Once, upon coming of age, the son of a land-owning man asked to receive his inheritance early. He understood that, per tradition, he was not to receive this money until after his father’s death but, as he put it to his father late on the night of his eighteenth birthday, there was something shameful in leaving the money lying dormant. A whole world rose outside their gates, he said. His life would be a waste if he couldn’t see it.
His father was a kind man who had few financial worries, so he granted his son’s request that night. He split his holdings in two and gave the son one half of them—a massive sum of money by any standard, enough to buy his property thrice over. He was a forgiving man as well, perhaps to a fault, so he was not angry when, mere days after receiving this sum, his son left the estate without a word. He was patient.
The son left for a city some hundred miles from the property. He’d never been off the family estate before, not even to see the nearest village, but he felt, for lack of a better word, protected through the whole length of his travel, as though the independence his money bought him were a woolen coat he’d wrap around himself. As he crossed the desert, he felt no fear. He gazed out at the drying wells and bandit camps along the road with the passing interest of a fish staring through glass.
In the city, he never took a home, preferring instead to hole up in the nearest hotel the moment he grew tired, or more often not to sleep through the night at all, but to drink and eat and sing the night away, crashing in whatever bus or taxicab might take him in the light. He gorged some nights and starved himself on others. He lived at far too great a speed to care.
He felt his life could spin on endlessly like this—a strange rotation of doors and spotlights, symbols whose meanings didn’t coalesce—but the more he reveled in this excess, the more he felt himself thrown from his path. He lay in alleys with his eyes closed thinking of it. It was the light let in through the crack in the door. He’d taken his first step toward it, fleeing to the city, and even from this distance he could see that at its end was something like a unified theory of existence, or at least the minute part his life contributed to it. At its end was the world he’d left his home to witness. One day, he knew he’d have to walk on towards it, to slip through the crack in the door, but for now he was more content to lie in the dirt. He’d circle on until the day he couldn’t.
The only limit to this life was his inheritance—one day it would run out, and his life as it was would end as well. He could sleep in friends’ apartments or bus stops or the kitchens of bars too dark and too muddy for anyone to bother with his presence, but still, he and his money would soon part ways. He ate only the cheapest foods and dressed in rags and bandanas, but still his debt continued to grow. The only thing he couldn’t do was steal.
Some months into his debt, the famine spread into the city. War had pushed out into the Levant. Those with money, unlike him, fled. Those without it had to stay in place. It was not uncommon for the son to see corpses in the alleys he’d once slept in. He watched them remain there for days, until they stopped resembling human bodies. The world, the son thought finally, had decided to push him down his path.
At first the son fled north. Whether he was fleeing his path or following it, he didn’t know. He had no map of where the world would take him, and he felt afraid for the first time since he’d left home. Some days into his journey he collapsed from starvation on the side of a craggy hill. He woke up to a man kicking his side.
“Please, sir, do you have any food?” the son asked, turning to gaze up at the stranger. He had a youngish, sunburnt face. His wide shoulders blocked the sun.
“Follow me, the stranger said,” and he left without pulling the son up. The son crawled after him a few yards, till he felt he was strong enough to stand.
The stranger led the son to a wood pavilion between two hills. A number of men were sitting around a table underneath it, some without shirts. They ate with their hands from a large clay pot in the table’s center, speaking a language the son had never heard. Some had scars on their necks and shoulder blades, and most wore rifles strapped over their backs. The stranger said a few words to the men, none of which the son could understand, and grabbed a piece of salted pork from the clay pot. No one watched him as he walked back to the son.
“Eat,” the stranger said. He held the pork to the son’s mouth but did not let him touch it. He made the son eat the food from his hand.
When the pork was gone, he grabbed the son’s thin shoulder.
“Now you’re going to work for me,” he said. “To repay me for all I’ve given you.”
The stranger put the son to work as his swineherd. Behind another hill there was a barn and a fenced-in pigpen. From it, the son could see an iron roof over what was either a small barracks or modest mansion. All day the son stood in the heat and watched the pigs. Once a day the stranger fed him a piece of risen bread. On Saturdays, he fed him salted pork.
The son was never sure if he was hungry. Perhaps he was just tired—he had no bed. Every day when he watched the stranger fill the pig’s low trough with slop, he felt his stomach turn in on itself. Hidden behind the barn door where the stranger couldn’t see him, he watched the pigs press their snouts into their goopy slop, their pink mouths dropping apple cores and cornhusks to the ground as carelessly as he might have just a month before. They had cucumber peels and lemon rinds. They had hardened bread crusts.
Perversely, the son thought he felt his path again. The world was pressing in on his chest, trying its best to tell him something. It was some weeks before he understood.
The war, of course, was spreading north behind him. Whether true or not, the stranger said this would affect his food supply. No longer could he afford to offer so much. He cut the son’s already small rations in half.
The son knew for sure that he was starving now. It was something that began as a physical sensation but soon grew to something greater, almost spiritual. It was like a hand had reached down into his stomach and turned some valve that released the hunger into the rest of him, a simple new condition of his being. Now when the stranger fed the pigs their slop, the son hid behind the barn and hummed. He hummed quietly enough he could hear the stranger leaving and, when he did, the son began to sing.
