The Prodigal’s Ring
by S. W. McFarland
So now he had it in his hands. All those years of bitter longing and Stephen just handed it to him. His brother didn’t ask a thing in return, not a plot of land, not a better house for his family, not even a crust of bread.
Benjamin turned the ring in his hands. He watched for the sparkles off the bloodstone.
There was one! just as he remembered, just like when Papa wore it.
It had sparkled on Stephen’s hand too. When Stephen wore the ring, Benjamin always tried to ignore it, tried to pretend it wasn’t there. He even gave his brother work that hid his hands in mud, or muck. The ring always seemed to come away clean.
Benjamin studied the ring. There were marks in the gold, a few more than he remembered back when Papa wore it. Maybe he shouldn’t have given Stephen such hard work. He didn’t want to hurt the ring, he never wanted to hurt the ring. It was his legacy.
It was always supposed to be his.
Benjamin once contemplated cutting off his brother’s hand, and might have done it if it would have made the ring his own. But then the elders would never have let him keep the ring. Stephen would just wear it on his other hand. Then Benjamin would be forced to give Stephen land and beasts for the hand’s loss.
He couldn’t just kill him. He was his brother, and killing a man is not so easy a thing to do.
Benjamin clenched his hand and pain shot through to his wrist from squeezing too tight. He forgot he was holding the ring – his ring. It was his now.
Stephen had just handed it to him.
Esther said nothing, as if she had not noticed. Stephen didn’t like the pretending. He preferred it when Esther spoke her mind. He knew she was against giving away the ring, especially to Ben. It was because of Ben that her dowry was gone, spent on grain, while Ben’s storehouse remained full.
Work the worst land, but give his brother shares as if it were the best. Would Ben actually have let them starve?
He’d find out now. They had nothing left – no dowry, no treasure, no ring, not even an extra pair of sandals.
It didn’t matter; he could never have sold his father’s ring. Other than little Jacob, Ben was the only person under heaven Stephen would surrender the ring to, and he couldn’t take money for it – even from Ben.
Now it was gone. He and his family were at his brother’s mercy. Another bad harvest and Ben couldn’t expect Stephen to make up the difference from his purse – he didn’t even have a purse anymore.
Jacob padded in from outside, his little bare feet raising clouds from the dirt floor. There was a thick reed in his hand. The boy let it trail behind him, leaving a lazy snake trail in the dust. Jacob dropped the stick, and clung to his mother’s back as she squatted in front of the fire.
“Is that reed for the fire?” asked Esther.
The boy looked down at the reed, considering, then picked it up and handed to Esther.
“Clever boy,” said Esther. “Can you find me more? Dry reeds are best.”
“But nothing from near Uncle Benjamin’s house,” said Stephen, “unless if falls to the ground on its own.”
Jacob’s round, over-large eyes peered back at Stephen. Did he understand? He looked as though he did, but how could Stephen be certain? The boy never spoke. The boy kicked at a tuft of dead gorse on his way out the door.
In the early morning Benjamin set off to market in Jericho. It was the third day of the week, and Bethany’s market was only open on the fifth and sixth days. Benjamin told himself that his business couldn’t wait, but that wasn’t true. He had little enough to sell; the cart was only half full. The Galatian slave led the donkey, a long knife hanging from his belt. There were too many thieves on this road. The Galatian watched for bandits, while Benjamin watched the Galatian. Some masters felt comfortable with their slaves, like they were sons. Benjamin was a kind master; he hadn’t beaten the Galatian in years, but he still felt uneasy. The creature followed orders, but he was sullen.
Benjamin studied his ledger, counting the bags he could see. Dried dates, dried peas, grain that had gotten wet – he needed to sell it before it sprouted. Maybe there was reason enough to hurry. He probably should have had the grain ground months ago; flower was easier to store, but the new miller was taking half instead of a third.
Everything was harder now.
Ben rolled his ledger. There were no mistakes. He was glad, wetting a reed with ink while on the cart was difficult, but he liked to read when he was up so high. Being able to read and write so well was a sign of his wealth. Ben was a wealthy man, in spite of the troubles he’d had lately.
