To my father
The doctor raised his face. It was absolutely white.
The father of the new-born child stopped the doctor with a gesture full of authority.
"You may keep silence. I know."
The nurse glanced at the masked father. Erik came up to the doctor and took the baby in his arms.
"Thank you. I'm sorry that you've got distressed..."
"But poor Madame! What would she think when she awakens?" - the nurse cried.
"That's my problem."
Erik put the child next to his mother's breast. Christine was still unconscious, the birth had been hard. The baby immediately found her breast and began sucking on it.
"All right, Monsieur. If you excuse us..."
"Yes. You may go. Thank you."
The doctor and the nurse left the room. The nurse, who didn't know what fine hearing Erik possessed, said to the doctor:
"They should drown the child at once."
Erik was at the door immediately.
"Mademoiselle, if you want someone to be drowned, I will offer my own services in drowning YOU!"
The doctor mumbled "Sorry, sir" and quickly left, followed by the nurse.
Erik returned to his wife and sat next to the bed, looking at her oblivious face and at the tiny bundle sucking on her breast...
* * *
Of course, he had foreseen this possibility. How could he not? He didn't know whether his deformity had been an inherited flaw or a result of casual malforming obtained during his mother's pregnancy. How could he know?
Anyway, nothing could have stopped him in his fight for happiness. And he had won - his only beloved finally chose to marry him, and thus saved him from death of broken heart. She was able to love him...
And who could say anything when Christine got pregnant? They loved each other, they were man and wife, the pregnancy was only a natural result...
But many times he had pondered if he had done a grave mistake.
And now his worth fears were justified.
* * *
Erik stood up, brought a bowl of water and a cloth and began bathing Christine's temples. But first he extinguished almost all the candles in the room. Only one candle threw its unstable, feeble light on them, so that they were in virtual half-darkness. He wanted to tell Christine before she would see.
Revived by his ministrations, Christine opened her eyes with a sigh. She saw the silouette of her husband, felt gentle sucking on her breast and smiled.
"Erik. So, everything is all right, isn't it? Is the baby healthy?"
"Yes, Christine. He's healthy."
"He. A son, then. How appropriate. I did want a son first. For you, my love, - she embraced her child. The tiny infant seemed contented with his first meal and was falling asleep. - I'm sure he has inherited your wit and your talents..."
"What, Erik? Is something wrong?"
Well... this was the most terrible moment in his life.
"Christine... I don't know if he has inherited any of my talents... but one thing he did inherit. Unfortunately."
Christine understood immediately. Her blue eyes opened wide, tears welling in them.
"Yes, Christine. I am... sorry. I am to blame. - Erik hanged his head. - Everything I've done was a mistake. How could I dare to marry you, to spoil your perfection by my cursed flesh? Now... I just don't know what to do. The boy is healthy, lively, well-formed. His first cry was loud and strong. He's full of life - as I had been, as a child. And he has my face." - The last phrase was said in a tone of total despair.
"Erik, please bring a candle here."
Erik obediently raised, as if he was a machine, and brought the candle closer to the bed. But Christine gestured to him:
"No, first... I want to see YOUR face."
Erik shuddered, but put the candle on the table next to him so that it illuminated his face. As soon as the doctor and the nurse left, he immediately threw his mask into some corner. Of course, after seeing the child, the doctor had guessed the truth behind Erik's mask. Oh, frustration...
Christine studied his face attentively. In fact, Erik had tried hard never to show it to her, but of course it was impossible when living together. Occasionally she had catched glimpses of his face and knew it. After all, she had caressed his face every night in the darkness and knew it by touch...
But it was hard to endure such open scrutiny.
Christine looked at him for several seconds, then smiled and reached to him - carefully, so as not to bother the sleeping child.
"The face. I know it. It's yours. And I love you, - she said. - Erik, did you think that I've never thought of this possibility? Of course I have. But as I am able to love you, I will be able to love our child. And Erik... I need your help in it."
"Yes, Christine. I'll do my best."
"Do your best is not enough, Erik! You should love him as I do! Who else would, if not his father?"
"But it won't remove the main problem."
"How he will live?"
"Better than you did in your childhood. Because he has parents who know how to love him."
And in this moment, they were startled by the sound of broken glass. A stone fell by their feet.
Erik shuddered, his vision blurred, and turned blindly to the window. He remembered it all too well...
"The monster produced another monster! - a sharp cry from outside. Boys, the village teens. Children... silly, defenseless children... such as those who had tormented Erik and his family when he were a child. - Monster, take your offspring and get out of our village!"
Erik was losing any semblance of control. His eyes were a mad light of yellow fury.
