The awakening

Lu’s grandmother was a strange kind of woman. She always wore a silk scarf firmly tied around her head. She lived in an old wooden cabin far into the woods. She usually stayed up until late in the night only to sit by the kitchen table in utter quiet. She stowed weird steel objects like old rusty tubes, crooked rings and jagged spirals away in a drawer. When Lu once asked her why she had collected this heap of funny things, her grandmother replied:

“Because, love, for every wickedness that happens to you, you have to grow steel. Collect them and remember them and stow them away. Use them for protection. Then,” she said and patted the silk scarf on her head with two fingers, “grow silk for every kindness that happens to you. Expose it and wear it every day.”

Most of these utterances, Lu did not understand. Sometimes, perhaps while she was boiling potatoes or sitting on the porch pretending to read the paper, her grandmother would suddenly say things like, “Lu, trust me, the happiest things in life are based on accumulation” or “one of the main sources of happiness come from active and routine appreciation”. Lu would nod in a grave kind of manner and say “yes, I absolutely agree”, but what she really agreed to was the inherent belief that whatever her grandmother said must have some inherent substance to it. She trusted her grandmother to say smart things, and she didn’t think she had to understand them.

This belief would be the beginning of a hard learned lesson for Lu. When she was twelve, she spent one of her many summers at her grandmother’s cabin. Since she slept in the attic, there was only a single, narrow window to gaze out of. Every night, before going to bed, Lu would look out of this window and say goodnight to the forest. Once, as she peeked out of the window whispering good night to the birds and the trees and the insects and all the animals, she spotted a creature in the distance.

At first, she didn’t believe it to be real. She had never seen anything like it. The creature shone as if somebody had ignited it with star dust. Large and elegant, it moved past the trees in an astonishing calm. Its horns were like curly, frozen brooks stretching up towards the sky, its legs were long and slender, and its eyes were golden blue. It lit up the forest as if the moon itself was passing by the trees. Lu gazed at the animal in awe. For a moment, it felt as if the animal sensed her presence and met her gaze, and Lu was immediately flooded with a feeling of joy and tranquility rushing through her body. The world stood still for a moment and Lu could feel the brushes of her own soul against her intellect. Then, the animal disappeared among the trees, and the feeling was gone.

Lu could hardly sleep that night. She twitched and turned as she thought about that magnificent animal, and the feeling it had given her. The next morning the rushed down to breakfast only to break into an unstoppable rant about the animal. She told her grandmother that it had been the most wonderful thing she had ever seen, its presence was enough to ignite her with an eternal will to live and sense and experience.

Her grandmother furrowed her brows ever more and more. “It’s the swan all over again,” she murmured. “What?” Lu said, beaming. “Look, don’t be fooled by the spark in things that come and go. They are intriguing because they are elusive. Learn to enjoy them in the now and let them go for the future. Never expect them to remain.” “I quite agree,” Lu said as she took a large bite of her slice of bread, eyes faint with the memory of the shining creature.

Lu’s rant did not stop at breakfast. She kept spilling questions throughout the day, asking whether her grandmother had ever seen the animal, if she had ever read of it somewhere, was it likely to come if they set out food, what kind of food, where did it get its shine, was it maybe extraterrestrial?

One week passed in this kind of manic fashion. Lu could not let go of the feeling that the creature had given her, and every aspect of life that had previously given her joy, were now spoiled with a dull craving for more. When her grandmother offered her chocolate, it was only a possible bait for the shining animal. Walks in the forest were only an excuse to possibly see the animal again. When asked to go to bed, Lu would sit up for hours staring out of the window, waking up with blood strained eyes, a disappointed frown and a lacking appetite for breakfast the next day.

Lu’s grandmother knew something that most of us know. She knew that if you see somebody struggle, and you cannot talk them out of it, it is because they have to experience a lesson for themselves. And being the odd kind of woman she was, she did not hesitate when she, one late Friday, asked Lu to head into the forest to fetch some berries, only to lock the door for the night. Standing outside the door with a basket filled with berries, Lu was shocked to find the door locked. She pulled and tugged and threw herself against it, but to no avail. The door was locked, and her grandmother was nowhere to be seen. Inside the cabin was dark.

