Moving the dishes to the sink Christine shook her head in despair at Erik, who was reading from his book. Her husband was almost pointedly ignoring Isaac who had held out his toy to his father several times now. After one more attempt the little boy let out a frustrated wail. Leaving the dishes for what they were Christine hurried to her little boy and sank to her knees.
“What have you got there, sweetie?” She chirruped at Isaac with all the cheer she could manage, while at the same time staring daggers at Erik.
The strange behavior of her husband frustrated Christine to no end. It was unfathomable. Erik was by no means a neglectful father. He had loved his son from the moment she had told him she was expecting. Of course there had been the understandable fear that the child would be cursed with his face, but Christine had helped him over this. She had explained that no matter how their child would turn out, it would be loved. It had gone so well after that: Erik had doted on baby Isaac so much that Christine almost had to fight him to spent time with the infant. But as the boy grew and became active something seemed to shift. It was barely noticeable at first but one day Christine understood: Erik never played with his son! Whenever Isaac would try to involve his father in a game, Erik would stiffen up and pretend to be busy with whatever he could make up at the time. Sometimes he would simply leave the room.
Why would any father be so cruel? Christine wondered. But, she thought, Erik wasn’t cruel to Isaac in any other way. He clearly adored him, a thing he showed with the love that beamed from his eyes when looking at his son. He could sit with his boy for hours on end, there where his careful all to brief hugs, the stories he would read to him and the songs he sang at his bedside to help him sleep at night.
No, it wasn’t a lack of care at Erik’s part. But whatever it was, he had to get over it soon, as his behavior was upsetting Isaac and that frustrated Christine more and more.
One day Isaac put one of his bouncing balls on Erik’s lap and giggle, expecting his father to throw it back to him. Instead Erik stiffened in fear and gazed up at Christine helplessly.
“Christine … I …” He started falteringly, as Isaac begun to cry in frustration.
Looking at the scene Christine saw red. She had enough of this, why was Erik being so ridicules? Why couldn’t he act like a normal person for once?!!
“Erik, what are you doing?” she exploded, the anger in her voice causing Erik to flinch. “For goodness-sake, why don’t you throw the ball at him?”
A confused blink from Erik.
“Wouldn’t that hurt him?”
This was too much! Did Erik truly think she wanted him to throw the ball at Isaac’s head?
“Not literally, at him you fool! Bounce it to him.” Christine snapped, her voice turning hoarse from anger. Everything she had bottled up for weeks on end was bubbling to the surface and so, without Christine meaning to her mouth ran away with her; “You stupid man!! Don’t you even know how to throw a ball at your own son?! What kind of freak are you?!!”
The second the words escaped her mouth it felt as if the air was sucked out of the room.
The look of utter hurt from Erik as the digs fell upon him made Christine wish she could have hold them back.
A long silence as Erik stared at her in frozen disbelieve, his eyes dark. Christine swallowed as she looked at him. It was as if all the love and trust she had seen in his eyes had shriveled up and disappeared into a pool of grief and disappointment.
What had she done? How could she have said something like that to Erik. She had called him a “freak”, of all the words she could have chosen she had used “freak”!! The hurtful word that they had used to describe him as he’d been displayed in the terrible sideshows. It was the word everyone who had ever abused or hurt him had used and now his own wife, the one person he trusted, had tainted him with it once more.
“Erik …” she begun. “I’m so ...”
A flash of black shot through Erik’s eyes as she spoke and he rose from his chair stiffly. Without looking at his wife he walked past her into his own room, locking the door. Soon thunderous organ music begun. It only lasted briefly, then there was nothing but by an icy silence.
After a while the silence was replaced by Christine’s sobs and pleading for Erik to open the door but he steadfastly refused to answer. After some time Christine begun to calm down and for a while there was Isaac who needed attention: their little one needed his afternoon snack and a nap.
Once Isaac as fully taken care of and sleeping soundly, Christine once more found herself standing at Erik’s door. Having had some time to think about what had gone between them she had decided that explaining to Erik why she had been so angry with him might be more beneficial than simply begging him to let her in.
“Erik, please understand. I didn’t mean to hurt you like this. The reason that I snapped at you is because it makes me so sad that you refuse to play with Isaac. It upsets him so much and I don’t want our child to be unhappy and I know you don’t want that either ...”
More silence fell on Christine and she sank sadly to the floor.
