“Happy Birthday, Father.” Nichelle handed her father a toy with metal balls strung to a shining frame. The reflection of his face reflected off the metal balls and he brushed his fingers against the letters spelling his name: Leal.
“Thank you, Nichelle.” Leal regarded her sternly. “Perhaps when I named you, I set into motion your fate.” He lifted one of the metal balls and watched it slam into the row. “Much like these metal balls…”
Nichelle rolled her eyes. The argument never changes, she thought. Aloud, she replied, “Just because my name means ‘maiden,’ this does not guide my fate.” She looked up to her father and their eyes locked. “It doesn’t guide your faith either,” she whispered.
Leal’s smile revealed lines of perfect teeth. “I do not remarry or take a woman to bed not because my name means ‘faithful,’ but because I have no interest in such things.”
Nichelle looked away from her father, covering her mouth with her fist. Closing her eyes, she allowed her lips to part and her teeth to touch her fist. Leal waited, patiently. This argument was equally as old.
Nichelle stepped to her father, wrapping her arms around his large frame. The scratchy fabric he wore felt familiar on her cheek. She inhaled deeply, taking in the smell of her father. A hug from Leal filled her with a sense of belonging. That sense filled her, emboldening her resolve.
“Mother has gone to the great beyond many years ago.” She sniffled. “She wouldn’t want you to remain sad on her account.”
“Child,” Leal embraced his daughter at arm’s length, “sadness is not what I feel.” He wiped away her tear with his calloused thumb. “When you were gifted to your mother and I, we knew you’d be destined to do great things. We’d been told by the finest healers the empire had, we would not conceive.” He sat on a bench and pulled Nichelle down to sit next to him.
“Tell me, Father.” She had heard the story many times, but she cherished it, for it was a tale of a mother she never knew. She rested her head on his shoulder.
“We had a fight the night prior. Your mother wanted to adopt orphans and I was so engrossed in my work…” Leal looked down at his lap. Nichelle squeezed his hand, encouraging him to continue. “I acted selfishly, shamefully. That the goddess bestowed her grace on us is testament to her mercy and love.”
“That night, as I slumbered, I had a vivid dream of a woman that I knew was my wife. She surveyed a ruined planet. In my heart, I knew I was seeing her beyond death.”
“What did she look like?” Nichelle whispered.
“Flowing hair; a white dress; and a simple flower behind her ear. Her skin was pale, but her lips were the brightest shade of red I had ever seen.” He squeezed Nichelle’s hand before continuing. “The color red has been dead to me since that vision.”
Nichelle looks around their plain house. “Is this why the color red makes you cry?”
Leal nodded, then realizing his daughter still leaned against his shoulder, whispered, “It is. I still dream of your mother and the dream is always the same.” Leal inhaled deeply, held his breath and let it out. His body shuddered. He turned away from Nichelle, hiding his sobs.
Nichelle waits, mute. This time, he tells the story differently than he ever has before. “What happened?” she asked after the longest silence she had ever experienced.
Leal rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I rushed to her and begged her forgiveness. I told her of my vision. I declared to her that we would be a family by whatever means necessary.”
“Then I came along?”
Leal patted her hand. “Not for another nine months.” His eyes brightened. “Your mother took me to our bed and she knew we would create you that very night.”
Leal started to stand, the story told, but Nichelle reached up to him and beckoned his to stay. “Tell me about how she died.”
He sat back down and squeezed his daughter. She, in turn, nuzzled against her father in preparation for the telling of her favorite story. “Without sorrow, we could not appreciate the joys of our life.” He glanced out the window, past the leafless tree and to the endless ocean. Lost in thought for a moment, he continued. “The ravages of childbirth took your mother from me. We had planned on waiting to adopt your brother and sister until after you were born. But, when your mother died, I didn’t know how to live with a new baby. My heart hurt.” He squeezed his daughter tighter. “It was as if I had lost a limb. I ached and ached. I knew nothing could heal that ache, until I met you.”
Nichelle smiled and Leal continued. “They placed you in my arms. You were a squalling bundle of legs and arms. As soon as I held you, you stopped crying and looked up at me. The ache at losing your mother was replaced by the joy of holding my daughter. I named you ‘victorious maiden’ right there.”
Nichelle smiled and leaned back against the rough-hewn wall.
Leal stood and donned a thick jacket, gloves and hat covering his wispy hair. “I’m going for a walk.”
Nichelle regarded her father dubiously. “So close to nightfall?” She stood. “Are you certain, Father?”
Leal chuckled. “Don’t worry, pumpkin, I’ll be fine.”
Nichelle sighed. “Maybe one day you’ll tell me what a pumpkin is.”
Leal smiled widely. “See to your brother and sister.” When Nichelle nodded, he stepped through the door and into a ruined world.
Next: Waking Dreams