A Poppy Field

Image: ©️ BarbeeAnne – Pixabay License. Source.

Author: Guillaume Amstutz

Inspired by “The Poppy Field” by Nora May French

I know of a place, just beyond a poppy field, where I sometimes go to sing my songs. It’s quite close from your house, yet so very far away from you. When I go there, I usually sit near the streams, between the sad lilies (they keep their heads down, toward the ground) and I think about which words I should use. I have to carefully choose which words I will write or sing, because not all of them seem to reach your house, beyond the red tangled barrier of poppies. I’ll tell you something I don’t think you know: in my little book, now resting on the slightly wet grass, there are hundreds of words, and in the breeze flowing along the stream, there are even more, and there are still even more unspoken words inside my mind. I don’t think you know this, because in your mailbox, in front of your house, beyond the poppies, there are at best a few dozens of my words, and in your mind, which I feel is very far away from me, I think there are even less of my words. And perhaps, if I know that your house is close to me, yet I can’t see or feel you anymore, it’s because it’s not your house anymore, and you never told me you moved out. And sometimes I tell myself that you did not move out: it’s just that I can’t see you through all the knotted poppies. And if there are so few of my words in your mind, maybe it’s not because you never read what’s in your mailbox, but because so many times I didn’t dare go through the poppy field to put my words in your mailbox. Many times I tried to walk to it, but the wind blew from your house and through the poppy field, and I found myself in a quiet, hypnotic haze, and in this fog I thought I could see you next to your home. You should know that when I see you in these dreams, I can never bring myself to unwind the tangled poppies and make myself a way to you. Now you know why your mailbox needed to be empty for months before welcoming some of my words, and why lately no words came at all. I was simply sitting by the stream, between the sad lilies. Sometimes I wish you had left your house and helped me cut, burn, or untangle the poppy field, but was it even your task to do so? I’m not even sure you knew how potent these poppies were, and how a single step into them would throw me inside this stupor that kept me away from you for so long, and that will probably keep doing so. I could take care of the poppy field myself, but why should I do it? As I already said, I’m pretty sure you moved out of your house long ago, and that behind the field I would only find a rusted, empty mailbox. Besides, I don’t think you realize how afraid I am of discovering what lies beneath the poppy field. I already have an idea: under the poppy field is a graveyard, a graveyard containing all the words I could never bring all the way to your mailbox, all the words that ran along the stream until they got caught into this web of poppies, never to reach your ears. I’ll never know if you understand how much that hurts me to know that I had so much to say, but that I could only tell you so few words, as the rest of it was buried under the poppies. Now every time I go to this place again, I wish I had broken the golden vow while you still lived in your house, so that I could have told you everything I wanted to. But it seems like it’s just wishful thinking, and now the best thing I can do is hope that my decomposing words, resting under the poppy field, serve as a fertilizer for new, beautiful flowers. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll see them if you ever pass by your old house. 

The Orchard

Image: © Laure Cepl

Author: Laure Cepl

A sudden shake woke me up from my light slumber. The train was arriving on the rail intersection. I gazed at the different approaching tracks crossing the wagon’s wheels then slowly moving away. During my travels, I usually meticulously observe and try to guess which path the train will take and still, even if I know the way like the back of my hand, somehow, I am always baffled by an unexpected junction that will take me to a different track. A screeching voice on the loudspeaker brought me back to reality, “Next stop M…” and reminds us of the procedure and which compartments are allowed to leave the train first. I put back the little casket that was on my lap during the whole trip in a special bag that I carefully closed. It was a precious parcel. I was the only suitable person who could accomplish this mission, since they had already done the trip. I had some doubts about whether I would remember where to go, since I hadn’t been there since we left. But they reassured me and affirmed that when the time would come, memories would also come back along the way. The loudspeaker shrilled a second time.  I took my hand sanitizer out and disinfected my hands before I put my gloves and my mask back on my face, as I waited for my number and the Plexiglas panes to open. It used to be way faster. I remember, my mother always used to book first class tickets for us, because it was cleaner and because smokers and non-smokers were separated, “more suitable for young children”, she said. Back then, she not only used hand sanitizer, but she also used to clean our seats, the small table, the edges of the windows. Everything had to be clean, so our little mittens would not carry any germs to our mouth as we ate some snacks. “Second class, number 33”, shrieked the voice again. As I stepped out of the train, a light chemical breeze refreshed my thoughts and I found myself on one of the numerous platforms of the Central Station. As I looked up, the sunlight passing through the coloured windows of the dome-shaped roof blinded me before kissing the sanitized white pavement. I had  never seen the station like this. In my oldest memories, M. Central had always been this dark, smelly station, swarming from dawn to dusk. As we walked to the announcement board, I remember slaloming between fresh and dried up chewing gum. They were part of the ground’s irregular mosaic while cigarette butts coated the rail tracks. It was a real ballerina’s work to tiptoe through that filth while holding firmly to my little luggage and to my mother’s hand as her pace accelerated to avoid people. She always told us to be very careful: gypsies and pick pockets were always lurking. While we were waiting for the information concerning our next train, my main entertainment was to watch the television spot. The Chordettes’ Lollipopwas resonating through the whole hall as I was salivating over the new Kinder Easter egg commercial. Observing this buzzing waltz of people going all over the place was also a great source of occupation. Elderly couples confused, struggling to find their platform, large families arguing over the forgotten bag, youth sport teams gathering beside the newsagent.

The walk to the announcement board was a solemn march that day. I started excelling in walking in a straight line the day my mother traded my red Lelli Kelly shoes for a pair of black polished derbies. It was for a “special occasion” that I was not familiar with yet. I felt so much pride when my mother took me to the shoe department for women for the first time. I trotted along the different aisles while she was choosing what would be the perfect pair for the occasion. The first floor had different sections. The west aisles were the most boring ones: men’s shoes. They were either brown or black. The south and east aisles were my favourites. Against the window were displayed the new models by Lelli Kelly, each more colourful than the last. Just beside the magazine area, house slippers were piled on a shelf. Trying to find the fluffiest ones was my favourite game. There was another floor downstairs. It was rather quite cold in the shop; however, the basement floor was the coldest, the most remote and mysterious to me. There they kept the teenager shoes. For some reason, I was never allowed to go there by myself, although I was curious to know what I would wear in the future. It took three tours around the shop and its thirty shelves until I heard my name. The turning point had finally arrived. I rushed swiftly to my seat and opened the box containing what would make me look like “a fine little lady” as my mother said. Opening shoe boxes was always exciting because with each new pair of Lelli Kellys were included some shiny stickers.  However, to my greatest disappointment there were no more stickers inside the box, instead I found some extra black laces. With a long face, I tried my new derbies on. “They look perfect on you, my dear!” declared my mother in a satisfied tone. “Take some steps and look at yourself in the mirror!”  I stood up and realised how uncomfortable growing up was. I stumbled upon my untied laces, and dragged myself to the mirror. Invisible to the eye, the back of the shoes would soon rub against my heel and my toes floated in these two invisible inches of space dedicated to the upcoming years.

A sudden horn blew away my thoughts; my train for the next destination was arriving. I went to the glass portal where they controlled our passports, tickets and checked our temperature. The waiting line was very silent. Once my details were validated, I hopped on the train, took out my sanitizing products and thoroughly cleaned my place. Back then we used to sit on the edge of the stained seats, afraid to touch anything. The train to B… had always been loud and smelly, and from spring to autumn the windows were open to give its passengers the false impression of some fresh air. We used to count the number of rainbow peace flags were hung on the windows of the buildings along the tracks. They have been replaced over the years with what now are nothing more but tagged rags on which one can difficultly read: “It’s going to be okay”. The truth is, it has not been “okay” for as long as I can recall. We used to hear bad things on the news, and my mother used to cover our eyes, so we would not see the violent images of what was happening in some far-off country. She said it came like a flood, it would wipe everything away. A kind of disease that was plaguing the roots of entire civilizations. “It is terrible”, she whispered. “And people would pray so that it would not come here too”. Now hush children, it is past your bedtime and there are things we adults have to discuss.” Reluctantly, we would walk to our bedroom followed by our grandmother, who made sure we washed our feet, brushed our teeth and prayed before going to bed. Once the lights were out, we used to leave our bedroom and glue our ears to the corridor wall, so that we could hear fragments of their conversations, if we were lucky. However, most of the time, they would speak very quietly, almost murmuring, as if they were afraid of their own conversations. We still could not understand much of the issue about this strange disease. Some rumours about it were that it had already spread to the continent, other said it was just a hoax. But now, when I see the written remnants, the peace flags were just a preamble of something “terrible” that would come here too. And nobody was ready for that, nor spared.

The journey to B… never lasted long, one hour approximatively, during which, after we passed the suburbs of the city of M…, we could admire the countryside. It was very flat, and back then we could get a glimpse of agricultural farms built out of stones which were covered with plaster. Sometimes there were houses around the farms, and all together they formed little hamlets. I couldn’t dwell on the details, for the train passed them quite fast. Over time, agricultural areas became an attractive location for factories of all kind. There was at least one element that seemed immanent: the sky. I have always remembered the sky of this country as having a tint of blue that would be found in no other place and whose shade was almost indescribable. Its colour has always been very intense, but you could see variations according to the seasons. During winter, it was quite intense whereas during summer the sun would make it brighter. The sun was also not the same. When it went down, sometimes it set the whole sky on fire, and at that moment I would always spend the last couple of minutes of its presence, watching this orange, red globe hiding behind the mountain, until my eyes hurt. But that day, the sky was dimmed by a light cloud, a sort of brown haze that almost cast a shadow over the land. As the train slowed down in approach to our next stop, its shakes remind me to check for the twentieth time today that my precious parcel is not damaged by the shocks. It is by far the most important task I have undertaken and on the day the decision was proclaimed, I solemnly promised not to disappoint them and make my mother proud.

Once again, the changes brought to the station of B. surprised me. First of all, there was an elevator on all the platforms, and even one linking the underground and the ground floor where the way out was. Before, we had to carry our luggage all the way up or even worse, take the stairs. Furthermore, our luggage was seldom light; on the contrary, it was packed with souvenirs, goodies or food we brought back from our vacations. But this time, my luggage was not that heavy. A nightgown, spare clothes, an extra pair of shoes and a light jacket if it was windy in the evening, my beauty case were my only belongings. I had nothing left anyway. My casket had its weight though. But we can’t compare two different unities of measurement. I quickened my pace to find and climb onto the right bus, that would take me to M. It was, to my greatest satisfaction, unexpectedly not crowded. Perhaps people avoided taking the bus because they were still scared. This emptiness gave me the freedom to choose the seat next to the window, allowing me to feel the city of B. once again.

