The Job Interview (An Anecdote)

Image: © Miljan Mickakovic

Author: Miljan Micakovic


The other day, I went to a job interview. The lady greeted me kindly, and the usual tell-me-what-you-can-do/why-do-want-to-work-with-us dancing happened, and I was glad to be on the dance floor. My answers were more than satisfying. I thought I would leave the place light-hearted and confident. And then she remarked that I haven’t worked for a long time (which means I have no work experience). And the judgement fell: Thou shall not work, for thou art unqualified. I smiled and left.

What is all of this? What is it about? The word I am looking for is competence: and not only competence, but also the verb to compete. What the fine lady suggested is that I am not able to compete with the other candidates. This is where we’re going now.

I was schooled at a simple school, nothing fancy. I had more than average grades. At high school everything went more than fine. University was a joke too. Yet, I realize now that competence never was the purpose of my journey at all. (The lady was right), but who is, then, competent?

Each step in education proves that no one is master of a single subject. You want to study arts? Fine, don’t forget your Latin and Greek grammar. You want to study Latin or Greek? Fine, don’t forget to bring your History books, and so forth. As long as one wants to master a subject, a job, a particular skill, he has to exploit other capacities that build his ideal mastery. The path to competence is nothing but a path of revealing one’s incompetence. As much as you want to master art, science, etc., you see that you no longer can master one, and only one, subject.

Brace yourselves, the race of knowledge begins. The kid’s vanity of I-know-more-than-you never vanishes. But, what it builds is only the image of oneself as incompetent, as never achieving one’s desire of mastery. As much as you fragment your ideal mastery, you create an infinite horde of fields of incompetence. How is one to compete with others, where none share a common package of subjects? Or, how can I prove that I am less incompetent in what I do than what the other does within what he does? Let me rephrase it: brace yourselves, incompetence is coming.

You can only know how incompetent you are; always calculating, conceiving what your knowledge lacks, without really knowing what it is, this knowledge you think you possess. However, the dance continues and grades are playing the music while you try to move your feet on the dance floor. I left the interview still dancing! Discovering (and thus knowing at least) that I did not have a passing grade – fine.

Incompetence is not the inability to compete but the opposite: it is the source of competition; ever-lasting competition between incompetences, etc., etc.

That day, I went back home with the pleasure of feeling my incompetence. I sat at the table, opened a book by Readrid Quajes, and closed it right after, knowing I wouldn’t find any answers.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein After Story or the Legend of Inurlangut

Frankenstein After Story

Image: © Bastien Numakura

Author: Ann Dorothy Firmann


To Mrs. Saville, England

19th May 1845

Dear Grandmamma,

You will no doubt disapprove of this announcement but I hope you of all people will understand my reasons for such a decision. I have this day departed Greenhithe harbor with the HMS Terror under the command of Captain Franklin, and though I can’t wait for my grand adventure to take place, I leave with a heavy heart, knowing how you all dreaded my pursuit of what you consider to be a fool’s dream. It pains me to leave you all troubled but I hope that your anguished hearts might find peace in the perspective of my return.

I did try to tally with the family’s expectations regarding my future still I couldn’t stay watching my life pass before me, when there is so much to discover, so many new tribes to encounter, so many languages and cultures to study. Even though father had shown me great understanding when he let me continue my studies in this new field I enjoy so much, while working at his law firm, I strongly felt that this was not my rightful place, and that my life was destined for greater a purpose. I realised that had I renounced, all new discoveries in my field would have been painful wounds that with time would have no doubt turned me into a bitter man, jealous to see in others the courage he himself lacked. After all it was you who taught me that nothing was worse than living in regrets.

I have henceforth made my decision as any free man should. I was commissioned on this expedition based on my language skills, being at the same time clearly warned not to bother any crew member with my interests in indigenous people. As the Captain hinted the chances of a direct encounter are very small.

However, encounter of any sort might be of tremendous interest for me, as it might result in an opportunity to convince the board to finance my own scientific expedition. In any case, I will have plenty to observe and will acquire a better understanding of the climate the Arctic tribes endure. Of course there is always a risk of failure, however, something good always comes of such a voyage. After all, your brother wrote a book on his expedition that I dare say made him quite rich after his return. The perspective of following in his steps and being part of the expedition that will traverse the last not yet navigated section of the Northwest Passage is in itself a great achievement for me.

Both ships are sturdily built and were equipped with the latest inventions to tell you the truth I can hardly imagine how anything could happened to us on such solid and reliable vessels. The crew of the Terror is made of 128 of the best and most courageous men I ever met, and though I am to sleep in a common room with four crewmembers, which reduces the perspective of comfort, the company is nice and my essential needs are covered. My companions are lively men, and though they do not understand the use of a scholar like me on such a dangerous expedition we still enjoy trivial yet nice conversations.

Fear not for me, I will return safe and sound as Robert, your dear brother, did forty-five years ago. Such a great and important expedition is bound to succeed especially when I’m under the order of such an experienced and competent explorer as Captain Franklin.
I can’t end this letter without urging you to reassure mother and dear little Anna about my wellbeing. Please tell father how sad I am to have caused him such great disappointment, I hope you and mother might make him understand how vital this choice was for me, and that with time he will come to forgive such a stubborn son, as my three brothers are resolute to make him a proud father and, hopefully, a grandfather soon.

Sincerely, your Robert.


January 1847

My Dear Grandmother,

I write to you knowing that you might probably never set eyes on this letter. In the depths of my despair I am reminded of you all, and of my own foolishness in ignoring your predictive warnings. Both our vessels are trapped by a sea of ice as far as human eyes can see. On sunny days we have been hearing rumbles and roars surrounding us as if the earth was cracking its knuckles endlessly. At first the crew was relieved to hear such sounds thinking the ice was finally setting us free but we have now been stuck for almost a year, and except those bloodcurdling sounds there is no reason to hope for a change in the immediate future. The food is rationed and groups are daily designated to hunt around, with not much success. Rapidly several brawls took place between crewmembers and some of the troublemakers had to be shut away in the bilge. Strong men started to get sick and some died in an instant like infants plagued by scarlet fever. After almost a year of cold, desolation, hunger and death, resignation marked faces as surely as death, and the crew started wandering around like cursed souls on a ghost ship.

What a fool have I been to ignore those rightful warnings delivered with such loving concern! I weep at the cruelty of fate, I who dreamed for so long to walk alongside my great uncle in a North Pole expedition, am now trapped in the same manner as he once was, without much hope of surviving. You showed me your correspondence during his journey as a warning but blind to my own faults I only saw in it a frightening ghost story, ignoring the fundamental warning it hold about self-contempt and pride. I, as Victor Frankenstein, took my dreams for reality and rushed in this adventure without further thoughts. But whatever pain and shame I hold, I am but responsible for my own fate, and am grateful not to have more responsibilities in this exploration.

Sorrow and concern weigh on Captain Franklin as the earth on Atlas’s shoulders. Even though we all chose to participate to this expedition, our Captain is responsible for his fellow companions’ lives. I therefore spend a great deal of time with him, as I consider it my duty to be useful in some way. I often suggested that I shall explore the area in search of a native tribe that might supply us with food and intelligence on how to inform the world of our dreadful situation. My proposition was politely turned down by the Captain at first till he clearly stated to me that: “As long as he lived no man under his command shall mingle with such savages”. You might imagine how disappointed I was to realise how much prejudice is held against these natives even in the eyes of one of the best educated and cultivated men in England.


February 1847

Death seems to have cast its black veil on our expedition; men die weakly of sickness, despair, or exhaustion, and lately the reinforced hull of the Terror shows signs of weakness, it won’t take long for the ice to split our vessels open like hazelnuts. Yet it seems that I who was prone to illnesses as a child, am the only one death seems to willingly ignore. As I am quite useless in any manual task I was appointed to second the physicians in taking care of the sick and suffering, but however wretched the state of the patient I never got sick unlike my luckless companion Md. Haworth who died two months after I was appointed to him. I believe death takes even the best of us. This morning Captain Franklin’s second called on the remaining physician and we were appointed to the Captain’s cabin, as our dear protector and chief is lying in bed with a Typhoid fever. All water supplies have been replaced but it seems the constriction of the space added to the number of people on the ships have rendered the air rotten and poisonous. I have to resume my task, and attend on those who need comfort. It may well be my last task so see to the peaceful death of all the crew before my own.


6th March 1847

Captain Franklin is dead. After a long and painful fight against his condition he finally surrendered during the night. We were all devastated by the news. Today we will hold a ceremony in his honour, though we can’t bury him, we will do the same as for all the others, conserving him in an iced part of the ship, letting his body be mummified by the freezing temperature. It is strange how their bodies shrink like dried apricots. Some of the crew are now looking at every new death with hungry eyes, daily rations no longer fill the gap in our stomach, we are not far from starving, and we could use some fresh meat. The option was considered, our physician pointed out the risks of disease, but the matter was still put to a vote that was thankfully refused. Just the thought makes me stagger, I would rather die than stoop to so wretched an act as cannibalism. I won’t be able to bear it for much longer, hope of rescue has completely vanished by now, and living on this ship is more and more like waiting for my turn in a gigantic grave of ice. I now spend most of my time on deck, preferring the beauty of this desolated desert of ice under this deep blue sky to the fetid air and the ships of death that our vessels have become. I am resolute, my death is certain, the last sparks of hope died in me months ago. But the idea of dying on this ship, surrounded by living dead, corpses, cries, and death wheezes is unbearable. I would rather die outside; my body eaten by wild beasts, at least my last breath might be made of cold, pure, fresh air.


26th March 1847

I’m leaving! This morning I gathered my few belongings, and sat at a table to write these few lines. When I’m done, I will bid my adieu to my companions of misery and take my chances in the wild. Nothing keeps me here, our Captain is dead, and soon there will be more dead bodies than men on these vessels. I don’t have much hope for myself; I know I will die on this land. But I hope those men will be rescued, though we all stopped believing in this possibility a long time ago. If these are my last lines, I have but one regret that my death will be a source of misery for my loved one.

Robert A. Saville.


September 1849

Today while I went through my belongings I found this diary, and thought of relating the main events of the last two years. A few hours after I had left the vessels of death, the bright and burning sun gave way to a snow storm that hit me out of nowhere. Instantly, the cold, peaceful, immaculate land that surrounded me turned into a dark, freezing hell. The snow was so thick that I couldn’t see my hands in front of my eyes. Slowly I sat on the snow waiting for death to take me.

