“When is Da coming back?”
My oldest looks down at me and I realize I don’t know what to say. Tomorrow’s already advanced and next week is finally here. So many false promises of homecomings have come and passed, one after another, leaving me nothing but a terrible liar. I bite my lip.
“Soon,” I say, leaving behind the specifics and instead opting for the vague.
“He’s…never coming back...is he?”
My heart breaks again. One so young shouldn't have such adult eyes. They stare at me, those serious, sad things, and pierce through one side of my heart and straight out the other. Those eyes are the product of one too many hungry nights, of too much death stalking the streets, of a senseless war that ended long ago, and yet still softly lingers like a haunting ghost.
My young one's eyes fit his big frame, that adult-sized vessel that seems far too big for the child he still is. If I could take back anything right here in this moment, it would be those eyes that have seen far too much already and much, much too quickly.
I close my eyes. He might see me lie, but I won't let him see me cry...not this young one of mine. I swallow the hurt; I push down the regret and settle my fingers beside his stubborn scowl.
I massage his cheeks as if that might coax out a smile, but it’s all for naught—and so I offer my own small smile to him instead, as if to let him know that whatever good has gone extinct in this world, joy still hasn’t.
“He loves you dearly, my son. If he’s able to come back, he will. I promise.”
“So he’s dead.” My boy pulls out of my hands, joy repulsed, and I am saddened by lack of questioning in his voice. He says it as if it has already—certainly—come to pass.
“I didn’t say that, child. There’s every chance in the world that he’ll come marching through that door any time now—”
“And there’s every chance he’ll not come back at all," he finishes for me. "I’m not a child anymore, Ma.”
My heart breaks a little bit more. He’s not yet past his thirteenth daybreak, but even still he’s right. There is a chance his Papa won’t return—a big chance at that...and one that’s much too hard for us all to bear.
This isn’t an era for young ones.
“...No. I suppose you’re not,” I concede. I know he’s not a little Kota anymore, but everything inside me wishes I could freeze time right here and now and let him come of age in a version of Ailur that isn’t bloody and blistered from the poison kiss of war.
“It’s not like it’s surprising, Ma. Itala’s father never returned. Muarta’s mother was the same. Everyone’s missing someone because of the Anagativans' selfishness and pride. No one’s family is whole anymore.”
My mind rewinds back through the past few moons. We’ve all spent many a nightfall digging through the leftover destruction, searching for our dead and finding, more often than not, that our missing loved ones aren’t missing at all. Now they'll be missed forever.
My young one turns from me, folding his arms. If only he were wrong. He casts such a lonely silhouette upon the walls of our burrow, a fretful figure brought forth from the flickering light of a waning candelabra—a giant’s shadow eclipsing the sun.
“The world isn’t normally like this,” I tell him. I can’t help but reach out a hand to comfort him.
“Stop lying!” he shouts, forcefully shrugging out of my grip. “This is our normal now! Pain and hurt and loss—this is how the world works! There’s always a war, a plague...some unrelenting violence that ceaselessly steals from us what we love most. We die and then we’re told to smile—to try to see the brightness of it all. Don’t you understand? No matter how much we may foolishly strain to see it, there is no brightness left in this black world!”
Now he’s crying—a sight so seldom seen these days—and so am I, our hearts breaking together.
As selfish as it seems, I have the terrible thought that I'm relieved to no longer have to bear the weight of this heartbreak alone. But then...a second, much scarier and suffocating thought comes: yes, my heart has handled its share of battering, loss, and loneliness...and it has always found a way to piece itself back together again, one fragile fragment at a time.
...But I am not so sure my sweet one’s heart can do the same. I have seen the peaceful days of Ailur, but all he has known is so much darkness for so much of his precious life.
"And what if the world remains this way?” I carefully ask. “What will you do then?”
He looks at me for a moment and I can tell his mind is very far away by the dimness that has clouded his once-bright eyes. Finally, he speaks.
“Then I shall have my revenge. Each misery, each suffering, all the ills of this terrible world…I’ll fight, and I’ll scream, and I’ll kill. I'll bring chaos, just as this world has so callously brought upon our people—not because it consumes me, but because I can consume it. I’ll swallow the bitterness whole and spit out the blood that remains. We'll never have to suffer again, because I will be the one who brings the suffering. I’ll eclipse Ailur’s horrors by doling out my own!”
I don't know what happens then...perhaps the heartbreak and fear that are coursing through my body have become too much, but I snap.
Terror takes hold of me and my hand is automatic, lurching from my body on its own accord and delivering a cracking slap across my son's cheek. His eyes widen and his lips part, but nothing is said. The echo of the slap settles between us, bitter and loud.
Both my hand and his lip tremble in the aftermath of what's been done. My sweet son has seemingly begun relishing in violence, and now I have answered him with more of the same sort of ugliness, the same wretched taste.
I could blame the long nights and terrible days; I could claim it’s the hunger that’s tearing into my gut or the heartache that’s digging into my soul, but I know the truth of it now...
I have grown terrified of my child, of what I know he is capable of, driven by so much hate.
I quickly try to staunch out the fire I know I've kindled “I’m so sor—”
But he doesn't hear me. He’s already running, his back retreating as his seething hands reach for the door, ripping it open in one swift, rage-filled motion.
The door slams open and out he darts, into the dark night. I try to chase after him, but I’ve already lost him to the blackness, to the midnight streets and the lonely, desolate alleyways. I sink to the ground in tears, lost, but in my heart—broken now for the umpteenth time—I know he’ll be back.
Maybe a day, perhaps a week...he'll return with that sweet smile and those gentle, bright eyes. I must simply wait, I tell myself.
My Ayrag will come back to me.