Good girls

Remnants of dark lipstick clinged to her lips, colored in the same color as the veins of her blood shot eyes. She squinted on the screen. Typing steadily on the keyboard in a vacant office, the only sound was her persistent working and occasional sighs. That is, until the automatic light went off, and she let out a harsh grunt before she stamped over to the switch and hammered the light back on. Then she sustained the writing, unphased. A report had to be done by next week, and she refused to stop working now. Just because it was New Years Eve. Not a chance she would stop now. She had held a talk two weeks earlier, and there she had promised that the report would be ready by the turn of the year. The urgency was real. The expectations were unceasing. Her reputation, her job, her life, was at stake. She wrote. How many that would read the report, let alone care about whether it was published at the turn of the year, she did think about.

The vacancy of sound in the office was for a moment interrupted by the distant humming of an airplane. From the window and up to the atmosphere, a red and yellow airplane flew through the night sky. In the pilot seat sat a woman with a helmet and a microphone stretched to the brim of her cracked lips.

            “We expect to land in about three hours and forty-five minutes. There may be some turbulence in about five minutes as we breach the cloud layer – nothing to worry about at all. I wish you a pleasant ride and a happy new year,” she said.  Her voice carried on into the cabin and intertwined with passengers who read books, solved crossword puzzles, stared at movies on the screen in front of them and slept with their mouths open. It was a light, pleasant, non-judging and professional voice. She knew it, because she had practiced it. Hours listening to her own voice to make it perfect. Perfect work for those stuck on an airplane on New Year’s Eve. But nobody cared. And she didn’t consider the fact that she, too, was stuck on an airplane on New Year’s Eve.

The pilot lady, for a brief moment, caught sight of a hospital below her. Inside the white brick walls were a woman who had said yes to work on New Year’s Eve because she was convinced the patients needed her. And she was not all wrong. She jogged from room to room, wiping up puke, calming down patients with anxiety attacks, emptying buckets, slicing bread, administering colorful pills in glasses. She talked with the ones who were insecure and afraid, she held their hands when the too early fireworks exploded, she stroked young girls over their heads and changed pants on old men. We are all slowly marching towards decay, she thought as she cleaned half-eaten lasagna from adorned plates. No other thought was allowed to interfere with her work, because she quickly had to move on to the next patient. As she passed a window, she peeked down at a shadow by the road, sweeping her broom over the asphalt.

The woman sweeping the streets on New Year’s Eve had moved here from Afghanistan. Her hair was covered in a shawl. Deep unrested rings rested under her eyes. Although she knew she had better be at home to look after the kids, she also knew that she had to make money – the debt was too big and the expenses too dire to not earn money. Guilt consumed her as she swept the street that now had a topping of shimmering, elastic paper straps and ribbons in sparkling yellow and blue, wrapped in empty beer cans. A guilt-ridden thought brushed her mind: Who would appreciate her efforts? No room for such complaint. “God”, she thought, and pushed the thought away.

As she picked up an empty beer can by the handle and squeezed it into the way too full garbage bag, she noticed a car driving by. It was a taxi. Inside the taxi sat a woman with her hands clasped on the steering wheel, surveying the half-empty city. Soon the clock would pass twelve and the telephones would activate. One address after another. Starting the car uphill in puddles, traffic lights that were somehow always red, people arguing in the back seat, throwing up on their hands, bad singing, starting an endless wave of talk, flirting. She furrowed her brows and bit her teeth hard together. Her knuckles were white against the black leather of the steering wheel. After a night out as a taxi driver, her head always ached from biting her teeth so hard. The first phone number lit up on the screen in her car, and she pushed the green telephone button.

            “We need a lift,” a dark voice in the other end stipulated.

            “Where to?” the woman answered softly through gritted teeth. Soon the clock would strike, and it made no difference. What was one day to another? One year to another?

As she stopped by a traffic light with the rhythm of the man’s voice in her ear, another car slipped in beside her. It was a police car. Momentarily, before the light turned green, the taxi-drivers’ gaze met the gaze of the woman in the police car. She looked exhausted. Her hair was messy, her eyes slightly swollen, her lips in a pout. The policewoman knew there would be a lot to do tonight. She had already been to three different places to address noise, attacks, threats – one person had so far been taken into custody. And this was just the beginning. People didn’t listen to reason, especially not on New Years’ Eve. The world was full of people who didn’t know how to take care of either themselves or others, who thought they deserved more than others but didn’t lift a finger to get it. Talking reason with them only made them angry. It was indeed exhausting, she thought as the light went green and she drove on, but if she didn’t do it, she was convinced the world would go under.

Like industrious ants, the ladies marched on all around the city while the clock ticked twelve and the fireworks shot up, exploding in the semi-clouded night sky into spectacular flowers. Or bombs. None of the ladies noticed. The report had one more perfect sentence, the airplane breached the turbulent clouds seamlessly, a crying girl ceased her nervousness for a moment as she got a head massage, for about thirty meters the streets were trash-free, a man and his three drunk buddies entered a taxi car, and the police sirens suddenly flipped on. Another minute, another hour, another year. White knuckles and cracked lips, tense shoulders, headaches and swollen eyes. Between making food, cleaning, giving birth and raising children, exercising bodies, managing expectations to happiness, cupcakes and Instagram, curtains, jogging, fixing ties and tires, boiling rice, hanging up clothes – they skillfully worked. Under the umbrella of equality, thousands of resourceful women marched. They stood in front of whiteboards, pointing out the strategy for the future, producing and reproducing in perpetual harmony.

At best, you admire them, and worst, you feel threatened by them. Those amazing women who transgressed the weekday like soldiers. Standing tall and broad shouldered against the perfection requirement. Even as the fireworks died down, these women worked on. The darkness once again settled on the city, inviting a cold breeze in the remnants of smoky fireworks. Suddenly, for a second, the women could feel their lips quivering. They all lifted their heads to that dim new year, dreadfully aware of one hopeless fact.

No matter how hard they worked, no matter how much they achieved, no matter how far they got – they would never truly deserve love.

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.”

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