There’s a picture in her room that’s been there as long as she can remember. It’s moved from her nightstand to her dresser to a corner bookcase. Right now it’s hidden from view by dozens of other pictures she’s taken over the years of friends, family, even people she doesn’t know. But she doesn’t have to see the faded photograph to remember exactly what it looks like. It’s of a man in glasses and a red shirt sitting in the grass with a little girl’s head resting on his thigh as she sleeps. There’s no question the little girl is her. Even as a young woman ready to move out from her mother’s home, she can see the similarities. It’s the man she doesn’t recognize, at least, not in the way she should.
Elysia pauses from packing the suitcase on her bed and looks over at the bookshelf that’s become a display for her many photographs. She hasn’t thought about that picture in a long time. Honestly, she probably hasn’t seen it in years but it should still be there. There was a time she spent hours staring at that image of the past her mother put in her room as a child. She used to think if she stared long enough she might remember something, anything about the man she obviously felt so comfortable with. But she doesn’t. She knows he’s her father, but that’s all. She has no memories of her own. And why is she even thinking about that old picture now?
She turns toward the acceptance letter sitting on her dresser and knows the reason. She just hasn’t wanted to think about it. Elysia walks over to the dresser and picks up the creased letter she’s already read a dozen times. She was tempted to frame it considering how hard she’s worked over the last few years on the promise this might be possible, but she didn’t. It’s only a letter. She brushes her thumb over the fine paper and her eyes are drawn to the formal letterhead font instead of the words she’s read so many times already.
Maes Hughes State College of Liberal Arts
If she had any question why she would think of that old picture, those words say everything.
She ignores the header and focuses on the rest of the letter once more. A smile curls over her lips as she reads the words again. She was only hoping to be accepted, the full scholarship came as a surprise. Some might think she didn’t actually earn her way into the inaugural class on her own merit, but she knows it’s not true. Uncle Roy’s been preparing her for this opportunity for years. He always told her once was able he’d find a way to make her dreams possible, but that she’d have to earn her place. If anything, they were probably harder on her, under his direction of course. She shakes her head because she still has a hard time thinking of the well-dressed man who’s quietly been a part of her life for so long as the Fuhrer of Amestris.
Elysia drops the letter and sighs softly. None of this would be possible without the backing of the military, but that doesn’t mean she needs to like it. She’s despised the military for as long as she can remember. As far as she’s ever been able to see, all the military ever did was take people away. She knows on some level it has to do with losing her father, but it’s the loss of the neighbor boy down the street and her mother’s younger cousin that affected her more. She knew them and she mourned them when they came home in boxes. The military is the reason her own father is nothing but a story to her. It’s the reason she’s grown up with nice men like Cousin Timothy and Uncle Roy in her life instead of the father she should’ve had.
Her eyes narrow as she looks at the letterhead again. She can’t do this, not like this. She can’t go to this school and be constantly reminded of how wonderful her father was without knowing more. She knows all about “what a great man,” he was and how he loved her “very much.” She knows he used to carry pictures of her everywhere and show them to everyone and how “it’s so sweet” she’s into photography. She’s heard these things her whole life but they don’t tell her anything. They don’t tell her why the military was so much more important than her and her mother or why her mother put up with it. There’s no way she’d ever marry a military man and she doesn’t understand why her mother would. She fists her hand over the letter and takes a deep breath. It’s time to find out why.
Elysia turns quickly and walks over to her bookcase of pictures. She shoves the ones from her summer trip with friends and the ones of her and her mother last winter to the side. It has to be here somewhere. She pushes around some more frames and loose pictures then there, in the back, is a picture lying down. Elysia pulls out the photograph and blows some of the dust off. It’s exactly the way she remembers it, just a little more worn. She notices the edges are less faded than the rest, but that’s probably because of the frame it used to be in, scavenged awhile back for some other picture. She stares at the picture long and hard then turns sharply away from the bookcase and quickly walks out of her room.
This isn’t the first time she’s wanted to have a conversation like this, but it will be the first time she doesn’t back down. She needs to know. She needs to understand even if it makes sadness shine in her mother’s eyes. Elysia walks through the small apartment she grew up in and finds her mother in the kitchen. She’s nearly always in the kitchen. The smell of freshly baked pastry fills the room and she wonders what event this batch is for. Her mother’s talked about going back to work at the bakery full time, but Elysia wishes she wouldn’t. It’s never been spoken of aloud but she knows Uncle Roy has always helped out enough to where she only needed to work part time. She doesn’t see any reason that should change now.
