This story was written for the 2017 Advent Calendar – Day 16
Summary: It’s a season of miracles, when a lost son returns home.
Rating: G 4,980 words
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:…”
Unto us a son
~~ by Inca
“He will come,” said my wife, as I set the candlestick in its customary place in front of the darkened window. “I know he will. One day. Soon.”
It was the night before Christmas Eve. The candle flame, newly lit, swayed and flickered, then steadied and grew tall and bright. Outside, the storm had passed and the blackness beyond the window was undisturbed by the swirling snow of the earlier blizzard. Each night for the last four years, we had followed this vigil, setting the light in the window to guide our son home, even though I knew he would not come. It didn’t matter how many hours Martha spent watching from the window, how many candles she burned to guide him back through the darkness, Andrew would not be coming home. He was dead. What other explanation could there be? If he had been alive, he would have returned by now. We had found his horse, down by the river, but no sign of the boy, even though we searched and searched for days and days. Finally, in my heart, I had known.
“I’ll make some coffee?” I said.
Martha smiled a sad smile. There was a time when that smile would have lit up her face with a radiance as bright as the candle behind me, but when Andrew disappeared, the light inside Martha had died with him. Even when I spoke to her and she looked at me, it was as if she searched beyond me for a face that never appeared.
She sat in her chair, thin now and fragile, a ghost of the woman I had married, eyes fixed on the window. Her constant worry was that the candle might go out. If it were to die before morning, she said, how would Andrew find his way back through the darkness? I had long ago stopped arguing with her, explaining that Andrew had lived in this same cabin for fourteen years. The boy would have found his way home through the blackest of nights. If he had been able.
I missed Andrew too, but I also missed my wife. Sometimes I wondered which one I mourned the most. Andrew had been special to us both, of course he had. All children are special to their parents. But Andrew had been extra special, because of all the others we had lost before ever they were born. Just as we had given up all hope of a living child, Andrew had come along, our own special miracle. For fourteen years, he had been more precious to Martha than her own life. Now there was an emptiness inside her where her child had been, and I was helpless to ease the ache of that empty space.
I put the coffee on to heat. I had grown used to the silence, but that night seemed doubly quiet. The snow, lying thick on the cabin and the world outside, muted even the smallest, insignificant sounds of night.
“I don’t like to think of him out in the cold,” she said.
I took cups off the shelf and set them on a tray, and tried not to think about the pain and loneliness inside me.
“Should I fetch your sewing?” I asked her, but her eyes were fixed on the window and she didn’t answer. Whenever I looked at her, I wanted to weep inside at how thin and frail she had become in four years.
We sat facing each other across the kitchen as we sipped our coffee, but I might as well have been alone.
“At least the wind’s dropped,” I said. “Hope the snow hasn’t drifted too high against the barn.”
She didn’t reply. I was used to conversations with myself. Still I talked, pretending she was listening. It kept me sane. Soon I would go to bed, and Martha would remain in her chair, watching the candle, in case it went out.
I’d just swallowed my last mouthful of coffee when I heard the noise. Martha heard it too. Her back went rigid, her eyes grew wide.
“It’s him,” she whispered. “It’s Andrew. He’s come back.”
I shook my head. She made to rise from her chair, but she was weak. I stood first and pushed her back. “No, you wait here. I’ll see what it is.”
“It’s Andrew,” she breathed, her hollow cheeks flushing faintly. “I know it is. It’s Andrew. He’s come home.”
A fleeting moment of foolish hope made my heart jump, but hope played tricks like that all the time: a lone rider in the distance; a curly-haired child across the street in town. I had grown wise to the treachery of hope, and reached instead for my gun.
“An animal, I expect,” I said, pulling on my coat. “You stay here in the warm.”
Outside, the night was strangely bright. The clouds that had brought the snow were gone, and the moon was up, its eerie light illuminating a world transformed by whiteness. Where once had been a barn and yard, a fence, a trough, now all was undulating softness, and unfamiliar shadows deceived the eye.
One of the shadows moved, detaching itself from the corner of the barn and crumpling into the pristine blue-whiteness of the yard. I lowered my gun and stared. “Andrew?” I whispered.
Something pushed past me, rousing me from my doubt. Martha cried out her son’s name as she fell on her knees beside the dark shape in the snow.
“Andrew! Oh, Andrew! My Andrew!” She threw herself over the prone body half buried in the snow.
In the moonlight, I caught a glimpse of a boy’s face, youthful and smooth, curly hair crusted with snow, and for a moment I could barely breathe. Only Martha’s sobs brought me back to reality.
