“Return of the Native” marks Day 29 of the Shigematsu Kiyoshi marathon of short stories which made up the dream-memories of the immortal Kaim in the rpg title Lost Odyssey. For some this dream-memory may sound familiar in that it has a passing resemblance to the moral story of the “prodigal son”.
Unlike the son in that tale, the one in this dream-memory could never be mistaken for the stubborn, albeit good-natured child from that tale. This son is a bad seed from the very beginning. The dream-memory is not about the son, but of the mother left behind who still loves her wayward son gone from her for most of her life. It shows that a mother’s love has no limit. They will forgive whatever transgressions their child has done just to have them back in their life.
We see examples of these in everyday life. Of mothers sticking and supporting their son accused of crimes both petty and heinous. They cannot defend what their child has done, but they also cannot abandon them when they’re most needed by their offspring. I think this is why as adults we’re always much closer to our mothers. Why mothers are always seen as the nurturer.
Return of the Native
The mother stands by the island pier, waiting for her son.
Her luggage is bigger than she is. Dressed in her finest traveling clothes, she seems hardly able to contain her excitement as she speaks to Kaim, who happens to be waiting for the same boat to arrive.
“I got a letter from him,” she says.
Almost thirty years have passed since her only son left the island of his birth. There was no word from him in all that time until he recently wrote announcing his successes and his plan to bring her to mainland.
“I’ve been alone ever since I lost my husband, so just to think I might be able to spend the rest of my life with my son, his wife and my grandchildren…”
She sold the house she had always lived in and has been waiting for her son to come for her.
The letter arrived over a week ago.
“I wonder why it’s taking him so long. The seas are calm.”
Kaim arrived here on yesterday’s ferry.
“You mean he’s late?” Kaim asks with some surprise.
“Very,” she replies, forcing a smile. “I wonder what’s wrong. Maybe he got busy all of a sudden and can’t pull himself away from his work.”
“He hasn’t written again to explain?”
“He’s never bothered with things like that, not since he was a child,” she says, straining to smile again and glancing toward the horizon.
No bigger than a dot at first, the boat is now big enough for a clear view of the mast in silhouette.
“Anyhow, I’m not worried. I know he’ll be on this boat,” she says, raising herself from the clockside crate on which she is sitting and waving a handkerchief toward the approaching vessel.
Kaim also stares hard at the boat, which gives his eyes a stern expression.
At the sound of the mother’s voice, Kaim hastens to soften his gaze before turning toward her.
“You are a traveler, aren’t you?”
“That’s right,” he says.
“I saw you arrive on yesterday’s ferry. Are you leaving so soon?”
She is obviously curious about this stranger, but her face shows no wariness toward outsiders.
Relieved to see this, Kaim replies, “I’m doing the same thing you are – waiting for someone to arrive.”
“On this boat?”
“You haven’t been in touch with this person?”
“No, we haven’t agreed on a time. I might be waiting for nothing, too.”
Kaim evades further questioning with a strained smile.
This is not something he can discuss with just anyone.
He is on a secret mission – one that must not fail.
The woman still wears a look of puzzlement, but their conversation is swallowed up in the general hubbub on shore, accompanying the approach of the boat.
At last the ferry arrives.
One by one passengers alight after their half-day trip from the capital on mainland.
Clutching the handkerchief to her breast, the mother scans each of them.
There are peddlers who travel from island to island hawking their wares, and men who have come to do larger-scale trading; sunburned young men and women who arrive from the mainland in groups to work on the island’s farms, and men coming home to the island after a season of labor on the mainland.
None of the dozens of passengers, however, is the woman’s son.
Once it has disgorged its island-bound passengers, the ferry takes on people crossing to the mainland. Greeters on the pier give way to well-wishers.
The mother turns her back on the pier’s hustle and bustle and plods her way toward the town. She hoists a heavy pack onto her back and lifts a large suitcase in each hand, but she has taken only a few steps when the pack begins to slide off.
Kaim reaches out to keep it from falling.
The woman turns with a look of surprise, and when she realizes that Kaim is alone, she asks,
“So your person didn’t come, either?”
“Looks that way.”
With only one ferry a day from the mainland, all they can do is wait until tomorrow.
“Are you going to stay on the island until your friend comes?”
“I might have to…”
“You could run up quite a hotel bill that way.”