It was a summer’s night, and the temperature did not go very low. Lu had brought a warm jacket after insistence from her grandmother, and she had a basket of berries. Otherwise, she was alone. The wind howled through the forest as dusk transformed into night.

Lu started the night sitting down by the cabin wall. She munched berries just to soothe herself. “Hello?!” she yelled, but she knew that it was useless. The cabin was as quiet as a graveyard. Lu stared into the forest, imagining that the shining animal would appear again in all its glory. She clearly remembered that time, in the window, when it had looked at her with those golden blue eyes, and all her troubles had disappeared in an instant.

At the ground beside her, a larva was crawling about. Lu picked the larva up and sighed. “No shining creature, but at least you are here,” she said and gave the larva one of the leaves in the berry basket. It chewed away eagerly, and Lu felt happy to share her meal with someone.

Having eaten all the berries, Lu decided to head into the forest. She left the basket by the cabin and wandered into the dimly lit wood. As she followed a path she had used to walk in daytime, she could hear the tooting of an owl. The leaves of the trees shivered playfully in the mild wind. Lu kept a keen eye out, imagining that the shining animal would appear behind a tree anytime soon. She thought that she deserved to see it now more than ever. Now, when she was all alone.

Walking further into the forest, a few bats darted by her in an intense match. They sent out supersonic waves to find their prey, and Lu glanced at them, feeling the corners of her mouth curl at how different creatures sense the world. A few inches away, she spotted a couple of yellow eyes, soon discovering that it was a fox. It watched her, as if it was looking over her. Lu stopped for a moment. Although it was dark and the forest was large, nothing was scary or lonely.

Then, suddenly, Lu spotted the contours of moonshine in the distance. Among the trees in a faint glow, she could see the same light that the animal had expelled. She immediately felt her heart racing as she dashed towards the light. Sprinting through the forest, she leaped over roots and sheltered herself from branches with her elbow, only to stop abruptly as she discovered the source of the light.

The pond. It was full moon tonight, and its intense light was reflected in a sparkling manner from the pond that was located in the middle of the forest.

Lu fell to her knees. She stared at the light streaming from the pond reflection, then slowly, her gaze searched the corners of the pond. A part of her believed that the animal had to show up now. There was no other option. But her gaze trailed the bank in vain, and she laid her head down on a heap of moss conveniently growing right by her. There would be no animal. No tranquility. No saving.

Right before she fell asleep, she could her the owl tooting soothingly again, and she knew it was not far away. Then, she felt a furry creature smooch in beside her, warming her body.

When Lu woke up, a few birds where chirping away in the tree tops. Sunrise cast a warm, lovely hide on the pond, and Lu, for once, felt rested. She had not spent the night in eager wait for the animal. On the ground beside her lay the mark of something that might well have been a fox. Lu inhaled through her nose and felt herself cleansed by the damp morning air.

She returned to her grandmothers’ cabin with small twigs in her hair and a rumbly stomach. The door to the cabin was wide open, and Lu sensed the scent of eggs and baked bread. She sat down on the bench, and her grandmother placed fresh bread on the table. “I am glad to see you back,” her grandmother said, and her voice was filled with so much love that Lu did not doubt it one second. She remained quiet for a moment before she said in a preachy manner: “You know. The most beautiful things are so small that you hardly even notice them. But they are the ones that keep you going in the end, not the all too rare wonders.”

Amanda’s sin

Amanda considered donating the silver ring to the church. She thought it might be used to upgrade the church bell, perhaps paint the altar anew, or purchase pillows for the front chairs, where the old women used to sit during mass. There were a million uses for the ring, she thought, but as she stood in front of the donation box, peering down at the black void-like slit where people dropped coins, she felt nauseous. The ring, loose around her thumb, was tainted with sin, and she was afraid that the sin might contaminate the church and unleash God’s wrath upon her.

Her mother had spent three months’ salary on the ring.

“It is worth every penny,” she said as she showed it to Amanda. “It is a demonstration of my strong and never-ending love for him. I know he will understand once I show it to him.”

