The gales of wind howled through the trees outside the old cabin. Smoke rose from the chimney as the old man ate his humble soup safely inside. His weathered hands were still steady, having stacked the wood by the cabin walls that would surely last the winter’s full duration. It’s a good thing he had.
It had been a particularly tough winter, but the old man was prepared. Tonight was a very rare event – a “thundersnow,” that’s when a thunderstorm’s precipitation freezes in the falling temperatures. The lightning and thunder added a sense of drama to the usually peaceful dusting of snow.
He paused for a moment and stared, somewhat hypnotized by the flicker of the stone fireplace. He’d learned the art of simple solitude, spending most evenings alone with his thoughts, his memories. After a day of chores, his eyes would dart back and forth between the pictures on the wall of those he’d loved through the years. A baby girl lost tragically in childhood, a son now proudly away at war, a wife taken by sickness.
He used to crave time alone, taking long walks in the woods around his cabin. His favorite sound was when the wind picked up and whipped through the tall trees surrounding the little clearing.
When you choose it, it’s “solitude.” When you don’t have the choice, it’s merely loneliness.
His head popped up when he heard a creak coming from the boards of his front porch. It might just be an animal, bears sniffing around again. His eyes glanced at his shotgun, sitting ready next to the bedroom door.
Then came the most unlikely sound, at this location, at this time of evening – a knock at the door.
It was a weak knock, no doubt. But the specific, evenly spaced rhythm of the three taps left no question there was someone on the other side. Someone seeking entrance, long after dusk in the middle of a deserted wood – a place no one should be, nor especially wish to be.
The old man shot up out of his chair, leaving his spoon to clang against his bowl. His right arm grabbed the shotgun, the veins in his arm pulsing as his forearm gripped it firmly and moved quickly to the door.
“What do you want?” the old man called out loudly.
“What’s your business here? I warn you – I am armed.”
A weak voice called out from behind the door…
Immediately, the old man pulled the latch on the door and swung it wide open. A gust of wind and snow rushed through, followed by the sound of knees of what appeared to be a soldier hitting the floor. The old man bent down and caught the soldier in his arms before his head could reach the ground.
As he pulled the boy in, kicking the door shut with his heel, he noticed his son is wearing the uniform of his country’s enemy – a ruthless, hateful rebel force intent on tearing their nation apart and destroying all the values the old man held dear.
The old man picked up his son in his arms and carried him to the fireplace. Setting him down in front of the fire, he pulled his wet, frozen clothes off and wrapped him in a blanket. Since the son was unable to stand, the father sat on the floor beside him, cradling him in his arms.
After giving him water, the son finally sat up. The father helped him to the table and poured him a bowl of soup.
The son devoured the soup, finally choking and spitting the soup across the table.
As the boy began to cry, the father quickly put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it, son. I’ll get it” The father grabbed a towel and begins to clean the mess, and poured another bowl of soup. He set it before the boy, “Now, eat slowly…take your time. There’s plenty more.”
As the boy began to eat again, he tells his story…
“They captured me. I was trapped behind enemy lines. They tortured me, Daddy! It was horrible. But they said I’d be rewarded if I’d only help them.”
The father listened as he hung up the boy’s uniform to dry next to the fire.
“They lied to me, Daddy. They told me our side was wrong. They said we didn’t have the right to impose our values on them and that they were right to rebel.”
Then the boy looked down. “I started to believe them for a while. I liked the idea of the freedom from restraint they promised. But finally, I saw through their lies.”
“Last week, I was finally able to escape. But now they’ve branded me a deserter and sent bounty hunters after me. They know my name and serial number, and I know they’ve been tracking me for the past few days. They can’t be far behind me.”
“I didn’t have the energy to cover up my tracks in the snow anymore. I know by morning they will track me here to your house.”
Then the Father asked, “Why did you decide to come here where they’d be sure to look for you?”
The boy began to cry again. “I just wanted to come home. I was always happy here. I just wanted to see you one last time and be home before I have to die…”
The father moved to his son’s chair and squeezed the boy’s shoulder with his calloused left hand. The boy could feel his father’s strength – it had always made him feel safe and protected as a child. It seemed there was nothing his father couldn’t do. But now, he was beyond even the help of the old man.
“Don’t worry, son. Right now, you just need to rest.”
“But they’ll be coming for me soon!” the boy cried. “I can’t rest. They’ll catch up with me by morning, I’m sure of it.”
“Never you mind about that,” said the old man. “Daddy will take care of it.”
How often the boy had heard his father say these words through the years. But now, they rang with a certain irony. What could his father do to save him now? The boy had finally made a mess so bad, and there was no way the father could fix it anymore. The boy was now a man and would have to pay a man’s penalty.
“Rest, my son. I’ve got your bed ready, and I’ll protect you tonight.”
The son turned to argue but fell into the father’s arms again, exhausted from his trial. The father gathered him up and carried him to his own bed in the next room. Gently, he pulled the covers over the boy and left him unconscious and spent…
The father sat once again at his table, staring into the fire as it approached midnight. He knew his son was guilty and was wounded. He’d betrayed his country so selfishly. His son’s shame and dishonor were unworthy of the way he had raised him. And yet, this was his son, his little boy. No matter how old he might get, to him, he never stopped being the object of all his hopes and dreams.
The old man folded his hands and prayed. “God, give me the strength to do what I must do now. Give me the stomach for the task. And please forgive my son and grant him a new life and hope now.”
He walked over to the uniform, now dry by the fireplace. The insignia of his enemy disgusted him. But in the midst of his anger, he reminded himself it was his son’s coat. This made it easier to do what he was about to do…
The morning sun peered through the drape of the bedroom window, a slender line of light piercing the air. It hit the boy across the face, slowly awakening him.
It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. At first, he was in a daze. Then suddenly, he sat up with a start, trying to remember how he’d gotten back home and in this bed – his father’s bed.
“Daddy?” he called out. The air was still.
He called out louder, “Daddy, where are you?” Still nothing.
Awkwardly, he roused himself from the bed and moved haltingly across the floor toward the bedroom door. When he looked out into the den, he saw it there on the table by the fireplace.
It was a letter written in his father’s handwriting.
My dear son,
I have prayed long into the night and asked God what to do and how to solve your dilemma. I believe He has led me to a solution.
Tonight, I am wearing your uniform and have hung your dog tags around my neck. Surely that will be enough for the bounty hunters. I plan to retrace your steps back out to the main road and back toward the direction from which you’ve been running. It shouldn’t take long before I meet up with the men who seek you.
They will not care about my age, only that I bear your name and serial number. I plan to move aggressively toward them, so they should not hesitate to shoot quickly. So by the time you wake up today, everything should be over. Please don’t try to come after me.
This is my gift to you today, my son – a brand-new life. My only request is that you use it wisely, for it is coming at a high cost for me. But it is a cost I now gladly choose to pay to ransom you back to the land of the living.
Know that as I write this, my heart is full of love for you. I know you can be the man you ought to be now because I will be cheering you on from a higher vantage point. Feel my hand on your shoulder each day, giving you my strength. And find peace with God, who will forgive you of your sins, so you can live your new life in freedom.
All my love, my darling boy.
The son cried out and fell to his knees. He held his head in his hands, with the letter caught tight in his grasp. Then he slumped toward the door and looked anxiously outside.
The evening’s snow had lasted into the wee hours of the morning, gently blanketing the ground outside the cabin.
There were no sets of footprints leading toward the cabin, nor away from it. All that remained was a perfect covering of pure, white snow.
“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
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