The bus started and took one of the lanes of the main boulevard that faced the old ramparts of the town. The historic centre of B. distinguishes itself from the modern part of the city because it is higher in altitude. I always loved when we went there either by foot or in the car. When we arrived from the lowland I was always impressed by this wonderful city standing on the top of a hill, with fortified walls that have resisted time so far. If my memories are correct, there are two ways to reach it: either take the funicular cable, or climb the steep stairs and go through the main gate, take a walk along the walls and enjoy the breath-taking view. I have always enjoyed walking along the walls because the view is not limited to the buzzing modern town. It stretches past across the countryside and even gives a glimpse of the industrial towers of M. This view, displaying the flat lands in the middle and the hills and mountains on the left and right always conveyed a certain sense of infinity. I even had my favourite bench to watch the sunset. When we passed there by car, I would roll down the window and smell the air that was as unique as the sky. I remember the time when we found a store selling sweets in one of the many narrow paved streets. There were plenty of little shops and taverns, but once we took a different alley and found what became one of the many rituals we had when going to the old town. My sister, my two cousins and I decided to combine our pocket money and buy as many sweets as we could. We left the shop victorious, with a bag full of colourful candy, ready to stroll along the streets and discover the old town’s hidden gems before sitting in a square. I remember that when we came by foot, we would take the path along the hills on our way home. We would follow the ancient paved road, and after ten to fifteen minutes of walk, it was possible to see some beautiful coloured houses nested on the hills. Most of them of them had palm trees in their garden, adding a contrast to the northern landscape. There was also a fountain that was once the place where the white sheets we could see on the balconies were washed. As we pursued our journey we could hear the bells of a monastery in the lowland, between two hills. We asked our parents if monks still inhabited it, but apparently, they turned it into a hotel or something of that kind. After passing the monastery, I remember we had to cross a small woodland area before climbing down the last hill and arriving in the village.

I had to stop retracing my former pilgrimage and focus on the one I was making now, for I was not sure the stop I selected was the closest one to the house. Eventually I jumped off the bus and found myself at the entrance of the village. More than twenty years had passed since I last sojourned here. I recognized the general outline, despite the changes incurred by the flood. There was just one bar left, half empty. From outside, I could see two people sitting at the counter. It was the one in which I had the first popsicle I can recall. Back then, way before everything happened, there used to be village fairs over the course of the summer and we used to go out after nightfall to get a drink or an ice cream. They had these over-sweetened, strawberry, Tom and Jerry-shaped popsicles that, once they started to melt, dripped this bright pink syrup all over our new shirts and our white summer pants. But we did not mind. We did not care much about dirt anyway, back then. At weddings, we used to eat the rice that was on the ground and formed a heart in front of the church, and we also did not fear grabbing the tassel that was hanging down, and that everyone tried to catch, in the hope for an extra free tour on the merry-go-round. ‘Germs’ was a word not added to our vocabulary yet. However, we were too busy playing to notice the worried tone creeping into the adults’ voices. The absence of the smell coming from the bakery led me in front of an empty shop window. The shoe shop, the butcher’s had gone bankrupt too. Folks became more and more reluctant to buy what they needed in stores. Too much time wasted, not enough choice and there was the mistrust anyway. They started fearing each other since the deluge. Everyone looked suspicious: the risks and consequences of contamination were far too great. Elderly citizens’ lives were the ones the most at stake. They needed to be more cautious than any other generation due to their fragility and to the work some would accomplish in The Orchard.

If my memories are correct, The Orchard was guarded by a large brick wall, encircling the area. It was so high that we could not see what was on the other side. I remember, the first time I had been there I was wearing my new black polished derbies. There was a little crowd with us waiting in front of the entrance gate. It was an imposing, heavy portal made of iron. Its arrow shaped barriers were pointing towards the sky and the key hole was almost as large as my hand. Whatever was concealed behind it, must have been very valuable. There was a house too, made of bricks, standing solemnly, guarded by the gate. A stone-grey plate on which something was written hung beside the dark green wooden door. The architecture was quite outstanding when comparing it to the rest of the area. Two aged ladies opened the gate. They were wearing long, brown linen dresses, hiding most of their leather sandals. Despite the striking heat, they did not seem bothered at all, on the contrary, their expression seemed as neutral as ever. While I was observing them with the greatest care, the two ladies started giving us instructions concerning the procedure. My mother noticed my puzzled face and explained to me that, among many other people, they were the guardians of The Orchard. “Once you will be wise enough, you will be asked to join The Orchard as well, that is everyone’s duty. The work they achieve here is crucial for our kind. They take care of this place. They do general maintenance in the house, they mend the wall if a storm damages it, and keep a record of who comes to The Orchard. Concerning the gardening work, not only do they watch over trees, make sure they receive enough water, trim them when it is needed, but also, they are the ones securing that what has been dear to us does not fall into oblivion. As a matter of fact, some call them the memory gatherers. For you must understand, some trees have been planted centuries ago, and if they die or if damage is inflicted upon them, it would mean a great loss to all of us. It is crucial that you always, always remember where our tree is planted. It is the only way for us to be reunited again if we must part and go on separated paths. Trees are the cores of our memories. They remember everything: the weather, diseases, and the older they are, the deeper their roots go and the more valuable they become. Do not forget that.” I nodded, in silence, trying to grasp the information and the great task I have been given.

One by one, they went through that door, while we were waiting in line, me still holding my mother’s hand and working on remembering what she had just said to me. Once we entered, we found ourselves in a large hall made of old stones. Despite the heat outside, a cold airstream greeted us. I looked around me and I was surprised to find out that the place was quite bare. As a matter of fact, there was only little piece of furniture around. My mother told me that once you become part of The Orchard, you leave behind unnecessary things that would become a burden to the work you have to accomplish. The reception desk made of oak was as imposing as the rest of the place. A strange atmosphere filled the whole house, I could not understand the eerie feeling of experiencing both a supreme peacefulness and yet a lingering doubt concerning this place. We waited again a while until someone arrived. In the meantime, I was observing these elderly people, monk-like, evolving in this strange environment. An old man arrived carrying a casket on a cart. He was bald, but his beard was long, untrimmed. He too, was wearing the same kind of clothes as the two other ladies, however his robe outlined quite well his skinny, frail figure. I was getting quite impatient to finally discover what this garden looked like. We followed him, passed through a courtyard hall, and eventually we arrived in a very vast place outside, facing The Orchard. At first I could not see much: I was blinded by the sun and hit by the heat, due to spending what seemed hours in this peculiar, cold house. It was vast, so vast I could not see the walls meet at the end. An infinite neat lawn laid in front of us, little grey gravel paths divided the green area into nice and tidy squares. The trees were aligned, forming rows that followed the pattern set by the paths. They were different species of trees, and not a single one looked like its neighbour. There were birches, cedars, hawthorns, oaks, pines, sycamores, some were blooming, other bearing fruits already. Some looked quite young and others seemed to have been there for ages. Altogether, they formed the most peaceful unity.  This lovely garden was tended by the people from The Orchard. A couple of them were mowing and trimming the grass while three workers were digging the earth. A sudden movement in the group put an end to my contemplation and we followed the procession to a tree. A congregation formed a semi-circle around it, we were in the front row so that I could see and most importantly remember what “our tree” looked like. Then someone I had known since my youngest age stepped forward, took the casket and opened it. I could not see at first what was inside it. I leant forward on the tip of my toes to get a better glance  while the person put the box on the ground and revealed its content. Dark soil. It was a handful of some dark, damp soil that all the members of the group including me, one by one by one, took before spreading the earth around the trunk of the tree and on its roots. They started singing and after they shared an anecdote, they went back to the strange house, leaving my mother and I behind. “Now focus”, she said, “try to carve in your head its emerging roots, the shape of its trunk, feel the pattern of its bark on your hands, observe the direction that its winding branches take, learn to recognize the smell of its leaves and don’t forget the way its sings when the wind blows”. We stayed there until I felt I would remember everything. We joined the group again; it was already spreading out and heading towards the cars. Once seated and my belt fastened, I glanced at my black polished derbies that were tarnished by dust, while they were still outside, exchanging a goodbye and wishing each other a safe ride home. There were more and more gatherings like this one over the upcoming years, but they did not allow me to come all the time and we never really talked about it, or maybe the adults did, once they were in the parlour.

Eventually, after having lost my way a couple of times in the half-deserted streets of the village, I found my family’s former home. It was situated in a large street, five houses behind the church. The black ornamental fences were all rusted and the yellow facades were way darker than before, peeling off. Despite its advanced decay, our residence stood there, as imposing as I remember it. It took me a couple of minutes to get acquainted with the set of keys, each opened a different door, and it had always been so, no matter how stressful it was to lose one. At first, we did not use to keep our doors locked. Everyone trusted everyone, and we did not feel that we had to hide from the rest of the world. But winds of panic started blowing across the country, spreading out the rumour that dark skies were upon us. Folks and family slowly started questioning people’s whereabouts in case the disease would spread out. Insecurity invaded minds, forgetting slowly how it was before. Village fairs would be cancelled, and weddings postponed. Our raids to the sweet store became at some point erased off the list. Playing in the garden was still permitted, but we had to keep away from the fences and not touch them at all costs. That’s why they installed the bay hedges. They were tall, thick and shielding us from the view on the street. They are dried up now as well as everything that we used to grow there. Tall crops of tomatoes used to add colours to our dense vegetable garden. I think they started cultivating fruits and vegetables when the first flags ornamented the windows of the area, or maybe it was pure hazard. But I know that they planted carrots before the bay leaf hedges. Eventually, the day when playing outside became dangerous too arrived. Going back to the little alley leading to the porch, I realised this one too was now outgrown by weeds. The midday sun was striking the porch, underlining the scars of the aging walls that once protected us.

Entering inside for the first time in years opened the door to some forgotten events of the past. I felt a mixture between fear, a profound nostalgia and incomprehension. Why did what we considered once as our safe haven fail us eventually? We had everything we needed here. But decisions did not belong to us children. As a matter of fact, they were mostly made in the parlour, the only room that was off-limits within these walls. The parlour had always been this mysterious and forbidden territory since some minor incident occurred years ago. They told me when I was older the anecdote concerning the parlour. My sister and I were running around the table, chasing each other, until one of us, we have never known which one for it happened so fast, pulled the table cloth by mistake, letting a crystal plate that was on the edge drop and break into hundreds of fragments. We screamed in confusion and fright, furthermore we were barefoot. Our grandparents who lived with us were the first ones to rush up to the room. They were obviously very upset but not as much as our parents who were quite fond of the plate since it was a gift given to them for their wedding. From that moment on, no children would step foot in the parlour. Now I understand that this incident proved itself to be the perfect excuse for locking themselves up when conversations became serious in the later years of our life here. I was not able to make the link back then, so there was always a lingering feeling of injustice when guests and relatives closed the door behind them, telling us to stay in the kitchen and draw or read. The kitchen was the room we occupied the most. It was always warm, even during winter, because there was always a cake baking inside the oven or a hearty stew on the stove. We also used to listen a lot to the radio, it was a great source of distraction. The old television was also in the kitchen, but we were not allowed to watch it unattended, especially when the flood started.

As I entered the dusty kitchen, I started to remember what changed the course of our lives. My grandparents, my parents, my sister and I were having dinner while watching the news when the telephone rang. My mother stood up to answer, while we all stopped paying attention to the television to listen to whom she was talking. Her face went pale, and she stood there, speechless until she hung up. “Children, finish your plates and prepare yourselves to go to bed”, she said. We did not understand why so much haste, but we could discern that consternation would join the assembly tonight. They stood up hastily, my grandparents washed the dishes and cleared off the table, as my parents set up the parlour. From the moment we saw that they took out the brandy, crystal glasses and the dark chocolate, we knew something important was going to happen. My grandmother assured herself we would go to bed while my parents went downstairs to greet their guest. As we were curious, we waited until they were installed in the parlour, with the door semi-closed, because they did not suspect us to stay awake. After waiting half an hour, we crossed the hallway as quietly as shadows and stood near the door to hear what they were saying and who was their guest. We recognized the voice of our aunt, my mother’s sister who used to work as a nurse in a hospital. As they were whispering we could not hear everything that was said, but the topic was extremely serious. Then we heard some steps going towards our direction, so we ran back to our room as fast as we could, and decided it was better not to attempt a second time, for we would be grounded if they found us.