I woke up in the most puzzling décor, my body firmly packed in a warm fur. It seemed that all my surroundings were bathed in a strange bluish light. After a while I realised I was actually staring at the ceiling of some sort of building, the material used was white and almost shiny, like made of peculiar opaque, white, glass. I was stretched out on a firm yet soft floor, and I could smell the characteristic odour of wood fire. I was still blurred by delirium when a nice cold hand was placed on my front head. That was when I realised that hunger no longer contracted my stomach, and cold no longer burned. I felt weak yet the doom that had followed me for I don’t know how long had vanished. I tried to sit up when a firm hand restrained me, followed by a flow of strange guttural sounds. An old woman appeared above me, her face was wrinkled and tanned like a piece of vellum, round and smiling, which wrinkled the corner of her eyes even more. Her long pepper and salt hair were tied in a long braid she wore on the side. She looked me straight in the eyes for quite some time before renewing the guttural sounds she previously made. She then pointed her finger at me, put one hand over the other before her separating them horizontally. My brain was not more efficient than a bowl of pudding at that time but I still understood she expected me to stay where I was, and lie down. I nodded stupidly and she took off whistling a particularly melancholic tune. This was my first encounter with my saviour.

It took me six months to recover, in what I guessed to be an Eskimo camp. The old lady cared for me all that time, I could often hear other voices muttering but she was the only one I saw till I was finally well enough to take a breath of fresh air. I realised then that the shelter in which I had spent my convalescence was actually an Igloo, one of several built in circle. My nurse was the only member of the community to approach me even after I had fully recovered. The women ignored me, the men showed curiosity while children looked at me suspiciously. But what terrified me the most at the time were the “wolves” who seemed to wander freely around the camp. I later learned they were in fact Arctic dogs.

It took me three more months to learn the basics of their language. I had always believed Inuit languages to be somewhat similar to one of the many languages I mastered but I discovered a specific language of incredible richness. The old woman was a patient yet strict instructor, teaching me to speak as if I was a particularly slow type of student. One night she sat in front of the fire intimating me to tell her my story. She then told me that she had found me alone in the snow on the verge of hypothermia. She brought me to her village and cared for me.

When she found me I was in quite an awful shape, my body was exhausted and my recovery longer than expected. I then told her about my companions and the vessels trapped in snow, on hearing it she went out and came back with five tiny yet strongly built men. They listened carefully and took off for the night, the following day at dawn an entire rescue team had formed. I sat on one of their sledges and we took off. After several days of search we finally located Victoria Strait and the two vessels. At the sight of them I immediately understood we were too late, the ships had been abandoned for at least two weeks. The Eskimos told me that another tribe had reported finding a cave with several bodies of strange men; I was now undoubtedly the last survivor of the Franklin expedition.


December 1849

Today I was offered a woman, Chena. It is a tradition for my hosts to supply any foreigner with a woman, though this might be considered a barbarous act in England, this tradition is actually based on scientific grounds. As I found out the village that took me in is actually composed only by members of a single family. Therefore giving a girl to foreigners is a way for the village to renew blood and insure the best offspring possible. For that purpose men when in age go visit other tribes in search for a bride that they will bring back with them.

The chief of this family is my saviour; here everybody calls her Aanak, which means grandmother. She was the one who chose Chena for me. I must admit I was a bit intimidated at first but Chena is a lively girl with a heavenly laugh, her hair is pitch black and her skin quite fair. Chena’s father helped me to build an igloo for us. It is strange how these people who know nothing of me accepted me like one of them. They are all very patient with me, and though I am quite convinced I will never be more than an awful hunter, my fishing skills improve daily.


February 1851

It is strange, now that I am surrounded by the subjects of my studies in ethnology, writing has become a burden. I would rather experience this life, immerge myself in it rather than look at it from a scientific viewpoint. I fancy this life more and more. In England I was unable to fix myself on one occupation, my mind always attracted by something else, I had no idea life could be so soothing. The strong wind has become a lullaby to my ears. My daily occupations are simple; the physical work I dreaded so much before has turned out to provide me new strength and sharpened my mind. The cold atmosphere is like a continuous source of stamina and the desert of ice I could see from the boats, turned out to be a source of unexpected livelihood. Chena is pregnant with our second child and we are going to get married, it will take place during the next gathering.

Every year tribes assemble to hunt the big and mighty whales. On this occasion they celebrate unions, tell stories, and exchange knowledge, techniques and so on. Last year Aanak asked me to stay with her and help her watch over the camp while the others were away. She convoked me this morning and announced that as I am now considered as part of the family I was henceforth allowed to not only witness but take part in it. The openness of this culture always amazes me, I now feel as Inuit as I could be and have no desire to go back to my previous life. The other tribes will start arriving in a few weeks and our village is now agitated by the preparations. Children can’t wait to meet with friends they haven’t seen for a long time and Chena won’t stop talking about how her friends will envy her new happiness. I must admit being the source of his wife’s pride is a wonderful sensation for a man.


April 1851

The tribes arrived over a month ago. The hunts were more than fruitful, and they will soon part from us and return to their camp. I am actually in a state of unprecedented confusion, last night I was told the story of Inurlangut, or the legendary giant man. During the night the strangest dream captured me and I realise I was told the story of a well-known wretch my grandmother told me about before I departed for Artic. I will convey to you this story as it was told to me.

Long ago a Angakkuq (1) of outstanding power was born among the Inuit. He spoke to animal and spirit and was respected and feared. After choosing a wife he decided to set his igloo outside of her village. On the night of his first son’s birth Igaluk (2) appeared to him: “Nanook (3) wanders the land, your Igloo is his prey. Search for Inurlangut, he is the child of Akna (4) that was torn from her womb. Angakkup lineage depends on him”.

Wise and devoted Angakkuq got out of his igloo, all was silent, Igaluk’s round and pallid face illuminating the earth. Amarok5 cried in the night and Angakkuq followed his grieving.After several hours he found a gigantic dark form lying on the snow. Coming closer he noticed the strange and repulsive appearance of the giant, withstanding his looks was hard in itself but Angakkuq knew better than to judge on appearances. He tied the colossal being to his back and pulled him to his Igloo, the prodigious being was heavy and dawn was already breaking when they arrived. Inurlangut’s body was as cold as ice but Angakkuq knew life hadn’t entirely left him. He set a heating fire inside and wrapped the stranger into the biggest fur he could find.

Angakkuq’s wife was scared but knew her husband to be a wise and intelligent man, she however forbade young Adlartok, their five year old daughter to approach Inurlangut.

After two days the body of the giant had regained vitality and on the third day his eyes opened. The giant seemed lost at first but soon his face showed the most pitiful, sorrowful expression, Angakkuq had seen this look on men before, it was the expression of those who had lost everything, even humanity.

Suddenly the giant jumped on his feet and ran off outside. Angakkuq’s wife who was outside screamed as if she had seen death itself, Angakkuq ran after the stranger and saw the most insufferable scene: Adlartok was playing on the shore and not ten feet from her an enormous polar bear raised himself up ready to charge. Angakkuq was powerless and as his daughter looked at him the polar bear attacked. In an instant he was on her, about to tear her head off with one strike, when the giant appeared behind him, gripped the beast and with a movement of the hips threw it in the water.

Inurlangut was about to run away again when Adlartok grabbed his hand, her face taking refuge in his rags. Angakkuq couldn’t let him go anymore for he understood the God’s words; Inurlangut was to be his daughter’s protector, in her lay the destiny of his lineage. Inurlangut stayed with Angakkuq’s family and became the little girl’s best friend, she taught him Inuit, the language of spirit and how things are more than what they appear to be. Inurlangut on the other hand did his best to help them and the entire village soon discovered how useful such a strong and resistant fellow could be. Of course his face did not inspire sympathy at first glance but Inurlangut turned out to be as kind and attentive on the inside as he was monstrous on the outside.

One day he confided to Angakkuq his wretched past, considering himself unworthy of the attention and love he received but Angakkuq explained to him that a man can only give what he himself received. As Inurlangut received nothing but fear and hatred he could not give anything else. Frankenstein’s demon had died following his master.

Inurlangut was then able to be reborn, a man gave him life but it was Akna who guided him here to this place where he could be revived as a creature of Mother Nature.

Adlartok became the greatest Angakkuq ever known, she never chose a husband and lived all her life with Inurlangut, when she had spent all the years her life contained, she died followed by her dear giant. It is said they still watch over the Inuit tribes and will till the end of time.

Here ends the tale of Victor Frankenstein’s creature.


July 1851

Dear Grandmamma,

I am now writing the last line of my adventure; once I’m finished I will travel to the nearest fur-trading post and send this diary. You shall never see me again, to be honest I don’t even know if you are still alive, but writing to you kept me from insanity and I owe the family into which I was born the truth. As Inurlangut did, I found the place where I belong. I am conscious this letter will only revive the pain of my disappearance but at least you will all know I am alive and happy. Please share the tale of our unfortunate mission with the world so that my companion’s family might find closure. The ships are still in the Victoria Strait containing bodies that deserve graves.

I now know it was faith that made me board the HMS Terror, I had to witness the useless purposes of our society to be able to understand the true beauty of Inuit’s lives. Humans are made to live as men not as Gods, I wish one day western society will understand that earth does not belongs to us, we belong to earth.

Forever with you in heart, yours sincerely.

Robert A. Saville

(1) Shaman
(2) The moon god
(3) Master of polar bears
(4) Goddess of fertility
(5) The Wolf spirit

Short Stories To Shklovsky

Short Stories To Shklovsky

Image: © John Schultz,

Author: Sandrine Spycher


You know that feeling when your heart starts beating faster, when your sight almost fails you, and you can’t speak properly anymore. And then you start smiling stupidly at whatever people tell you. And you’re feeling good, although slightly dizzy. Your world is balancing back and forth, as if you were on a boat swinging to the rhythm of an Ed Sheeran tune. Perhaps you’ll even start dancing soon. There’s something like a sweet vibe going through your body, from head to toe. And it’s a delight to let it move you. Let it take control of you, just as if nothing else mattered in the world. Then perhaps you’ll close your eyes for a minute and slowly breathe in.

