by MJ Mink
"Pop? I'm here!" Peter calls. "You ready to go?"
There's no answer, so he prowls through the unfamiliar apartment and finally finds his dad on the wide balcony, standing amidst a profusion of small plants.
“There you are! Hi.”
Kwai Chang Caine glances at him and nods.
"Got some new ones, hmm? Gifts?" Peter asks. He rubs the spiked leaves of a tall, spindly plant, and his fingers come away greasy. He sniffs them. "Whoa! What do you use this for?"
Caine leans over and inspects the leaves as though he thinks Peter has damaged them. He shakes his head, then takes Peter's hand and repeats the process.
"What?" Peter demands. "It's not, uh...poison, is it?"
His father gives him one of those you-try-my-patience looks and says, "Wait here."
"Okay." As soon as Caine goes indoors, Peter follows him. His dad has vanished, so Peter has an opportunity to take a long look around the new apartment. He likes it. He likes the little rooms branching off the central hallway, even though the layout looks more like an office than a home. And this main room is terrific, with plenty of space for furniture, should his dad ever decide to get any.
The balcony is what he likes best. He wanders out there again. If he doesn't look over the edge to the city below and closes his ears to the sounds of traffic and voices -- well, it's almost like being in the country. Peaceful.
Yeah, he likes this place. The kwoon was okay, but this is more private. Peter likes the idea that his father is no longer so easily available for public consumption. Maybe that means they can spend more time together.
Restless, he walks indoors and fingers the jars on the apothecary worktable. It's Saturday, he's had a full night's sleep, and he's going to spend the entire day with his dad for the first time since Caine returned.
He lifts one jar and blindly stares at it. Kelly's mad at him again. Though she’d been patient through the nightmares, she’s less forgiving now that his dad is back home. This time she’s pissed because he's spending his only day off in three weeks with his father. Why can't she understand that he missed Caine? They have years of lost time to fill in, more than just the six months. One day won't do it, but they have to start somewhere.
His fingers are starting to itch. He puts the jar aside and looks at them. They're turning red. "Dad? Hey, Dad?"
His father arrives with his old-fashioned mortar and pestle, grinding some yellow and green paste into a muddy mess. Peter smiles slightly and holds out his hand. Caine smears the paste on his fingers, then rubs until it disappears.
"Am I going to smell bad now?" Peter teases.
"I hope not," his father murmurs. He pulls Peter's hand closer to the sunlight that is just beginning to peek over the eastern horizon and into the paned glass window. "I will be riding next to you."
"Yeah." Peter grins and takes his hand back. Already the redness is fading. "Ready to go?" he asks cheerfully, hoping he's hiding his nervousness.
His father slings his pouch over his neck and claps the familiar hat on his head. He says nothing, but nods his head in the direction of the stairs.
They leave the building and step into the bright sun of the lingering summer. Winter and spring were so long and cold this year. Full of nightmares. Peter stops and closes his eyes, feeling the warmth on his face as if it's a familiar old friend who can chase away memories of the terrible dreams.
At first the nocturnal images were the usual ones -- the temple, the fire, his father turning away. Then they had become more nebulous and fragmented. They didn't make sense, and the memories of them would slip away when he crossed over the line into consciousness. Finally, they had become terrifying visions of danger, his father trapped while Peter turned in circles, looking for their enemy, seeing nothing.
Now he's free of the dreams, and it's not only because his father defeated the Chi'Ru. It's because his father chooses to stay with him.
Peter looks up. His dad is beside him, waiting, watching him closely. Peter unlocks the car doors, and they climb inside.
"I thought we'd go to the beach," he says as he pulls the Stealth onto the main thoroughfare. "I know it's cool this morning, but...."
But what? He hates it when he doesn’t have a logical reason for his decisions. He just needs to see the ocean, the vista of waves and sky, stretching on and on, far beyond a mortal's vision.
"Oceans give us peace," his father says.
Peter shoots a surprised look at him. "Yeah. I’ve always liked lakes and rivers, but the ocean makes me feel…relaxed, I guess." He hesitates. Months ago he promised himself that if his dad came back, Peter would ask lots of questions and prove he’s the best student Kwai Chang Caine has ever had. "Why does the ocean make people feel that way?"
His father tilts his head. "Perhaps it is as scientists say. The oceans were our beginnings. We yearn to return home."