Her mother glances at her as she enters the room and smiles so lovingly Elysia almost changes her mind. She clutches the picture in her hands. No, not this time. This time she won’t be swayed. Her mother pulls a fresh apple pie out of the oven and sets it on a towel next to the stove. She turns toward her and Elysia can tell she’s about to say something, but she doesn’t give her the chance. She needs to do this before she loses her nerve.
“Mom, I need you to tell me about him.” She turns the picture around and points to the man lounging back on the grass. Her mother’s eyes widen and grow shiny with emotion, but Elysia doesn’t let it stop her. “And don’t tell me about how much he loved me and what a wonderful man he was.” Her voice cracks with emotion she didn’t expect. She doesn’t even remember him, why does she feel tightness in her chest? “I want to know about him, the man. I want to know why you married him and-and I want to know why the military was so much more important than we were!”
Her voice grows loud and unsteady and this isn’t how she wanted this to go. Tears prick her eyes and when her mother comes close and wraps her arms around her they spill down her cheeks. She wasn’t going to do this. He wasn’t even part of her life! Why is she crying? Her mother’s hand runs over her back and Elysia relaxes when she makes that soft, soothing sound she always has when she was upset. She leans against her mother for another moment then pulls back slowly, wiping at her eyes.
“He did love you, Elysia.” Elysia focuses on the floor and doesn’t acknowledge her mother when she pushes her hair out of her face and behind her ear. Her mother remains quiet for a little longer then leans forward and kisses her forehead. “I wish you could remember more of him. He would be so proud of you right now.” Her voice trails off and Elysia’s certain she’s hurt her with her outburst, but she doesn’t sound like she’s upset. Elysia raises her gaze to see her mother giving her a strangely intense look. “I think I have something you’ll want to see.” Her mother reaches out and squeezes her hands still clutching the photo. “Wait here.”
Elysia blinks in confusion as her mother pulls away and walks out of the kitchen. She almost looked…happy? No, definitely not happy, but she wasn’t upset. There was a slight smile on her face though. Elysia looks after her mother and considers following her. What could she possibly have to show her she hasn’t seen already? She shifts on her feet then finally moves over to the kitchen table to sit and wait.
She doesn’t have to wait long. About a minute or two after she sits down, her mother returns with a small wooden box. She’s seen it before, but never thought much about it. It’s always been on the small table near her mother’s bed. Elysia looks closely at it and for the first time realizes some of the designs carved in it look almost Ishvalan. Uncle Roy brought her some new art books a couple months ago in preparation for school and she remembers seeing some designs similar to the ones on the old wooden box. She knew they looked familiar, but at the time she couldn’t place them. She lifts her head to look at her mother curiously when she sets the box in front of her.
“Not long after your father and I started dating he was transferred east to fight in Ishval.” Elysia nods and looks at the box suspiciously. As she’s grown older, more and more details about the “Ishvalan rebellion” have been made public and she wonders exactly how her father obtained this beautiful trinket. Her mother opens the box and Elysia blinks and tilts her head at the contents. Dozens of letters are stacked inside, tied with a ribbon, and she looks up at her mother for explanation.
“It started then, but anytime your father was away we’d keep in contact through letters.” Her mother smiles wistfully as she pulls out the stack of letters and holds them against her chest. “He would still call, but he said when he was in a bad situation he liked to have a letter to keep close and wanted to give me the same.” She hands the letters to Elysia and rests a hand on her back. “Take your time. I think you may find some of what you’re looking for with these.” Her mother leans down and kisses her on the forehead again then smiles. “I love you too.”
Elysia turns her eyes to the stack of letters in her hands as her mother walks out of the room. Are these all from her father? She unties the ribbon holding them together and they scatter across the table. There’s so many. She shakes her head and then inspects them further. The first thing she notices is half of them have her mother’s beautiful flowing script on them and she realizes these must be her letters as well. She sifts through them and also sees they are dated which should make things easier. She looks through them again, this time putting them in a general order, then picks up the oldest one with her father’s neat, slanted print. She stares at if for a good minute before realizing her hands are trembling.
She shakes her head angrily. There’s no reason she should feel this way. It’s a letter. What could it possibly say that should make her so nervous? The envelope is slit along the top and she pulls the letter out, unfolding it quickly. She can’t imagine what her mother wants her to see, but at least she’ll be able to get a little idea what he must’ve been like. She shifts to get more comfortable in her chair then begins to read.
My dearest Gracia,
I wish I could count the days until I see you again, but now that we’ve reached the engagement area I have no idea how long it will be. I’m not supposed to talk about the battles or where we are, but please know time doesn’t matter to me. One day I will see you again and we will have the life we’ve talked about. We will have a house with little ones running around and maybe one of those dogs your parents had when you were growing up. The military isn’t forever, my love. Just know one day I’ll be coming back to you.