And in spite of his brother’s wastefulness. The cart would be full; they’d have more land, more cattle, more everything if Stephen hadn’t wasted so much.
Benjamin spit off the side of the cart, and the Galatian twitched as if he expected a lash on his back. There was no reason for that. Why would the Galatian fear him? Benjamin got down from the cart, drawing his staff as he came. “Why did you start like that?” he asked.
The Galatian drew the sword.
Stephen saw the servants sitting under the tree. They were drinking wine and laughing. He glanced over at the herd. The grass beneath their feet was either eaten, or trampled. The herd needed moving. The water trough was almost empty. A goat was eating out of a grain sack. It was the good grain.
Benjamin would never let this happen.
Stephen trapped the goat and penned it. He spoke sternly to the servants, as he’d heard his father do, not in anger, but not in weakness. He set them to moving the herd, and filling the trough. He took the wine skin, and brought it into his brother’s home. The house servant was sleeping.
“Where is my brother?” said Stephen.
“Gone to Jericho,” said the servant.
“Three days ago.”
Benjamin walked slowly along the Jerusalem road. He no longer feared robbers. He wore peasant’s clothing and had no purse. The cart was gone, the beast was gone, even his father’s ring, taken by the Galatian.
Even what Benjamin had was only by the generosity of a stranger. The stranger asked nothing in return; he would even have allowed Benjamin to stay longer, eating the man’s food, drinking his wine, sleeping on his bed, but Benjamin left when he was able to walk.
The man’s generosity shamed him. Perhaps he should have stayed another day. Healthy, he could walk this road in three hours. Now it looked as though he would have to sleep a night by the side of the road.
Benjamin wondered what he’d find when he got home. They probably thought he was dead. Stephen and his wife would be drunk and celebrating their good fortune. How long would it take for his brother to waste all that Benjamin had worked to preserve?
There was an armed man ahead. With him was a boy on a donkey. They were searching the ditches on each side of the road, beating the gorse with sticks. Perhaps they were searching for a loved one, or maybe just hoping to plunder whatever the robbers had left behind.
It was Stephen, with little Jacob. Stephen was wearing their father’s sword, a sword so precious that Benjamin never wore it, fearing someone might take it from him.
Stephen shaded his eyes as he looked back. “Benjamin?” Stephen pulled a wine skin from the donkey, and ran to Benjamin, embracing him.
“Here, Brother,” said Stephen, “you must be thirsty.”
It was water, not the wine that Benjamin expected from his brother. Little Jacob jumped from the donkey, and led it to where they stood. “Let me help you get up,” said Stephen, entwining his fingers for Benjamin to step up onto the beast. A sigh escaped Benjamin’s lips. He had been so very tired.
“You wear our father’s sword,” said Benjamin.
“Forgive me, Brother,” said Stephen. “I did not know what became of you, or what we might find on the road.” Stephen began unwinding the sash that held the sword to his body.
It was a wise precaution, Benjamin decided. If he had taken the sword, the Galatian might never have attacked him. “Leave the sword on, Brother,” said Benjamin. “There are miles to go before we get home.”
Stephen looked pleased, and rewrapped the sash. “The herd is well, Brother,” he said, “and the servants are working again. Esther is watching them now. They mind her.”
Benjamin hid his surprise by nodding his head. “She is a good woman,” he said.
Stephen did not hide his surprise. “Yes, Brother,” he said. “She is a good wife and mother.”
“Stephen,” said Benjamin, “I lost Father’s ring… your ring.”
“Your ring,” said Stephen.
Both men were silent for a while, as the donkey’s smooth gate drew Benjamin closer to home. Then he motioned to little Jacob. “Come up with me, nephew. The beast can hold us both.”
The boy climbed up without his father’s help. He whistled a clever tune that made the donkey prick up his ears, and quicken his pace. Stephen kept pace easily.
“Let the robbers keep the ring,” said Stephen. “I am happy to bring you home.”
“No,” said Benjamin. “I think we will search for the ring when we can. I want Jacob to have it someday.”
They crested a hill, and saw first silhouette of Jerusalem in the distance.