A Retelling of the Parable of the Two Sons by Rina Olsen

A Retelling of the Parable of the Two Sons

“Crazy old man.”

Uncle Ha-Yol looks at my father reproachfully. “Don’t say that. He’s just old.”

“Not all old people start talking to the pizza ads taped to their refrigerator.”

Uncle Ha-Yol casts a worried look at my grandfather, who slumps on the edge of the couch. His expression is blank and his eyes watery and vacant, but anyone can tell that his fleshy ears catch my father’s sharp words.

“What’s next? Soon he’ll be forgetting who his own children are.” My father laughs bitterly, like dark tendrils of noise emerging from somewhere deep in his throat. He leans forward and waves at my grandfather to catch his attention, then points at himself. “Dad, do you know me?”

My grandfather blinks, then nods. Two weary bobs of the head.

“When’s your birthday?” my father asks.

Uncle Ha-Yol intervenes. “Is this an interrogation?”

“It’s necessary,” my father snaps. “If this continues, maybe we’ll have to put him in a home.”

At this my grandfather’s eyes grow shiny and his bottom lip quivers. Uncle Ha-Yol glares at my father, who turns back to his laptop with a heavy sigh. Quiet sniffles begin to fill the silence and my grandfather swipes at his eyes with a bony claw. Uncle Ha-Yol puts a comforting hand on his back and nudges his bowl towards him. “Here, I bought it for you.” He stirs the soup and my grandfather timidly takes the spoon. With some effort he manages to slurp some of the warm liquid.

Once he eats a few spoonfuls, Uncle Ha-Yol rises. “I have to go home now. Should I visit again tomorrow?”

My father closes his laptop, gets up, and runs a hand through his hair. “You don’t need to.”

“But I should. I will.”

“No, no…”

“At least text if something happens.”

My father relents at this. “Fine. Thanks.”

“No problem.” Uncle Ha-Yol gathers his coat and my father shows him to the door, leaving behind an old man whose memories slip from him like water through fingers.

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“Crazy old man.”

I feel guilty as soon as I think the words, but I can’t stop myself. I roll over again to stare at my door outlined with the yellow glow of electricity from the hallway lights. From the room across the hall from mine there came growls and barks. We don’t keep a dog. They weren’t canine, anyway, the growls came from human vocal cords and the barks were made up of words snapped into short, incomprehensible sentences. Occasionally I hear fingernails scraping down the wall, and maybe even feet and legs writhing among the sheets and blankets.

Another guttural explodes through the house.

I sigh and get up, open the door, and tiptoe across the hall. The door’s open. When I reach my grandfather’s room he’s still going strong. Sitting in the center of his bed, legs splayed out awkwardly, eyes crazed and bright and staring at the wall. “You’d all be happy if I was dead, huh? You’d all be happier if I wasn’t a nuisance around the house! Fine then! Get me sleeping medicine, I’ll just go to sleep and die! And then you’ll all be happier!”

At this point the words slip into Korean, his native tongue, which I can’t understand. It sounds like slick, slimy seaweed slipping out of his mouth and landing in coils on the sheets.

My father perches on the edge of the bed, keeping vigil. He holds the bony claw, not tightly but not loosely either. When he spots me, he gestures at his phone. Ha-Yol, he mouths, and I understand. I reach for the phone, silently disappear back into my room, and open my father’s messages to text my uncle.

A minute later a reply appears: Try giving him medicine.

My fingers tap away in a frenzied tango. He takes medicine every night before going to bed. He can’t take more than the correct dose.

I hit send, then wait. Impatience chains me in place and strangles me until I want to scream.

Finally there’s a reply: Just let him fall asleep, then. He’ll be better in the morning.

But he’s not better right now! My thumb hits send just as another roar filters through the cracks of my door.

A minute passes. Then another.

I start typing again. Can’t you come over? He only lived a few streets away, close to us. “In case of an emergency,” he’d once told my father.

More strings of furious Korean. In the darkness ten minutes slip away so quickly.

I rub my eyes, then give up. I quietly return to my grandfather’s room and show the messages to my father. My grandfather is lying down now, occasionally letting out little grunts through closed lips. Like he’s catching his breath, reloading before firing another barrage. My father’s eyes dart from right to left as he reads the entire thread, then he chuckles quietly to himself. It’s not a happy chuckle.

“Thanks,” he tells me anyway. “Go to sleep. I’ve got this covered.”

“But —”

My grandfather shoots up again. “What, you’re all whispering without me? Huh? What are you saying about me? Speak up!” He’s not looking at either of us but at his headboard.

My father gives me a look, then quietly tells me to go back to sleep. “Just try,” he orders. I grudgingly obey and close the door silently before padding back to my room.

I stare up at the ceiling for another two hours, grunts, gutturals, and rapid accusations drowning out the ticking of my clock. They gradually taper down in volume, until finally they are reduced to snores. His door clicks shut and I hear my father’s soft footsteps track down the hallway towards his own room. My father’s door does not close.

Rina Olsen (she/her) is a Korean-American high-school sophomore living on Guam. Her work has either appeared in or is forthcoming in Dreams & Nightmares, 101 Words, Mobius: A Journal of Social Change, Unfortunately, Literary Magazine, Nanoism, and Months to Years, among other places. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Atmosphere Press in 2023. She would like to let everyone know that Jellyfish Review was the first literary magazine to accept her writing for publication, and for that she will always be grateful.

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Art: Kim Whanki CC by SA 4.0 Painted white background. A blue and white bowl. Some yellow circles inside the bowl. One yellow circle under the bowl. Artist’s signature in the bottom left.

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