Father and Daughter
Almaria Duffner never got the chance to see her mother’s face. By the time she could make sense of the world around her, her family had already only consisted of her and her father. But she never got the chance to get to know her father too well either. He hardly ever visited his own home. During the day, he went to his job at a money exchange business, and at night, he visited his lover. Occasionally he would return to their apartment, silently confirm that Almaria was still alive, and leave her a minimal amount of money on the table before leaving again. That was the extent of the communication between Almaria and her father. So the young girl effectively lived all by herself, not relying on anyone else, and not relied on by anyone else.
One day, when Almaria was just seven years old, her father involved himself in some sort of crime and got stabbed to death by his accomplice. Of course, that meant Almaria could no longer live in her apartment. She was originally supposed to be moved to a city operated facility, but an old man, who had been investigating her father’s crime, stepped in. He claimed that their encounter was some kind of fate, and offered to take her to his own orphanage. The guards and officials present didn’t particularly have any reason to object, and Almaria herself, still overwhelmed at the sudden turn of events, didn’t have the composure to express her own opinion.
The old man brought the young girl to a ramshackle wooden building.
“This is your new home starting today. And they are your new family,” the old man told her, but Almaria’s brain hardly registered the words.
To the young girl, home meant that cramped apartment room, and family meant that perpetually absent father. She couldn’t comprehend that, from that day on, those two things were supposed to be replaced by completely new places and faces.
As Almaria stood confused next to the old man, a young boy came running up to them.
“You have a new sister,” the old man told him.
The boy peered at the young girl and said, “What’s with your boring face?”
The girl shot a brief glare at the boy before averting her eyes. She wasn’t exactly in the mood to talk to anyone, especially to a boy who insulted her after just meeting for the first time.
“Hey, how old are you?” the boy asked.
Almaria ignored him.
“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. I’m still your elder around here.”
“Listen up, okay? Now that you’re here, you’re part of the family. Since I’ve been here longer, I’m your older brother.”
“What’s with you? You’re no fun.”
After a while of that, the boy eventually gave up talking to the girl and walked off. The girl gave his back another glare before returning her gaze to the ground. She didn’t want him to mind her. She didn’t need family, and even if they tried to suddenly push one onto her, she wouldn’t know how to act. All they had to do was leave her alone, and she would manage on her own just fine. Beside her, the old man shrugged his shoulders with a sigh.
That night, Almaria fell ill. It only seemed natural, given her sudden change in environment, accumulated stress, and immature body and mind. A high fever rendered her unable to leave her bed. Her head felt heavy, every breath hurt, and pain filled her chest. In her dim state of consciousness, Almaria thought that she might die. However, she understood logically that such thoughts only resulted because her mind was passing through a moment of weakness. And besides, a part of her felt like it would be fine even if she really did die then and there. Almaria never had a particularly strong will to live. If her life would only continue to be meaningless, it wouldn’t be so bad to end it sooner than later.
As those thoughts fluttered through her mind, something cold was suddenly placed on her forehead. Her hazy consciousness couldn’t work its senses well enough to tell that the object was a wet towel, but it felt a little nice. Just a little.
“Hmph. Ignoring me then making me take care of you.”
Almaria could barely hear the voice talking right beside her. The owner of the voice, whoever it was, frequently swapped the towel on her forehead. When the water in his bucket grew warm, he went outside into the cold darkness to fetch new water from the well. As the night wore on, Almaria’s consciousness gradually cleared up. Her mind could vaguely register that someone was sitting next to her.
“Whoa, it’s already so late,” that someone said in a surprised voice. “I better get to bed soon, or I won’t be able to wake up in the morning.”
The person stood up. Almaria couldn’t make out what he was saying, but she understood that he was about to leave. Her hand spontaneously stretched out, as if acting all on its own. Her fingertips weakly clutched the unknown person’s sleeve.
