Dying Embers

The old bus rattled and rumbled down the country road under the hot midday sun. James couldn’t bear the view of the lifeless countryside and shifted his attention to his fellow passengers. Apart from the driver and a middle-aged man who struggled to keep his head upright and eyes open facing a newspaper, the rest of the passengers were asleep.

The air was humid, and as luck would have it, his seat window wouldn’t budge. “Good old public transport,” he muttered. The engine roared and whined as the bus ascended a hill. A hymn played over an old dusty speaker screwed to the side of the bus within the luggage compartment.

“Oh, what peace we often forfeit. Oh, what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer,” went the lyrics.

His thoughts now shifted to a hot January afternoon, where five boys stood on the podium of a tiny, stuffy church. The boys, dressed in slightly matching, oversize suits, sang their fledgling tongues lose to the lyrics of this same song.

“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,” the boy on the far right had joined in loudly, after mumbling through the rest of the lyrics. The boy, now a grown man, still hadn’t memorized the lyrics to date.

From the podium, James could see his mother wave at him from amongst the audience. She had been his beam of hope before she was plucked away. The cruel hand of death had found her under the weight of bus wreckage, and she breathed her last. Her smile radiated through the church, and she gave him the courage to keep singing, courage to ignore his trembling hands and voice – a constant source of love and assurance.

“Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?” the song goes.

Seated next to her in the church was a man. His head was bent and his arms folded, deep in slumber. From the podium, James could hear his snoring – a snore he had heard all too often at home. Although only audible to James’ mind, he was sure it was present. He had but hoped that this man, described as his father on his birth certificate, would have acknowledged him — if only for this once.

With the absence of his mother, the campfire lit up in the middle of James’ and his father’s relationship was quenched. Once in a while, in the midst of the dark and cold, he would hear his father speak to him from the other end of the ashes. But for the most part, they sat in silence, shivering, curled up, close yet afar.

“Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?” the speaker lulls.

In the distance, James sees a small house, smoke rising from its top. He can smell the pungent smoke rising, burning his nostrils and causing his eyes to tear. His skin feels the heat of the flames as they consume the last of what was left. The tips of his fingers feel the soft yet grave texture of the ash, evidence of what was. Next to the house stands a majestic tree, clutching as if to catch the clouds. Ever trying but never so lucky. Such had been his two marriages.

He had always been trying to clutch at them. And they always evaded him and died to the flames of unmet expectations and disappointments. All that was left was a pile of ashes, grey, soft and bitter. And as the winds blew past, none of it remained.

From his last marriage, there was born a cheerful baby boy. The boy had now grown to match not only his face but also his facial expressions. A son after his father. A son that needs a father. A father that needs a father.

“Jesus knows our every weakness. Take it to the Lord in prayer.” ends the song.

James alights at the next stop in a small country town. He walks down the lonesome street, his feet tracing over the small footsteps he had left decades ago. Memories of walks down this street, his hand in his mother’s, linger on.

From a distance, the dark red roof of their family home props up. It’s time to go home. It’s time to meet his father again. They’ve been sitting at the cold campsite for too long. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to light the campfire again.

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