The Wild Woman in the Woods

This modern fairy tale is pure fiction, but is inspired by old Hopi Legends.

Have you ever looked into a pool of water and asked yourself, or no one in particular, who is that being reflected back at me, and how has that anything to do with what I feel inside?

I the beginning there was only the wild ones running about in an endless moss-toothed forest. They didn’t cast shadows, neither from light nor from darkness. One of them was called Tawa, she was silence. She beheld the world and opened her mouth to howl against the white moon. A silvery trail stretched out from her mouth to the moon and it drew all the water into her womb, and so a hurricane was conceived within her. After that, she howled every time the moon was full, to release all the wildness and all the winds growing inside her, and she was silence no more.

In 1993, The Forest of Dean endured a summer so miserable that all the tourists changed their plans and went back home to their townhouses to swim in umbrellaed swimming pools perfectly heated. They could enjoy the rain then, tapping melodiously on the thin tin sheets, without worrying about becoming the wrong kind of wet. The London pavements turned black with cold rain, and the Chelsea shops went into hibernation even with the July sales going on. Anyone who could afford to leave the city did. The Paris train was overbooked and chartered planes did not even have to advertise their vacant seats to Malaga and Crete. That was why, when the little streams in the Forest of Dean overbanked and flooded on a cold July morning, nobody even noticed. Except Goya that is.

Goya had moved with her parents to an old abandoned cottage in the forest three years ago. Her father was one of those 70s Cornwall hippie-go-lucky kids who had dreamt of living in a forest and being completely self-sufficient all his life. His motto was, quite literally, flower power – he ran a small natural remedies business. Goya’s mother had run off to India in the 80s when Goya was just a toddler, to join the Free Love Osho Ashram. Goya didn’t really think too much about her. Except for that July morning when she stumbled into a forest pool so vast it could be mistaken for the ocean.

Earlier that morning Goya had overheard the weatherman in the radio promising sun and blue sky, but the heavy grey-black clouds had once again refused to budge littering the heavily pregnant trees with more cold water, to which they sighed with exhaustion and tried to shake it off in the wind. Goya leaned against one of those moist dark brown trees looking down into the rippling pool only to spot fragments of her drenched face set against a backdrop of opaque sky. She had an eerie sense of it being someone else looking back at her, a changeling waiting to take her place. Then a shiver of pine needles dropped from a low branch and the image vanished into oblivion. “Who are you?” said a deep voice and Goya startled and looked up to locate where the voice had come from. She spotted an old woman standing half hidden behind the trunk of a huge oak. The woman was dressed in tall green rubber boots and an oil skin coat covering her entire body. Her hair was unruly and wet, hanging down to the woman’s waist in thin spidery braids. Goya was embarrassed to catch herself thinking of a perfect storybook hag. “I am Goya,” she answered. The old woman glared at her disapprovingly and harrumphed. “Are you lost?” She asked in her old crow’s voice. “No, I live just over there,” said Goya and pointed in the direction of her house. “What about you, do you live here too?” she asked the old woman. She didn’t reply, just continued to glare at Goya with her black bird-like eyes. “What is your name?” Goya tried. “I am Grandmother,” the old woman spat the answer at her, like a piece of food gone bad. “Eh….okay…..nice to meet you Grandmother. Horrible weather, isn’t it?” “Horrible!?” Grandmother looked outraged, her features darkening considerably, then she smirked and said vehemently: “The world needs a good flooding. Washes away the dirt.” She threw her head back and laughed loud and eerily as though she had made the world’s best joke. Goya shivered and looked away from the old woman. “Eh…I better get back,” she said and glanced briefly up at the woman. “Yeah, you better, or else I might turn you into a frog!” Grandmother said it so threateningly that Goya flinched. “Come back tomorrow child, and bring me something to eat, I am starving!” Goya didn’t reply, she turned around and ran, as much as you can run in water reaching up to your knees, and didn’t stop until she was safely back in her cottage and could hear her father humming and pattering around in his herb garden.

The next morning it rained even heavier than the day before and Goya , quite shockingly, found herself feeling sorry for the old woman in the forest. Did she really not have anything to eat? Goya opened the kitchen cabinets and found a pack of chips and a jar of shop-bought cookies. “Don’t we have anything to eat?” she asked her dad who was just putting on the kettle for tea. “Of course we have, sweetie.” “What?” “Well, the garden is full of vegetables, why don’t you make something?” Goya sighed. The only thing she really knew how to make was soup. So she did. She spent the whole morning brewing the vegetable soup, adding her father’s herbs and a little pinch of pepper and salt. She poured the soup on a thermos and tossed it into a Spar plastic bag.

The rain poured into her rubber boots and the umbrella she tried to hide under was rather useless in the relentless wind. The path had washed away entirely and the trees kept swishing and swooshing complainingly, undressed by the cold morning showers. Goya waded through the pool, which reached her thighs, and tried to ignore the icy cold creeping up her legs and freezing her muscles. Sure enough, when she reached the old oak the hag was standing there watching her. Somehow she looked at bit less old and witch-like that morning, and when Goya reached out handing her the thermos her face even broke into a small grin. “So you came,” stated Grandmother and even managed to look a bit pleased. She opened the thermos and sniffed the hot soup. “Did you cook it with love?” she asked and glared at Goya, a bit of yesterday’s suspicion back in her black eyes. “You won’t find my heart in there if that is what you mean,” replied Goya and glared back. Grandmother threw back her head and cackled at that. “I think I am starting to like you, girl!” she roared and slapped Goya so hard on the back that she almost fell over. Goya watched her slurp up the scorching soup. She didn’t offer any compliments and when she was finished with the soup she stuffed the empty thermos into her inner breast pocket. She gave a sideway glance at Goya daring her to object. But Goya didn’t say anything. She was NOT going to fight an old lady for a pink school thermos. “Tomorrow,” said Grandmother and smirked, “you bring something to entertain me. An old woman gets lonely.” “Like what?” asked Goya. “Like a movie or something?” “A movie!?” Grandmother snapped. “Is that all you young people can think of? I don’t want any fake play-acting, I want something real!” Goya had no idea what she meant by that, but she shrugged and decided to worry about it later. “I guess, I’ll see you tomorrow then,” she said unenthusiastically and turned away from the mad-looking woman. “Something real! You hear me!?” roared Grandmother after her. Goya had really no idea what the hag had meant by “something real”. So she decided to ask her father what he thought of as real entertainment. “That’s easy, sweetie, singing, dancing, art, poetry, something from the heart.” He smiled and patted Goya on the head. “Dad,” she asked hesitantly, “do I have any talents?” “Loads!” he replied and smiled, “but my favorite is your voice. You are a great singer.” Goya laughed at that. “Only you would ever think so, dad.” Her father smiled and shrugged and started belting out an old Beatles song. “Yeeesterdaaay, all my troubles seeeemed soooo faaar away!” “Tell me about it,” mumbled Goya and left her father singing in the kitchen.

The next morning Goya had still not thought of anything to do to entertain the old woman, so she decided to follow her father’s advice and sing. Her mother had once told her, when she was tiny, that everyone could sing it was just that some people were better at it than others and could therefor pursue it as a professional career. Well, at least Goya knew that that was out of the question for her. She landed on an old 70s tune her mom used to sing to her when she was a baby.

The sky was, if that was even possible, even darker that morning, and the rain lashed down like mad. “This is starting to feel a lot like Ragnarok,” said her father and pulled his basketball cap further down over his face. At least the temperature had gone up a little so Goya decided to stick with just a shorts and a long rain coat, that way she didn’t have to walk home in soaked jeans. The water on the path now reached up to her waist, and wading through it was much like trying to walk through a lake. “So you are finally here,” said the old woman as soon as Goya reached the clearing in the forest. “So come on, hit me, whaddya got for me?” Goya stared at the hag. “Since when do you speak street?” The croon roared out a thunderous laughter and slapped her knees violently. “I thought you were going to entertain me?” she demanded, but with a slight twinkle in her raven eyes. “Well, uh, I thought…I thought I’d sing…” “Excellent!” exclaimed Grandmother. “So, let’s hear it then, whaddya waiting for, hon?” Goya glared at her suspiciously, then cleared her throat. This was a lot harder than what she thought it would be. Why was she so nervous singing in front of a mad, probably homeless, old woman? “If you are going to Saaaan Fraaansisco, be suuuure to weaaaar some flowers in your hair.” Goya started weakly, but picked up the pace and raised her voice as she got further into the song. And then, to her utter amazement, the old woman started dancing! Yes, dancing! She lifted her skirts and tapped her feet heavily on the ground while swaying her upper body back and forth quite wildly so much so that her….ummm…..girls (or were they perhaps called ladies in the elderly?) jumped merrily back and forth. “You’ve brought life to me old bones!” she roared and clapped her hands to the made-up beat. “Come on, girl! Dance!” Goya hesitated. Dancing was definitely NOT her strong suit, but what the heck, she was in the wild woods in the rain with a crazy homeless person, why the ever not? So she relaxed her shoulders and jumped up and down while clapping her hands and swaying her hips. It probably looked ridiculous, but Goya didn’t care. When the song finished they were both panting and laughing. “Well that was fun,” said Grandmother and smiled mischievously. “But now I have to get back home in the rain and I have nothing dry and warm to wear, so tomorrow I want you to bring me some new clothes.” “What?” exclaimed Goya. “You want me to go shopping for you?” “Shopping!? Whaddya mean shopping? Don’t they teach girls to sow nowadays? To knit and weave and spin?” “Eeeh….I don’t know what century you are from, no offense, but this is 1993 and we get our clothes from shops. And there are no shops around here so I am sorry but no can do.” Grandmother studied her angrily. “I am sure you have some old rags for a poor soul in your overstuffed wardrobe. Something to mend, to break, to put together?” It wasn’t really a question, it was more like an order. Goya sighed. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do.” “See you tomorrow then,” said the old woman. Goya gave a half wave, turned around and waded back home. “If this keeps up I’ll have to swim out here tomorrow, “she muttered to herself. “So much for your dry clothes.”

