This Is My Father's World
July 476 I.C., Odin
The summer was hot and difficult to bear, but Reuenthal bore it.
His days followed a usual pattern. In the morning, he would wake up long before his father, usually before it was even light out, and he would go on a long run, several miles at least, looping from his house to his old high school to the train tracks that ran adjacent to the river at the edge of town. This was, by far, the most pleasant part of his day, and he would slow his pace as he grew closer and closer to returning to his house. Sometimes, his father would be asleep when he came back, but usually he was awake.
His father would be in the kitchen, squinting at the coffee maker as though he hadn’t been making himself a coffee every day for the past thirty years.
“Where have you been?” he would ask.
“Out for a run,” Reuenthal would say, as though the answer would ever change.
And then his father would make some kind of sound as though he didn’t believe him, but Reuenthal would already be walking away to shower and dress for work.
On his way out the door, it was the same. “Where are you going?”
“Isn’t it the weekend?”
“I work weekends.”
It didn’t ever seem like his father believed that he was going to work, but Reuenthal wasn’t sure what his father thought he was doing.
He worked in the maintenance department of the local park board, a job he had gotten upon the recommendation of one of his high school teachers. It suited him fine, and he was decently good at fixing a broken tractor, or repairing a burst pipe, or laying new fencing, or whatever odd job was required of him in a day. It paid enough that he could cover his petty expenses when he returned to school, and it let him get out of his father’s house. Really, he would have worked any job that did those things.
He was home by six, though, which meant that the evening stretched long and bleak before him. Reuenthal had taken to buying groceries for himself and daring to cook more openly in the evenings. He wasn’t going to spend his summer starving.
Reuenthal wasn’t sure how he had lived his whole life up to this point. Perhaps he had gotten soft, with a year of comfort and ease at school.
It wasn’t as though his father really hit him with any regularity. In fact, even when Reuenthal took the car, his father had just yelled some and then went to bed. But it was never the actual injury that had been what Reuenthal cared about. It was everything else, the feeling of walking on tiptoes through the house to avoid disturbing his father; the way his father looked at him with apathy at the best of times, and absolute hatred at the worst.
Maybe he shouldn’t have cared about that. It wasn’t exactly the oppressive feelings of the moment that made him so stiff and silent. He was the same height as his father now, but something inside him had calcified long ago, when he was small and his father loomed over him, and that bitter stone inside him sat so close to his core that, no matter how little he and his father interacted with each other, he still somehow felt the same way he had before.
At night, sometimes, Reuenthal would quietly sneak out of the house and talk to Yang on the phone, walking through the trees in the back of his father’s property. They didn’t speak every night, maybe a few times a week, but Reuenthal looked forward to these calls. They didn’t talk about anything, really, just the way Yang’s day had been, or if Reuenthal had seen something interesting on his morning run. Yang would always ask Reuenthal if he would come visit, and Reuenthal would fight the urge to say yes. He would lie and say that he couldn’t get off work. But really, he didn’t want to aggravate his father, which he certainly would by going to the Mariendorfs, and by going to see Yang. Yang sounded disappointed every time, and Reuenthal was never sure how to feel about that.
June passed this way, and then it was July.
It had been raining all day, thunder and lighting so bad at times that Reuenthal’s boss at the parks department had told everyone to either find something to work on inside one of the buildings, or to go home for the day. Reuenthal had stayed, repairing a few of the canoes that could be rented out to take on the lake, sitting alone in the boathouse and caulking the cracked wood. At the end of the day, his boss had told him on no uncertain terms that he would not be walking home in the rain, and so had given Reuenthal a ride back to his father’s house. Reuenthal appreciated it, but he could tell that his boss, a well meaning older man, was confused when he pulled up in front of Reuenthal’s long driveway, the house visible past the trees.
“You live here, Oskar?”
“Yes, sir,” Reuenthal said.
“Mike never told me that von in your name meant something,” he said with a laugh. Mike was the teacher who had recommended Reuenthal for his position.
“It doesn’t, sir,” Reuenthal said. “This is my father’s house.”
“That means it’s yours, doesn’t it?”
“No, I wouldn’t expect so, sir,” Reuenthal said.