Forcing my voice to sound normal, I seized his wife’s thin shoulders and pulled her back. “Let’s get him inside, Martha, before he freezes.”
She wouldn’t let go, clutching at the boy’s coat, stroking his hair, his arm, his face, making my task doubly difficult. And not a boy after all, I thought as I turned the prone body. This was a man. A young man. Four years would have turned my boy into a man such as this. Could it really be true? Had God answered our desperate prayers and finally brought Andrew home?
His clothes were half solid with snow, melting against me as I lifted him and carried him into the warmth and light of the cabin. I set him down on the couch, and while Martha hung over him, I brought the lamp closer so we could see him better. The boy’s eyes were closed, but the hair, the face, they were Andrew’s – at least Andrew’s as they might have been, four years on. My beautiful boy had matured into a fine-looking man.
But there was blood in his hair. And he was cold. Very cold, face bloodless, lips tinged blue.
“Boil water,” I said to Martha. “We need bed warmers.” Still she hung weeping over the boy, pressing her face to his bloodied hair, hugging his head to her breast. I took hold of her, by the shoulders.
“Listen to me, Martha. You have to do as I say or we could lose him again. Do you understand? We must get him warm. And he’s hurt. Look at his head. Now, get some water on that stove.”
Martha, face streaked with tears, bodice stained with the boy’s blood, lifted her head and stared at me, eyes wide and frightened in her pale face. “Don’t let him die, Will, don’t let him die.”
“I won’t, but you have to help me.”
I saw comprehension in her eyes. She headed for the stove while I got the boy’s wet clothes off him and wrapped him round with blankets. I struggled to reconcile the memory of a boy with the body of the man in front of me, and it was hard not to doubt. Was this Andrew? Had fate really delivered my son back into my arms, or was this just another cruel trick? I wished I had Martha’s faith. There was no doubt in her face as she tucked an extra quilt around the boy, the way she’d done when he was a small child, then leaned in to stroke the curls from his face and touch her lips to his forehead.
I cleaned the gash on the side of his head. There was a nasty swelling beneath it. Then we packed stone water bottles at his feet and along his sides, and I stoked the fire while Martha heated milk on the stove. I pulled her chair close to the couch so she could sit beside the boy and spoon the warmed milk into his mouth. As the boy swallowed the milk, he stirred back to consciousness. His eyes opened, fixed on nothing. My heart jumped. Eyes of green-brown. Andrew’s eyes.
“Andrew,” said Martha, through her tears. “I knew you’d come back.”
The boy’s eyes focused on her face, looked confused.
“Drink the milk, son,” said I.
Martha put the spoon to the pale lips, and the boy swallowed dutifully. His lips formed words. I leaned in to hear him.
“Where am I?”
“Home,” said Martha. “You’re home, my love, safe and sound.”
The boy’s brow furrowed deeper.
Staring into my son’s eyes, my heart rose into my throat so that it was difficult to get the words past it. “Andrew, it’s us; your ma and pa. You’re home, son, you’re home.”
The boy’s eyes met mine, stared without recognition.
“Joe,” he muttered. “My name’s Joe.”
The sky was lightening to a pale grey over a world starkly beautiful, alien beneath its mantle of smooth whiteness. I rubbed rough hands over my unshaven face, my eyes gritty from lack of sleep. Through the open bedroom door, I could see Martha, asleep in the armchair beside the mounded cocoon of blankets shrouding the boy, a rug around her shoulders and another across her lap. I had not been able to persuade her to leave her place at the boy’s side. I studied her sleeping face for a long moment and wondered if her dreams were peaceful. I had always striven to make her happy. Once, it had not seemed such a difficult goal. How had happiness proved so elusive?
I went quietly so as not to wake Martha. Sleep did not come easily to her these days, but I needed to see the boy again, look at his face and know for sure that it was my son; dispel the doubts that had troubled my sleep and disturbed my dreams.
The young man was asleep too. His face, although still pale, had lost the bluish tinge of the night before. I studied his features closely, looking for clues to the son who had ridden away from home four years earlier. After that day that would stay with us forever, I had struggled to hang onto the image of my boy, and as the weeks became months and the months became years, I could no longer see his face clearly. Memory blurred and sometimes it was only when I caught a passing expression on Martha’s face, or on my own in the mirror, that I could see Andrew’s face clearly again, and then only fleetingly. It scared me that I was losing all I had left of my son. The Andrew to whom we had bidden goodbye on that fateful autumn morning had been little more than a child, small in stature, wiry and lean, with a smooth, round face beneath a tumble of wayward curls. The memory his carefree grin and the laughter in his bright eyes caused my stomach contract with a sharp tug of pain.
