A Mother comes home
The boy has lost his smile, though he denies it. "Don't be silly, Kaim. Look! I'm smiling, aren't I?" He draws his cheeks back and lets his teeth show white against his brown skin. "If this isn't a smile, what is?"
Kaim nods but says nothing. He pats the boy on the shoulder as if to say, "Sure, sure."
"Come on, really look at me. I'm smiling, right?"
"Right. You're smiling."
"Anyway, forget about me. Hurry, let's go."
The boy has a sweet, open nature. He made instant friends with Kaim while the other townspeople kept their distance from the 'strange traveler.' Not that the boy chose the much older Kaim as a playmate. He leads Kaim to the tavern, which still hasn't opened its doors for the day.
"I hate to ask you to do this, but... would you, please?" The boy's voice seems to have carried inside.
A man in the tavern peals off a drunken howl. He sounds especially bad today. Kaim fights back a sigh and enters the tavern.
The man on the barstool is the boy's father, drunk again at midday. The boy is here to take him home. He looks at his father with sad eyes. Kaim puts his arm around the father's shoulder and discreetly moves the whiskey bottle away from him.
"Let's call it a day," he says. The man shoves Kaim's arm off and slumps down on the bar.
"I hate guys like you," he says.
"Yes, I know," says Kaim. "It's time to go home, though. You've had enough."
"You heard me, Kaim. Drifter! I hate you guys. I really really hate you guys."
The father is always like this when he is drunk—hurling curses at all "drifters," picking fights with any man dressed for the road, and finally slumping to the ground to sleep it off. His son is too small to drag him home.
With a sigh, Kaim finds himself again today supporting the drunken father's weight to keep him from toppling off the barstool.
The boy stares at his father, his eyes a jumble of sadness, anger, and pity. When his eyes meet Kaim's he shrugs as if to say: Sorry to keep putting you through this.
But Kaim is used to it. He has seen the father dead-drunk almost every day for the past year, ever since the boy and his father were left to live alone.
"Oh, well ..." the boy says with a strained smile as if trying to resign himself to the situation. "Poor Papa... ...poor me."
Supporting the father's weight on his shoulder, Kaim gives the boy a smile and says,"Yes, but you don't go out and get drunk the way he does."
"Ahem," the boy says, puffing his chest out. "Sometimes kids are tougher than grownups."
Kaim broadens his smile to signal to him "You're right."
"Of course I'm right," the boy all but says with the smile he gives back. It is the only kind of a smile the ten-year-old has managed to produce in the past year: so bitter it would numb your tongue if you could taste it. The boy's mother—the father's wife—left home a year ago.
She fell in love with a traveling salesman and abandoned the boy and his father.
"Mama was bored," the boy says matter-of-factly, looking back on his mother's infidelity.
"She got tired of doing the same thing every day. That's when she met him."
At the tender age of ten, the boy has learned that there are certain stories that have to be told with that matter-of-fact tone.
The father was born and raised in this small town and worked in the town office. He was not especially talented, but it was not a job that called for talent or quick wit. All he had to do was follow orders with diligence and submissiveness, and he did exactly that, year after year, without making waves.
"He called our life 'peaceful,' but Mama didn't think so. She said it was just 'ordinary' and no fun."
She was attracted to the life of the crafty traveling salesman. It was risky and exciting, like walking on top of a prison wall: one misstep and you could end up inside.
"Papa told Mama that the man was deceiving her, that all he wanted was her money, but he couldn't get through to her. Mama couldn't even think about us back then."
With utter detachment, as though holding it at arm's length, the boy reflects on the tragedy that struck his family. "I've heard the saying 'Love is blind.' It really is!" he says with a shrug and a sardonic laugh like a full-fledged adult.
Kaim says nothing.
"Children should act their age" is another saying, but probably not one that could be spoken with a great deal of meaning to a boy who had lost his mother's love. And even if Kaim presumed to admonish him, the boy would likely pass it off with a strained smile and say, "Sometimes kids are tougher than grownups."
The boy's father, however, shows his displeasure when his son uses grownup expressions.
"The little twerp's lost all his boyishness. He despises me now. He thinks I'm pitiful. Deep down he's laughing at me for letting my wife be taken by another man, damn him." It bothers him especially when he is drunk.
His annoyance far outweighs his fatherly love for his son. Sometimes he even slaps the boy across the face, or tries to. When he is drunk, the boy can easily dodge his slaps, and he ends up sprawled on the floor. Even as he is drowning in a sea of liquor, he can sometimes turn unexpectedly serious and start asking questions.
"Say, Kaim, you've been traveling for a long time, right?"
"Do you enjoy it all that much? Going to strange towns; meeting strangers can't be all that... Is it so wonderful that you'd be willing to abandon the life you're living now for it?"
He asks the same thing over and over. Kaim's answer is always the same. "Sometimes it's enjoyable, and sometimes it's not." He doesn't know what else to say.
"You know, Kaim, I've never set foot outside this town. Same with my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, and the one before him. We've always been born here and died here. My wife's family, too. They've had roots in this town for generations. So why did she do it? Why did she leave? What did she need so badly that she had to leave me and her own son?"
Kaim merely smiles without answering. The answer to such a question cannot be conveyed in words. Try though he might to explain it, the reason certain people are drawn irresistibly to the road can never be understood by people who don't have that impulse. The father is simply one of those people who can never understand.
