets, with his lips puckered, and a little crease between his eyebrows, and his eyelashes cast tightly down on his cheeks, the truth is:
He has never looked so small.
A sudden shudder overtakes the man, and he finds himself doing what he never usually would: he prays. He calls to the heavens; a heartfelt, desperate plea— and he implores whatever higher powers there be, that there is time yet for the kid.
It is at moments like these that he would wonder whether he really had been right, all those years, in refusing to saddle himself with such worldly burdens. After all, he had wilfully ignored, for so long, the small part of him that had always known that in the end, life would find a way to snatch his most cherished treasure from him, and rip his heart in half, when he least expected it. After all, the man supposes, sooner or later, every soul on earth is consumed by this irrevocable silence; every body is befallen by the stillness of death.
But the answer would always come to him as he looked down at the boy, his boy, as easily as he knew that fire burned and ice was cold: he wouldn’t give him up, not for anything in the world. Every atom of him was linked to every atom of his little boy in an intricate web of heartstrings, and he couldn’t tear himself away any more than he could tear his own heart from his chest and fling it elsewhere.