There are no women in the parable, none pleased
or angry when the younger brother leaves,
none calling out to stop him, or to urge him on.
No mother scolds the father in the night for splitting
up the fortune they have earned. No sister tries to stop
her brother at the gate. No daughter, timid on the steps,
recedes into the darkness of the house the moment
when her father disappears from sight.
The only women even mentioned are implied—
the son must squander his inheritance, and stirring
in that absent scene are women eager to oblige.
The famine hits and it’s a man from whom
the prodigal must take the work of feeding swine.
When desperation enters and the son is eating husks
he’s gathered from the troughs, there is no memory
of a mother’s meal. Instead, he thinks of servants
of his father; even they have bread to spare.
There’s mercy in the son’s return, in how the father,
overcome with joy, proclaims the son alive again
and kills the fatted calf in praise. The older son,
though angered by the merriment at first, relinquishes
his jealousy and joins the chorus of his father’s house.
But there is much the author might have said.
What woman grieves like men? Perhaps the mother
seeks the son. Perhaps she goes from door to door
and asks the strangers once and then again
if they have seen her child. The father and the older son
are stoic in the house, this much is known, but it’s a mother,
angered by the absence of a son, who wakes each day,
forgetting for a moment he is gone, then jolts
from bed and sets to work to bring him home.
Perhaps the sisters of the younger son are never
mentioned, never seen, because their beauty is a net.
Perhaps they draw men to the house, or as the sisters
circulate the marketplace the men become like children
tugging at the sisters’ skirts. What plans are made?
What schemes? Perhaps the sisters, bound by love
to find their brother, entertain the overtures
the men must make; the sisters smile and nod
each time a finger rubs along their arms, each time
the men begin to whisper as they slide their hands
down farther on the sisters’ backs. And only then,
the moment just before the sisters slip away,
before they twirl from arms cinched tight
around their waists, before the sisters glide,
already distant from the men, into the blazing heat
that rises in the marketplace, which sister plies
the men for any lead to bring her brother home?
One hopes the author meant no insult by his slight.
It’s clear he too rushed forward to the son’s return;
the promise of reunion enters so that all objections,
like the older brother’s plea for fairness,
are denied. But what a scene it might have been.
Who sees the younger brother first: the mother
hanging laundry on the line, his image in the distance
growing larger, passing in and out of view between
the swaying sheets and clothes; a sister sitting on the porch,
her knees to chest, the way she rises at the sight of him,
his hair grown long and matted, shoulders thin,
but still the nervous grin, his gaze that settles at his feet?
Who runs to tell the father and the older son? Which sister,
rushing from the house, first holds the younger son
and cries, almost in rage, “Where have you been?”
-originally printed in New England Review