Now I tried to imagine how those lost years would have changed Andrew from boy to man, and, thinking about that, everything about the young man in front of me was right. The thick brown curls hadn’t changed. He was taller and broader, of course, but still lean of frame. His face was no longer childishly soft, but defined by the firmness of the bones beneath. He’d always been a good-looking boy and he had grown into a fine-looking young man, everything I would have wished for. Pride and sadness welled inside me, and I could not help himself. I leaned over and touched the untidy tangle of curls framing the sleeping face.
The young man’s eyes flicked open. I felt the sharp tug inside me again as the familiar hazel gaze met mine. We regarded each other in silence. There was recognition in the young man’s face, and some anxiety. I forced myself to breathe.
“How do you feel?”
“I’m all right.” His eyes roamed the interior of the cabin, stopped when they came to Martha in the armchair. Our voices had roused her. She never slept deeply. She drew a sharp gasp, her eyes widening, like a child waking on Christmas morning.
“Andrew!” she whispered. “My darling. Andrew.” She reached over to touch his hair and he drew his head away. “What is it, my sweet? Are you hurting?”
“My name’s Joe,” he said. “Joe Cartwright.” He looked to me for help.
Martha recoiled as though someone had slapped her. She too looked at me, pleading in her eyes.
“You don’t know this place?” I said.
The young man cast his eyes around the cabin for a second time, then shook his head. The looks on our faces apparently baffled him. He drew his brows together in a troubled frown. “Should I?”
I would have answered but Martha got there first. “It’s your home. Don’t you remember?”
The boy looked at her, uncertain. “No,” he said. “No, ma’am, I don’t remember.”
Tears sprang in Martha’s eyes. “It’s your home,” she repeated, her voice shaking. You must remember your home.”
“Martha,” I said, taking her arm, “why don’t you make some breakfast? We’ll talk about this when we’ve had some coffee and some food.”
The young man watched us uneasily. “I think I should be on my way,” he said, and made to sit up. “Whoa!” he groaned, pressing his hand to his head.
“You’ve hurt your head,” I told him. “Take it easy.” I touched Martha’s shoulder. “What the boy needs is food, Martha. How about fixing him some eggs?” She rarely cooked at all now. Even little tasks sapped her energy, but I wanted to distract her, and the boy’s presence seemed to have given her fresh strength.
“Oh yes.” She gave an eager nod, and with one last lingering touch to his curly hair, she turned away to the kitchen. “I’ll fix them just the way you like them.”
I watched her go, then looked back at the boy. “We thought you were….well, the fact is, you look just like our son, Andrew.”
The boy shook his head. His voice was tired, but his eyes were lucid, his words dispelling the last, tentative strands of hope to which I’d been clinging. “I’m Joe Cartwright, from the Ponderosa ranch. I was trying to get home for Christmas. I took a shortcut across country, but the storm caught me out. I lost my way. Then my horse put his foot wrong in the snow, and fell. I hit my head but he broke his leg. I… had to shoot him.”
I could see the memory upset him. I put a hand on his shoulder.
“I stayed there, huddled down beside him until the storm stopped,” he went on. “I had no idea where I was by then, and it was dark. I thought I might as well walk as die there. Then I saw a light….”
I knew he was telling the truth, even though the truth was like a cold lump in the bottom of my belly. This was not Andrew. But what about Martha? How was I going to convince her this was not her beloved son? She had clung so long to the belief her boy would one day return, and she was not strong. I worried what the truth would do to her.
As Martha clattered in the kitchen behind us, I tried to explain to the boy how things were with her, how Andrew’s disappearance had broken her heart, how his absence had drained the strength from her body and the joy from her heart, but my words were clumsy. I didn’t know if he would understand. Then Martha came back with the eggs. The boy smiled and thanked her. He was polite, well-spoken; a son any father might have been proud of. And Martha, unable to restrain herself, clutched at his hand, and powerless to stop the tears, lamented, “Oh, Andrew, where have you been all this time? We’ve been so worried. So very worried!”
The boy looked troubled. “I’m sorry about your son,” he said, “and I’m sorry to be all this trouble to you, but I’m not Andrew, truly I’m not. My name’s Joe. Joe Cartwright. I have a father of my own, and two brothers, and I live over by Virginia City. I’m sorry, ma’am. I know you miss your boy, but I’m not Andrew.”
Martha raised her head, her eyes dark with pain, her face contorting as though someone had stabbed her.
“Don’t! Don’t say things like that!” She cupped his face with her hand. “I know my own son. Of course I do. I don’t know why you’re saying these things to me. Have you forgotten us? Have you forgotten your own mother and father?”