Elysia frowns at the words because they aren’t what she expected. He’s talking about leaving the military and having a future, but he never did any of those things. And he doesn’t even reference the war, just calls it some “engagement” instead of what it really was. Is that how they massacred so many? They pretended it was no big deal? Uncle Roy at least tends to look ashamed and regretful when the past is brought up, even if he won’t talk about it. What kind of a man was he? Elysia reaches for the next envelope, this one in her mother’s script and pulls the letter from the narrow slit along the end of the envelope.
My Darling Maes,
News from the East is confusing at best but I believe you when you say you’ll come back to me. I’m waiting with open arms my darling. I know I won’t be complete until my brave soldier comes back home. Mother’s already talking about how wonderful it will be to have a son-in-law that’s an officer in the military. Yes, I told you, she’s already in love with you. The entire family is. I told them it was too soon to speak of such things, but you know my mother. She’ll attempt to have a whole wedding planned before we even announce a date. I hope her eagerness doesn’t scare you off.
I love you, my brave soldier.
Elysia smiles at her mother’s love flowing off the page and giggles softly at the thought of Grams being so eager for a wedding. She understands all too well. Every time she sees her Grams is always asking if she’s dating and when she’ll be making her a great grandmother. Elysia shakes her head. Apparently some things never change. She reaches for the next one in the stack and pulls out a letter stained by some liquid, maybe coffee. She smoothes it out to read.
My dearest Gracia…
I apologize for the stained paper, but I have to tell you it’s not my fault! I’m just glad the coffee was spilled on the paper before I wrote you this letter or I’m afraid it wouldn’t have been readable at all. Supplies are scarce on the front so please forgive the messiness. I couldn’t get a hold of any other paper and I didn’t want to wait any longer to write you, my dearest.
Do you remember that friend of mine from the Academy I told you about? Roy Mustang? Well he’s the one you can blame for the stain. He arrived yesterday and get this, he’s gone and become a State Alchemist! And a pretty impressive one at that. Would you believe he can make fire by snapping his fingers? YES! They call him the Flame Alchemist. It’s been nice to catch up. I’ve told him all about you and I’m sure he’s rightly jealous, especially when I showed him the picture you sent. Thank you so much, my darling, I will keep it with me every day.
We’re still on the outer edges of the fighting so I haven’t seen much action yet. Word is that may change soon. I can’t say much more than that. Oh, and about your mother, tell her to plan whatever she likes because when I get home I want to give you the biggest, most beautiful wedding of your dreams!
Yours until the end of time,
Elysia shakes her head at the almost jovial tone of the letter. He sounds almost like he’s away on vacation. Was Uncle Roy the same way? He doesn’t seem so now. She can’t believe how lightly he takes Uncle Roy’s alchemy too. Fire is dangerous! Why doesn’t he understand that, or didn’t he care? She shuffles the letters around to find the next one he sent, wanting to see if the lighthearted trend continues. Maybe it was all a lie to cover everything up?
Sorry to take so long between letters. I did receive all of yours and cherish every one. I am well. So is Roy. We have joined the fighting but I can’t say much more. Know that I’m doing everything I can to be safe. I will come back to you. Never doubt that Gracia. I’ll serve my time and then we can work on that future we always talked about.
I’m glad to hear you love your job at the bakery. I want to hear everything. Please don’t leave anything out. I reread your letters every night and always keep them with me. I can’t wait to you hold again too.
I love you, Gracia.
Elysia blinks and stares at the hastily scribbled words. It’s obvious this letter is completely different from the others from the tone, the messy writing and the dark stain in the corner she knows isn’t coffee. Things obviously changed and she can hear the unspoken fear in words. This was what she expected in a letter from war…but she didn’t expect the way it would make her feel. Even though the letter is over twenty years old she still feels fear for the one who wrote it. It makes her itch to know more and she snatches up another letter, written by her mother this time.
My Darling Maes,
I’ve quit my job at the bakery. The conversation was too boring. I’ve begun working as an apprentice seamstress—
Elysia drops the letter, stunned. It doesn’t make any sense. She notices a fresh cup of hot tea by her side and she reaches for it, sipping as she continues to puzzle over the first few lines. Her mom loves working at the bakery. The last letter even said so. She shuffles through the scattered letters and finds one of the ones she skipped. She skims over it and sure enough her mother’s talking about how she enjoys talking to the customers and how she loves to see their smiles at something she baked them.