As soon as Goya had walked through her front door she called her father. He was out in the garden as usual in his red wellingtons and yellow rain coat. “Daaaad, do you we have any old clothes at home? Like something mum left behind or something?” Goya’s father froze with an iron spade mid-air. “What do you want with that?” he asked his daughter. “I just thought perhaps I’d donate it to some homeless people.” That was precisely the kind of answer that would earn Goya’s father’s approval, and he came swooshing inside in his drenched muddy wellies. “I think there might perhaps be some in the back of my wardrobe. I think they might be your mum’s or my mum’s or granny’s, I am not sure, but you can take what you find. “He smiled warmly at Goya. “It is a really lovely thing to do, sweetie.” He ruffled her hair and gave her a quick hug. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” mumbled Goya and leaned awkwardly away from the hug. The wardrobe did indeed contain old female clothes of varying quality and questionable style. “Looks like I come from a long line of hippies,” sighed Goya and dragged out another neon pink and mustard yellow floral dress. It was hard to find anything that could be categorized as “warm” except for a poncho with lots of holes in it and a faux fur coat smelling of moth balls and old dried-up sweat. “Looks like I have to brush up on my sowing skills after all,” sighed Goya and set to work. It was midnight when she was finished and the result was a rather questionable poncho cum cape cum shawl thing made up of different patches of cloth, some in bright florals, other in knitted Indian cardigans and even a few in faded brown stinky fur. All perfectly asymmetrical and as far from vogue-worthy as possible. “It will have to do,” yawned Goya and went to sleep.

The next morning the rain had of course flooded the entire forest, even the garden was dangerously close to the muddy lake that used to be the Forest of Dean. Goya put the cape she had made in a plastic bag and tied it to her head. Fortunately the weather was a bit warmer so Goya decided to wear her bathing suit. She put a big towel in the plastic bag and waded into the forest. This time the water reached up to her neck. “So you came?” said the old woman, perched happily on a fat branch of a tree. How she had managed to get up there Goya had no idea. “Yup, and I brought you this,” said Goya and handed her the cape. The old woman’s face broke into a toothy grin and she wrapped the ugly cloth around her body. “This brings warmth to me old bones,” she said and touched the fur patch tenderly. “Well, it took me all night to make it,” said Goya and shivered in her bathing suit. There was no point trying to dry herself with the towel, even here the water reached above her waist. “Look, Grandmother, I better head home right away or I’ll catch pneumonia or something.” Grandmother cackled mischievously and beat her fist against the trunk of the tree she was sitting in, making the droopy leaves empty their stack of rain water right unto Goya. “Thanks a lot,” muttered Goya and gave the old woman a mean look. But Grandmother just cackled louder and wrapped the cape tighter around herself. “Well, I’m off,” said Goya and turned around to walk away. Suddenly she stopped, waited a little and turned back towards the old woman. “Aren’t you going to ask me to bring you something?” The old woman smiled and nodded her head. “Yup, just bring…yourself.” Goya shrugged, it was a funny answer, but it meant that she didn’t have to spend the rest of the day making something out of nothing, so she didn’t question it.

When she came back home, she felt weirdly empty and rather restless, so she spent the afternoon helping her father in the garden, to his very obvious delight. The next morning, Goya woke up and startled. The sun was shining brightly through her window! She ran out in the garden where she found her father humming and weeding in his herb bed. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun teased and caressed the little herbs, the trees and the grass. The water had subsided drastically and there was hardly any sign of yesterday’s flood. Goya hurried and got dressed and headed in to the forest to meet the old woman even before she had had any breakfast. The forest path was back into visibility and the only leftovers from the flood were tiny silvery puddles. When Goya reached the little clearing the old woman was not there. She thought perhaps she was too early so she climbed a tall oak and waited. She waited and waited, but there was no sign of the old woman. Eventually Goya had to come down from the tree and except that Grandmother was not coming. Goya had no idea where to look for her, she didn’t even know if she lived in a house. Searching for her would be pointless so Goya decided to head back home and prepare lunch for her father. As she was walking slowly along the path, enjoying the warmth of the sun, her eyes wandered to a little puddle just next to the path and suddenly she startled. Hadn’t that been…..in the puddle…? Goya looked again, but this time all she found in the puddle was her own well-known reflection. She shrugged, it was probably just her mind playing tricks with her, so she lifted her eyes to the sun and walked back home.

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In every Life there is a Sea

This story is pure fiction, but it is inspired by an old Norse myth.

In every life there is a sea, if not without, then within, roaring serenely and pulling quiet into chaos, until there is a pause, and you can hear sea urchins singing like porcupines, and then when you are far out in the darkness, you will come to believe that the truth is in the sting, yet the poison…the poison is in the almost invisible threads straying after slow-moving ships with too beautiful eyes…

In the distance, the little islands outside Brandywine Bay are shining emeralds strung on an invisible garland against a soft blue horizon, irresistibly glamorous in its overlapping of white sails and wedding-caked sea fairies, whooping deliciously against red – and black painted prows, adorning exotic names like “Estrella Del Mare” and “Blackbeard’s Pipedream”. Little blue-black dolphins skip across the surface, their metallic fins gleam glossily as they pierce through the paler surface, shining like octavian stars bobbing in the summer sun. The air is thick and hot, laced with salt and flowers and fermenting mangoes, stealing across from the islands and bridging the gap between coasts.

“You are going too fast,” says Cohen, “slow down, you are scaring the fish away!” I am tempted to go even faster, I can’t stand the sight of fish wriggling and kicking and fighting for their lives with a huge hook in their mouth. But I slow down, just to please Cohen. I do a lot just to please Cohen. He is two years older than me and gorgeous, too gorgeous to be stuck in a small dinghy with me on a hot summer day. But our mothers have been friends forever, so he is just that, stuck with me, the girl with muddy gypsy eyes and the lanky body of an overgrown ten year old boy. “There, I’ve got one!” A tiny fish gleam silver and green just below the surface, Cohen reels it in a bit too fast and it slips the hook and skits away into the deep. “Damn fish!” complains Cohen, but I release a deep content sigh. “What’s with you?” Cohen glares at me, “you’re acting weird. Don’t you want me to catch any fish?” I lower my eyes and bite my lip nervously, “sure,” I stammer, but I can’t quite look into those marvelous blue eyes of his. I just sit there, staring at my brown sandals, acting like a typical girl. Cohen snorts and throws the hook back into the sea. “Lucky for you this bloody pond is full of fish,” he says and laughs, thinking perhaps I didn’t get the double meaning, but I did. I silently curse myself for being in love with such a jerk. That is the truth though, me, awkward nerdy Lucy is in love with the Norse god that is Cohen Leery. I have a whole drawer full of poetry to prove it. Oh, yeah, you heard me right: poetry. Another proof of my hopeless nerdiness.

Something is pulling on the line again, and Cohen tightens his grip on the fishing rod and starts reeling in the line. He is sweating in the midday heat, and all I can do is stare. “A little help, please,” he hands the rod over to me, and I obediently hold on to it while he battles the line. It is something big, something heavy. Oh no! Shit. But suddenly the line goes slack and still. “Damn it!” swears Cohen, “that was a big one!” He lights a cigarette and lets go of the line, I jump as the rod almost slips out of my hand when the hook at the end of the line again plunges into the deep blue. Cohen laughs. He studies me behind clouds of smoke as I struggle to get the right grip on the fishing rod. I haven’t held a fishing rod since I was a little girl, but even then I couldn’t look at the death sentenced fish. It was my father who had to pull the victims out of the ocean and hit them on the head with a rock. I always stayed in the background. “Do you want me to show you?” he asks and flares a smug grin. I shake my head and position my hands on the rod. But the line has gone slack again, and I can catch my breath.

Cohen smokes while we both gaze into the liquid blue. The sea is a cool shade of turquoise, the sun has started its descent, and glazed skinny threads ripple across the surface. Rays of light tunnel towards a cluster of corals, barely visible behind the tell-tale scattered shadow of our dinghy, a handful of bright apricot and pink tentacles swirl meditatively in the light, a seductive dance to lure its prey into a beautiful, but deadly trap. Cohen finishes his cigarette in one last long drag and plucks the fishing rod out of my hand. “It seems you are bad luck,” he says and gives me a pat on the back. His hand is warm against my soft skin, and it leaves a burning mark inflaming my entire body. I quickly look down, not wanting him to see the redness voyaging across my face.

We are drifting further from the shore as the wind is shifting and increasing its pace. But Cohen still wants me to take us even further out. “Use the oars,” he demands, “the motor will only scare away the fish.” I dip the oars into the surface and turn the boat out towards the deep. I know I am not supposed to go this far out, there are sharks, tiger sharks and even great whites. The inflatable dinghy seems pathetic as it steadily makes its way to the ocean, away from the bay. The corals disappear from sight, and under us; there is only inky black silence. “Wait,” Cohen reaches for the line, it makes small dips against his hand, “I think I’ve got something.” I lift the oars and let the dinghy bob quietly on the small waves. It really is a fish this time, a tiny white and red one with beady silver eyes. Cohen laughs and holds it up against my face. I cringe. The tiny fish is gaping, the oxygen slowly choking it, and it wriggles its tail desperately, as though it could get back into the sea by pretending it is already there. “Please,” I whisper, “can you at least give it a merciful death?” Cohen looks at me and chuckles, “I didn’t know you were such a softy, Lu.” I shrug and lift my head to look at him. But apparently my discomfort has no effect on him. “Nope, this little guy is perfect bait if I am to catch us a proper dinner.” He throws the hook back into the sea with the tiny fish still on. I can’t take my eyes off it as it plunges, with the hook still in its mouth, as fast as it can into the sea, desperate to get as far away from us as possible. I feel like crying.

