The main house on the estate, private and extensive—behind a wall and security and oodles of guards at every point that our small caravan entered a little too easily—looks like a smaller version of the Biltmore. Just over ninety thousand square feet, Reliquum, a gothic modern castle tucked into the crook of the cliffs overlooks those same Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina. Greyish bistre spears tower over the gardens that surround the property on a backdrop of raven and forest green woodlands. Smoky grey gargoyles perched high looking down at me and Alison, the trespassers, like they’re ready to take flight chase us down and snap off our heads. My macabre imagination takes me down dark paths. I sense arcane stories buried in the lurking shadows of the estate as we await Alin, Ali’s father.
After a long wordless delay, unspoken furrowed glances between us, we’re escorted through several quiet, minimally furnished yet elegant and massive rooms, our shoes thumping softly against the marble and wood floors, to a library where we’re introduced to a Dr. Patrice Bari and an attorney, Aliza David.
Half an hour later, winding through large rows of flowers, the heady scent of flora and forest overwhelming, Alison finally approaches the older man in the gardens on his knees. His dark skin, creased in areas and smooth in others, is an unending black. His hair, shorn close to his skin, as is his beard, sprinkled with white and grey. The garden, flowers and herbs and veggies and fruits, flourish around him. His hands, dirty with soil and fertilizer, manipulates the ground, nurturing and whispering to it, like a parent to a child. Using his worn spade, he probes holes around the plant in question and replaces the dirt with what I can only guess is his concoction of homemade fertilizer from the plain white container sitting by his side. The bees—among a long list of insects extremely rare nowadays—fly casually around his head not bothering him in the slightest. He mumbles to them as if they were his pets, grinning occasionally, chuckling at himself. When Alison’s shadow falls across his path, he doesn’t notice at first. He continues unaware he has visitors.
“There are bees here?” I ask puzzled.
“Not your typical bees,” Ali says holding out her hand as one lands. “Robobees …and they’re remarkably life-like,” she says with a wide smile. The glint of metal bounces off the small silver, black and yellow body. Its fuzzy legs covered with a multi-covered cross-pollination. “Fascinating,” she says grinning widely as it flies away.
“He’s not the man you knew.” This from Dr. Bari. The echo of that statement resonates as I watch him giggle enthusiastically as he pulls weeds. Several of his escorts—that look suspiciously like security—hover in the background observing us with a keen eye. Others of the same disappear like phantoms; I blink and they’re gone.
Alison’s face does not register emotions. I sense them lurking underneath the tick of flesh just inside her jaw. Question after question registers on her face and in the measure of her eyes. She watches her father for some time before saying anything. Her shadow stands over him large and portentous. His body, diminished with age, still sturdy and capable, appears pliable as he maneuvers easily on his knees in the garden earth with an occasional grunt and grimace.
Alison looks back over at me motioning me forward. I move towards them slowly.
Her relationship with her father had always been irregular, like a calm storm tempered by glimpses of the sun. He forced gender norms onto her and became frustrated when she refused to conform. With the death of her mother and the demand and priority of Alin’s job, the relationship eroded and both withdrew ultimately ceasing all communications. She hadn’t seen nor spoke to him since leaving for college.
He looks up at Alison and smiles widely. “Hel…lo.”
She hesitates before smiling unsure how to proceed. “Hello.”
Alin’s eyes roam over Alison with an avid curiosity and eagerness. Casually dressed in jeans and a tee and very light makeup, if any at all, her hair—flat-ironed straight this morning—sits on her shoulders and below; an occasional wind whips it around her face.
“Do you know who I am?” She released the hardness of rejection long ago when she realized that he would never accept and appreciate her for who she was. His expectations exceeded her limitations and she learned early that she could never really live up to the privilege and pedestal he wanted to place her on. So, she surrendered and lived her life pursuant to what she wanted; what she believed; who she was.
“Son,” he says brightly. He slaps the dirt from his hands placing them on his khaki covered legs smiling up at her.
Ali’s smile deflates; her fists tighten at her sides. I feel that wound lacerate her heart. She brushes the sting aside easily enough outwardly. He notices this and closes his eyes in what appears as frustration, shakes his head, and corrects himself acknowledging his mistake: “Daugh…ter.” He smiles again, his white straight teeth a striking comparison against his skin and beard. It’s an authentic affectionate smile of what I can gather, of what I’m guessing. I knew him to smile rarely so this is something new and unfamiliar.
Alison’s mouth falls open, eyes wide, in shock much like mine.
“Bees? Plants?” He asks, his words slurring slightly, waving a hand around him, the innocence and warmth of a child behind monosyllabic questions.
Alison, still stunned from his openly warm and enthusiastic greeting, sputters incoherently before closing her mouth and tilting her head looking at him, searching. “I … yes.” She looks at me calmly without comment and concern and back behind him to the doctor and lawyer lingering near his escorts. They nod to her and disappear into the murky passages leaving us both to meander through communication and discourse.