We were completely asleep when all of a sudden, my mother broke into the room, turning the lights on and telling us to wake up, get ready and pack our clothes and take only the essential things with us. She left the room in the same manner as she burst in: like a whirlwind. On the moment, the effect of surprise felt like an electric shock, knocking us out and leaving us extremely disoriented in our room, as if it was the first time we saw it. I must admit I also felt a feeling of strangeness when I looked at my belongings, and the choice I had to make concerning what would be packed, taken with us and what would be left behind, felt extremely trivial. It was about midnight when we were summoned in the kitchen, dressed and with our little luggage ready. My grandmother made us a hot tea while we all sat together. My aunt was still present as well. Nobody said a word for five minutes which seemed to last a lifetime. After a while, my mother sighed and my father cleared his throat before starting to talk. “Children”, he said, “as you may have noticed the past few months, terrible things are happening out there at the moment. We thought the situation would settle down, unfortunately, as we feared it has spread out and it’s getting closer. Your aunt came to warn us to leave the country as fast as we could, before it is too late. Although we do not want you to worry, for everyone’s safety, it is best if we leave the house tonight, before they start blocking the borders, because that is one of the risks we take if we wait for too long. We must act quickly. We have made the heart-breaking decision tonight that your Grandmother and your Grandfather will go to The Orchard tomorrow, because they are getting too old to travel that far and because they also have a duty to accomplish there. So, for now, you must say goodbye to them. We do not know when you will see them again, so you must be brave. We will come back home once it’s safe enough. We’re sorry. Be brave.” I can only hardly describe the way it felt to hear that. Our little world felt like it had been crushed down. As if a storm just blew away the pillars, the foundations of our existence. Again, a silence even heavier than before invaded the room and hung over our heads. I looked straight into the eyes of my grandmother. There was a deep sadness mingled with fear in her green eyes. Her light grey hair was attached in a bun, messier than usual and her rosy cheeks had faded. Her lips were shaking as she tried to appear as reassuring as possible. Neither of us were capable to let a sound escape from our mouths. Talking with our eyes was perhaps the most painful thing I had to do that night. After that, everything went so fast. My grandfather stood up, took our luggage and started packing our car while my parents were exchanging a last couple of words with our aunt. In the meantime, we stayed in the kitchen, my sister was crying, my grandmother was trying to comfort her while I was staring at the wooden pavement. My grandmother waited until my sister calmed down before taking a chair and placed it in front of the sofa on which I was sitting. “Listen, child, I know you are both upset, terrified and I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for you to understand a situation that is beyond anyone’s control. You must be courageous. But worry not, we will meet again at The Orchard, and do not forget at all costs where our tree is planted. It is where we will all reunited one day.” Before I even knew, my sister and I were sitting in the car, both crying while my father was driving the car in the night. I could hear my mother sobbing in silence. There have been no real goodbyes.

I had not experienced these memories for years, as if I had left them behind, with everything that was in the house. I guess they had been asleep somewhere in my mind. But when I entered through our former kitchen, where everything was shrouded in white sheets, I woke up ghosts of the past. I went to sit on the skeleton of the sofa, put the casket on my lap and I stayed there an hour, maybe less, trying to recollect my thoughts and think of what was coming next. I took an oath, and I still had a mission to accomplish by the end of the day. I searched for the address and the map leading to The Orchard. I went to the garage to put the casket in the car and find the map in the glove compartment. After making some adjustments to the car, checking it still had enough oil and gasoline, I took a deep breath before turning the motor on. Surprisingly, I realised that the car never lost its old smell. There had always been a cologne perfume that would impregnate the whole car. During summer, it used to make me car sick, plus everyone would eat some mint candy whose smell would make me feel even more nauseous than before. Because of this, I had the privilege to sit in the front, with the window wide open, and more importantly, the power to choose the music was all mine. We had a couple of mixtapes that we used to play all the time. I put one in the tape player and turned the motor on. The car started, so did the music.  It was about four in the afternoon. After a couple of miles, the song Slipping Away came on. The song was interpreted by two people. A French singer and an American one. It was my mother’s favourite song. I chased these thoughts away from my head as I was trying to find my way out of the village and not miss the pre-selection for the regional road. The landscape was almost unrecognizable. Before, there were vacant lots all along the sides of the road. It was like a kind of countryside filled with plastic bags, rubbish that people would throw out of the window. Plastic bags were still there, but the grass had been replaced by more buildings and shops, half of which were closed due to the economic collapse that followed the flood. These blocks of concrete were obstructing the view on the area that, once, was beautiful, despite the plastic bags and the gas fumes emanating from the old cars. The road led me through a remote valley, which at first sight seemed spared by the changes and kept its ancient atmosphere. There were small mountains, some small villages were half hidden by the trees, but you could see their steeples amidst this greenery. One of them was surely inhabited by some of my relatives. But I cannot be so sure of that, since many valleys surrounded the area. I do remember though the wonderful time we had spent exploring the woods and all the adventures we had by the river that crossed one of the valleys. We used to jump from a small cliff in the cold spring water, watch out for snakes, build bridges where the water was shallower, with pebbles we would collect on the shore, with the burning hope that it would last and still be there the next time we would come. Golden bygone days. The pebbles and the river waited for us, but alas, we never came back.

After driving through this vale of reminiscences for a couple of hours with breaks to admire the landscape and to catch a glimpse of our previous life, I finally arrived at what seemed to be The Orchard. However, the advanced decay in which the estate was left me quite dubious about my reading of the map. I went back on the main road, drove around in circles three or four times in the nearby area because the place did not match the picture I had of it in my memories. In fact, instead of an imposing gate was a gaping hole. No one was attending the entrance either. Doubt seized my thoughts, so I stayed in my car a few moments. The casket was sitting on the back seat, with the belt fastened. I looked at my black polished shoes. After all these years, they were fitting me perfectly. Not too large neither too tight. The two inches of space disappeared with my childhood. It was as if the whole time they were meant to fit this occasion. My mother would agree. She was always reluctant to throw things away, this is the reason why we hoarded a lot of things back then. Until we had to leave. We could not take everything with us. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car, picked the casket with the deepest care and marched until the wooden door whose paint was half gone.

I knocked on the door and after a couple of seconds, someone came to open it. Suspicion stood between the old woman and me. “Who are you?”, she asked while examining me from toes to head. She was wearing the same kind of clothes as the people in my memories, so I reckoned I was in the right place. I introduced myself, said I came looking for my grandparents and for my tree. She shook her head, “Sorry, but I cannot help you, you should go away. You’re not the first one who came here. Many others like you passed first, without finding what they were looking for.” I insisted and begged her, told her my story, that it was important for us to be reunited. The woman lowered her head, sighed and let me in. “You do not know what happened here, don’t you? Well, let me tell you. When the flood came, we were not prepared for the wave to hit us so hard. Many people like your grandparents sought shelter here, because they knew their days were numbered, and The Orchard was the only place that would guarantee them to accomplish their purpose and be reunited with you one day. Unfortunately, the walls and the gate were not strong enough to shield us all. If I’m correct, they drowned a couple of months after their arrival. I am sorry to tell you that. I do remember your grandmother well though, she used to talk a lot about her two granddaughters. She said she was expecting you to come back, but they were not able to wait any longer. I am really sorry.” She paused a moment. “If you want I can lead you to the garden, but I cannot help you any more than that. You must remember. Come with me.” I followed her, carrying my casket in my arms and together we went through the hall or at least what remained of the place. She stopped in front of the garden. “There, take your time, come back once you’re finished. Good luck.” I looked at the wasteland that stood in front of me, motionless and speechless. Nothing resembled my memories. Vegetation had swallowed the garden. The patterns set by the little alleys were buried under weeds and twigs. It was not an orchard anymore but a dense jungle. There was hardly any space between the trees. I tried. I tried to feel, to remember. But the wind blew so strongly, that a dissonance of voices rang in my ears. Not a single melody distinguished itself. A strong smell of dust numbed my olfactory sense as a forest of oblivion was veiling my sight with its leaves. I started searching, making a way to our family tree, where my grandparents, my father and my sister were waiting, but the brambles kept hanging on my clothes, scratching my skin. I tried to dig to find the roots but the soil was too dry. I stopped to catch my breath. I was lost. I was still holding the casket tightly against my chest. Finally, I opened the dark oak lid. My heart pinched and bitter drops watered the earth as I held my mother one last time. Amidst the roaring wind, in the far off the purple evening skies, the lyrics of a song I knew in my heart echoed: Hold on to people, they’re slipping away, hold on to this while it’s slipping away.

The Rain

Image: ©️ Unsplash – Graham Ruttan (@gramdaman) – License

Author: Sébastien Milcé

Raindrops are hitting the roof, creating a nostalgic music, an atypical and changing rhythm. As if the clouds are changing moods, aggressive fury, restful quietude, dancing joy.

You loved the rain.

You loved desserts, word plays, sunbathes at the beach, cocktails and cats.

I loved everything you loved, and I thought it was enough.

Yes, you loved a lot of things, but I wasn’t a part of it.

For a long time, I wondered what I was doing wrong to be unworthy of your love. It seemed to me that I was the most attentive, the most motivated, the gentlest. Yet, the first day’s passion was fatally replaced by the fear of hurting someone you considered as sympathetic. But love is blind, and what was clearly a unilateral relationship was emerging in my head as an idyllic romance.

So, I didn’t see that I was stifling you, I didn’t understand why you were so cold when I was trying to offer my heart, I didn’t interpret the signals indicating that we were going downhill.

Maybe you think that I was being naïve, but your presence used to be enough to ease every one of my sorrows. I was under your hold, you controlled me; your words seemed holy, your actions seemed heroic, your requests became my obsession. Ultimately, nothing was impossible when it came to you, I would have blown down a mountain if you asked me to.

But it was this upward force that, paradoxically, pushed our relationship towards the abyss of failed loves. You wanted the “me” of the beginning, the one who was not under your spell, the one who used to act like he didn’t want you. At the end of the day, giving you attention meant losing you. And the first time I looked at you with passion, you looked at me with disgust.

You had your problems that you would have shared for nothing in the world, because with me, you’ve never been vulnerable. Never, despite the weight of you sorrows, you saw me as trustworthy. And I realized just now that our intimacy didn’t expand outside the sheets of the bed. 

I asked myself what I was doing wrong, and it came to me. It wasn’t something that I had done, nor something I hadn’t done. You just wanted someone I wasn’t.

What I had to give wasn’t in line with what you were asking for, it wasn’t too much, it wasn’t too little, it just wasn’t it.

The hatred that I used to carry against you when you ended my fantasy, was in reality badly directed. It was against the resentment of this relationship that I kept this visceral hatred: despite all my efforts, I didn’t succeed in impacting your life like I wanted to. And it was this feeling, the impression of being a man among the crowd, to be a transition towards happier days, this very feeling that kept me up at night. Maybe I wasn’t the man of your dreams, but I sadly realized that I wasn’t the exceptional man I thought I was. And this reflection has the power to shatter one’s self-confidence to its foundation.

I’m mad at myself. Mad to have used so much energy in vain, mad to have put myself through emotional danger for someone who was explicitly pushing me out of their life.

As time goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to remember the good memories. You never confided, you never lowered the wall you built between us, you never showed who you are. 

I don’t hate you.

I simply don’t know you.

You were just a stranger who used to love listening to the rain in my arms.