“… father…” Her mouth moved all on its own too. “… don’t go, father…”
She spoke with such a soft, trembling voice that Almaria almost couldn’t hear herself. The person about to leave paused, bewildered. After a moment, he sat back down next to her.
“Don’t worry. Your father’s right here. He’s not going anywhere.”
Almaria knew it was a lie. Her father was already dead. Even when alive, he hardly talked to her at all, much less comfort her with gentle words. Yet still, the girl clung onto that lie. She felt around in the dark for that father’s hand and gripped it with all her strength. She wanted him to stay beside her. She wanted to depend on him. She wanted that fake father to show her genuine kindness. Before long, the father’s warm hands gripped the girl’s in return.
When Almaria called, she received an answer. That made her happy. When she wanted someone to be there, someone was there. Perhaps the very fact that such a simple thing could make her happy brought her more happiness than anything. With somewhat distorted thoughts running through her mind, Almaria savored the warmth enveloping her hand.
A few days later, the young boy from earlier talked about that night to Almaria. According to him, incidents like her’s were not unusual. New family members often fell ill at the stress of losing their parents and suddenly moving to a new environment. The boy had seen many such cases.
And moreover, it wasn’t unusual for the ill children to call for their mother or father. It was only natural that they felt lonely after losing everyone they knew and moving to a place filled with strangers. It would be impossible to tough it out alone. So when they’re lying in bed at night, with their bodies and minds both in a state of weakness, calls to their parents escape their lips. It wasn’t unusual. Everyone at the orphanage had been through it at least once.
So the boy told the girl not to think of it as embarrassing or pitiful. He told her to forget about it, and that he would forget about it as well.
Almaria refused so assertively that it even surprised herself. But how could she forget? She felt so warm. So reassured. So happy. She couldn’t throw away such a precious memory for some stupid reason like ‘it’s not unusual’ or ‘everyone does it’.
“I’m never going to forget… father.”
The boy looked annoyed. “I told you to call me your big brother. I don’t want to be a father at this age…” he grumbled.
It was true that the boy didn’t have the dignity or presence of authority characteristic of a father, but still…
“But Willem, you don’t seem like a big brother at all.”
“And I don’t seem like a father at all either!”
“No it’s not! Why do you keep insisting on calling me father!?”
“Why? Well…” Almaria thought for a bit. “That’s a secret.” She winked and stuck her tongue out teasingly.
Almaria opened her eyes.
The ceiling hazily loomed in her field of view within the darkness. She heard bird calls from beyond the window. Dawn must be close, she thought.
It felt like she had a very long dream, and that she still wasn’t fully awake. It wasn’t a bad dream… probably. At the very least, it wasn’t that nightmare she often got as a young child. Her head felt heavy. Unable to think clearly, she got up from her bed and put on her slippers. Then, still in a dream like state, she left the room and walked down the hallway, causing the wooden floor underneath her feet to creak loudly as she went. And then…
She found someone lying on the worn out couch. Familiar black hair, gentle facial features, a slender frame…
At that moment, her mind suddenly cleared up all at once, like how the light of dawn sweeps away the mist of night. She remembered who she was, what she came to this room to do, and what she needed to do next.
“Oh no, oh no.”
With the rapid pitter patter of her slippers, she scampered back down the hallway. Mornings in the orphanage are always busy. There was much to do. She needed to open the windows before the sun rose, prepare breakfast before the little kids woke up, and she wanted to make that breakfast a little more extravagant for a certain family member’s unexpected return. The day ahead of her was shaping up to be the busiest one in a while.
“At least tell me before you come home, silly father.”
Sooner or later, he would wake up, and the first words out of his mouth would probably be ‘I’m hungry’. It always went like that. She doubted that he was genuinely hungry every time, but whenever father came home he would ask for something to eat, almost as if he were trying to make up for all the days he had missed.
“Alright. Let’s do this.”
Almaria smiled and took out her favorite apron.