As morning arrived Aria lay still, enveloped by cool bed sheets. Early morning’s events repeated themselves on the back of her eyelids. The alternative: face the dark room and the similarly lit future. Twilight turned to day; shadows gave way to a blue dusk saturated with light. When she finally dared her eyes open, they fell on a packed suitcase waiting at the foot of the bed, a bed that once had been her mother’s.
Oma had only made slight additions to the room since Aria’s mother was a teen, and only slight changes since she’d disappeared. Idelina, her mother had been on the high school fencing team, had been quite good in fact. She’d won several trophies that were displayed on a stand along with framed pictures. Through her first two years of college she’d continued fencing until she met Aria’s father. Aria’s mother said she never regretted getting pregnant and quitting school, since she had gotten the best baby in the world. Oma and Opa were apparently furious though. They didn’t think Aria’s father could provide much security for a new family, that’s what Aria heard often when they talked about their regrets.
In the bedroom, Aria kept her mother’s shrine to Saint Anastacia dusted and intact, her Oma helped by changing the fresh flowers weekly. The sect of Anastacia was a mix of Catholism, Candomble and Umbanda all centered around the teacher and renegade Saint Anastacia. Shrines and alters to the Saint contained items that helped disciples focus on her teachings. The flowers were the centerpiece. There were four cards: the Queens of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs were placed in the right hand corner of the small wooden table. A framed picture of a small hut in Bahia, Brazil, was on the left side. Laid in front of the flowers was a placard of Saint Anastacia, in a yellow and red flowing robe draped over her right shoulder. A white ribbon and a blue-and-white choker were balled up next to the picture. On the nightstand was a picture of her mother, and herself as a baby in front of the big willow tree that sheltered lost pets, and now, one dark blemish.
“Aria, are you up? We gotta get going.” Her father was coming up the steps. He entered the room without knocking as usual. “Sorry I’m late. I had to stop at the police station and leave my information in New York. Get yourself up and ready. Might want to grab something to eat before we get going too.”
It was dreadful to hear his voice knowing it meant she was leaving Germany.
Her and her father’s apartment wasn’t too far away. They lived in a neighborhood right outside the U.S. military base where he worked. They’d been living there for a good two to three years since her mother disappeared.
“If you’d make it snappy I’d appreciate it. The crowd downstairs is ready to turn me into peanut butter. I’ll meet you downstairs,” her father said.
“Okay,” Aria mumbled.
He made his way over to the window and looked outside towards the sky. Her father was a see-saw: gone but present, giving but unreachable, the potential of all her joy, yet all her fear. She thought he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. He was about the same height as their refrigerator. That was tall to her own five foot six. Outwardly, he appeared easy going and steady, but what she had experienced was different. There were a couple of times she remembered him as calm and present, one of those times being when she found out her mother had disappeared. He held her then, for a long time and let her sob into his shoulder. He held her steady and firm.
“Going to be a long trip. Excited?” he asked.
“Not really.” There was no point is putting on a good face. He’d already made the rotten decision to go without her blessing.
“Well, you’ll be okay. I’m going to go out to the car and rearrange things in the trunk of the rental. Hurry up,” he said.
Aria’s square-jawed, thin-lipped German relatives came to see her, and incidentally her father, off. Uncle Fritz, Stanley the cellist and whose requiem she’d hummed for the burial, along with their two wives, typical German women: practical, plain, short on outward emotions. The last time she remembered them all gathering had been when her mother disappeared three years ago. At that time, the chorus of them buzzed with accusations and worry, mumbling blame on her father more than anyone or anything. Aria remembered quietly leaving the room when this happened, going upstairs and curling up in her mother’s bed at her grandparent’s house, drifting into day dreams of her parents and she being together, happy on the coast far away from her relatives. They didn’t understand and were unfair.