It was no use, she thought. What if she had driven Erik away from her for good?
Just as more tears where threatening to overwhelm her there was a soft click from the lock in the door by her side.
Swiftly Christine scrambled to her feet and entered the dimly lit room.
It took Christine a while to get used to the near darkness, safe for one burning candle, that filled Erik’s chamber. Then it took her even longer to locate her husband. Finally she noticed him standing in a far corner, facing the wall, his arms wrapped around himself protectively. Her heart broke when she saw how dejected his posture was. It almost appeared as if his distress was radiating from him.
“Erik ...” she whispered. “I … I’m so sorry.”
A shivering flinch coursed through Erik’s body and then he turned to gaze at her with eyes that were filled with all the sadness in the world.
“It’s true, I am a freak, Christine …” he said his voice dark with sorrow, “you don’t have to apologize for telling me the truth.”
Erik’s voice sounded like a knife of pain, his suffering stabbing at Christine’s heart. What had she done? She worried as she looked at Erik. Oh, it had been years since she had seen him so broken, so utterly hopeless. It made her realize that she had almost forgotten that Erik was not like others, that there had been a long, dark painful life he had lived before he knew her.
“Don’t do this Erik. Don’t say this. You are not a freak, you are my husband and I love you and Isaac loves you too.”
“Why …?” Erik sobbed brokenly. “Why would he love me? What kind of father doesn’t know how to play with his own son!!”
At that his anguish seemed to overwhelm him and Erik sank to his knees at Christine’s feet.
For a moment Christine stood there, rigid, her mind spinning from Erik’s words.
“What kind of father doesn’t know how to play with his own son!”
So that was it? Erik didn’t know how to play with a child? This explained everything! Her poor Erik. How could she have been so foolish not to notice what was going on. Why had he not told her? She would have tried to help him somehow.
Dimly she became aware again of Erik at her feet, sobbing into her dress in despair. Swiftly she knelt down to take her upset husband into her arms.
“It’s alright Erik, it’s alright my love.” Christine said soothingly, as Erik wept against her shoulder. “It’s not your fault, I swear. I knew something was wrong and I should have talked to you sooner.”
For a while Erik could not speak, his deep grief choking him up. Christine simply let him cry, hoping it would help him to get it all out. She sang soothingly, wanting Erik to be reminded of the voice he loved, not the one that had called him names that hurt him. After some time the crying depleted, leaving an exhausted Erik laying limply in her arms.
“I would understand it if you left me Christine,” he said in a tired but clearly tormented voice.
For a second Christine closed her eyes, she had to remain calm. What had been going on with Erik for him to think she had even considered leaving him?
“Erik my love, I am not leaving. Why do you think I would?"
She felt Erik suck in a long breath, it seemed to cost him a lot to answer her question.
“Be … because I am a failure, I am a terrible father. Did you really think I had not noticed how I am hurting Isaac and because of that hurt you in the process?”
That was painful, Christine shuddered. “Erik, you are not a terrible father, I swear!”
But Erik had not even heard her, his shaky voice explaining his agony to her accompanied by sobbing breaths.
“Christine, maybe I wasn’t when he was a baby. All he needed was food and love … but now … I can’t give him the things that normal fathers would … because I don’t know what these things are supposed to be.”
What? Did Erik really think that he was doing so badly? The poor man.
“You are already doing them Erik, can’t you see that?”
But Erik stubornly refused to believe her.
“I must have been doing something wrong, else I would not have angered you like that.”
That was true ... But still, he did not deserve to think he had ever been as terrible as he clearly thought he was. That simply wasn't true.
“Don’t Erik, I never would have been this angry if you had simply told me something was bothering you.”
For a moment Erik simply sat against her, breathing heavily as he considered her words. Then he confessed:
“I was so embarrassed. I felt I was letting you down most of all. You had a perfect father …”
Her father ... Of course. Now she begun to see things more clearly. She had practically painted him as an infalible saint to Erik.
“Erik, he made mistakes too." She tried, Erik shouldn't feel as if he had to live up to anything. Being himself was hard enough for him. "No-one is perfect. Also my father did not have the life you have led. Sweetie, have you truly never played … ever?”
Sniffling a little Erik shook his head.
"Tell me ... if you can." Christine encouraged him, sensing his need to explain.