“Didn’t know you had an older brother.”
“He doesn’t live around here,” Reuenthal lied.
“Ah. Shame inheritances aren’t ever fair, isn’t it?”
“I can make my own way.”
His boss continued as though Reuenthal hadn’t said anything. “I guess my daughters won’t have to worry about that, since they’ll inherit equally. Half of zero’s never gonna be one.” He laughed. “You’re going to the officer’s school, you said?”
“You’ll do fine, then. You’re a good one.”
Reuenthal wanted to escape this conversation. “Thank you, sir.” He had his hand on the door handle.
“Have a nice night, Oskar.”
“I will. Thank you for the ride.” And then he was out and dashing through the rain into the house as thunder boomed overhead.
Later that night, Reuenthal was eating dinner by himself at the kitchen table. He could hear his father pacing around in the library a little way down the hall, his footsteps heavy in the otherwise quiet house. The wind tossed handfuls of rain against the kitchen window, and the lights flickered with the occasional lightning strike.
Reuenthal’s phone rang.
Usually, Yang would text him before calling him, and Reuenthal might have said no, since it was raining too hard to take the call outside, but this must be urgent, since he had foregone that nicety. Reuenthal answered.
“Reuenthal, are you there?” It was as though Yang had never learned to talk on the phone properly.
“I’m here,” Reuenthal said. “Is everything alright?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, but Reuenthal could hear Yang breathe, so he knew he was still there. “Count Mariendorf was going to call you, but I said that I would.”
“What’s the matter, Leigh?”
“The countess died,” Yang said. “This afternoon.”
Reuenthal closed his eyes, the world narrowing to just that blackness and the sound of Leigh’s voice in his ear. “How?” he asked. His voice was calm.
“Car accident,” Leigh said. “I don’t really know the details. She was on Route Four, there’s a big curve after exit forty four, do you know it?”
“She must have lost control of the car, or the auto steering failed, or something.”
“Oh,” Reuenthal said. “Was anyone else—“
“The van that hit her was totaled, but the passengers in it were fine. She was alone in the car.”
“When is the funeral?” Reuenthal asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll tell you. You’ll come?”
“Yes,” Reuenthal said. He wanted to say something else, but then bit his tongue. “I’ll come.”
“I’m sorry,” Yang said.
Reuenthal was silent for a second. “Do you need somewhere else to go?” Reuenthal asked.
“No,” Yang said. “No, the count said I could stay.”
Reuenthal nodded, though Yang couldn’t see him over the phone. “Should I call him?” Reuenthal asked.
“Tomorrow, maybe,” Yang said. “Not now.”
“Are you alright?” Yang asked. “Is there anything I can do?” His voice had a wavering quality to it.
Reuenthal heard footsteps. He opened his eyes. His father was leaning in the doorway. “I have to go, Leigh,” he said. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Call me,” Yang said. “If you need anything.”
Reuenthal hung up the phone without responding.
“What was that?” his father asked.
“A friend,” Reuenthal said.
“The Countess Mariendorf.”
His father let out a snort of derision. “Figures.”
“What figures, sir?” Reuenthal asked, standing. He was suddenly angry.
“She had a brat, right?”
“She had a daughter, sir.”
His father stepped into the kitchen. Reuenthal tensed up, but his father just went to the fridge and took out a beer.
“A toast,” his father said, cracking the beer open and holding it up. “To all the women who abandon their husbands and children.”
“She didn’t kill herself, sir.”
“How would you know?”
“It was a car accident.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” his father said. “It’s probably easier to drive your car into a tree than it is to do most other things.”
Reuenthal didn’t feel like recounting the details to his father. “She wouldn’t do that, sir.”
“No? When I married your mother—“
Reuenthal had had enough. He tried to walk away past his father, but his father grabbed the collar of his shirt and yanked him to a halt. Reuenthal could smell his breath. “What do you want, sir?” Reuenthal asked.
“You go to that funeral, you give the count my sincerest condolences.”
Reuenthal would not be doing that, but he wanted his father to let go of him, so he said, “Yes, sir.” His father shoved him away, and Reuenthal retreated to his room.
