The Penitent Father

PT Russell

The yellowing hue of a dimming light bulb blinks from above a hospital bed. Laboured gurgles trapped in an oxygen mask sombers the sterile space. Bleeping medical apparatus serenade the withered patient as it invokes a united chorus of melancholy.

The spectre of a man writhes uncomfortably, scratching at a bed sore – the valiant token of his inevitable demise. He is a prisoner, ensnared in a web spun by his own lamentable deeds. In this place, physical incontinence is inconsequential compared to the certainty of his fateful predicament.

He possesses a body once controlled by a brilliant intuitive mind; a mind that overthought the most trivial of circumstances. In earnest his genius was a conduit for creative works of art, including poetry and rhymes of improvised word play. He once belted out smooth acoustic harmonics from a dinged alto saxophone. Its home lies on top of a musty closet, where it’s freer than he ever will be. Greasy residue from his old fingerprints still smudges its brass keys. He contrived beautiful illustrations that placed hidden aberrations on full display. Artworks whose worth would never be appreciated by his intended audience. A ubiquitous audience, an audience that never met him in life and ultimately would never know him in death.

Duty calls from another realm after a lifetime of procrastination. In this place of worthless introspection, the disembodied companion of time severs all corporeal ties, becoming a devious antagonist who only teases and taunts.

A painstaking reconnaissance eludes the unavoidable connection of family.

Reckoning masquerades as regret, regret mollifies in reflection, and the unending cycle of closure perpetuates.

Visiting hours are a torturous reminder of his loss of control. The requests for those he wishes to see go unheard and the faces of those he avoided through his sojourn become cast members in an inescapable litany of horror. They are all human vultures that peck at emotional wounds, exposing the indigestible bones beneath the surface. Their fatal intent is evident in their eyes and duplicitous manner. None of them ever being a friend of value in his lifetime. Their concern only focuses on his digression. It asks the wordless question so clearly spoken within their expressions: What are you leaving for me?

His jaundiced eyes scrape along the windowless room that slowly suffocates him like a tomb, itching to be sealed and justified by the living. His useless body is reduced to a breathing, mouldering mausoleum of suffering and want.

The man’s human form has forsaken him in every despicable way. Like time, it no longer cooperates, it refrains from answering when called.

Nurses attend to his basic needs with a professional aloofness. He doesn’t blame them because the stench emanating from his decaying form is a veritable sign of the detestable relic that he has become.

A lawyer saunters in like a creeping shadow, lugging a raggedy briefcase and wearing dusty Oxfords. He flips his threadbare tie over his shoulder and slinks in a squeaky chair near the man’s head. Silently the barrister roves him over, a pitiable expression drags at his face. He shakes his head in dismay, aware that this will be his final consultation with a client admirably celebrated for his biased debates. He cuts acid eyes at the dozing patient, already calculating lost wages.

Travelling between two plains of time, the ailing man’s crusted eyelids open partially.

Careful steps approach and his physical unconsciousness is temporarily disturbed by a soothing voice. In an instant its desperate appeal snatches him through a veiled corridor, and back into his body. A young woman whispers in the man’s ear. What she shares is undecipherable, but it evokes a twitch from his bony finger and a staggered attempt to speak. The man gesticulates using his shrivelled arm to direct a request. The young woman obliges, removing the oxygen from his rasping mouth while supporting his head. His pallor is ghost-like, blotches of grey have started to leach through. He strains to articulate an endearment in response and says something she’s never heard him say. Three eternal words spill from his cracked lips before he chokes for breath. Wonder enlivens her face. The words he utters are laced with a foreign inflection. It could almost be mistaken for adoration. He could have said them sooner…

He has forgotten what an insufferable sinner he is. He gave credence to his own alibis. The woes of unforgiveness, he collects them like battle scars. Always allowing permission for the destruction of his deeper sensibilities. In these grim moments, memories serve as meaningless devices of martyrdom, cruelly designed to mimic reality.

O Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?

The monastic robes of the clergyman brush across the tiled floor as he exits the room in a sobering cadence. The father is no longer conscious of the fading world slipping away from around him. His life has unfortunately run its course. Time for him no longer exists. The vultures have also vacated, abandoning the ravaged carcass that once contained the bitter vigour of new death.

One person remains. His daughter grasps his decrepit hand as it cools in hers – she sobs as the last vestiges of his life dissolve into an invisible chasm of nothingness. He’s one day shy of a coveted 70 years, a generous allotment of hours to fulfil an earthly station.

*

Is this it?

The father’s breath ceases and his daughter sprawls across the hollow of his chest, weeping.

Can I finally have him now?

I waited more than half a century for this momentous occasion. Time and I have duelled for dominance, but today he must concede – because I am the victor.

Extracting insolent spirits out of expiring bodies is my speciality, it is my greatest triumph. My very purpose for existing.

The exchange is the most crucial of events when I woo the soul of men. My master has awarded me this privilege. It is a task desired and one that I have perfected over the ages.

The exchange!

His life force for the agony of my being. The torment of pain and finality is all I have to offer…”

“Yes, this is it! Oh, how my avaricious being longs to taste his sweet end. To drink from it. A closer look at my prize will suffice before I rip his pathetic soul asunder.

I’m above and over him at the speed of thought, it’s how all of us travel the cosmos.

The silver cord?

Where is it?

No!

Has he escaped my clutches at the eleventh hour? This sudden injustice will not wax strong. I have tarried too long to receive my reward. Patient only to be pilfered and utterly betrayed! Surely, I shall be recompensed.

When permission is granted by the Great Usurper, I will…I will visit his daughter next.

Oh, all is not lost.

I will exact my revenge on her; if not her, then to her fourth or fifth generation – whatever it takes.

These powerless, mewling mortals hold no authority over me. Hear me brothers. Let us rally the hordes of hell against them.

When you lose a soul to forgiveness it is the worst punishment of the universe. The lowest degradation in existence.

*

With a tumultuous howl of defeat, Death withdraws to whence he came and his damning soliloquy ends.

PT Russell is a Bahamian creative based in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. She was awarded an Honourable Mention from L. Ron Hubbard’s, Writers of the Future contest for her first short story ‘Orev.’ Flash Fiction from PT has appeared in Montreal Writes Literary Magazine, Fresh. Ink Magazine, The Emerging Writers Reading Series and The Orono Times. NonBinary Review will publish art by PT in its 2021 issue. She has an illustrated collection of micro-fiction forthcoming.

 

*Image by Mòje Ikpeme