The dove came in the mail, perfectly intact, a note etched on the side. The swan had come two days earlier, perched atop her front porch. How did he even know her address? Sighing, Zahari pinched the creases of the perfect colored paper, running her finger along every folded edge. How long had it been since they touched the same surface, broke the same bread? Twenty years, give or take some.
She didn’t read the note. Or, at least she told herself she didn’t lock eyes with it and read everything inscribed upon the paper. He still had the best calligraphy and cursive she’d ever seen.
Do you want to paper-mache? The note had said, the beautiful ink glistening in the mid-afternoon sunlight. No. Not now, not ever. Zahari hesitated, then forced herself to crumple the pretty paper swans and doves, tossing them aside listlessly. She didn’t care about pretty things anymore.
Cafe, 3pm? She pulled out her phone, texting, waiting in agonizing silence for the usually curt reply-and it came. Yes. Zahari stumbled out of the room, her coat halfway off her shoulders, the origami dove still peering down the stairwell, lifeless.
“You’re two minutes late.”
“You don’t put periods after the word ‘yes’ while texting, Aster.”
“And what, may I ask, is wrong with that?”
Their cafe; their go-to cafe, was musty and smelled like old spice and lavender air freshener, right out of the ‘80s with those barstools that spun around. Zahari pretended to be fully immersed in the conversation, chatting about cosmology exams nearing, taking labored sips of her iced coffee though she thought all of it would come rushing up at any second.
“If I wasn’t your favorite and only boyfriend, I wouldn’t have seen what you were doing-having an ulterior motive to this conversation.”
The dove and swan instantly came flooding through Zahari’s memory, and she pushed them away, failing to conceal her bewilderment. Finally, she plopped the coffee on their table and stared into Aster’s wide, brown eyes. They were beautiful.
“Oh no, uhm, nothing. Just some origami stuff.”
“Origami? Huh-we have two days until our exams and you’re meeting up with me at a cafe and talking about origami?”
Zahari remembered, her textbooks placed against a wall, a simple walk outside...the origami sitting there as if waving to her. Aster opened up an app on his phone.
“Wanna hear some random fact about black holes that you probably have already heard of since you’re an astrophysicist but need to pass an exam and this might make you feel better?”
Zahari couldn’t help but giggle as Aster heaved in a long, drawling breath. She deserved to feel good-wanted to feel good, despite his sudden intrusion. But in the back of her mind, it was always him. What did he want? Why, after all this time? Zahari hated being flawed.
“Okay, so did you know that the force of gravity is so high in black holes that it causes gravitational time dilation?” Zahari smiled. She had studied this one before. Slowly, she began sketching the black hole on tissue paper, her fingers steady and sturdy, light and graceful. Equations flew from her fingertips.
An artist’s hands, like your father. No, a scientist, not an artist. Never again, an artist. Aster rolled his eyes, muttering ‘show off’ for the third time, under his breath. He too, drew black holes, stars, and planets, more and more until there was no more space and it was back to the app.
Now drumming his hands on the table so loud everyone in the cafe could hear, Aster read another fact. “Oh, wow, hmm. This is pretty cool, even though it hasn’t been exactly proven yet. Each black hole might contain a universe, which means we might be living inside a black hole!”
Deep in thought, Zahari knotted her eyebrows together. It hadn’t been proven yet, but what if it were true? How small their world really was in context to possible other universes...so did her problems really matter? Her fingers curled around the frayed tissue paper, slyly watching Aster from the corner of her eye. She’d never been good with these things, but she’d have to tell him eventually, about the real problem.
“He loved origami, you know? Almost as much as you love those black holes.”
Zahari resisted the urge to clamp her hands over her mouth. Aster nodded, fiddling with some tissues himself.
“Your dad, you mean.” Deep breaths. One, two, three...ten and paper swans. Flawed paper swans, flawed young child.
“Yeah...him. Should I go and see him, then? It’s been bothering me since the notes and origami started coming.” She ruffled her hair, pushing the iced coffee around her little corner of the table.
“I mean, Zahari, he hurt you a lot. He, well, abandoned you, and I would never try to connect with that kind of guy again. He took me. He took me to the other family and other life.
“But, as much as I hate him-I don’t want to be like him.”
Aster reached for Zahari’s hand and squeezed, passing forth a folded tissue-paper swan with a dipped beak and awful wings. “Do what you think is right.”
