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.

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.

Mother and Cub

Fox

 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.

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.
SPLASH.
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…

Prose poems ❧

Prose poems

Image: © Lara Lambelet

Author: Lara Lambelet

Her scent

My senses covet the scent of her breasts.

They are now faintly dampened by my tears.

A hindrance to my unwholesome desire, the pungent wreath tantalizes my soul.

 

Obedient

People are sad in the metro.

Tinted in blue, white, sold in lots.

Vague and wandering looks;

don’t predict anything good.

Words bang and choke behind the fabric.

This is the new gregarious instinct; a muzzle for the individual.

It veils the softness of a smile brought to a child;

disarmed in the masked procession of obedient beings.

A Stair Case

Lake view

Image: ©️ Julie Dey

Author: Julie Dey

It may sometimes be a question of viewpoint. That is why the reader should pay more attention to the surface of things. Read story A and story B and then adjust your lens.

A
My name is The Staircase, I live in an old building which is four storeys high and of which I know all the occupants. For example, on the ground floor, there is the guardian who has the good grace to make me as clean as a whistle. I like the way she cleans my steps which are damaged by the wear and tear of time. She flutters around me, passes from one floor to another and leaves behind a subtle smell of cleanliness.

Oh! Here comes the young lady living on the first floor. A handsome woman, always on high stilettos. With her self-confident gait, she climbs up the stairs and caresses my railing with her perfectly manicured hand. She wears a sumptuous dress, which, every step, lets me glimpse at her lace underwear. She pulls her keys out of her coat, opens the door and double locks it.
A few minutes later, I hear the musical notes of her piano getting lost in the stairwell. It is the end of the day. Through the window of the floor, I observe the setting sun which disappears slowly behind the hills.
Someone just walked into the building, a draught pushes the dead leaves into the lobby.
A man with polished shoes climbs upstairs with the quietest footsteps. He holds in his hand a splendid bouquet of carmine red roses. His other hand is tense and sweaty. He stops in front of the young woman’s door, hesitates and then rasps shy knocks. The door opens, a kiss, a few words exchanged, the door closes. He goes down again, his legs wobbly, feeling giddy.
It is night. Loud voices come from the second floor. They are Mister and Mrs who argue again. One hears glasses and plates breaking on the floor. A door opens violently and then closes in a crash. A big man takes a heavy step down my steps, opens the door to the building and then sinks into the darkness.
In the attic, I hear high pitched squeaks, hustle and bustle, probably some mice.
The bell tower of the Grande Place rings two times, the door opens. It is Mister who comes back from the Café next door. With an unsteady gait, he climbs up my stairs clutching the handrail. His clothes smell of alcohol and tobacco.
Winter is here again. It snowed a lot last night. I see through the window the hills covered with their white coat. Early this morning the guardian was clearing snow. The two kids from the second floor are excited, their cries resonate in the stairwell, they run me down and rush to the playground. When they go back home, my stone steps are wet and cold because of their snow-covered boots.
Two turns inside the lock. It is the young lady from the first floor. She wears her fur coat which brushes against my steps. Probably going to work. She comes across a blonde-haired woman and smiles at her. The blonde woman enters the old lady’s flat on the third floor, presumably the housekeeper.

It smells of gingerbread. It’s from the third floor. From this apartment comes a delicious smell of cooking, sometimes a roasted chicken, sometimes an apple pie, what an olfactory delight! She’s the old lady from the third floor. A nice lady who has always lived alone.
Today as every other day, she goes for her usual walk. I hear her door creaking. She grabs the handrail with her frail wrinkled hand and slowly and carefully gets down with a trembling step. She leaves in the air a subtle smell of powder and soap. After her walk, she usually sits down on the bench near the entrance and looks thoughtfully at the children playing. A few minutes later, the blonde woman gets out of the building.

On Sunday, when most people get together with family, the old lady goes to church, wrapped up warmly in her heavy coat with her rosary clanking in her hand.
Winter is already gone. After all this white comes green. Nature awakes, I hear birds chirping by the window. The sun shines and warms my steps. What a delight. Nonetheless, something spoils this fresh atmosphere. A putrid smell comes out of the door of the old lady, therefore I imagine the worst.
It has been two days since and the smell only gets worse. The guardian knocked at the door of the old woman but this latter does not answer. Owning the duplicate key of her flat, she unlocks it and screams.
The residents of the other floors rush one after another. The young lady is shocked, she then sits down on my steps nearly fainting. Mister and Mrs come next and Mister calls the police.
The kids from the second floor are curious and want to see the dead body but their parents prevent them from seeing the horrific scene. The ambulance and the policemen arrive. They carry the old lady, whose body is covered with a pure white sheet, on a stretcher and carefully gets down to the ambulance. “Heart attack” the ambulance man declares.

It has been over a month since the sad event. On the third floor, it smells of fresh paint because the flat is being renovated. Every morning, I hear the workmen coming to work whistling. Right after begins the concert of electric drills and hammers. At the end of the day, the workmen go home with a tired heavy gait.
The renovations in the flat are now over. A young couple moved in. Something saddens me. The door has been replaced, there is no more creaking… and I will never hear it again.

It is summer. The air is heavy, even at night. A burst of fresh air comes in when the man of the third floor enters the building. He climbs up the stairs, one sweaty hand on the handrail, the other typing on his phone, as usual. The cries of Mr and Mrs resonate again, suddenly cut by the melody of the young lady’s piano.
On Sunday morning, like every Sunday, the woman of the third floor gets out for a walk. As usual, she stops by the window and looks outside with her blank gaze. She then goes out and comes back with some warm bread from the bakery.
The ritual of life goes on and time goes by.

Many years went by. I am now very old. My steps are worn out and cracked on all sides. I fall apart. The walls are damp and musty. The building has been emptied of its occupants. Some workers have come to discuss a demolition project. They plan to construct an old folk’s home.
The building will be gone tomorrow morning.

Time has come. I am not afraid. I am blessed to have lived such a long life and to have seen many people from different backgrounds. I am happily going to remember forever the old lady of the third floor.

An excavator crashes on the roof, breaking down walls and ceilings. Some bystanders gather around the demolition site.
A little boy exclaims:
– Dad, look! They break it all down except the staircase!
-Yes, but they’re gonna demolish it now, look, the excavator rises and BOUM on the staircase! Come on, it’s over, time to go home now.
– Hey dad?
– Yes, buddy?
– Do you think the staircase is dead?
– Ah yes of course he is. Definitely dead!

B
Olga is a beautiful woman. She does not know it. Maybe she pretends not to know. She thinks it is simplistic to show your awareness about your own beauty. Pretending is better because it leaves room for mystery, room for possibility. Olga likes this word. It is the name of her favourite lipstick. The red velvet one she wears every day. She likes to think she lives a life of endless possibilities or rather possibilities of impossibilities. “Create yourself new possibilities” claimed an article she read in a magazine (the ones she found in the next-door tobacco shop, in the section titled “feminine readings”, to avoid any misunderstanding.) Olga had already read the ones titled “How to please your man?” and the other May issue “Get the Bikini body in 10 days”. “Too easy” she used to think. Her husband was deadly in love with her and her body was envied by all her girlfriends who fought with the numerals on their scales.
Olga lives in a 5-storey building. She just moved in with her husband Dave. Dave wanted a high ceiling flat and a room for his desk and computer, namely a room as the extension of his office in which he spent an awful amount of time. Olga thinks that Dave’s life is controlled by extensions. The one defining him as “male” and the cell phone stuck with fast glue to his hand.
Olga wanted a flat with a lake view. When she was younger, she would have killed for such a view. Now she had one. The lake view was the kind of things she could mention during one of these dull parties she had to accompany Dave to. People were more friendly if you had a lake view. The power of two words. It was Olga’s way to reassure them she fitted their parties and that her invitation was not the postman’s mistake.
Olga worked as a secretary in a consulting firm. When anyone would ask her about her job, she would unintentionally omit the word secretary. “I work in a consulting firm” was evasive enough to avoid any further questions about it thus, allowing Olga to shift attention away from her and redirect it to the addresser. That was an easy task, people love to talk about themselves. In fact, she did not want to speak too much because words had a bad tendency to betray her sometimes. Words are so loaded and heavy they may drag her down, she may drown.
Olga prefers listening and observing people. While listening to them, she dissects them inch to inch and absorbs every component of their being to fill herself, but it remains insufficient, she is still hungry, still so empty.