Breathe in to regain control of yourself. And when you open your eyes, you’ll see them laughing at you because you can’t stand straight anymore. That’s when you know that last glass was just the one too many. So stop drinking. And try not to aim for anyone’s shoes when you have to throw up.

So did you think I was describing love?

Well perhaps there’s a link between drinking and love. Perhaps it’s not impossible to find your soul-mate at the English Christmas Party. And perhaps you’ll feel the fast heartbeats and the dizziness when you wake up “on the right side of the wrong bed” on the next morning.


I saw them come, with their dreadful roars and menacing moves. They advanced, weapons in hand, their eyes concealed behind their huge limbs which kept moving forward in big threatening gestures. I could already feel the heat of their horrible hearts approaching.

I called to the wind to help me raise my voice. And I cried for help but no one heard. I saw my brethren fall before me as I stood, a powerless witness to this mass murder. I heard the scratching and crackling of torn skin. I saw feathers fly away and wished I could move. But my symbiosis with the land—that which I thought would protect me against wind, rain, and storms—seemed to be the ally of my enemy, conspiring for my fall.

When they were finally on me, the saw cut through my skin and my body. I fell heavily to the once cherished earth. I was cut in two pieces, my heart still beating where my roots clung to the ground. And that’s when I noticed my little friend, that innocent baby Jaguar fighting his way away from the war engines.

He ran as fast as he could. He climbed on my sisters to hide in between their leaves. He trembled with fear as he saw his mother slain at my foot. He cried his little heart out. A heart broken by the mechanical hands of the bipeds.


The trees are huge. Although naked, they cast a large shadow on the ground. It looks dark and feels cold because of those big black shapes. Sunlight can hardly break through the canopy, even though the leaves are not on the boughs but rather making a slippery carpet on the ground.

The air is wet and heavy. Animals are sleeping or dead. Silence reigns on this dreadful kingdom of creaking wood. The lost wanderer hears nothing but his fast heartbeats and his quick irregular breathing. Shivers run down his back. He feels like a thousand eyes are spying on him. The eyes of the forest. Silent, omnipresent, oppressing ghosts.

Broken boughs crack under his footsteps, otherwise silenced by the soft carpet of snow. White snow, here and there, fallen from the naked branches, contrasting with the black shadows. White, but not luminous. Cold snow. Cold as the lost wanderer’s cold heart. He walks emotionless through the trees, barely even feeling the fear which run up and down his body in dreadful wet shivers.

Suddenly, a movement. The lost wanderer stops. His eyes go from left to right and right to left. What was it? Where was it? Nothing moves anymore. It was just an instant, a flash, like blinding lightning in the darkness of the night. It’s gone.

The lost wanderer feels the fear creep into his flesh now. He shivers. His hands tremble. His pace grows unsteady. Where does that fear come from? Who dwells in the dark corners of the forest? That beast, that unknown monster which makes its poisonous venom run through the earth.

But the wanderer knows it. He knows the face of the monster. It is the pain of a broken heart, the weight of solitude, the threat of loneliness. Behind closed eyes, the forest disappears. The dark, the silence, the dreadful feeling of being lost. But as soon as he opens his eyes, the calm dream vanishes and the solitude of the dark path comes back. Sometimes, a slight movement, her eyes, her hand. A mere memory. And then it’s over. And then she’s gone. And then the monster creeps in once more.


Have you ever heard of the Swiss sea? Have you ever seen those white waves flood the mountain sides?

It is a sea more beautiful than the Mediterranean, they say. It comes and goes along with the weather, and is more likely to be seen in winter. It invades the plains, drowns them in its thick whiteness, leaving them flooded and hoping for redemption.

But when you see it from the mountain tops, it is absolutely breath-taking, they say. The little curly waves hardly move at all, even if the wind blows on their white wings. It expands, still and silent, at your feet. It makes you feel like you are on top of the world with nothing under you but that beautiful white sea.

It is light and mild, just like the thought of a loved one, they say. It makes you dream, giving you visions of a lost otherworld. It looks magical, as if created by the hand of mighty Tolkien. It adds a dreamy touch to the green pastures of the Swiss Alps.

If you travel above the white sea, you won’t even get wet, they say. You don’t need to worry about being overtaken by the waves, for they won’t soak your socks. No need to take off your shoes to run along the beach, which is as long as the mountain side.

And do you know what makes that sea so beautiful? Well, it’s made of fog.



Christmas tree in snow

Image: Christmas tree. Source

Author: Marina Karpova


I love winter.

In winter our garden becomes so clean that it sparkles in sunlight. I adore these little white flies that fall from the sky to make the air fresh. Yet I feel very angry with them every time they bite the hands of our kids. These two little fellows work hard all day to crunch out intricate patterns with their steps on the ground. However, unfortunately, every night those patterns disappear under the brand new carpet.

In winter I have my Birthday. When this day comes our garden loses its usual tranquility and becomes a luminous place with uncountable flashings. Each and every single light mirrors in my golden necklaces making them like fire. Poor white flies, they cannot bear all this brightness, so I see them vanishing when they approach the lights. My red festive outfit contrasts with the whiteness of the garden to celebrate the singularity of this day.

The world overloads with various sounds and seems to be constantly in movement. Even the glossy paper my presents are wrapped in cannot stay silent: it rustles, attracting the white flies’ attention. They fall on the colorful boxes of different shapes and sizes in hope to figure out what’s inside. It’s pointless to hide that I am also deeply curious, yet I always wait until next morning so the kids could open boxes with me. In the morning the air is saturated with their shouts of joy and happiness. All the family comes together to sing a Happy Birthday Carol for me which echoes with warmth in my heart…

Learning A New Language

Venice mysterious text

Image: Photo © Lila Mabiala

Author: Lila Mabiala

 Learning a New Language

I’m currently trying to learn Flemish. This time it’s out of love. I say this time because I’ve had my fair share of learning languages. French and English are respectively my mother- and father-tongues. People are often confused by this; French seems natural as my mother is Swiss, but my Congolese father seemingly didn’t have any reason to speak English with his children. Explaining this would take a whole different article but let’s say that I probably got my language genes (if there are such things) from him. Long story short, he’s an English teacher and chose this language to communicate with us. So French and English were the first in my collection.

Next came Swahili, during a year-long stay in Tanzania. I was then just about to turn 10 and had no prior notions of this Bantu language. In order to help us to adapt and integrate, our parents opted for sending us to a local school. The trick was in putting us in a standard (year) 1 class with children much younger than us, but with whom we would learn the basics: the alphabet, spelling, numbers, etc. This, added to playtime conversations and neighbourhood games meant we were soon able to understand and be understood. It was also during this stay outside of a conventional school setting for us that we started to learn German. This was done with the perspective of later being able to re-join the Swiss system with the same language level as our peers. We did this in such a playful and almost detached manner that I never really had the feeling I was actively learning. I still remember the songs my sister and I made up to remember the genders of all the animals, so that was obviously an effective technique. More than 10 years later (and having had a refresher course of 6 months half-way through this time), I have realised that my Swahili, while completely operational at an everyday level never really went beyond that. In fact, I might struggle to have any specialised conversations involving specific vocabulary. Interestingly though, when we travelled to the eastern, Swahili-speaking region of DRC, our childish brand of Swahili was considered over-structured and almost pompous in comparison with the local dialect.

My learning of German resumed 2 years later. I was then back in Switzerland, in year 7. I was allowed to have private tuition hours with my teacher considering I had missed out on such a long period of time. I didn’t have these for very long and again I don’t have a clear feeling of having had to work hard to catch up. Instead it meant that I felt comfortable and enjoyed these three years of learning. I went on to get my “certificat” and even got the class prize for German, which I’m still proud of today. This tendancy continued and after my “maturité” I went on to briefly take university classes in German literature and obtained my level B2 Goethe certificate.

Back in year 7 I had two other language learning experiences. First, having to study English with my classmates. Though annoying and mainly boring, I’m sure this gave me a deeper understanding of the language as a foreign one which I hadn’t got while at primary school in England. Then came Latin. Now as opposed to my breezy navigation of German, Latin did not come naturally, and I had the catastrophic marks to prove this. I really struggled with learning vocabulary, and translations were a troublesome, but at least funny affair. What do you mean in French? I cannot understand what you mean in English. I applied what my teacher called the “hat” method where I would disregard the cases of words and translate their meanings into a sentence in random order. This was the first time I struggled with a new language but I put it down to it being dead and therefore literally impracticable. At least I gained an insight into the DNA of French, and I guess I can have fun trying to make up some Italian when I’m abroad.

Then, ladies and gentlemen, I attempted to learn Japanese. This was some six years after last beginning a new language from scratch. I decided to take it up as my second subject at university. I took it as a challenge, to compensate for taking English Literature, which I felt very at home with (and considering English is still taught as a foreign language for the first few semesters, I feared the boredom would return). Looking back, I can’t really tell what exactly went wrong with that plan. But something did go wrong and I experienced true failure for the first time in my career as a student. I enjoyed learning to write kanas and basic kanjis, I understood the grammar, and could do exercises. But it’s as if I grew out of breath and soon couldn’t keep up with tests and eventually failed the first year exam. Twice. And when I repeated the first year and passed, I gave up half way through the second year. So now I had to work on a theory to explain this failure. If I failed at Latin because it is a dead language, why couldn’t I learn Japanese, a language which I could hear being spoken around me (I was tutoring 5 different Japanese students at the time, helping them learn English, French and German according to their school settings)? How come I didn’t find the motivation to outdo myself and enjoy communicating with people I was close to? I have a tendency to think that university isn’t the place to learn a language. Dusty old rooms aren’t made for learning a vibrant, living language (it’s a cliché but I can tell you we were stuck into the oldest, dustiest corners of the University of Geneva). Other times I think that the others in my classes were so enthusiastic, so into Japanese as a culture, a frame of reference and a way of life, that I couldn’t keep up. Having neither ever read a manga or watched an anime in my life, I didn’t connect with my classmates. Maybe this stopped me from being motivated enough to invest myself 100%. Or was it the teachers? Rather strict, with a grammarian approach to the language, taking things out of books? Either way, it just didn’t work out. I do hope that I’ll be able to use my basic skills to build up my Japanese somewhere further down my path, in a better setting. Though I started out just wanting to learn something new for the fun of communicating in a different way, obviously I lacked the motivation to take it seriously.