Peter turns the car onto the freeway that heads south and thinks about his father’s words. “So where’s home for you, Pop?” he challenges.
His father shrugs.
A familiar frustration wells up in Peter, but he pushes it back. Kira's words have haunted him for a long time: Maybe you need to do the reaching out. Well, damnit, he's reaching and he'll keep reaching. Someday, sometime, his father will reach back. Maybe Peter just needs to find the right questions. "Do you believe in the Big Bang theory?" he asks casually. "That all life began from cosmic...stuff?"
"And that we crawled out of the ocean on our bellies?" Peter persists, irked when he still doesn’t receive an answer. "I like it better than the religious explanations. I guess I'm a pragmatist."
His father's head swivels toward him, and Peter flushes.
"I am. I'm really practical, none of this --" He almost says 'mumbo-jumbo' but thinks better of it. "I mean, faith is fine for you, Dad -- and I used to have it. Now I only have faith in what I learned on the streets. Even some of the stuff I learned at the temple is still useful."
"I am glad to hear that," his father says dryly.
"But mostly I have faith in my nine millimeter," he snaps, deliberately provocative.
"Is this not your exit?" his father asks mildly, pointing up at a large sign just as they breeze under it.
Shit! Peter puts on his right turn signal and manages to squeeze in front of a truck. The truck driver lays on the horn, but Peter ignores it. He barely makes the connection to the eastbound lanes. "You could have warned me sooner," he says shortly, embarrassed to think his dad is a more alert passenger than he is a driver. "I might've missed it."
"Then you would have corrected your error," his dad says. "I, too, have faith."
Does that mean faith in me? Peter wonders, but is afraid to ask. "In what, Dad?"
Oh, no, Peter Caine is not going to let his father get away with this. "Like what? In kung fu -- in your ability to defend yourself?"
Caine sends him an odd look that Peter thinks contains some annoyance.
"I know you have faith in your -- our religion," Peter continues. "What else? You know everything, so you must have faith in yourself."
His father's head turns as they pass cattle grazing in a large pasture. Peter sighs, knowing his dad is distracted. Caine prefers the country to the city; it's not the first time Peter's noticed this. So why does Caine stay in the city? It can’t be just for his faith-less son.
That’s not possible, because Peter isn’t one of the responsibilities in Caine's heart.
He remembers the day his father taught him that lesson, last Christmas Eve when they went to an ice festival. His father took a little block of ice, carved it into Buddha, and told him secrets and responsibilities of the heart. Peter scoffed at the time, but he still remembers the lesson.
And the way it came back to bite him on a Chinatown street. Like the Buddha in the ice, the image is carved into his brain: Caine standing on the crowded sidewalk saying, I must leave.
"Yes," Caine says, and Peter has to think back to the question.
"You have faith in yourself," he says aloud.
"As you have faith in your knowledge and skills," his dad replies.
"That’s not faith, it’s survival instinct." Peter momentarily considers swinging into the fast lane and flooring it, but decides to stay in the more comfortable pace of the center lane. He wants to tell his dad something he’s never put into words, but he’s not certain he can express the idea. "I feel like I'm missing something, you know? I mean…faith, instinct, whatever it is — it keeps me alive on the streets and gets me through each day, but when I get home…at night, alone -- There has to be more."
He feels like he's talking into a vacuum, because his father doesn't respond. Peter shoots an anxious glance at him. Caine is staring forward at the highway.
“I know you know what it is, Pop,” he blurts. “You know what’s missing. Would you teach me? You said I was a good student. I could learn more about…whatever it is that makes you so…you know,” he finishes awkwardly.
He glances over and sees the brown eyes resting on his face. His father's brows come together.
"What? What's that look mean?"
Caine's expression clears and he smiles. "I...will teach you as much as you wish."
"Great," Peter says, relieved that he’s made his dad happy. That's all he has to do, volunteer to be a student. The relationship between a student and a teacher never ends, that's what his dad says.
"Or as little as you wish," his father continues.
"What?" The car swerves, then jerks in the opposite direction as Peter over-corrects.
His father gives him a cautionary look.
"Sorry. Um...what do you mean, as little?"
"Just that." Caine settles himself more comfortably in the seat and focuses out the side window.
