178. The Long Road Home

The years hadn’t been kind to him. If there were men who were wretched, he was most wretched among them. Every step he took was heavier than the last. More painful. More bitter.

At the height of his life, he ruled these lands; and there was something people said about the higher you go. His eyes may have gazed to the sky before, but today they were cast onto the hills over which his feet trod.

His face was once handsome; once in a time that is now many years past. The cut on his lip still stung when he ran his tongue over it, where the swine’s hoof had caught it last week. It swelled spectacularly in shades of green and purple, thick with pus underneath.

Still, it was the least disgusting part about him, and he knew it too.

No one would let him sleep even their their donkeys, much less anyplace where they might catch sight of his disease-ridden form. Flies and gnats were his only friends. His place was among the lepers. No one would have him. No one would want him in their town. The food that he was tasked with feeding the pigs with was sumptuous in comparison to the filth that he had to survive on.

He came to a clearing on top of the hill, and beyond the lands where workers, like ants, worked, he saw the house that he had called home as a child. Before he forsook it in pursuit of the life that he wanted. Before he cut ties and left everything to rot.

The next step he took was by far the hardest step he ever had to take.

He should just turn back now. Go back and feed the pigs. If he ran, he could tell his master that he had lost his way, and endure the beating that comes after. If that was undesirable, he could throw himself off a cliff. A flash of pain, that was all it would take – and his life, all the misery that it was worth, would be over.

He should just turn back now. But his heavy foot took that leaden step forward, beginning to descend. The workers must have seen him by now, but they would not have recognized him, not like this. Not when they have spent years cleaning his feet.

What was he going to say? That he’s home? Does he return to one?

An involuntary tear escaped his eye and left a wet trail on his cheek. He could see them, the father and brother he once knew, the family he had abandoned. They were dressed in bright robes… Going into town, perhaps? The old man was glancing up at him. Dread gripped his heart.

His father took a step out into the sun, disbelieving his eyes. He took another step.

Then he began to run, his frail old legs kicking up clouds of dust.

He should turn back now. The old man wouldn’t be able to catch him. But he stood where he stood. His other cheek was also wet now. He opened his mouth – something ought to be said.

Nothing came out.

But his father didn’t need any words, throwing his arms around him greedily. The old man was saying something through broken sobs, or was it his own voice he heard?

Now the servants from the lands were rushing up to receive their old master. He raised a filthy, mud-crusted hand, and held the back of his father’s head, for fear of dirtying his father’s expensive robes.

“Well, I’m home,” he said.

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