Ara hated it when Father pulled him from the gallery and forced them to spend time together.
He was passing by his four favorite paintings in the lobby when he met up with Father, waiting outside their lonely, tourist-filled mansion for him. His wrist was at eye level, staring at the little screen on it. He wore a hood over his eyes, a cloak to hide his face gifted from the divine.
“Good. You’re here. Let’s go,” Father said.
It was not often Ara left home, and never with Father. But as he strolled along the broken pavement, Father toying with a stray curl next to him, he felt himself a regular citizen and not a wealthy, sheltered elite. He loved the capital city in paintings, its glorious tall buildings touching the misted sky. Troth, doused in chrome and liquid silver skyscrapers, was stunning and had too many details that at first overwhelmed Ara. But each time he studied the piece, a new part popped out at him. The golden strings connecting the floating lanterns. The LED strips powered by foot traffic. The dark-haired figure in the foreground that stood out among the masses. What used to be a flowering kingdom, unindustrialized and weak, was now the pioneer of innovation.
Ara clung to the hope that beyond that painting in the mansion there was that same fantasy he could reach.
“Where are we going?” Ara asked.
They were half a mile from home before Father said anything. Ara tried to get his attention several times, but to no avail. He thought of Father’s painting in the gallery, how he stood atop a shattered golden throne, platinum hair glowing beneath glistening armor, a shard of broken glass in his bleeding hand. He held a stolen scepter in the other, an expression of hope on his angelic face. He called his nation an oligarchy, “the leading component of the new free nation,” and his people believed him.
“I am going to teach you about the world,” Father said, finally. “That’s my duty as a parent. Is it not?”
Ara grimaced. “It is, but you haven’t ever been one to dedicate quality time to someone other than–”
“I’m aware of what you are going to say,” Father said. “I don’t want to hear of it.”
“I apologize,” Ara said, irritated. “I fail to believe you’ve simply forgotten what today was.”
“How could I?” Father answered. “But that doesn’t matter. Nothing needs to be celebrated, especially not the dead.”
Ara nodded and fell back into his thoughts. He could tell Father did the same, his chin toward the sky, staring at the roofs that cast a shadow over them.
Other Father – Troth was his real name, but he’d called him Other Father since he was little – had taken Ara out many times before and forced him to deliver addresses to the public. He taught Ara of the world, or how he thought the world should be. After he died, Father picked up the brush and continued the masterpiece that was to become the district of Troth. They traveled awhile, Ara watching as dozens of citizens flitted about carrying bags and wearing cheap, sun-stained business clothes. “Did Other Father know he was going to leave the world so soon?” Ara asked. “Is that why he only ever cared about industrializing?”
Passersby stopped for a moment and stared, eyes like stars, as they lowered their heads in respect to them. Father pulled his hood over his hair and slid sunglasses over his eyes.
“I told you already,” he said. “I do not want to hear of him.”
There was a time Ara did not hate Other Father.
It was long ago, when Ara was about to turn eleven. Other Father burst into Ara’s room with such excitement that at first Ara wondered if he had been possessed. His eyes twinkled with delight, white teeth spread between his lips in glee.
“I have a wonderful idea,” he said, throwing his arms toward the ceiling.
Ara was sitting at his desk going over arithmetic he’d been struggling with since the school day ended. He sat his pen down and listened as Other Father exploded into speech.
“You and I must go to the roof and watch the stars! It has never been this clear since the city was built.”
Ara followed him to the top floor of the massive mansion. Not a cloud hung over the moonless night, and the stars, millions of them, blanketed the sky. Ara sat on the concrete and watched as Other Father lay down, folding his arms beneath his head.
“You’ve never seen it this clear, have you?” Other Father asked, inky hair falling over his shoulder as he turned to face Ara. “Normally the fog has been too thick.”