“I’m all right. I’m used to camping out.”
“Camping out?” she exclaims with a look of amazement.
Then she smiles and says,
“Oh, well, you’re young, and in good condition. A few days sleeping outdoors shouldn’t be too hard on you.”
“What are you going to do, Ma’am? Go back home?”
“I wish I could. I sold my house last week. I was so sure my son would come and get me right away.”
A hint of discouragement clouds her face, but she quickly recovers her smile and continues,
“The money I got for the house is a nice little bundle, so I’ve decided to spend freely for a change. See that large hotel over there? I’m staying in their biggest room and taking it easy all day and all night, too. I’m disappointed when he doesn’t show up, of course, but I’ve worked my fingers to the bone all these years. It won’t hurt me to indulge myself just this little bit.”
Though delivered with a smile, her words touched Kaim deeply.
In her case, “Worked my fingers to the bone” is not just a figure of speech, as evidenced by her suntanned face, which is so unsuited to the cosmetics she had applied to greet her son, and especially by her bony fingers, so ill-concealed by the cheap rings she is wearing.
Hard as she undoubtedly worked, life has granted her few rewards. There is nothing expensive about her luggage.
“I’m sure your son will be here tomorrow,” Kaim says.
Her deeply wrinkled face breaks into a joyous smile.
“Yes, of course, tomorrow for sure,” she says with a deep nod.
“I hope the person you are waiting for comes on tomorrow’s boat, too.”
“Thank you very much,” he replies.
“I have an idea,” she says. “You might get sick camping out. If you’d like, why not stay in my hotel? I’m sure we could arrange something for one extra person.”
Kaim senses that she is not suggesting this out of mere politeness, which is precisely why he demurs with a smile and a nod.
“Thanks just the same,” he says, “but don’t worry about me. Just take the rest you deserve after all your long years of hard work.”
“If you say so…” She seems somewhat disappointed but does not press him to accept.
As he watches her trudge off toward her hotel alone, all but hidden from view by her huge bundles, Kaim wonders if, perhaps, she was hoping that his company might ease her concern that her son might not show up after all.
Even so, he decides not to chase after her and retract his refusal. He is the wrong man to spend time with a mother whose only dream is to have a happy old age.
Most likely, when tomorrow’s boat arrives, she will finally be reunited with the son she has longed to see all these years.
The person that Kaim is waiting for will also most certainly cross over to the island tomorrow.
The mother will undoubtedly shed great tears when her reunion takes place.
Kaim, on the other hand, has a bloody job to perform when he encounters the man he’s waiting for.
Kaim has been hunting him. The man is a fugitive, and there is a reward on his head.
He is known as the boss of an underworld gang in the capital, and he has committed crimes without number – robbery, fraud, extortion, assault, and even murder. To cap his life of crime, he double-crossed his own gang and ran off with a great deal of money. Word reached the gang only a few days ago that the man is headed for this island, the place of his birth, and they hired Kaim to take care of him.
The fact that they hired Kaim means they are ready to have him killed on sight.
Kaim and the mother meet at the dock again the next day at the same time.
And again the next day,
and the next,
and the day after that.
The ones they are waiting for never come.
A week goes by.
The mother switches accommodations from her expensive hotel to a cheap inn frequented by traveling peddlers.
“Actually, I’m more comfortable in a cheap place like this,” she tells Kaim with a laugh, but more than likely her money would have run out in the first hotel.
“Your person is very late, too,” she observes.
“Who is it?”
He sidesteps the issue with a strained smile.
He cannot answer her question if he is going to carry out his duty.
And besides, he feels a tiny premonition deep inside.
The mother stops questioning him and says, “I hope your person comes soon.”
Another three days go by.
A messenger from the gang, disguised as a peddler, whispers to Kaim as he steps off the ferry,
“We think he’s still hiding in the capital. We’re looking in every rat hole we can find, but there’s no sign of him.”
Kaim nods silently and glances at the boat.
Even after the last passenger alights, the mother stands on the pier, looking up at the boat’s empty deck.
“Let me ask you, young man…” the mother says to Kaim three days later.
“Does the place where you’re camping out have a roof to keep the dew off?”
Kaim has been sleeping in a dilapidated old house he found near the harbor.