Failing to elicit a reply from Kaim, the father sinks again into the sea of drunkenness. "I'm scared, Kaim," he says. "My son might do it, too. He might go away and leave me here someday. When I hear him talking like a grownup, I get so scared I can't stand it."
The boy's mother eventually comes back.
The traveling salesman cheated her out of every last bit of her savings, and the moment she was no longer any use to him, he left her. Physically and mentally broken, she has only one place to return to—the home she abandoned. First she writes a letter from the neighboring town, and when her husband reads it again and again through drink-clouded eyes, he laughs derisively.
"Serves her right, the miserable witch."
He makes a show of tearing the letter to pieces in front of Kaim, without showing it to his son.
Kaim tells the boy everything and asks him, "What do you want to do? Whatever you decide, I'll help you make it happen."
"Whatever I decide?" the boy asks in return with his usual detached smile.
"If you want to leave this town, I'll let you have enough money to help you get by for a while," Kaim says. "I can do that much."
He is utterly serious.
The father has no intention of forgiving his wife. He will almost certainly turn her away if she shows up, and probably with a proud, vindictive smile on his face. Kaim knows, however, that if the mother loses her home and leaves this town once and for all, the father will go back to drinking every day, cursing his wife's infidelity, bemoaning his own fate, taking out his anger on strangers, and constantly revealing the worst side of himself to his son.
Kaim's long life on the road has taught him this. Constant travel means meeting many different people, and the boy's father is undoubtedly one of the weakest men Kaim has ever met.
"You could join your mother and go to another town. Or if you wanted to go somewhere by yourself, I could find you work."
Either would be better, Kaim believes, than for the boy to continue living alone like this with his father. The boy, however, seemingly intrigued, looks straight at Kaim, revealing his white teeth.
"You've been traveling a long time, haven't you, Kaim?"
"Sometimes alone, sometimes not..."
The boy gives a little nod and, with the sad smile of a grownup, says, "You don't really get it do you?"
"All this traveling, and you still don't understand the most important thing." His sad smile takes on its usual bitter edge.
Kaim finally learns what the boy is talking about three days later.
A tired-looking woman in tattered clothes drags herself from the highway into the marketplace. The townsfolk back away from her, staring, leaving her in the center of a broad, empty circle.
The boy's mother has come back.
The boy breaks his way through the crowd and enters the circle. The mother sees her son, and her travel-withered cheeks break into a smile. The boy takes one step, and another step toward his emaciated, smiling mother. He is hesitant at first, but from the third step he is running, and he throws his arms around her. He is crying. He is smiling. For the first time that Kaim has seen,
he wears the unclouded smile of a child.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me..." his mother begs, in tears.
She clasps his head to her bosom and says, smiling through her tears,"You've gotten so big!" Then she adds: "I won't leave you again. I'll stay here forever..."
A stir goes through the crowd. It comes from the direction of the tavern.
Now the father breaks through the wall of people and enters the circle. He is drunk. Stumbling, he edges toward his wife and son. He glares at his wife.
The boy stands between them, guarding his mother. "Papa, stop it!" he yells. "Mama is back. That's enough, isn't it? Forgive her, Papa, please!"
His voice is choked with tears. The father says nothing in reply.
Glaring at the two of them, he collapses to his knees, his arms open wide. He enfolds both his wife and son. The shattered family is one again.
"Papa, please, don't hold us so tight! It hurts!"
The boy is crying and smiling. The mother can only sob. The father weeps in rage.
Witnessing the scene from the back of the crowd, Kaim turns on his heels.
"Are you really leaving?" the boy asks again and again as he accompanies Kaim to the edge of town.
"Uh-huh. I want to get across the ocean before winter sets in."
"Papa is already missing you. He says he thought you two could finally become drinking buddies from now on."
"You can drink with him when you grow up."
"When I grow up, huh?" the boy cocks his head, a little embarrassed, then he mutters, "I wonder if I'll still be living in this town then."
No one knows that, of course. Maybe some years on from now, the father will spend his days drunk again because his son has left his hometown and family. And yet—Kaim recalls something he forgot to say to the boy's weak father.
"We call it a 'journey' because we have a place to come home to. No matter how many detours or mistakes a person might make, as long as he has a place to come home to, a person can always start again."
"I don't get it," says the boy.
Kaim remembers something else.
"Smile for me,"he says one last time, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Like this?" He reveals his white teeth, and his cheeks wrinkle up. It's a good smile. He has finally managed to retrieve the smile of a young boy.
"Now your turn, Kaim."
The boy studies Kaim's smile as if assigning it a grade.
"Maybe a little sad," he says. That he is joking makes his words hit home all the more. The boy smiles again as if providing a model for Kaim.
"Okay, then," he says with a wave of the hand, "I'm going shopping with Papa and Mama today."
Kaim smiles and walks away. Then he hears the boy calling his name one last time.
"Even if we're saying goodbye, I'm not going to cry, Kaim! Sometimes kids are tougher than grownups."
Kaim does not look back, his only reply a wave of the hand. The boy's expression would probably change if their eyes met.
He decides to play it strong to the end. Kaim walks on. After a brief respite, his journey with no place to go home to starts again.
A journey with no place to go home to; the poets call that "wandering."