The Dutiful Son

- First published in The Cafe Irreal, 2022

When Johannes receives the news that his father is dying, he rushes without delay to be by the old man's bedside. All throughout the journey, the trains and buses seem to arrive just in time, delaying him not a moment; indeed, it appears to him that time and space themselves—as if sympathising with his plight—collaborate to compress so that one moment and the next are somehow closer and each stride he takes stretches across acres, so that in no time at all, and thanking Providence for his expedited journey, he is at the apartment door, flinging it wide and saying "Papa, I'm here."

"My dear son, you have arrived," the old man says, clasping young Johannes's hand.

He is so pale, Johannes thinks, that I can almost see right through him; if only I could help him somehow; if only I could do something; I would do anything to see him well again, my dear father.

"What ails you, Papa," he asks, resting a hand on his father's bedewed brow.

"It is my liver, boy; my kidneys; my pancreas; my lungs—one by one, they have failed me; there is no hope for me now."

A violin strikes up somewhere in the building, playing a muted, mournful air that enters the room along with an icy draught through several cracks in the walls.

"What can I do?" he pleads.

"Nothing," comes the hushed reply. "Simply stay with me awhile."

But no, Johannes is insistent. He stands and flails his arms like a marionette. "There must be a way! Let me go to the bank; I will take all my savings; perhaps I can find a doctor for you, a treatment." He turns away in shame and thrusts his head into his hands: How did it come to this? he thinks. How have I been so neglectful of my father?

"No, no, please stay; all is forgiven; promise me only that you will stay until the end, until the very end; I love you, my son."

Could it be true? Sudden tears well in Johannes's eyes, for his father has never before spoken those words, and believing there is truth in them, Johannes returns them gleefully. Yes, of course he will stay; and as the hours slowly pass (time having withdrawn its urgency, out of mercy or perhaps out of punishment at some unknown slight, for Johannes wishes both that the moment would last forever and, too, that his father's suffering would quickly end), the candle by the bed begins to gutter, casting deathly shadows over his father's face as if in dreadful premonition of the moment to come.

The light in his eyes is fading, Johannes thinks at last, and he begins a litany of prayers, invoking flights of angels and lashings of Grace, only to be interrupted by an urgent knocking.

He looks to the door and then to his father, who on hearing the knocking, has thrown off the covers and with renewed strength leaps to his feet, crying, "They are here! Finally, they are here!" And rushing to the door, pushing his son out of the way with the rigour of a young man, he flings it wide open to let in a coterie of lawyers and surgeons, the former of which cluster around Johannes while the latter begin erecting an operating table in the far half of the room, setting up bright electric lights so as not to miss a stitch in the sallow theatre.

When Johannes turns his head again, he finds a stack of legal documents thrust upon him by the senior partner, along with the statement: "Here are the duplicates of your contract. Please review them at your leisure, although"—here he breaks off to glance at the surgeons and then at his watch—"you may need to do so speedily."

"What is all this, Papa?" Johannes asks his father, who is already busily unbuttoning his shirt and consulting with the surgical registrar.

"It is time to do your duty, my son," he says; "did you not say you wanted to help your father in his hour of need?"

"Of course, but I did not agree to undergo any surgery."

"On the contrary," says the senior partner, "you agreed to do so the first of February, twenty five years ago"—making reference to Johannes's birthday—"you provided your mark on this very contract."

"Yes indeed," says his father, "a prudent move on my part, for I see now that you would not perform this act willingly, even when given the opportunity."

"But Papa, it would mean the end of me!"

"Then you should have had a son yourself."

"You are bound by law, I'm afraid," says the senior partner. "It is all very clear; you see your mark is right here."

Johannes grasps the paper and, there, plain as day on the dotted line, is the imprint of a tiny thumb. It is law, after all. And if it is the law, there is nothing he can do about it, for his father taught him to respect the law above all else, for if we do not respect the law, his father would say, then civilization falls, and Johannes, though he so very much wants to live, to struggle and rage against the men until they either strap him down or knock him senseless (for he is aware enough of his own limitations to be certain that escape is impossible) or else petition time to reset his life to an earlier stage and subject himself to so many pleasures and abuses that his organs would be useless and thus laugh in his father's face that his best-laid plans have been thwarted—he knows it would be to no real end, for the law would still be the law, and nothing is so binding as the way one has been brought up.

"The surgeons are waiting, Master Johannes; please let us not delay them."

"Very well," Johannes says then, his hands trembling as he unbuttons his shirt, "yes, I do it gladly; tell anyone who asks that I did it gladly, of my own volition. Please let that be known, at least. Let it be said that for all my failings, at least I was a dutiful son."

He takes off his shirt and steps forward into the cold electric light. Before him, the surgeon's knives are arranged meticulously, glinting like a constellation of fateful stars.