Writing Inspired by The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
It was the dirt on his feet I remember. The dirt ingrained so deep I couldn't imagine it ever coming clean. The dirt that represented the anguish of his heart, his desperation to “come home”. Yes, it was the dirt on his feet I remember.
I didn't recognize him at first. I mean, he’d been gone so long we thought he was dead. But the master, he never gave up hoping, looking, watching for his son to return. And then, there he was, the master I mean, off and running. I’d never seen a Jewish master run before, and there he was, grabbing up his robes in his hands and running down the hill. To whom? To what? Why was he running? And then we saw him, this man that the master had obviously seen approaching, this dirty, unkempt man, who had obviously not been living well. He looked like a slave, not even a household servant like us, just a slave. His skin burnt from working in the sun, and wearing filthy rags. The sandals on his feet had certainly seen better days, they were only just holding together. And those feet, those dirty feet, yes, it was the dirt on his feet I remember.
Because as the master reached him he saw the master coming and he threw himself at the master’s feet, but the master had turned already to lead him up the hill toward the house. And so as he knelt before the master, all I could see of him was his back and the soles of those feet. That’s when I recognised him. I KNEW those feet! I had served this family for many years, I had been there the day this son was born, I had bathed his feet each day when he came in from playing as he grew and then from working in the fields with his Father. If he cut his feet working in the rougher ground, I was the one who tended to his wounds. I KNEW those feet. Well, that and the fact that then I heard him . . .
“Father, forgive me.” It was an anguished cry, that obviously came from somewhere deep inside. He wasn't going to be polite, he wasn't going to worry about who did or did not hear, all he wanted was to be allowed to come home. “I don’t deserve to be your son, make me one of your hired servants.”
He was asking to be one of us. To live like this in the house of his father, to be ordered around by his family, and even by some of us? How could he be willing to live like that, to accept that in the house where he had once been a son? I didn't understand, and then I remembered his feet, the depth of dirt that was ingrained there spoke of many days walking home, without knowing what would await him. He must have rehearsed this speech a thousand times. I could not imagine what he had done while he was away, what he had been through, but I knew that even this, that he was proposing, must be far better than staying away. Or else, how could he suggest such a thing?
But the master did not wait, did not listen to his son’s protestations, maybe he didn't even hear them, because he grabbed his son by the hands, pulled him up to his feet, and he hugged him. Another thing I don’t think I’d ever seen a Jewish master do before. He hugged his son in full sight of anyone who cared to look. In full sight of neighbours, family, friends and servants.
He brought him into the house and pretty soon we were all busy running around bringing things. Clothes. Not just clean clothes, but the best clothes, the sygnet ring that signified authority within the household, the fatted calf for a feast. And then, as the others ran around preparing meat and bread and all the other food for the feast, the master called to me “The sandals, go fetch the sandals, the best ones from my room.”
So I fetched the sandals and I knelt before him as he had knelt before the master, and I took a bowl of water and a cloth and I bathed those feet again, and slipped on the sandals his father had kept specially, and I swore to myself that I would always remember those feet, those dirty, filthy feet.