Cohen lights another cigarette, but keeps his left hand on the fishing rod. He squints his eyes as he pulls the nicotine into his lungs. I look away. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Cohen drops the cigarette and grabs the rod with both hands; something is pulling the line, something big. I can see his biceps and arm veins bulging as the pliant fishing rod bends so much that it almost curls in on itself. Cohen is struggling, fighting whatever is down there with all his strength. He breaks into a sweat, but the fish only pulls harder. I start to panic. “Cohen, “I beg, “let it go, it’s too big.” “No way in hell!” Cohen’s voice has an edge to it. I can see that his black pupils are dilated, and he has a wild look in his eyes. He laughs and swears as he fights the giant fish. Cohen is strong, stronger than I had imagined, all the muscles in his body are tensing and popping out, and I can’t stop staring at him. But this is a dangerous game. And when it comes to crossing the sea, the sea always wins, all islanders know that. But Cohen is not ready to let this one go. “Cohen, please,” I touch his arm, he is only wearing a t-shirt and I have to put my hand on his hot sweaty naked skin. Cohen shrugs it off. I look into the deep, trying to follow the line as far down as I can, and there, in that black infinite pool I see an even blacker shadow rising up towards us. I scream. But Cohen doesn’t even register my scream. He is fixed on the battle, like a warrior fighting his own destiny. He is starting to scare me.

“Cohen! Cohen!” I scream into his ear, but he doesn’t even flinch. I try to wrestle the rod out of his grip, but it is useless, he doesn’t even stir. I stare back into the water, the shadow is bigger than our boat, it surrounds us on all sides, and that is when I know, it must be a great white, there is nothing else as big as this in these waters. And just as the revelation hits me I can clearly see a fin, and aren’t those white things teeth? “Cohen!” I plead “It’s a shark! It will tear us to bits! Cohen we’re gonna die! Let go! Please!” But Cohen doesn’t hear me. I have no idea where his strength is coming from, the shark must be more than fifteen feet long, how can any human battle something like that? Then suddenly it is over, or I think it is over. The fishing rod stretches out again and for a second it looks like the tension on the line is gone, but I am wrong, so wrong. The dinghy starts moving, so fast that I fall over. Cohen stands at the bow holding on to the rod pulling us further and further to sea.

I can no longer tell where the shadow underneath us starts and where it is ending, it all seems like one big black blur pulling us away from home, from everything that is safe. I start screaming again, but there is no sound coming out of my mouth, I have lost my voice. Cohen is laughing now. “Is that all you’ve got you old bastard!” he shouts into the sea. Behind me, the islands are disappearing, and I realize that if I don’t do anything now we will both be dragged so far away from the shore there will be no turning back, we will die, either by the teeth of this shark or we will drown. I need to cut the line, but how? I don’t have a knife or anything sharp. Oh, yes, but I do! I’ve got my teeth. I hurl myself at Cohen, gnawing the salty, almost invisible line through my teeth. I am desperate, so desperate I almost forget to breathe. Spit and tears trail across my chin, all salty. There is too much salt! Cohen tries to fight me, but even he cannot fight two opponents at the same time; his hands are locked around the fishing rod. Then finally I hear a sharp snap and the boat jolts to a stop, we are free. The black shadow disappears instantly and Cohen blinks as if coming out of a trance. His hands are bleeding. He sits down, panting. I don’t say anything. I can’t, I can’t even look at him. He stares at his bleeding hands then out into the sea. The tide is still pulling us outwards so I quickly start the outboard motor and turn the dinghy back towards land. I speed up as much as I can, forgetting about the dangerous reefs and the underwater rocks. I just stare through my tears at the growing islands, willing the boat to go faster, faster. When we finally reach shore Cohen says nothing, he just sits there. I tether the dinghy to our pier, not bothering about pulling up the outboard, and run, away from Cohen, up to the house, crying harder and harder. Some of the tears fall into my mouth and I am surprised by the absence of salt. I leave Cohen there. I really leave him.

The wind has settled for the night. And quiet seems to slip in with the darkness, only the melancholy sound of tree frogs makes up the soundtrack of the night. Cohen has pulled the dinghy up on the beach and tied it to a swaying palm tree, or maybe it wasn’t Cohen at all. There is a glassy jellyfish stranded on the beach, it is covered in a pattern of red eyes. I want to toss it back into the sea, but it has a train of poisonous threads, all entangled, around its body. “I’m sorry,” I say, even though I know it can’t understand me. The flamboyant tree shakes its head at me. With the silver-streaked onyx sea to my left and the garland of haint blue island houses to my right, I walk through lanes, scattered with magenta bougainvillea, towards home. In the corner of my eye I can see a tall darkly handsome boy standing by one of the many cliffs on the island, staring forlornly towards the blue-black horizon, his bloody hands are open, reaching out, as to a lover lost and drowned at sea.

Where the Wild things are

This story story is pure fiction, but it is inspired by Norse Mythology and True Events.

Aren’t we all born with a longing for all that is wild, and organic and authentic? We are shaped like seeds spinning around in darkness. Without mountains, without soil, the endlessness will last, until one day when we knock on the shell and tear it apart, step outside and ask: Who am I? Who is the land? Who is the sea? And then, when no one listens, we shape ourselves into rocks and sand, leaving only our heads to rest on the broken shell.

When you stand in “The hundred-acre-Forest”, lovingly named after the forest in A.A Milne’s books, you will see nothing but mountains, even though Rooster’s Cove is just nearby, hidden behind a canopy of tall evergreens. The forest is always dark, with small tunnels of sunlight piercing through the tall forms of ash and oak, leaving pale light-shadows on the zigzagging paths. Soft white-pink Hedge-Parsley and bright purple Alpine Catchfly huddle together in clusters along the rocky pathways. You will have to be careful where you walk, for ant mounds are built close to the paths, and the red and black ants use the discarded pine needles, scattered everywhere on the paths, as insulation when they construct their homes. If you are up for a climb, there is steep hike you can follow that will lead you to the Lodge Pond. The Pond is unapproachable, fences of heather and snake grass and rushes hide the swamp-like banks of the pond, so that you will never know when the land ends and the water starts. The pond is populated by Daddy Longlegs whirling around the tall purple Lady’s Gloves and the weeping small shrubs, popularly called Fairy Spools, and Water Striders standing quietly on the pond’s surface waiting for a child to come along and call it Jesus Bugs. If you come at night you will hear the pygmy owls hooting from their woodsy homes, often stolen form inattentive Spotted woodpeckers. If you stay to early dawn you will meet the skittish roe deer probably already shying away from you, long gone when the birds starts twittering. My favorites were always the friendly white wagtail and the curious yellow-breasted great tit. Their song is full of spring and sun, echoing in the thick forest, much like I imagined fairy music to be like. This was the landscape of my childhood, until one day, when it all changed.

In an open clearing in the forest, just before the landscape slide into a bog, there is an Apple tree, an unusually tall apple tree. In the midst of all things wild and free and unattended, there is something so domestic and human-like, something that makes even businessmen in blue suits and politicians in pencil-skirts and thin-framed glasses smile. Because in every childhood there is an apple tree. In mine, that apple tree was wild. I didn’t want to name the tree, because a little bit of the wildness goes away when you name something, but if I had I would have named it Liv, which in our language means life, for my tree bore the juiciest apples I had ever tasted.

The afternoon sun is squinting through the trees, lowering her hot feet into a chuckling stream, she sighs with pleasure, and the sigh plummets through the forest, and when I hear it, it sounds like a whisper. Something the leaves would say, perhaps. The rocks have all dried up and it is easy to walk dry-footed through the forest. The apple tree has sported a cluster of red apples today and I reach for one and bite into it to quench my thirst. A brown bushy-tailed squirrel peeks out from the round glass-less window in the Bird House my father made last year. I know this squirrel well, he is always running from the roots of the tree to the crown, making funny noises and wagging his tail. He moved in to the Bird House earlier this year. I put my hand on the trunk of the apple tree, running it slowly against the smooth bark. It’s only then that I discover it, the mark on the tree. It is an ugly paint-bruise smeared on with neon red paint. I look around, thinking perhaps it is a joke, but many more trees surrounding the clearing have been marked in the same way. What is this? The paint and the gaudy color look unnatural in this beautiful landscape of lilac starflowers, wintergreens, and magenta Willow Herbs. I put the half-eaten apple in my pocket and head home.

“Mom, why are there paint-mark on the trees?” I ask my mother when she returns from her office job. She sighs and looks at me, “They’re building a hospital, sweetie, the paint marks the trees they have to get rid of to make room for the hospital.” I shrink from her gaze and shudder in horror. “What do you mean get rid of? Like chop down? “My mother nods. “But that’s…that’s murder!” My mother shakes her head at me and sighs. “No, Sweetie, people are more important than trees. They’re building a hospital, a place to heal and cure sick people. Surely you must understand that that is more important than trees?” “But why can’t they build it somewhere else? Why here, in our forest?” My mother sits down and sips her cup of tea, I can see how tired she is, but I can’t help it, I just can’t hold back my anger. “There is nowhere else, honey. All the available land has already been turned into roads and houses; your own school was once a marsh! This is the way of life, Ira, people come first, and we need places to live and work and learn.” I know that that is the way we are supposed to think, the rational way of thinking, but the thought of losing the trees, the apple tree, makes me shake all over, as though it was me who had just been given a death sentence. “Can we not talk about this now?” My mother closes her eyes and leans back in her chair. I know how busy she is, how much she needs her rest, so I nod my head obediently and leave her there to have her rest. But I can’t just sit there and not do anything to prevent this from happening, I need to do something. So I call my friend Bean for assistance.