Amanda remembered how her mother had sat at the kitchen table, eagerly wrapping the ring up in a pink napkin with yellow dots. The cheapest napkins at the store. The light from the kitchen lamp had been cold white, intensifying the deep rings under her mothers’ eyes. That night, Amanda had dreamt that she sat in a car, driving down a twitchy road while the rain was pouring down. Her mother had sat in the back seat, eyes glazed and mouth half-open,as if she was in some sort of coma. The rain splashed against the window, and Amanda could hardly see where she was driving, but she kept speeding, because she felt an intense urgency. It felt as if the world was falling apart, and she was in charge of escaping the apocalypse itself.

That dream was the final manifestation of a looming omen that she had felt for a long time – ever since her mother started talking about the new inmate at the prison where she worked. It had been a few months after her fathers’ death. Amanda’s mother was practically non-present in those months – she just lay on the bed, cried and slept. Amanda had cooked and cleaned the house. She had taken out the dirty paper rolls, she had made sure that there was always tea and wine in the kitchen counters, she had collected and washed her mothers’ underwear that lay spread on the bed. Then came a day when her mother’s boss wouldn’t let her stay at home anymore, threatening to fire her if she abstained from work any longer. Even with Amanda working at a café during daytime and cleaning offices during the evening, they both knew that her salary wouldn’t make ends meet. Her mother dragged herself back to work, and that’s where she found John.

She talked about nothing but the thick-muscled, fallen angel for weeks after. She would sit at the kitchen table with Amanda and take every opportunity to say things like; “that’s exactly like something John said,” or “that reminds me of one of John’s tattoos”. That’s when Amanda started feeling as if something bad was about to happen.

Amanda had attended her mothers’ funeral four days after she had been wrapping the ring into pink napkins wtih yellow dots. She was buried alongside her father in the holy ground she believed so firmly in. Amanda had questioned the Lord whether the feeling of coming disaster was a sign from him – whether she had been supposed to do something. The Lord had answered by letting a nut fall onto her forehead when she returned from the graveyard, and Amanda thought that was God’s subtle way of punishing her. She picked up the nut, brought it home and thought that God had given her an opportunity to make amends. She would swallow the nut whole, she thought, and if she choked on it, God would have taken her life as a punishment for not having done more to help her mother. If she didn’t choke, God would have forgiven her. But as she put the nut in her mouth, tasting the bitter, mud-like soil and feeling the rough nutshell against the back of her mouth, she lost courage and spit it out. Once again, she had disappointed those she cared about.

That night, Amanda thought a lot about whether she was more or less helpless than her mother.

“My mother,” she thought, “was the kind of woman who only possessed two properties: good looks and a kind heart. They are properties often sought after in women, but they are hopelessly dependent. Good looks and a kind heart need other people to recognize them. Some qualities are independent, like being hard-working, strong, lively, creative and intelligent. They exist even though nobody are there to acknowledge them. My mother possessed none of these independent qualities. She had only good looks and a kind heart, and thus, to feel as if she had any sort of value, she had to have somebody in her life, and when she had that person in her life, she desperately tried to keep him there. And I am no better. I would kill myself because God told me to, if only I had the courage.”

The white-painted altar was cracked from years of usage without renovation. Amanda carefully walked up to it and felt the peeled paint. It came off in chunks as she stroke her finger over it.

Her mother used to enjoy church.

“It’s the only place I feel truly calm,” she had once said.

Amanda would smile and pretend like she felt calm too, but in reality, she felt as if she was on trial every time she entered the church. God said that you shall respect your mother and father. But even though she had been tending to them as best she could, she had failed. Would she be showered in nuts if she gave him the ring? What if she didn’t? The ring was supposed to convert the prison inmate, instead it stole her mother’s life. Killed by a man who wouldn’t accept God.

The ring felt loose around Amanda’s thumb. She imagined choking on the ring, imagined swallowing it and having it stuck in her throat, gasping for air. And then, her thoughts drifted to John, his cracked lips, the vulgar tattoos on his arms, how he would look with a ring pushed down his throat, face turning purple, eyes strained in red. She rejoiced in this thought for a brief second before she became aware of herself. Shocked by her own imagination, she whimpered and unintentionally pulled a large chunk of painting off the altar. She felt God’s blazing gaze on her soul, as a looking glass about to set fire to her and make her go up in flames. With the ring loose around her thumb, she quickly hurried out of the church, once again lost to irresponsibility and cowardice.