Olga likes her flat, but she does not like the occupants of the building. She hates hearing the couple argue. Why do they always choose to argue when she is watching her favourite soap. She cannot hear if Brad cheated on Jessica or if Jessica’s step sister had had an affair with Brad’s twin brother. Olga needed silence to concentrate, it was important for her to understand the events. (What would her friends think at her Pilates class when they’d find out she did not understand the story. For sure, they would reject her. They only accepted the ones who followed.)
She also hates coming across the woman after the argument. When Olga meets the woman in the stairwell, she notices the blackeye on her sad face, the same boxers have when they get punched in the face. She knows she must feel sorry, but she does not want to be forced to. She is the one who decides what to feel or not. Olga wonders why it seems so hard for people to put on a happy face. When she wakes up in the morning, she washes her face and puts it on. It is not itchy; it is a second skin. It is soft and practical.
Dave says she is so beautiful when she smiles. She loves Dave and Dave loves her. She knows he loves her because she sees it in his big brown eyes and by his soft touch on her skin, almost unnoticeable. He loves her because why wouldn’t he? It is not questionable nor explicable, it is definite. Maybe it suits Olga to think that way because again, it is easier.

When Olga meets the beautiful woman of the first floor, she feels her mouth tense, she quickly glances at her and politely greets her. She sees her pearl white skin, smells her perfume, feels the brushing of her fur coat. The woman smiles at her. Not a smile because there is a need to but a warm and kind smile. A warning sign. No evaluation, no looking up and down, just a smile. Olga is confused.
The bell tower of the Grande Place rings two times, Olga takes a sip of her glass of wine, she hears the door open. Dave comes back from work. She hears the same ritual. He throws the keys on the shelf, pours himself a glass of water, sits on the sofa, watching his phone. Olga gets up and hugs him. “You should be sleeping by now. I’m exhausted, let’s sleep now” he says. Olga returns to her bed, switches the light off. She cannot sleep. She imagines the scene. He comes back, throws the keys on the shelf, pours himself a glass of water. She hugs him, he hugs her too, he then asks her how her day was, tells her he loves her. The remake of the scene lasts the whole night. She wakes up, puts on her mask. “Good to go” she thinks.
Winter is here again. It snowed a lot last night. Olga sees through the window the hills covered with their white coat. Early this morning the guardian was clearing snow. The two kids from the second floor are excited, their cries resonate in the stairwell. Olga smiles at them. She wonders if someday she’ll have a baby. A baby to herself, the flesh of her flesh. A baby that she would love and that would love her endlessly. She looks at the snow. Her mom never loved her because she cared too much about the snow. This icing sugar that would make her wicked. Olga was sent to a foster family home; she never saw the snowwoman again.
Olga decides to make some lemon cake. She’ll make a layer of frosting because Dave likes it that way. She starts musing. It always smelled of cooking in this flat before she moved in. The old woman apparently loved baking too. A common tie binding them. Olga always made sure to lift the door a little bit when she entered her house, so that it would not creak. Then, she would wander in the apartment without making any noise. She observed her for hours behind the dining room wall, gazing out the window: the lake. Wide body of water.
One day when the old woman turned her back, she poured some white powder in the cake mixture. She was her mother’s daughter, she thought. Wicked.
A week after, she and Dave moved into the flat. While decorating the cake, she looks out the window. What an amazing lake view, she thinks.

Note
This short story was inspired by the short stories “Sunrise”, “Bluebeard’s egg” and “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood.

A Series of Surprises

Light curtains

Image:  “Light Curtains” © Andrew Mason. SourceCC Licence.

Author: Sorcha Walsh

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. Alanna woke up in a bed that was decidedly not her own. This did not, at first, produce any sort of unusual reaction within her. This was not, after all, the first time she had woken up in a bed she didn’t recognise. She turned over, expecting to see a strange man who was probably less attractive in the daylight, and mentally prepared herself to stealthily sneak out of the door. However, she was instead met with the sight of a woman, long brown hair mussed from a rough nights’ sleep, and her face half-buried in the pillow. Now this was new, even for her. Usually if she woke up in bed with a woman, there was a man between them. Far more disturbed now by this realisation, she decided it was time to leave, before the sleeping beauty arose. She sat up and swung her legs out of bed, and found that they landed squarely in a pair of slippers. Men’s slippers. She rolled her eyes. She’d promised herself she would stop homewrecking, weeks prior, and had mostly managed to keep that promise. They were pretty small men’s slippers, all things considered, her feet fit quite snugly inside of them.

She was suddenly struck with a sense of deep malaise. Her legs, surely, hadn’t always looked like that? And her head felt much lighter somehow, and, oh god, her hands, why were they suddenly so… hairy?

She stood up abruptly and ran out of the door, tripping as she went, coming to a hallway. Blindly, she stumbled her way to the first door she came to, which by some stroke of luck was a bathroom. She stared deeply into the mirror, aghast at the face that stared back. A strong brow covered deep-set eyes, crowned by a head of floppy hair. Below, an aquiline nose, below that a straight mouth and, between them, a well-groomed, full, silky moustache, accompanied by an immaculate goatee. Instinctively, she retched into the sink, and made her second unpleasant discovery of the day: she had been drinking Bloody Marys the previous night. When she stood back up, a third surprise awaited her: the brunette woman who had been sleeping was standing behind her in the doorway.

“Is everything ok love?” enquired the smooth voice. Oh God. Alanna thought. A Brit. I’m in a poxy man’s poxy body and I’m living with a poxy poxy Brit. Just my luck. 

Out loud, she replied with an affirmative grunt, surprised by the resonance of which her voice was now capable. 

“I’m making toast, d’you want any?” said the oblivious woman.

“M-mh” said Alanna, suddenly grateful for the cover her bout of nausea had provided her. She needed to think, fast. Her first instinct was to attempt to avoid suspicion and adopt the persona of this… man. But really, she hadn’t done anything wrong. Her only crime, as far as she could see, was waking up. Really, it would be bad (not to mention inconvenient!) to keep it a secret. So she gathered all the nerves she could muster, stood up straight, and made her way downstairs, only to be met by yet another unpleasant surprise: a side-tackle from a ball of kinetic energy that she quickly deduced was a child. She stumbled slightly but picked the kid up and carried them downstairs, somewhat awkwardly, gripping them around the waist and holding their body out horizontally. Luckily, the child seemed to think of it as a game, laughing and crying out “Wheeeee” as they went down the stairs. At the bottom, Alanna put the child back down on their feet (more or less) and tried to find what she could only imagine was her partner. She looked down at her left hand. No. Her wife. Steeling herself once again, she made her way into the kitchen.

“Can I talk to you?” she said in her natural accent, cursing the awkward formulation. Her wife (?) didn’t seem to notice the awkwardness and continued buttering bread while nodding.

“Listen, there’s a problem. Or something. I’m… I’m not… I’m not this.” Alanna said, gesturing vaguely to her entire self.

“Okay?”

“As in, I’m… I’m a woman named Alanna.”

“Oh.”

There was a beat.

“So do you want to do, like, hormones and that?”

“No, you don’t understand. I am a woman and my name is Alanna.”