“It’s awful, Ira, but what can we do?” says Bean when I show him the painted trees in the forest. “Well,” I say, “we can start by scrubbing off this bloody paint!” Bean doesn’t look convinced, but he is a good friend, and nods in agreement. “Fine, I’ll get the water and brushes.” Bean disappears back through the trees, and I am left alone, standing hopelessly forlorn under the Apple Tree. I lean in to the tree and put my cheek against the rough bark. “What should I do?” I whisper, and feel the sting of tears in my eyes. There is no reply. Twenty minutes later Bean is back with two buckets of water and two brushes. We split up and start scrubbing the paint. I scrub and scrub until my hands are red and blistered, but to no use, the industrial paint doesn’t even budge. The neon sheen only seems to burn brighter as the ruby light of the setting sun send gem-like showers through the clippings in the canopy. “Oh, it’s hopeless!” I scream desperately. “Can’t those stupid people just eat apples like me? Haven’t they heard of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away? I have been eating apples every day of my life and I have never had to go to a doctor!” I start sobbing and Bean comes over and puts his arm around my shoulder. I turn around and lean into his body, crying wet tears on his blue knitted sweater. We stand like that until I have managed to calm down. Then suddenly the light disappears, and a faint drizzle waters the forest before us. “Come on,” says Bean, “let’s go home.” The last thing I hear before the sky opens up, and thunder rolls angrily across the black clouds, is the bushy squirrel hurrying into the bird house.

That night Google informs me that the clearing of the forest will start in two days. Two days. I doubt I will get any sleep. But I do. When my mother wakes me up for school the next morning, I feel sick, my whole body is aching and my forehead is hot. My mother sighs and tells me to stay home. I have never been home sick from school before. The house feels empty and too big, and I start thinking about all the trees that had to die for this house, my home, to be built. It makes me sadder than I already am so I decide to go out despite my fever. The forest is always beautiful after the rain. Cobwebs look like diamond jewelry with the droplets of rain garlanding the almost invisible spider’s nets, and the white anemones have refused to tie their bonnets and let hair be hair in the freshness of the day. Green leaves are covered in puddles of frog’s spit, and centipedes and black rhinoceros beetles have been left to roam free as the ants have all run for cover. The apple tree has borne even more fruits, red and yellow juicy gems droop from almost all of its branches. The ripest ones are higher up, and I decide to climb up to try to get them. I am quite good at climbing trees, but no matter how high I climb I just can’t seem to get to the top. Exhausted I sit down on a thick branch and let my eyes wander through the landscape below. From here I can even see my school, it is recess and the kids are running around or sitting in clusters talking among themselves. It all seems so small, so insignificant and pointless from here. Like groups of ants just marching back and forth on autopilot because some queen has told them to. I start laughing. What a stupid life. Just as I am about to climb down I spot a pale ribbon of a rainbow forming in the sky above me. At first the colors are faded and pale, but little by little they grow in strength until they make a perfect arch blazing vividly in the wet sun. It makes me think of a bridge to faraway places.

“We need some sort of plan,” I insist when Bean comes to see me after school. “Well,” he says, “we can always write a mail to the forest department.” “And you really that think that is gonna help?” I can hear the terrible sarcastic tone in my own voice, but I can’t help it. When has any department ever listened to a bunch of kids? “We can at least give it a try,” suggests Bean. I shrug. “Fine.” We, or rather Bean, compose a rather B.S mail about the apple tree being a rear and endangered species. Bean grins when he hits send. “I am sure it will help.” “Oh, you’re sure are you?” I stare at him moodily. He shrugs. “We can at least hope it will.” “Or maybe…” I say and smile, “We can chain ourselves to a tree when they come with the chainsaws. I mean, I’ve seen it in films, they can’t hurt us, so they can’t chop down the trees.” Bean looks at me, I can see uncertainty in his eyes, “I hope you’re just kidding, Ira, that stuff is dangerous.” “Sure,” I say, just to make him stop worrying. But I am not. Kidding, I mean.

The construction workers are supposed to come in the morning, at least according to Google, so I fake illness again, and stay home from school. I’ve found some iron chains in the garage and I pack them into a bag I toss over my shoulder. The forest is quiet, as though it knows that something horrible is about to happen. The leaves are trembling, but soundlessly and eerily, there is no bird chatter or pecks from woodpeckers, it’s just quiet. It is one of those days when we say that there is no weather at all. No sun, no rain, no wind, no nothing, just a gray mass of quiet non-being. The air is heavy and wet. And the gray veil of the nothingness has wrapped the forest in something that reminds me of a fever. The forest feels sick. I have a difficult time climbing the apple tree; the branches are wet and slippery and covered in moss. I have never seen moss on this tree before. I climb as high as the tree will let me, and perch down on a branch scouting the terrain for the executioners. I have tied the chains loosely around my body. I really had no idea it was so hard to tie chains. I hear them before I see them. They are loud, talking, laughing, walking with heavy careless steps. Not bothering much about ants or beetles or anemones. They walk without looking where they walk. When I spot them I see only their bright orange overalls, the work clothes provided for them by the government. And then it all starts. I close my eyes and lean against the trunk of my dear apple tree. I can’t look, I can’t witness the dying of the ancient trees. A quote from the Bible crosses my mind. Forgive them father, for they do not know what they are doing. But they do, they do know what they are doing. The sound of chainsaws resonates through the forest, and I can feel how the trees tremble, how they lean as far away from the sound and the murderers as they can. It is their day of sorrow, their day of loss. And then the chainsaw is right under me, and the apple tree starts to shake violently. They can’t see me, is all I can think. They don’t know that I am here. I am going to die. And somehow that is okay. I accept it. This is a good death. Just then I hear a voice: “Heeeey, stop!! Stop it! There is a girl in the tree! Stop!” It sounds like Bean. But just as I am about to open my eyes to look, I fall.

I’ve heard that people say that everything goes black when they lose consciousness. That is not true, at least not for me. I see colors. I see a glass bridge arched like a rainbow sporting a palette of violet, indigo, emerald, and pink. It is beautiful. And on that bridge there is a squirrel, a bushy brown one. It looks like he is waiting for me. His beady black eyes are fixed on mine, but just as I am about to reach out and follow him, I wake up. I am in a colorless, too bright room, and on a chair next to me sits my mother. “Oh, honey, thank god, you are okay!” exclaims my mother and hugs me fiercely. I back away from her hug, feeling pains and bruises all over my body. “Sorry,” she apologizes and lets go of me. “I’m…I’m thirsty,” I manage to say, and it is true, I am parched! “Baldur, will you please fetch my daughter a glass of water?” Bean frowns at the sound of his given name, but says nothing; he just gets up and leaves me alone with my mother. “What…what is Bean doing here?” I ask my mother. My mother clasps her palms together, and I can see in her eyes that she has been crying. “Baldur,” she almost sobs, “is a hero! He…he rescued you. I don’t know how he knew, but somehow he did, and…and he got there just in time…he caught you, Ira, as you fell, he…he caught you! Don’t ask me how, he is just a boy, but he did. He caught you.” Tears are running along my mother’s high beautiful cheekbones, and she sniffs unladylike. “And what about the trees, mom, are they okay?” My mother stiffens and that is all the answer I need. “The apple tree…?” I stammer. “Is safe!” says Bean as he enters the room and hands me the glass of water. “But how?” I insist. “Well, it worked, the mail worked. The forest department came just in time and they declared the tree to be protected due to its rarity. They’ve uprooted it, and the guy I spoke to said that they will re-plant it in the botanical garden in the city.” Bean grins, and I smile back, even though I don’t feel like smiling. Somehow, thinking about the majestic never-ending apple tree trapped inside a city is not very comforting. But I can’t show that to Bean, he has done so much for me.

I’m released from the hospital the next day with only a couple of bruises and sore muscles, thanks to Bean. “I want to see it,” I say to Bean. We are sitting on the couch in my living room watching Shark Week on National Geographic. “See what?” asks Bean distractedly. “Ground Zero,” I reply sarcastically, “The place of the great massacre.” “Ira,” protests Bean, “I don’t think that is such a good idea…” “Well, luckily you are not in charge of me, so let’s go.” I switch off the TV and get up. Bean sighs, but he doesn’t object. “Fine.”

The clearing really looks like a Ground Zero, the soil has been upturned and whisked into mud, the corpses of beautiful tall trees lie scattered everywhere, white naked and bruised stumps gape into the air, filthy with decay and rot. There are no birds in sight, no ant mounds, no Daddy Longlegs buzzing by, there is just emptiness, space being readied for something else. Where the apple tree once stood there is only a deep black hole now, it is so deep that I cannot see the end of it. “Hey, look,” I say and run over to the edge of the hole. Bean runs after me. “Watch it!” he calls out and grabs my green cardigan. But I am not about to fall into that hole. “Look, Bean,” I say, “It’s the bird house.” I lift the battered bird house up from the ground. It is heavy, too heavy. “Something is in there.” My voice comes out thin and weak. “Ira,” warns Bean, “don’t, just don’t.” But I do. I break open the floor board and catch the dead squirrel as he falls through the opening and into my hands. His little bushy brown body is lifeless. “I want to bury him,” I say, my voice barely audible now. “Yeah okay, where?” Even Bean sounds disturbed by the dead squirrel. “In the garden, next to the apple tree.” Bean nods.

We wrap the squirrel in a plastic bag and take the bus downtown. The botanic garden has an entrance fee. Go figure. I refuse to pay, and when Bean mentions the head of the forest department by first name, the security lady reluctantly lets us in. As soon as I am inside, it is as though I know where I am supposed to go. Perfectly graveled lanes meander through beds of roses, tulips and peonies, flowers that don’t belong here in our cold climate. They look sad; their heads are drooping towards the stony ground. At first I don’t recognize the apple tree. It has been planted next to a lilac tree. But the lilac tree is much taller than the apple tree. How could that be? I couldn’t even climb to the top of the apple tree in the clearing. There are no fruits on the tree. The leaves have turned orangey brown and are barely hanging on to the thin branches. I start crying. Bean tries to comfort me, but I turn away from him. “What did they do to you?” I ask as I approach the tree. What did they do to you? I dig a hole in the ground with my bare hands, Bean offers to help, but I decline. I remove the plastic from the squirrel’s body and bury him there, in the hole next to the apple tree. I am wondering if maybe I should have left him in the forest, but somehow this feels right. He belongs with the tree. Bean and I stay silent all the way home, both of us lost in our own thoughts, or at least I am.