So now I’m learning Flemish. In fact I’m learning Dutch, and will count on my boyfriend to break down the aspects which don’t correspond to the Belgian way of things. So far it’s going rather well. I’m using a website/app which I can access whenever I have time. It practices the speaking, listening, writing and reading aspects of the language. Lessons are organised by subject, which at first I found rather frustrating (why learn about to say “turtle” and “rhino” before I can even count…??). But soon I found it drives me to learn faster in order to get to the vital bits. 2 years ago I had no notions of Dutch at all. After meeting my boyfriend and spending time with his family, I gradually developed an ear and can now understand most of what is going on during conversations. But I realised understanding was nowhere near enough to allow me to express myself. I was hesitant, shy, and relied too heavily on “frenemy” language German to say the most basic things.

So here I am, trying once more to fold my mind into the right configurations, using memorisation, intuition, and all those long forgotten techniques. Funnily enough, it also comes at a time when I’m studying education sciences and the best strategies for learning, and cognitive psychology of language. It makes me feel more aware of the processes I use and will hopefully help me to correct the elements that went wrong before. I think my experience proves that the setting in which we learn a language, rather than a specific age window, affect our motivation and success rates. Not only is it important to understand this when learning a new language, but for the teaching-inclined, these are vital things to keep in mind. So here’s to hoping I make a good impression at the Christmas dinner in my Belgian family! Oh and then what, you ask? Well, maybe Spanish. That’ll help with the next destinations on my travel wish list. Claro que si!

P.s: If anyone has the required skills to understand the riddle in the picture (seen in Venice, summer 2014), please come forward. Some kind of mystical language is involved I suspect.

That’s Christmas To Me

Christmas in Kenya

Image: Photo © Robin Emery

Author: Robin Emery

That’s Christmas To Me

One evening in early December, I was there on a pile of red dirt appreciating the last rays of orange sunlight bouncing off the still water. As I sat by the lake I threw a small pebble into it, there was just enough light to see ripples spreading rapidly on its surface. And then all went black because night comes fast on the equator. I was left in the darkness of a December night in Kenya. I was wearing a tank top and no shoes. Days are becoming hotter and hotter here. And it is now early December, which means it is soon 2015, and even sooner it will be Christmas. That is when I realized that I had not yet thought about Christmas.

Almost four months ago, I started performing (yep, that word) my Swiss “Service Civil” in an orphanage in western-Kenya and I will spend Christmas here. There are two seasons in Kenya: winter and summer. December is the beginning of summer so it does not snow here on Christmas Eve. Actually, it never snows here. Instead, Christmas takes place halfway through the biggest yearly drought and its oppressive temperatures.

When I first read the e-mail inviting English students to write a text for the “muse” magazine, I was thrilled. I wanted to write about my time in Kenya. However, partly through the message I read “we do encourage you to relate your texts to Christmas or winter season” and I felt sad because where I am, I will live through no ordinary winter and my Christmas will certainly be very different from what I always knew. Well, exactly! I will neither have an ordinary winter nor an ordinary Christmas.

Having that in mind, I began thinking of Christmas and ideas related to it. Whoever is reading this would have the concept of Christmas match others such as “family”, “friends”, “presents”, “generosity”, “songs”, “the cold”, “snow”, “a big fat dinner”, “short days”, “long nights”, “coziness in a chalet”, “the warmth of a wood fire”, “skiing”, “what comes just after essay deadlines”, “what comes just before new year’s eve”, and this could go on for a ridiculously long time. In any case: not drought, sunburns and flip-flops.

So I started wondering whether all collocates for the word “Christmas” in Kenya are really diametrically opposed to ours. But nobody wants to read about a corpus-based search here, hunh. Instead, let’s browse through various thoughts and events that came about in my life here concerning Christmas-related topics.

Snow. “You know, in my country in December sometimes I look out of my window in the morning and where normally there are colors there are none. All is white because it snowed during the night and I cannot use my car anymore until a powerful machine comes and pushes snow away and then there are walls of snow on both sides of the road and the road is slippery. Everything is ice-cold”. When I said those words the kids were staring at me with that concentrated mouth-half-open gaze they have when a magic trick is being executed in front of them. Most of them only saw snow once on a postcard of Mount Kenya.

“But” one of them asks, “can you even walk around outside when it is so cold?” – “Not really, we try staying inside most of the time” – “So… why do you live there in the first place?” Good question. – “Well, when there is snow I go up one of the many mountains not far from home and I go skiing!” – “Go what?” That was the beginning of a loooong talk.

Short days & long nights. I spent every single one of my twenty-two winters in Switzerland. Every time Christmas was approaching it was the same story. Days grew shorter and shorter while the atmosphere and the people became increasingly cold. Depression due to lack of light, the endless waiting for the 24th to open presents and the famous sentence voiced by skiers “at least some snow could fall and make the cold worth bearing!” were all part of the picture. Every year. Not this year.

The orphanage is smack on the equator and on the equator the sun unvaryingly rises between 6:30 and 7AM and sets between 6:30 and 7PM. It is so consistent that there is no need for the hour change we have in Europe, and time is counted differently: hour zero of a day for people here is our 6AM; hence our 9AM is their 3AM. “It’s logical! You wake up at dawn, and when you were up for three hours, you are three hours into the morning: it’s 3AM”!

The days are never longer or shorter, the curfew for children never changes. Days pass by so swiftly that to keep up with a countdown until the 24th would be absurd. I live amidst many smiles and there is no objective reason to be depressed. The only genuine parameter to consider while organizing my days here is whether there is rain or not. And in December there is no rain, in December there is only sun.

The warmth of a wood fire. In Switzerland, I make a wood fire when my chalet’s heating system is out, which seldom happens. In other cases, a wood fire merely intensifies the cozy atmosphere in a room when you have family or friends over or when you are alone with The New Yorker or Paradise Lost in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, right? Just writing this overwhelms me with this romantic feeling.

A wood fire has a different effect on me now because in the orphanage one makes wood fire every day. Why? To cook. So, “go fetch firewood or else you’ll not eat” says the cook. That’s maybe as close to “pragmatic” and as far from “romantic” as one can get.

Generosity. “When I set the table, I always keep two spare plates in a corner of the table in case someone walks in while we are eating. We never count how much food we make, since we do not know how many people will eat at our table. It is in our culture,” says Lilian, a friend of mine who teaches French in a neighboring village. – “So, do people often walk in and eat with you?” – “Almost never, she answers, but when it happens we have enough food for them”. That is what I call widespread generosity. Just imagine! It is a cultural trend to expect unexpected guests! In contrast, I suppose in Switzerland we are bad at expecting the unexpected…

Generosity is supposed to be a primitive human drive (debate: open) and constitutes a fundamental pillar to a healthy society. Cynically, one could argue that in common Western customs Christmas is the time of the year to be generous and to offer presents. In our collective unconsciousness, the social representation of “generosity” was taken hostage by Christmas! But it’s practical: there is that small time of the year where one is prompted to burst into flamboyant and ostentatious acts of generosity, and then it’s done. The rest of the year, just go back to work or whatever you do for your living.

I am very crude because I consider generosity to be as diffuse as foucaldian power, underlying every word uttered and gesture enacted and to be as quintessential to human understanding as language itself. I see generosity as the tangible part of love, as the emergence through which love arises in humanly perceptible stimuli, and because love is everywhere, generosity is everywhere. Somehow, it is. Generosity is everywhere, always, not only on Christmas Eve. That is why I like the yearlong extra-plate policy here.

Music. In the orphanage the music I hear is nearly always terrible wannabe-American noise from the Kenyan radio. Sometimes children sing, and other times I hear sophisticated phones ringing: Lil Wayne, Sean Paul or Akon. But yesterday everything changed when I heard the polyphonic ringtone of our cook Maureen’s Sony Ericson playing “I Wish You A Merry Christmas”! And I thought of Christmas once more and I laughed and I sang along and Maureen answered the phone and the ringtone stopped so I was singing alone and I stopped singing. She looked at me astonished and after she hung up she asked me how I knew the lyrics to her ringtone. I answered that we have the same Christmas songs at home. Se was puzzled, but I finally found out how I will connect with my habitual Christmases: through music!

Apart from singing, there will be a big party and a big fat dinner and love and new friends and presents and a Christmas tree. But so far from home it will still be very different. You know, neither better nor worse, just different. It will come fast enough, because time flies here. So many teeming thoughts this evening may have kept me away from producing a straightforward account of anything. However, there is a baseline to it, and it addresses all readers: Merry Christmas!

And a happy new year

With love,

Sent from Kenya

Speaking With Birds

robin with worm

Image: ‘Animated Robin Valentine’ © Robin Hutton.

Author: Elizabeth Leeman

Speaking With Birds 



The small metal gate creaked open as I pushed it inward and walked onto the Dickinson propriety for the first time. I took a step on the small stone pathway that led up to the Homestead house. The garden surrounding it was plush green, filled with small stout bushes and tall thin trees. There was a rose bed to one side with yellow and red roses in bloom. I looked up at the house, it seemed rather grand to me. The pale yellow façade and dark green shutters stared down at me. I could see white curtains behind each windowpane. I saw one of the curtains move suddenly and I realized it was not a curtain at all. A women dressed in white had been standing behind the glass watching me.

I was still looking up at the first story window from where she had disappeared from when a Nightingale began to sing. I turned to look for the source of the melody. I followed the sound of his song with my eyes trying to find him. I saw him perched in a large lilac tree by the main entrance. I walked up to it. The smell of the tree’s flowers was overwhelming. I stroked the strap of the bag I was carrying. I could feel it getting wet from my moist hands. I walked up the steps to the main entrance; my bag felt heavy all of a sudden. I swallowed hard as I looked at the white door in front of me.

‘It’s only temporary,’ I said to the Nightingale who chirped at me in response.

 ‘Oh, shut up.’

He flew away singing louder than before.

‘You’re probably right,’ I said and knocked on the large white door.

I heard small quick footsteps approaching behind the wall. I imagined it must be the woman in the white dress. I caught my reflection in the window next to the door. My frizzy black hair was pulled tight in a bun but a wild strand had gotten loose. I tried to tuck it back but it refused. My freckles and big blue eyes stared back at me, mocking my attempts to look presentable. The door swung open, making me jump. A short woman who was out of breath and wearing a dark blue dress looked up at me. She had round blotchy red cheeks and big brown eyes with long lashes. Her eyes seemed to sparkle as if she had just plays some mischievous prank on someone and was waiting for them to find out about it. I thought she was quite pretty.