Pink Combo

Images: ©️ Erika Castrillón

Author: Erika Castrillón

Today I went to the park. I followed the same path I used to seven years before. I asked my cousin if I could use the swing, she said that some girls like me often do it, so I thought it was right.

I started swinging and the air that blew my hair and caressed my skin made me happy. When I was a child, my father used to take me to that park every single afternoon. Seven years ago, the park was made of sand and dry plants. Today, I was going on swings made of steel. Back in my time, I played with wooden ones. I looked down to my legs and drew some little ones, the legs of a six-year-old girl, me. Me in that tender pink t-shirt-short combo my mom knitted for me. My little feet running around the place without thinking of tomorrow. When I was not conscious about my parents getting divorced. When I was not aware of why mom used to cry every afternoon. Today I felt scared. I feared pushing myself so high that I couldn’t go down and scared of going so low that I couldn’t get up and get stocked in that toxic and plastic sand. I felt overwhelmed. My cousin asked if I was ok, so I hid the tears. 

I wondered if I could go so high that I could touch the stars. I think on those 90’s coming of age movies where a group of youthful teenagers goes to a park just to hang out. I saw that shot where a beautiful young girl is swinging. A black and white pic full of feeling. And I felt hopeful that all my dreams would see the light someday. I just closed my eyes and realized that I was alone. I was the only teenager in a place full of kids. In the end, I was the only one swinging. There was just a boy a few steps to my right with a baby. Then a policeman came to me and asked for my age. I told him I wasn’t an adult. He told me, “It’s just ’til twelve years old” Oops, I’m too old to swing.



Image: Ⓒ Roxane Kokka

Author: Roxane Kokka


My aunt had always been a person of wonders. While growing up, I remember her running up and down the stairs in her huge old house, regardless of her age or the grey color of her hair. Not to mention, she had one of those wide staircases with tall steps, similar to the ones you see in old movies. She ran like that to answer her old greyish-beige whirred rotary dial phone. And she would have this old piano with all the white keys turned yellow that apparently survived a bombing (well, some of the keys actually broke but she never bothered to have them repaired). Nevertheless, that did not stop her from singing, and she had one of the most moving voices I ever heard. Without her needing to be in any sorrowful state of mind (especially around my siblings and me who she loved as if we were her grandchildren), whenever we asked her to sing, I was fascinated by how quickly she changed from laughing, gossiping and telling stories to singing songs with great nostalgia and melancholy, but nevertheless sublime tones in her voice. It was as though each sound that escaped from her lips managed to find a way deep down into your chest and fill you with awe.

As I said before, my aunt used to tell us all kinds of stories. Some were of pure invention, such as the fictional “naughty boy called Peter” who, according to her, was the one always ripping her sheets whenever my sister and I asked her about the holes in the bedsheets she lent us. There was also the story of that time she jumped out of a car window after the driver told her that the breaks were not working. I do not know if that story is true or not, but I would not be surprised if it were, especially after I found out a few years ago that she refused to go to the hospital when she broke her arm. That was a true story, along with the ones about her experiences of World War II and the Greek Civil War. There was, for instance, that time when a shooting took place in the street right outside her parents’ summer home she was staying in alone that summer, which was all on one floor and full of windows. She recalled hiding in the fireplace because it was the only part of the house that remained intact from the bullets shattering the windows, as they simply crossed right in front of it. My aunt also told me that if it were not for Hitler, she would not have been able to finish her education. As she was the eldest girl in the family, her mother did not want her to finish school in order to keep her at home to do all the hard work in the fields and chores around the house (this was, back then, the fate of most eldest daughters in Greek families living on islands or in the countryside). But her father, you see, was a headmaster and teacher, and during the war, when the island was under Italian rule and children were not allowed to go to school or work in the fields, her father, the only one allowed to enter the school, took her with him and gave her private lessons. My aunt also told me that, unlike most women of her time, if it were not for her marriage, she would have never earned her independence. At forty-five she broke free from her tyrannical mother thanks to her husband. At forty-five she was finally allowed to move out of her parents’ house and stop working in the fields like a slave or take care of her healthy parents as if she were a nurse. At forty-five she would never get beaten again by her parents for coming back home past midnight, even at the age of thirty.

My aunt died last year. The funniest thing was that I thought she never would. I knew she was mortal alright, but I always thought that she would die at a hundred and fourteen (like her grandfather) instead of ninety-four. She survived two wars while she was a teenager and young adult. She jumped out of a car running down a mountain out of control. At the age of ninety-two she broke her arm and refused to go to the hospital – my uncle had to drag her there. At ninety-three she was still running up and down the staircase in her husband’s big, old house. At ninety-four she had breast cancer and did not even feel concerned by it and apparently did not even need to – it did not put her life in danger. At ninety-four all of the doctors she saw were impressed with how much energy she had and how well her brain and speech worked for a woman of her age. She was quick and she was sharp. Even at ninety-four. I do not know what exactly killed her. All I know is that it was neither her cancer nor the current pandemic. And I do not want to know. I will always remember her as the strongest woman I have ever known. Invincible.

The Rich Man with the Sunglasses

pair of sunglasses resting on their case

Image:American Optical Original Pilot Aviator sunglasses‘ © GuySie. Source CC Licence.

Author: Leah Didisheim

This evening, way across the east side in New York, this man was crossing the road. He had a briefcase in one hand and the other hand in his pocket. He wore a long coat and a suit under it, a cashmere suit, with a perfectly adapted hat. He probably bought them together so they could match. He wore black waxed shoes and a scarf nicely put around his neck.

But most strangely, he wore sunglasses. Sunglasses is not a strange thing to wear, I agree. But the thing is that it was winter. A cold evening in winter. Who would wear sunglasses except if they were drunk or if they had something to hide?… I’m pretty sure this man was not drunk. He was not the type of man to be drunk. He was really elegant and we could see with his clothes that he came from the high society. So, what did he have to hide, I ask you?

I had met him two days ago. It was in a meeting. He wanted to buy the business which I worked in. He came and behaved as if he owned the place, except, well, he did not. It pissed me off to be honest. But that’s the thing with rich people. They think that because they have money, therefore own a lot of things, they own everything else too. They think they are better than everybody else. Well, I say let’s put an end to that.

So here I am today, I’ve been following him for the last 5 hours; he cannot be perfect. There must be something going on with him. Nobody, in his rank, has no secret. And the sunglasses are my first lead of the day.

He opens the door of this hotel, the Colomara, and checks if anybody saw him. He cannot see me from where I stand. I wait five seconds. 1…2…3…4…5… I’m going in. The elevator at the far-right corner closes. I can just have a glimpse at a scarf and a hat. I hurry along the stairs. I can’t know which floor he’s headed to… so I must be quicker and see which floor the elevator opens at.

I’m not used to running like this. I’m at the fifth floor and I hear the sound of the elevator opening. I hurry behind the first wall I find and I wait to hear some footsteps. I don’t understand… nothing happens. And then suddenly I hear a voice.

“Well, well, well, are you done following me now? I have other things to do than to prove you right. I have a wife whom I love very much and three wonderful children. And I cannot help but think that because I have more money than you do, and obviously less time to lose than you do, that you have prejudices against me. Well, let me tell you something, yes, I love being rich but that doesn’t mean you can judge me because you don’t like being poor. And, of course, as nice as I am, even with what you did, as you didn’t deny it, I’m gonna offer you the same deal as I did two days ago: buy your company, and I swear you’ll be able to judge yourself with the amount of money you’re going to make.”

I couldn’t say a single word. I stared at him. My mouth opened. I guess he took that as a yes, nodded, gave me a contract which I quickly signed, and left.

Well, I cannot speak about every rich man in New York, but this one definitely is a very mysterious man!

I was still on the fifth floor when I heard a gunshot on the main floor. Screams followed not long after the first noise. When I managed to bring myself downstairs, nobody was left in the building. When I looked back, before going outside where the street was busier with every more minute I waited, my blood froze: I noticed black sunglasses left behind on the ground.

The Sparkle

Author: Martina Nina

I am still waiting. I am still waiting for that sparkle.
This sparkle, they say, is the best thing in the world that can happen to you. It comes to your soul. Why is it taking so long for me? I want to feel this way. I am getting desperate waiting for it. Does it exist for me? I don’t know. I am searching for it. Every day, everywhere.
This is turning a bit ridiculous. Am I so damaged that nobody wants that sparkle with me?
Days and days have gone by. Still nothing. Still ridiculously nothing.
I am giving it a month. If nothing happens, I quit. I will never search a sparkle again. I swear.
One week, nothing. Two weeks nothing. Oh, come on. Three weeks nothing. It’s the last weekend. That’s it. I quit. Definitely quitting.
I am going to that party to have fun, since no sparkle will ever come to me.
I never thought I could have so much fun when I’m not looking for that sparkle in every corner. Why didn’t I quit months before? I have fun, never have this much fun actually.
And there it was, as soon as I forgot it, it came. The sparkle.
The sparkle was standing just in front of me, looking with these beautiful brown sparkling eyes and the most amazing smile I have ever seen. He was wearing a black jacket and dark grey pants; he was tall and skinny, a bit muscular.
The sparkle looked at me, and there it was, love at first sight.
It is so true what they say, love always comes when we least expect it.

El Diablo

Abandoned railway

Image: “Abandoned Storehouses” by Diego3336 is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Author: Katharina Schwarck


This piece of writing was born in a Creative Writing Club session, with the prompt “Mixing Worlds and Characters”.


Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, lived a mean little creature, tall like three stacked apples, hair and cheeks the colour of a rotten cherry. No one had been able to defeat the little devil, for it had magic powers. One weakness, though, it had. It sang. It sang about its victories and sang about its plans. One day, as the goblin was strutting in the forest, it chanted


The miller’s daughter she was fair.

Found her crying in a prayer.

“I’ll give you anything”, she’d say,

“If you make to gold my hay”.


The miller’s daughter had married the king, and the goblin had been promised the princess’s first-born, which was expected in a year. This day, the creature was strolling through the grass, but little did it know, the fairies had set a trap. One safe step, a second, a third, and the little foot stumbled over a root. The creature fell and fell down the hill. It rolled and rolled, and cursed, and cursed. Underneath the hill, there was a pond. As it approached the bottom of the hill, it braced itself for the fall into the shallow water. The fall hurt much more. It slowly stretched its sore body and opened its eyes. It lengthened its arms and discovered two iron bars on both sides of its body. It lifted its head. The iron path had no visible end. The little devil turned onto its belly and found what had hurt its body were pieces of wood, which connected the iron bars, and black stones, that filled the gaps between the wood shafts. The creature pushed itself onto its knees. Its mouth tasted dust. There, it heard an ear-splitting noise, more powerful than it had ever heard. Lifting its head, it saw: the noise had come from an unknown being. A gigantic iron monster, that was spitting smoke from its head and which was speeding towards the creature like a flash. The goblin rolled itself over hectically, and saw the long, dark beast thundering by on its magic wheels. The creature scarcely admitted to fear, and it was only when someone lifted it up by its hood that it started screaming. It screamed and fought and bit and struck. It looked up and facing it was a tall man, fully clothed in black, with a black hat, and a black mask. His cape blew gently above the dust, and his right hand held a rapier. He smelled of dust, of sweat, and smoke. The man said calmly: “Entonces, eres tú el diablo”.


We do not know what happened after this, but people say the next day the goblin came to the princess’s door with a gift and promised to never show itself again. 