Peter knows this conversation has ended. He's frustrated and maybe even angry, but not angry enough to lash out. He needs to understand where his dad is coming from, what he really means when he says cryptic stuff. Knowledge is power, right? So if he learns enough, understands his pop well enough, then he'll know when Caine is thinking of leaving or is disappointed in him or disapproves.
He glances at his father. He wants to ask about the six months, what his dad was doing, why he left, why he didn't call or write. He wants an acknowledgement that his father understands how much his absence hurt Peter. Peter is positive that Kwai Chang Caine learns from his mistakes. So if he knows that leaving Peter was a mistake, he won't do it again.
Peter makes a vow to himself: he won't let his father leave him behind again. From now on, if his dad takes off, Peter is going with him.
There'll be no disappearing for six days, let alone six months.
"Let's stop for breakfast," Peter says. He needs
a break from his thoughts.
Thin blinds shade the large windows, and I watch my son through slivers of light that slip through the narrow slats. Dust motes sparkle like glitter in the air, floating over the table to encircle his head. His dark hair gleams, and stray curls are highlighted by the morning sun. I think of his little bald head, and I feel a pain against my chest.
Peter has chosen a small diner for our morning meal, and he eats scrambled eggs, toast upon which he has slathered jam from small plastic containers, three large pancakes, and hash browns with salsa. I have fresh fruit and a cup of strawberry yogurt. Peter has coffee, I have tea.
There are so many differences between us.
I enjoy these little trips with my son. He does not seem to enjoy them as much as I do; still, they are always by his invitation. I remember his many angers last week when I 'rode' with him...but I remember that some of his small furies grew from fear for my safety. Others, I think, were because he did not appreciate what he saw as trespassing on his territory.
I note that Peter has stopped eating and now plays with a piece of his pancake, folding it over, unfolding it, using it to push syrup around his plate. He is anxious, which is not unusual. He was troubled as a boy; he is troubled as a man. He is much as I was until I found my calling and settled into priesthood.
I think that a Shaolin future would do much for my son. It would calm him and ease his anxieties. I do not know if he will have such a future, but as a father I hope it for him.
"I wish you would talk to me," Peter says in a low voice.
I know he does not mean 'small' talk, the kind that fills silences with nothing of importance. I also wish I could talk with him, but I remember his anger and his disappointment and try to avoid reviving it. It is wrong of me to do so, but it is human. He looks up from his plate and I glimpse, in the dark shadow of his gaze, the frightened man who let me leave without argument, behaving as a good son should. I also remember how he trembled when he welcomed me back with a hug. There was much unhappiness in him on that day — and I realize the sorrow is still within him.
I have been silent too long; I have made no comment on his words. This frequently happens. He teaches me, though he does not believe it, and I spend much time contemplating what he says. I see that his eyes are liquid. They are not yet filled with tears, but sadness is growing in them.
I lay down my fork and reach across the table to rest my right hand on his warm cheek. I touched him this way when I left, and I remember the way he flinched, anticipating the pain of love. I am searching for a new way to 'push in' my lessons. He gazes at me, and I see that tenderness is perhaps more effective than authority.
"My son, it is my way to be silent. You give me much to consider."
I withdraw my hand, and his face tries to follow it. I feel great love for him, a love that grew while I was away. My son. The miracle is real; he is alive and we are together again. My mind has known it for more than a year, but my heart is still learning to accept. Perhaps the most difficult lesson for me is to learn how to live without the dull throb of pain that was his loss. That emptiness has been a large part of me for so long; now I do not know how to fill its empty space.
I smile into his eager eyes. "A father can learn much from a son."
His gaze shifts; I see he does not believe me, but I know it is lack of faith in himself that causes his doubts. I must try harder to reach and encourage him. I do not know why it is so easy with my students but so difficult with my son. Perhaps I am more cautious with Peter for fear of driving him away. But does he interpret my caution as dispassion?
I must learn to 'reach out' to him. He has told me this. So:
"How is Kelly?" I ask.
His eyes lift. His lashes are black like soot, his gaze surprised, then pleased. "Okay, I guess. We had another fight last week. So what else is new? We seem to fight more than we --" He stops, and his face colors. "We fight a lot."
I do not smile outside, but inside I am amused by his gentle regard for my feelings.
"I guess we need to give each other a little space," he continues.
"Space?" I know that Kelly is not sharing my son's apartment, so I do not understand how they could be farther apart.
