THORNS OF THE VINE
The entire town knew of our families’ feud, though no one could agree on what caused the age-old rancor. Some said Christopher’s great-grandfather enticed my great-grandfather’s sweetheart with the use of a wily smile. Others said a wayward uncle was guilty of stealing fish from the Anderson nets when the fishery meant food in the cupboard or penury and disgrace. Whatever it was, the anger from the confounded event stuck and my father despised Christopher and his, and like past men of our line, expected his children to share this sentiment.
We did not.
My sister and I, twins and close beyond comprehension, found nothing to dislike in Christopher. He was kind, intelligent, and delightfully handsome. There was great pleasure in his company and it was often sought when we figured father too busy to notice. He did notice however, and hammered our bottoms fiercely, threatening more should he catch us wandering the Anderson way a second time.
Sister took heed. I could not.
I’d bonded with Christopher in a light striking way, and though we’d nothing sure in common, our feelings equaled the heat of a mid-winter’s hearth. It fired me against my father’s will and I went to Christopher often, to talk, to feel his presence, to grow through his understanding. His appreciative smile rewarded my every visit.
I don’t believe Father knew of my indiscretion, but as I grew it became obvious he disliked me in a terrible way. There seemed nothing I could do to curb his jibes and jeers, to deflect his boots often colliding with my torso. I tried to please him in different ways, but even my kindest poetry sparked his ire. This aversion caused Mother’s softness toward me and her stiffness toward him. He blamed her womb for this, and Mother often wept when he ranted about having received cursed twins rather than a strapping son. This was sorrowfully uncomfortable and sowed a great wedge between myself and Mother.
Sister and I avoided their qualms by playing dress up in the attic and doing one another’s hair by the shoreline. We talked for hours in the late night about books, dreams, and boys, pretending we both were loved. Because though Sister wasn’t openly disliked by Father, his obsession over me and mother’s unpleasant doting forced her to feel a shadow in every room, situation, and moment. She’d taken to cutting herself, hoping they’d soon notice.
They did not.
I followed father into his portage on rackets once, with a hope of mending our differences, or at least to broach my concerns for Sister. Not even quarter of the way in, as I chatted alongside him, father heaved me into the air, and threw me behind him upon our trail. My woven racket twisted awkwardly beneath me and I’d shrieked with pain of which he remained completely indifferent, though somewhat disgusted.
“Get the hell home,” he wailed. “I can’t stand to be near you!”
He left me crumpled in the snow-covered wood.
Christopher happened by with his father’s dog team in brilliant health. He carefully lifted me onto his sled and cleaned my tear-streaked face. This easy acceptance of my cursed frailty strangely induced strength, and I wished everyone in the world were like him.
Father never apologized. Not even when the doctor bound my ankle in a cast.
Later that summer I worked hard at never being home. The only light I’d had there was Sister, but she’d been snuffed and her darkness was more than I could stand. In Christopher’s presence I could breathe again. His affections cleansed my mind and heart, and when at last he moved to kiss me, I let him with such a relief I felt I should lift from the ground like a feather, to dance upon the sun-kissed breeze.
I loved him. Absolutely I did, and I wished the world to know. Such a beautiful thing to find endearment. I had been blessed, for I knew by way of my parents, not everyone does. But I had fallen for Christopher. It wasn’t allowed. And so we kept our intimacy secret.
It was after a fresh swim in the river that he found us. We were huddled together upon the sand shivering beneath a blanket and laughing. I’d stepped on a flounder and my shriek had moved the surrounding birds into the blue.
A shock of pain blew me backward.
I heard Chris call my name, but it was plastic compared to the raining blows upon my head, ribs, and back. When they stopped, a great paw lifted me by the hair.
“You disgrace me,” Father spit in my face. “What are you doing here? How dare you shame your family like this?”
Through the blood in my eyes I saw Chris barrel into him, and Father jerked to the side. I crumpled to the ground mere inches from them, but could do nothing when Father easily conquered Chris and beat his beautiful face bloody.
“This is your doing, Anderson. This is all your fault!”
Christopher went limp.
“If I see you together again, I’ll kill you both!”
The next day, though I could barely walk, I was shipped off, cast out. To a catholic school I was sent, and there I quickly learned the way of a chameleon. Blending in became my life. I was good at it though it gave me no joy.
Sister sent a letter once, letting me know she was about to marry. I noted the word love had not been mentioned.
“If you married,” the letter begged “he’ll let me visit. I need to see you, to know it’s true I exist. I look in the mirror but it’s not the same. Not even my reflection acknowledges me.”
Chris had survived Father’s beating, she informed, but if Father even suspected I reached out to him, he’d gladly finish Chris off.
And so I kept my distance and felt my poor heart shrink.
Two years later I wed and it was a complete farce. Having Sister near was comforting, though meeting her husband was a blow to the stomach. He was the image of Father in character, and after that reunion I’d not see Sister again.
Without love my marriage quickly decayed, and after playing house for twenty years we grew tired of make-believe. Without children the divorce was easy and a great solace.
I buried myself in work.
Last week my secretary announced a visitor was requesting my time, though no appointment had been made. “Says he’s an old friend.”
When Christopher entered the room the world stuttered and a force of energy pulsed between us. As my secretary closed the door behind her, I moved carefully around my desk.
There was evidence of Father’s beating in his aged face, mostly in his disfigured nose, but he was still beautiful. And he still loved me.
At first I was self-conscious. I’d not expected such an important meeting that day. My hand lifted to my cheek; I’d forgotten to shave.
He recognized my embarrassment and took a tentative step closer. “You look good Frederick.”
I was defenceless and let the tears fall and my chameleon skin shed. When his warm arms embraced me, I was a young man once again.
Amid the thorns of my past I felt rose buds bloom in my heart. What father thought no longer mattered because this was real, this was beautiful. My Anderson boy held me and I felt more human than I had in decades.
“This is our time, Frederick,” he whispered, and all I could do was weep.
**For LGBT Pride Month**