And sometimes, if you pay attention, you can walk along the forest, and still hear the creature sing


The big man said I did harm

I laughed and spat, he rose his arm

“You must be punished, you are foul”

Struck his blade across my jowl

“Quit your evil, you disgrace”

Struck a Z across my face


For life, I’m marked with shame

Three scars, from his first name


Where there is screaming there is breathing

Image: © Andres Stadelmann

Author: Andres Stadelmann

You sat at the foot of the hill
The one which softly sloping rose high above the clouds.
And you watched, eyes twinkling as I met your gaze.
That gaze
Wrought of that deep iron which only exists in the mines of memory and experience
Piercingly understanding but softened and smoothened by wisdom.
What a funny thing
How you of all people waited for me there.
I remember as a child how you spoke to me. You knew all my tongues, and I had barely learned yours.
But that sensible experience became
That drive and desire to know more.
It’s always difficult at first. It requires trust, sure, but more importantly the willingness to accept those lofty dizzying sights in order to plunge and go deep and far and above and beyond and to twirl and to tumble and to wake and to sleep and to scream and to scream and to scream and to scream
Perhaps too much.
You always told me, yes we do want to go there. We do want to reach that summit, the clouds, the rain, the cold—it holds no importance.
And that flushing hilly side beckoned yet, light parting and peering ever so slightly.
But why then, what of this urgency? And who am I going with, and how, and when, and
That love which you pronounced on your lips and in your heart, which screamed in your loins and in your eyes.
And suddenly that gaze was not so sunken, not so piercing, not so deep.
And still you looked
The oxygen is always thinner at higher altitudes, your breath catches easier and you need to stop more often
And wait.
Wait for that immense solitude, which, like the clouds, hides that questioning desire and that fear.
Wait for it to come, and when it does don’t hold back.
When it gets cold you can’t hold back
And those precious piercing breaths
The ones who hold sobs
Take them in, let them out
Let them comfort your heart, take them out in the sun
Don’t forget it’s all green, and you’re there at the top
Open your eyes so you’ll know where to stop.
Now again there is music with a promise of song
Still you listen.
Slowly we gather our arms and take steps, which resemble the ones your children made only last year.
Here is dancing, here is singing, and above all
here is crying.
Do it in silence, so I can hear you reappear. I want to go with you I want to have you here.
I want to feel you living
I want to watch you breathe
Please watch me while I stare, while I glare and while I dare.
And looking towards the ocean, of that sky high and wide
The same one that catches the moon when it lays to rest during the day
Sleeping frivolously.
The same sleep of course, which I shared with my mother. I slept knowing only of a love, that love which feeds the same furry hillsides we wish to climb
And kicking to satisfy those itchy jitters
Yes mother, there is still much to learn.
You know that first time when I chanced a glance, when I thought that maybe a part of that blinding light was kept for me, it didn’t look right.
There was something that I knew I could have followed, with my eyes closed. Never stopping, only stumbling.
And now, with you, at the foot of that hill, I did stop
Not to see, nor to hear
But to breathe
While the world all around me keeps screaming

Sky Blue

Image: “Depression #4 (standing at the window)” by ndanger is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Source

Author: Diane Kalms

Content warning: this text has light mentions of eating disorders, anxiety, and drugs.

you found Happiness
in Darkness
you found the Light
in the Night
you found Passion
in Starvation


what you didn’t know
is that you lost your Reason
long time ago.








I’m wandering in this megalopolis; I’m feeling a little bit hazy, I don’t really know how I got here, but it does not bother me. A lot of people around me are walking with such conviction and determination, and it amazes me how much energy they put in their march. Confused and dazzled by their steel armor, Anxiety, until then calmly muffled in my chemical fleece, begins to seethe, threatening to erupt like a nasty bile and disintegrate my organs, my nerves, my brain, leaving my carnal envelope definitely empty and ready for a reboot. What a bitter place! I know I should have been more discrete. Now, I have been detected as an intruder. They are diluting my cocoon, slowly, the cotton is dripping with an icy liquid, almost like soldering iron and I can feel it invade and pervade every inch of my living body; I can hear a mechanical humming and I know they have sent their steel parasites to penetrate my mind. Their little legs, like metallic ants, are working for my absolute mutation: the annihilation of my deviant character.

At that moment, my mouth opens like a gaping hole. From this bottomless gash emerges a deafening shrill, the final cry of all humanity. Someone throws a grenade in it and it resorbs instantly, as I feel the red little pill going down my throat.
It has not always been like that. Before the Big Fall, remember? You were well at ease with other people. We’ve been stuck down here for a while. You pretend that nothing happened, but deep down you know she has taken possession of you. She loves to play with you: sometimes she cuts one string, and you end up dislocated like an obsolete puppet. She knows how to keep you close, because she often fastens a new chain to your head. She successfully tamed you, to the point that you’re afraid of the chains breaking. Afraid of being alone again. She made you believe that she was vital to you. And you know what worked best? She turned your world upside down, and made you believe that the Others are your enemies, and not her. Yet, you cannot understand this. But I can open your eyes.

I must escape, they’re blocking my way, I have to beat them, I have to go in the opposite direction of their infernal pace and find the light again. Yes, but first, find me.
I’m slowly regaining consciousness, after what seemed to be an eternity. A dreamless sleep. But the world around me is not fuzzy anymore. Instead, I can feel my heart beating like mad, the adrenaline is rushing through my veins. My body is going at full speed. How am I capable of such prowess? My bones and muscles have taken over my brain; impulsiveness becomes the master of my decisions. While the drug is violently waking up my aching limbs, I know She’s happy. I’m totally in sync with Her. How funny it is to be satisfied with that. You’re in harmony with her passion for self-destruction. She can rest, while I’m taking over. I’m looking up and as always, it’s a starless night; the moon is shining like the light at the end of a tunnel. The darkness of the streets seems impenetrable; from below the buildings are burnt trees without branches and their threatening shadow prevent me from going further. Still, as I don’t have any control over my corporeal movements, I’m stepping into this urban wood.
We have always liked this city. The rumors about its open-mindedness, the kindness of its residents but above all else, its particular nightlife. We had never seen that somewhere else. The city where you can be anyone, and at the same time no one. Humans spending time with other humans, free from any kind of social labels, the ones we always hated. We felt good there because sometimes it seemed like we did not belong anywhere. So maybe we needed this neutral environment to entirely reveal and celebrate peacefully our individuality.

Discretion has always been a specific trait of our personality; this is why anonymity has always been attractive. At that time, we knew that she was already there, yet she wasn’t strong enough to push us to the bottom of our reason. But she managed to do it. Now that we see the world from below, everything is terrifying. People have muted into malevolent titans with scorpions’ tails, ready to harpoon us so we will swell and swell and swell ever more and become as big as they are. You became afraid of them, and this was her greater accomplishment: she made you think that Others are out of reach and that you will never be as good as them. So, we sunk into the night, blinded by the thought that in the dark laid our light. At that moment, she knew she could invert right and wrong, just and unjust, reasonable and unreasonable, just as she pleased. Because you were scared about these giant devils, she made you think that the tinier you were, the more you’ll become invisible before their eyes. At first it was hard for her: we were a question mark in a universe that needs definitions, but we still felt that we deserved our material place one day or another. Insidious, she stripped us from our substantial attachments and of the few certitudes we had, imprisoned us on the other side of the mirror, where down is up and left is right, mutilating our last perception of reality. Because she did not like our body image, she persuaded you that you did not either. She dragged you down with her on the corporeal side too, extolling the virtues of drugs, singing their magical ability to transform your corrupt vision and manipulate your self-image. You felt sexy, mighty, but, above all, it numbed the pain. It’s like playing Russian roulette, and you like the taste of metal in your mouth. Drugs would falsely reverse your natural world, deceiving you while letting you think that you were on the upper side again, persisting in the treachery when you could feel them running in your blood, letting you glimpse what you still think to be the gates of heaven. But I now know for a fact that you entered hell a long time ago.
Like every night, I find myself in front of the reinforced door. It’s the only source of light for several kilometers around. I can hear the usual melodic throbbing, its sharp and rhythmed noises coming from the entrails of the machine, sometimes punctuated with guttural roars of infernal beasts burning with desire voluntarily entrapped down here. The siren call attracts other damned souls, springing from the deafening darkness and slowly coming near the entrance like zombies enticed by fresh meat. Inscribed in red letters along the ledge above the portal the words I AM THE WAY TO THE CITY OF THE DEPRAVED are shining timidly, as if they did not want to be seen, as if it was only a bad joke, but hopefully, it’s not. Hell is real and it is man-made. I know the drug has seriously kicked in, as I’m staring, aghast, at the countless snakes rising over the head of the bouncer: one move and I’m out. The more I stare at them, the more I’m realizing that they are either biting at impostors or charmed by genuine evil souls. At that moment, She knows that I’m in danger. She wakes up and hastily takes over, because only her viciousness will enchant these little demons. Their mouths twist in a vicious rictus.
And once again, I’m falling down the blazing rabbit-hole.

Come. You’ll find me eight floors below.
            The first time we heard about this club, we were really troubled and deeply disturbed at the thought of how it works. Eight floors, all built underground. No windows. No clocks. No mobile phones allowed. Time is the enemy down here; its power to change, the continuity of its movement are banished. Only eternity is allowed. It’s a one-way road going downards, you cannot come back to reality by the same stairs: to reach the surface, there is a hidden passage you have to find by yourself. Every level looks alike, if you’re not familiar with the place you lose count almost immediately. The air is heavy, foggy; the light sources are scattered and flashing at a rapid pace, meaning that you will never see the same thing even if you stand still. There is however a little particularity that only the regulars are aware of: if you take a look at the other living beings, you will notice that they are distinct from the previous floors.

First floor. I’m totally blinded by what seems to be a shower of sparks. Millions of light particles are dancing around me, enveloping me and penetrating my skin, muscles, nerves, until they reach the grey matter, and ultimately the core of my soul. Enchanted, I want to be one with the fire, let go of my carnal prison, dilute myself in this universe until I’m nowhere but at the same time everywhere, until I become an ubiquitous energy, ultimately freeing my conscience from any material and earthly obstacles; don’t you dare!!  We already tried that once see where it took us but oddly, I cannot let go of myself, I feel that there’s a war in me oh yes, it’s me against her and something stronger is attracting me from below. I’m hearing the thoughts of someone else IT’S ME! they are coming in successive waves and I’m scared. Maybe I swallowed too much. Again, Anxiety, normally sedated threatens to blow me up, everything is going really fast around me the rapid rhythm of the hard techno is synchronized with my heartbeat I feel the sweat running on my temples the stroboscope blurs everything around me focus please, focus, focus… Suddenly, a cold wave runs over me, from my toes to the top of my head. Anxiety puts its blade arms away, turns back into darkness. I feel sober again. I look around myself, and for the first time, I’m really aware of what’s happening here.

The people filling the room are all richly dressed. Their clothes sparkle in the obscurity; they look like bronze figures of deities. As I get closer, I notice that a mask of gold covers their faces entirely. Faceless statues of an ancient time eroded by excesses and by their lust. These are only women; I can see their breast underneath their armor. Like sorceresses, they turn everything they touch into gold. The room is filled with magnificent beds, sofas but no one lolls into them. In a small alcove in the left corner of the room, an altar; illuminated with candles, some writing: MANEATER. I hear laments, they crave for the feeling of kissing, stroking, licking. This is hell down here, I thought women were free to do whatever they wanted? Behind a glass wall, faces, grinning from ear to ear, watching libidinously the Chamber of Horrors. I had never been aware before of their suffering, I always thought it was a show. It’s strange, I feel like I’m more lucid. She’s not happy.