"Erik!" - Christine took him in her arms and pulled away from the window. He was breathing heavily.
"They... guessed, - he whispered. - The doctor and the nurse. The doctor could keep the secret, but the nurse has told her friends already. And these friends are mothers of these boys. Now they know. The whole village knows. The boy's face betrayed my own."
Another stone flew into the broken window.
"Monsters! Monsters! Creatures! Freaks!"
Erik rushed to the window with a murderous look on his face.
"Erik, stop! They're only children!"
But Christine's words couldn't stop Erik's fury. He felt in an ambush, and his emotions were those of an ambushed lion. Suddenly another voice sounded - and again remained him of his childhood.
"Stop it and go home! You little devils! Who allowed you to judge others? For this, you'll be all properly punished! Is this the mercy that God teaches you?"
The boys stopped shouting and retreated. Then there was a knock at the door. Erik retrieved his mask, put it on and opened without looking - he knew it was the portly, short village priest. Evidently, the rumor had reached the cleric already...
The little priest was definitely not at ease.
"Good night, Monsieur..."
"Come in." - Erik was regaining his control.
The priest entered.
"I know about the child," - he said bluntly.
"I guess everyone knows."
"Yes. - The priest looked at Erik's mask. - But I'm here to fulfil my duties. This child must be properly christened."
Erik nodded and sighed.
The cleric was definitely relaxing. "In truth, Monsieur, I would like you to... accept my condolescences..."
"Stop it! What do you know about it? About God's mercy you know, I don't doubt it. But human mercy - what do you know about it?"
"Enough to understand what you are speaking about," - said the little cleric with sudden authority. - "I've been a village cleric for twenty years. This is my third rectory. And everywhere, it was the same. I remember how a girl born with paralysed hands was treated by other children. It was in another village, though."
"What happened to that girl?"
"I don't know, - said the priest quickly, - I left that village while she was about ten. But it doesn't matter, now. Shall I await you tomorrow in the church?"
Erik smirked, then squinted.
"Yes," - he said.
* * *
Exhausted, Erik fell asleep next to his wife. He wanted to lay on a couch, but Christine didn't want to hear about it. She told him to put the child into the cradle in the nearest corner.
"I don't want you ever to sleep alone," - she said. - And me, too."
The small family slept well into the day.
Christine awakened first. She carefully went to the cradle and looked at her son's face.
Yes, the familiar deformity was there, fully reflected in the infant's features. Poor boy... what was waiting for him? Abusings? Mistreatment? Despair?
Of course, Christine had known that it was possible, but she had hoped for the best.
She leaned over to kiss the boy.
"It could be worse, - she mused. - It could be a girl."
In fact, she didn't quite know why she was so calm about her child. She felt frightened and frustrated. But the most powerful emotion was fear - her fear for Erik.
She knew that he was able just to throw himself off some cliff or do something equally silly but disastrous. Erik... She learned to love his unbalanced, unsure soul, and where he faltered, she learned to be strong. And this was the worst blow of all.
Who else would be strong, if not she?
Still, she marveled at her ability to keep calm facade. "Evidently, I'm still a good actress," - she thought. Erik was still fast asleep, and she felt that she was ready to cry.
Perhaps they had been wrong to have a child...
But how could they prevent it? They couldn't. And in fact, they didn't want. They wanted a child, or even two - a smart, strong boy and a gentle, beautiful girl. The boy would be his father's heir in all the grandeur and beauty of Erik's talents, and the girl would be just the object of their admiration and the perfect creation of their love.
And now... would they ever be able to make love? Knowing that every lovemaking could result in new pregnancy... and what if she would produce a girl - a girl with equal deformity?
Christine shuddered and fell on the floor, crying, all strength left her.
Erik immediately awakened, raised from the bed and lifted his wife in his arms.
"Christine, Christine, please... Don't... you'll be cold on the floor..."
She clinged to him.
"Erik, tell me that you love me. Please."
His eyes widened:
"I was afraid that you wouldn't like to hear that..."
"My dear, my love, my life... my breath, my everything. - There were tears in his eyes, as well. - Christine, what shall we do?"
"Yes, Erik, - Christine said, answering his frustration. - What shall we do?"
* * *
Erik was carrying his son to the village church.
It was late morning, and the streets should have been rather busy. Still, while walking across the village, he didn't meet anyone.
The boy was christened Charles.
* * *
Several bleak days passed. Erik and Christine were perfect parents to little Charles, doing everything necessary for the baby in the first days of his life. They did love him, and they loved each other. Still, it was difficult for them to breath, to kiss, to smile. And though they felt constant need to speak and hear 'I love you' very often, it was painful to pronounce these words.
They'd have to leave the village. Perhaps in another place it would be possible to weave a story of tragic accident, of the boy's face burned by fire or something... Though no, whom they would deceive - a father and a son with covered faces. Still, here, with the superstitios nurse who happened to see the boy's face, they were branded as monsters. And though, of course, no one dared to challenge Erik, and though the village priest used all his authority to tell the villagers where their place was in this story, it was clear that there would not be life here for young Charles. Or would it?..
A week after Charles' birth, they put the boy to sleep and went to bed, exhaused by the daytime duties. Christine was rigid with tension. Erik embraced her sympathetically, and suddenly they both wept.
When they got more or less calm, Christine whispered:
"We can't cope with it by ourselves. We need someone who understands."
"Yes... and I think I know such a person."
"Where is he?"
"Back in Paris. I'll go to the city. Will you get along without me for several days?"
"Yes... but are you sure that he would understand?" - Christine was openly surprised that her husband, her ever reclusive and lonely Erik, had a friend in Paris!
"If he doesn't, than no one would."
* * *
Samir Abdarra was surprised to hear a knock at his door. He was a lonely old man, all his friends and good aquaintances were in the past or in a distant land of Persia. Who, in Allah's name, could visit him these days?
He went up to the door.
"It's me, Samir."
The Persian was more than shocked. He opened the door without even noticing how.
"Yes, that's me. May I come it? I need to speak to you, and I wouldn't like to do that here on the landing."
"Of course... but... how? I presumed you were dead."
"Were you glad thinking of my death?"
"Erik, you know that no, I wasn't!" - said Samir, leading Erik to his quarters and closing the door. - You were always a problem and a trouble, but I never wished you bad. Are you tired? You look as if you've arrived from afar. Sit down over there, I'll make tea."
Erik sighed, seating himself on a couch.
"Yes I'm tired... though more psychically than physically. If you say that you never wished me bad, perhaps you will agree to listen to me?"
"Yes, Erik, speak."
Erik smirked again.
"You say as if you're expecting me to tell you about some great crime that I've committed... - seeing by Samir's expression that the Persian expected exactly that, Erik sighed and added: "I have. But this crime is not punished by human laws. I don't know if it is punished by God's laws... Allah's laws, for you."
"I married Christine."
"Married?" - First the astonishing arrival of living Erik, now this. - "Against her will?"
"No... in fact, I would say it was she who married me, not I who married her."
"But then you're not guilty of anything!" - Samir said.
"You think so? Listen then."
* * *
"I honestly don't know what to think, - Erik said. He had been sitting with his gaze on the floor, while telling Samir the story of his unexpected marriage, the happy time together and the disastrous birth of their child. - I'm a criminal, it's clear. No one would execute me, but I definitely want to execute myself. Only the thought that Christine will be alone stops me. Yet, I can't manage it."
"If it were in Persia and your child were a girl, I would say you have nothing to worry about - you know our women always cover their faces. But here, with your traditions of worshipping the beauty of female faces, you're lucky to have a boy."
Erik laughed bitterly.
"Feeble excuse. It could be prevented if only I didn't marry her."
Samir sat next to Erik on the couch. "Erik, in some respects you're still a child. I know what you want to hear, and you're right, I'll tell you just it. Allah - or God, for you - created man to love woman and sire children. Loving and being loved, you have no other way - or Allah's wrath would be upon you for the perversion of his orders."
Erik didn't raise his eyes.
"Yes, I know that. I mean, in theory. But the child... he's not a theory, Samir. He exists, he's very much alive and he will have to live in this world. And people hate him just because he has my face. As they hated me. How will he live?"
"And she... your wife? What does she think?"
"The same. We both just couldn't manage it. That's why I went to you."
The Persian nodded. "When you lived under the Opera, you never allowed me to visit your house. Would you permit me now to do it?"
Erik snickered again. "Aren't you afraid, Daroga? After the torture chamber..."
Samir waved his hand. "Forget. I understand everything. I knew what I risked, and I took that risk consciously. I don't blame you. So? If I understand correctly, it's hard time over there for Christine to be alone."
Erik looked at the Persian and quickly nodded.
* * *
They were all sitting in Erik's cottage in a small provincial town. Christine had been surprised recognizing the Persian - she didn't think that the mysterious Eastern man possessed such degree of Erik's confidence, especially after the frightening events in torture chamber and beyond - but she recovered quickly. He seemed a salvation to her.
Daroga was rocking little Charles on his knees. The boy who had just had a good meal was now sleeping contentedly. He didn't know anything about hate and superstition yet...
Samir had already stayed with them for several days. Somehow his presence seemed to lower the tension. Daroga calmly accepted the boy, did not show any distress while looking at him, and Christine thought that if this man was able to reconsile with her child's face, then others would be able, too.
Of course the secret was easy to guess: Daroga knew this deformity all too well. But Christine didn't want to think about it.
"Daroga", - said Erik suddenly, - "Would you stay here and live with us? Do you have any business that keeps you in Paris? You're right, in some respects I'm still a child. I need a father just now... of an elder brother."
Samir raised his head and smiled.
"I'm getting old, - he said. - And I feel that I need... a family just now. I think we'll do well together. If Madame Christine agrees?"
Christine only nodded. She remembered that disastrous night in Erik's subterranian home...it seemed that nothing could make these two men be reconciled ever since. Not that they had been great friends before. And now her small child and their sudden need for someone's cool head did this!
* * *
"Quiet there, boy, I'm a little old for this sort of thing", - the Persian said, lowering Charles on the floor. Erik's son had just jumped on him in the corridor.
The boy was just three, but big, strong and agile as a five-year-old. He spoke with easy grace of tongue, really rare in children of his age.
"Uncle Samir, just listen how I play!"
Samir took the boy's hand and followed him into the parlor. There Charles climbed onto the stool before the piano and began playing.
"Good job, - said Samir when the boy finished the piece. It wasn't that complicated, but for a child of three it was an amasing feat to play the piece with such fluency. - Can you play something else?"
"Of course! Would you like to hear?"
"If you allow me..."
Erik lay on the carpet in the next room, listening to his son's playing.
Yes, that was the same prowess that he had showed as a child. The boy seemed an image of himself - that same face, that same dexterous, strong body, that same early development, that same affinity to music. Still, now things were somehow different.
Suddenly he heard Samir say:
"Why wouldn't you call your father and play it all to him? He would be very glad, I'm sure."
"No, - the child said. - I'm afraid of him."
Erik sat up, as if hit hard.
"Afraid? - there was surprise in Samir's voice. - What are you afraid of? He's a great musician. He would be glad to listen to you."
"He's so... strict and... aloof... sometimes I feel that he doesn't love me," - he said sadly.
"Boy, this is not so! He loves you more than you can ever imagine."
"I don't know... uncle Samir."
I? I'm strict and aloof? I don't love him? I, of all people?
* * *
These were the very words that Erik said to Samir a little later, in a very embarrassed and heated tone.
"Erik, - said the Persian, - I don't think that you don't love him enough. There's someone else whom you don't love, and Charles suffers because of it."
Erik couldn't understand.
"What do you mean? Whom I don't love enough? Christine?"
Samir shook his head.
"No, no. Someone else. Someone whose reflection you see in your son. You love your son as your son, but you can't love him as the mirror image of yourself. It's yourself whom you don't love, Erik, - he said, answering Erik's glance, - and your son is hurt by it."
"But s-sacre bleu! How am I presumed to love myself?"
Samir just shrugged his shoulders.
"How can I know that? I only know that you must learn."
Erik laughed bitterly.
"Samir, want some frankness?"
"As much as you can manage."
"They say that there's one step from hate to love... but it's a very long step."
"I know. Still, one day you'll have to make it."
"But what shall I do until then? I don't want my child to be hurt by me!"
"Oh, that's something I've never been apt at!"
"Again - you'll have to learn."
* * *
The young singer finished his aria.
The whole audience of the Paris Opera burst into applause. Charles did not possess a voice as fine as Erik's, but even the part of Erik's voice that he did inherit was enough to win him a great acknowledgement.
The next day Erik was sitting in his chair, reading the brilliant reviews. Why was Charles' fate so different from his?
A girl of about 14, an exquisite beauty, a mirror image of her mother except for the dark hair, entered the room.
"Dad? Mamma asks if you are hungry."
"Yes Jeanne, I am. A little." - Erik looked at her and smiled. Here was the key to Charles' fate.
* * *
...He had been withdrawing from touching Christine in a sensual way for rather a long time. But was it possible never to be together? One day he embraced her again as a husband. And when Charles was 5, his sister was born. A perfect child, just the girl Erik and Christine had dreamed about.
And, looking at her exquisite face, Erik forgave himself for everything, because he suddenly felt being a creator of perfection. It didn't matter what face he had - Jeanne justified everything. And, thinking of himself - the father of this wonderful child - Erik suddenly felt that he liked himself...
And when Charles stared in wonder at his little sister and whispered in awe: "My sister... So beautiful! Oh Dad, how wonderful!" Erik just picked him up and held tightly. Daroga had been right.
After all, he and Christine had the children whom they had always dreamed about.