“All I need is a place to sleep,” she says. “Would you mind if I joined you there?”
“The place I’m staying at now is not much better than a ruin. I’m sure I’d be fine wherever you’re staying. Yes, I’m sure I’d be fine.”
She smiles like a child who has found a new source of mischief.
Kaim does not refuse her.
More precisely, he cannot refuse her.
She has probably run out of money even to stay in her current flophouse.
Kaim has noticed her cheap rings gradually disappearing from her bony fingers.
As they pass the night in the abandoned building, the moon their only source of light, the mother, without prompting from Kaim, spills out her memories of her son.
They are by no means pleasant memories. Known as a roughneck even from his earliest years, the boy was hated by all the neighbors and caused his parents a good deal of shame.
“He would steal our money, stay out all night partying, and before we knew it he was the number one thug on the island. He was always getting into fights and bothering girls. During the island’s annual festival he would go wild and destroy property, so my husband and I would have to go around apologizing to everyone.”
The father, a skilled stonemason, lost his job when the son stole valuables from the boss’s house.
The mother could hardly walk down the street without being subjected to the glares and finger-pointing of the neighbors. Things got especailly bad after her son set fire to the island assembly hall just for fun.
His parents raised him badly, the boy’s misbehavior is the parents’ responsibility, the son has bas became such a thug because his mother spoiled him rotten, it’s the parents’ fault, the father’s fault, the mother’s fault, your fault.
They had heard it all.
“It was so hard for us on a little island like this! There was no place we could hide.”
The boy was eighteen when he finally ran away from home – or rather, left the island when his parents all but disowned him.
The other islanders rejoiced as if a plague had been lifted. One man went so far as to deliberately let the parents overhear him declaring, “I hope that bastard goes to the capital and dies in the gutter.”
The boy’s father died five years ago.
To the very end, he would not forgive his son, and in his final delirium, he was still apologizing to the islanders.
“But still, to a mother, any son is the baby she once carried. I never heard a word from him, but I went on praying that he would stay healthy in the capital, that he wouldn’t catch whatever epidemic was going around, that he wouldn’t get into fights. But that’s just me, I guess.”
She gives Kaim a bitter smile.
“Or maybe it’s just me being a mother,” she adds.
“You have parents too, I suppose? Of course you do! Everyone has parents!
“Are your father and mother alive and well?”
Kaim bows his head in silence.
On a journey with no clear beginning and no definable end, Kaim is unable to answer a question like this.
Instead, he asks the woman,
“What is the first thing you’ll say when you finally get to meet your son?”
“Good question,” says the mother. After thinking it over a few moments, she replies, “I won’t actually say anything. I think I’ll just hug him and say nothing at all. I’ll hold him tight and let him know how glad I am he’s alive and well.”
“Just supposing though,” Kaim presses her gently, “if you knew that he had lived a less than exemplary life in the capital, too, would you still give him a hug?”
Her response is instantaneous.
“First I’d hug him, and then I’d give him a good talking to!”
She smiles shyly at Kaim and adds,
“That’s what being a parent is all about.”
The next morning she runs a high fever. She may have survived the dew, but a night in the dilapidated building has taken a toll on the old woman’s health.
Even so, when it is time for the ferry to arrive, she struggles to her feet and heads toward the pier with uncertain steps.
Alarmed, Kaim holds her back.
“You’re in no shape to be going out,” he says.
Despite his attempts to bring down her fever with cool spring water from the forest, it is as high as ever. Her labored breathing has taken on a congested rumbling.
“I have to go,” she insists. “My son is coming for me. I’m going to see him…”
She sweeps away Kaim’s restraining hand, but the effort causes her to lose her balance and sink to her knees.
“If he’s on board, I’ll bring him here,” Kaim assures her. “Tell me how I can recognize him.”
Cradled in Kaim’s arms, half-delirious with fever, the wold woman mutters,
“On his left cheek… before he left the island…he got in a fight…somebody cut him…he has a scar…”
Kaim nods and lowers the old woman to a straw mat spread on the ground.
He fights back with a sigh and closes his eyes momentarily, then he stares hard through a small window at the ferry dock.
His suspicions were right after all, though he was sure of it last night.
Kaim was given a written description of the man when he took on the assignment from the gang.
There could be no doubt: “Scar on left cheek.”