‘Hello, my name is Margaret, I’m your new-‘

‘Ah you’re here, good, good,’ she said cutting me off and still gasping for breath ‘well, come in, come in.’

She ushered me into a narrow hallway. The wallpaper was a silver white color with a fancy design on it. It looked so rich I felt my hand twitch. I wanted to reach out and touch it but the woman was walking away quickly, her small heels tapping against the wooden floorboards as she went. We turned right in front of a staircase going to an upper level. There was a dark carpet on the stairs and a white bannister to its side. We turned again, went through a kitchen and into a washroom. She led me up some stairs into a dark hallway. As we walked she explained what my main chores would be:

‘As you can see the house is big and requires a lot of work. You are our only maid. You will be required to clean the house of course, do the laundry, the ironing, make soap, do the dying, press the laundry, hang it, do the dishes, the dusting, the mending and the cooking. But not the bread mind you. Emily bakes the bread. Make sure you stay out of her way when she does. Oh and you’re also responsible for feeding the cats and chickens.’

We continued up the stairs and I saw three doors lined against the wall.

‘The one at the back is yours. Here are your keys. This is the one for your room.’ She said, pointing at a large key with a small pink ribbon attached to it.

‘The others are for the rest of the house. This one is to the main entrance.’ She finished pointing at a key with a blue ribbon on it. ‘Leave your things in your room and follow me.

I did as I was told. I did not even think to look at my new room. My mind already thinking about the amount of work this house would generate. I followed the mistress to the front of the first floor.

‘I’m Miss Lavinia Dickinson. You can ask me any questions you might have. You will also be working for my sister Miss Dickinson as well as my parents Mr and Mrs Dickinson. You won’t see much of Mr Dickinson, because he travels a lot.’

We passed through a small passage and were back in their part of the house. The white wallpaper called out to me again. Miss Lavinia turned to me and brought one finger to her mouth showing me to be silent. We walked passed a door that she pointed at without saying anything. I looked at the door. There was nothing special about it. It was just a white door with a white doorknob. My new employer did not stop in front of it but continued down a flight of stairs.

Once we had made our way back into the kitchen, she turned to face me.

‘The door, you saw it?’

I nodded, my eyes widening.

‘That’s Miss Dickinson’s room. You are not to disturb her when she is in her room. When she comes down to bake bread, you will have time to clean her space. Be careful you leave everything as you find it. If you pick up a pen to clean under it, then you must put it back exactly where you found it. Do you understand?’

I nodded again.

‘Good. Emily – Miss Dickinson to you, I mean, is very particular but that’s none of your concern. You may not ask questions about that. And under no circumstances must you perpetuate the ridiculous rumors that circulate about her in the town. Do I make myself clear?’

I nodded again.

I heard footsteps coming towards the kitchen and turned to look at its owner.

‘Lavinia I’m going to the market. Would you like to join me?’

A tall woman with strict features was in the doorway. Miss Lavinia introduced her as Mrs Dickinson. I was afraid of the old woman then and there. She seemed stern and cold. I did not know it yet, but my path would hardly cross hers during the time I would work at the Homestead house. When it did, she usual ignored me, as I was the help.

When Miss Lavinia had left I began preparing the evening dinner, my mind full of questions about Miss Dickinson I knew I could not ask or have answers to.

The next day I was preparing lunch when she walked into the kitchen. I had not seen or heard her walk in and when I turned around from the stove I shrieked with surprise at the sight of her. The butter I was holding flew out of my hands and splattered on the floor at Miss Dickinson’s feet. Startled, she flattened herself against the kitchen door. There was a long silence in which we both caught our breath.

Then, we looked up at each other. I could not control myself. I was submerged by a fit of giggles. I slumped down onto the cold dark red tiles of the kitchen floor and felt tears run down my cheeks. On the other side of the room, I saw her clutch her stomach and kneel down trying to control herself.

I noticed her white dress and dark brown hair pulled into a tight bun not dissimilar from mine. She had the same brown eyes her sister had, but hers seemed more alert, more awake. She didn’t have plump rosy cheeks though; hers were flatter with higher cheekbones. It was a very pretty face.

‘What’s going on?’ Miss Lavinia said, coming into the room. ‘Miss Maher! Do your chores, now! Emily are you alright?’

I hurried back into the washroom still laughing. I grabbed the cleaning kit and went up to Miss Dickinson’s room to clean it still trying to control my laughter.

I placed my hand on the white doorknob but did not open it straight away. I felt as if I was trespassing or stealing something that did not belong to me. I heard Miss Lavinia’s tapping footstep’s on the ground floor and shook my head. I turned the handle and stepped in.

It was as remarkable as the white door that led into it: unremarkable. There was a bed, a nightstand, a washbasin, a hearth, a commode, a table and chair. I kept looking around the small space expecting some strange object to catch my eye, but there was nothing. I walked to the window and looked out. The front garden was just as green as ever and stretched out from the house to the main street in front. I turned around back to the room and hit my thigh on a small writing table. I swore under my breath and tried to rub the pain away.

I began cleaning the small table. I moved the gas lamp and pen that were beside it. It was a very nice table. The wood was smooth and I guessed it was probably cherry. It had a small drawer with a little round golden ring handle. I dusted and polished it before carefully placing the two objects that were on it back to where they had been. I remembered the lamp had been right at the edge of the table, the pen had laid diagonally to it, the pen’s point angled towards the right of the lamp.

After that I carefully dusted every other item of the room, but there wasn’t much in the room. A small basket on the window sill caught my eye. I looked inside hoping to resolve some of the mystery surrounding the room’s owner. I found only needlepoint in it. I shut the weaker basket with a bang and continued dusting.

Then I began scrubbing the floor carefully. When I moved one piece of furniture I used my foot as a marker so I could set it back exactly where it had been when I had finished.

Finally, I finished cleaning and dusting the room. I noticed Miss Dickinson had left a small tray with a teacup and saucer on the commode top in front of some pictures. The porcelain cup had a gold rim running along its edge but the rim was slightly chipped near the handle. I picked it up and noticed the word “Sèvres” engraved on its bottom. I left with the tray, closing the door behind me.

The smell of bread filled the house by the time I left her room. When I reached the kitchen, I was surprised to see that she was not there anymore. The door to the back garden was open and I went to shut it when I saw Miss Dickinson outside. I stepped out, curious to see what she was doing. She was standing very still looking up at a tree. A Robin was singing.

Miss Dickinson closed her eyes and I saw her sway slightly form one foot to the other. Fearing she would fall I took a few steps toward her but a hand came out of nowhere and grabbed me. I turned to see who was holding me back and saw a gardener.

‘She’s fine. Leave it,’ he said in a thick Irish accent that reminded me of home. He did not look at me while saying this but kept his eyes on Miss Dickinson.

I looked back at her and saw she was reaching one hand out towards the bird who was still singing. The bird flew out of his nest down onto the walk in front of her. I realized she was offering him a crumb but he did not seem interested. He was eating something else but I could not see what.

‘Probably a worm,’ the gardener said, answering my unasked question.

The bird ruffled its feathers and flew away. Miss Dickinson got up and walked off towards the back of the garden near the apple orchard.

‘Ah good, she wasn’t too long today, bless her,’ the gardener said and picking up his tools started walking away.

I ran after him and asked him about Miss Dickinson’s strange behavior.

‘If you thought that was strange, you probably won’t last long in this house. She was just playing with the bird, that’s all. I don’t see why some folk find fault with that. I always give her room when she walks through the garden. She doesn’t need me clipping around her when she is speaking with the birds.’

‘She speaks to the birds?’

‘Not to them, with them.’

He told me she talked with everything, the birds, trees and anything or anyone else that would listen. She just didn’t use words to speak.

‘How can you speak without words?’ I asked him.

‘Did you not just see her?’

I felt more confused and decided to stop asking the gardener questions. I was not aware of it yet but his name was Dennis Scannell and I would come to know him well in years to come.

I returned to the safety of the kitchen. I looked around at the bright yellow casements and the pale green walls. I definitely felt like this was the best room in the house. I started cooking and sang an old tune from home to keep me company as I worked.

As evening approached I began preparing dinner. I was singing an old tune again while Miss Lavinia’s cats Gaspar and Pumpkin watched me cook. I heard a noise from the main part of the house but didn’t stop to worry about it. Perhaps I should have because I jumped with surprise when Miss Lavinia and Miss Dickinson both came rushing into the kitchen. Miss Dickinson banged the cupboards open one after the other.

 ‘Emily, tell me what you’re looking for, please.’

I froze and watched as Miss Dickinson pawed through the washed dishes. I saw her remove the chipped cup from the lot. She showed her sister the dish and without a word exited the room.

Miss Lavinia was holding on to the counter and breathing hard. She picked up Gaspar and stroked him from the top of his head to the tip of his tail.

‘Did you remove the cup from her room?’ she said to me but kept looking at her cat.

‘I’m sorry. I thought it was to be washed. I-‘

‘Next time, leave it exactly as you found it.’

‘Yes M’am.’

She left with her cat. I sat by the fire for a moment, not sure how to understand either of the sisters’ attitudes.

The next day while I was dusting in the library, I heard someone at the door. When I went to open it, a Mrs Jameson asked to see Miss Dickinson. I tried to hold back a grin, unsuccessfully.

‘Just tell her I’m here, will you?’

 I ran away feeling her stare bore into my back.

When I was in front of Miss Dickinson’s door, I hardly knew what to do. I wanted to knock but was afraid too. I was just about to when I heard her voice:

‘I’m coming.’

I was surprised to hear her say she would. I left without a word to fetch Mrs Jameson tea. I then headed back towards the library to finish my dusting but I saw Miss Dickinson come down and head for the North Parlor.

 ‘Ma’am she’s waiting for you in the South Parlor.’

She nodded in response but went into the North Parlor all the same. Perplexed, I stood still a moment. I heard the sound of her voice greet her friend. I was sure I’d left Mrs Jameson in the South Parlor and poked my head through its doorway again to be sure.