A week later they start building the hospital. All the neighbors complain about the noise from the construction site. Even my mother. The banging goes on for hours and hours, even into the night, and my mother can’t sleep. Neither can I, but that is for entirely different reasons. A year after, the hospital has its opening ceremony. I am off to college that autumn; Bean and I are attending the same college, and plan to get an apartment together. I won’t miss home. I never saw the apple tree again. But Bean tells me it is still there, but it never bears any fruit anymore. It looks forlorn, he says, out of place, like a majestic lion in a zoo hand-fed by keepers. I always hated the zoo.

There was once upon a time a tree, so big you almost thought it would take you to the heavens if you managed to climb to the top, but the tree was cunning, it wouldn’t let anyone reach that far. On the tree’s branches there were fruits, apples shining like gold, and it was said that if you just took one bite you would keep young and healthy forever. In that tree lived a squirrel, and it was the only one who could find its way to the top of the tree, and perhaps even further. The squirrel ran from the crown to the root of the tree many times a day, and some people claimed that it bore messages from the gods. But people stopped believing in those gods, and the squirrel, with its constant comings and goings, irritated them, they had become deaf to its speech, so they killed it, and moved the tree to a park where it would be safe. In place of the tree was a hospital ,said to cure almost all illnesses. And the apples…the apples of life became something of a myth, laughed at by intellectuals in learning institutions. Magic apples and talking squirrels were stuff of fairy tales. Something to make the kids sleep at night. And so, that world was lost, the world where the wild things are, and the human beings moved back into their broken shells, and called it freedom. For me, the world where the wild things are, became my lost childhood, but I still hope, one day, that we will look back, and say: Let’s set the tree of life free.

Running with Wolves

2016-09-09-09-09-01

This story is pure fiction, but it is inspired by Finnish creation myths.

If ordinary people were interested in the problems of philosophy, wise men would be found wandering up and down the runways of modern culture eager to debate. But despite popular belief, in the beginning it was not the word, it was desire. And desire split the universe in half. And the air had a daughter. She was beautiful, of course, but lonely. So she drowned herself in the mighty ocean and had a child with him. But a bird came and stole her child away and made it into earth. The child stretched his hands towards the sky and made a bridge for his mother to cross. But from the bridge came darkness and sank its teeth into the child’s chest, and so a lake rose from the newly formed cavity, and now the child could be embraced by his father, and his mother went back to the air and kissed the child’s little cheek. But the darkness was still there, so soldiers were born from it, and tried desperately to fight it, but failed of course, and the different elements had to learn to live with each other. Not in harmony, no, that would have been impossible, but in quiet acceptance and defeat.

Mr. Lawrence folded his books away, lowered his glasses and stared directly into Gylfie’s eyes. Gylfie looked down, embarrassed. She was perhaps the most eager student, but far from the boldest. Mr. Lawrence cleared his throat and said unceremoniously, “Well, children, that’s all for today. You may read Chapter 16 about Finnish myths for next lecture.” He heaved his book bag unto his shoulder and trotted out of the lecture hall. Some of the other students got up quickly and followed him, but Gylfie remained in her fold-up seat. She had heard the story before of course (her grandmother was Finnish), but she couldn’t remember any darkness or soldiers or piercing of hearts in any of her granny’s stories. But Mr. Lawrence was a decorated professor of ancient myths and paganism, and there was no way she would ever question his knowledge or authority on the subject.

Gylfie waited until she was the only one left in the lecture hall, then slowly she got up, chucked her tablet in her backpack and left. It was a rainy day. Huge whitish droplets had settled on the Fiat’s windscreen, and the blackened concrete road was bordered with brown puddles. Gylfie unlocked her car and attempted to wipe off the rain, but as soon as the window was clear, a new shower scattered its discharge on the dry surface. It was impossible. Gylfie sighed. She hated driving in such low visibility. The roads were thankfully pretty empty of people. It was gray and gloomy outside and the few cars braving the weather were moving slowly and carefully. Gylfie followed behind a black Citroen, her tires splashing rainwater left and right. Then suddenly she heard a loud yelp! She looked to both sides to see where the sound was coming from, and there on the sidewalk stood a boy, or rather a young man, covered in muddy brown water. She had obviously splashed him. He looked so forlorn that Gylfie pulled over and got out of her car to apologize. The young man had a strange look about him. His hair was bluish black and shoulder length, his eyes were icy blue and almost fluorescent, and his skin was pallid, but with a soft glow that made Gylfie stare at it, mesmerized. “You didn’t have to do that,” said the man, in a surprisingly deep voice, “get out of the car, I mean,” he shrugged apologetically, “these things happen. It’s the rain.” Gylfie didn’t answer right away; she was too caught up in his glowing skin. Then she pulled herself together, and said to her own surprise and astonishment: “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

The blue eyed boy lifted his eyebrows in surprise; he stared at her, as though he was examining her intentions, but then nodded and smiled. “Alright, yes, I’m on my way to work, perhaps a ride would be good.” Gylfie opened to door on the passenger side for him, and walked around the car to let herself in. “I’m Ylv by the way,” said the young man and held out his hand for her to shake. “Gylfie,” replied Gylfie and they shook hands. His was wet and cold, hers warm and dry. Gylfie switched on the heating and pulled on to the road. “So, where is it you work?” Ylv smiled. “The circus,” he replied, “it’s just off Macon Street, by the old library.” Gylfie nodded, she knew the place well. “What is it that you do at the circus?” She asked. “I’m the Gorilla man!” Ylv threw back his head and laughed. Gylfie stared at him. His face changed when he laughed, it opened up more and she could see tiny wrinkles around his eyes. When he noticed her serious face he calmed down and studied her. “I’m a skin changer……a shape shifter…” He lifted his eyebrows and made a grimace, then he chuckled, “I’m joking, Gylfie, relax.” Gylfie smiled and nodded. Of course she knew that. They drove a while in silence. ” Heeeey,” said Ylv suddenly, “have you noticed that the weather has changed?” Gylfie looked outside the windows of the little Fiat. He was right; the heavy rain had turned to snow! Snow! It was only October, a bit early for snow, thought Gylfie to herself. “Well, at least it’s not settling,” responded Ylv, as though he had heard her thoughts. Macon Street was coming up, and Gylfie made a right turn towards the library. Then suddenly Ylv cried out: “Watch out!” Gylfie stared horrified into the snowy damp windshield and spotted a shadow crossing the road just in front of the car, she hit the brakes hard. The car skidded off the road and stopped abruptly before it landed in the ditch. Ylv struggled to open the door, finally got himself out and ran to see what it was that they had almost hit. Gylfie stayed frozen in her seat, shaking. What had just happened? Ylv came back to the car and opened the door on the driver’s side. “I think it was just some kind of animal.” He looked at Gylfie and added with concern in his voice: “Are you okay?” Gylfie nodded weakly. “You know, I can walk from here, if you’d rather just go home, I mean.” Gylfie nodded again. She seemed to have lost the ability to speak. Ylv shrugged. “Okay, thanks for the ride anyway, perhaps I’ll see you around.” And with that he shut the door and walked away.

Gylfie remained in her car seat for a while, staring out the darkened windshield. What had just happened? The snow had stopped and the coldness of the oncoming night had solidified the water on the windows into patterns of white shiny ice. The roads would freeze too, thought Gylfie to herself, and she started the Fiat. Better get off this increasingly slippery track before she had another almost accident.

That night Gylfie repeated the incident over and over again in her sleep, only this time it was a child on the road, and she didn’t almost hit it, she ran right over it. Ylv was there too, but he just sat passively in his seat, giving a hint of a smile each time she hit the child, then vanishing into thin air as soon as she stopped the car. When morning finally came, Gylfie was exhausted. She went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee. The weather had changed again; the sun was now piercing through a clouded sky, breaking apart the ice from yesterday’s chill. Gylfie shoved her tablet and books into her backpack and headed for the car, but as soon as she saw the battered Fiat, she knew she couldn’t drive. It would have to be the bus.

The central heating in the bus was turned uncomfortably high. The bus driver sat happily in his seat in a worn out t-shirt and sunnies, while the passengers struggled to keep from sweating in their winter coats and woolly hats. Gylfie started to feel a bit queasy. The heat was suffocating. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing to keep the nausea at bay. The bus was making a hopeless amount of stops. There were bus stands at every corner and the bus seemed to take every turn and sidetrack possible to look for new passengers to fill the empty seats. After ten more minutes Gylfie could not take it anymore, she pushed the stop button and waited for the next bus stand to appear. When she was finally back outside in the fresh cold air she realized that she had no idea where she was. She looked around for any clues, like a street name or a sign with a name on, but there was nothing. She just had to pick a direction and start walking. At least the fresh air cured her of the annoying nausea.
After walking for about twenty minutes Gylfie came to an abrupt halt. There was something familiar about this place. On intuition she made a right turn, and yes, she had been right, she was back, back on the scene of yesterday’s almost accident. Gylfie could feel her arm hair stand up. Why had she come here? Was it her subconscious mind telling her something? Maybe she actually had hit that animal and now it lay somewhere wounded and dying. And it was all her fault. Where would a wounded animal go? Gylfie examined the landscape. The road had dried up and was now back to the gray color of faded asphalt, on each side of the road there was a ditch, and on the other side of the ditch there was a scattering of trees. Gylfie recognized birch in their white barrenness and even dark green spruce and other evergreens she was not familiar with. Stillness emanated from the forest, as though there was a boundary of quiet between that green natural world and this gray asphalted nudity. Of course, thought Gylfie to herself, a wounded animal would have run into the sanctuary of the forest.