Ara shook his head. He concentrated on one star, and the longer he stared at it, the more it twinkled red and blue. He connected them into shapes: a paintbrush, a lightbulb, a crown, Father. He suddenly felt the urge to create these images on paper, and asked Other Father quickly if he could retrieve a pencil and a notebook.
“Why?” Other Father replied.
“To draw what I see in the sky,” Ara said.
Other Father only shook his head, thick eyebrows knitting together. “We hire people to create things and they earn money doing so. But that is not and will not be your role in this country.”
He was gentle with his words, and Ara understood this was a rule that would not be changed, and did not question it. He was younger then, too naïve to hold any weight to Other Father’s commands. He snuggled closer to him, head against his shoulder, and Other Father stiffened.
“Can Father join us?” Ara asked. “I think he would also like the stars.”
Other Father frowned. “Not tonight. He’s busy with a lot of work. There are a things happening within our country, Ara. And one day, it will be your responsibility to hold it all in place.”
“Because you listen,” Other Father said. “You are capable of being molded into a leader. That is why you’re my son. Those who listen do not get punished. Now let us watch the stars and forget about everything for just a little while longer.”
Ara only frowned. Tears fell, but when he tried to hide him, Other Father forced him up with a blood-stopping grip. He bore into Ara’s eyes.
“Never cry for someone. Never shed a tear for anything. You are far too much like him, brandishing your weaknesses.”
“I thought you two loved each other very much,” Ara said, quickly. “But you don’t love when you’re angry.”
Other Father jerked him forward, gnawing into his skin with his nails. “I do everything for the sake of being greater. My love is preening you both into how you should act. It’s all because I care, Ara. I’m ashamed of you for not understanding that.”
Other Father left him on roof that night. Ara knew he’d struck a heartstring. He’d gotten him to chase after Father and apologize, to be happy together again, just like the better times, when they both believed they, two terrifying warlords, could nurture a child like two loving parents.
Ara pulled himself out of the memory with a grim face.
The final painting in the gallery was him.
Its dim eyes always stared back at Ara, its paint still fresh. It was a reflection of his better self, a sixteen-year-old doused in light and perfection. The burn scar that ran from his bottom eyelid to the base of his cheek was like a mask, an anomaly his people viewed as holy, cherished, and rare. It was accentuated by the shadows in the foreground and the reflection of the growing sun in the background. He held a heart over his open chest and was giving it to a faceless figure.
They made it into the city’s beating heart, music alive and thrumming from street performers on the sidewalk. Ara lifted his head and still could not perceive the top of the skyscrapers. It smelled like roasted deer, the kind where the head was still attached and the eyes stared back as it was being burned. Cars honked and wove between careless pedestrians traipsing through the street, hanging around parked motorcycles and rusted telephone poles.
A family of seven in rags huddled around a fire built in an alleyway. Father approached them, lifted his hood with a plastic smile, and slipped a wad of money into the youngest child’s open palms. He told them to stand up when they started to bow.
“It’s important to seem generous,” Father said to Ara once they were far enough away. “It keeps people believing in you. Word spreads. Morale builds.”
They continued on, and the more they entered the city’s heart, the more people hung around with guns strapped to their belts. A few took notice of Father’s presence and slid their fingers to the holsters. He paid them no mind.
“There’s a hill that overlooks the city,” Father said, stopping at a crossroads between two stout, all-glass buildings. He pointed North toward the outskirts. There was nothing but nature there. Unthinkable. “I used to go out there and watch Troth as it was being built.”
A hill. Ara had never been where grass dominated the ground, but he’d seen hills in several of the paintings hidden in the gallery’s basement. He thought how beautiful it would have been to plant a canvas atop its peak. Maybe this outing would be worth something.
“Why did you want this city built?” Ara asked.
Father continued onward, pressing toward nature with unsettling haste. He didn’t take his eyes off the destination as he answered.
“I wanted a new dawn to rise on people who needed hope,” he said, and Ara simply waited with a furrow on his brow. He pierced Father with his gaze until at last, he relented. “Stop staring at me.”