Oh, I know she’s not happy. I can feel her trying to fill up your veins with her dark viscous poison, the one that immobilizes your willingness, and keep me glued to the bottom of your mind. Me, your Reason, your Happiness, Your real Self.

Throughout the years, I observed. I observed her smallest deeds or gestures. I observed how she manipulated you, with what tools and what words in what order she used. I observed how she faked her pretended feelings for you no, I know she likes me, doesn’t she? Throughout all these years, she pretended that you’d love your body by destroying it. She reversed the mirror. By throwing up, the sensation of the empty stomach would be pleasing but the burning, oh, the burning; by over-exercising you’d feel lighter I couldn’t walk for days; by starving you’d feel powerful, above all these weak people the time I didn’t eat for a week and I fainted in front of everyone and everyone laughed and my father carried me and found out I was thumbing my nose at Newton’s laws; by being thin you would please anyone and all the boys who looked at me with disgust; by taking every kind of drugs you wouldn’t eat for days and I wouldn’t sleep either and all the demons came back at night; by taking drugs even more often you would look inaccessible and you could really feel alive oh yes we felt alive we loved that but we loved that too much and look where it got us? ; by rejecting the physical essence of life, what you loved since you were a child remember I even wanted to be a cook you thought she was the right choice to protect you from the hostile environment in which you evolved. See? It is all wrong: she wants to replace life with death itself. But I don’t want to be dead.

From all this observation, I learned. She doesn’t know, but she’s been teaching me how to beat her. We have to crush Her.
What floor? How much time have I been asleep? Doesn’t matter. I know what I have to do now. Quickly. I don’t know how long I can keep Her quiet me neither it’s now or never. Under a heavy amount of dope, certain floors terrify me, such as the sixth. On a podium, creatures writhe wearing a mask of historic celebrities, but every time they try to talk, blood and snakes spurt from their mouth; the reptiles inundate the floor and wind around my legs, climb up my back and whisper fine words on my physique in my ear. I realize that this surrealist situation might not be a hallucination and that it is really hell down here.

I consider what’s around me, and I understand I am at the seventh floor: one floor to go. It’s the worst one, a materialization of all the fears I internalized, the ones that I buried deep down so that they couldn’t scare me again you have to face them and get rid of them. Women. All extremely skinny, wearing sumptuous clothes, the ones you would expect on a fashion show; they are stunning and smile merrily. When they move too quickly, the fabric of their apparel moves and reveals a big, disgusting mouth in place of their stomach. There are tables of a never-ending length over which lie countless dishes, each one looking more succulent than the other. But I know by experience that they have no taste. They strut like proud peacocks and pretend to ignore what is on the tables; still, as soon as they approach the plates, their large mouths begin to yell in a senseless gibberish; the only words I can distinguish are ADDICTION and STARVATION. Their macabre stroll seems to be going on endlessly. I have to gather all my courage to pass through them and reach the last floor.

We’re almost there.

Eighth floor. It is freezing cold, whereas the previous rooms were rather overheated. I don’t remember ever being here. The room is of a blinding immaculate white, the walls are padded and there are no couches, except for dirty mattresses, stained with unidentified substances. On them, the remains of what were once human individuals: livid, they produce long vociferation like beasts in agony; their white eyes and their mouth half open give them a dazed and disillusioned look. Long hair hangs over their scraggy shoulders; they remind me of ghouls. These human shells move so slowly they seem to be numbed by the cold atmosphere that prevails in here and it’s sure the dope doesn’t help them to be vivid either, still they are begging for more. There is only one armchair at the center of this scene of devastation, where sits the owner of this whole crushing system. Happily grinning from ear to ear, she’s the one that distributes the drugs. At no point in time does she take any of these; but she takes a perverse pleasure in choosing who can get some, starving them until they’re on the verge of dying, and only at this moment she gives them a phenomenal quantity, so that their next withdrawal symptoms torture them always more. She’s exulting to see the vampires jostle weakly to get their dose, tearing each other apart to be the first to get it. She notices me, and I see in her look that she might know me; indeed, she extends her hand toward me. I see that it is full of appetizing little pills of all colors, the ones I’ve been taking for years now, the ones I love, the ones that make me feel so mighty and thin, the ones that make me feel like I’m in control of everything around me RESIST you have to resist otherwise she will win again and this time you will lose me forever yet, curiously, I feel at peace and I don’t want any. She’s trying to persuade me to take them, She does not understand why I’m not already swallowing them, and She begins to get angrier and angrier; at the same time, she becomes darker and darker while I’m seeing the light again! and tries to regain control over my body. I don’t let Her. I have a nameless force helping me to resist Her assaults, all of my muscles tense up, every inch of my body is on alert, my brain is throbbing in order to purge the venom can you feel that you’re coming back to your senses again? my body is going to blow up, lava is running down my ears, tears are flowing down my face, and a long hoarse howling escapes through my lips.

Little by little, the fog that permanently troubles my vision diminishes, while I see a black cloud slowly materializing itself at the corner of the room. A skeletal and slender silhouette is gradually outlined; it’s faceless and has no hair, I can only distinguish her small breasts, and the prominent bones of her chest, ribs, and hips. Her long and thin fingers try one last time to catch me, but I stay stoic. She knows it’s over. Gently, she curls up on the floor and begins to cry.
At the back of the room, a door opens. Behind, the sky is blue.

Open your eyes.
Life can go on.

Before Dark

Image: “Worm’s Eye View of Green Trees” © Felix Mittermeier on Pexel

Author: Emilie Badoux

About the story

This is a story where you make the choices. In order to win, you have to get out of the woods before dark.

This story was written for the MUSE Challenge 2021. The underlined words are those which were part of the challenge.

Start Here

First, you hear sounds — birdsong, and the faint rustle of the wind in leaves. Second, a sweet, fresh smell tickles your nose. Third, you feel the warm, pleasant sensation of the sun on your face. Then you open your eyes, and that’s when the thoughts come in. What the…? You sit up fast, too fast, and now your whole body — without waking up from its stiff, sluggish state — remembers pain; sharp stabs through your head, quiet aches in your back, but none of it is surprising after sleeping on the ground in a — you look around — meadow? In any case, none of it is more intense than the confusion, and the feeling that something very, very strange is going on. Lush and green grass, still wet with dew, fills a modest area, bigger than a garden, smaller than a field, before shrubs mark the border with the forest of tall trees that surround it. You are situated on a slight slope: on one side the forest goes up, and on the other, down. Sun-kissed wildflowers are strewn around the meadow — their scent was what you smelled before, still entranced by sleep. Despite the discomfort, you almost want to stay here now that you’re fully awake and lucid. Something is reassuring, charming, almost mesmerising about the place…

…Which rekindles the eerie feeling from before: this is too strange — and how did you get here anyways? You have the sudden certainty that if you stay one moment longer, you might never leave. You get up slowly, careful not to provoke your (suspicious) headache, and try to find a path into the forest. And sure enough, you see two paths, one going up, one going down. Both are dirt tracks disappearing among the trees; they look identical, as if one was the continuation of the other, going in and out of the strange stretch of grass. There is no way for you to know which would be the best way for you to get out of here quickly, but you have to decide.


Which path will you take?

  • If you’re taking the path that goes down, click here.
  • If you’re taking the path that goes up, click here.


Passage 2

Among the evergreen trees, you hear the sound of running water and, soon enough, you find a river. Can a river be useful for getting you out? You wish you knew more about getting out of mysterious forests. The river is about 10 metres wide, and its flow seems pretty strong. To your right, a little further down, you see an old suspension bridge, an indicator that at some point, people must have walked through these parts. Clearly, this bridge has not been used for years, though, and its wooden planks are scant and rotting. An attempt to cross might very well end up as an unexpected swim — and you’re not that good of a swimmer. Looking around, you see a track going nearer the riverbank: it seems like it would be passable, so another option would be to walk along the river.


Where will you go now?

  • If you’re too intrigued by the old bridge and what you might find on the other side, click here.
  • If you decide to go up the river, click here.
  • If you want to try the way down the river, click here.


Passage 3

After walking up for some time, you find a small stone house. The well-maintained garden in front, as well as the smoke escaping the chimney and the faint sounds coming from the inside, indicate that it is inhabited. After your nap in the grass, the house feels inviting, its windows embellished with pots of colourful flowers, stone steps leading to the front door. It is a relief to find that there are other people here — you are immediately tempted to knock and ask for directions. Still, you cannot help but doubt whether or not that would be wise, given that you do not know who is in there.


So, what do you do?

  • If you decide that knocking at the door is the best way of determining who is in there and if they can help you, click here.
  • If you would rather try to go around and investigate through a window, running the risk of being discovered sneaking around, click here.
  • If you think all of this is too suspicious and you’d rather trust yourself to get out of the woods on your own, you can go back down through the meadow and take the path that goes down, which will lead you to click here.


Passage 4

You venture onto the bridge, and, despite your misgivings, you make it to the other side safely. The path continues, and you tread through tall trees, thankful that the sun is still high in the sky. After some time, you have to stop your progress: the path has started to resemble an animal track more and more, and now it seems to stop completely, a fallen tree barring the way, which then gives way to thorny bushes. It must have led somewhere at some point, but now this path is impracticable. Turning around to go back, you notice something strange in the corner of your eye, next to the path, sparkling blue. You take a closer look: it is a bright, blue mushroom. Not only is its colour unusual, but it also seems too bright, phosphorescent. Its light is clearly not coming from the afternoon sun. Surely this mushroom must not be edible. It looks similar to those toxic, the ones that are dangerous even to touch — which leads you to believe you should probably leave it and be on your way. But you are also tempted to take it, out of curiosity: you’ve never seen anything of the sort, and you like owning special things…

Decide whether you take the blue mushroom and keep it in your pocket.

Then, you go back on your way across the bridge.


Passage 5

You knock at the door of the stone-house and hear some racket inside before the door opens to you. A woman in her sixties, with long grey hair and a brown apron, opens the door. She looks you up and down, staying silent until you politely ask for help. Her answer comes in a matter-of-factly tone:

‘You know what? I think you could help me. Why don’t you come in?’ She lets you in without giving you much of a choice, and you start wondering whether coming here was a good idea.

You are in the stone-house with the woman.

  • If you have the blue mushroom, click here.
  • If you don’t, keep reading.

Sorry, dear traveller, but the adventure ends here for you. The woman — the witch — decides to take her in as her minion, binding you to serve her through a spell, and you do not get to walk out of here free.

The story ends here, and you lost. Don’t hesitate to start over at the beginning if you want to try again.

Passage 6

After walking along the river for a while, you notice more light through the trees, a little way up. You climb up, and find that the trees end there, giving way to a field, yellow wheat dancing in the wind and shining gold in the late afternoon sun. Beyond the field, you see a road, leading back to a village. You are out of the woods.

The story ends here, and you won. Don’t hesitate to start over at the beginning if you want to discover other paths.


Passage 7

You walk around to the side of the house to spy through the window. When you get to the window, you find a dark grey cat sitting on the sill, its bright blue eyes watching you with an eerily clever, and, you could swear, judgemental, look. Still, you try to get closer, making your way through the bushes that surround this side of the house.

‘Oh, you’re a bold one’, the cat remarks. You let out a sigh — nobody likes talking cats. You ignore her, and try to find a human on the inside. Cats are not known for their helpfulness to lost travellers… or for their helpfulness in general. This one, however, does not let you look past her.