“Yeah, you’re a woman. Of course I support you.”

Alanna wanted to tear her hair out. This support, under any other circumstance, would have been charming, and for someone in the situation the woman imagined her to be in, extremely validating and reassuring, but she didn’t want hormone therapy so much as her body back.

“I woke up in this body today, but this isn’t the one I fell asleep in last night. I have no idea who you are. My name is Alanna Quinn, I live in Dublin. I’m twenty three tomorrow, I’m like five foot nothing, I definitely don’t have children and a wife. And I don’t know how this happened.”

Unexpectedly, the brunette woman burst out in near-hysterical laughter.

“Oh, that’s funny! You’re such a joker, Liam. Now get Posey ready for school.”

And just like that, her wife, whose name Alanna did not know, pecked her on the lips and flounced upstairs. She reeled back, stunned for an instant, and gave a deep sigh. This was going to be, somehow, even more difficult than anticipated.

Prose Pieces by Lara Lambelet

Foggy Forest

Image: © Lara Lambelet

 

Author: Lara Lambelet

 

Soul Letter

 

Dear Mary,

I received your letter and your delicious biscuits which made me very happy. And yes, I won’t forget to put the cat’s collar back on. What a scoundrel that one is! In your letter, you asked me how to live a joyful and serene relationship. Here is what I can answer you.

I remember one day, during the summer of 1950, when my dear and sweet James and I were walking along the bank of the Seine. I was so grateful to have him by my side. Our rocky beginnings were far from predicting the success of our union and yet we had now been married for three years. I remember the question he asked me that night: “What have you learned about love?”. I replied that the most important thing I had understood over time was that it is not possible to make the other person happy. When you try, you fool yourself and you are going in the wrong direction.

You know sweetie, I found myself in the same situations as you. In insecurity, expecting too much from the other person and being afraid of losing them. But it was when I understood that nothing can hold the other person back that I felt real freedom. Be yourself, radiate and don’t be afraid to displease.

I thought I was going to lose your grandfather. He was a player who was scared to love. But don’t make the same mistake as I did, my little one, don’t give him everything. It won’t work. Learn to love yourself and to prioritise yourself. If this man you’re talking about really loves you, he’ll come back. Love is scary when it is not lived. Love makes you stronger when it is welcomed and nourished with the right seeds, with a lot of patience and understanding.

There, little one, I hope my words will be of comfort to you. Don’t lose hope. Love will come, be it with this man or another.

Your grandmother


Plum

 

I observed her auburn hair, the lower part of her bare back and the arch of her hips, half hidden by the ivy surrounding the garden gate. It was quarter to six o’clock. A beautiful opening of a summer evening. She was gorgeous, seated and focused on her reading. Then my gaze was drawn to the gradation of reds and greens that adorned the gate next door. I approached and grabbed a burgundy leaf. “How can Mother Nature create such things? “I thought to myself. A ray of sunshine dazzled me, and my thought was lost. I wandered here and there, letting my senses guide me. A little further away from the house overlooking the lake, I leaned against a pillar of the canopy dominated by brown tones.

– Would you offer me a dance?

– Here, now?

– Yes

– But to what music?

– That of Nature. Can’t you hear it?

– No, I can’t hear it.

– Close your eyes.

Then she took me by the waist, slipped her hand into mine and swung us slowly from left to right. One step back, then one forward. The singing of the birds came to mingle with the stirring of the fine breeze. With my eyes still closed, I savoured the moment. The scent of the lily bed at the bottom of the garden reached my nostrils. We continued our slow waltz under the fragmented marquee. We must certainly have looked silly, but surprisingly, I felt good.

– Can you hear it now?

– Yes, it’s wonderful.

We were now at the bottom of the garden. The view of the lake was breath-taking. You could even see the reflection of the sun on the surface of the water. At the bottom of the garden was a huge fruit tree.

– Plums? prunes? I asked.

– I’m not sure. Hold on a moment.

On tiptoe, she picked the offspring of the age-old tree.

– I’ve always dreamed of having my own garden in which I could escape,” she continued.

My eyes lingered on the drop of juice from the fruit, which her teeth had just bitten into, running down her lip.

– A plum. Here, taste it.


Sweetened

*content warning: injury and death

 

Tetanized, he observed the blood effusion on the right leg, lacerated all along, of the dying fox. The restraint of his spirit on the scarlet river made him dizzy. His hands grabbed the leather steering wheel. The hammering of his heart in his rib cage contrasted with the increasingly muffled groans of the red-haired creature. As he approached the clearing, the sinuous road and the thick October fog had played a nasty trick on him. The cracked windshield and the blood that gushed from it were witnesses to this.

Every Thursday night, after a hard day at the office, Charles would meet up with friends for a drink at Please Don’t Tell, a trendy New York bar with an evocative name and vintage atmosphere. One beer had turned into two, then into four. One propensity hiding another: the visceral need to please others. Under the pompous influence of Tom, an old friend from his university years who was now his brother-in-law, Charles rarely managed to impose his true desires on others as well as on himself. His feet were numb, and he had stumbled to the vehicle. His eyes were blinded by the city’s lights, and he had fallen over a manhole. “Damn it,” he mumbled. The torn trousers were perfectly suited to his putrid breath. The key inserted, the engine humming and the smell of dried tobacco.

A crowd had gathered around the drained remains. “Somebody, call an ambulance! “pressed a young woman dressed in a yellow raincoat. He hadn’t moved; his body was stuck in the car seat. He embodied both a feeling of fear and euphoria. A nightmare? Dream? The sweetened reality emanated from a filter that presumably did not match that of the people present at the accident scene. Suddenly, someone knocked against the window. “Sir, are you alright? You need to get out of the vehicle. The police are on their way” said a nerd in his fifties. Charles was livid. No reaction. It’s a fox. It’s a fox. Words were jostling in his head. His hand trembling, he turned up the volume of the radio in the hope of silencing the hubbub of his mind. He hesitantly pressed the gas pedal. The red bush was lit by the headlights. He closed his eyes. When they opened, the illusion disappeared. He accelerated and fled pusillanimously under the screams of the sirens. Help had just arrived and was working on the inert body of a young man with red hair. Matt was twenty-two years old. Charles, haunted by the vision of his actions, lost control. His feet were saddled with the pedal. 100km/h. The speedometer went crazy. 120km/h. 150km/h and the car rushed at high speed against the front of a shop. Charles was forty-five years old.


Mosaic

 

– Chemin de Verdonnet number…, I start to answer.

The memory fades away. Unattainable. It floats in an ocean of tentacular thoughts. We all have had addresses. A farandole of places imbued with happiness, moments of complicity, melancholy, the screams of kids or even authoritarian “dinner is ready” echoing in the four corners of the house. Isolated in a remote part of my memory, this element, which I am struggling to extract from my past, rushes exponentially towards the void. Yet it seems easy for me to depict the environment in which the six-year-old me was parading on an imaginary red carpet in flashy outfits. Disparate. Coming from idolized characters, my looks transported me to the depths of my childhood dreams. When I closed my eyes, the light shades tending to creamy white on the walls of the living room appeared to me like a flash. I feel the softness of my mother’s smile and the reassuring warmth of the blanket resting on my shoulder on rainy evenings. With concentration, the vermilion couch, combined with a few cushions Native American patterns, takes shape like an unfinished sketch. Although this flat was the cradle of my early youth, its rooms alienated me. Expelled. Or was it the decision of my progenitors to expatriate me from my world? I no longer know who is at fault.

– You know, on second thought, this is not where I really felt at home,” I continue.

– It makes sense to me. The walls only knew you as a child. On the other hand, the house before you left is certainly connected to some deep anecdotes, isn’t it? Come on, I’m sure you’ve got some gossip to tell me,” James enthuses.

