My Dear Lethologica

Submitted into Contest #80 in response to: Write about a child witnessing a major historical event.... view prompt

9 comments

Drama Coming of Age Historical Fiction

I remember how, when I was young, I would sometimes stop to take a good look at my father. 


I would examine his strong jaw and the dark skin beneath his eyes and the smile that so charmed my mother, and I would stomp my little feet and shriek my little voice, and wonder, frustrated, what am I missing?


My father was very patient with me, whenever I got like this. He would watch me watching him and smile, kindly, in a way I’ve since tried to emulate but have never quite mastered. Kindness, as a concept, is not one of my strengths. It escapes me when I reach for it; it coats my throat in gasoline, lights a fire behind my teeth, and makes sure whatever I say, no matter how well-intentioned, comes out flaming. 


But my father was not like me. He could take the bitterest words and turn them to honey on his tongue. So whenever I would stomp and shriek, he would scoop me up in his arms and say the kindest things he could. 


“Where’s your head, Tomas?” he would croon. “Where’s your head gone?”


I suppose my father knew, even then, that I was different. That my head was my most valuable possession. Sometimes he would sit me on his lap and assign me sums, simply to see if I could spit them out with the same vigour I applied to my tantrums. My mother would look on, coy and sweet, as we worked our way through complex mathematics. By the time I’d realize that I’d been had — that my temper had been displaced by the churning of equations, speeding through my mind — my mother would have already baked us a pie, and would be combing her adoring fingers through my hair, watching my father smile. 


“Have some, Tommy,” she’d say, every time. She’d break off a piece of crumbling pumpkin-and-crust and hold it out to me, pinched between her index finger and thumb, even though we had plenty of forks available. I would bite down and she’d beam, beatific, like she’d housebroken a puppy. Then she would look up at my father, and I would too, expecting to see him stare the way all the neighbours did when they talked to her, like they were awash in neon sunlight, like something had struck them right between the eyes.


But he didn't. My father didn’t stare like that at anyone. He’d stare out the window instead, examining the Berlin skyline. He'd stare, still and speculative, even as my mother dropped her gaze and finger-fed me some more pie. 


This was my father: an enigma.


Intelligent? Careless? Unhappy? I would examine him head-to-toe and dole out descriptions like ill-fitting suits. Dedicated? Devoted? With each trim, I would get a little closer, thread the needle a little tighter, but no matter what I tried, the words would still slouch at the shoulders and fall short at the sleeves. 


Maybe he’s a philosopher.


“No man is an island, Tomas,” he would say, as he gazed off into the distance. “We’re not meant to be separated the way we are now. I want you to know, Tomas, to know the value of unity. To bring disparate people together is the most important calling one can have.” 


It was always Tomas, during those one-sided chats with my father. He never called me by a nickname. Tommy was for my mother. It was the central piece in a matching set — one made of her warm hands and her beautiful eyes and her Tommy, my sweet boy, come sit here and talk with me


My mother didn’t assign me sums or utter any overkind words. She liked to run her fingers through my hair and admire the way it curled, the way the sunlight transformed it from my father’s ruddy brown to her own honey-golden-yellow. 


Tommy, she would tell me, you are the brightest thing in my world, and I would know it was true, and right, and good, and proper, because of the way she would glow after saying it. 


My mother was not an enigma. She was as simple and pleasant as the summer rain. She might as well have had true and right and good and proper scrawled in ink on her forehead. My father’s forehead was clear.


Is he saintly? Indifferent? A good father? A bad one?


My mother tried to hide it, but she wondered like I did. Even if she didn’t trade equations with me or debate Soviet politics with my father, she was not stupid. She knew plenty of things. She knew the difference between Archimedes’ principle and the Pythagorean theorem. She knew the difference between Communism and Capitalism, with uppercase Cs. She knew the difference between a man who was endlessly, intuitively, piously patient, and a man who was in love.


My mother loved my father. My father loved his window. 


Maybe he's an idealist.


He dreamed of utopia. 