“There was no childhood for me,” Erik begun, “For most of my early years I was locked up in a room without company. No toys, no games. Later on my owners would never let their children near me. The first time I ever truly saw another child was when they would jeer at me in front of my cage as I performed. Christine … I never learned how to play … After all, who’d play with a freak.”
“I would have ...” Christine said, her voice shaking.
“If only that were true …” Erik sighed, his voice barely above a whisper.
Swallowing at the lump in her throat, Christine was at a loss of what to say. How could she have even thought that anything about Erik’s childhood had been normal? Of course he’d never played. It sounded so logical and yet it felt so deeply devastating. In her mind she could see a little boy, locked in a room with nothing to keep him company. A little boy that soon would be forcibly humiliated every day on stages all over the world. Feeling protective she hugged Erik even tighter, thinking of the pain he must have felt watching Isaac play and not know how to reach out and join him.
Something had to change, she knew. Isaac was too young to understand the pain of his father and Erik … it was clear that he could not suffer much more of this. All Erik wanted was to have fun and play with his child. Could playing really be that hard to grasp if someone helped him with it? If she helped him? If she could teach Isaac games, why not Erik?
“I will help you my love, don’t worry everything will be alright.” Christine said, as she kissed his brow.
“You will help me? How?” Erik asked, sounding almost sceptical.
Christine thought for a second, then she simply stated: “I’ll teach you all there is to know about playing.”
Her words made Erik sit up and look at her. “Can you still learn that, even if you’re not a child?” his face and voice were filled with both disbelieve and hope. If she were ever to convince him it was now, before he’d draw back inside himself again.
“Of course Erik,” she begun. “I mean only last week you managed to teach yourself how to play a Chinese Guqin in four days, so how hard could it be to learn how to throw a ball?”
That, thankfully made Erik laugh and encouraged Christine to continue. There was something that had come to her mind while stating her case.
“There are lots of things you and Isaac could do right now. You could join him with drawing and coloring.”
That made Erik take note; “He’d like that?” he asked, a small glimmer of hope in his voice.
“Of course.” Christine said confidently. “And you could do pretend play, my father would do that sometimes.”
“What is that?” Erik’s voice was sad again. Too far too soon already, Christine understood. She quickly explained.
“It’s perfect for you Erik. It’s bit like acting and story telling. I’ll show you.”
Acting and storytelling, two of Erik’s talents, Christine knew. And yes, the realization that playing might not be that hard when it actually involved things he knew about made Erik grow more confident.
“I can do that. That sounds like fun.” He seemed to enjoy this aspect more, so Christine continued as she made him lay in her lap and softly stroked his hair.
“It is. Oh Erik, there are so many things you can do with Isaac that you already have within you. Like … teach him music. Remember how you taught me how to play the harp? You were so gentle and patient.”
“But Isaac is far too small for the harp!” Erik interjected, a mortified look on his face, making Christine utter a soft snort of laughter.
“Erik, I don’t necessarily mean the harp. Really. Have Isaac sit with you as you play piano and if he asks show him the notes … He loves it when you play, so I think that could be a wonderful thing for the two of you. You are a great dad Erik, and you can do this.”
Thankfully believing her words, a happy sigh escaped Erik as he looked up at Christine.
“Thank you ...” he whispered, “you have no idea how much it means to me that you think I can do this.”
“You can do this, Erik.” Christine insisted sweetly as she bended forward to kiss her husbands forehead.
“I love you so much …”
Before she could answer Christine was surprised by a soft thud behind her and something rolling towards Erik. It was a ball. Obviously they had sat there talking for so long that Isaac had woken up by now.
The ball gently bumped Erik’s hand when it stopped. For a second she could feel the shock that went through Erik when he noticed. That flinch made the worry that had ebbed out of Christine return: was Erik ready for this?
Softly Erik released himself from Christine’s arms then, agonizingly slowly, he picked up the ball. For a long moment he looked at the object wistfully, then a smile appeared on his thin lips. Carefully, as if he feared it would break, he placed the ball on the floor and gave it a push.
“There you go,” Erik said with love in his voice as the ball rolled towards his son.
Blissfully unaware of all the emotions that filled his parents a beaming Isaac picked the ball up when it reached him and threw it towards Erik once more.
“Dada, again!!” the happy boy cheered.
As the ball slowly rolled towards Erik, Christine felt him take her hand and she squeezed it. Looking up at him she could see that his eyes were wet, but this time she knew his tears were tears of joy, not grief. The smile on his face was far too bright for that.