‘Be careful, you don’t want her to see you’, she warns. ‘The witch, I mean’, she adds after letting the mystery float around for just a second, with an intense gaze that makes you uncomfortable. ‘She’s old, she’s cranky, and she does not like intruders’. The cat lets out a feline laugh which settles your dislike and distrust of her for good. ‘But if you want to look, look. It’s your life you’re risking, not mine…’ She finally jumps down the windowsill and strolls away, leaving you perplexed.

When you look through the window, you see a homely and cosy room, which seems empty. There is a fire burning in a fireplace, a book open on a wooden table, and pretty paintings of country scenes decorating the wall — in other words, nothing suspicious. Yet, if there truly is a witch, can you trust looks to tell you whether you should go in?

What will you do now?

  • You do not trust the cat’s word, and although looking inside the house did not indicate much about its possible inhabitants, you did not see anything suspicious either. If you decide to knock at the door, click here.
  • If, despite your doubts about the cat, you decide not to take chances about your safety and to find your way on your own. you can go back to the meadow and take the path that goes down; click here.


Passage 8

Suddenly, you remember the mushroom you picked up in the forest earlier. Thinking the suspicious woman may be interested in trading it, you take it out of your pocket and show it to her. You ask her to let you go and give you directions in exchange for the mushroom.

‘Hm… that is a nice specimen’, she declares upon examining it. You immediately feel relief that she is interested in the bargain.

‘…but why should I let you go?’ she asks.

Nice try. The woman — the witch — is thankful for your gift, but still takes you in as her minion, just because she can. You are bound to serve her through a spell, and you do not get to walk out of here free.

The story ends here, and you lost. Don’t hesitate to start over at the beginning if you want to try again.

Mother and Cub


 Image: “Fox” by jans canon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Author: Sorcha Walsh

The moon was hanging low in the sky as the young mother fox stuck her nose outside the den. She inhaled deeply and saw the whole forest before her – the muddy, wet scent of the leaves on the ground, the blank coolness of the flowing river, and the million busy scents of the animals in the forest. She could smell the birds’ feathers, agitated by their irritated flapping as they bustled around before twilight (the most important part of any bird’s day was when they got to sing). The badgers, too, were starting to creep out of their dens, she could tell by the deep musky scent which lazily and playfully curled its way around each tree. None of these brown, unsaturated smells truly drew her attention, however. She was waiting to catch a hint of the amazing technicolour smell of people.

It had been a long time since she’d ventured out of her den. She had kits to feed, and a mother took care of her young. That was a law which went deeper than most, a law which she felt in her blood and bones. But ever since that year’s mate had failed to return, she had felt something else in her blood and bones: hunger, of a kind she’d never felt before. A gnawing, aching, consuming hunger. So when her milk dried up, she left her growing kits in very bottom of the den and ventured out. She wouldn’t go far, that she knew. But the twin impulses, equally strong, of caring for her young and sating her hunger had raged for weeks. It wasn’t until she couldn’t feed her young any longer that the maternal instinct joined forces with the aching need to fill her belly and she was forced, not by any will of her own but rather the buffeting forces which live inside and rule all animals, to leave.

She sat sniffing outside the den for a number of minutes, waiting to make sure that the coast was clear. This was by no means an easy task – every rodent scurrying by smelled exactly like a meal and after weeks without so much as a scrap of food her instinct to feed was sharply honed. However, she retained just the scrap of self-preservation which required that she wait to have a full picture of the situation before venturing out. Eventually, she did just that, slinking along the forest floor, her bony body sticking to trees and shadows.

Hunting was made difficult by her weakened state. Several times she smelled a rat, close enough that she knew she could stalk it, but in her condition she wasn’t able to move subtly and she inevitably alerted her would-be prey to her presence.

After several failed attempts she smelled a familiar scent, and a most welcome one. Her entire body seemed to lift in the air with joy as she recognised it. It was, it could only be, her mate from that year, who she had thought dead or injured. Surely he was on his way back to her, surely he had been lost. She hurried towards the source of the scent, and found a den. Not thinking, only reacting, she ran to the source of comfort, the source of sustenance, and came upon not only her mate, but another vixen and seven plump young kits, the same age as her own. Bewilderingly, her mate didn’t appear surprised to see her, or concerned for her state. No, he simply placed his lithe, muscular, healthy body between her and the other vixen – and the kits. It was to no avail, however. Propelled by weeks of hunger and an instant of betrayal, her wasted muscles propelled her forward in one bound to push past the two adult foxes and take a cub into her jaws, snapping its neck instantly. And as the rich scent of blood burst onto her tongue like an opening flower, her only thought was of her next bite.

Learning To Leave

Image: Lost © Claudia Cantoni

Author: FC

It was Christmas Eve – Mr. Doolan’s birthday. Outside, the roads were covered by a thin layer of wet snow and the city was shrouded in the thick familiar fog of the cold season.

Mrs. Doolan was busy preparing the next day’s festive meals, submerged by a sea of pots and pans. The open kitchen overlooked the living room, where Mr. Doolan sat, pretending to be absorbed by the articles in his hands, whilst the children were on the floor, drawing and writing the Christmas cards to give to the rest of the family the next day. In reality, Brigid was pretending, too: she was not interested in the cards, she just wished that someone would break that deafening silence. Her parents had fought again – heavily. The tension in the room was so thick, that it made it hard to breathe. Niall was signing the last card, writing his name with different sized letters: the n was in capital letters, but the wrong way round, the i was capitalised, the a was larger than the and the two ls were a bit too separated and straight.

“You wrote the n the other way round, again! I wrote your name properly right here, you just had to copy it.”

“Oh, come on Brigid. Give your brother a break, he’s only five years old. These mistakes are normal – you used to do them, too. Dinner will be ready soon. Come get your plates when I call you.” said Mrs. Doolan.

Mr. Doolan put his papers down. “Shall we play a game of backgammon? Or why don’t you two play and whoever wins plays against me.”

“But I’m not good at baggamom.” When Niall whined like that, Brigid just wanted to slap him across the face. Did he not understand how tense the situation was? Why couldn’t he just shut up and do as he was told?

“Fair enough, then. We’ll play together against your sister. How does that sound, Champ?”

Champ. He called him that way just because one of the meanings behind the name Niall is champion. But he was no champion – he was just a whiney baby. Brigid took the backgammon box off the shelf. She didn’t want to complain – she didn’t dare say that she knew she had no chance of winning against her father.

“Come on Brigid, it’s just a fun game! It doesn’t matter if you lose – as long as you’re not as awful as your mother.”

How dare he? How dare he insult her in front of her own children? Mrs. Doolan did not answer. She knew it wasn’t worth it, it would just lead them to another fight – another wave of insults and accusations. She had had enough. She could not bear another round, and the children did not deserve to witness another violent clash.

The pie was ready. Mrs. Doolan had prepared it deliberately for her husband’s birthday – it was his favourite. However, in that moment, she just wanted to throw it, ravish it, destroy it. She was about to implode and make everything around her explode with her. “No”, she whispered to herself, “you need to think about Brigid and Niall, Sive”. She turned around to look at them: Niall was on his father’s lap, Brigid sat on the floor, moving the backgammon pieces. Their children were perfect. Mrs. Doolan asked herself how could they have created such pure creatures: Brigid, tiny and gracious, and yet so strong and wise (“seeing her so grown melts my heart – too much for her age”), and Niall, who looked like a little angel, with his golden locks, blue eyes, as deep as the sea, and his head always in the clouds. “And what about you? Who will you become?”, wondered Mrs. Doolan, grazing her womb with her hand. She turned to the window: just fog. Everything was grey. As foggy as her mind, as grey as her future. She still hadn’t told a soul she was pregnant. Two months had already passed since that night – that last intimate night. They were in the bathroom, getting ready to go to bed, when she began to cry, sat on the edge of the bathtub. He knelt before her, took her hands, and kissed them. For the first time in a long while and for the last time, he was not annoyed by her tears, he had not retreated within himself, he had not repudiated her. That night of sad passion, she had seen in his eyes that wounded, tormented, and frightened boy. That boy she had fallen in love with and was unable to save.

She was afraid of telling her husband that she was pregnant. She feared it would become an inexorable reason to stay together. What kind of mother would leave her spouse with a child on the way? What mother would not give her child the opportunity of living within a united family? These questions plagued Mrs. Doolan – they made her hesitate. A few days before, she had told her parents she was considering divorcing her husband, as she could not bear it anymore. “But you have to stay with him – think about the kids! How do you think they’ll grow up with a broken family? Plus, Cillian isn’t all that bad. He provides for all your needs – he even spoils you! It can’t be that bad.” What did they know? How could they have known about the continuous abuses she had to bear every day? What did they know about what would be best for her children? Growing up in a house full of violence and resentment could not be better than a divided family, surely. Many couples divorce, and the children all seem to grow up perfectly fine – better than if their parents had stayed in their toxic relationship. So toxic it exterminated all the love. He provides. Sure, he provided all the material goods, but at what expense? At the expense of her happiness? Her sanity? No, she could not allow this. Women do not need to depend on their husbands: she would manage on her own, she was strong. One day she would make the right decision.

Brigid was losing. She knew it was going to end that way. At least dad seemed more serene – maybe he had forgotten about his fight with mum and would go say sorry to her. The little girl turned to observe her mother: she was looking outside the window. She wasn’t able to see her face, but she knew her expression was pensive, distant. She often had that air lately, as if she were lost somewhere and didn’t know how to come back – nor how to go forward. “If mum made dad’s favourite pie, maybe she’s not that upset anymore”, thought Brigid, seeing the cake next to Mrs. Doolan. It was a weird contrast: the sweet and warm smell of pastry and Nutella seemed to try to mask the cold and dense tension that still hovered in the air. Usually, in these situations, Brigid closed herself off completely, remaining, however, as alert as a prey – ready to react to any movement. She didn’t know what to do. How could she make things better? She was too anxious to think – she was afraid of making a mistake and causing it all start again. She feared that…

“Daddy”, interrupted Niall, pausing the game. “Why did you make mummy angry?”

“I didn’t make her angry, Niall. She’s the one who made me angry.”

Brigid did not even dare to look up from the gameboard.

“But will you say sorry?”, asked the child naively. He didn’t understand what had happened, but he knew he didn’t like what was going on. He didn’t like seeing his mummy crying and his father shouting at her.

“We’ll see about that.” answered Mr. Doolan harshly. Niall still didn’t understand: when Brigid and he would fight, his parents would force them to say sorry and shake hands. It was easy. Why wouldn’t they do the same?

“Listen, Niall, your mother is a difficult person,” began Mr. Doolan in a low voice. “I love her very much, just as much as I love you guys. Can’t you see? I go to work every day so that we can have everything our family needs, so that you two can have everything you want. This is why, when I’m home, I demand respect – some gratitude for all I do. That’s fair, isn’t it? With all the things I do for you guys… Who do you think pays for the food you eat every day? I mean, true, your mother cooks it, but I’m the one that gives her the money to buy it. Don’t forget about that. Or what about your new play car, who do you think paid for that? Do you know what I had at your age? I had nothing, Niall. No games or toys, no yummy sweets and biscuits – nothing. I have very few rules, but these rules are important – everyone must follow them. When your mother does not obey them, she disrespects me – actually, she disrespects the whole family! This is why I get angry.”

Brigid felt like she had to vomit – she could feel all the words she wanted to say were about to erupt from her stomach. “It’s not true – none of it is true!” Thought the child.

“So, if mummy says sorry first, will everything be good then?” asked Niall.