“You’re quoting from your coronation address,” Ara replied.
“I am not.”
“Father,” Ara said. “It’s written on the placard that’s next to your portrait in the gallery. People recite it daily. I hear them when I study.”
Father marched on, pale face empty, ignoring him. They went deeper into the freshly constructed district of Troth past its heart. Father stopped at a dense street market and bought a pork belly sandwich for Ara. He gave them a generous tip when they took notice of him beneath his hood.
“You skipped breakfast. Eat,” he said.
Ara took the wrap and threw it into his satchel. He was about to mumble that he’d consume it later when he turned and saw a colorful cluster of metal and plastic structures. Children were playing on top of them. There was a slide and a set of bars being crossed. Covering the ground below the structures were broken tire bits. A kid tripped on his shoelace, and Ara understood why the rubber was there when he picked himself up and romped on.
Ara was a magnet to the scene, and he stopped when he got to the edge of the fence that guarded it. Father arrived next to him a moment later.
“What is this?” Ara asked.
Father looked at the structure, then to Ara. He was lost by it.
“It is junk,” Father said.
“It doesn’t look like junk,” Ara replied. He leaned onto the fence’s railing and observed them, the way the children’s smiles plucked away the grime and gloom he’d felt coming in. There was something to their screams, their calls of delight, that washed away the smog’s eeriness and the sawdust stuck in his nose from the construction going on all around.
“It is. Those children should be in school learning how to become capable people. Not out playing on plastic and metal.”
Ara thought he was lying. But when he turned to argue with Father, the look in his dim eyes gave the answer words could never provide.
“It’s no wonder I’ve never really seen a playground,” said Ara, bitterness drawing his lips down.
He turned away from the fence. Other Father said similar things throughout his life. It was only a reminder of how much he came to not being able to stand either of them, especially when they were together.
He steadied himself down the incline back onto the main road. There was a gift shop a block down with a spinning door where a giddy couple like a zoetrope ran, giggling. With each rotation they sped up, their laughter increasing. Ara crossed the traffic-riddled road to watch them. Father called after him with a concern Ara never thought he had, and was across the road in a huff.
“You and Other Father,” Ara said, pointing to the couple, “did you perform such actions as that before I was born?”
Father folded to his knees, catching his breath, and bit his lip as he watched them. There was a furrow to Father’s brow that Ara once again had never seen, an annoyance that intrigued him almost as much as the odd behavior.
“I don’t remember, but I suppose they call that having fun,” Father said. “Though I forbid such nonsense. Fun is not what builds cities, establishes nations. That’s the sacrifice we make living in Troth. If I was not disguised, I would take them to our capital just to slap them until their heads were cleared of such emotions.”
The couple, still giddy, walked breathless inside of the shop. Ara studied them all the way until they were at the display case in the window. He wanted that, but he’d never even held a fondness for someone. He thought of asking Father about it but kept his lips shut.
In great quantities there stood glass sculptures of Father, the city Troth, and Ara. Somewhere they were together, free and jovial, uncaring of power or presence. But not in this world.
“Come on now. And stop crossing the road. You’re going to get run over,” Father said.
Ara listened and watched as Father pulled his hood over his eyes.
At last, they came to another market toward the city’s outskirts. It was in a wealthy suburban village made of brick apartments, townhouses, and over-the-top decor. Father was pale as they walked through, and even paler when there was a massive festival beginning. They had to pass through it to get to the hill, and as they did, they came upon a stage full of dolls on strings.
“A puppet show,” he said, eyes alight.
Ara thought Father would groan at stopping, but he only halted with Ara and approached the edge of the excited crowd watching.
“Indeed. Puppets are an imported art,” Father said, voice dry. Ara tore away from the performance. Father was a bleached sheet, lips quivering, eyes dancing with the strings that moved with the grace of a marine animal.
“Are you all right, Father?” Ara asked.