"Yeah." Peter opens his palm as if he can hand me an answer. "It means to...not crowd each other. To allow each other time alone, not be together all the time."
"Ah." I understand. "As we are."
Together, yet separate. Leading individual lives, yet always joined.
Peter picks up his fork again. "Am I crowding you, Pop?" He pushes the mound of hash browns around his plate. "Do you need time alone?"
I shrug. "Aloneness is always useful for meditation and contemplation," I observe. “I need such time. As do you.”
"Okay." Peter becomes very absorbed with spreading golden jam on a slice of toast. "I'll back off. That's probably what Kelly is trying to tell me, too. I guess I'm too...intense."
I smile slightly. In that intensity, we are much alike. "You and Kelly are both...strong-willed."
"Yeah, well." He shrugs. "I don't have the best record with women. I lose more than I win. Just when I think I'm scoring -- zap, I strike out." He winks at me. "Maybe I need to get in more practice time."
I realize I have tilted my head while listening to him. I straighten it. "Perhaps...I could give you advice?"
His eyes widen. "You? I mean -- sure, go for it, Pop. What do you think I should do?"
His thinly disguised astonishment amuses me, and I am pleased that his anxious air has faded. "Perhaps, Peter," I say carefully, trying to remain solemn, "if you did not think of women as...sporting events?"
"What?" He frowns. "I don't! What do you mean?"
I eat a small square of cantaloupe. When I finish, I remind him, "Score? Record. Strike out. Winning and losing. Practice time."
He looks at me and bites his lower lip. "Oh." He eats a wedge of pancake and does not speak further, but his mouth twitches
"Women are people," I offer, attempting to bestow the fatherly advice I believe he wants.
"Women are not people," he disagrees. "Women are from another planet. They are totally incomprehensible. They exist only to tie men in knots."
He grumbles, but I see that he is teasing. I smile slightly. "Men and women are different, yet the same. Treat a woman as a person as well as a woman, and you will have a more...satisfying relationship."
He coughs and sips his coffee. When he looks at me, his eyes are bright with glee. "No offense, Pop, but you're on the sidelines and I'm out here in the huddle."
He rests his forehead in his hand. "Oh, God, you're right. Of course you're right. You're always right. Well...dating is a sport." Peter raises his head, his eyes sparkling. "And women are the opposing team."
"You must...defeat them?"
He hesitates and chews on his lip again. "Not exactly. But it's a war. Haven't you ever heard of the war between the sexes?"
I shake my head. "Why would one fight that which one wishes to win?"
"Hah! That's it!" Peter looks around, embarrassed because he has raised his voice. He lowers it. "It's all about conquering. The spoils of war. Pillage and plunder. Victory. You fight other men to win the women. Sometimes you have to fight the women, too. But you get them in the end."
"Peter!" I exclaim and shake my head. "Where did you learn this?"
His gaze becomes vague as he slides backward in time. "High school," he says finally and offers me a shy smile.
I shake my head more vigorously. "No. This is wrong. Unlearn it."
"Unlearn it? Cute, Dad." Peter leans back against the red plastic of the booth and laughs. "I wish you'd -- I wish you'd been here then. To teach me the right way...to do everything."
I wish it, too, more than I can bear to consider. "I am here now," I say, for it is all I can offer.
"Yeah, that you are." He looks at the dishware in front of me. "You're done. Let's hit the road. I feel the need for some of that oceanic peace."
As we walk to his car, I rest my hand on his back, happy
to be with him again.
In the distance, the Atlantic and the sky blend together in a deep gray blur. There is no strong wind, no wild storm far out at sea to send the waves crashing against the shore. The water is lapping quietly at their feet as they stand on the wet, packed sand and stare at the ocean.
Peter estimates they've been standing this way for ten minutes. He usually can't be still -- or silent -- this long, but he's not ready to move yet. He is ready to talk. He puts his arm around his dad's shoulder, lets his hand dangle loosely, and hopes he's not crowding Caine.
"Where did you go?" he asks without elaboration.
He watches his father. The gray hair has been pulled back in a skimpy ponytail, but long strands have escaped and are blowing in the mild breeze. Peter wishes his father could come inside him and see how much love is in Peter's heart. He used to worry so much about never understanding his dad...but those worries vanished when Caine left. For six months, Peter wanted his father back and didn't give a damn what he did or didn't understand. He just wanted his dad here, beside him, even if the priest never said another word.