He would study the Wall in the distance and talk like its borders marked the edge of the earth. He would grip the windowsill and lean forward, until he was nearly outside, and breathe in the air as though it carried the winds of Elysium. 


“The beautiful thing about Berlin,” he once said to me, so far out the window his voice was nothing but an echoey murmur, “is that it doesn’t try to hide from its ugliness.”


“That’s self-contradictory,” I had said, with a childish, fumbling lisp. My father had pulled his head back inside, blinked at me, and then levelled me with a smile, the same one that I’d never truly learned to mimic. 


I didn’t expect it — that was the problem. I hadn’t been tantruming, so there was no need to placate me, or ply me with algebraic riddles, or smile like he loved me. He didn't love me. He couldn't. My father loved nothing but the Elysian breeze. 


It was a smile with no source, no rationale. I didn’t understand its purpose. I didn’t understand my father. My father was an enigma. 


Patronizing? I had thought, with growing anger. Indulgent? Mocking? Unimpressed?


I wasn’t good at being kind, even then, and so I had let my temper take hold of me and snarled, in my petty and babyish voice, “And which Berlin are you talking about? The last I checked, there was more than one.”


The smile had disappeared, and all of a sudden I knew the taste of guilt.


There was silence. I still remember the weight of that silence.


"You're right, Tomas," he’d eventually said. His brow had drawn together like a pulled strand of cloth, rumpling the fabric of his forehead. His voice had dropped, too, quieter than it had been before, and carrying the awed sobriety of a man coming to a hard revelation.


I didn't understand. Even then, with all my knowledge, all my wit, all my giftedness, I didn't understand what I had done.


Irritated? Aggrieved? Disappointed? I had thought, with that same strange, sinking feeling. My stomach gurgled, and only later did I realize it was not because of a bad batch of pie. Guilt, as it turned out, tasted like pumpkin.


Disappointed? I thought again, and the gurgling got worse. Disappointed in me?


“You’re right,” my father repeated, turning back to his window. “There is no beauty in division.” 


I had let my little mouth waver, irrationally upset, and thought hypocrite? Because my father himself was divided; from us, from the world behind the window, from the utopia he envisioned beyond the guards and gates of the Berlin Wall. 


Cold? Impassive? Uncaring? And then, because I couldn’t get away from the thought, Disappointed?


His window was the only one in our home without a glass barrier, and as I watched him lean through it, I had the first nonsensical thought of my life: perhaps he'd taken the glass for himself. Perhaps he'd stolen it from its frame and renamed it kindness, built it up in front of him like an invisible shield, and used it to amiably turn away anyone who drew close enough to tread on his dreams. 


Which Berlin? I had said, and watched him close up like a vault. 


Do you love your family? I could have asked, but, as my stomach gurgled away, and I watched the breaths rise smooth and cool in my father's back, I felt, for the very first time, afraid of the answer I might get.


This was my father: a convolution.


Sometimes we’d hear the neighbours talk about the Ossis; those little people in their little homes with the little, malevolent spies that watched them sleep. The neighbours would stumble into their apartments after a night spent clubbing. They would raise voices clogged with alcohol and share opinions that would’ve got them shot had they been a half-dozen kilometres to the east, on the wrong side of the Wall.


On those occasions, I’d see my mother glance at my father with something like trepidation, and watch the slowing of my father’s hands as he turned the pages of his newspaper. 


I used to wait for the thing that would set him off, that would finally make him angry — because if my father could be angered, then he could also be explained. He could be made to fit in a small box and checked off the way I did with everyone: neatly, tidily, as something readily comprehensible and easily dismissed. My greatest puzzle, solved. 


But it never happened. My frustration would mount, my tantrums came calling, yet nothing ever moved him the way I wanted it to. 


Repressed? I would think, desperate to understand. Self-hating? Remote? Untouchable? What is it? What is the word for someone like this?


He was a university professor, and some days he would come home vibrating, with fingers trembling and smile drawn tight. Some nights the dark smears under his eyes would grow darker. Some mornings he would kiss my mother’s cheek, as he always did, but then grip her hand and bow his head and blow one long, solid breath outward. 


