The Old Man

something soft and painful and sorrow-filled

He enters the church slowly, hobbling with his gnarled hands curled like claws around the handles on his walker. His skin is nearly translucent and bulges with blue veins and spots.

He bows his head like he’s praying to something, mumbles words under his breath. Nobody moves to help him.

His flesh sags around his eye-sockets, globes a murky green with lids that wrinkle with the years he has seen.  His feet shuffle in their sensible, supportive black shoes.

He is the Old Man.

The church door creaks slowly closed, shutting with a final shump as everything seems to be muffled by the thick wood - street noises, people’s voices, children crying. The air is stale and stagnant, thick from the absence of a fresh supply, dust floating in the beams of light that stream from the stained glass windows - an illumination of Christ, hands held out to his sides in supplication, robe hanging immobilized, sun glowing in a bright yellow behind his long brown hair.

The pews are lined up like they are every day, every week, every month, every year. Old wood splintering in places from fidgeting nails, scrawls on the cover of the prayer books, gum stuck in hard bite-size pieces to the underside of the bench.

Beams pass overhead, ancient iron chandeliers strung up and coated in dust. The candleholders are filled with melted wax, yellowing white that’s dripped lethargically over the sides in the past, stuck to the dull metal and still clinging on - it must have been decades since the chandeliers were last cleaned.  

The altar at the front is simple - the covering is threadbare and fraying at the edges, tiny holes dotting the fabric and repairs visible with the off-color stitches.

The Old Man makes his way forwards. His feet shuffle a few centimeters, he pauses, slides his walker in front of him, and begins again.

Shuffle, pause, slide, repeat. Shuffle, pause, slide, repeat. Shuffle, pause, slide, repeat.

It takes him a long time to get to one of the farthest pews, moving at such a pace. The old grandfather clock at the entrance (the plaque reads: To Barbara Goodall: A Beloved Mother, Daughter, And Sister) ticks in time to his laboured breaths - ten movements of the thinnest hand, one movement of his withered, quivering feet. He can hear it going steadily in the background, and it is deafening in the silence of the church.

He makes his way over the musty carpet, turns slowly to sit in one of the pews. His joints creak and his knees protest, but he stubbornly holds on to the walker to lower himself, a sigh barely audible as he settles. His walker is pushed to the side by trembling hands, nails neat and clipped short. The Old Man leans back with a gusty exhale, his thick glasses slightly crooked on his nose, eyes blinking at the air before him. He moves his hands to lace stiffly together, resting on his knees like a vague prayer.

“I’m here,” He says, head inclining like a tree bending to the wind - it is bowed, and his eyes close slowly, shutting the murky blue from the world, glasses nearly slipping from the bridge of his nose. His thin mouth opens and closes, quiet for a moment. The arch of his back from years of living forms a perfect crescent, completing the image of a man creased by the wear of age and time.

“I came, finally. It was… difficult, for me.” His mouth tries to let the word go, and it lisps at the edges like he is reluctant to use it. The accent of his birth country has never quite left, and it turns the corners of his letters up like it’s trying to remind him that he only has a certain timeframe left in which he can go home. After that, there is nothing.

“You are my daughter,” The Old Man states, as though he’s affirming it. “I loved you, dearest. You more so than the others - perhaps that was unfair, yes. I know your sisters envied you, the most graceful of all, with your poise and endless supply of love.” He sighs, a loud one this time, ancient tie folding somewhat as he shifts, the cuffs of his shirt scratching at the thin skin of his wrists. He is aged, but he is still respectful. It is a church, so he will dress accordingly.

“When you left, I did not know what to do. Your mother died so young, and I was merely trying to do what I thought best for you. I know now that clutching you close caused more harm than good, and I wish I could apologize for the mistakes of our past.”

She does not reply.

“When I was eighteen, your mother and I fell in love. We got married, had our first child, and it seemed like we had everything. Then you came, and she adored you. I know that it was unfair to your sister, but she did not pay as much attention to him. When our last child came, I did not know that this one would never see the warmth of your mother’s smile, feel the cradle of her arms, crave her voice in soft lullabies.” The Old Man smiles, but it is bitter, tinged at the edges with sorrow and regret.

“I suppose I treasured you the same way I treasured her memory - like you two were remnants of a lost future. I shouldn’t have, though. You were just a child, you didn’t deserve the burden of living up to your dead mother. It was unfair of me.” He doesn’t lift his head, just sways a little to the side, eyes wrinkling at the corners. “I was sad, but that isn’t an excuse.” His face twists, as though he’s trying to berate himself.

“You deserved better.” The Old Man finally pulls his head up, glasses falling down into his lap, cracked lenses against worn fabric, magnifying the torn threads weaved into his pants. His murky blue eyes are distant, tears glimmering across their smooth surface, tracking down his creased cheeks, translucent skin and raised veins decorating his face.

She still says nothing.

“I am sorry.” He raises his hands up as far as he can, palms up like Christ in the stained glass window. “Forgive me.”

And then he is bending forwards, stiff knees locked in place, forearms leaning heavily on the handles of his walker, pushing each foot stubbornly, back bowed and glasses left behind on the pew. He is ancient. He is archaic. The dead do not need prescriptions.

It is the same rhythm as his entrance, to the ticking of the grandfather clock: shuffle, tick-tick pause, tick-tick slide, tick-tick repeat. The Old Man is a postcard of humanity: the elderly weak and useless and reminiscing over times when they were young enough to be ignorant. Young enough that being left alone with their thoughts was not like clipping death scenes from books and sickly lines from poetry.

He coughs, once, twice, and jerks his walker down the steps to the church doors, struggling to hold the heavy wood open long enough for him to pass through. They shut with a final-sounding shump, sealing all of his confessions inside.

Behind him, a corpse lies with her eyes wide and looking for the sun.

Her palms are filled with her own mistakes and her ears ring with her father’s regrets.

The End

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