But now that Caine is here, Peter wants him to talk.
His dad raises his arm and points north.
Peter looks in that direction but sees nothing. "Where?"
"I went to the mountains."
"Oh." He considers it. "But it was a cold winter. Where did you stay?"
His dad shrugs. "Wherever I stopped walking."
He has visions of his father living in caves and under fir trees. "What did you learn?" He doesn’t believe he'll receive any kind of concrete answer, so he doesn’t wait for a reply. "You said you wouldn't have come back so soon if not for the Chi'Ru, so you didn't find your path, did you?"
"I did," his dad says without hesitation.
"Really? What is it?" He is both eager and scared. What if his father's path doesn't include a son?
Caine looks at him. And keeps looking. Peter tries not to fidget under the scrutiny and tries not to guess if the look means anything.
His father finally gazes at the ocean again. After a moment, he squats on the sand and motions Peter to join him.
"Draw us," his father says. He gestures at the packed sand.
"What?" Momentarily distracted from his worry, Peter drops onto his rump and drapes his arm on one upraised knee. "I'm not much of an artist, Dad. How about I build a sandcastle instead?" He begins dragging his fingers through the sand. "This is the moat."
His father's hand covers his fingers and stops their movement. "You like to go where you can build castles," Caine says slowly. "In ice, in sand...here." One finger taps Peter's forehead.
He laughs nervously. "Castles in the air, huh?" He frees his hand and digs his moat deeper. "You were the one who wanted to go to the ice festival, remember?"
"I am a priest. I am expected to...live inside my head."
Peter glances sideways and sees a little smile. His dad is kidding. "Yeah." He refills the moat and pats the sand, smoothing until it is unblemished. "Us? As in, you and me?"
"Yes." His father folds his hands together and waits.
Peter considers it, then pokes a dot in the sand. "That's me."
"I see the resemblance," his father says, and Peter chuckles.
"Very funny." He adds a second dot and a curve.
"Ah. My son, the...smiley face?"
Peter laughs with delight. "I knew you snuck into the twentieth century when I wasn't looking. And what do you say to Mr. Smiley Face?"
Caine considers the possibilities with a serious expression. "Have a...nice day?"
Peter grins widely, then slowly sobers and erases Mr. Smiley Face. His dad is trying to tell him something -- or get Peter to tell him something, and Peter wants to know what it is.
Peter draws the dot again. "This is me and this --" He stretches his left arm and draws the biggest circle he can manage. His dot is at the heart of it. "-- is you. You were…are my world." He doesn't look as his father as he runs his finger through the sand, retracing the gentle curve of the circle, remembering the day the heart dropped out of his world.
"When I lost you for so many years, I never lost the memories. I remembered your stories and your lessons, but….” He takes a deep breath and makes himself say the words. “I didn't always remember you. Now you're back, and this is where I am."
The dot and circle stare back at him. He supposes his drawing probably means more than he realizes, but he doesn't want to think further. "Now you draw us," he demands.
"This is what I see." His father leans over and pushes his finger into Peter's dot. "This is me." Caine traces the large circle. "This is you. You surround me."
Trap you? Peter wonders desperately. Smother you when you need space, nail your feet to the floor when you want to leave --
"But this is reality," his dad continues. He erases their circle and pokes a second hole in the sand near Peter's dot. "You...and me."
Peter studies the sand and smirks, grateful for a reason to break the tension. "Pop, we're nipples."
His father sighs. "We are walking side by side. Along the same path."
"We still look like nipples," he comments, though he feels a secret thrill. The same path -- his dad says they're on the same path!
With another sigh, his father draws little stick bodies below the dots.
Peter bursts into laughter and falls back on the sand, snickering.
"I did not claim to be an artist," his dad says with offended dignity.
Peter sits up and bites his lip. "Well...in your drawing, we have very small heads," he observes, "but I don't think that's the case."
Caine frowns at him. "You are missing what I am trying to show you."
"I don't think so." Peter crawls around to sit next to his dad so he can see the figures from the proper direction. "Are we holding hands?"
"The taller one is me, right?"
He supposes he's pushed this as far as he can push it. But he nudges his dad's arm with his elbow. "Have I told you that I'm glad you're back?"