Mrs Jameson was seated on a small chair next to the large red curtain separating the two parlors. The curtain was closed and I could hear Miss Dickinson speaking to her friend from behind the curtain. I was still watching the guest speak to a closed curtain when Miss Lavinia came into the hall and shut the door to the parlor in front of me.

‘It isn’t polite to listen to other people’s conversations.’

‘I wasn’t, I just, I mean- the curtain’

Miss Lavinia told me to return to my work but she did so with a smile. I think she saw the confusion on my face and understood my perplexity. I returned to my dusting, wondering about Miss Dickinson’s strange habits.

The days passed and I saw little of my employer. I did the laundry, fed the cats and chickens. One day, after spending the morning figuring out a particularly complicated recipe for cookies, I went to the market to buy meat for supper. When I returned, I saw the cookies where gone. I looked around the kitchen, scanning each countertop looking for the culprit. My eyes landed on Peppercorn, Miss Lavinia’s fattest cat.

‘Hello Maggie,’ I heard someone say behind me as I lunged for the cat.

I turned around and found my two young nephews, William and James each holding one of my cookies.

‘Where did you get those?’ I asked, my eyes popping out.

They told me a woman had lowered them down from her first floor window in a basket.

 ‘She was really nice. She said we could have as many as we wanted,’ Will said, smiling.

I looked at him, surprised. Even though she would not come out of her room, she still found ways to please those around her. Although the cookies were difficult to make and I had planned on serving them that day at tea, looking at my nephews chocolate stained faces, I felt they now had served a better purpose.

I continued cleaning the house and saw the seasons slowly change from the bright sunny mornings to the cold and wet afternoons. The leaves in the apple orchard turned gold and red. Puddles started to form around the kitchen door, making it impossible to get through to the vegetable garden and chicken coop. Slowly though the wet turned into cold, the leaves blew away leaving the trees naked and snow started to fall. Miss Dickinson didn’t go outside anymore, preferring the warmth of her room or of the kitchen when she baked.

Still, I wondered what she did when she was locked in her room. Wasn’t she bored? I did not feel bothered by her habits or that it was necessarily strange. I was just curious to know what she did with herself.

One day, Lavinia and her mother had both gone out to call on some friends. It was just Miss Dickinson and I in the house, and curiosity got the better of me. I had been sweeping the landing of the first floor when I stopped in front of her door. I looked at it up and down and up again.

Then, I thought ‘no’ and walked away and headed down the stairs to the entrance hall. I had made it as far as the second step when I turned back and went to the door once more. I stared at it for a full minute and walked away again. I made it to the third step this time before turning back. I gazed at the door longer this time, unsure what to do. I laid down on my stomach trying to see through the crack of the door. All of a sudden, the door creaked open. I looked up hoping that the grin on my face would suffice as an excuse for my behavior.

‘Would you like to come in?’ she asked with a smile.

‘Uh’ was all I could answer.

I got up and fixed my gaze on the hem of her white dress. She ushered me into her room. I noticed, for the first time, the intricately made the floorboards.

As she shut the door, her movement caught my eye and I looked up. She had bent down over the keyhole and made a gesture as if to lock the door. But she held no key. I looked at her, my brows furrowed so far together that when she looked at me she laughed.

‘Welcome to my Prison.’

‘Prison?’ I asked and was sorry she felt this way.

‘No, no it’s a good prison. It helps me understand what’s out there better,’ she said, looking out the window.

I went and stood next to her but did not understand what she meant. How could being in a prison, as she called it, help her out there? I did not understand and she must have seen my confusion.

‘Do you miss the birds?’ she asked me, still smiling.

The birds had migrated south for the winter. I missed hearing them sing when I went into the garden. I liked hearing them when I picked apples in the orchard or pulled vegetables in the garden for the daily meals.

I nodded.

‘When the war was on, did you miss peace?’

I nodded again.

‘But did you miss it before the war?’ her eyes pierced mine when she asked me this.

I fell silent. I had not thought of peace before the war. I hadn’t really appreciated it before the war because I had not known how terrible the war would be. How many men would never return home and how many more should not have returned in the state they did.

I shook my head.

‘When I’m in I can remember everything out there more clearly. I can see them better from here. I appreciate what’s out there more, from in here.’

I nodded again.

‘Its as if the more you go out there the more difficult it is to see it. The more you have to look at it through a filter or a lens. From in here I have perfect eyesight. Its magic,’ she said and laughed.

I laughed with her although I wasn’t sure why we were laughing.

I turned around and saw her small cherry writing desk was covered with papers. My gaze wandered further to her commode. A drawer was open and overflowing with papers.

‘I have a trunk in my room. It’s empty if you would like to use it?’

She looked at me in silence for a while.

‘That would be nice,’ she said and then asked me to leave.

When I was back out in the safety of the hallway, I felt air fill my lungs again. I had not spoken to her in the five months I’d been working in the Homestead House. Apart from saying ‘hello’ or ‘excuse me’. For a first real meeting it seemed a little too intense for my liking. But in the next few days I kept thinking about what she told me and especially about what she had taught me.



I was preparing lunch one morning in April when Miss Dickinson came in. I excused myself and made my way to exit the kitchen.


I turned around and saw she was handing me something.

‘You said you had an empty trunk?’

I nodded and took the papers she was giving me. I left quickly through the back of the kitchen. Once I was in my room I looked through her notes. They were, as I expected, poems. I was happy she had decided to trust me with her work. Each packet she had given me was composed of about twenty poems hand-sewn together with some string. I wanted to read them but I didn’t dare. She had trusted me with them and I did not want to break that trust. I put them safely in my trunk and went to clean her room.

I deliberately took too long cleaning her room in the hopes that she would return and we could talk more. She did not come however. I eventually made my way back to the kitchen, dragging my feet. She was not there but I noticed she had left some notes lying on the counter. I grouped them together and set them under a jam jar so they would not fly away if someone opened the door to the garden. I went out to pick Thyme that I needed for the evening meal when I saw her kneeling by the rose beds. I was happy to see her going outside again.

As I was watching her I saw a carriage come by. Miss Dickinson straightened as it neared the house. The driver was an old man hunched over. He was bald and had a pointy nose. He was well dressed but wore all black, which I thought made him look sad. His horse seemed as old as his master, if not older. He dragged his legs and the rhythm of his clip-clopping hooves seemed out of tune.

The carriage driver held a long whip at his side that he looked more likely to drop than to use on his horse. When he saw Miss Dickinson, he tipped his black hat to her smiling and drove slowly onward. His smile seemed more like a grimace to me and I was glad he had not greeted me in this similar, disturbing manner. After the carriage was out of sight, I watched my mistress shiver and return inside. When I went back into the kitchen she had removed her notes from under the jar and was writing fast on one of them.

A little later in the day, a Mr Dwight Hills came to visit the family. I let him into the Parlor where Miss Lavinia and Mrs Dickinson welcomed him. When I’d returned to the kitchen I heard Miss Dickinson’s bell ring. I went up to her room curious to see what she needed since she never rang her bell.

When I arrived on the landing, I saw a small note in front of her door addressed to Mr Hills. I took it down the stairs to the guest who read it directly.

‘She isn’t coming down I assume?’ he asked me with a wink.

‘I’m sorry sir. I-’

‘You must be a strange bird yourself if she trusts you so much. How did you get in her good graces?’

‘You may go, Maggie,’ Mrs Dickinson ordered me.

I tried to relax my shoulders and exited the Parlor as fast as my feet would carry me. When I was back in the safety of the kitchen I realized Mr Hills had a point. Why did she like me or trust me? She didn’t know me and I was only a maid in her house. I smiled

‘She trusts me.’

A few days later another man came to visit. He was tall and had a little moustache I quite liked. When I let him into the Parlor I did not bother to return to the kitchen but went straight up to Miss Dickinson’s room to see if she had left a note for the visitor. As I reached the first floor landing I saw her exit her room. I asked her if she needed anything but she said she did not. She was wearing her usual white dress but had also put on a pretty blue shawl. I wondered why she felt the need to wear an extra accessory for this visitor. She went past me down to the first floor. I expected her to go into the North Parlor but when she headed to the South Parlor my mouth opened in surprise.

Lavinia walked into the hallway holding Tangerine.

‘Come on, Maggie,’ she said stroking the orange cat’s long hairs.

We waited in the kitchen as the two conversed in the Parlor. Seeing my anxiety for my mistress, Miss Lavinia explained that the guest was Mr Higginson, a publisher from the Atlantic Monthly. Miss Dickinson had written him several letters and he had been eager to meet her to discuss her writing.

When we heard their voices more clearly, we knew their meeting was over. I followed Miss Lavinia who went to see the gentlemen out, hoping to glimpse him better myself. Miss Dickinson had already returned to her room when we arrived in the hall. Mr Higginson thanked Miss Lavinia for her kindness but said he had to leave right away.

‘I have no energy left after this meeting.’

I stood behind Miss Lavinia nodding. I remembered the first time I had spoken to her and how confused and more curious about the world I’d felt all at the same time after our first discussion.

The next day I monotonously went about my chores, dusting, sweeping, ironing. I sang songs from Ireland to keep me company while doing so. It made the time go by faster. I was cleaning the kitchen and singing ‘The Rising of the Moon’. I began to dance with my broom pirouetting around it. I picked it up and played it like a banjo for the benefit of Fig, Miss Lavinia’s black cat. I twirled a few more times laughing and singing when I heard someone else laugh as well. I turned around and saw Miss Dickinson in the doorway waiting to come in to do her daily baking. She clapped and congratulated me on my singing.

‘Thank you,’ I said taking a bow and was about to add that she should join me but all of a sudden she froze. Her smile left her face and she started looking around the kitchen for something. I asked her what she needed but she did not answer. Finally she found a pen and an old bill paid off months ago. She started writing on the paper fast and sloppy. I was not sure even she would be able to reread what she had written. I understood what she was doing and left the kitchen quietly.

As I cleaned her room that morning, I was sure we could become good friends even if her poems overtook her sometimes. The thought of her friendship made me smile.



Mr Edward Dickinson was back. He travelled often for work and was only seldom at the house. He had returned two nights ago but already had to leave the next morning. I was in the washroom when I saw him and Miss Dickinson walking in the garden. They were talking and looked quite content. They spent the entire day together walking, in the garden or sitting talking in the Parlor. I must admit I was a little jealous of Mr Dickinson. I had only had a few conversations with his daughter but would have loved to have a few more.