A home away from the crowds where silence prevails. When you open the front door, the vastness of the room is disturbing. My eyes wander along the imposing mahogany table and stop at the pile of neglected administrative files. A thin layer of dust covers it. The dust is nesting. It penetrates. It disturbs. It upsets. It irritates. Nevertheless, I observe it and cherish its presence. The area is surrounded by lush vegetation. My mother has always been fond of decoration, although it was always too cluttered for my taste. Cat figurines, paintings, candleholders and junk. Suddenly, a spicy smell, certainly that of my brother’s curry chicken simmering, takes me out of my daydream and I find myself in the centre of the kitchen. Its furniture and instruments are worn out by time and by its careless users. I can still see my father with a large butcher’s knife in his hand, my maternal grandfather’s knife, cutting a piece of meat on the marbled worktop. This culinary cocoon has stories to tell. Monotonous and solitary meals. A table filled with tightly arranged cutlery for frenetic celebrations.

The hustle and bustle pushes me upstairs and to its bevy of rooms. I choose to stop on the landing of my room. The scaly white door has been covered with photographs, remnants of my adolescence and its anamnesis, which disorderly surround the four calligraphic letters of my first name. Made from a jet-black felted cloth, my baptismal name is like an introduction to the treasures inside.

– Shall we go inside?

– OK, but I have to warn you. My parents haven’t been there since I left. So, expect a museum of Lara, including cobwebs and dust.

When you open the door, it squeaks as usual. When I first step on the floor, I remember that the parquet floor also has an annoying tendency to creak. I explore the space. Not the slightest change. Although I’ve been living in Edinburgh for some time now, the period I’ve been living at the address, Route de Salles 20 in Berlens, is pretty much my entire life. Coming back to this timeless and so familiar bubble gives me goosebumps. The pleasant atmosphere in the bedroom pretends to be a somewhat distinguished mix of genres. Against one of the walls, an orange-coloured wood panelling, in front of which the bed is placed, enhances the tone and gives the room its singular spirit. When André Prévot evoked the bed, he referred to it as a piece of furniture where one rests when alone but tires when in pair. My bed, measuring about one metre forty and especially cluttered with stuffed animals, acts like a sponge. It absorbs and stores. It is the graveyard of my emotions, dreams, one-night stands and everlasting passions. In a niche of the bedroom, the music scores and colourful vinyl still brighten up the old electric piano. A key, that of a D, no longer sounds. A tear runs down my cheek. I had missed this place. This cruise into my past is only imaginary, yet the sensations are so stirring that I have to sit down.

One morning, my father proudly bought me a garland of LEDs that he had installed vertically against the edge of the wall. I will always remember my enthusiasm and the famous photoshoot for which the red shades were a great inspiration. Then comes the centrepiece. The crucial piece of furniture in this intimate space: my desk. It was a gift from my best friend. Orderly and methodical at all times, it is the pillar of my determination, the symbol of my success. With my elbows resting on the varnished wood, there I wrote, for many hours, poems, novels, essays, lists, wishes and often love letters. I cried and laughed. I also remember leaving there the wooden dice he gave me. A symbol of a bygone love. A shattered love. It is disturbing how a simple object can have enormous power over us. It is stored in a box now; the kryptonite is under control. Among the objects that were dear to me, a large flowered cup, where various teas used to brew, also rests there. But this is all part of a past era. The memory evaporates. I open my eyes. Basically, an address is just an address; what fascinates is the vivid and chipped mosaic of stories that emerges from it.

Swan Boy

Once upon a time, in a far-off country, lived a boy whom all called “Little Goose”. He went by no other name. What name his father might have given him was better forgotten. All the drunkard had left were a few dirty smokes and trails of boozy urine in a corner of the barn. What name his mother might have given him when tucking his blanket, none could say. Perhaps she had not even named the little form before leaving it wrapped up on the steps. What mother would want to name that which is to be abandoned? The villagers had opted for neither naming nor flouting. He was “little goose” and that was that.

The children would giggle and hoot as he passed by: “here comes Little Goose! What bird have you caught today? Oh, let’s chase the bird. Come on!” Down they would swoop, tearing at the ground with their claws, their bony limbs knocking the boy on the head, the shoulders, the knees. Sometimes they would thrust water on him, the dirty water from the barrel at back of their house. Once he had tried to fight back, but they were more numerous, taller and stronger. He ran and ran until he found Old Mam’s front door open. She had stood there, a large wooden spoon on the hip, her apron as imposing as armour. Oh, she was a woman all right, Old Mam! – White mane trailing down her back, bushy brows covering the storm beneath. Her glare fustigated the assailants: “well well, who comes here?” A scruffy-hefty-croaky voice she had Old Mam. It was unusually low and one had to strain to distinguish all words. But it was mighty. The children left Little Goose alone that day.

But Old Mam expired in the spring. Wildflowers have grown her a garden, an unkempt vivid thing blooming in a discarded patch of earth, forgotten. Her voice is reduced to a whisper, a variation of the breeze. The little boy does not run away from the children anymore; there is nowhere to go. He sleeps in Old Joe’s barn in summer, looking over the animals. In winter, his little head rests beside the tavern’s hearth while men laugh and cry their lives out, flushing its disagreements in strong-smelling ale.

There is no one to care for him. Some would have, of course, had Little Goose not been so strange. “Oh, I would have brought him up, as one of my children I would have, yes ma’am! But when I hear he spends his days out there, you know – there. I’m no superstitious one, but when a little boy prefers spending his days doing, well, doing you-know-what, then I better leave him alone. He can have a piece of bread but I don’t want to find him no more in my house. No ma’am.”

And so they talk, listing you-know-whats that will not be named. They seem to understand each other quite well as others nod and hum in pensive accord. The boy is strange. No one, of course, is superstitious in the village. But one cannot be too sure either…

So the boy is alone still.

Down to the river he goes. He does not stop beside the colourful sheets hanged out to dry waving like butterflies in the wind, will not listen to the chatter of women as they wash their troubles with sweet-smelling soap. He does not stop beside the rocky rings framing pools of turquoise in which children laugh and lovers lie beneath the sky. Neither does wish to see what men are up to at the mill, blades cutting the water’s course. No, he prefers to be alone. Little Goose takes the little path that winds through the woods, twisting, turning and forking until winding beside the bend. At the end of the path, two trees mark an entrance. These old, majestic beings extend their arms and cover the sky. They seem to have reigned over the forest since ages long gone and forgotten. At their feet is a slate of cracked stone … But the little boy cannot read.

The place is different, apart from all others. It is his own.

And what beauty lies in the forest hall! Birds swoop down, wide wings the shape of an angel’s. They soar in the air, rise and fall, swoop and turn, all in silent symphony. As they fly in the morning, water showers from their wings, feathers relinquishing delicate drops of dew. So the grass will sparkle in the rising dawn, the green shattering into a myriad of golden lights. Mists float about, catching the flames in their silken veils to form a canvas of the air. And through the brilliant tapestries, the birds will fly, black against the gold, blacker than ebony. Black as death they circle the hall, endlessly.

 

The boy would watch, open-eyed, golden specks swimming in the white and greens of his eyes. Every morning, he would go up to the forest and watch as the swans swooped beneath arched vaults, as ethereal light filtered through branched tracery. When the birds departed through endless corridors, Little Goose would not follow them. Arms extended, feet hovering for instants above the ground, he would saunter down the little path, across the wobbly wooden bridge and back to the village, crying the birds’ songs as he went.

“Here comes Little Goose. What an odd boy”, they would say. And an old man would mutter words in his beard. It was a strange sight indeed to see the black strands of hair bob up and down the path and to hear his cries. Children would run away. “Mommy, it sounds like geese dying! I’m scared, Mommy”. And indeed, the cries that he thought so wonderful scraped the surface of the air and shattered the order of things. Death seemed to enter the fragile mirror of life.