"Well, I'm still glad, Pop. Even if you can't draw."
His dad stands and brushes sand from the back of his pants. It blows in Peter's face, and he rises quickly. He cranes his neck to see if he's sand-covered, too, and decides he probably is. By the time he brushes himself off and looks up again, his dad is a block down the beach. "Hey! Wait up," he calls unnecessarily, and runs to catch his father. "If we're on the same path, you can't keep taking off without me."
His father stops and looks at him. He smiles very slightly. "You understand."
"Of course, I do. I'm not as dense as you think, Dad."
"I do not think you are 'dense', Peter," his father says solemnly.
Peter studies his dad's face. "What do you think of me?" he asks.
His father shrugs and turns to walk on. Peter stops him with a hand on his arm.
"Just once. Tell me."
Caine's look is confused and maybe frustrated. "You are...my son," he says in an odd tone.
"I know that. But if I wasn't --" Peter stops and draws in a long breath. "Would you...like me?"
His father's head tilts, and he frowns. "You are my son," he repeats.
Peter shoves his hands in the back pockets of his jeans and looks to the side. The sea is calm and endless. It reminds him of his father, always there, powerful, sometimes serene, sometimes stormy, usually enigmatic -- and potentially dangerous if someone gets too close.
But Peter has to make sure he doesn’t get too close, because his dad wants space. His dad needs Peter to back off.
"I know I'm not easy to like." He faces the water and stares at it. "I'm nothing like you."
"Yes," says his father's voice, very close to his ear.
Peter doesn't move.
"You are very like me," Caine says softly.
Peter waits until he can't wait any longer. "How?"
Hands lay on his shoulders. "All the feelings inside you -- confusion, anger, passion -- are inside me also, just as intensely. Perhaps more so."
"Really?” No. These stormy, frightening feelings can’t be inside Kwai Chang Caine. It’s not possible. His dad is just trying to make him feel better.
But at least they’re talking. Peter turns his head to the side and rubs his cheek against his father's hand, turning his face to brush his lips against the fingers.
His father releases him, and Peter supposes he just overstepped that invisible intimacy boundary, the one that says he can only share a measured amount of affection with his father. He looks back at the water. It's hard to imagine that life abounds in those dark depths. And that while they are standing here, death is occurring over and over -- sharks devouring everything in sight, crabs becoming meals, larger fish caught in nets to be brought to shore --
"You don't show it."
"I control it,” Caine says quietly.
"And that's a Shaolin thing, right?" All of a sudden, he can see where this conversation is headed. This path his dad wants for him -- Peter looks down and wonders if his toes are pointed right at a Shaolin temple.
He doesn't get a reply. When he looks up, his dad is gone.
So much for not walking away. Peter follows slowly,
moving into the dry sand, dragging his feet.
The sun is finally coming out. The morning has been gray with fog, but now it is glorious. I hike up a small dune, sit down, and remove my shoes, curling my toes in the cool sand. I look over my shoulder for Peter; he is approaching, in no hurry to join me. I lift my face to the sky and close my eyes.
In a few minutes, I feel Peter standing beside me. When I open my eyes and look up at him, I see his tragic gaze and understand that I have again wounded his fragile feelings. Peter lives too much in the injuries of the past; he savors their pain. He is haunted by memories of the temple's destruction. I doubt if he remembers much of the other times there, when we were as one, father and son.
I do not know how to relieve him of these painful feelings, nor even if I should were I able. He must learn for himself. He must be stronger. He is a man now, no longer my little boy…yet there are times when he acts like a child, and I wonder if I should comfort him as I would have twenty years ago.
Today, I have tried to talk to him, to tell him of my wishes for him. I have told him that we, father and son, share a sameness that comes from deep within our souls. Is that not the strongest bond? But he is not reassured. I feel the darkness of his spirit, the heavy depression that hangs over him. I do not know what he wants from me.
But...he asked me a question that I did not answer to his satisfaction. I draw in a long breath, preparing to do something I am not accustomed to doing.
Finally, he sits. He removes his shoes and turns them upside down. Sand tumbles from them.
"Peter," I begin.
He looks warily at me.
"I am...proud of you," I say firmly.
He is plainly startled, as I am by his reaction. Is it possible that he does he not know this?
"You are? Why?" His tone is first incredulous, then suspicious.