In those moments, she’d stroke his hair, as she stroked mine, and hold him while the dawn broke open. She’d wait, hopeful, for the sunlight to reach him, to turn him from ruddy brown to honey-gold like it had done for me. The light would creep, creep over the table, to his fingertips, up his sleeve. 


And then he would stand, kiss my mother goodbye, drop one warm hand onto my head, and leave for work as ruddy brown as ever. As though he’d timed it that way. 


Here, my mother would say, as she looked away from the door, down at the empty table filled with sun. Here, have some breakfast, Tommy.


This was my father: unknown to me.


Maybe . . . maybe he’s . . .


But my guesses had run dry. The suit I’d constructed was shabby and rough, with missing buttons, uneven sleeves, and runaway threads left dangling, untended. Each word I proposed was dispensed with just as swiftly. Nothing fit. 


My father had started staying out later. Alcoholic? Adulterer? But he came home smelling of neither vodka nor perfume. He started carrying coins and stopping at phone booths. Informant? Spy? But there were no furtive looks, no exchanged correspondence, no strange men dropping by our apartment. 


One night, when two people were killed trying to scale the Wall, his face went wretchedly, woefully pale — and then it was gone, and his kindest smile had come out. He’d played some music and danced with my mother, right there in the sitting room. She had shone, surprised, confused, and so blissfully reassured that tears leaked from her eyes, landing on the floor as he dipped her low. 


Happy? I had dared to think, hidden by my bedroom door. Loving? Content?


But when he lifted her again, spinning her in time to the melody, I glimpsed his face over her shoulder. The swindler’s smile had evaporated. Wretchedly woeful did not do him justice. 


This was my father: a liar.


The next evening, when my father sat on the sofa with me and offered his sums, tired eyes twinkling, I didn’t play the game. 


“Tomas?” he had asked. “Is everything alright?”


I could’ve scoffed. I could’ve asked him the same question. Instead, I said:


“Why do you think Berlin is beautiful?” 


He blinked at me, and his hand on my head lifted itself away. My mother was in the kitchen, humming over dinner, and I saw how his eyes darted, almost wistfully, in her direction. 


“You told me there was more than one Berlin,” he said. “And you were right, Tomas. I was mistaken. Berlin may not try to hide from its ugliness, but the ugliness is still there. It’s still beyond that wall.”


“And? Does it matter?” I pressed, so hungry was I to know him. “You’re here. On the beautiful side.”


The look my father gave me then is one I will never forget. It was a smile, but it was not kind. It was not deceptive. It was sad.


“There is no beautiful side, Tomas. One spot of false polish can’t erase the grime beneath.” He glanced once more at my mother, golden-haired and happy, then said: “And there are still people left there, stranded in the muck, killed whenever they try to get out of it.” He looked down at his palms, fingers trembling. “There’s no beauty in that.”


I stared at his shaking hands, clenched into fists, and grasped again for the word that would describe him. 


Nothing came. Nothing could. 


So that was why, later that night, when my father crept into my room and dropped a quiet kiss on my forehead, I was still awake, unable to sleep. I was awake enough to latch onto his arm and recognize this moment for what it was. 


“Don’t go,” I said. I tried to summon my temper, the flaming in my throat, but all that came out was a weepy wobble. “Stay here.”


He smoothed my hair back, just like my mother did. He didn’t try to deny anything; he’d raised me on riddles and mathematics, after all. I was good at proving things right. 


“I’ll stay until you fall asleep,” he said. 


“Then I won’t fall asleep,” I replied, except my throat was thick, bubbling with tears, and the words came out with the childish, fumbling lisp I hated. I prepared to see the liar-smile make a reappearance, as it had the last time I’d made this mistake. 


It didn’t. 


My father did smile at me, yes, the exact same way, with the exact same look on his face. Only this time there was a telltale shine to his gaze, a waver in the corner of his mouth, and as he smoothed my hair back again, it was as though the scales fell from my eyes.