But Little Goose did not notice these things. He would cross the fields. He would not pick any flowers, as others did. He would not contemplate the doves either. He had no interest in such birds. Once, Lily had said they looked like petals of snow scattered about. Little Goose had never seen snow, but it seemed to him that snow came in flakes. He mentioned that. He also mentioned that the doves were ugly. That he knew a place where the birds were graceful and strong. A place where birds were black. Lily had left and cried. He had simply shrugged. The doves to him were not birds, not really.

Then, having crossed the fields, down to the river’s edge he would run again, to a little spot behind the lovers’ pools. There, the stones were wide and smooth, the water crystal-clear. Alone, beside the river, none could bother him. “I am on the surface of the moon”, he would whisper, “I am bringing the most beautiful birds to the surface of the moon”. And he would set to work.

The strongest and smoothest of discarded branches he would select, the softest of reeds too. And with the feathers he would make brushes. This took quite a time. The boys would have mocked the way his tongue stuck out. But they were not here. And in the smooth landscape he would shape a world. The brush would dip in the little pool, creating a myriad of rings. As he walked across the surface of the stones, trails of pearls would shimmer and life, beneath the discarded birds’ feathers, would emerge. Swooping forms, ephemeral strokes of water, would emerge on the smooth surfaces. To the boy, it did not seem that he was creating them, only that he called their presence to him. Then he would sit on the stones and talk to them, these birds of water. They would tell each other the most wonderful stories. Then, before the moon came out, Little Goose would make his way back to the tavern, always. Looming stacks of dirty dishes would await. But his dreams helped wash the grime away. He would eat the bread left out for him. Always stale. Then he would tuck himself beside the ashes of the chimney place, the jibes too far away to harm.

“Looks like he’ll turn into one of these birds”

“You think so?”

“Gosh, I know so. Look at him!

“All these feathers of ash”

“How he cries when he comes down”

“You think he has seen them?”

“Oh, well, perhaps from far –“

“No no, he definitely has”

“Oh, he will bring something dark to this village. Just you wait and see!”

And they would shudder. And they would cry out for more ale as one needed comfort in such company. All wondered why the boy was allowed to stay. Perhaps because the keeper’s wife did not have any children. Perhaps because the dishes needed washing. Anyway, nobody asked. He stayed.

 

And, suddenly, just as they had predicted, trouble came. It took the form of winter, a dark, shadowy winter where mist blurs the boundaries between nightmare and reality. It did not snow. But frost settled in. The grasses shivered and died in it, the waters froze. Doors shut one by one. Geese squawked and cried until all were slain for meat. A few dogs whimpered and howled but even they ceased after a while. All was quiet. All was dead.

Only Little Goose stepped past the door. He took a worn blanket that he tied all around, and sauntered out. Eyes watched the colourful shape bob down the hill to the river, cross its frozen surface and disappear into the woods.

“That boy! He’s up to no good.”

Into the woods he went, but his strides gradually became shorter, slower. It was not due to lack of food, although the latter had been increasingly scarce. It was to do with the stillness of the place, a stillness that did not bear peace but an ominous, dangerous secret that could not be uttered. There was no breeze. The trees loomed, stone pillars rather than wooden flesh. At last he arrived at the two ancient trees guarding the entry to his secret place.

 

A while later, the same peering eyes watched a lost little form tread back from the river, up the path, and open the door of the tavern. The eyes left their windows, and mouths opened. Noise broke out behind closed doors, their energy only feeding the frost. He was met by a slap on one cheek and slurs on the other. He simply blinked as anger toppled over his little form. He seemed to see them for the first time, these people, these neighbours he had never really met.

“Where have you been, you little prick?”

“Don’t you know there are evil spirits out there?”

“Don’t you open that door again until I say so!”

 

They took him up to the attic. They locked the trapdoor and took away the ladder.

Then they forgot about him.

 

Later, when the frost had left and flowers bloomed, they would remember that a little boy had been locked up there. They would take some food upstairs.

“He isn’t there!”

“My spirits! No, he isn’t”

“What do you mean he isn’t there?”

“Well, look for yourself! What do you see? Not a boy for what I know.”

“Oh gee, you are right. He isn’t there!”

They went on for a while in this manner until someone observed that a boy could not disappear. They searched every corner. They noticed that the window was tightly shut. They saw that he could not have escaped. They did not understand.

A young girl came up. Her name was Lily. She plucked a few feathers from the ground. They were long and white, graceful. She had never touched something so soft. They smelled of warm earth and cinnamon, of life. She closed her eyes and basked in the smell. As she opened them, they rested upon an image. It was a bird. The most beautiful of birds. As she bent closer, leaning towards the ground, her breath blew the ashes away. They scattered in the dawning light, shimmered for a brief instant, and were lost.

“Goodbye Little Goose”, she whispered.

She kept the feathers.

 

Years later, as she would tell the story, she would always end it this way: “We called him Little Goose. We were wrong, you see. It was not truly his name. He was a bird, a beautiful bird – Swan Boy. You might still see him up there, above the branches of a tree, soaring beneath the moon. He might listen if you call. He might even like to hear this story; if you tell it right.”

 

Prose texts by Lara Lambelet

Photograph of an old british-looking house façade seen through a window. A plant's silhouette is visible on the foreground.

Images: © Lara Lambelet.

Author: Lara Lambelet

Twilight

I see a meadow full of light. We wander here and there, hand in hand, tracing the course of our lives. Your smile pierces me. This apparent joy, covering your face with two small dimples, inspires me deeply. The moment was long overdue, but you are here now. I won’t let you go. My fingers close even tighter against your palm. I feel your pulse racing as my lips draw closer to your mouth. Your breath caresses my face. Our eyes are one; immersed in each other, I lose myself in the infinity of your soul. My tongue runs greedily through your lower lip, then my teeth take over and bite it. You abandon yourself to me, in full confidence, with equal power and filled with love. Then we lie down among budding daisies. An aroma that is no stranger to me gets me drunk.  I let myself be rocked in your arms and close my eyes. Your skin is warm, as I remember. It emanates a familiar and reassuring smell. I huddle up against your chest. My hair tickles the tip of your nose. My head rises and falls as you breathe. It’s peaceful. Our hands haven’t separated. No one knows where the key is to the invisible handcuffs of desire, love and respect that unite us. I observe this complicity, this unique bond that, despite the pain, continues to grow between us. “I am here now. “, you whisper in my ear. I know that. I’ve always known it even though you didn’t believe in it anymore. My eyelids are opening to the light again. The return breaks my heart. But there’s a spark of hope in me. I know, this twilight reverie is only the beginning of our story.

Writing exercise with words

  • love
  • hope
  • bitch
  • water
  • pneumothorax
  • architecture

Even if you wished it, you can’t touch me. I am as subtle as the calm water of a river that pours into its vast ocean; trading, inconspicuously, tranquillity for power. Hope will blossom in you once you get to know me. My presence could take your breath away, like the terrible pain of a pneumothorax. Some of you may have the architecture to contain me so I’ll be able to flourish harmoniously. But one day, whatever your predisposition, you’ll come to the conclusion that I’m a real bitch. Who am I? My name is Love.

Paradigm shift

The frenetic rush, like a continuous wave ending its race against the rocks, which had formed in the local supermarket, reflected the magnitude of the situation.

The population threw themselves on the disinfectant gel

CHF 400 per liter: the story of the merchant who made his fortune on the back of the panic that ensued.

