It was a relationship abrasive and intimate, based on love. So a good relationship. To his children he barked commands, swore, adopted strict military monotones, or ignored them, ordered them out. Underneath it was love. Usually his anger was feigned. He didn’t know how else to control his thoughts when children were screaming. He wasn’t a multitasker. So it wasn’t so much a matter of controlling the children as of organising himself, except on certain planned occasions. The children understood this.
For a while he lay in the bed with the girl to read her from a book of prehistory. He read a page she read a page. It was volcanoes and evolution versus creation myths. Then he called the boy to come and join them. Come and read the good book, he said. His mother had read him the Bible when he was young although she wasn’t a Christian, or it must have been selections, but he remembered the dark shock of Noah drunk and naked cursing his son to enslavement, and Lot’s daughters spicing their father’s drink just right to get him drunk, but not too drunk to fuck, and Abraham pimping his wife, twice, and God rewarding him for it, and the passion and strangeness of it all. He was grateful to his mother for showing him this stuff and was passing the favour to his own children. Except he sent the girl out of the room for the aforementioned parts. She was only seven after all. Both children enjoyed it, just the Book of Genesis so far.
This time the boy wasn’t coming. He was only halfway here. I don’t want to read anything, he whined. I won’t read anything if we sit on that. The father and the girl had moved to a mattress on the floor because the bed was broken and couldn’t hold three. No, he whined. No, I’m not coming. The father said, come on! No, whined the boy, I’m tired. I want to go to bed. So go to bed please, said the father. Brush your teeth and go to bed and stick to your word.
The boy went to bed and switched the light off but when his father moved to go downstairs he came out of the room and said he didn’t want to sleep any more. His father insisted he sleep, again and again, even when the boy moaned into tears. He insisted because this was a common trick, emotional dramatics to tease him, and he didn’t have time to be teased.
He descended, shouting up for the noise to be silenced, but as he heard the boy crying his heart melted. It wasn’t a sugary sensation but a lumpen, broken, shardish experience like rocks crashing together. It had velocity. He rolled a cigarette and smoked it anyway, during which time he remembered the boy crying before – two episodes flashing in his mind, once when he’d snapped savagely at him, only five years old, and the boy had widened his eyes in recognition of the hostility, and cried out from his soul ‘sometimes you arent nice to me at all!’ Which was true. Then the father was seized with pain, and clutched the son and said sorry, told him he loved him. The other time was once out in the desert, when the boy was tardy with thirst, hunger, tiredness, and the father shouted at him, insulted him as if he were a man. Later he realised his fault, hours later.
But this was not then. He hadn’t done wrong. Yet his heart ached and his eyes even swam. He couldn’t bear to hear the boy cry. The sound of it seared his humble innards, made the animal inside him rear and twist. It was clearly a much moved animal.
Was he grieving for himself, for his own childhood pain? Was he grieving because he knows a child’s pain can be absolute? Or did he grieve the very existence of pain? Which is to say, did he grieve his own death, as he always did?
Pain was loneliness, which meant also fear.
He walked upstairs and pissed and then entered the room where the boy lay. He had to uncover his red, squashed face. He lay down with an arm wound up twisting his shoulder and the other arm gathered the boy’s body. The boy reached out, his fingers plucking. How slight his arms are, the father thought, how alien he still is. He remembered him in his very first days, white and wise and aged, pointing one witnessing finger to the world and puckering a suspicious mouth. Eyes beady extraterrestrial gray, intelligent. He stroked the boy’s head.
He inhaled. The small mammal smell he knew he would find, like a dog, hair like fur. He felt full.
He knew the boy was happy. He remembered himself forgiven by his grandfather or mother, overcome with relief that the world’s pillars still held. He knew the boy felt that now.
Their relationship was close. He had no closer relationship. Perhaps neither of them did.
He did not speak. His heart was swollen and his throat trembled. This is just love, he thought, not grief but love. Lovingkindness. It might count for nothing at all, no more than neurological squelching. Or it might be the force the universe is born from. Which one it is I don’t know, he thought. I will never know.
He thought, love is knowledge of somebody else’s loneliness. Love is sheer horror.
He kissed the boy and went to check the girl. She wanted water. He kissed her chin and then he came downstairs. He kissed the dog. Then he rolled a cigarette and began typing at the computer.