The trees were tall, hardly letting in the sunshine, and the path became a zigzag of shadows and withered leaves gleaming in rays of faded light. But at least there was a path. Gylfie stepped carefully over little rocks and puddles covered in black ice. It was so quiet she could hear herself breathe, only a couple of birds chanted wistfully in the trees. Soon the forest opened into a clearing and there was a lake. It was a small lake with still dark water, little flakes of sun-flecked ice floated on the surface. The banks were bordered with lean reaching grass indicating perhaps a swamp-like interior. Gylfie jumped as she suddenly heard a faint sound of water being moved sideways, not exactly a splashing, more of a quiet gliding. And then she spotted him, a man swimming gracefully in the lake. His black long hair floated behind him on the water surface making him look ethereal and otherworldly. Gylfie gave a little cough; she had to somehow indicate that he had an audience. The man, obviously taken by surprise, splashed around a bit, then turned and swam towards her. When he was quite close, Gylfie saw to her astonishment that it was Ylv.

Ylv rose from the black water and waded towards her. Gylfie was embarrassed to see that he was stark naked. But Ylv didn’t seem to mind her seeing him naked. He just smiled and came over to her, wrapping himself in a towel. “Isn’t it cold?” Asked Gylfie. Ylv shrugged. “You get used to it.” “What are you doing here, Gylfie?” Gylfie was taken aback by his obvious lack of manners, she cleared her throat and said, a bit annoyed: ” I-I came back to….to see if that animal from yesterday was hurt.” Ylv’s eyes softened. “Gylfie, we didn’t hit it, it got away, remember…” “Yes, but….but….I thought.” To her astonishment Gylfie started crying. Warm tears ran down her cold cheeks and landed on the ground. Ylv came up next to her and put his arm around her. “I could have hit it,” said Gylfie, sobbing. “I could have killed it. It could have been a child. I never thought…..I could do something like that…” “But Gylfie,” said Ylv soothingly, “it wouldn’t have been your fault. It was dark and raining and,” “It wouldn’t have mattered,” interrupted Gylfie. “I….I….am capable of taking a life….it wouldn’t have meant anything to that life if I meant to or not….” Ylv put his other arm around her and held her. She sobbed into his shoulder. “Gylfie….let me take you to your car. You need to go home.” “I don’t have my car,” whispered Gylfie, “I took the bus.” “But why?” Began Ylv, but stopped himself with a sigh. “Oh, Gylfie…” Gylfie thought she detected frustration in his voice. Who could blame him, she was being hysterical.

“Come for a swim with me,” whispered Ylv in her ear. “It will clear your head.” Gylfie sniffed and swallowed a sob. “But, but it’s so cold, Ylv, I’ll get sick.” “Nonsense!” Exclaimed Ylv loudly and smiled. “It’s just cold in the beginning, then you get used to it. It’s good for health, really. Come on! Give it a try!” Ylv looked so enthusiastic; Gylfie had to smile through her tears. These last two days had been pretty crazy, maybe she should add a little more madness to the already boiling over mishmash of temporary insanity. Ylv saw the change in her eyes, and his smile broadened. He discarded his towel and ran towards the lake, pulling her with him. He was like a naughty child let off the leash. “But I don’t have a swimsuit,” protested Gylfie. “Well, neither have I.” Ylv threw back his head and his laughter hit Gylfie right in the face. It was infectious. She hesitated. She could just wear her clothes, but then she would have to sit on the bus back home in soaking wet clothes. That did it, the thought of wet clothes gave her the audacity she needed to strip down, she had not planned to undress entirely, but when she started removing garment after garment, there was a freedom in it, an abandon that made her bold, and she followed the already splashing Ylv into the lake without a single piece of cover-up on her body. Ylv didn’t stare or make any sign of desiring her. He was more like a child, enticing her to wade deeper and deeper into the black water.

The water was cold. Colder than anything Gylfie had ever felt against her body. Little silver needles pierced her skin all over, and penetrated deep into her. She had a hard time breathing. Her breath came in heaves, desperately being sucked in in an attempt to fill her lungs with something else than cold. Ylv seemed unaffected. He swam calmly around her, smiling and teasing. His skin was still white and pale. Gylfie watched her own skin turn from an irritated pink to a bluish red. “Come on!” Laughed Ylv, “Just do it. Just let go!” Gylfie released her body into the water, and the world disappeared. She could hear noises, water surging, closing in on her, a small ringing sound and something else….perhaps breaking of ice flakes. The ground under her feet was no longer there and she sank. But no, she couldn’t! She had to swim! Gylfie kicked off and rose to the surface, desperately battling the treacherous water. As her head broke free she managed to take one big breath and fill herself with air. She struggled to keep herself from drowning. Her eyes searched for Ylv. But when her gaze met the bank her eyes widened in disbelief. Someone was standing there, next to the pile of clothes she had left behind! Something small. Was it a child? Or….no….it was a cub, a wolf of some kind or maybe a husky. Gylfie went under again. The darkness of the lake swallowed her, and this time it would not let go. It was quiet now, almost peaceful. Gylfie relaxed her limbs and let herself sink. Then suddenly, a pole of light struck the water and travelled fast towards Gylfie. It spread like a bolt of lightning and shaded her face with soft yellow. It must be a ray of sun, or perhaps starlight or a torch. In her delirium Gylfie could not tell. But she had to follow it. She was drowning! She didn’t want to die! Gylfie forced her body to listen to her and slowly she ascended towards the source of the light.

The surface broke with a slow slurping sound. Gylfie gulped for breath. Her hair was pasted to her scalp and her nose was smarting from too much water intake. Rays of warm sun basked in her frozen face, and the water reluctantly released her to earth’s waiting embrace. Gylfie waded towards the bank and her pile of dry clothes. There was nobody there. No child, no cub. Only too much silence, a complete absence of life. Gylfie shivered. She no longer cared about the child; it must have been a figment of her delirious frost-shocked mind. She used her t-shirt as a towel and hurriedly dressed herself. There was not a single bird chanting now. But where was Ylv? Gylfie looked around. She let her eyes slowly fly over the water, but there was nobody. Only silence. The water didn’t even move and neither did the shadows nor the wind. Frankly, Gylfie was glad. She was tired of this strange blue eyed boy and his teasing and tricks. He was probably hiding somewhere in the forest, laughing at her. Then suddenly Gylfie detected a sound, it was an engine, the engine of a vehicle. The bus! Gylfie leaped to her feet and started running towards the road she had come from. She was not going to miss that bus! She paid no attention to the broken branches, the busy ants or the faint prints of paws under her feet. She just ran frantically, to catch up with the oncoming bus.

The Island of Seals

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The island of Inish Mor lies in a pool of brilliant blue ocean, a few miles from the mainland and the Galway Bay. To the left of where the little ferry docks, a small country road bordered with tall stones twines and twirls up towards a pink farmhouse and a white hotel with a picket fence. If you follow that road you will eventually find the remains of an old monastery and a burial ground looking towards the sea. After that there is nothing more than green fields and rock. But if you instead make a left turn and head towards the horizon where the sun sets, you will find the lagoon. My lagoon. And a house, a white washed house with a red door and a grassy roof. Carts and horses will pass you by, perhaps a small van, but nothing else. You can circle the island on foot in perhaps an hour if you walk briskly. I did once. And I never tire of listening to the sea, roaring, gushing, singing. Sometimes I believe it is all for me. The wind sings too. But it is for the rocks. Those eroded passages between cliffs, tall and steep, love that song so much they bend and shape to its every demand. The old folk call it the mermaid song . There is a lighthouse too, not far from the bay. And a beach with yellow sand, and it was in that sand I wrote: “I’ll be back. “But I was just a little girl.

The Island of Insih Mor was an ideal retreat for me. Isolated as it is, it is safe, but exciting, offering solitude, but not loneliness. I had always wanted to go back. And now, I craved it, to lick my smarting wounds and renew my vows to myself and my craft. But I found myself in a position of doubt, hesitant, unsure. Then one day after aimlessly browsing the World Wide Web for images of exotic locations and retreats, my eyes caught an image of her, my island lover, she shone in all her photoshopped glory, enticing me, calling me. I clicked the image and found myself stranded on a website of a band. A musical band offering drumming classes on the island. I had never felt interested in drumming, but this was an opportunity, maybe even a sign. I clicked on the email address given on the site and a new window opened. I typed the mail quickly and hit send. Ten minutes later the reply came. It was a man. He announced that there were no new classes starting at the moment, but that he could give me private lessons if I wanted. I hesiated. This was exactly the kind of situations the media warned you about. The Internet was a scary place full of predators. But I ignored the warnings, and replied the mail, making further inquiries. The man, whose name was Angus, lived on the island from spring to autumn, giving drumming lessons to groups of tourists, the rest of the year was spent touring Europe with his band.
The next few days, or rather nights as he seemed to be quite the nocturnal kind, Angus and I mailed back and forth. He was sweet and courteous, and I found myself drawn to him. The first mails were all about drumming and practical details, but after a while we ventured into discussions about music, creativity and eventually discovered our mutual interest in folklore and mythology. I started looking forward to his mails with a surprised enthusiasm. I had already booked the tickets. My flight was in just two weeks and I was bursting with excitement. Not just to see my beloved Inish Mor again, but to finally meet the mysterious Angus. A couple of days before my departure was due Angus surprised me with an invitation to stay in his cottage for the duration of my drumming class. Of course, he added, I was to sleep in his guest room. Again I hesitated. I had never even met the man! He was a total stranger! But he didn’t feel like a stranger. Ignoring all common sense and media warnings I accepted the invitation with a racing heart. I hit send. It was done. I was going to stay with him. With Angus! Was I in love? How could I be? I had never even seen Angus; I didn’t know how he looked like! What if he was an old balding man? I shrugged. My thoughts had taken me too far; I was after all just going to learn how to drum.