The “man-made virus” or how some people always find a way to build conspiracy upon conspiracy…

Huang Yang: the Chinese restaurant that forbids the entry to Chinese people

I was tired of those headlines. Grotesque. Gargantuan. Such euphoria projected onto a world, which, as we all remember, once knew pandemics of greater scope and severity. I fold up the newspaper, put it on the seat next to me. An old lady, wearing heavy make-up, looks at me intensely. “Do you want my picture?” I think, stunned by this rudeness. To my left, a handful of women and men of all ages had donned the newest fashion accessory. In bluish tones, sometimes white and even green, for the most highly rated people, the mask had its charm. I didn’t wear one. In this pre-apocalyptic atmosphere, I felt a sense of disobedience, a deliberate and assertive non-conformism. The face of the crowd, as usual, was pale. “Virus or not, it’s crazy how demoralizing people are,” I thought. Lausanne station. I gather my things and get tired of getting off the train, crowded with students, workers, and other passengers in a hurry for whatever destiny. Lost in my morning ruminations (to tell the truth, I am no better than these people whom I despise, as far as I can see), I finally arrive in front of my building. It is, more or less, deserted. I push the door of the sanitary facilities and begin my daily ritual: washing my hands with soap, after applying and soaping for thirty seconds, drying and using my personal gel. It’s a small thing, but I’m getting on with it. After all, I’ve always been a stickler for hygiene. Maniac. That’s when my phone rings to notify me of a new notification. I read: “Dear students, this week’s classes and seminars are cancelled. This cessation is of indefinite duration. In the meantime, we wish you a wonderful quarantine”.

Photograph of a window whose panes are covered in condensation, with houses and trees visible in the distance.
Quarantine’s Introspection

Quarantine’s introspection

All by myself. Don’t wanna be. All by myself. Anymore…

The needle transmitting the vibrations of the 33 rpm emits a gentle humming sound. I had taken my father’s record player out, then dusted off the shiny surface with a cloth. With its aquamarine colour, I take pleasure in contemplating the beauty of this object from another time. Under a subdued light, I imagine the shy arms of lovers waddling on a slow dance. The trembling hand of the young man struggles to grasp the hip of his dance partner. “Ah… what a beautiful time. “, I meditate. The mere sight of two people, body against body, gives me goose bumps. Two metres apart. One of the recommendations that keeps running through my head.  By the way, this word “recommendation”, can we talk about it? A small disillusioned smile appears on my face. A grin maybe. I don’t know if I have the desire or even the strength to express myself on this confinement. The needle ends its course along the vinyl. Silence dominates my thoughts. It’s crazy how time seems to widen day by day. The minutes are hours and the hours are flowing drop by drop. There’s a knock on the door. “Yes, what do you want? “I ask my roommate as politely as I can. James, whose stubbornness seems to me to be accentuated by the confinement, interrupts my sudden contemplation with the intention of suggesting a game of chess. “A game of chess? No, but would he have taken a single second to get to know me? “. I answer no with my head and look away. The sound of footsteps leaving the room relieves me. I get up and walk towards the window. The sun is already hanging high in the sky. It must certainly be noon. But then, I have no idea. Since the first day, my watch has been resting in the drawer of my bedside table. In fact, since this new paradigm, I’m gradually listening to my body even more. My stomach is gurgling. Noon. Yes, it is. He’s right. “Oh, you can wait a little longer,” I ask him calmly. To paint. I hurry in giant steps towards the glass closet in the living room. Facing it, my reflection blinds me. My hair is a mess. I suddenly grab the handle, take the first tubes and brushes and close the door. A yo-yo, going up and down indefinitely. That’s how I would describe my moods. “What did I want to do again? “. I stare at the canvas. A memory crosses my mind and floods the thick paper with pigmentation. Pistachio, emerald and persimmon: the shades unite and oppose each other. With the tip of the brush, I trace a scarlet massif. Before my eyes, a bucolic landscape tells its story. As my painting is about to come to life, my sense of smell is seized by a delicate perfume. The perfect blend of ginger and lemongrass. The smoke from the cup of tea, sneakily deposited by my roommate, mists my glasses. I am as if magnetized by the enchanting scent. My lips test the temperature of the water. “I wonder what he’s doing. Certainly, paperwork or settling a thousand and one management problems with panache.” I smile and see his gaze plunged into mine. His lips touching mine. His last words resonate with me: don’t forget me.

Where am I?

clown

Image: “Clown Portrait 1″ © Edgar Cook. SourceCC License.

Author: Leah Didisheim.

Where am I? It’s the same street. I used the same path. And here I am, walking along the trees of this street that I see every day. The street where I have all my memories. Where I learned how to walk. Where I had my first kiss. Along this street, where I live, where I’ve always lived and probably where I’ll finish my life. In this house, my home. Where I have learned what’s good and what’s bad. Where my family lived and where, one day, I’ll probably live with a family of my own.

And yet… And yet, I can’t recognise a single thing. I know it is this street. I am so sure that I would yell it to anybody who would not believe me, to anybody who would think I’m crazy. And yet… and yet I do not know which house is mine. Everything looks the same, but everything is so different. I stop where I always stop. I take my keys out of my pocket like I always do. I unlock the door. And I go home. In this house which I know is mine, and yet looks so not like me.

The painting I bought two years ago is still here, right in front of the door. I thought it was so welcoming for people who came to my place, to see a colourful portrait of a smiling fairy, which is supposed to say: “Please, make yourself at home”. My friends always complimented me on it. And yet, today I can barely look at it without being deeply afraid. Again, it’s the same painting, I know it. I bought it. And yet, it is so different. I take my shoes off. I put my black coat in my wardrobe. I do what I do every night when I get back from work. And yet, even what I do doesn’t seem right. There is a weird atmosphere, which seems to spread. I begin to feel sick.

That’s when I hear it. This laugh. This scary laugh that wakes you up sweaty in the middle of the night, after you’ve just had the type of nightmares where somebody kills you before you wake up. I feel dizzy. It feels like I just got inside the house of the devil. And then nothing. No more sound. I don’t move. I can’t move. Standing there like a stupid paranoiac woman, for what seems like hours, though it might have been a minute. Usually Time is a bad friend. You never know if he’s with or against you.

I decide to move. Gently. And I feel something moving behind me. Again, with this evil laugh. I turn quickly and I just get the time to see a shadow vanish. I don’t know why but it seems familiar. It reminds me of my 10th birthday. My mum had asked a clown to come to make his show in front of me and my friends. It was great. I laughed so much that day. The clown laughed too. It was the kind of clown who has a big red nose and a big red mouth: his face makes you happy. Today the laugh was probably the opposite of “making me happy”. I would rather cry than laugh. The shadow I saw made me think of a clown, but the kind of clown you see in horror films, not at a ten-year-old girl’s birthday. That’s why I remembered my birthday so many years ago.

That’s exactly it. My painting, my house, even my street turned itself into a horror scene where I was the victim: the person who can’t control their faith and is just left screaming; the only thing they can still control… So, I quickly elaborate a plan: I will play the crazy lady. I might scare the clown away. I go to my bedroom. I take some make up out of the bathroom. I generously put some black mascara everywhere on my face. I change clothes: I want some holes on a T-Shirt: something not clean. I can’t find anything like that. So, I use the first T-Shirt which came in my hands. I remember this T-Shirt. I had got it at a concert three years ago. I had gone there with my best friend to see our favourite group, Imagine Dragons. And as usual I had bought a souvenir. A souvenir that I am ruining with a pair of scissors and some red and black painting that I have on my desk. I dress myself. I look more depressed than scary. But I guess that will do.

I go back downstairs. I hear a sound in my living room. With my scissors, I walk silently to the door. It is dark. So, I don’t pay attention. And I fall on my shoes that I hadn’t moved. Fortunately for me, I don’t hurt myself. But it was very loud; let’s forget the element of surprise. It was probably too late for that anyway. One more step. This scary laugh again. It seems to be behind me. So, I turn quickly. Nothing. Just the sound. I can hear it everywhere around me. It turns again and again. Now, I’m scared for real.