“Why is he here? In this place?” Alison asked Aliza David earlier back in the library.
Aliza glances at Dr. Bari before saying anything. “Please sit.”
Four stories high, the library—immense and circular with black walnut cases and flooring and a serpentine staircase that spirals into the obscure stacks of what must be tens of thousands upon thousands of volumes of books—indicates wealth of knowledge and history and an adherence to discipline of the educational sort. The smell of roses floats with a warm soft breeze into the room and the dimly lit interior from a shaded glass double-doored entry open to what appears to be a garden where row upon row of multi-color roses grow. A large stone fireplace sits to the side with several oversized worn dark brown leather chairs and a sofa; thick chocolate fleecy throws lay unfolded in the corners and on the arms; books stacked on end tables uneven; notes stuffed in pages marking passages within; used yellow legal pads with unintelligible scrawls jammed in the side of all the chairs and the sofa; a couple of empty discarded tea cups litter the room; brown loafers sit lonely and abandoned at the foot of one of the chairs; underneath, a room sized neutral tan rug lays; a medium desk in a kind of dark wood is parked in the same area; and one large wall covered in photographs.
Is this a private study? Why would they bring us in here? What is this place? How could a man go from a scientist’s salary to this isolated palatial estate? What is going on? Is this where he worked in the past? Is this Minima Cimex?
Questions keep coming as I make my way towards the photographs scattered across the wall. The wall nearest the desk is covered in photo after photo of Alison from birth to present. The latest photo I recognize: Alison, me, and Nik taken about a month before his death in L.A. at a friend’s book launch party. The photo could easily be one of my favorites. Heads together, all three of us are so very happy. We’re not looking at the camera, but at each other laughing. Alison said something funny; I think it was another of her poems and Nik added lines to it—funny obnoxious ones.
Nik. The ache that goes through me doubles me.
I’m angry I can’t remember the poem. I look down, close my eyes, and take a deep breath composing myself before continuing to inspect the wall smothering the sting of sorrow and fury with avoidance and curiosity.
In the background, I hear bits and pieces of Dr. Bari explaining Alin’s medical condition to Alison. Strokes and neurological something-or-others. Their dialogue seems all a bit vague to me—tunneled and faint. I look over the photos. The first sixteen years of her life, Alison was an awkward child and teen; an average awkward, like most of us finding our way through childhood and puberty, attempting to find ourselves and our identities. Her smiles were few and her looks often pensive and deep, nothing sad or distraught, and never straight at the camera. Enigmatical and explorative, she was an introspective kid.
Alin had chosen these photographs carefully. Not a one shows the painful passage of coercion or suffering, or the assimilation of a child being told she was something she knew she wasn’t. Yet, all these photographs show Alison as another normal child because that’s what she was: someone that needed—needs love, affection, acceptance, and appreciation of who she was and is. Regardless of this wall and what is not shown, Alison persevered, issues notwithstanding, like us all; alas, so much more so than me.
The images on the wall continue to ascend in age: some glamorous and breathtaking, some cozy and cute, stunningly feminine, and others originally neutral. That alone is remarkable given the state of Alin’s and Alison’s relationship before she left and never returned.
Until now—twenty-five years later.
“Ali, I think you should see these,” I tell her.
Back in the garden, Alin sees me and smiles. “Daugh…ter.”
My eyes widen and he giggles. Alin had never approved of mine and Alison’s relationship saying repeatedly that it contributed to her insolence and fragilities. I was never one to keep my mouth shut around him when it came to those passive emotional abuses he occasionally inflicted onto her. So, this change of heart and attitude towards me is disturbingly refreshing.
Given the circumstances, I push away my skepticism.
“Willlll…laaaa,” he says enunciating the syllable a bit too long in an attempt to spit it from his tongue.
Perhaps it’s the long merciful distance of twenty-five years of peace and maturity gained within and between and the degradation of the world, I don’t see a man hardened by ugliness, but one worn of age and illness and decline. Maybe because I want Ali to find that peace that has so eluded her where her father is concerned. The subject of family and the alienation thereof we debated and argued over for some time.
Compassion and forgiveness replace animosity and ego and I smile. “Hullo.”
“Tea?” He looks back over his shoulder. “Tea, tea, tea,” he singsongs and one of his escorts disappear into the shadows of the estate to fetch tea while he gets up from the dirt and escorts us through worn paths and aisles of flowers and vegetables to a spacious gazebo at the edge of the garden nearest the house and library.
“As I was saying, your father suffered a series of strokes,” Dr. Bari says in the library earlier avoiding Alison’s earlier question of why he’s here.
“You’ve explained that. Why is he here? In this place? Is this…Minima?”
Dr. Bari and Aliza, silent for a long and telling twenty seconds, glance at each other before Aliza answers with a deflection. “He has a generous benefactors and friends.”
“Who?” She asks.
“I’m sorry, but they’d rather remain anonymous. For now. Needless to say, your father is in loyal and trusted hands, I assure you of this.”
