A FRAGMENT FOR FATHER

Floris M. Kleijne is a Writers of the Future winner and has had short stories published on Daily Science Fiction, in Factor Four Magazine, and in Reckoning, among others. This is his second appearance in Galaxy’s Edge. www.floriskleijne.com

***

Plodding across the wind-swept peninsula toward the castle, I have to remind myself with every step where I really am. Father’s weaving never wanted for detail, but this must be some of his best work. Stunted trees cling to bare rock; beyond a serrated ridge, I hear the yapping of hunting dogs gone feral. In the middle distance the south tower stands in my path, its knife-edged corner facing me as if intending to slice me in half. The wind cuts, the smell of heather stings my nose, rain soaks my jeans.

Visiting Father has always taken effort, but this time around it required a quest of almost epic proportions. Last time I went to see him, some seven years ago, I had to traverse the Bone Maze; the journey that lies behind me was worse. He has taken up residence, or what passes for residence in his loose and convoluted life, in the east tower of the abandoned and crumbling Castle of the Four Winds. I know the place from Father’s stories, of course. The stepped curtain walls lend the fortress a huddled, hermetic appearance, its four square corner towers thrust up in defiance like stubby limbs.

Dearest daughter, his invitation read. Come celebrate my thousandth birthday. Bring stories. RSVP. Your Loving Father.

Bring stories. As if I haven’t spent my youth fleeing his fantasies, escaping the word-worlds he wove; my twenties re-rooting myself in truth, in reality; my entire adult life despising fiction in all its manifestations.

I am all too aware that I’m the odd one out. People flock to his tales, dreaming of losing themselves in his weaves. When any of his fans speak to me about him, about their experience of him, their eyes take on a near-religious, dreamy reverence. To them, he’s almost a prophet.

Instead of a liar.

Aged seventy five.

***

When I turned eleven, my father threw me my last birthday party. I’d wished for Disney World. If that was too much to ask, I would have been happy to see The Phantom Menace with my friends. Hell, even a magician to entertain us at home would have thrilled me. Anything but another of my father’s weird and unsettling weaves. But he ignored my pleas to stick to what was real, and wrote my friends and me a haunted house instead.

What I remember most vividly about that birthday isn’t standing outside a dark, looming mansion, my legs all but hidden in its overgrown front yard; crying for my mommy as my friends followed my father around, their screams of delighted terror piercing my ears through the house’s shattered windows. What I remember most, what I keep reliving in my nightmares, is the moment they all popped out of the mansion’s front door, cheeks flushed with exhilaration, and my father exclaiming, in his stage voice,

“Sandy! What on Earth are you doing out here alone?”

I wake up from those dreams with loneliness and abandonment still clenching my throat, betrayal squeezing my heart. I haven’t celebrated my birthday since.

Unlike Father.

***

I pass through the open gate in the southeast wall. The courtyard looms over me, vertical warrens without rhyme or reason, the four corner towers almost hidden by a confusion of walkways, bridges, stairways, and passages.

A narrow set of stairs takes me up to the first rickety walkway. I make my way northward, hoping for a direct route to the east tower, but the walkway ends at a passage off to my left. A dozen steps in, it turns into a stone staircase to the second level. A bridge forces me to cross to the opposite wall. Loud calliope music washes over the empty space above the courtyard. I glance up toward the east tower. For a moment, the colored lights in the top floor windows outline a tall silhouette, and I imagine Father looking down at me with a sardonic grin.

Why am I even bothering to show up?

***

“He’s still your father,” Mom said when I consulted her over lattes last week.

“Yeah, and I spent half my life recovering from the fact,” I replied, snappier than she deserved. She covered my trembling hand with hers.

“Go,” she said softly, compassion brimming in her eyes. “It may do you good.”

I had no idea what she meant by that, but I’ve learned over the years to trust her judgment. She sees me, understands me, in much the same way that Father has always failed to.

I stared at the RSVP under Father’s invitation. Almost, I pulled out my notebook to write, A daughter embarked on a journey to attend her father’s birthday. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction though, nor did I want to commit just then. More importantly, I still wasn’t ready to discover if his talent was hereditary.