The ferry is approaching the harbor.
The pier is showing signs of activity.
Kaim starts for the door.
Behind him, he hears the woman staying,
“Please…don’t kill him…don’t kill my boy…”
Kaim stops short, but instead of turning around, he bites his lip.
“I don’t know what he did…in the capital…but don’t kill him… please…”
So she knows, too.
She knows everything.
“If you have to kill him…if you absolutely have to…please, before you do it…let me just…”
Kaim leaves the ruin in silence.
His steps are uncertain as he makes his way into the blinding glare of the afternoon sun.
This time the man is there.
Trying to lose himself among the traveling peddlers, the man with a price on his head and the scar on his left cheek steps down to the pier.
He is far more emaciated than Kaim’s written description would have led him to believe. No doubt he is exhausted from his years as a fugitive. Still, he has fulfilled his promise to his mother by coming back to the island of his birth.
His eyes dart fearfully over the pier.
His expression changes from that of a man searching for someone to the panicked look of a child who has become separated from his parent.
Kaim slowly plants himself in front of him.
The man knows nothing of Kaim’s mission, of course, and has never met him before.
But he has the instincts of an inhabitant of the back alleys. His face freezes, and he turns to flee.
Kaim grabs him by the shoulder – but lightly, in a way that would make an onlooker think he was witnessing the joyful reunion of old friends. The man tries to shake off the hand, to no avail.
It would be easy enough for Kaim to kill him on the spot.
His eyes show that he has no strength left to fight. Kaim has far more experience than the man does at surviving potentially fatal encounters.
The man knows this.
“If you’re going to kill me, get it over with,” he snarls.
“But if you’ve got a trace of kindness in you, you’ll give me one last chance to do something good for my mother. It won’t take long. Just let me see her. Once. Then you can do whatever you like with me.”
Kaim lets his hand drop from the man’s shoulder.
He is not going to run away.
“So, I didn’t make it after all…” he says with a forced smile. His face tells Kaim that he has probably resigned himself to this fate. It suggests, too, an air of relief at having finally brought his life as a fugitive to an end.
“How many men have you killed?” he asks Kaim.
“I don’t have to answer that.”
“And I don’t really want you to tell me. It’s just that, well, looking at you, I’d say I’m older than you are, and there are some things a person comes to realize when he’s lived a long time. Think about the guys you’ve killed. Every single one of them had parents. Killing a person means killing somebody’s child. Right? When that finally dawned on me, I left the gang. Gangs don’t pay retirement bonuses, so I sort of ‘borrowed’ a little money from them and thought I’d use it to…well, I’ve given my mother a hard time all these years…”
His voice grows thick and muffled. He shakes off the emotion and proclaims with a laugh,
“Ah, what the hell! That’s a lot of sentimental nonsense. I don’t know how many guys I’ve killed over the years, so I figure I’m getting what I deserve. I can’t hate you for what you’re doing.”
A shout comes from the ferry deck: “We will be departing shortly! All passengers bound for the capital should be boarding now!”
Kaim looks hard at the man and says, “Just tell me one thing.”
The man says nothing in reply, but Kaim continues,
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you see your mother?”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Never mind, just answer the question.”
“I’ll say, ‘I’m back.’ No, I won’t say anything. I’ll just take her in my arms. That’s all.”
“Give her a big hug?”
“Sure. That’s what parents and children are all about.”
Kaim relaxes the grim expression on his face and jerks his chin toward the forest beyond the pier.
“There’s an old, broken-down house in the woods. Your mother’s waiting for you there. Go to her.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t ever come back to the capital. And don’t stay on this island. Take another ferry and go far away to some other island. With your mother.”
The man looks stunned. “You…I mean…”
His voice is trembling.
Kaim says nothing more.
He leaves the man behind and strides toward the boat before it can depart.
Kaim does not care if, in return for this deed, he is labeled a traitor to be pursued by the gang. The image of his own parents praying for their son’s welfare has long since faded from his memory.
“Pulling out! Please hurry!” comes the cries of the ferry’s crew.
A big gong is ringing. Startled by the sounds reverberating between the vast stretch of ocean and open sky, brightly-colored birds dart up from the forest. Large birds and small birds – parents and their young? The larger birds seem almost to be shielding the smaller ones beneath their slowly-beating, outstretched wings.