I took her by the shoulders again. “Martha, listen to me,” I pleaded, but she wouldn’t. She was weeping, pressing her hands to her chest. I wrapped my arms around her, tried to comfort her while the boy stared at us in bewilderment and some alarm.
“It’s all right” I told him. “You eat your eggs. I’ll talk to her. It will be all right.”
I took Martha through to the bedroom. She didn’t want to go and grew even more distressed, but I persisted, for her own good and for the good of the boy. I would have liked to spare him what passed between us there, but the walls were thin and I knew Martha’s protests and cries of dismay were clearly audible as I tried to reason with and console her.
Finally, I persuaded her to take one of the powders the doctor had left for her. She needed to sleep. I sat with her while she fell into a troubled slumber, then I went back out into the main room. The boy who was not my son regarded me from a pale, anxious face.
“She’s sleeping now,” I said. “She’s not well, and…” I sighed, “she holds onto too much hope where there is none.” I saw then that the eggs were still untouched in the boy’s lap. “Your eggs are cold. I’ll make you some fresh ones.”
Joe looked down at his plate. “No, please don’t worry. These are fine.” He hesitated awkwardly. “Will your wife be all right?”
I tried to look reassuring even though my heart was heavy for Martha’s future. But that was not this young man’s concern. I watched as he ate a few mouthfuls of his cold egg.
“I must be on my way,” he said. “You’ve been very kind to me but I don’t want to distress your wife any more than I already have. And I wanted to be home in time for Christmas.”
I nodded. “Of course you do. But that’s a nasty knock you took on your head. You must be sure you feel well enough.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said, with all the assurance of the young. He frowned. “Is there somewhere nearby I can hire a horse?”
I looked out of the window at the snow-clad world. “I can take you into town, provided the road is passable.”
He looked relieved at that. “I don’t have much money,” he said, “but I’ll make sure I pay you back, once I get home.”
“Don’t you worry about that.” I nodded at his plate. “You should eat. I have to feed the animals and check everything’s all right after the snow. Then I’ll hitch up the wagon and we’ll try heading into town.”
I tried to sound bright, although I was troubled by the knowledge that Martha’s heart would be broken afresh if she woke to find the boy gone. But he was not Andrew and we had no claim on him. Of course he wanted to get home to his family for Christmas, and it was my Christian duty to help him do that.
It took me about an hour to do the necessary chores and hitch up Tully, our old horse, to the wagon, by which time Joe was dressed and ready to leave. Just stepping through the door and seeing him there made my heart skip a beat. Andrew, oh my Andrew, I know now how you would have turned out if only you had lived!
I left a note for Martha, saying simply, “Back soon. Don’t worry.” My hope was that the draught she had taken would keep her asleep until I returned. I tried not to think further ahead than that. It filled my heart with dread.
Joe climbed up beside me on the wagon and I turned the horse’s head in the direction of town. The snow obscured everything, but I knew well enough where the road lay beneath the white shroud.
“Are your family expecting you back today?” I asked Joe.
“I was held up in Placerville,” he told me, “otherwise I’d have been home before that snowstorm came along.”
“They’ll be worried about you then?”
I looked round at him as I asked the question and he gave me an unexpected grin. “They always worry about me. I’m the youngest. They never let me forget that.”
I could tell by the warmth in his voice he wasn’t really complaining. I tried to ignore the sharp pang of envy as I thought of his father and brothers. Their son and brother might be late returning, but he would be coming home. My boy never would.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, sir, but…” Joe hesitated as if unsure whether to proceed with the question, “…what happened to your son?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t mind.” And I told him about that terrible day. When I’d finished, he looked somber.
“I’m sorry,” he said, then he added, “and I’m sorry too that I remind you so much of him.”
“No,” I said, “you mustn’t feel bad. You’re not to blame. In a way, I’m glad this happened. I think maybe it was meant to be. It’s as if…it’s as if you were sent to show us how Andrew might have been, had he lived. It’s as if we’ve been given another glimpse of our boy.”
Tears sprang to my eyes as I spoke and I turned my face away so he wouldn’t see them, and we drove on in silence. That’s when we heard the shout from behind us. Joe turned faster than I did, and clutched my arm with an urgent hand.
“It’s your wife, sir. She’s following us.”
Martha! I reined in the horse and flung myself down from the wagon, knee-deep into the soft snow of the verge.
“Martha!” My wife was a small figure in the distance, dark against the surrounding snow. Slipping and stumbling, I ran back the way we’d come.
She threw herself into my arms. She had run from the house in nothing more than her slippers and indoor clothes. No coat, no boots. Snow crusted her dress. She must have fallen several times. Now she collapsed, panting Andrew’s name, sobbing against me. I tried to calm her, shrugging off my coat to wrap around her. She was so thin, so frail.