It was a quiet song, and a slow one, but he always felt it was missing a couple notes. He was afraid to look at the pigs at their trough now, unsure what his hunger might make him do, so he always sang behind the barn. He watched smoke rise up from the roof of the barracks, which he imagined meant the soldiers were cooking one of the pigs he looked after. One day, when he heard them yelling words he couldn’t comprehend, the strangest thought occurred to him: What if he were to show the pigs his song? Would the pigs enjoy it? He came out from behind the barn singing and reached the pigs just as his song reached its most incomplete point. He couldn’t have finished his singing anyway, for as soon as he saw the slop, beyond his own intention, he jumped the fence and dunked his head into the trough, between two boars. He ate like he was one of them, both hands and knees pressed to the ground. The soldiers were still yelling something in the barracks, but with his head deep in the slop, he couldn’t hear.
Something felt very good about eating like this. Somewhere distant, a lost key fit in a lock, and a door slid open. Crouching in the pen alongside the pigs of the valley, the son felt two things change inside him. First, the pressure he’d felt before to find his path had lifted. Second, the hunger he’d suffered under for months was gone. So glad was the son when these changes occurred that he lifted his head out from the trough and, before wiping the goop off his face, began to sing his song just as he had before. When he reached the end, however, a few more notes were present. It was complete, and it seemed to exist in the world as a record of his change.
He wiped his mouth and thanked the pigs before standing. He patted the boars beside him on their backs. He left the stranger’s farm then, under cover of night so the soldiers wouldn’t see him. Once he’d left the pen, all his thoughts were on his father. He had to return to show his father the song he’d discovered, to show that his abandonment had cause. He wasn’t worried about how he would get there. He could sing his song for any person, even bandits on the roads, and he knew they’d understand.
This was how the father learned of his return—word spread south quicker than his son could: a strange, gaunt boy was singing his way down the Jordan. The father began to prepare a feast at once. He knew any celebration he organized on his small estate could never match so much as a shadow of the revels his son had experienced in the world, but he had heard of his son’s destitution since the war. He hoped any show of excess might touch his spirit.
He remembered when he’d left his own father some decades before. He’d gone much farther than his son, all the way to the green foothills of a distant chain of mountains, certain then, as he imagined his son was certain now, he’d understand life more if he left home. There, imprisoned by political dissidents mere weeks after arriving, he spent his days subject to the intricate tortures of small knives and his nights composing short narratives with clever little twists at their ends, twists which, he’d hoped, turned each story on its head, revealing a sort of complexity not obvious to his listeners until this point, seeming contradictions which, in their irreconcilability, shone a little light on the contours of the world. When, after a month, his father heard word of his capture and sent the ransom money to get him home, he tried to recount these little narratives to his father as a way of thanking him, but his father never listened to a word. Up until the day he died, which was many decades later, he always found a way of interrupting. He never acknowledged the narratives’ existence.
So when the father met his own son at the gates of the family estate and saw that same glaze of understanding in his son’s eyes, he imagined the son had invented a narrative of his own.
“Come in,” the father called. “You must be starving.”
This was true, so the son allowed his father to grab him by the shoulder and drag him to the banquet hall, where the wooden tables were spread with plastic tablecloths. China plates of every food the son could think of were displayed there. The smell was enough to turn his stomach.
The father tried to avoid his son all night. Whenever he found himself cornered, his son’s eyes glazing over as though he were running through a narrative in his head, the father took another dish from the serving table and offered it up to his son in the spirit of excess. That was his strategy for keeping their home safe—whenever his son tried to speak to him, he’d offer a new distraction. Soon the son would forget his narrative, or so the father hoped.
The son was not unaware of his father’s actions. Whenever he went to his father to speak, breaking away from whatever neighbor or relative might try to hold his attention, he saw clear in the light the fear his father’s eyes were trying to hide. He stayed in place while his father fetched him food and was sad anew each time he ate. But he understood.
They finally got together after dinner. The father had delegated cleanup to the servants, as was usual, so when the son approached him, he had no pretext under which he could flee. The son saw fear in his eyes again and tried to calm it.
“Father,” he said. “Can I talk with you today?”
The father looked to a servant balling a tablecloth.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you as well,” he said.
“That makes me feel very glad,” said the son.
The father described the operations of their estate. He went into exquisite detail, counting out their flocks of lambs and rows of wheat, their many homes and grain refineries, the painting gallery and sculpture gardens, the small science museum. The son watched his father’s face light as he spoke. The fear left his eyes as he listed what they owned.
“While you were gone I saved a place for you at the head of every table,” the father said. “The whole time you were out, I kept you safe.”
“This is not my farm,” the son said. “I don’t have any—”
His father did not let him finish speaking.
“I’d like you to join me in running it,” he said.
The son looked into his father’s eyes once more. He could see the next few months as they would happen. Every time he’d try to sing to the father, the father would have some new process or tool to show to him, and he’d have to stop the song before its start. Their estate was large, with many operations. This made the son despair. He loved his father deeply, and wanted nothing more than to share his knowledge with him, but he knew his father wouldn’t hear it now. That was okay. There’d still be time. Outside their estate walls, the war burned on. Homes were torn apart or turned to prison camps. People were made to lose the things that made them who they were. None of these things could matter to the son. He had a new goal now, a new path laid before him. Outside, cities could burn and seas could rise, but here within his home there’d still be time. He’d find a way to sing out to his father. He’d understand.
“Yes, Father,” he said. “Show me the farm.”
Jakob Konger is from Tampa, Florida. He writes short stories about history and reality, and is a graduate of the Michener Fellowship program at the University of Miami, where he was also webmaster and fiction editor for Sinking City Lit Mag, a climate-focused literary journal. He has also received the Fred Shaw Prize in Fiction for 2019.