That evening while I was cleaning the South Parlor I heard him and Miss Lavinia speaking in the North Parlor. Mr Dickinson said to his daughter how pleased he had been to spend this time with Emily and did not want the afternoon to end.

The next day however, he got on a train to Boston. Miss Dickinson seemed sad to see him go. When she went to bake the bread, she asked me to cook and sing at the same time to keep her distracted.

When, a few days later, a telegraph came in it was as if she already knew what had happened. I took it up to her but she did not open it directly. She asked me to fetch Miss Lavinia and they opened the note together.

Mr Edward Dickinson had died. He had been ill and the doctor had given him the wrong dose of medicine.

I wanted to hold them both close to me, but they told me to prepare for the funeral. I left without needing more instructions. I left determined to get everything ready so that Miss Lavinia would not have to do it herself. She seemed too sad.

When the funeral finally took place. I watched Miss Lavinia leave from the front of the house with Mrs Dickinson, her brother, Austin and his wife Sue, to go to the funeral.

‘She isn’t going,’ I said to Dennis.

‘Not surprising,’ he answered, leaning on his rake.

I was not worried or ashamed that she wasn’t going to the funeral but felt mostly worried about her. She would have to stay alone in the house while everyone else convened together in church. Dennis and I made our way to the church through the backyard and down a few side alleys.

That evening I was sitting by the kitchen hearth writing a short letter to my sister, Mary when Miss Lavinia came in. I stood to greet her and ask what she needed but she told me to sit down.

‘I came for the company and the warmth,’ she said smiling and I wasn’t entirely sure she meant the warmth of the fire.

‘How are things?’ I hesitated to ask but did anyway feeling that silence would have been more awkward.

‘She’s all right. She processes things differently than most people. That’s the problem. I always feel responsible for her because she’s my sister. I don’t want her to be in so much pain, but I guess that comes with being a poet.’

‘I didn’t mean her.’

‘I sometimes forget about myself,’ Miss Lavinia laughed. ‘I worry so much for Emily, I sometimes forget it might be worth worrying about myself.’

Parsley rubbed her long tail against the leg of Miss Lavinia, who picked her up. While stroking the grey cat’s short fur she turned to look into the fire. The light from the flames reflected on her round rosy cheeks. We heard a noise at the kitchen door; it was Miss Dickinson. She came and sat with us by the fire.

I looked at the two sisters who were physically similar but had very different minds. Miss Dickinson didn’t have Miss Lavinia’s round cheeks or the softness in her eyes. Her eyes were awake and sharp.

I realized how sad they both looked though. This would not do. I got up in one swift movement that made them both jump.

‘We’re baking a cake.’

‘What?’ Miss Lavinia said.

‘No what! We’re baking a cake.’

The two got up but did not seem enthused. I decided I would make them want this cake. I would make them both smile and laugh, at least for the next few hours.

I began singing O’Donnell Abu and taught them a few words so they could join in and sing with me. By the time the cake was in the oven they had learned the entire song and we were singing it to each other from different corners of the kitchen as loud as we could.

We collapsed with laughter by the hearth and I noticed Miss Dickinson had some flour on her sleeve. I handed her a cloth to wipe it.

‘Miss Dickinson,’ I said when she failed to see me holding the cloth out to her.

‘I think you can call me Emily, Maggie,’ she said wiping the flour off.



The doorbell rang and when I opened it I saw Mrs Todd. I felt my face clench unwillingly. I admitted her into the house without a word. She was an unhappy women whose interest in the family, at least in my opinion, was only to further her own social advancement.

She came regularly, to play the piano for Emily. I knew Emily liked to hear the instrument being played, although she never came down to watch. She would open her door ever so slightly to hear the notes better.

Mrs Todd used Emily partly as an excuse. Her main interest in coming to Homestead was to see the young Mr Dickinson. It seemed quite clear that they were lovers, although Emily never noticed, staying in her room the whole time, she did not doubt what the woman’s real motives were.

When the young woman sat herself at the piano and began to play, I went up to the first floor landing to see if Emily had left her anything. There was a rose in front of her door with a note ‘for Mabel’. I took it down to Mrs Todd but when I entered the Parlor, I froze. Mr Dickinson was at her side. I had not even heard him come back from his office that morning. He was holding her by the waist and kissing her neck while she played. I left the rose on a small worktable next to the door and left.

I found Lavinia in the kitchen by the fire. I walked in and leaned against the counter without saying anything.

‘He owns the house,’ Lavinia said, staring into the fire.

‘I know. You don’t need to apologize.’

‘Yes, but I can tell it bothers you.’

‘Doesn’t it bother you?’ I said a little more forcefully than I’d intended.

‘Yes, but what can I do? The music makes Emily happy and Austin pays for everything. Without him we’d all be out on the streets.’

She got up and went out through the back door to the garden. I shook my head, unhappy with the situation. I felt that Lavinia had lost hope since her father died. She had doubled her attention towards Emily. She hoped that her constant presence would keep her sister from becoming too fragile. Perhaps it did help a little until the moment when Mrs Dickinson had fallen ill.

In my mind, her illness was brought on by the loss of her husband. The first time she felt unwell was on the anniversary of his death and since that time she had always been sick. She spent most of her time in bed unable to get up anymore. Lavinia tried so hard to take care of her but the pressure from taking care of Emily in addition to taking care of her mother had killed something inside her. I could see it. Her eyes didn’t sparkle like they used to.

When her mother had passed a few years ago, I had felt a little relieved for Lavinia. But her brother’s affair was weighing her down now and dragging me with her. I was worried about what the outcome would be, not only for Austin and his sisters but also for the entire house. Had I known what was to come I might not have worried so much about his affair. Emily’s was far more worrying.

The first time Judge Lord came to visit Emily a few years ago, I hardly knew what to think. He was much older than her and I therefore did not understand the nature of their relationship until Lavinia pointed it out to me.

It is true that when he came to the house she seemed lighter. But she seemed almost too light, I thought. It worried me. What would happen if he went away one day?

He rang the doorbell on a Tuesday and I let him into the South Parlor as I usually did. When I went to fetch Emily, she was already coming out of her room. She went straight down to meet him without a word to me in passing. They stayed in the Parlor for hours, talking.

I went out into the garden for fresh air. I was also hoping to run into Dennis again. He always made things seem less serious than I thought they were. I could not find him but tried to rationalize the relationship myself. Maybe she wasn’t too sensitive. Maybe they would get married and she would always be as happy as he was making her now. I walked around the apple trees trying to convince myself of this but in my heart I didn’t feel any of this would actually happen.

A few months later he died.

Lavinia and I took turns watching Emily. We made sure there was always someone with her when she wasn’t in her room. When she baked, I found an excuse to stay in the kitchen. When she went into the garden, Lavinia found a reason to go with her and talk about something.

What worried me most was how unemotional she seemed about his death. I was afraid she had reached some state beyond sadness. I went to see her in her room using a tray of tea and biscuits as an excuse to come in.

She was sitting at her small writing table looking out the window. I placed the tray next to the paper she had been writing on. She did not look at me. I looked out the window myself and saw a Nightingale on the windowsill. I wondered if it was the same one I had seen on my first day in Homestead. I stayed for a minute watching the bird, but when he flew away I gave up. She would not speak to me. I was almost at the door when she changed her mind.

‘What do you think hope is?’

I stopped. I did not know what to say to this.


‘I think it’s like a bird,’ she smiled, but the expression on her face worried me. It was not a smile that translated happiness. ‘A bird that’s inside you.’

I did not really understand what she meant and she must have noticed because she continued.

‘Imagine that hope is like a loaf of bread and all your soul bird needs to survive is one small crumb. You don’t need the entire loaf. Just a crumb is enough to keep hope alive. And your hope, your bird, never tells you to give it bread. You need to give it freely to keep the bird alive. To keep hope alive.’

I asked her if she wanted to come down to bake a cake with me.

‘In a little while,’ she answered and I left her.

I returned to the kitchen and found Lavinia. She looked at me. Her eyebrows arched so high she didn’t have to say anything else.

‘She said something about a bird being hope and crumb you have to offer it to keep it alive or the bird and the crumb both die. No wait it was the other way around, the crumb was hope and the bird was the soul, I think.’

I looked at Lavinia for help. She shrugged.

‘It made sense when she said it!’

I was now unable to explain her words myself but I still felt I understood, even if on paper it did look like I hadn’t understood anything about her.

When Emily came down we started baking and I tried to get her to sing with me but she would not. This was going to be a silent session. I was fine with it. The repetitive motion of stirring or rolling the pin back and forth over dough was sometimes soothing. I thought she might be feeling a bit better and I was about to suggest we bake cookies next when she collapsed on the floor.


Emily was lying on the ground unconscious. Lavinia who had been sitting by the fire hurried over. I ran out to find help, leaving Lavinia with her sister.



I dried two gold-rimmed porcelain cups. I turned the chipped one, the one Emily liked, over to dry its base and saw the now almost completely faded mark of “Sèvres”. Only part of the word was still visible. I placed both cups on their small individual saucers and these on a bigger silver tray.

When I reached Emily’s room, Lavinia opened the door to let me inside. Emily was unconscious again. This was the third time this month she had passed out. Lavinia would hardly leave her bedside anymore for fear. However, she now asked me to stay while she went out. I took her chair and sat in silence until Emily woke up. She asked me about the trunk where I kept her writings.

‘I still have it. It’s almost full.’

‘Will you burn what’s in it when I die?’


‘Promise you will.’

‘I-I promise.’

I swallowed hard. I felt tears come into my eyes. I was about to tell her I could not do it, that I could not burn something that was such a big part of who she was. But she spoke again and I was unable to say what I wanted.

‘Where’s the fly?’ she asked looking at me straight on, her eyes wide open with worry. ‘The one that was buzzing.’

There was no fly or at least I could see no fly and I told her so.

‘But it’s time.’

She looked at me, her eyes filled with sadness. I did not know what to say. She seemed to implore me to find this fly but I was sure there was none. She began to cry. I held her but I could not erase her pain. I could not even really understand it. So, instead, I held her and sang ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’. The words seemed difficult to sing now:

‘Twas sad I kissed away her tears, Her arms around me clinging. When to my ears that fateful shot, Came out the wildwood ringing…’

She had fallen asleep but I kept singing until I reached the end of the song.