The textbooks stared menacingly at her, almost frowning as she did her hair, then let it down. What would he be like...after all this time? Next to Aster’s swan on the dashboard, his delicate smushed paper was a golden piece of art.
Do you want to paper mache? It was a while ago, Zahari remembered, doing her hair again, adjusting the rearview mirror. A while ago, before he became...insecure. They would paper mache in the art barn-the abandoned one by White River Creek, slap paint around, and swim in the isolated river. Despite her best efforts, Zahari’s expression contorted into a smile.
It was a planet’s project, right? With Earth and Mars, the moon and stars. And then, they would sing the river song together.
Zahari wasn’t sure when her gas pedal ignited in her small car, soaring across the highway to their meadow. Their old meadow, with the fire lilies and pond fish. But the car swerved into an empty parking spot, sweat pricking from where Zahari’s hands clasped the steering wheel. Shakily, she stepped outside, a mellow blend of purples and pinks dancing in the evening sky. You look, beautiful child. So angelic, so prized, so much of that wonder in you...and I am not the perfect parent for you, perfect child.
The meadow wrapped the insides and edges of the small town Zahari had forgotten the name to. It was eerily quiet, so unlike the bustling city crowds and paved roads. Everyone could hear her footsteps crunching along the gravel if they tried to listen-pull away from their picnic or soccer game, and their books.
Suddenly, self-aware, Zahari wrapped her coat around herself tightly, quickening her pace to a steady jog into the thin spread of trees which contained her river. Getting noticed only got people in trouble.
The trees were already losing their leaves…
“Will they die, papa?”
“They won’t die, sweetie. Wait and see, those trees will get new leaves every year. You see, love and family and bonds-they’re permanent.”
“Can you hold my hand papa?”
“Of course, Zahari.”
Zahari wandered the brush, running her fingers over the rough bark of the elms. Each one stripped bare, leaves stripped free of their captors. She could stay here forever, amidst the quiet gurgles of the river, the soothing rustle of the leaves, skirting the ground in this peace.
“I thought you wouldn’t come.” One, two three ten eleven. Saturn, Earth, Mars, and the stars. She didn’t respond, only crouched down lower, hoping the trees would provide her refuge.
“I can show you the way to the art barn now if you want. I’ve spent most of the day cleaning the place up. It’s dark...and I installed lights.”
A sudden cramp shot through Zahari’s knee, sending her tumbling out into his line of sight. Stumbling, she stood up, angry at the man, the trees set alight with flame. She was the flame, and she would burn everything to the ground. The words-where were her words, her angry spears that she had practiced...that she had prepared to shun him with? Zahari looked down at her skinny, bendable feet, then up into the sky. She could see the faint traces of the moon.
“I like the dark.” She breathed.
It was all the same. The broken-down ruins of the barn were all painstakingly, irritably, the same. He pushed at the rusty hinges twice, revealed the handprints, old artwork, and a small circle of the planets suspended from tiny strings. A choking sob retched in her throat, but Zahari would not let it loose. No, not now.
Him in his baggy overalls, graying hair, dazzling eyes, and artist hands.
“So, Zahari, I wanted-”
“No, you don’t understand. I just came here to get closure. Not to see you. I came here to tell you I’m done, and I’m never seeing you again. So, stop sending me those idiotic swans.”
“You don’t get to want! You should’ve wanted me; wanted me enough that you didn’t send me away to someone else!” Tears filled his saddened eyes, but Zahari was done. There wasn’t any remorse left for him. For her ‘father’.
“I know you’ll never forgive me, so I won’t ask to be forgiven-but I wanted to tell you if you’re not ready to love me, I get it. But I’m always ready to love you.”
A slight wind rippled through the trees. Zahari clicked on her flashlight and followed it into the meadow, leaving the man in baggy overalls to all those old memories.
Today, she would spend the whole day studying in her room and maybe call Aster-maybe. Just one more walk outside. Zahari told herself. One more breath of fresh air. But she dialed Aster’s number and reconsidered, cutting back across the lawn into her house. Zahari saw the meadow inside, the rusting walls of the art barn where they made paper mache and collages. Where they did origami together.
She pulled out old acrylic paints from the shelf, grabbed fancy calligraphy paper and an old chessboard. Zahari ran back outside and shoved them into her car, scanning the items for any last thoughts.