This makes no sense. She still loves spending time at the bakery, not to mention, if there’s one thing she knows her mother hates more than anything it’s sewing. Elysia takes another sip of the tea. It’s her favorite and she suddenly realizes her mother must have made it for her without her notice. She shakes her head. Ever since she can remember they’ve always taken even the smallest things in need of mending to a seamstress to repair. Her mother wouldn’t touch a needle and thread. Elysia reaches for the original letter again.
I’ve begun working as an apprentice seamstress for the military. It seems there are always uniforms that need to be made, mended or repaired. The talk is much more interesting here as there is always someone from the military either coming or going. People don’t pay much mind to us as long as we get everything finished on time.
Word is your friend is becoming quite the hero. Josephine and I have been volunteering in the military hospital when work allows and many there credit him with saving their lives. It must be a real honor to serve so closely with someone so brave. My darling, please know that I fear for you every day and can’t wait for when this is over.
Elysia stares long and hard at words on the page and can’t shake the feeling more is being said than what she’s reading. She knows her mother has to be lying about the bakery, but why? And why is she making it sound like he and Uncle Roy were serving side by side when the last letters gave no indication of that ? Was she trying to tell him something? She frowns and sets the letter down. Until now she had no idea her mother ever worked for the military in any capacity, surely not as a seamstress or a nursing volunteer. Why didn’t she ever mention it and why would she do it anyway?
She scans through a few more exchanges and it’s more of the same, her mother saying things that don’t quite make sense and her father never calling her on the strange information. Elysia sifts through more of the letters from Ishval until she notices one not quite like the rest. The date is marked the same way in her mother’s careful hand but from the looks of the envelope it doesn’t seem like it was ever mailed. She frowns and pulls out a letter much more worn than the others that doesn’t match the envelope it’s in. Was it put in the envelope later? Why?
My hope is that this letter makes it to you intact. I’ve sent it by way of an injured friend who I hope survives long enough to make it back to Central. I wanted to speak freely to you for the first time in so long.
You have no idea how much your sacrifices have meant to me and know I have understood every word. I was able to get transferred to my friend’s command and I can tell you, it was just in time. I hate to be so blunt, but you need to know your efforts are definitely not in vain. I’m keeping my promise to you, my love. I will survive, even though the cost is steeper than I ever imagined. We are all fighting to survive, but now I hope we have a purpose.
I know I promised you this would be over one day, and if you ask me to one day walk away I will. But you need to know. This world we live in isn’t right. None of this is right and it needs to change, but what can one man do? It’s a foolish question, I realize this. One man can’t change the world. Everyone who’s not a child knows this. But what if I told you one man has the stupidity of a child and thinks he can change everything? Would you think I was crazy if I told you I believed him?
My love, I hope one day soon I can tell you these things in person because there is so much to tell. Please know when this is over my life is with you. You are my world, you and all the beautiful children I want to have with you one day. I could live to be a very happy old man with you by my side. But I have to ask, is this the world we want to live in?
I L U
Elysia blinks in shock at the words on the page because they are nothing like the rest. They’re honest. And if she’s to be honest with herself…they say everything she always wished to hear her father say. He loved them, even more than the military. But it’s so much more than that. Even then he saw what took their country over a decade to own up to. She thought he was a willing soldier slaughtering the Ishvalans, but if some of the other letters are any indication that couldn’t be further from the truth.
She shakes her head as she continues to stare in wonder at the letter. It makes sense now. Her mother took the job as a seamstress and volunteered at the hospital to gather information her father couldn’t get. All the strange stories about people she didn’t recognize were code, a code they somehow worked out together. Who knows maybe the very reason she worked at the hospital was to give her father the chance to send this letter! Elysia shakes her head again. She’s always respected her mother, but never in her wildest dreams could she ever imagine her doing something so dangerous. And her father, if this letter had been intercepted he could surely have been executed for treason. She stares wide-eyed at the neatly slanted print. All he wanted to do was make the world a better place.
So what happened next?
Elysia tears through the pile looking for the next letter and her hands shake when she finds it. She rips it out of the envelope, tearing it slightly and unfolds it quickly. She needs to know what happened next. She needs to see what her mother told him.
My sweet Maes,
You are more than one woman could ever ask for. Each day I thank the stars to have such a brave soldier to love. Please know loving you is no hardship and I do it willingly and with my entire heart. Every moment of the day I spend loving you I do because my heart can see no other way. It is my choice and I could never make another. I only hope your heart can do the same.
Promises made in the dark are beautiful and poetic, but it’s the ones made in the light that mean the most. Those are the ones that matter and the ones that will one day carry you home again. Follow your heart, my darling, and know I will be with you always. I have all the faith in the world that together our love can change the future. You have already changed mine, please know I will give all my heart to do the same for you.
