A man and woman marry and have a child. Their son is born about eight months before the man, a West Point graduate and linguistics specialist, is deployed to Afghanistan.
The couple writes letters back and forth weekly, and the man cherishes the pictures that accompany many of his wife's letters - he watches his son grow, begin to crawl and then walk, smother himself with birthday cake, pal around with a new puppy - through pictures, from across the world. "I miss you so dearly," the letters always begin. "I never imagined how difficult it would be to sleep alone."
As the months, then years pass, the letters arrive less and less frequently and are shorter; they sometimes seem hurried, almost obligatory. Because the man speaks Arabic and has a natural gift for logistics that makes him almost invaluable, he does two back-to-back tours of duty.
His wife talks about herself less and less, and instead focuses on their son. Soon it is he who misses the man dearly, and his wife no longer mentions her loneliness. The man feels the strain of his absence in his wife's letters but chalks this up to the inherent difficulty in any prolonged separation.
The man finally returns home and is greeted at the airport with unbridled, almost manic enthusiasm by his wife. She is almost uncharacteristically over-affectionate, and as happy as he is to see her, he remembers the subtext in the letters and wonders at the behavior.
He is also dismayed at the complete lack of recognition from his son, who does not know him. "Hello," he says, introducing himself to the boy. "I'm your father." The boy stares, then shakes the hand outstretched to him dispassionately.
That night the man and his wife make love for the first time since before her pregnancy. Again quite uncharacteristically, she is timid and self-conscious, complains that she has gained weight and wants to keep the lights off, and initially flinches at his touch. The entire episode unnerves him greatly.
The next day, the couple arranges for the man and his son to spend the day together; to "get to know each other," as it were.They walk to the park in the afternoon and he begins pushing his son on the swings. The boy warms to him slowly and they begin to talk.
"Do you like the swings?" The man asks.
"Do you come to this park often?"
"Sometimes, when mommy isn't working."
"You come only with mommy? Does anyone else come?" He asks, then kicks himself for his jealousy, telling himself that he has nothing to worry about.
"No, daddy doesn't come. He is only home at night." The man stares at the boy as though stunned, and the emotional punch felt in his gut is coupled with the impact of the swing crashing into his torso. "Ow!" yells the boy, as he falls off the swing.
"Let's go home."
They walk back home and stop for ice cream on the way. The man ponders his child's words, but doesn't question him further. He attempts to discount them as the ramblings of a three year-old, but his wife's odd behavior, both in her letters and especially upon his return to their home, slowly envelop him with a malaise he can't shake. He approaches his home with foreboding.
After dinner he informs his wife that he will be meeting some old friends at the local bar. Before he leaves, he enters his son's room. "Tell me about your daddy." The boy hesitates.
"I see him if I don't go to sleep; if I crawl quiet to the edge of the balcony. I see him at night when mommy is downstairs crying after she puts me to bed. She walks back and forth in the living room with just a candle burning. And she cries. And when she cries he cries. When she sits down he does, too. When she lays down he lays down with her."
The man leaves and goes to the bar, where he meets no one.
When he returns home, his wife is asleep. He does not wake or confront her, nor does he speak to her the next day - when he reaches for words, or questions, or clarification, all he discovers is anger. So he says nothing, remaining silent for days.
The woman, distraught at the sudden emotional upheaval, attempts to redouble her affection. She cooks ever more lavish food, makes a clumsy attempt at seduction (that he silently denies), stays home from work to be with him. But he remains practically silent, preferring to spend his time at the park with his son during the day and at the bar in the evenings.
After two weeks of silence the woman can no longer bear it. One evening after watching her husband leave for the bar, she kisses her sleeping son on the forehead and mouths to him that she is sorry.
She walks downstairs to the kitchen, removes a bottle of wine from the shelf above the refrigerator, and pours herself a large glass. After swallowing it, she pours another, then removes a candle from the hall closet, lights it, and sets it on the dining room table. The woman sits down and begins to cry. She pours herself a third glass and slowly walks upstairs, leaving the wine bottle uncorked on the dining room table. The candle flickers, though there is no breeze.
During her husband's absence, the woman began to rely on wine and sleeping pills to sleep. She empties the remainder of her bottle of pills into her mouth and swallows them along with the third glass of wine.
When the man returns home, he walks upstairs to find his wife sleeping, and notices the wine glass. He takes it downstairs and begins to wash it in the sink when he sees the candle. Though there is only one glass, and no dishes in the sink, he puts two and two together.
The man places the glass on the edge of the counter and storms upstairs. "In our home?" He screams, waking their son. "In our own home," he mutters under his breath as he takes the stairs two by two.
He reaches their bed, grabs his sleeping wife by the shoulders, and shakes her. "Who is he?" He screams. The boy peeks out of his bedroom door, frightened.The wine glass, placed too close to the edge of the counter, falls and shatters on the tile floor. The boy shuts his door tightly, runs back to his bed, and covers himself with a blanket.
When the woman doesn't wake up, the man notices the pill canister empty on the bedside table, realizes what has happened and, dumbfounded, stands up and walks to the center of the room in a daze. As his eyes adjust to the darkness of the room, and his vision clears as his fury slowly begins to recede into fear and disillusionment, he falls to his knees on the floor. He begins weeping.
Hearing this, the boy again peeks out of his bedroom door to see his father walking slowly down the stairs, his knuckles white as he grips the banister. The man sits down at the dining room table, head in hands, weeping.
"Daddy!" Shouts the boy, who is now standing in the dining room. The man is incredulous; since he returned home his son had not referred to him as such.
"I'm here, son." The man says.
"No," explains the boy. "Daddy is there." He points behind the man, to the shadow on the wall cast by the candle's light. "He is crying with you, too."
Adapted from a story by Thich Naht Hahn.