The day of Countess Amelie Mariendorf’s funeral was hot and bright, without a single cloud in the blue sky, which the sun pierced like a needle. The hot, bright light glinted off of the brass on the casket. Reuenthal’s head was pounding, and he was sweating in his suit.
She was being buried in the family plot, in a distant corner of the Mariendorf estate. Reuenthal was standing next to Yang, who had basically not said a word the entire time, but who had looked at Reuenthal with such wide, sad eyes. He was stiff and still, too, and his hair was slicked back in an attempt to make him look neat and presentable for the various nobility who were in attendance at the funeral, but it mostly made him look uncomfortable and half unfamiliar to Reuenthal. It had been over a month since they had last seen each other.
Reuenthal tried to think about nothing, while he listened to the weepy reminiscences given by the countess’ fellow teachers at her school, and the sad, controlled voice of Franz. His eyes kept drifting to Hildegarde von Mariendorf, who was dressed in a suit, and who had red eyes but was not crying. She clutched her father’s hand desperately.
Reuenthal had been a little younger than she was when his own mother had died. But even then he had known that his father’s hand crushing his shoulder was not there for support. It wasn’t as though Reuenthal had lost an ally when she died. She had hated him, too, just like his father. So it shouldn’t have mattered. He thought about this, and looked at Hildegarde.
Yang’s father had died last April. Strange to think about that. Reuenthal suddenly realized that he had never heard anything about Yang’s mother. Where was she? He wouldn’t ask.
The service ended, the casket having been lowered into the cool, dark earth. Everyone tossed in their flowers, and then trickled off back to their homes and the world of the living. The count asked Reuenthal to speak with him for a moment, and so they walked back to the mansion. Yang sat with Hilde outside on the porch while Reuenthal followed the count inside, to his study.
Franz didn’t say anything for a moment, but poured two glasses of whiskey from the cabinet behind his desk and handed one to Reuenthal. They sat down across from each other.
Reuenthal did not often find himself at a loss for words, but he wasn’t precisely sure what to say to the count here. “I’m so sorry, sir,” he finally said.
The count nodded. He was looking across the room at a painting, a family portrait that he had commissioned several years ago, when Hilde was about five. For a family portrait of nobility, it was remarkably casual. Franz and Amelie were outdoors, sitting on a low stone wall, smiling at each other. Between them, Hilde was leaning on the other side of the wall, her chin on her hands, grinning out at the viewer. Reuenthal suspected that this framing was chosen to avoid needing to paint Hilde in either a skirt or pants. Either way, it was a charming image. It had been pastoral and quaint when it had been painted, but now it was melancholy to look at.
“Thank you for coming,” the count finally said. “I understand that it is difficult for you to get out sometimes.”
“It would have been unforgivably disrespectful for me not to come, sir,” Reuenthal said. He paused. “I am sorry that I didn’t visit earlier in the summer.”
The count shook his head. “It’s not as though you could have known.”
“No, sir.” Reuenthal took a sip of his drink. “But you and the countess have always been generous to me, and I have often paid that back with less gratitude than I owe.”
“Oskar—” the count said. “Amelie always understood your situation. Far better than I did, I think. There’s no need for you to feel guilty about that.”
It wasn’t guilt, exactly, that sat heavily on Reuenthal, but he nodded anyway. “Thank you, sir.”
“She was very proud of you.”
“I know, sir.”
“When your mother died, she wanted to take you away from your father, you know. But your father would never have agreed to that.”
Reuenthal had vague memories of the countess visiting his family home once, after the funeral, and the yelling match that had occured between her and Reuenthal’s father, but he hadn’t known what it was about at the time. He had been very young. “It’s fine, sir. I have my place.”
The count tipped his glass around. “Are you all right, Oskar?”
“If you ever do need a place to go, our doors are always open to you. That hasn’t changed.”
“Thank you, sir.” Reuenthal knew he would never take the count up on that offer, and the count knew that, as well, but it was the ritual of offering that was important. “Is there anything I can do for you, sir?” He hesitated a moment. “If you need Leigh to find a different place, I can—”
“No, no,” the count said. “Your friend Leigh has been the greatest help. He is welcome to stay for as long as he likes. I should thank you for sending him to us.”