Father pulled a shaking hand to his hood, squeezing the fabric. He was clammy, and as he spoke again, it was a high-pitched fury that sent a lump down Ara’s throat.
“Why are you so inquisitive?” he said. “Why do you ask questions I cannot give the answer to?”
“I-I don’t know,” said Ara. “I am simply asking about things, and you don’t know the answers. You’ve wanted us to get closer, for some odd reason or another, and now I’m here and you expect me to, as always, obey without complaint. So here I am. What do you want from me?”
Father whipped around from the theatre, glaring at Ara. He stormed through the crowd and rounded the corner. He avoided people shoving food samples into his hands. Ara wove through a family and nearly knocked over a boy wearing a potato sack for a shirt. There was a massive crowd settled around a red arch. Ara stopped and drew closer. Father growled at him.
“Won’t you ever listen–”
“Wait,” Ara said.
He squinted. At the center of the arch was an oil painting. It was a man with long silky hair that hung like curtains over the emblems on a silver jacket. Some people were bowing over an open pit of flames, but many wrote on paper and then threw it to the fire.
He had been fighting to forget.
Today was the anniversary of Troth’s death. Ara buried the memory as much as he could a long time ago because that was the day he was forced to go to the funeral to watch the man that always hurt him, when people began to revere him, when they rose him on a pedestal he felt too small to pose atop of.
“Let us leave. There’s no sense in celebrating that man,” Father said.
“Father,” Ara replied with pity, “I apologize. What you said earlier – I didn’t think it bothered you.”
Ara’s throat tightened. The man in the painting stared at Ara. He thought back to the blank frame that had been hanging gallery for a year now, the cold, empty gold. This painting’s beady black eyes followed him even as he turned away. He spotted more civilians paying respects to shrines, more liberating stories being told, more makeup being put on children, more scars painted with hot metal. He felt sick.
“You still grieve despite everything he’s done to us,” Ara said, “don’t you?”
Father crossed the street to the other shrine. He picked up a blank placard from a bowl and flipped it around in his fingers. He brought it to his chest.
“It’s hard not to. Not when all one remembers after death is the good things about the one who is gone,” Father said, voice breaking. “I know he hurt you. I know he hurt me. But there was a time I did love him. That was my greatest weakness.”
Ara did not know what to say. He took a placard with him, too. Then he led Father away from the town, and they went away until the noise was drowned by the soft buzz of beetles and grass. They sat down together, and for the first time, Ara saw Father as his equal. The gold pedestal Ara had thought he’d been on his whole life was paper.
“That is why you don’t want me to love things,” said Ara.
Father had nothing to tell him back.
“There’s a reason I always go to the art gallery at home,” Ara said again, staring at the horizon line with its dozens of skyscrapers. “I love paintings. I want to create them without doing so in secret. Not for their being worshipped as everyone uses them for, but for their beauty. Their expressions, the emotion put into them. I always wanted to feel more than you let me, express more. I feel like it would help our world. I paint in my free time because it helps me feel, and understand why I feel things.”
“Oh,” said Father. “I… did not know you created paintings. That is illegal to unlicensed artists, as you may know. Creativity is meant to be limited.”
“I understand,” said Ara. “But it shouldn’t be. Father…” he took a deep breath, “The way we appear in paintings can’t save lives. The way people see us, the city, the country… that’s what Other Father wanted. Troth. But it’s never what you wanted, was it?”
Father folded his legs to his chest like a kid would and shook his head. He pitied him.
“I want to love people,” Ara said. I want to love the world. I want to make art that shows that we can love each other like those kids loved that playground.”
“Maybe we can help each other love,” Father said, a hush to his voice as he stared toward his city. “Because I don’t know how to. Not anymore.”
They stayed there awhile. Ara let the silence consume him, let the wind conceal the shuddered breath that passed between them as the sun kissed the horizon line over Troth. Ara imagined the city was in flames, burning away the artist’s signature.
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