But when today came, I set out anyway.

I hope the Why is ahead of me.

***

An hour later, I am no nearer the east tower’s top floor. The calliope music has yielded to 90s dance tracks that set my teeth on edge, and I’m sure now that I’ve seen Father in that window two more times. Once he even raised his glass in salute. I’m beginning to suspect that there is no way to reach the party from here, and I’m also beginning to suspect why he made it so.

Fifteen minutes later, lost again, I am certain why.

He wants me to write my way in.

My first instinct is to find my way back down and leave this awful place. But I’ve come this far, and part of me must have suspected how this would end. Why else did I shove my notebook and favorite fountain pen into my purse? I pull them out, blocking the image of my Father’s self-satisfied smirk from my mind, and begin to write.

***

“Good, good!” Father says over my timid “happy birthday,” and herds me into the tower with a broad smile. Heat, and music, and the smells of food and alcohol and sweat overwhelm me. “Everyone is here. Did you bring stories?” He needs to shout over the noise of the revelers, and the mere thought of having to shout back exhausts me. So I just shake my head, even though he’s no longer looking at me.

We step into the central chamber together. Dozens of guests in costumes straight out of his stories dance, and proclaim, and feed, and make out in quiet corners, and get loudly drunk. Something bothers me as I watch the gathering, bothers me so bad I feel my simmering anger climb to a blaze of fury inside me. For two seconds, I have no idea what it is that calls up my rage, and then I see exactly what it is.

They are all around my age, none from his generation. I know hardly anyone I see, even though this is my father’s crown year celebration. And all of them are doing what they think he wants them to do, and casting furtive glances at him, as if searching for his approval.

“Quiet, now,” he says with a clap of his hand, and because this is his party, and his tale, and they’re all watching him for cues, the celebration quiets down almost instantly. Even the music stops.

“My daughter has come, and she brings stories.”

Whistles and cheers erupt from the crowd. He smiles at me and sweeps his arm at the audience, inviting me.

“No, Dad.” My voice hardly rises above a whisper. “No, Dad,” I repeat, more strongly.

“No?” His rumbling stage voice and wide-eyed surprise elicit laughter from the guests. “Come on. You must have brought one small story for me, mustn’t you?”

And just like that, my fury is extinguished with grief. Grief, and relief, for now I do know why I’ve come. And he’s given me the chance to tell him.

“I’ve no story for you, Dad. Because stories are lies. Maybe not all of them, but yours are. You’ve lied to me all my life.”

A shocked gasp swirls through the room. I ignore them, watch Father instead. His frame sags, and there is pain in his eyes. It lasts only a fraction of a second, and calls up an uneasy mixture of guilt and satisfaction in me. Then he pulls up his mask and pushes his chest out.

“Of course, my daughter. I am a storyteller. All stories are lies. The kind of lies that hold a deeper truth.”

I shake my head, and welcome the tears it dislodges.

“You’re full of shit, Dad.”

“Sandy?” he stammers, and for the first time in my life, I believe I see the real him. This is who he is. This, and no more than this, is what I can expect. He cannot give me what I need of him.

It’s time for me to move on.

“You said you loved me, remember that? You said it often enough. But that was a story too, wasn’t it? You didn’t love me, you loved the idea of having someone who would always look up to you. Who would admire your weaves, gorge on your stories. Well, guess what: I hated them. I hated growing up with them. I hated having to doubt everything you ever told me. I hated not even being able to trust what I saw around me. I hate this place, this nightmare labyrinth, this desperate cheer.

“But you know what? You’ve got all the children, all the admirers you want right here.” I sweep my arm at the gathering without even glancing their way. “I didn’t bring a whole story, Dad. I brought a fragment.”

Scattered, hesitant cheers from the crowd. A cautious grin from my father.

“I brought an ending.”

Heart-broken and relieved, I pull out my notebook.

***

The daughter left her father’s celebration. For the first time in her life, she felt free of him. Fountain pen hovering over the paper, tears streaming unchecked, she searched for the words that would cement her release. But of course, the incantation she needed was obvious.

The End.

 Copyright © 2019 by Floris M. Kleijne