The day arrived eventually. I was going to Inish Mor. It was a gray rainy day. October days often are in this desolate part of the world. I carried nothing but a backpack and an umbrella. But I had to leave the umbrella with the security at the airport. It was too sharp, too pointed, too metallic, it could be used as a weapon. The flight was long and tedious with two stopovers. I didn’t eat much, but had a fair share of expensive red wine to steady my nerves. Or maybe it was just because it was free. Dublin was as grey and rainy as where I had come from. But the friendly smiling people made up for it. The bus driver greeted me cheerfully and turned up the volume of his radio tuned in to a folk music channel. I recognized the familiar sound of the flute and the violin. The music was skipping and keening in intervals, as if it was not sure whether it was a lament or a drinking song. I caught my foot bobbing silently along to the beat of the haunting music. “So you’re going to Galway, are you?” asked the friendly bus driver. I nodded, then added: “Yes, but I am travelling on to Insih Mor from there.” The bus driver looked up at me with a mischievous look in his eyes. “Ooooo, the island of the seals, is it? Well, you know what the legends say. Better be careful, you’re a pretty young thing.” He chuckled. I wanted to ask him exactly what the legend said, and why it was called the island of seals, but just then a new passenger boarded the bus. It was middle aged man with a bald head and a round red face wet from the rain. It looked as though he knew the bus driver for they commenced an animated discussion with peals of laughter and grunts of disagreement or perhaps disgust in something. The language they spoke was the old Irish, the Celtic language, so I sat back reluctantly and gave up my attempt to get the bus driver’s attention. I fished my iPhone out of my backpack and popped the small pink head phones into my ears, and to the sound of Enya’s soothing voice I fell asleep.

I woke up to the sound of the exhausted engine exhaling noisily. I looked out of the window and discovered to my surprise that I was looking at a rather familiar sight. It was the Galway Market! I got up quickly and climbed down the steps onto the sidewalk. The bus driver was busy helping a woman with a pram disembark the bus. I hurried away, half running through the busy shopping street of the little town; afraid I was going to miss my next bus and the ferry to Inish Mor. I stopped at a little Spar kiosk to buy a sandwich and some crisps.

The next bus ride was a short one. The landscape outside the window was that of Galway bay and the majestic Atlantic Ocean hurling itself with full force unto the rocky coves and little sandy piers. As the bus left the urban coastal landscape behind forests rose to block the view of the bay. Tall evergreens reaching for a graying sky gave way to grassy knolls and little rivers heading for unknown destinations. Small scattered cottages in pale colors bore witness to human habitat, but without the need to tame the outlawed wilderness. Soon the sea came back into view and I spotted the little ferry waiting for the bus. All the passengers were headed for the same destination and the ferry filled up fast. There was a drizzle outside and the seats inside the shelter of the ferry’s belly were soon occupied. I didn’t mind, I wanted to, I needed to sit outside feeling the rain and wind beating my face into submission. There was nothing to see but the sea. White peaked waves, like wild cantering horses, broke against the side of the boat, making it rock uncontrollably. I rocked with it and smiled. Gulls alerted me to the expanding dot on the horizon. Inish Mor. My Inish Mor. I was back.

There was no one waiting for me as I disembarked the ferry. I scanned the dock, but everyone seemed to know what they were doing or where they were going. Then I remembered, I had given Angus the arrival time of my flight, but not the ferry. I hadn’t known. But Angus had given me direction to his cottage, and I decided to see if I could find my way on foot. The early October day was descending into the soft amber glow of afternoon, the rain had stopped and the roads were drying in the dying sun’s surprise visit. The sea was keeping an evening tryst with the little beloved island, and she seemed to be whispering lovers’ secrets to him coaxing his mighty manhood into calm surrender. I felt like a ghost revisiting an old childhood world. These roads were made of a girl’s homespun dreams. I had walked them before, and today those dreams had given me a map to the familiar geography of a rediscovered home. The sea, whose murmur was never out of my ears, was my companion as I climbed the sloping hills heading for a cottage and a man I was not yet sure were real.

The cottage was easily spotted, situated on top of a green grassy hill, individualized by the oddity of its small shape and red inviting door. There was a gate marking the beginning of a path leading up to the cottage. I hoped it was not locked. But just as I was about to find out I heard a noise. Or a cry of sorts, I turned around to see who or what had made the sound and found my eyes staring into the eyes of the sea. But this was not the wild unkempt sea, this was a tamer friendlier version of the same entity. It was a lagoon. A silvery body trapped inside a rocky embrace, holding it fast, forcing it to stay still, and on the rocks seals were lazing about. I had never seen seals like that before. They were big and almost black glistening with salty sunbathed droplets. One of the seals made the cry again. He had lifted his head and was looking straight at me. I did not remember ever seeing seals on the island before. But then it occurred to me that I had never before been here this time of year. It had been early November that time, when I wrote my promise in the sand. Maybe the seals went elsewhere for the harsh winter season. I stood for a while admiring the beautiful creatures basking in the sun, now resting low on the horizon. I smiled at their magnificence. But it was time to face the music; it was time to meet Angus. I turned around and tried the handle of the gate. It opened with a high pitched moan. My legs shook as I slowly climbed the hill. I approached the red door and knocked. Nothing. I knocked again. Again there was no response. Maybe he was outside. I walked around the eaves towards the back of the cottage, but there was no one there either. The light was fading fast now and I needed to find somewhere to spend the night. Should I head back and look for the hotel? Perhaps that was best. But something in me was reluctant, hesitating, holding me back…Maybe Angus would be back soon from wherever he was. He knew I was coming today, just not exactly when. If I didn’t show up he would be disappointed. Maybe I could at least check whether or not the door was locked. I had heard that many people living in the countryside never locked their doors. I made up my mind quickly and went back around to the front of the house. I tried the handle. It yielded and the door opened.

The inside of the cottage was dark in the dimming light. The windows were small and few, too small to let in the light. But there were candles and matches on the table. I struck a match and lit one of the candles. The cottage was small and primitive. The floor was nothing but earth tucked densely together, and there was a hearth, a wooden chair and a table. That was it. There was driftwood piled up together in readiness of a fire, and I lit another match and touched the flame to the dry wood, it flared up immediately, helped by a scattering of torn and crumpled newspapers. He was expecting me after all! The glow from the hearth gave the cottage a cozy and welcoming homeliness. I smiled and put my backpack on the floor. I soon found the two bedrooms. Both had iron beds made ready with clean sheets and thick blankets. Another sign that he was after all aware of my arrival. I found a bottle of red wine on a cardboard box fashioned into a little table and a covered plate of food. It smelled delicious! I opened the wine poured a glass and dug into the food. I was hungry after the long journey.

The sea stirred up again outside at the coming of twilight and the continuous roars and wild howls of the tide mixed with the gusts of the autumnal winds flying about the eaves made me feel as though I had gone back in time. To a simpler life, blessed or cursed by the moods of the mighty Mother Nature. I closed my eyes dreamily. The shadows created by the candle flickered before me and penetrated even the curtains of my eyelids, and I sighed in contentment.

After finishing half the bottle of wine I started to feel drowsy. Stars had climbed up on the bluish black sky and the wind had increased; wailing now, like a ghost looking for a way back home. I shivered. Where was Angus? Why had he not come home? Worried as I was I could stay up no longer. I climbed under the covers of the soft blankets and was immediately lulled to sleep by the keening wind songs. I don’t know how long I had slept when I suddenly sprung out of the bed wide awake. Someone or something had touched me! I had felt a caress, a hand or something that had felt like a hand, had slipped up my leg and caressed my bare thigh! I tore the blanket aside and shook it. I hurried to light a candle, but there was no one there. I lit up every darkened corner, ventured into the other bedroom and looked into the bed. But there was no one there. Perhaps it had been a mouse. It was quite likely that there were mice in a cottage like this. I looked under the beds, examined the sheets, but found nothing. But the thought of a mouse, however disconcerting it was to think of a mouse sharing my bed, eased me a little. A mouse wasn’t dangerous after all. And it was probably gone now. I went back to bed and tucked the blankets around me. I closed my eyes, but couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay awake listening to the sea outside the window. The tide was beating against the rocky lagoon; the rhythm was that of a pulse, steady and musical, almost like…..like the beat of a drum. My thoughts went back to Angus. Where was he? Why hadn’t he come? I closed my eyes tight trying to think of something else. Then suddenly I felt it again! The hand caressing my thigh, only this time it continued higher towards my stomach. I bolted out of bed, stifling a scream. The candle was still burning on the night stand and I flickered it around frantically. “Who is there?” I cried out. There was no answer. My heart was beating fast now; fear had finally taken me over. But I couldn’t see anyone. “Show yourself!” I tried to sound angry, demanding, self-assured, but I could hear the fear in my own voice. Again, the only answer I got was that of the sea. It sounded menacing now, threatening. Tears sprung to me eyes. All of a sudden I felt alone, foolish and frightened. Someone, or something was out there, or perhaps even inside the cottage, something that meant to…what? Harm me? Or…or…have its way with me? I shivered again and felt the hairs in the back of my neck stand. One thing was certain; I would not go back to that bed.

I lit the fire in the hearth and sat as close to it as I could, seeking shelter in its comforting light. Dawn came at last. It was slow and reluctant, took its time, but it came. I got my things together, beat the fire until it died and blew out the candles. I was not planning to stay here any longer than I had to. I didn’t care about Angus anymore; he was probably not even real.

Even the island had lost its charm. I just wanted to go home. I slammed the red door shot behind me and left the hill with a brisk walk. When I closed the gate, my eyes fell once more on the peaceful lagoon that had charmed me so utterly yesterday. But it was empty. The seals had gone. Maybe the night storm had encouraged them to look for warmer pasture. Maybe it was their time of year to leave. I wasn’t sure, but I frankly didn’t care anymore.

The little ferry was waiting for me at the dock. The morning was not a popular time to leave the island and very few people joined me on the overcrossing. I decided to sit outside again. I needed the fresh air. My nerves were still unsettled and the coldness of the wind soothed me. I kept my eyes on the horizon keenly awaiting the dark shadow of the mainland to be silhouetted against the endless blue. And it was then I saw it; the small black curve of a head bobbing in the waves. A seal. One solitary seal swimming gracefully ahead of the boat, occasionally turning around and staring with black liquid eyes directly into mine.