I am dismayed that he does not understand something that is so simple to me. I am silent, disturbed that I have left so much unsaid.
"I'm a cop. You hate that I use a gun."
I shrug, for I cannot deny his statement with honesty. "You are a cop," I agree carefully. "It is your job. You do the best you are able. You strive for perfection. You protect the helpless. You believe in truth and honor. You are a good man."
He laughs a little and looks down. I do not know what he thinks. I worry that I have not said enough. I add: "You are a good son."
Still he says nothing, and I feel frustration. I remember what else he asked me, and I try again. "If you were not my son --"
His head lifts; his dark eyes are curious and, perhaps, worried.
"-- I would like you," I finish.
He smiles and frowns and shakes his head. "But I am your son. So does that mean you don't like me?"
I fear I am caught in an English trap. I look at him, uncertain what to say.
He grins, grabs the back of my neck and pulls my head forward. His lips brush my forehead.
"That's okay, Dad. I get the drift. What you're really trying to say is that you think I'm the best son in the world and you're thrilled I'm yours--right?"
His smile becomes cocky and confident, but I see the doubt behind it. I nod once, emphatically. His grin wavers.
I cuff his chin. "Really."
"Maybe I can be a better son than a student.” He still smiles, but looks away and stands. “Come on, Pop, let's walk."
I follow him, watching his long stride. He does not swagger, but moves steadily and firmly. His shoulders are rigid, but his head hangs. I do not think he is searching for shells on the beach; I think I have somehow upset him, though I do not know how.
I quicken my step until I walk by his side. We wander in silence until he stops and points to a single grass-covered dune that towers over the beach. There is a man on its top, and he is flying a kite. He makes the kite swoop very high, then down almost to the beach before it shoots back into the heavens. I have never seen a kite such as this, one that paints multiple rainbows against the sky, and I wonder if it is commonplace. It seems that I missed much during my wanderings, simple sights and pleasures that others take for granted.
I would stand much longer and watch for it is a peaceful sight, but Peter walks on. I sense he is sad. This frequently happens when we are together. I wonder again, as I often did during my absence, if my presence is good for him. He once said that I make him think and that is a bad thing, so --
No. I resolved these questions during my meditations in the mountains. Peter is my son, he is a Caine, and he is my responsibility. I must pass on all the wisdom I have learned. I must teach him and, though he may refuse to be taught, knowledge will be absorbed nevertheless.
He stops walking. "Dad, during the fifteen years...did you have many students?"
"I did not," I admit, acknowledging my weakness. I indulged my grief during those years; I was not as productive as I could have been.
I study his profile as he gazes at the ocean. "I stayed nowhere long enough."
He looks at me; his eyes are shuttered and unreadable. "You only had the kwoon because of Sing Ling. So what's going to happen to your students? You said the relationship between a teacher and student never ends -- same as the relationship between a father and a son."
"They have gone to other teachers. Should they need me, I will assist and teach them."
He looks away, then back at me. "Why are you here? If not for your students...then why are you staying?"
"I have wandered for many years," I reply patiently, though I am filled with an uneasiness that I do not understand. "Perhaps it is time to...'settle down'?"
He nods and bites his lip and stares again at the sea. Tension radiates from his stiff form. He glances up the beach, into the air. The kite plunges suddenly downward, and Peter leaps, batting at it but missing by several feet. On the bluff, the flyer shouts a protest. Peter takes a few running steps, then walks.
Again, I catch up with him. "And...I cannot leave the city where my son has chosen to live."
The look he sends me is almost hostile; I am taken aback. He stops and pokes his finger against my chest. "You came here looking for Sing Ling. You did your duty, redeemed the family honor, then you took off because your work was done. Why are you back?"
I am still, searching for wisdom that will guide my words. “For many years, I searched for you...or for your essence. I learned that the young emperor was in this city, so I came here.” I pause and gesture with both hands. "It is a measure of our destiny that we were brought together."
He stares at me, waiting. "That's it? That's no answer."
"Peter, I do not know --" I begin, but he will not allow me to finish.
"Why are you here? What's your path?"
I sigh, unable to hide my exasperation. "I have told you many times. Why do you not listen?"
"Well, tell me again. Lay it out for me, Pop, because I don't get it."