“Let’s get her into the wagon.”
It was Joe’s voice. I looked round and he was at my shoulder. He’d turned the wagon around and come back after us. I nodded and hustled Martha into the back of the cart, climbing in with her so I could wrap her in my arms for warmth. Joe got back in the driver’s seat and urged the horse back towards the house.
Martha was cold, wet, distraught. I hurried her into the bedroom and got her under the warm covers while Joe made hot coffee. All the time she wept, and wailed Andrew’s name. Joe knocked at the door and came into the bedroom, two steaming mugs in his hands. He didn’t say anything, just looked at Martha, then back at me.
“Andrew!” She tried to sit up in bed, her hands reaching for him.
Joe set down the cups on the nightstand and dropped to his knees beside the bed, catching the two flailing arms in his own hands. “I’m here,” he said. “It’s all right, I’m here.”
“Andrew?” She clutched at him as if her life depended on it. “Oh, Andrew, I thought I’d lost you again.”
“No, Ma, he said, “I’m here.”
She pulled him towards her in a clumsy embrace, and he went, unresisting. “It’s all right, Ma,” he said again. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay right here beside you, don’t you worry.”
I stood uselessly, too startled to move or speak as I watched my wife clutching the boy she believed was her son, and Joe, enfolding her thin shoulders in his strong, young arms. It was a few minutes before she relaxed her grip on him enough that he could turn his head to look at me. I saw then that he understood. I had to leave the room because the emotion inside me was too much to contain.
Joe appeared in the doorway a short while later, leaning against the frame to look at me. By then, I was back under control, but I could not meet his eyes for fear I’d give myself away.
“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t need to explain what for; he knew. I gestured at the door. “Take the wagon. You can still make it home today. Howie at the livery will see to it Tully gets back here safely.”
I waited but he didn’t move.
“Go on,” I urged him. “Your pa and your brothers will be worried about you.”
He shook his head.
I raised my eyes to his and saw that, in spite of his youth, he’d understood more than I’d realized. I had known for many months how sick Martha was, but it was then, as I looked into the eyes of the stranger who wasn’t a stranger, that I finally came to terms with the finality of the situation.
“What about your family? Won’t they be worried?”
“They’ll guess I’ve gone to ground somewhere when the snow came.”
My gratitude was more than I could express in words, but somehow, I knew he understood that too.
Martha drifted in and out of sleep all that day, and Joe was there to comfort her whenever she woke. She never doubted once that he was Andrew. For that, at least, I was grateful because she was the happiest I had seen her in four years, in spite of the obvious fact that she was growing weaker by the hour.
During the times Martha slept, Joe told me all about his home and his family. He’d lost his mother when he was four years old. When he told me that, he gave me the kind of radiant grin I’d almost forgotten was possible, and added, “But this Christmas, I’ll have a mother one more time.”
We spent Christmas Day much as we’d spent Christmas Eve, by Martha’s bedside. She was calmer now than I’d seen her for years, smiling to see her boy each time she opened her eyes, reminiscing about things that he had said or done when he was young. He’d squeeze her hand and nod and laugh, and she was content.
She slipped away the day after Christmas. I had gone into the kitchen to make coffee. As I came back into the bedroom, Joe lifted his face to me and his eyes spoke for him. Such eloquent eyes. Would my Andrew’s have been the same?
Together we carried Martha to the wagon and together we drove through the snow into town. Even then, he did not leave me until all was done at the undertakers.
I said goodbye to him at the livery.
“Will you be all right?” he asked me.
“Yes.” I found I could even smile in spite of all that had happened. “Martha found peace at the end. I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
“I’ll come back and visit,” he promised. “In the spring. Once the snow’s past.”
“If Andrew had lived,” I told him, “I would have been a very proud man if he had turned out like you.”
He held out his hand and I took it, but it seemed inadequate for all that had passed between us, so I pulled him towards me, and hugged him the way I used to hug Andrew, and he hugged me back.
I drove home, grieving my wife, yet at the same time praising God for the miracle that had sent this young man to us at this time. I had lost Martha, but what Joe brought to us that Christmas was the greatest gift of all.
Link to the 20167 Advent Calendar – Day 18 – Our Little Piece of Snow-Covered Heaven by BluewindFarm
Tags: Joe / Little Joe Cartwright
Other Stories by this Author
- Last Christmas (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Of Men and Angels (by Inca / aka Tye)
- His Father’s Son (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Somebody else’s dog (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Men of Steel (by Inca / aka Tye)