by Ted Lietz
I find my long-lost fountain pen, Hrunting engraved upon its golden hilt. Hrunting, named for the sword of Beowulf. Hrunting, red-ink-bleeder upon mediocre essays, wordsmith-vanquisher on the field of scholarly discourse.
Standing now in the driveway, I try to remember why I sought Hrunting.
Where is my car?
I recall a line from "The Wanderer," an Old English elegy. Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior?
As if stung by a dart, I remember that I no longer have a car, no longer drive. That twenty autumns have passed since I last paced the stage of my beloved lecture hall; a score of leaf-falls since I last warmed myself in the fellowship of the Faculty Club; two decades since I last wielded Hrunting.
My son has come out of the house and stands beside me. "Dad. What are you doing?"
I search for words to hide my forgetfulness. "Going for a walk."
"I feel like a walk, too. Why don't you put on a pair of pants, and we'll go together."
I return to my room, take gray slacks from the closet. I reflect upon my son's kindness, to speak as if my going about naked below the waist were no greater a sartorial indiscretion than mismatched socks.
Last evening, he and his friend and I were in the same room. Yet my son spoke as if I were no more sentient than the recliner in which I sat. This is so often the case that I hardly blame him. "The father I knew is leaving me a little bit, every day," he said.
I could shrug at my son's use of that shopworn cliché, hackneyed lament, baby-boomer bromide. But not at the untruth with which the phrase begins. He never knew me.
Nor do I know him.
For decades, whenever I approached he has retreated behind his battlement. Eventually I stopped approaching at all, built fortifications of my own.
When my wife passed, I realized I couldn't live alone. My son's offer of the spare bedroom in his home was generous. But, the words accompanying that offer--if you want and if that would appeal to you--those phrases reflected nothing more than resignation to filial responsibility, the desire to build a bulwark against guilt.
I considered placing myself in the hands of strangers, men and women with whom I shared no history, with whom I might start afresh. But by then I'd identified a new mission, a quest which would require frequent contact with my son. A quest toward understanding, making things whole between us, forming a lasting peace.
So I moved in with him and his family, leveled my walls, filled my moat, dreamed we might drink mead together. But, as if guarding a hoard, he has kept the better part of himself in a cave, hidden from me.
I've tried to speak with him. But these days, my tongue does not always do as I bid. Sometimes, instead of what I intend, I find myself speaking the poetry I love, usually in translation. But sometimes I lapse into the ancient words, into Anglo-Saxon. At this my grandchildren smirk and titter and whisper to each other, "Grandpa's speaking in tongues, again."
If I cannot always speak as I wish, perhaps I can write. Now I remember why I sought Hrunting. I thrust him toward the paper.
I want to tell you about my longing. An ache so profound and powerful and painful I can barely describe it. In what time I have left, I would like to know you, and you to know me. But first, I feel there are things between us, things I do not understand. For anything I ever may have done to harm you, insult you, belittle you, I apologize. I also apologize for whatever blindness keeps me from knowing what those things might be. Let us speak of all this. Let us make peace.
My son stands in the doorway to my room and says, "Ready for that walk, Dad? Hey, I see you found Hrunting."
I place the paper in his hands. He scans, looks puzzled.
"The words, son! Read the words!"
"These are just wavy lines."
I look again, see that he's right and try to speak my thoughts. "Sorry. So, so sorry."
"It's okay, Dad. It's just a sheet of paper." He looks at his watch and says, "I have to leave for work. Maybe we can take that walk tonight."
Tonight? I always knew time was not my friend. But now I understand him even better as a pitiless, implacable, unconquerable foe. I want to make my son understand now. But when I open my mouth, only lines from "The Wanderer" tumble out. "Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting, here man is fleeting, here woman is fleeting."
Gibberish. But my son nods as if I were making perfect sense. "Gotta go. See you tonight."
Will I have the strength, the acuity, the words tonight? Lines from "The Battle of Maldon" come to mind, and I barely keep myself from saying, Spirit must be by as much the harder, heart by as much the keener, Mood must be by as much the more, by as much as our strength lessens.
Tonight. Tonight I will rally spirit, heart, mood.
"Oh, and Dad? Put on some pants, okay?"
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A slightly different version of this story was originally published by Bartelby Snopes Literary Magazine.
© Ted Lietz 2020. All rights reserved.