Each yearly visit made Samuel think about the old life, though he could only remember it in fragments. The warmth of his mother’s lap. A game played with a half-sister, where he would hide behind a palm frond and she would pretend not to see him, and then they would giggle and giggle. The utter desolation of suddenly being left behind with Eli, which it was hard to understand now.
When his mother came, when each year she brought his new clothes, he and she were strange with each other. He envied his brothers and sisters the ease with which spoke to each other, the jokes shared. They were naughty and not afraid to be naughty. That was past imagination. Each day he strived to be perfectly good. He was stiff, uneasy, and feared each joke was aimed at him. He had no idea at all how to handle the ones of which he was indeed the butt. He was proud of his difference too. Carefully casually, he let his brother know he could read ‘Yes, I practise each afternoon. I can write some too.’
‘So what do you call him, the priest?’ asked his brother, eyes big with the holy strangeness of it.
‘Just Eli, usually. He …’ and words failed Samuel. Since he was four years old, Eli had been his world. A widower, his birth-children grown men who despised him, Eli had found a kind of formal tenderness, a mask of high expectations, to disguise his care for the little boy he washed, and dressed, and fed, and taught, until, slowly, the role of carer began to be reversed. Neither the child nor the old man knew how to be anything but adults to each other, a tiny priest and a big one.
Eli sat listening to the two boys. A great sadness filled him, that Samuel was so un-childlike, a stranger to his brother. ‘He is my son,’ he thought, flinching a little from the words. He had wanted to be a father like this to his own sons, but somehow, he never had. Perhaps he had simply over-loaded them with expectations, or perhaps he had not had high enough ones. It shamed him, but the truth was he loved Samuel far, far more than his own sons.
Quietly, he slipped into The Tent, and set incense burning. Then he prayed with huge intensity: ‘Hear me, Yahweh my God. Samuel is my servant and my son. You gave him as a gift to his mother, and then as a greater gift to me. Listen to me, Yahweh. Samuel. Caring for an old man whose sight is failing, and always so good, so good. Yahweh, a child needs more than to be a gift to others. Give him some gifts for himself.’ He sighed. Soon this awkward, miserable yearly visit would end.