And in the dark of the stars, once more, Zahari walked in the custody of the flashlight beam across the meadow, equipped with her games and paints, and a small origami swan perched in the small of her palm. She could’ve sworn that it sang to her, on that twilight-lit path.
“Maybe dad, we can do some origami together…”
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Karina, your titles are breathtaking. This is a delicate story, like paper swans themselves. I can see it written so tiny on paper and pinched into an airborne swan. The first sentence is my favourite.
Aw, thank you so much, Frances. Looking forward to more stories by you as well...I'm not really feeling these prompts so I'm trying to come up with some inspiration!
LOVE IT YOUR STORY IT IS AMAZING!
I try to check out all the writers who find me, although I don't always have time. Today, I did find a little time, and I'm glad I did. This was a great story! I love how Zahari finally allows the artistic side of her to show, even though she doesn't forgive her father. (Which is understandable under her circumstances.) You do have a bit too much info-dumping for my liking, and only because it's in the dialogue. For example: “If I wasn’t your favorite and only boyfriend, I wouldn’t have seen what you were doing-having an ulterior motive t...
Thank you so much for checking out my story!! I'll definitely take your critiques into consideration and fix those things :) I love when I get constructive criticism on my stories.
You're welcome! I was actually looking at yours for more, and apparently I've read some of your stuff before... I think I'll see if I have time to read more of your stories. Looking forward!
Wow! I can't believe this! The word choice is excellent and very well worded! Keep up the great work!
Wow Superb story!Just loved it.Keep writing.Best wishes :)
I love your story! It's so gentle and breathtaking and the thing about the black holes inspired me to do some research and gave me a setting idea for a future story, so thanks! You have a really unique style of writing dialogue and portraying the character's thoughts through italics. May I just warn you to be more careful with the italics though? At times I was confused because of it and maybe other readers were too before they grasped the context.
Thanks for the feedback :)
I get the feeling that Aster is not "right" for Zahari, that he does not understand her, and her father really could. A minor point. I was confused by the word "brush." Maybe that was your intent, but the terrain you described did not seem much like "brush." to me. Brush has fewer trees, more small bushes. I loved "the custody of the paintbrush."
Thank you so much for the comment! I'm very curious about how you thought Aster wouldn't be right for Zahari...I wrote it thinking they would fit together just fine...but I guess you can interpret it whichever way you want :) Yeah, now that I'm thinking about it, "brush" doesn't seem like that type of terrain. Thanks for the feedback :)
Karina omgggg I love this!! i think you worked really hard and came out with a great take on this prompt! i totally get that they are hard sometimes but heyyy fabulous job!!
Aw, thank you so much!
Ahh.. the last sentence..! Awesome story. Loved how it developed. Good one..!
Thank you so much :)
I really enjoyed this story! You keep a good balance of atmospheric description and plot-driving detail and dialogue. A really immersive and lovely read overall :)
Thank you so much :)
What a lovely story! Loved it :) Keep writing such wonderful stories.Looking forward :)
Thank you so much!
You had me at black holes 🕳️ loved the story, but maybe I read it too fast because I am not clear on why the Dad abandoned his daughter. Was it for his art? Who is the family he left her with, his ex-wife? 🤔
Thank you so much!! Space is very fascinating-I love it too :) Okay, so I tried to make it vague on purpose, but the main idea was that he left because he thought he wasn't ready to be a parent... maybe these lines will help (it may be a little too vague) : You look, beautiful child. So angelic, so prized, so much of that wonder in you...and I am not the perfect parent for you, perfect child. Anyways, thank you so much for the feedback! I really appreciated it
Ahhhhh. That makes sense 👍🏻
A pleasure to read. Evocative, touching, and well-written.
Thank you so much Heather :)
A new story is out would love your feedback.
I love your story so much Johanna, great job! :) P.S. Is Johanna your real name? P.P.S. Is Amber your real name? P.P.P.S. Or is Karina your real name?
haha thanks and sorry with all the name changes! my real name is karina-the others were all just pen names lol
Oh, ok Karina! :)
OHMIGODDDD THIS WAS SO GOODDDDDDDDDD (but saddddddddddd) I LOVED ITTTTT The details are so lovely, and the title fits soooo welllll Great jobb!!! :D
Aw thank you so much!