Reuenthal nodded. “He is… a good man.”
“May I ask—” the count began, then shook his head.
“I’m curious about the nature of your relationship with Leigh. But it’s not my business.”
A frown crept onto Reuenthal’s face. “He is the closest friend I have ever had, nothing more and nothing less, sir.”
The count nodded. “Amelie had wondered— Well, it doesn’t matter.”
“No, sir,” Reuenthal said firmly.
The count nodded. “I understand.”
“How has Fraulein Hilde been?” Reuenthal asked, wanting to change the subject.
The count looked at his hands. “It is difficult for any child to lose their mother. She’s old enough to understand what’s happening. I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse.”
“Do you remember your mother at all, Oskar?”
“Some. But I was very young.”
The count shook his head. “She didn’t deserve what happened to her.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir,” Reuenthal said, feeling bitter at all of this. “She made her own choices.”
“Perhaps,” the count said. He looked at Reuenthal. “Amelie always said you had the best parts of her.”
“I don’t take after my father,” Reuenthal said, which was as neutral of a statement as he could make. He wished the count wasn’t bringing all of this up, but if the count needed to talk about this bitter history, then Reuenthal had no choice but to let him.
The count shook his head, a little pensive. “I knew your father before he married your mother. You wouldn’t like me to tell you that there is some resemblance, though.”
“He’s not my blood relation.”
The count ignored Reuenthal’s objection. “You’re proud, like he was. Intelligent, too. And the ways you move, sometimes, or talk. He’s not like that any longer, but when he was younger…” The count trailed off, and there was a very awkward silence for a moment. “I shouldn’t leave Hilde out there with Leigh for so long. He’s been too patient with me.”
“He is very grateful for your generosity,” Reuenthal said as the count stood. “And he likes Fraulein Hilde.”
The count’s smile was wan. “I know.” The count put his hand on Reuenthal’s shoulder for a second as they walked to the door of the study. “Please do come by any time, Oskar.”
“I will, sir,” but they both knew that was a lie.
Reuenthal found Yang outside, scuffing his feet on the lawn. He smiled when Reuenthal came over.
“Do you have to leave right away?” Yang asked.
“No, I can stay a little longer.” The sun was sinking down in the sky, and their shadows grew long as they walked away from the house, towards the pine woods that surrounded it. There were well maintained little walking trails there, and they went quietly, shoulder to shoulder, for a while, until they were well out of sight of the house itself.
Yang kept glancing at Reuenthal with a concerned expression, but he didn’t say anything, perhaps not wanting to say the wrong thing. Reuenthal’s conversation with the count had put him past the point of being offended by anything Yang could say, though.
“Count Mariendorf thanked me for sending you here,” Reuenthal said after a while, just to break the silence. “He says you’ve been a great help.”
Perhaps the tightness in Reuenthal’s voice had been enough to push Yang over the edge of concern. “Reuenthal, are you alright?”
Reuenthal let out a harsh laugh.
“I’m sorry,” Yang said.
“For once, von Leigh, this has nothing to do with you.”
Leigh flinched. Perhaps reminding Yang that he was the source of at least some of Reuenthal’s troubles had been too cruel. But it was too late to take that back. “Is there anything I can do?” Yang asked.
“Please don’t ask that question.”
Yang stopped walking. Reuenthal didn’t look at him. The shadows were gathering between the pines, wrapping them in warm darkness. The wind blew.
“Reuenthal…” Yang said.
And then Yang crossed the step of distance between them and wrapped his arms around Reuenthal, his hands clutching at the back of Reuenthal’s suit. Reuenthal’s breath froze in his lungs for a second, and he closed his eyes, shocked at the contact. He wasn’t sure if anyone had ever hugged him like this, and he was stiff until he forced himself to relax into the touch, putting his arms on Yang’s back, and his forehead on Yang’s shoulder.
In the darkness of the crook of Yang’s neck, he whispered, “I live in hell, Yang Wen-li.” He wasn’t sure if Yang heard him, because he didn’t say anything back, just continuing to hold Reuenthal. Perhaps he would have stayed that way for as long as Reuenthal let him, but Reuenthal pulled away after a few seconds.
The rest of the summer was not worth speaking about.