“Of course, little Champ!” replied his father, smiling. However, that wasn’t what Mr. Doolan really wanted. He was so afraid of losing everything that he was trying his best to keep his children on his side – he was deliberately making Mrs. Doolan appear as the family’s enemy. She was the enemy; she was the one that could take it all away from him. But she loved him – or she had loved him. She wouldn’t take everything away from him, right? Mr. Doolan knew he was the problem. He knew he was the difficult one, the one that was distancing his family from himself. He turned towards his wife and looked at her: she was so beautiful, so elegant in her movements, as if she were dancing. Why wasn’t he able to get close to her? The walls of his pride would not lower. They would not allow him to kneel before her, ask for her forgiveness, explain the truth to her – the terror he felt at the mere thought of losing her every day. He had a perfect life: a wife who loved him, kind and wise, two wonderful children and a job that allowed them all to live well and satisfy their every need. And yet, every time he expressed himself, violent nastiness was all that came out. His pride and his fears took control and he would start attacking her, before even realising it. Hurt the other, before they hurt you. He was completely unable to control himself when he was angry. He reflected all of his self-hatred on others, and then he would raise his insurmountable barricades, estranging all those around him. He feared he’d end up like his own father – he feared he’d go insane. He feared coming back home and discovering his wife had run away with the kids. He feared not ever being enough. He wanted to ask Sive for her forgiveness, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do so. The more he thought about it, the more his anger and resentment grew. He felt he was about to explode. He had to distance himself – escape. Leave them before they left him.

Mr. Doolan got up.

“Okay guys, dinner is ready! Come get your plates, please.”

He turned around and walked down the stairs, without uttering a word.

“Cillian, where are you going? Dinner’s ready.”

He took his coat and he left.

The Moocher’s

An ice tripod in Nenana

Image: “Nenana Ice Classic Tripod” © jkbrooks85. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Author: Linda Zagorskaya

– “You know this place is haunted, don’t you?” – she said in such a trivial way, stating the most undeniable fact ever – “What’s with this bewildered look on your face? You have internet on this telephone of yours and we have the best signal in town, go on, check it, I’m not making things up! Or just hang around and see for yourself, you have been warned! They are not mean though and love young boys like yourself!”

She uttered her monologue loudly, stretching each word, as if to make sure I understood the meaning of it, and went back to serving other customers. Their numbers were quite scarce, but they seemed to be regulars. An elderly couple was sitting at the bar and chatting with the hostess. They looked like old buddies finding each other after twenty years or perhaps just after a day, it was impossible to tell. 

– “What’s in that big green bottle, honey?  Let me have a try.” – The lady took a sip from the glass, lifted it up to the light and made a disgusted grimace – “This bottle must have been opened since the last flood! There, you have a sealed one just behind, let me have some of that!” – The hostess did not protest; the number of opened bottles did not seem to matter. The customer drank on happily, reminiscing on some crazy parties that used to have in the bar.  

 An old man was sitting on a bar stool, his back crooked, he was almost lying on the bar. He seemed to have grown into the furniture and taken its sinuous forms. In fact, there was not a single straight line in the whole establishment. The back of the bar, full of thick dust-covered bottles had a frontward tilt, threatening to fall to the feet on the barmaid. The main bar was once covered with leather-like material, the shreds of which now provided support for the glasses, avoiding embarrassing accidents on customer’s lap. Across the room there were small tables for two persons each along the wall, defying all laws of gravity, threatening to tilt over to the center of the room. A pool table, once standing in the middle, was pushed to the back, where the floor seemed a bit straighter. The winner of the game was determined by the force that pushed the balls only in one sure direction and not by the player’s skill. It was impossible to stand straight in the middle of the room without the feeling that the walls may close in onto the poor customer, burying him or her alive under the twisted rubble. 

The lady behind the bar did not mind the strange setting and worked the beer taps and the shifting bottles with ease. She was as old as the establishment itself, and just like that of the establishment, it was impossible to determine her age. She wore a oversized sac for a dress that could as well serve as a night gown. Her hair suffered years of peroxide and permanent curling, it had no shape or color. 

– “Ma name’s Connie….” – She said stretching the vowels in a “good ol rural Ameeerican way” . 

I would expect her name to be Barbara or Sheryl or Rosemary, but when she said it was Connie, it became obvious – it could not be anything else. 

– “I am so glad to meet you, Connie.

She disappeared, ignoring what I said, but materialized few minutes later with a couple of colorful pens and post-it pads all bearing an image of a drunken-looking deer, an American flag, and the name – The Moocher’s. 


– “I wouldn’t use the bathroom if I were you, young man.” – an old man woke up from his lethargic state after seeing me get up from the stool. – “And whatever you do, don’t change the music!

– “Oh, you stupid old Mac ! You will scare all my customers away! A young man like you is not afraid of ghosts, are you?” – Connie looked straight into my eyes with a crooked smile on her face. I felt that she was the main ghost herself and it was up to her if the the walls kept the whole structure in place or not. 

A bright jukebox proudly stood in the back of the room, a testimony to the good old days when dancing and partying was the daily routine at the Moocher’s. With every step towards the shiny machine I felt an acute risk of the ceiling plunging onto my head, but I could not resist the luring of a splendid instrument. Despite the years of use it was in perfect shape, a time machine waiting to transport an naive user into the days of the Alaskan gold rush. 

– “Choose your tune, young man! And come back for another drink. I have something to show you.” – said Connie and put a huge book on the bar – “And you must buy a ticket!



The town resembled a huge market square, despite the bitter cold, the wind and the remaining snow from the harsh northern winter. Several dozen people, mostly in groups, occupied all the streets of this 200-soul-strong town. The gold rush days of Alaska were long gone, but the spirit of booty hunters and crazy adventurers is very much alive to this day. 

Huge pickup trucks lined the streets, the engine roar echoed for miles down the Tenana river, startling the virgin silence of the area. There were Alaskan natives who came from the nearby settlements to this tiny connection to the modern world. Rednecks from all over the state came to enjoy their pints and show off their trucks. Few lost tourists were present to witness the history in the making.  

They were all waiting for The Event. Who will win the jackpot? 300’000 US dollars will not make anyone a millionaire, but every year it gives the  bidders hope for a new life or a least an easy retirement. 

The visitors attack The Moocher’s in an adrenaline rush. There is enough booze for everyone. No-one is afraid that the crooked walls may not withstand such flooding of people. These walls have seen all kinds of floods! Everyone will be served, and nobody will be left indifferent by the magic of this haunted place. At the end, it’s in the ghosts’ interest to keep to walls up!

A heavy book is lying on the bar, carrying the weight of a hundred-year long statistics, giving hope to a lucky guesser to get The Date right. More than a date, the hour and even the minute are of utmost importance – the precision will decide if the bounty will be shared among several winners or if one fortunate chap will strike the « gold ». 

The black-and-white tripod is firmly set on the snow-covered river, trapped in the ice from the beginning of winter. The cable is connected to the tower that houses the clock. Few more hours or perhaps days, the mystery will be soon revealed. Meanwhile the guests are entertained by old Connie and perhaps are met by the ghosts that live in the decrepit bar. The phantoms will slam doors and change the music in the jukebox if the tune chosen by a clueless guest was not to their liking. 



Every year around mid-April, although some years they had to wait until May, people gather in Nenana to witness a natural wonder – breaking of the ice on the Tanana river. 

The tradition to put bets on the breaking of the ice dates back to 1917 and ever since all the bidders and the winners are immortalized in The Book. 

If you ever pass by Nenana, stop and take a break at the Moocher’s. Don’t worry about the walls or the ceiling, the ghosts will make sure nothing falls on your head. Get a drink from Connie and buy that ticket.  You never know where your luck will strike …

Of Ice and Smells

There is a Frozen Pond in the middle of the picture with trees all around it.

Image: “Frozen Pond” © nighttree. SourceCC Licence.

Author: Katharina Schwarck

“Are you sure you want to go further?”, I ask my best friend Daphne as she, not carefully enough, walks over the frozen pond in the forest behind my house where we are playing. It smells of cold. “Of course. This is solid.” It’s getting dark soon and we have to be home at six. It’s December and like every year I get a new Christmas hat from my grandma. My mum keeps telling me that one day I will stop liking them but I still like them and I cannot imagine ever not liking them. Actually, I’m wearing it right now. This year, it’s green with red seams and a little elf with a red hat who waves at people when I look at them. I’ve named him Bobo. I look down to my feet. With one leg, I am still standing on steady soil and with the other I’m standing on the frozen pond. In summer, I make friends with the little frogs who live here. I’m a bit scared of breaking through but Daphne can’t know that I’m scared. “Are you reaaally sure?”, I insist. Maybe she knows I’m a little scared now. She takes another step and starts poking around in the ice with a stick.
The ice breaks and we’re both drenched in muddy and very cold water. I scream a little. “It’s so cold!”, I say, trying not to let my voice get too high-pitched. I move my hands around. Everything is so cold and sticky. I am trembling. “Oh, come on”, Daphne says, gets a grip of her stick and pulls me up. I’m almost crying. We get to solid grass. My gloves are floating in the half-broken ice. Bobo is on the ground, covered in muddy snow. I hide my face so Daphne cannot see how worried I am for Bobo. This is such a bad day. We pick up our stuff. “We should probably go home?”, I ask. Daphne nods. We start running towards my house. “Do you think they will be mad?”, we wonder.
The way isn’t far but it has never seemed further. I have never been this cold in my whole entire life, and I’m the third-oldest in my class. When we get to the door, I am so scared to ring the doorbell. I can barely move my hands. Daphne looks at the doorbell expectantly, so I ring it. My grandma opens. “Oh my god, girls! What happened to you?” I start crying. “Oh, but it’s okay.” She starts laughing. “Everything is okay.” She brings us upstairs, takes all of our clothes off. I show her Bobo while rubbing my eye. “Don’t worry my love”, she says, “I’ll make him beautiful and healthy again”. She kneels down to hug me. Grandma smells of home, and warmth, and Christmas. She’s wearing a pink cashmere pullover that soothes into my skin. She gets up again, winks and leaves Daphne and me to take a bath. First everything is a bit awkward but then we can feel our hands again and we play with bubbles and the shampoo that stings in our noses and eyes when it gets too close. “There was a monster in the pond and it came out like this!” Daphne gesticulates while holding a bubble dragon between her hands. “Whooosh, whoosh”, she moves it up and down. “And you beat it like this”, I say, “pfouuuuh”. “And then we helped each other out like heroes!”. She sprays some bubbles on my head and I smell pink and fruity. I grin. We come downstairs in freshly washed bathrobes that smell of white and clean and cosy. When I enter the living room, I am hit by a wave of home and feel good and family. I can hear the oven buzzing, I see some dough rests in the kitchen. My grandma brings us tea. “How are my two princesses? You were proper mud queens!”, so we tell her about the pond monster and about how we helped each other like mud heroes. “Now that’s just wonderful”. She smiles. We take our cups of tea and start staring into the fire that is burning in the chimney. It is properly dark now. My hands are getting just hot enough on my bunny cup. I put my face right above it so the tea heats it too. I recognise the tea. It’s called “evening sweetness” and it’s my favourite. It is round and sweet and yet spicy. But not too much. It is just right. Not many people like it. There is too much going on they say. But I love it. Daphne feeds me a warm cookie. It melts in my mouth as the chocolate chips reach my taste buds. I close my eyes while listening to the crackling sound of the wood. There’s a little fir spiciness in there as well. Maybe grandma is burning a branch of a pine tree or something. Daphne puts her head on my shoulder. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad day after all…