I breathe. Funny how we intend to forget to breathe sometimes. I remember what my grandfather told me once: “Take your time to intimidate them.” So, I breathe. Very slowly. I close my eyes and I feel ready. I begin to walk again. One step. Two. The living room has never seemed so far away before. It feels like I’m walking for hours. The Time again. Playing with us. I finally reach the door. I open it. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” And there they were. All my friends waiting for me:

“Are you alright? It seems like you’ve just seen a ghost. And how are you dressed up? Is that why you took so much time?”

But was the laugh really theirs? I do not know…

Created Creator

Created Creator

Image: © Noupload Source

Author: Jonathan Collé

Created Creator

And he cast away his great pen, sat back on his chair, cross-armed and cross-thoughted, the cascade of ideas still pouring about his head in a myriad of lights.

            And the creator saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

            “Hey! Who am I?”

            And the voice startled him. And he looked again at his work in shock.

            A little man, a picture, a mere representation of a shard in his mind was stretching, walking throughout the paper and the lines that were meant to be his world, contemplating, scrutinizing… He had no idea of the author’s presence, could feel only wind, not a breath, and the two great eyes that stared at him from beyond infinity meant nothing to him.

            The author’s first impulse was to touch this character that had suddenly come to life. He approached a huge, clumsy, trembling finger, and slowed as the distance between his reality and the impossible shortened, ever so slightly… a touch. Nothing. The paper did not rustle, and the lines did not stir. It was still this same frozen plane, this two-dimensional creation that meant nothing without his own consent. Yet there it was, this character who kept scrolling about, stumbling on a coma, falling face-first on a metaphor only to lash-out an angry fist at this unalive antagonist. But was this character not unalive? wondered the author, convincing himself that it was not. For when he caressed the paper and the letters, he could feel only this, paper and letters; not even. Bumpy paper. Is that enough to create existence?

            “What am I?”

The protagonist of the story – if it were ever a story – had screamed. Of that the author was sure. The protagonist had cried like a new-born, wailing at… him? It was a defining question that the stumbling, angry thing had asked, and the little being had poured it out, not caring to be alone, or unheard, not waiting for an answer. Or was it?

            The author trembled at the sudden thought, that his creation might see him. For the question was directed, if not to someone then to the world, and its creator. The protagonist had uttered its first sentences like a new-born answers his first welcome to life: anger, outrage and incomprehension.

            Overcoming his fears, the author leaned-in on his creation like a scientist looking to peer through a microscope. And the conclusions came quick. The “thing” -the author could not yet call it a man, nor was he sure he ever would- had asked not where he was, but what he was. “Who are you?”, asked the caterpillar to Alice. And the author felt himself tumbling down in a spiral- a rabid whole- for this unanswerable question opened only mysterious doors.

            “I don’t even know who you are”, wanted to answer the author, “leave me alone. Decide for yourself, see if I care.”

            But care he did. He wondered the very same thing now, as he peered at the moving impossibility which seemed to stand and look at him straight in the eye! Although of course it could not see; or rather, comprehend. “What did it see?”, wondered the author, not caring to poke his character anymore, content to watch it in a well-deserved awe.

            “I don’t know who or what you are”, whispered the author, still half afraid that his creation might hear him. But there was only fascination in his voice. The answer both entities sought was unreachable, it could only be chipped away – and then be frustratingly incomplete, wrong even. Who was it but a part of the author’s imagination?

            “But I definitely didn’t want you to do that”, thought the author as his protagonist kicked and raged at what had caused him to fall once more. “Nope, not at all”. The character was dancing, flashing middle-fingers all around, head up and a defiant scowl marked on its face.

            “Then, what was it? Was his imagination on rampage?” thought the author, concentrating, eyes-closed in an attempt to find out if the thing would simply disappear. He almost ripped the page, stopping himself just as soon as he had wished such folly. No, never. How could he kill what he had created? “Have I created it? Maybe then, I could kill it without a second thought, but this… situation…” The author kept staring at his creation, afraid even to blink now, that such magic may vanish as quickly as it had come. “But had it come quickly?”, the author wondered. He then went through his process of creation, only recognizing now the painstaking efforts that had wielded this result.

            “You are Jack”, warned the author, chipping away at this mountain of nonsense. “You are a killer. A cold-blooded killer. But you have a heart. Somewhat twisted, but sill a heart. You… have been created as the result of a problem.”

            Was that true? The words became lies as soon as they were uttered, for the thoughts they were meant to convey were too complex, too nuanced, they couldn’t just be flattened by arbitrary sounds. Utterances; utter nonsense. But the author focused once more: it was not non sense. It was simply different. New. Another kind of reality, unbeknownst to him until now, yet as real as his vision, as true and mind-bending as an optical illusion. And this reality was seriously undermining life’s illusion.

            The author saw Jack sit down. But was it still the character imagined, the friendly antagonist, soon-to-be-helper of the main character, possibly a secondary character with a high spin-off potential? It seemed stupid, vain to question such obvious knowledge, but what also stroke the author as unbreachable was the simple fact that Jack, if truth be told, had only been nothingness. A rhythm created by different readings of ink-traced tree parts. He was the wind, or rather the sound that wind and a poorly closed window could make. He was, indeed, the monster conjured in the mind of the child investigating said noise. Was the monster real? Where had reality stopped?

            Where does it begin?

A Short Story

Black image

Image: © Katharina Schwarck

Author: Katharina Schwarck

Trigger Warning: This text contains mentions of anxiety and stress

I had had a long day at work. My co-workers had made me stand at the self-check-out for six hours, which is not legal at all but I didn’t dare tell them. Therefore, as I took my hourly train back home, I could really feel the strain on my knees and feet. I was so tired. Trains stress me out. I am always worried about missing my stop or falling asleep or getting off at the wrong stop. Thinking about it, that would never actually happen to me because I am so careful about where I am. I always follow the stops on the screen and listen very attentively to the loud-speaker voice. I also look outside to make sure the computer isn’t making any mistakes. When it’s dark outside I follow myself on a GPS on my phone. So really, I couldn’t miss my stop. I still worry about it. But actually, the possibility of missing my stop isn’t even the worst part of taking the train; it’s the people. I am lucky, I usually go to work at times where the train is not too full. If it were, I don’t know what I’d do. I panic when there are too many people around me. I hate it. I cannot. I just feel so bad and I want to explode and leave and disappear. I also don’t like being in a place that so many people have touched? It’s like I can feel their germs and bacteria and spilled drinks and sticky candy and puke and urine. All these things lead me to taking the train at very non-busy times where I stand on the cleanest spot and don’t touch anything. Today, however, my feet were hurting so much that I really wanted to sit. I wish I was at home and could just sit down on something clean without anyone around. But I still had a 15-minute train ride to go. I was standing in front of four seats, one of which was taken by a sleeping, rather over-weight man and I was imagining being able to sit down on one of them. They repulsed me so much. I moved my weight from one foot to the other and felt a stinging pain in my right knee. I still could not bring myself to sit on those filthy seats. I cannot even think about what must have touched the floor before my shoes stepped on it. The train had left my train station and was slowly getting to the next stop. While driving up, I looked outside the dark window. Although it was late in the evening, the train station was packed. Tens and tens of people in hockey jerseys were waiting for the train that I was on. They were all going to get on my train and I knew that they were going to be loud. They were not only going to be loud, they were going to be standing around me and their bodies were going to touch mine. The train stopped and the doors opened and in a moment of panic I sped towards a free seat and sat down just before the crowd streamed into the train and filled every single bit with sweat, cries and laughter. I felt relieved. My jeans were touching the seat but the pressure on my knees was gone. I breathed in deeply. The sounds around me started to become just one mass of noise. I locked myself into my head. I reopened my eyes with panic as something touched my shoulder. The rather over-weight man I had sat next to had put his sleeping head on my shoulder??? Oh god. Oh god. I couldn’t move him. His head was so heavy and I couldn’t ask him to wake up and there were so many people around me who could watch me. Oh god. My heart was racing and I started to feel dizzy and my fingers were starting to tingle and oh my god. I had eight minutes to go. Eight minutes. Oh god he’d just started snoring. Seven minutes. Seven minutes until I could get up with a valid excuse of having to get off at my train station. Six minutes. Had it been two minutes already? I was impressed by myself for a split-second until the panic came back. Okay, focus, I told myself. Focus. So, I closed my eyes and focused on the warmth of his head. He didn’t even smell bad. Most people smell bad. I could even feel him breathe in deeply. There was a stranger’s head on my shoulder and I was starting to feel calmer. I focused even more. There was a blur of sound around me. There was just myself, in this situation. I opened my eyes again. The man had a big red suitcase in front of him. I looked more closely; the front bit of the suitcase had a pink unicorn sticker on it, which clashed horribly with the bright red of the suitcase. I also noticed that the handle of the suitcase was wrapped in numerous airline stickers from various places to various places. They all looked recent. Gazing more to the side, I saw that the man was holding a photograph between his hands. It was a picture of him with a smiling woman and two little girls. One of the girls was carrying a plush unicorn. All of them looked really happy. A wedding ring was shining from his hand. I noticed that the man was wearing a strange necklace. It seemed to be composed of different kinds of pasta, pulled on a string. There were a few poorly coloured paper flowers, too. I smiled. The man moved his head to the side. I didn’t move. All of a sudden I noticed the train stopping and rapidly turned my head outside to see what stop it was and sprinted out.