Words rose, unbidden, to my mind. I had thought this puzzle lost, but as the tears fell down my cheeks, each shattered syllable ripped its way through me: 


Kind. Warm. Fond. Heartbroken. Dutiful. Determined. True, and right, and good, and proper…


“I love you and your mother very much,” he said, and I remember that this is the thing that broke me. 


I cried. I sobbed like I never had in my life — silently, painfully, my breath snagging on every inhale. My father soothed me through it all, hands unflinching, smile vanished, not a liar anymore. 


I am Elysium, I thought, between each gasp. I pictured its golden fields and my mother’s golden hair, its endless leisure and the puzzle-games with my father. I am Elysium. I am the window without its glass.


He stayed there, and neither of us woke my mother, because I was scared of seeing the grief this would cause her, and because I was a child, and children are by nature afraid. 


He gave me sums, and my tears dried, and I played the game I wouldn’t earlier. I fell asleep, even though I tried not to.


When I woke up, my father was gone, and my entire world had fractured. 


*


On November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. 


Four months prior, an unidentified number of people fled East Berlin in a mass exodus, with at least 11 casualties gunned down at the border. Among them was Dr. Richmond Tomas Meyer, a distinguished professor from West Berlin, who was suspected of orchestrating the escape. 


After the news broke, my mother had sat me down, red-eyed, and told me that my father was originally from the Eastern Bloc. He’d been visiting West Berlin as a child when the Wall went up, separating him from his family. By the time he was able to receive a passport, they had vanished. Whether it was to prison or to the grave, he never knew. 


I came to understand my father, over time. I think I learned what he had been trying to teach me. My methods were wrong: it is impossible to reduce a person to a single word. Division of a country can lead to a crack in its walls. Division of a person is like splintered glass — frustrating, incomplete, sometimes deadly, and, as my mother showed me, often obscuring. 


For when the gates first opened, and the celebrations began, I watched my mother — my coy, sweet, newly widowed mother, who baked pies and radiated sunlight — pick up a sledgehammer and scream herself hoarse as she smashed that wall into rubble. 


My father wasn’t perfect. He was obsessive. Deceitful. Naive. He believed unity meant utopia — and it didn’t. I loved my father, but the Wall he fought against was not everything. 


Still, when the people rushed in, and the hammers started falling, and the euphoria echoed wildly into the air, I remembered his words.


And as all of Berlin shouted as one, I couldn’t help but see the beauty.

February 10, 2021 19:00

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

9 comments

Peace Nakiyemba
18:47 Feb 12, 2021

This is a wonderfully narrated story. The division within the father was so poignant, as was the child's puzzlement. I like that the explanation at the end tied it in very well. Also I really like your bio.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Michael Boquet
19:11 Feb 19, 2021

Powerful story. It felt very real, both from a historical perspective and an emotional one. Love the voice you write for Tomas. If I had to critique anything, I feel like the story is a bit on the long side. Not every detail is necessary. Still, it doesn't stop your story from having a strong impact. Well done. Congrats on being shortlisted!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Holly Fister
01:34 Feb 20, 2021

Wow, that was so good!

Reply

Show 0 replies

Amazing story, glad you got shortlisted.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Tom .
12:35 Feb 13, 2021

What I liked was the sentiment and the emotion. The historical note at the end grounded the reality of the piece and gives it a strong resonance. I think the piece would be even stronger if you placed a bit of context in the text to ground us in East Berlin in the late 80s, this was basically an outpost for Soviet Russia so some imagery would enhance our experience. It is a really strong piece, well done.

Reply

Show 0 replies
J B
19:13 Jun 25, 2021

I have no words, only tears - moved by your story writing and by the historical fact. Do write more often RA.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Angel {Readsy}
04:27 Apr 28, 2021

Anxiously apprehensivly impatiently keenly enthusiasticaly, waiting for your NEXT STORY , NEXT STORY , NEXT STORY NEXT STORY STORY , NEXT STORY , NEXT STORY NEXT STORY STORY.

Reply

Show 0 replies
14:40 Mar 26, 2021

cool but not cool

Reply

Show 0 replies
14:39 Mar 26, 2021

cool but not cool

Reply

Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.