Benjamin’s journey

Benjamin saw himself as fundamentally different from everyone else. That was his curse, he believed. While he saw other people talk, laugh and engage in social occasions with the most profound ease, he felt like he was playing a role when he talked with people. He felt as if he had, at some point, memorized a certain script, and in conversations, his job was to utter lines from this script to the best of his memory. He was rather bad at it as well. Oftentimes, it took him several seconds to come up with anything interesting to say, and if he by chance had said anything loud enough for anybody to hear, and they replied, he would often experience a brain freeze and just stand there, wordless, dumbfounded. Continue reading

Equation 42

When my friend, Harry, told me that he wanted to apply for the position “Head of Equation 42”, I first thought he might be crazy. He was a postdoc with a bright future. Clever, imaginative, hard-working, and courageous. His PhD thesis on the behavior of atoms in small-confined areas of heat radiation had already been cited more than one hundred times. It might have been cynical of me, but I firmly believed somebody with such academic talent ought not to risk it as Head of Equation 42. Therefore, I sat him down on a late Thursday and asked him what he had heard about the previous occupants of the position. He answered rather elusively, which was not surprising, given that nobody who held the position had ever been allowed to talk about what the job actually involved. However, in my years at the faculty, I had seen how the equation had depraved and degenerated those who had held the position, and so, I took the opportunity to flesh out the history of the Head of Equation 42 for Harry. Continue reading

Letter intended for my future nephew or niece

They used to call it fanatic nonsense and propaganda. They used to shake their heads in resignation and turn their backs on the thousands of warnings; on the earth that crumbled underneath our feet, on the birds that flew from their nests and never returned, and on our own greed that corrupted us. We were children of the stars, and we bathed ourselves in the glory of intelligence and ambition that nature had offered us. Nobody ever stopped to ask why we were given this prestigious position in the universe; as the dominant race on our own fertile planet. Continue reading

Hope

One narrow ray of moonlight penetrated the clouds and shone in through the window grids. The ray hit a pit of water on the stone floor, and the pit gratefully absorbed the light, glimmering contently before it erupted a geyser-like steam of damp. The steaming dew made the air chilly, and he could feel his skin knotting from goose pumps, his tattoos barely hiding the physical reaction. With his skinned head and massive upper body, getting goose pumps was such a ridiculous sign of weakness that he could not allow it. Immediately, he slumped down to the floor and started to do his regular 100 push-up interval to keep the heat running through his body. Continue reading

Joanna and the swan

The windows in Billy’s house had been dark and the curtains had been shut for several days now. When Joanna looked at the house, she wondered if somebody might have walked inside and vacuum cleaned all the light up. Maybe light was a bit like dirt, she thought. Your house stacked up on light, the light got old and dirty, and then you had to clean it up so that your house could gather new, fresh light. She had wondered what it must be like for Billy to live in that dark house, waiting for new light to gather in. Probably very scary, she thought. Had it been her living in that dark house, she would have gone outside as often as possible. But Billy never went outside anymore, and as weird as that was, Joanna kept staring at the dark, neighboring house whenever she walked by it. A week passed before Joanna’s parents finally told her that Billy’s house was dark and Billy didn’t walk outside anymore because Billy no longer lived in that house. His family had moved to a different country. Continue reading

The librarian

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close day;

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

I often hear myself mumbling Dylan Thomas’ poem from 1951 when I wander down the graveyard late at night. At that time, most visitors have gone home, and I am left with a strange feeling of emptiness. The living bring the feeling of emptiness with them. To them, life is still a fact, and they treat the graveyard as a final resting place. Never could they have envisioned the vitality and strength that characterized the last breaths of those who now rest here at the graveyard. Every grave owner fought for their lives, and none of them went gently into the night. Every gravestone bears witness to that last battle, life against death. Continue reading