 

The Fair Lady of Ascalot

 

The Fair Lady of Ascalot

A Noble Death

 

 

“There is a great crying of the waves tonight.”

“Yes, the moon is red.”

“I hear the pounding of the sea afar.”

“I see that the snows are white.”

“Look, here come the flutes.”

 

“What’s that my dear? What do you say?” croaked the old woman.

The master looks pale tonight, like the foam of the sea or the tear of the moon. He looks out the window but does not see the two women. His eyes gaze in the distance, at a point they cannot see. A slight breeze curls strands of his hair. His sword rests on his side. Knighthood has its price.

The flutes are drawing nearer. One can hear their shrill scream, the pounding of the drums. The young maiden’s heart is still. Candles are lit and the procession moves forward. Not too quickly. Slow, slow and steady, now. One must have time to grieve.

 

The sky is dark. Not quite black, but dark. Red is the moon, loud is the sea and heavy is his heart. A knight’s heart…is it so still and cold that it may not be pierced? What of love?

The drums are drawing nearer, beating in the cold windy air.

 

The young woman gazes at Lancelot. She does not see nor hear the procession. What care has she of a funeral? It is not of one she knows or loves. She stares at Lancelot, his silver hair floating under the stars. He is high above, oblivious to her presence in the shadowed garden. But – ah, her mother will scold her again for leaving the milk to turn! Always the hurry. Always the scolding… life, what an unnecessary reality! She hurries back inside, not without picking a rose. Two drops of red drip into the pail.

 

“Where has he king gone? Oh, what is this horrible noise? Make it stop, make it stop!”

The queen turns and tosses in her bed. It will be a long night. The sheets are moist with sweat, the air too thick. She cannot breathe. Servants rush to and fro bringing water, fresh sheets and perfume. Blood is dripping on the white sheets. The ceiling is dark. A young boy comes in bringing a flower. It has not yet bloomed. It is not yet a bud. But it is green, full of life.

“My mother said this would help”. Slowly, delicately, he places it on the bed. His brow is fixed in concentration. The queen tosses again and the leaves fall on the ground. The bud is blue, dead.

“Where is Lancelot? Oh, what is this horrible smell?”

The young boy cries. Nobody pays attention.

 

The drums are beating louder. The smells of wine and incense waft closer. A strange scent of flowers comes through the window, aggressive. The boat is pulled by ropes tied to the horses’ saddles. They glitter beneath the moon.

Lancelot looks out and sighs.

“What have I done?”

The moon is red. The sea cries louder.

 

“I hear the pounding of the sea afar,” says a woman.

 

“Yes. She is quite dead, our young mistress.” The young men slap the horses, urging them to move faster, faster! The sea is calling the boat.

 

The queen opens her eyes. They rest upon the red cloths over the bed. Everything is so still, up there, in the meanders of crimson. She has stared at the embroidered petals countless times…yet, now, they do not remind her of flowers but of blood. Oh, there has been so much pain. Where is Lancelot?

Her husband the king is by her side. She can hear his voice murmuring pater nosters. She does not turn her head towards him. Suddenly, she mutters a moan. What is this weight upon her chest?

“Oh, Sir, the queen is awake.”

Oh, the curious creature that sits upon her chest. She stares at it, disconcerted. Is this the being she carried just a sunset ago? What a curious little thing, all curled up on itself and pink, so brightly pink, like a burgeon. Suddenly, it opens its eyes and reaches for the queen with its tight little fists. She smiles. She ignores the king, the attendants and servants. She smiles at this little being lying over her heart.

“My prince,” whispers she in his ear. Her child.

 

The sea is red, the sky is black, the moon silver. The waves moan, the skies cry but the moon is silent. Cold. It is a cold night. The man shivers, his sweat forming hard crystals on his back. His right arm moves forwards and back, forwards and back in repeating circles as the whip crashes against the horse. Faster, faster. They must hurry. The moon is mounting, the moon is ascending in the sky. Faster, faster. His lady is waiting.

His lady…white, a thin white face. White lips too. Her eyes are closed and one cannot tell they once were blue. A white dress she wears, and white roses in her hair. It too is white, dead as the moon above. The waves are calling.

 

“I hear the pounding of the sea.”

“It calls for her. She is pale.”

“Her heart is red. There is blood.”

“What folly was in her heart. To die for love

– Is it not strange?”

“Yes, it is strange. The sea is calling.”

 

Further away, beneath the horizon, figures are busy on the shore. Pinpricks of shadow on the distant sands, they are busy. Horses are being led away. A boat is in their midst, facing the sea, facing the moon. The flutes are getting louder. The men’s movements are precise, calculated. They beat to the rhythm of the sea. A wail is uttered, long, plaintive, doleful. A moan answers. It is the sorrow of the sea. The waves call.

Slowly, dolefully, they push the boat into the sea. A shaft of green, a flower of white – it is their lady they see floating in the sea. She is dead. The moon is coming down, down it slowly drifts, down it comes to meet its lady. The wind is picking up, upwards it moves. A dark cloud comes across the sky, slicing the waves, the silent sea. All is silent, all is dark.

A knight at his window stands still, his sword grasped tight, his eyes focused. Of his lady, the fair lady of Ascalot, he sees one last shining vision as moon and boat embrace. Theirs is the shape of a bud, silver and green. Swiftly, implacably, the clouds cover the sea. All is black and night has settled.

A sigh escapes Lancelot’s lips. What a pity he could not love her, the fair lady of Ascalot. What a pity. But the moon, silver; but the ship, green…they resembled, a bud, a flower – the promise of life. Perhaps, perhaps it was truly so. To lose one’s life out of love…Yes, he is sure of it. His lady lives, she is one with the moon and the stars, her song the eternal call of the waves, her hair the silken strands of the sea. She lives, the fair lady of Ascalot. She lives.

 

“It is cold tonight. The night is dark.”

“Yes. How is the queen?”

“Well, my lord, she is well. A prince was born tonight.”

“So it is. (a pause) Thank you. I will go see her in the morning.”

 

The servant retires. Lancelot stays a long while yet, staring at the sea. Finally he turns around and enters the tower. Dawn is already pulling apart the curtains of night. Soon, there will be light.