I was inspired to publish this story by this post:

https://toffeefee.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/seals-and-more/

Please check it out to see beautiful pictures of adorable seals!

Let there be no limits to the sky

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I got the idea for this story one day in Hajii Lane looking at a caged bird staring at the sky…

Those tall lean San Francisco houses look like rows of multicolored piano keys left unplayed, except for by an occasional shower or a gust of wind. The balconies are French with curled iron and picked tops. If somebody ever used them they would be able to hold hands from one end to the other. But this neighborhood is past its best. The only living things you see here are birds bickering on rooftops. I should know, I’m one myself. I live on second floor of a big white and olive back-to-back house. You may assume I’m a nuisance, you’re wrong, I’m just an outsider. That’s the odd thing about Julius Lawrence Street, it never became what it intended to be: cheap lodgings and noisy pubs. Instead it offers privacy and silence, solitary rooms and cold nights. It suits me. I rest my mind on flights of fancy. I can’t stay in those cages with iron bars. I enjoy my seclusion, and I only work on evenings. The others leave me in peace.

But then someone moved into the flat above me. At first I thought it was a ghost, but we met on the chimney landing one day, and I learned that his name was Harris. He told me that he was bred in captivity, which was odd because he was rather common looking. The others were curious about Harris of course, but he was like me: no audible comings and goings. He asked me a couple of times to borrow my bathroom, apparently his water was jammed or something. But mostly we met on the landing. He came back when I left. He never really spoke to me, just registered my presence with a nod of the head. On rainy days when I didn’t go to work, I heard him unlocking his door. Then there was a thump and raised voices. No one else seemed to care. But I had come here for the vacuum of silence, for the vacancy, the emptiness. At first I decided to talk to Harris about it, but then I thought better of it.

That morning was sweltering. It was summer, and the sun boiled the concrete from dawn to dusk. My flat was unusually stuffy, and I was relieved when I heard Harris leaving his flat, heading for the stairs. I waited until he was gone before I followed him. The wind was cool and refreshing, and I could move easily despite the caging heat.
Bare streets fuming with sultry cries tried to leap at me, but I was too fast. That’s the thing about piano keys, they provide excellent patches of shadows. I could almost hear the dark tone of the black shorter keys quivering melodically. Then Harris disappeared behind an abandoned flower shop and I quickened my pace. I rounded the corner and was taken aback by what I saw.

There he was, like a common thief broken into a house filled with withered roses and beheaded garden gnomes. He was standing on a carpet of black metallic dust, but he wasn’t alone. A crowd of about ten to fifteen cats stood about him tinkering with something laid on gray tables. You can imagine my shock, cats! Those selfish, lazy loners crowding my backyard! Harris was holding an iron rod that looked like something from his balcony. I leaned in for a better look. The buggers were making banners with slogans such as: ” Death to the feather-clippers” and ” Let there be no limits to the sky.” In a terracotta pot by the blackened window I could see several discarded collars, some with name tags and magnets on them. A steel bowl of water stood close by. Harris had a determined look in his eyes as he stood in the gloomed yellow sunlight thumping his iron rod rhythmically on the blinking floor.

I stepped out of my hiding place and moved back unto the deserted street. Unlit lamp posts and disengaged traffic lights were leaning conspicuously in on me. The tall San Fransisco houses seemed uncomfortable, abandoned without being remote. I felt diminished by them. My eyes fell on the rooftops, they were crowded, but not friendly. Like cakes frosted with flies. I let my eyes travel higher, and there it was. The sky. The blue was so inviting. It had no currency, no gossip. The sun cast silvery shadows on the clouds. The thin layer of city dust was carefully wiped away by yesterday’s rain. I recognized the night hiding in the future. It shed crumbled stars between my overweight stiff wings. I tried to recall exactly how Harris had done it, spreading them like fans. I felt as if I would release, open, startlingly fast, perhaps better than I had ever done before. The rising of me looked exactly like a flutter, and I kicked off and flew, into that faraway blue that had no limits.

The Night Watchers

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What is really luck? Perhaps it is all a good game of dice…

It’s Sunday on Port Quay. It is five in the morning and the crashing waves on the bay is the only sound audible to passers by, even though there aren’t any. Just a few minutes ago snow was falling softly against the dusty purple sky. But it is enough, enough to stir up a cackle. Night watchers have learned to use what they can to play a game of dice. There aren’t many left nowadays, but tonight they have all come here, to Port Quay.

They only have a couple of hours. That is the rule, a couple of hours between dawn and sunrise. Even if it snows. The Night Watchers hate snow. Their coats are too thin and torn to sustain the wet cold. And very few of them carry hats. They sleep on rooftops and chimneys, places warm enough to not need a hat. They only come out of their darkened doorways when nobody else is about.

There is a old Mr. Petwick now, he used to love Christmas, but that was before. He is smiling under the soft light of the street lamps, tossing a pair of dice up in the air and catching them with his left hand. Pretty Mrs. Winkle, in a black velvet dress, sneaks up behind him. She puts her thin arms around his waist, and he jumps and the pair of dice falls to the ground. “What are you doing you old hag!” he shouts and spins around to face his attacker. Mrs. Winkle’s face tightens and she glares at him angrily. “See what you made me do!! ” Old Mr. Petwick points to the ground, and Mrs. Winkle utters an alarming cry. She bends down and studies the dice, “oh thank heavens, double six!” she sighs in relief and picks up the pair of dice, and hands them over to old Mr. Petwick. “You old fool!” he spits the accusation at her and stamps away from the bridge they have been standing on. “Don’t worry, dear,” says Miss Margaret, “he is just a wee nervous, you frightened him, you see.” Mrs. Winkle blinks away angry tears and smiles at her friend. “Yes, it was silly of me, really.” Miss Maragret tries to tuck her shawl even closer around her shoulders, but the shawl is old with big holes in it. “Come on ladies!” Mr. Lang is waiting for them on the other side of the bridge. “It is time!”

Here comes the Night watchers and the wet pavements and black concrete walls begin to shine with a winter sun still a long way from awakening. You can only go so far with matches. Miss Margaret in her red stiletto pumps steps gingerly over a pile of yellow snow with a shovel pierced inside, Mr. Lang reaches for her hand, but she declines. There are fisher boats, and white yachts docked in the bay, slipping on black and white waves. Seagulls muck about with greasy white paper and riff-raff bags. The yellow street lamps pulse orange and silver on the noisy sea remaking the hour-old snow and doubling the absent stars. The light is coming on faster now, scattering shadows across the melted snow. This is when the game always begins.

They are seated on cold steel benches with little holes in them. Nobody makes anything out of wood anymore, and almost everything has less of itself, like with holes. A little air to fill the homeless blanks. A penny saved, a penny gained. “Shall we begin?” asks Mr. Petwick. Mr. Lang, a middle aged gentleman with a twenty year old tweed suit and grey spangles in his air nods enthusiastically. He loves the game. Ever since he lost his fortune on the stock exchange market, he has loved games. Mrs. Winkle ungloves her hand and offers it up in the made-up circle of blue-cold hands. “Let me play first,” she says. “Well, what is your wager?” asks Mr. Lang. “A writer’s dream.” she replies. “I challenge that!” Mr. Petwick is eager now. He doesn’t like writers. Mr. Lang raises his eyebrows, “well, what is your wager?” ” A pot of gold and a lifetime of youth.” “Good one!” says Miss Maragaret and laughs. The wager is set, and Mrs. Winkle rolls the dice. A 3 and a 5. Not bad. But still beatable. She shrugs. Now it’s Mr. Petwick’s turn. He puts a little more force in his release and the pair of dice shoot and fall on to the wet ground. They all bend down to see the outcome. A 4 and a 6! “Haha! Too bad!” Mr. Petwick is triumphant. He was never competitive before, but now…

It is Miss Maragret’s turn to challenge Mr. Petwick. Her wager is small. “A house by the sea and a puppy.” Mr. Petwick laughs . ” A puppy! Miss Margaret, this is no child’s game!” Miss Margaret shrugs. She had always wanted a puppy when she was small. It was a big deal then. ” True love!” exclaims Mr. Petwick, and stares at the crowd as though he is awaiting their admiration. Miss Margaret rolls the dice. Two 1’s. A little girl stirs wearily in her bed. It is almost sunrise. Mr. Petwick laughs. He bounces the dice down the concrete. A 5 and a 6. “That wasn’t even fun!” he looks pityingly at Miss Margaret. She has a resigned look in her pretty dirty face. “Well, mate, it comes down to the two of us.” Mr. Petwick slaps his hand on Mr. Lang’s back. Mr. Lang nods. “So, what’s your wager?” Mr. Lang smiles. “Happiness.” Mrs. Winkle sucks in her breath and reaches for Miss Margaret’s hand. “How did you…?” her voice is shaking. Mr. Lang doesn’t answer. Even Mr. Petwick has gone pale. Only Mr. Lang keeps smiling, as though…as though…it really just was a game of dice… “Well, go on, Mr. Petwick, let’s give it a go.” Mr. Petwick collects the dice in his hand, and tosses them. Two 5s! He smiles. But Mr. Lang does not seem bothered. He retrieves the dice cheerfully. “Good one, Mr. Petwick my old friend, let us see if I can beat you!” He rolls the dice. They all hold their breath. The sun blinks, and an alarm clock goes off. The world is stirring. Suddenly the street lamps wear off. The Night Watchers stare at the missing false light nervously. A cloud runs across the pink sky. A bird sighs melancholy.

Two 6’s. The sun has reached the horizon. The winner picks up the dice. The other Night Watchers are quiet, too stunned to speak. They search for the shadows and cross the bridge. Miss Marageret slips on the icy ground, Mr. Lang steadies her. Snow falls down on them and they huddle under Mrs. Winkle’s navy blue umbrella, hurrying back into the alleys, the empty garages, the dark corners where no one bothers to look. The only trace of them is a mark in the snow, two little hollows, a game of dice. But soon the sun and stamping feet will erase even that.