She didn’t remember the same reaction or gathering when she was four years old and her father left. Instead, they raged. She walked unnoticed through legs that seemed like trunks of an angry forest, their limbs waving and thrashing about. He had “abandoned his family, left them to the lions to fend for themselves. We knew this would happen when he made her quit school.” They accused him of cheating and “submitting to the tendencies of his race,” whatever that meant. The accusations and curses didn’t stop once he’d returned to her and her mother. It was obvious that they did not like him.
The ongoing buzz was that he had stolen a gun. Opa found one missing from his collection, three years ago, around the same time that her mother left. Since then they’d grilled Aria about her father’s behavior, if he’d been aggressive or abusive. She understood, but doubted her father’s guilt. For the most part he wasn’t a physically violent man. Plus, if you love someone, you don’t kill them. Aria hoped her thinking was correct about this.
This recent announcement about moving to New York caused Oma and Opa to pout and mope. Oma took to retreating to the kitchen when her father came to pick her up after school these past weeks. Steel pots and pans slammed as if several toddlers had been given free range. Opa’d come downstairs about three minutes after the doorbell would ring. He’d light his pipe, lean one arm against the fireplace, and barely acknowledge her father. Instead, he’d stared at the mantle, at pictures of his children, including her mother. Aria’d purposely delayed her arrival to the foyer. Her father deserved at least a bit of discomfort at having made a decision she wasn’t happy about, but now the day had come.
Aria and her father made their way out of the house, onto the porch, with the relatives following. Oma was beautiful like her mother, olive skin, long, wavy hair. Her father said their looks were typical of Brazilian women from Rio de Janerio. Remnant color on the ends of her gray strands held hints of her youth. Because Oma often talked of sea swimming as a teen, the first image Aria remembered having of her was as a mermaid. Her jet-black hair probably danced around her face in that dreamy way water makes everything appear. Aria loved her eyes most: beautiful hazel with spikes of brown radiating from the pupils, the depth more magical than the color.
Oma jammed a sachet of lavender, a steel plate with holes and a pack of cards into her palm.
“Keep Saint Anastacia close, Bird; keep to the date. This is the year.” Oma shot a look of disdain at her father. “You can do it by yourself if you need to, okay?”
“Okay.” She stared into Oma. There was too much to say.
“Promise?” Oma demanded, gripping Aria’s hands, an empty well forming in her eyes. “Anything is possible through her. Anything. Promise me.”
“Promise, Oma.” She knew this meant to keep the courage needed for the ritual, and the faith of her mother’s return. Aria believed in the Saint, and knew anything was possible, but doubted the Saint had any interest in making things right for her.
Oma pulled away as if remembering something cooking and returned shortly with three more items.
“You take these. You may need them, to make yourself free.” She reassembled the items in Aria’s hand to include two slender leather straps, a silver pocket knife with flower embossing and a thick white envelope sealed with duct tape. “You have to go now, Bird, the lawyer says.” She whispered in her ear, “but we’ll keep trying.”
“This is for you,” Oma pushed a large piece of the lemon tart wrapped in wax paper, into Mile’s hands.
Oma stepped quickly away joining Opa on the porch. They looked so different from each other: He, standing more than six feet, with his wiry hair and blue eye. He’d always been noble and stiff. Opa’s glass eye stayed in one place no matter where he looked, reminding her of a rabbit. He and Oma had met when he was building a bridge in Rio, an unlikely pair her mother said, he, an agnostic Berliner to the core, Oma a believer in the mysterious Saint.
Opa took the pipe from his lips and opened his stern mouth. He swallowed and tried to speak, but nothing came out. He tucked his lower lip under the upper one. An emptiness leading down to his soul was evident in his one good eye and both glistened as moisture concentrated and beaded. In his glass eye was the world of uncertainty she faced.
Oma looked up, grabbed Opa’s waist, and squeezed. He bent his left index finger, and tapped the underside of his chin with his knuckle.
“Chin up. Opa, I’ll keep my chin up.” She knew her grandfather was trying to say this but couldn’t find the words. The soldier cracking before her, always strong and steady, distant, yet present.