He does understand; we both know this. I study the grim set of his mouth, the anxiety in his eyes…and I begin to see. He listens, but he does not hear. He understands, but he does not believe. My unworthy annoyance fades when I grasp that Peter’s inability to perceive the truth is no fault of his own. He still bleeds from deep wounds that obscure his vision and deflect the reality of my love.
I point to my heart. "My path and..." I point to his heart, "your path are together. They are side by side -- as we walk now."
He nods. "Okay. It's a Shaolin thing."
"Partly." I shrug and smile. "Mostly it is a...father and son...thing."
Peter says nothing. He looks down and digs a hole in the sand with his toe. He slings his arm around my shoulder, but does not speak. I clasp my hand on his upper arm. We watch seagulls dive toward the water for their lunches.
I draw a long breath of the fresh sea air. "I lived on a beach for several weeks," I say, forcing myself to speak.
"You did?" Peter's immediate interest is apparent. I do not think that he truly cares about my past on a beach; I think that I have made too little of the 'small' talk he requires. "Where?"
"Chillicothe." I shake my head. "No. On the Gulf coast. I worked for a short while on a ranch, gentling horses."
"Gentling?" He laughs and releases me. "You're supposed to break horses in the West, Dad. Broncs, spurs, bucking...rodeo stuff."
Our feet and ankles are wet by a small wave. We begin to walk again, this time along the very edge of the ocean, and I return my hand to his shoulder. "My method was...unorthodox for this particular ranch," I admit, and continue telling him one story of my years away from him.
As I talk and he comments, laughing, I realize that in many ways, my son is much wiser than I am. My memories of our reunion in the hospital are blurred, for I was dazed and barely conscious. But I remember that he said we needed to reach out. It has taken me well over a year to accept that conclusion. Yes, Peter is perceptive and could be a great Shaolin one day.
But I think I should not tell him that. Not yet.
I walk into the sea. I reach down with cupped hands and scoop water into my grasp. I throw it at him, and he shouts. Peter tosses down his shoes and comes running, splashing and hurling the ocean at me. I laugh with him. For a moment, I see young Peter in the place of this strange man; then the childish face fades and I see only my son.
He drenches me with a well-aimed splash. Water soaks my hair and runs down my face. "Peter!" I exclaim both in protest and in love.
He hesitates, wondering if I am angry, and I use the opportunity to bend down and grab his ankles and snatch his feet out from under him. He lands on his back and quickly sits up. Incoming waves lap around him.
"I'm gonna get you for that, Pop," he threatens.
I smile and hold out my hand to him. I am not surprised when he takes the chance I offer and flips me over his head. I lie still, under the water, enjoying the warmth that surrounds me.
Peter pulls my head above the sea. "Are you all right?" His eyes are wide with worry.
I nod, and he releases me. "Pop...we're sitting here like a couple little kids," he comments. "We're soaked."
I shrug. I am happy and am content to stay here. "We could...go fishing?"
He laughs. "Not hardly!" His expression suddenly turns to one of alarm. "Pop -- there could be sharks! Get out of the water!" He rises and pulls me to my feet. We both stagger against the force of a large wave.
Laughter rises from deep in my chest. With one foot, I scratch my toenails against his shin. He yelps and runs, dragging me with him. When we are on the beach, I surrender to my amusement.
He is indignant but grinning. "Was that you? Pop -- What am I gonna do with you?"
I retrieve our shoes and look down at our drenched clothing. "Perhaps you could ‘do’ lunch with me at a beach shack? I believe there is one...just there." I point ahead.
He snorts. "We'll have to. We're not getting in my car like this. I hope you know some Shaolin magic for drying off quickly."
"I do. It is called sun."
"I think I've heard of that," he banters. "Must have been one of those temple lessons. Let's go get a couple dogs, Pop -- I'll eat the dogs, you eat the buns. Fair enough?"
“Fair enough," I agree, thinking that his words are symbolic of our differences. As Peter must grow in confidence and learn faith in himself, perhaps I have also found a lesson for me: my roots are deeply planted; but for Peter, I must bend like a willow. Thus can I offer strength and shelter for my son, yet remain flexible to accept the freedom of his spirit and the richness of his love.
I cuff his chin. "Walk with me," I say.
Peter stares into my eyes, trying to understand. "I think I already am."
I think he is, too. Smiling, I walk beside my son
toward the striped awning we can see in the distance.