Until we meet again, my hero.
A broad grin spreads across Elysia’s face as she reads the words that are so ridiculously over the top. This time she understands. The flowery language and dense wording were to throw off anyone who might intercept the letter. It reads as a love letter, nothing more. But it’s so much more and explains everything. The friend he was referring to before had to be Uncle Roy. Her mother always told her he was her father’s closest friend and for him to make it all the way to Fuhrer…. It had to be their plan all along.
She raises her eyes to stare out the kitchen window and is surprised to see the fading light of day. Has she been reading the entire afternoon? She looks down and there are still so many more letters, some after the war, and she wants to read every one. She will, but she’s already found what she was looking for. The military wasn’t more important than they were and her father didn’t make his choices alone. They made them together and she’s still stunned to know just how much a part of things her mother was.
Elysia starts when she hears a sound but it must be her mother coming back into the room. She raises her eyes to look at her and realizes she looks different. She can’t really describe it but it’s almost like she knows her for the first time. How much more is there to this story? What else doesn’t she know? Her mother gives her the same warm smile she’s known all her life and she wonders how she never realized how amazingly strong she is. She only ever looked at her as “Mom,” but it’s obvious now that in her life she’s been so much more.
“He loved us,” Elysia says and for the first time in her life it’s not only words.
“Yes he did.”
Her mother moves behind her chair and wraps her arms around her. Elysia leans back into the comforting embrace until her gaze lands on the small wooden box that contained the letters. It’s one of the things she hasn’t had answered that she needs to know. She’s certain her mother wouldn’t keep if it were “war spoils.” But she has to ask. “Mom, where did he get that box?”
Her mother pulls back then sits down in the kitchen chair beside her. She reaches for the box with a soft smile on her lips and she traces her fingers over the hand carved designs. “One day when he was in Ishval a small child wandered into a hostile area. Your father rescued him without a scratch and his mother gave him this box as a thank you.” She sets the box down on the table and rests her hand on top of it. “It was one of his most prized possessions.”
Elysia looks on in wonder at the story because it has to be true. Why else would he take the trouble to bring home something so simple unless it meant so much. Her eyes scan the table littered with so many bits of the past until her gaze lands on the picture she found earlier. She snatches it up and stares at the man in it. She runs her finger over his face and for the first time she can remember she feels like she knows him. She swallows against the lump forming in her throat and raises her head to look at her mother. “Mom, do you think we could find another frame for this? I’d like to take this with me.”
“Of course. We can see what we can find tomorrow.”
Her mother gets up and moves around the kitchen, obviously getting things ready for dinner. Elysia watches her for a moment and remembers her thoughts from earlier and how she couldn’t understand why her mother might want to work at the bakery full time. She glances at the letters on the table and imagines the strong, independent woman who risked so much to help the one she loved. It’s no wonder she wants to get out in the world again, and she should.
“Mom, I think you should take the full time job at the bakery.” Her mother turns to look at her, curiosity written on her face. Elysia gathers up the letters and stacks them back in the box then pushes out of her chair to go help her mother with dinner. There will be time for more letters later. Maybe her mother will even want to read some with her. “Yes, I think it would be good.” Elysia motions to some of the baked goods her mother made earlier. “It’s not fair that everyone can’t enjoy these.” She kisses her mother’s cheek then goes to wash her hands to help prep the food.
“I’ll think about it.”
Elysia grins even more when she sees the smile on her mother’s face. She’s pretty sure she’ll do more than think about it and she’s glad. She deserves to enjoy this world she helped make possible. “Good. You should.” She moves over to the counter beside her mother as she dries her hands on a towel. “Do you think that maybe, tonight, you could tell me some more stories about Daddy?”
“I’d like that.” Her mother smiles brightly and Elysia notices her eyes don’t fill with the same sadness she’s accustomed to. Could she have known she had hard feelings about her father? Could that be why she’s always looked so sad whenever she mentioned him? They really should have done this a long time ago.
Elysia walks back over to the table and looks down at the photograph again. She traces her finger over the very content image of herself and smiles. She may not remember when this was taken, or the sound of his voice, but she does know he was a good man who loved her mother very much. She’d heard those things about him before, but now that she’s been able to hold the proof of it in her hands it’s different.
There’s still so much more she wants to know and she will. She’ll read the letters and finally ask about the stories she should have asked about a long time ago. Maybe even Uncle Roy will be willing to tell her some. She thinks about the letter in her bedroom and smiles again. She’s not afraid of what people may say to her at school anymore. No, when people do take note of her name she’ll be proud to be called Maes and Gracia Hughes’ daughter.