Return of the Son

This story is paired with “The Yellow Sign” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 

Mary lives at the end of the garden path. She is my only friend these days. But what she said yesterday — I didn’t like that. Perhaps we shouldn’t discuss our sons. You know how it is, when mothers talk about their children. Sometimes things are said that shouldn’t be. Once I find my cane, I’ll go see Mary, and she and I will have a little chat. Perhaps then our friendship can be saved.

But where is my cane? Someone has hidden it. They hide things from me here. They never admit it, of course. They say instead, “No, dear, we didn’t hide that. You never had one of those.” That’s their way of telling me I’m crazy. They all think that here.

Mary doesn’t think I’m crazy — one more reason she’s my only friend. But she shouldn’t have said what she did. I seethed over it all night, pacing the halls, until the nurse took me back to my room and tied me to my bed.

I see my cane now: on top of the trunk. My son’s trunk, below the window. Both cane and trunk are made of mahogany, which is why I couldn’t see it before. The trunk takes up nearly the whole room, but I’ll never part from it. My son will want it when he returns. My room here is too small, that’s the problem. Not like my flat on Kensington Square. But at least it’s sunny here, and I have a view of the garden, and the trees, and the hills beyond, crisscrossed with stone walls and dotted with sheep. “Such a grand view!” is what my son will say.

It was a sad day when his trunk arrived in Kensington. I cried as I sorted through his things — his helmet, his medals, the pistol they say he drew during that nasty battle …

But then I found a book. His book. Another’s name was written on the front page, a Lieutenant Warfield, but that name had been crossed out, and my son had written his own name below it. I read the well-worn pages that night, at first only to see what my son had written in the margins — wild ramblings about the Lake of Hali, the Yellow Sign, the stranger. None of it made any sense, not at first. But it all became clear when I got to the second act, when I saw, as my son did, the links between our world and Carcosa. By the time I finished, I knew my son was not dead, only asleep, waiting for the Yellow Sign to pass him by. All this talk of him charging a rapid-fire gun with only a pistol — such nonsense! Why do they lie to me so?

My husband lied to me, too. “Yes, yes, my love. He is only asleep,” my husband said, but he didn’t believe it. He’s the one who sent me here.

Mary understands my dilemma, or at least I thought she did. “It is our burden to bear, knowing what we know, and having such sons” — that’s what she told me the first time we met. But now her heart has turned from me. Why else would she say such awful things? Why say “My son never …” Oh I can’t bear to think of it.

Cane in hand, I leave my room. I hobble down the long white corridor, past the orderlies who reek of cigarettes, past the fat nurses in their stiff starched dresses. All in white, as if they are angels. But they aren’t. They watch me as I pass. They are always watching me. The doctor is the one I hate the most, with his oiled hair and sour breath. He says terrible things to me when he visits my room. “The Somme” and “no-man’s land” — those are the words I hate the most. I cover my ears when he says them.

Outside, the clouds are low, and the air is cool, thick and moist, making everything muted — the bird song, the colors of the flowers, even the crunch of the gravel path. “Off to see Mary, are we?” It’s the gardener who asks me this, a pip of a man with broken teeth and one blind eye. I don’t answer him. He knows — everyone knows — that I visit Mary every day.

It would not be right, not fitting, for her to visit me, and so neither she nor I mention it. We speak only of our sons. She is waiting for hers to return; poor thing, she has been waiting all these years. I am waiting as well, of course, but I will not have so long to wait.

Still, it’s been ages since I saw him last. So handsome in his uniform, a grown man for all to see, and yet still my little boy. My baby. The youngest of my six children. The strongest and healthiest of them all, and the only one left to me, all the others dying so long ago. Even that day at the train station, as he stood there in his uniform, I saw my little boy, with his ruddy cheeks, his unruly hair, his eyes bright with mischief. “I’ve brought you a gift, Mummy,” he’d say when he was small, after an excursion to the park, and from behind his back he’d reveal a toad, or a lizard, and sometimes a flower. Violets, mostly. Such tiny things, so delicate.

Violets grow here, too, along the garden path, and there at the end of it stands Mary. Her face is pearled white, as are her hands, but her hooded robe is blue — the softest of blues, like a robin’s egg. Her head is bowed. She is gazing at the red and purple primroses growing at her feet. Such a supplicant stance; so innocent, as if dreadful words have never passed her lips.

Mary smiles. She is always so happy to see me. I smile, too, and for a moment I forget I’m angry with her. But it doesn’t last. “I was thinking of what you said, dear,” I say as I approach. “It wasn’t very nice.”

Mary smiles. Says nothing.

“Did you hear me? I didn’t like it. Not at all.”

She doesn’t answer at first. But then, her head still bowed, she says the same awful thing she said yesterday.

“My son never woke up.”

I put my hands to my ears but can’t block out her words.

“He never returned.”

Such a hateful thing to say! And still she smiles that awful smile. “Your son won’t return, either” — that is what her smile means, as if it is all some terrible joke, this waiting of ours. She’s no better than the doctors or the orderlies or the terrible nurses. She’s no better than my husband.

I strike her with my cane. I strike her again and again. I am not so old and feeble after all! I make a small chink on her nose, and yet still she smiles.

The gardener is soon there, and he takes my cane. Then there are others — two young men, both in white. Young men, my son’s age. I search their faces, but they are only orderlies. My son is not among them. He is still asleep in France.

They hold my arms. They drag me way, and my slippered feet scrape over the graveled path.

“Liar!” I yell at Mary. “Liar!”

My son will return to me.

No matter what Mary says.

NBR5HornFaheysmallMarilyn Horn-Fahey is a technical editor in Silicon Valley. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Blotterature and Marathon Review