I could feel Alison’s squint and suspicious frown. She remains quiet probing no further.
After discussing some incidentals that I only partially listen to, Alison makes her way to the wall and stares open-mouthed at the display of photographs.
In the gazebo, pitcher and glasses of ice tea with lemon wedges sit melting like time between us. We sit in silence searching between the awkwardness and ease of monosyllable questions, answers, hums and grunts.
“School?” He asks.
“Sci…ence, com…put…ers, hmmmm?” His eyes go high then squint indicating a larger context to the question. You followed in your father’s footsteps. A display of fatherly pride in such an awkward pithy broken question.
“No and yes.” Alison’s ego takes no offense at this assertion; she, however, acknowledges her own path and the influences that have guided her. I feel the surge of pride within her. I hear it in her voice.
“Yes.” His lips thin in obstinacy then smile in playfulness. His eyes dance in satisfaction.
“Computer science, but engineering artificial intelligence.” She pauses. “And quantum physics. Dabbling in chemistry and biology.”
Alin’s eyes widen with an expectation. “Yes? Bees?”
“Yes,” she says confidently. “Yes, they’re fascinating,” her eyes flicker with a professional curiosity and delight.
A squint and frown, much like Alison’s, Alin continues like they’re having a normal father-daughter conversation. “Hacker.” He has no problem with that word.
I laugh and she shoots me an arched eye. I turn back to him: “She’s not a very good one,” I add sealing it with a wink, which earns me another stern look from Ali.
He giggles again, like a child. “Good,” he barks recognizing my banter and returning his own.
Here now, I had to admit that Alin and Alison’s relationship had not all been bad compared to some of the horror stories we heard from our queer and transgender brothers and sisters over the years including my own. I’d known there was something deep within Alin fighting the pull of unfairness and ugliness that his latent prejudices stemmed from; the love for his only child nullifying the rest; the shared wonder and love of science formed many engaging and convivial discussions that connected them in ways far beyond that of a familial connection.
Neither of them had ever been overly religious finding the fundamental aspects of religions restrictive and far too conservative, especially in regards to science, technology, and progress. So, that was not the cause of their friction. Faith and spirituality? Never a problem. The stern rules of patriarchy were the obvious and underlying cause. I suspected she had taken the name Alison in an odd show of respect and tribute to her father. Over the last 25 years, she rarely showed the hurt that Alin caused her deciding to rise above issues what she considered beneath them, but still unwilling to reconnect with him till now.
“Spe…cial…ty?” He inquiries.
She doesn’t say anything and the silence grows. This is where Alison becomes guarded. Her privacy more to avoid the political complications that arise when dealing with the subject in general especially since we’ve regressed and descended back into the Dark Ages. That and this uncomfortable subject was Alin’s primary study for many, many years and apparently still is.
She sighs: “Nanotechnology.”
His wide smile quite effective relayed his delight. He does not pursue the subject further. Not now. I sense he realizes her caution and it’s almost like he’s already aware. He moves onto another topic. “Poetry? Yes?” His eyes dance mischievous and crafty and yet another word he has no problem pronouncing.
Alison, once again, flustered, looks at me for confirmation of what she hears. I shrug and try not to laugh again failing.
Alison gazes back at him as he sits silent, waiting. I see the tick of reflection in her temperament pulsating towards her sublime ability to turn words into art.
Except, it’s taking her longer than usual and she remains mute for some time. Alin and I patiently wait. The sounds of the forest jump and bray around us. Birds shrill and squirrels bark. A hawk cries and careens across the few clouds that circle a perfect bluebonnet sky.
“Daddy, daughter, dare / Dare she rides the light / And winds of her own grace / Dare she moves and towers over / those that do nay but efface / Dare she rise and prevail beyond / they that think to debase / Dare she win the battle / when the war is in the race / Daddy, daughter, dare / did he not?”
Silence hangs in the air like a falcon bent on prey. Alison’s face feigns indifference; her brown eyes though shout elation and defiance coupled with that of respect and kindness in a way that only she can deliver.
While I sit calmly, hand over mouth, waiting for the winds to rise, Alin, relaxed, features unmoved, till he surges to his feet making both Alison and I jump in alarm. His hands meet together in solid praise shouting ‘brava! brava!’.
His cries bounce off the walls of the estate, down rows of flowers and across peaks, sending doves careening from parapets. He then abruptly stops and disappears around the corner down a long isle of roses. His towering bulk graceless yet swift and sound.
Sitting up alert in our chairs, our tea long forgotten, we glance at each other and back towards where Alin retreated several times not sure what to do or whether to follow. After several stunned looks and seconds of unknown stupor between us, he returns standing before her bowing, eyes downcast, a trace of tears sneak their way out of his eyes, down his face into his beard. Holding out both hands, in the center of his rough worn tan palms, lay a perfect white tulip.
“A…pol…o…gies, daugh…ter. I am … proud fath…er.”
I don’t have to see Ali’s face to feel the quiver of her lip or the dampness in her eyes.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins