David fixed his eyes on the road ahead as his partner Jasper, in the seat beside him, tried to calm their two children down.
"Bella! Blake! Stop your fussing RIGHT NOW! We have a long way to travel and this trip will take a lot longer if you keep arguing like that." He took a deep sip from his takeaway coffee then exhaled slowly.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" He looked across at his partner, who clutched at the wheel like it was the last lifeboat on a sinking ship.
"You know, I need to do this" replied David quietly, deliberately. "It's time to plant new seeds. Time to - "
"AW, come on, Bella! You ripped the page!" squealed Blake and tried to grab the book from his sister.
"I didn't do that! It was already ripped!" she fired back, hotly.
"Oh, my lord..." Jasper adjusted his body so he could turn and look at their two children.
Eight years ago, it had been a joyous day when Jasper and David had arrived home with their two newly adopted babies. The twins had been abandoned not long after their birth and had come to the couple at a perfect time in their relationship. They loved each other and both felt it was a wonderful time in their lives to start a family. The baby boy and girl had been difficult infants, stricken with colic after each feeding, and Blake had developed terrible eczema in the warmer weather. It had never been too much of a problem though, their commitment to each other and love for the twins helping them through each challenging and exhausting complication thrown their way. Except that the twins had never gotten on particularly well, and at times like these, they tended to squabble and bicker until one of them, or both, inevitably burst into tears.
"Blake, Bella – let's just put the book down and play a game." Jasper tried to keep his voice as soothing as possible and David threw him an appreciative glance. The twins looked up at him, wide-eyed with lips quivering on the verge of tears.
"Ok, ok..." He brightened. "Let's see if you can solve this riddle..." Jasper worked as a voice-over artist and his voice took on a beautiful booming and resonant timbre.
"Strong at ground but weak up top,
To the sun I never stop."
"Oooooh!" Bella shouted, excitedly. "An airplane! An airplane!"
'No, that's DUMB!" retorted her brother. "It's NOT an airplane."
"But they fly in the sun on air and land on solid ground!" she yelled back. "It's GOT to be an airplane!"
"It's not an airplane," Jasper interjected calmly, "but that was a wonderful guess. Blake, you should be glad your sister came up with such a good guess so quickly."
Blake mumbled something back and his sister threw him a withering look. "Ok, smarty-pants," she said, "so what is it then?"
Blake furrowed his brow and concentrated intently. "Ok, so it's something that maybe goes high – up to the sun. But I don't know about the 'strong at ground but weak up top' bit." He looked at his sister. "I guess airplane was a pretty good guess."
Bella softened a little and suggested "What about a bird? Or an insect?"
"I reckon it's something that starts on the ground and maybe grows taller. Like...like..."
"A TREE!" Both Bella and Blake yelled out the answer at exactly the same time and their father clapped his hands in approval.
"Well done, children. A tree's roots are in the solid ground but its leaves sway and move in the wind. And it always grows towards the sun – it never stops!"
"That's amazing, Dad. Can we please have another riddle?" Blake asked, hopefully.
"Oh please, Dad – that was heaps of fun!" Bella added her pleading voice to the request.
"Ok, then," chuckled Jasper, "here's another."
"Racing, rattling, on I go,
Sit and think until I slow."
Blake looked perplexed. "Slow? A slow what? How can something... slow?"
Jasper grinned and replied "Let's ask Poppa. He is the English teacher, after all!"
David's eyes crinkled as he smiled and Jasper's heart warmed. It had been more than a month since he had seen a smile on the face of the wonderful man he loved.
"Well now," started David, "the word slow is not just an adjective or a word to describe things. It is also a doing word, which is called a verb. Therefore, something can slow, which means it can reduce its speed, and it can also be slow, which means it doesn't go very fast."
"Oh thanks, Poppa," exclaimed Blake, brightly. "You're such a good teacher!"
"Yes, he is," replied Jasper, "but I'm the riddle master. So, children, can you solve my riddle?"
"Hmmm," mused Bella," what races and rattles?"
"A rattlesnake!" shouted Blake. "You have to sit and think because if you run it will attack you!"
"That's silly!" howled Bella. "You wouldn't sit and think – you'd scream for help!"
"Ok, now," soothed their father, "Again, that was a great answer, Blake, even though it's not the right one. And Bella, you should be kinder to your brother for being so quick and clever."
Bella glanced at her brother who looked indignant.
"Well," she began hesitantly, "it was a pretty cool guess." She met her brother's eyes and a moment of truce appeared between them.
"So - what else races and rattles?" Bella pondered.
"How about a car on a bumpy road?" her brother offered, hopefully. "But you can't sit and think unless you're not driving."
"And it doesn't really rattle," responded Bella, "unless it's Sam's Grandpa's dodgy old car."
"Ah," laughed Jasper, "but you definitely couldn't sit and think in that junk-heap – you'd be holding on for dear life!"
There were peals of laughter from the back seat and Jasper saw David break into a broad smile again. He hoped that after this trip – a trip which had to happen – his partner might find the sense of peace he had been missing for such a long, long time. The laughter subsided and Blake pursed his lips.
"So, what rattles? And goes fast? That you don't have to drive?"
"And eventually... slows?"
"What about something on a track rather than a road? Like a tram?"
"Or a - "
They both yelled at the same time. "A TRAIN!"
Jasper laughed. "Well done again, my super-sleuths! The answer is indeed train. Shall we continue this game?" He suspected that David was getting as much out of it as their kids.
Jasper took a moment to compose the next riddle and the children waited, deathly quiet in the back seat.
"Made as one but cut so neat,
Find inside your special treat."
"A ring!" exclaimed Bella, excitedly. "It contains a jewel that's cut so neat".
"Is it – made as one though?" Blake responded and his sister blinked at him. Jasper was thrilled to see that Blake hadn't shot his sister's hurried answer down in flames. This was progress!
"Well," Bella mused thoughtfully, "the ring part is a circle because it goes on your finger. Could that mean made as one?"
"I'm not sure." Her brother looked at his Dad, trying to read his mind. Jasper winked and gave him an encouraging smile. Blake's eyes suddenly widened.
"How about – a magazine?" He continued breathlessly. "I'm pretty sure they're printed on a big press as one big roll of paper then cut into sections and assembled. Then you read them on the inside and that's your treat!" He finished triumphantly and Bella looked admiringly at her brother.
"Ah," offered David, meekly, from the driver's seat, realising the error of their thinking. "Printing presses design, typeset and print each page separately then join them together. So, you see, they're not cut at all. Keep thinking, darlings."
Both Bella and Blake's faces fell. Jasper wondered if he had made this riddle too difficult. Before he could offer a clue though, Bella wriggled and sat up in her seat.
"A present?" She squeezed her hands into tight fists. "No, you cut the paper then wrap up the whole thing. That's the wrong order."
"How about – a nest?" offered Blake. "There are eggs inside – oh, but the broken sticks and twigs are stuck together to make the nest. The order's wrong again."
"It was a good guess though – a nest." Bella patted her brother's knee.
"Yours was good too – it really could have been a present except for the order." He smiled at his sister. It made his heart feel so much lighter when they worked as a team and tried to figure things out together. Maybe they should do that more, in real life. He even suspected she might like that too.
"OK," Bella began, "let's think about it from a different angle. What sort of treats are there?"
"How about pocket money? Or special trips? Or even nice desserts?"
"Ooh, desserts! Yeah, I think it might be something edible! That's definitely a treat!"
"Well then," continued Blake, "what sort of food has a special treat inside? A pie?"
"But it's not really cut so neat." Bella looked frazzled. "Although some people do cut their pies in half."
"What other food is usually cut neatly in half? Or even in quarters? With something nice on the inside?" They looked at each other, the answer dawning simultaneously.
"Who's hungry?" Jasper reached down past his legs and pulled out four ham and cheese sandwiches David had prepared for them before leaving home earlier that morning.
"I'm sure you'll find them made as one then cut up beautifully by your Poppa. And your special treat today is ham and cheese." The kids hollered, cheered, and laughed, and all of a sudden Jasper felt the world move into a lighter place, a place where one chapter would finish and their story could spill into a new chapter, leaving the foils and foes of the old one behind.
"We're almost there," David whispered the words and to Jasper, they were barely audible. He knew what stretched before them on this day, what enormous mountains his partner had moved to come here at this time.
"Can we have one more riddle, Dad?" Bella piped up from the back seat and Blake looked up expectantly.
"Go on," smiled David, glancing at Jasper, "this is such a wonderful game. So much more fun than staring at a book. Or even just the road, you know."
"Well then, let me see..." Jasper peered out the window, quietly putting the words together in his mind. "A-ha – I've got it!" He swivelled around to look at his children. He took a few seconds to enjoy their beaming faces before filling up the silence with this new riddle.
"Tiny sparks that make a flame,
Different but still the same,
Bright they burn and big they shine,
Lighting up this heart of mine."
For the first time, neither child burst out with an immediate answer. Bella looked down at the seat, her face a picture of concentration. Blake counted something imaginary on his fingers then discarded the thought. Both seemed stumped and then suddenly, Blake piped up.
"Dad - is the answer... stars? Is that how a star is made - from a tiny spark?"
"Well, yes, it is, but there's something that lights up this heart of mine even more than all the stars in the sky" responded Jasper.
"Dad," Bella looked up at him, "is the answer... fireworks? I know how you love to watch them in the sky and there are all kinds of different ones."
"Ah, Bella," Jasper smiled approvingly, "that's a great guess too but there's something that I love to look at even more than all the beautiful colourful fireworks that light up the night."
The car steadied and slowed, David making a sharp right turn into a driveway as the twins thought hard about the last riddle. The car pulled into a shady parking spot underneath a tall elm tree and David turned off the engine.
"Are you ready for this?" Jasper gave David's hand an encouraging squeeze. David put his hand on top of Jasper's and replied "I might just take a moment. In fact," he gave Jasper a wink, "I think the kids need to solve this riddle before we can go in."
"Aw but -" started Blake.
"Oh, but it must be done – some things just need to be … dealt with. No matter how difficult they seem." David's eyes met Jasper and his smile faltered a little. Jasper could see the anxiety in his partner's face, years of pain and heartbreak about to reach a brutal and powerful climax.
"You know, there are no mistakes in life – only guesses that get you closer and closer to the right answer. Just like these riddles. And sometimes you must never stop trying if you truly want to find what that answer is." David's voice was a soft baritone, ornamented with the fading remnant of an old Welsh accent. Jasper recited the riddle again and the twins listened, transfixed.
"Tiny sparks that make a flame - "
"But it's not a star!" cried out Blake.
"Different but still the same - "
"And they're not fireworks either!" added Bella, excitedly.
"Bright they burn and big they shine,
Lighting up this heart of mine."
The children's Poppa sat up in his chair and turned towards Bella and Blake.
"And your Dad said that it's something that lights up his heart and that he loves to look at. And you know what - I do, too. I know exactly what it is - because I'm looking at them right now."
There was a silence that somehow seemed alive, like a majestic sunrise that drew every eye towards it, and then Bella clapped her hands with delight.
"It's - US!" She turned towards her brother. "It's you and I! We're tiny 'cos we're kids and we're different but the same 'cos we're twins but we're two separate people." Her face fell. "Oh, Dad – Poppa – do we burn out of control because we argue a lot?"
"But we can shine bright, too," chimed in Blake, "especially when we're getting on and working as a team."
"Especially when you solve riddles," smiled Jasper, "you're an unbeatable team - and you most definitely light up this heart of mine."
With the kids climbing the tree they had parked under, David pulled Jasper closer and said "You know, that first riddle – the one about the tree – it also has another answer."
Jasper quietly recited the riddle again:
"Strong at ground but weak up top...to the sun I never stop."
He looked at David expectantly.
"Family," stated David, "the answer is also family. At ground level, it's like the roots of a tree woven together by genetics and history, then it branches off in all different directions like our lives. Divided we are weaker, closer together, closer to our roots, we are stronger. And if we grow towards the sun, towards love, we will always be united. No matter what happens, we're all part of the same tree." He stopped and his eyes were brimming with tears, tears that had yet to fall but would be like a beautiful rainstorm, one that cleansed the sky and made the earth richer, more fertile.
"I'm ready to forgive them," he said simply.
Together, with Bella and Blake walking beside them, David and Jasper entered the chapel where David's family had gathered to lay his father to rest. Many heads turned in their direction but as his fingers entwined with those of the man he had loved and shared his life with for the last fourteen years, the man he had adopted two beautiful children with, the man who had stood by him as his family - this family - had directed rage-filled hate and vitriol at him because of his choice of partner, this same family now regarded him with something gentler. There were nods of acknowledgement, kind looks of welcoming and appreciation, and slender smiles of affection and love. In the passing of time, their family tree had grown tall, mighty, with many branches. David sat down on the pew with his family, his very own special branch of this tree, and for the first time in many years, he felt the sun's rays shine upon him, the sun that would help them all heal and grow together, to move and sway in the wind as one, to look up at the endless sky above them and glimpse the dreams that lay waiting. And this same light would bathe every leaf, twig, and branch in its majestic warmth, as immense and as powerful as the mighty roots that made the tree stand, and like every tree alive and flourishing, ever-growing towards the sun.