As they left the porch Aria saw through the eyes of her knowings: Opa, Oma, her aunts and uncles looked defeated. Aria observed their reactions as if looking at a holiday lawn arrangement. She realized she never knew the depths of their feelings. She’d miss her grandpa’s tight, thin flour-colored skin, and the smells of Oma’s kitchen and the certainty of her love.
Especially she’d miss crawling into their laps, for it was like falling into a freshly baked roll. What German’s didn’t have emotionally they made up for in texture, heart, and bodily warmth.
“Miles, you go running off again, you send her back to us. She’s loved here.” Oma said this in one seemingly desperate breath.
“We’ll be fine, Flavia. She’ll be with my family,” her father said, turning his back and waving off the prediction. “Plus you know how precious Aria is to me.”
And just like that Aria found herself leaving everything she knew, just because that’s the way things were.
She paused before getting on the plane to the United States, and turned towards the Berlin skyline, closing her eyes to feel once more the collective breath of her German home: consistent yet shallow, the exhale never being fully released.
“Abschied Oma, abschied Opa, abschied tante, oncle. Sie sehen wieder. Ich liebe dich,” she said to their invisible presence, “Goodbye. I will see you again. I love you.”
“Kommen jetzt, Aria.” She followed her father down the boarding ramp onto the plane. It smelled of diesel fuel, stale coffee, and body odor. Her stomach bubbled and twisted; her mouth filled with saliva.
“How will Mama find us?” she asked, settling into her seat.
“I’ve left all our information with Oma and Opa, if she turns up. It’s been three years.” He turned the page of the in-flight magazine.
“Do you think she’s somewhere?” Aria asked, avoiding inquiring about death.
“She’s somewhere, Bird. Maybe Oma knows more than she’s saying.” Her father continued to flip through the pages of the magazine.
Aria thought this couldn’t be a possibility. Her mother and Oma loved her. They couldn’t possibly be hiding something, keeping secrets. Her stomach hollowed more.
“Vater, why did you leave me, I mean us, when I was little?” This question usually got him to look directly at her. Like when he mother disappeared she needed him to hold her firm and steady.
“I got lost,” he said, placing the magazine down on the food tray. He stared out the window at the thick wool of clouds they traversed.
“What was the place like that you got lost in?” She thought of hardwoods after a rain, hundreds of drops dangling from the branch tips, refracting light. This image was a vague memory of a walk through the forest they’d taken as a family long ago.
“It was a place where I had to keep running and keep moving,” he said, directing his attention to her. There it was, that momentary still place where if she could stop time she would. .
“Why?” She held his gaze. A single breath stood between holding on and releasing her tears.
“Because of my family. parents and my brothers.”
“But isn’t that where we’re going to stay for a visit, with your strange brothers in New York?” She pulled the seat belt strap a bit tighter, and then loosened it. She hoped he was still looking at her, that he would maybe even reach out for her hand.
“Estranged brothers, whom I haven’t seen in many years. Estranged means I’ve kept my distance. You know, I still have love for them and all, but I’ve got some issues with them,” he held his gaze but didn’t reach out.
“Does that mean they won’t like me either?” She could feel her insides quiver a bit thinking about the hostility she might encounter in New York.
“They will love you. They love me, too. You’ll never guess anything is wrong between us, you’ll see.”
The knob of the tray attached to the back of the seat in front of Aria on the plane was loose. A good twist tightened it latched the tray to the back of the seant, and pushed back her tears.
“What made you come back to me and Mama?” She knew but needed to hear it again. Even if it wasn’t true, this answer was good enough. It had always been good enough.
“I came back because I found myself again,” he turned away.
“Where did you find yourself?” It was his profile against the white light of the window she now saw. These lines and shadows felt so far gone.
“Ich fundmichin der liebe.” It was the deepest she thought he came to his heart.
“I found myself in love.”
The words rolled in her mind. She was part of the thing he called love that brought him back to her and her mother. It was a necessary belief; it was what held her together. It was what, she hoped, would bring her mother back.