‘I wept and kissed her clay-cold corpse, Then rushed o’er vale and valley. My vengeance on the foe to wreak, While soft wind shook the barley.’

She died that day.

I never had a chance to tell her I would not be able to burn her poems. I went to see her brother Austin and asked him to not make me keep the promise I’d unwillingly made to his sister. He took the poems from me.

‘It’s all right, I won’t burn them.’

I knew he wouldn’t, but it was difficult to part with them all the same. It was the last piece of her I had. I prayed I was doing the right thing. I felt I was, because, although I had never read her poems myself, I knew their author well. If her poems were half as special as she was then they were worth saving even if she did not want them to be saved herself.


The Train

The Train

Image: Metropolitan Transportation Authority © Patrick Cashin. SourceCC License

Author: Sandrine Spycher

I’d been waiting for my train for ten minutes. Josh was walking up and down the platform. I was cold as well, but too tired to move so I just sat on the metal bench. Finally the train arrived and we climbed on. Although it was crowded like mad, we managed to find a seat near the window. I squeezed my overfilled bag under the seat and leaned against the cold window. A fat man sat next to me; I could hardly move without hitting him with my elbow. Noisy kids were chattering a few seats away, and an incredibly skinny person—so skinny I could hardly tell if it was a man or woman—was listening to loud punk music in front of me. Josh looked annoyed. I think he mumbled to him/her to turn the volume down, but wasn’t understood. It was in that uncomfortable environment that I finally fell asleep—I guess I was so tired I could have slept anywhere.

I was suddenly awaken by a loud noise and the train coming to an emergency stop. Everyone looked astonished. Almost every passenger moved toward the windows to try and see what was happening. As we were peering outside, the door crashed open.

“Nobody move!” a male voice shouted.

I was now fully awake. Three figures were standing in between the seats. They were holding huge guns in their hands, threatening the passengers with them. One of the kids started weeping. The one who seemed to be the leader of the gangsters yelled at the poor child, with the only effect of increasing his crying. The gangster then turned to the skinny punk listener and violently pulled the earphones away from him/her. That’s when I made my move. I jumped from my seat, clung to the gangster’s back and hit him on the head. He was so surprised that it was easy for skinny-one to snatch the gun from him. The other two gangsters were quickly overtaken by Josh and the fat man, while the kids’ mother phoned the police. A few minutes later, the gangsters were cuffed and taken away in flashy cars with loud sirens.

I had dozed off again, but at the next stop was woken up by a movement from the fat man. He got up heavily and made a clumsy way toward the door. The seat he’d just left was almost instantly occupied by someone else. He was even stranger than skinny-one. He was very tall, and the only way he could sit without disturbing anyone was by folding his legs under the seat. At that moment I noticed that his legs, just like the rest of his body, looked like rubber. The man was so flexible, it looked as though he didn’t have bones at all. When he saw I was observing him, he turned his round boneless head toward me. I couldn’t help but start up. His face was concealed under a hood, but I could see two blood red piercing eyes, which seemed to be flashing lights.

“I’m not from this world,” he said. “Don’t tell.” His voice was a somewhat strange mixture of hoarse and childish tones. It gave me the shivers and made the hairs stand on my nape. As I looked around, I saw Josh was sleeping, skinny-one was lost in the music, and the mother was telling one of the kids to stop shouting. It seemed I was the only one to notice how weird that man—or alien?—was.

Another sudden stop made me look outside. When I turned back, the alien was gone. I stood up, but didn’t see him. I started walking between the seats.

“Hey Sam, where are you going?” Josh asked in a sleepy voice.

“To see if… erm… if I can find out what’s going on.”

Yet, I didn’t go far. A ticket inspector told me to go back to my seat and wait. Wait for what, I wondered. So I sat down again in front of Josh.

“Look,” he said, “the railway tracks are completely flooded.”

I looked outside to discover he was right. But how could it be? The sun had been shining for a while, and it was way too cold for rain. I was really starting to think there was something uncanny going on with this train. First the gangsters appearing out of nowhere, then a boneless alien with red eyes, and now a flood. Perhaps the three events were linked. They had to be. I was so caught up in my thinking about conspiracy that I didn’t even notice the water level was going up. Passengers were hitting the windows and begging to be let out. It wasn’t long before I started panicking too. The water was freezing, and although I tried to keep my chin above the surface, I felt like drowning. I fought for a few more minutes before fainting.

“Sam? Sam, wake up, we’re here,” Josh said.

I opened my eyes and looked around. The passengers were getting up and gathering their things. A tall man wearing a hoodie handed me my bag. Skinny-one looked at me in a disgusted way. My shoes were soaked.

“What happened?” I asked Josh.

“Oh, that. I’m sorry. There was a sudden move and tipped off my water bottle.”

When I got up, I noted that hoodie-man was wearing strange glasses which were flashing red lights. I was trying to make sense of what didn’t make sense when Josh pulled on my sleeve.

“Come on! What are you waiting for?”

“What happened?” I repeated. “How did we get out of the water?”


“The water. It was flooding the train,” I tried to explain.

“There was no flood, or anything,” Josh said, surprised.

“How about the gangsters?”

“Which gangsters? Oh you mean the teens with their rap music? They got off a while ago. I didn’t think you’d noticed. You slept through the whole trip.”

Margaret Hare’s Sick Tenants

Margaret Hare's Sick Tenants

Image: ‘Heart of Midlothian’ © Neal Fowler. SourceCC License

Author: Elizabeth Leemann

I looked out my bedroom window yesterday morning and saw the Haar roll in. It came down from the sky like a heavy blanket covering the city of Edinburgh. I did not think the day would be different from any other. I had met Burke and his wife several times now and we had become fast friends. They came to visit me that night in my lodging house. I had promised to introduce my husband, Bill.

Once the introductions were made we decided to play cards. When the game was well underway, I realised I had not brought a candle to a client who had requested one. I made my way to his room, knocked and entered. I shrieked loudly when I saw the tenant. He was lying very still in his bed. I stared at him for several minutes, but his chest did not rise and fall with the regular rhythm of breath.

‘What is it?’ my husband said as he ran into the room closely followed by Burke and Helen.

I pointed at the body.

‘My God!’ said Helen. ‘Call the police!’

‘We can’t. If people find out about this no one will come and stay here anymore!’ I said turning back to her.

Burke patted me on the shoulder to soothe my nerves.

‘I think I know what to do, ‘ he said and walked towards the body examining it. ‘Yes, I’m sure they’ll take him. All his limbs are intact.’

We wrapped the body in the bed sheets and the men carried him down the stairs. We had been playing cards for several hours at this point and since card games generally require heavy amounts of liquid to be consumed in the process, the men now struggled with the body. It slipped twice out of their hands as they brought it down. Each time it landed on the wooden floor with a loud thud.

‘Shh!’ I said. ‘you’ll wake the whole house.’

‘These stupid floorboards!’ Bill answered.

I’ll admit the stairs were difficult to manoeuvre, not only because they were old but were in a spiral. Still, I could not help but be angry with the men when, at the top of the first floor, they angled it wrong and dropped it again. The body toppled over itself like a log thrown during a Highland Game and fell all the way to the ground floor.

I heard another tenant groan and a bed creak. We all froze and looked up. Silence greeted us in response. Then, we heard a loud snore. I felt Helen unclench beside me and I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. We ran down the stairs and picked up the body once more.

The men carried it out into the cold night air while Helen and I looked out for witnesses. I had not been pleased that morning when the Haar had rolled in but now I was thankful for its presence. We made our way out of Tanner’s Close without being questioned by any passers-by, probably because we were hard to see through the mist. The men lifted the body and carried him under the shoulders as if he were passed out after a good night at the pub.

I looked behind us to make sure no one was following. The large black brick buildings surrounding us in the dark seemed menacing in the night. I could vaguely make out the outline of the castle towering above us. The Half Moon Battery protruded from the side of the fortress like a wart growing on a witch’s nose.

I turned my head back to the men who were still holding the tenant up by the arms. Bill was still feeling the effects of his drink. He and Burke zigzagged through the streets, ignoring the fact that the tenant’s feet dragged on the cobblestoned road in a tangled mess.

I heard someone coming towards us and whispered at the men to hide.

‘There’s a doorway over here.’ said Helen.

‘Grab his feet,’ said Burke.

We quickly obeyed trotting towards the side of the street. We shoved the body up straight in a doorway hoping it looked like he was relieving himself.

A young man emerged out of the corner of the next street. I could tell he was a student from the many books he carried in his arms and the scruffy yet pompous look he had on his face. Burke noticed this too and ran out towards him. I tried to yell at him to come back before the student noticed him but it was too late.

‘Excuse me, can you tell me where to find Professor Monro’s office?’

The student gave him directions while the rest of us tried to keep the body up. Bill was not proving very helpful and complained that he needed to relieve himself. Helen held the man from one side while I crouched in front of him trying to push him up with my back. I felt my dark red hat go askew on my head.

The student turned around and looked straight at us. We looked back. I froze mid-shove. I was so stunned that I stood up. I felt the body slip past me and hit the road with a crack. I believe we had broken several of the body’s bones at this point. Helen gave a sharp intake of breath. A tense smile spread across my face as I looked from Burke to the student and back.

‘I don’t think you want Professor Monro,’ he said eying the cadaver now sprawled in heap on the ground. ‘Try Professor Robert Knox in Surgeon’s Square.’

‘Would you mind… ?’ Burke pointed to the body on the ground.

The student looked at Burke, puzzled. Then his eyebrows slowly arched up in comprehension.

‘What? No!’ he said, offended, and stalked off.

‘Worth a try,’ Burke shrugged, looking at me, but I only shook my head at him.

Finally we arrived in Surgeon’s Square and found the Professor’s assistant. He was eager to buy the body from us and gave us a very generous price. Although we were all sweaty, tired (and in the case of Bill, ‘in desperate need of another pint’) we were quite happy with the money.

We made our way back through the streets of Edinburgh and saw a young man dressed in black lighting the streetlights. We walked up the Royal Mile back towards Tanner’s Close. I watched a cat move along the side of a building brushing its tail on the bricks as it went. Burke brought me back down the earth when he turned towards me saying, ‘any other sick tenants?’

Bill and Helen laughed but I stopped walking and looked at him full on. He smiled at me while I worked through the possibilities in my mind.