“I’m sure he’ll come back.” The boy placed a consoling hand on the older man’s shoulder.
“I know... I know...” The old man, getting older before his time, wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Thank-you. I didn’t mean to trouble you with my problems.”
“I’m hired help. You didn’t say what I couldn’t help with.” The boy of fifteen smiled back. He, too, seemed older before his time.
The old man feebly smiled, but the playful kindness of the boy seemed to strike a deeper well of tears. He reached for the boy and held on to him, shaking with grief, his face buried in the boy’s chest.
“I miss him so much! I’m so scared for him!” His voice was hoarse with grief, and a lifetime of digging in the dirt. “I just want him home! I don’t care about how he left. I just want him home!”
The boy held him in his arms for a long time, until at last the shaking subsided into exhausted gasps and sniffs. The boy looked carefully into the old man’s eyes, and held his gaze for a moment before he spoke.
“I look forward to meeting him.”
The boy had been working for the old man for three weeks now. He had heard from another hired hand that one of the old man’s children had ran off. It had been an unhappy departure. The young son had spoken a cruel word, thrown an obscene gesture, and walked away. The old man was heartbroken.
This other boy, this good boy with a large family and a limited income, had been in search of work. The old man, realizing he could not take up the work his wayward son had been doing, hired him with few words and a firm handshake.
Now, three weeks later, an unexpected friendship had slowly been forming between the boy and the old farmer. The old man admired the boy’s combination of hard work and a ready smile. The boy admired the old man’s kind face, and friendly eyes. He had also recognized the grief behind those eyes.
The old man never spoke harshly of his youngest son, but when he did speak of him, it was with the decisive, clipped sentences of a man keeping a world of pain at bay. Instead, he turned his words to his older son, and set upon him words of praise and adulation.
“He’s a good man, my son,” he would say as he watched the young man at work in the field. “He’ll do well with the place when I’m gone. He’s up before me every morning, and usually comes in an hour after me at night. He’s a hard worker.”
The boy would nod, and wonder when the old man would finally break.
Tonight, he decided, he would ask about the son that wasn’t there.
Twilight was gathering upon the fields as the boy had come to collect his daily wage. The old man stood in the pale sunlight and handed him his humble pay. The boy had asked with refreshing candor.
“Sir, what happened with your son?”
A look of pained relief had come over the old man’s face. No one had dared bring up the subject with him, and it had been wounding him so to keep it unsaid. With a deep sigh, he had told the boy everything.
Now, as the tears dried and the first star of the evening shone above them, the two sat in a silent communion.
Nine months and two pay raises later, the boy was still at work. Each day, he hoped he would lose his job to a returning son. He watched the old man from the field, and noted how often he would gaze down the road, looking at nothing, watching for someone.
It was about three in the afternoon on a Thursday when he heard the old man shriek. The boy had been digging a post hole, and when he turned to see what had happened, he saw the old man running like a mad man down the lane. He knew even before he saw the distant figure what the old man was running toward: a reunion.
The boy set aside his shovel and walked, awestruck, in the direction of the running old man. What he saw would stay with him for the rest of his life.
A young man, not much older than he, was ambling slowly up the road toward the farm. His clothes were dirty, and he looked exhausted. When he caught sight of his running father, he simply collapsed to his knees, and shook his head. It was that head shaking that would always stay in the boy’s memory: the weary son’s hands cupping his mouth and nose in disbelief, overwhelmed and hardly believing a father would run to a son such as he.
But he did run, and swept down upon the son like a crashing wave, the folds of his robes enveloping him in an ocean of mercy.
The boy came as close as he dared, stopping far enough away to hear only the bedraggled son’s responses to whatever words of grace his father was speaking as he held him.
“Please, Dad, I can’t.... I don’t want... I’m sorry... I’m sorry...”
But soon all words were gone, and there was only a father and his son in silent embrace.
A moment later, the old man called for the hired hand that stood at a distance behind him, that hired hand that had come to be something more.
“Jesus! Jesus, come here! It’s alright, come here.” he called.
The boy came forward, smiling humbly, but not shyly.
“I want you to meet my son Caleb.” said the old man. “Caleb, this is Jesus. He’s one of the hired hands here. My best.”
“It’s good to meet you.” Jesus said.
Caleb greeted him. “You too.”
“So you see why I can’t take you on as a hired hand, son. I’d have to fire this replacement here. Now, Jesus, I need you to get a couple of things for me....”`
The three of them walked toward the house, the father, the son, and the hired hand.