Chasing the Light, Stories, Three Bridges

Three Bridges

‘Grandpa Ioan might not be with us for much longer.’ These words pounded in Peter’s mind as he struggled to open the barrier gates with his train ticket. A wrinkly conductor watched him from under a pair of square spectacles.

Peter smiled as he caught a glimpse of the steam train just stopping at Blue District station. Frantic crowds of well dressed grown-ups gathered around its rusty frame. The green paint cracked as a round passenger opened the first carriage door. A dozen more people, some carrying children followed.

‘Wait a minute boy!’ the conductor erupted as he saw the violet ticket in the boy’s hand. Peter was now on the other side of the barrier. ‘How old are you?’

‘Fourteen.’ Peter gulped and slowly raised on his toes.

‘Are you – really?’ the conductor squinted and shuffled slowly towards him, as if wearing slippers.

Peter stood firm on his toes, trying to appear larger in his oversized wool coat. His chestnut hair curled as the silver engine puffed with anticipation. His dark brown eyes watched the passengers swirl through the train doors, like water in a whirlpool.

‘Let’s see your age card!’ the wrinkly conductor demanded and placed a heavy hand on the boy’s right shoulder. Peter looked up at the conductor’s hairy nostrils and tapped his pockets with the air of a businessman. His nose twisted as a scent of engine oil and musk reached him.

‘I don’t have it!’ he finally said. ‘I need to get on this train, sir. My grandfather is very ill. I know my way around very well.’

Peter’s heart throbbed and his fingers tingled with anticipation. The engine whistled, flaring up dark clouds of ash and flame.

‘You’re not allowed on this train, by the underage decree of Queen Avrig the Barren!’

The conductor coughed, as if finishing  a speech. He then turned to a younger colleague, who had just arrived for the morning shift.

‘Charlie’, he ordered, his hand tight on Peter’s shoulder, ‘take this boy back to his care house.’

Peter’s breath rose like the frantic ashes, bursting out of the train chimney. The last warning signal bellowed. The boy sprang from under the conductor’s grip. The train wheels screeched, like the grinding teeth of a metal giant. ‘Pedal faster.’ Peter’s mind echoed as he ran across the platform. He remembered his grandfather teaching him how to cycle. ‘Pedal so you don’t lose your courage.’

Peter grasped the handle of the last carriage door and leapt inside. Charlie was left running after the train, confused whether to be frustrated or relieved. His older colleague was shuffling energetically after him, thrusting a tight fist above his head every now and then.

The boy breathed out heavily, but cautiously as he hoped no one had noticed his abrupt entrance. He watched the sandstone walls of the station pass by, with their blue ceramic plates, halfway along the walls and red dome shaped roof. The seal of Queen Avrig shone brightly above the station entrance. On a black marble plate Peter saw the three consecutive golden arcs, with a blue, green and violet disk under each one. He shuddered and turned after the last sign saying ‘Blue District’ slipped away.

The carriage seemed empty. It was padded with lacquered wood boards and smelt of pine. A small grey stove puffed slowly, in time with the train. Its zigzag funnel had colourful crystals swaying from it, on thick wool threads. Peter walked towards the stove, admiring the silk embroidered cushions on the seats. The chairs were made of solid oak, with curved handles and wavelike backrests. Golden plates with engraved names shone from their tops.

Peter’s heart jolted. In a far away corner of the carriage, he saw an old lady dressed in pink and white furs. She was knitting what looked like a scarf. She gave Peter a quick glance as he quietly took a seat next to the fireplace. He suddenly remembered something and searched his pockets. The old lady croaked as the boy took out his violet train ticket.

‘That’s Lord Fagurash’s seat my boy.’ she said calmly. ‘Come here, in Lord Petal’s seat. He won’t be travelling with us anytime soon.’

Peter obeyed, fighting his anxiety in silence. As he sat facing the old lady, he noticed a golden ring with the queen’s three arch seal on her right hand. This was a symbol of privilege and not many people from Queen Avrig’s kingdom could win her favour in this manner. The two were silent for an uncomfortably long time.

‘My name is Lady Daria Petal.’ she began after a while, ‘daughter or Lord Rosemund Petal II, in whose place you are seated. The seat on your left belonged to my grandfather, Lord Rosemund Petal I.’

‘I am Peter Arinis, ma’am, pleased to meet you!’

Lady Petal put her knitting aside. Peter noticed that her silver hair, tied in a laborious plaited bun, looked like the yarn ball she had given up on. She took out a flowery fan from one of her sleeves.

‘You must be one of the care home children.’ she started fanning herself, her lips pursed as if trying to trap a thought that was about to escape. ‘I was part of the Royal committee that designed the children’s Blue District. I trust you have everything you need – Peter was it?’

Peter lowered his head and gave a short sharp nod, but said nothing. Lady Petal smiled and opened her purse. She took out an old letter with a golden wax seal on it. She opened it easily, as the seal had been torn and shook a batch of green and violet tickets into her lap, similar to the one Peter had.

‘You must be rich!’ the boy gasped in amazement, leaning towards Lady Petal.

‘My parents were. Now I’ve inherited their perfume business, along with all its riches.’

‘Did you get to spend a lot of time with your parents then?’ Peter’s eyes widened in a naive stare.

‘Too little time my dear boy. You only realize what you had after you’ve lost it. I see you know the value of spending time with your family.’ she ended with a bittersweet smile.

‘My parents work very hard to send me a green ticket every now and then. I miss them most of the time, but when a ticket comes, I can visit them and that is all that matters.’

‘You visit them but you should let them come to you. I believe fourteen is the legal visiting age for the Green District? At least that is the impression the conductor gave me when he held you hostage on the platform just now?’

Peter paused for a few seconds, wondering why Lady Petal, a law abiding grown up was so tranquill on the matter.

‘I am ten and a half and my parents can scarcely spare any time. They are very busy in the Green District, but barely get enough money to live there. I know my way around well enough by now.’ he concluded as his back straightened in a confident stance. ‘I need to get to the Violet District though, by sunset.’ he whispered in one long breath. ‘My father wrote that grandpa Ioan is unwell.’ Lady Petal gave him a long stare and sighed.

‘Do you think it’s a bad idea?’

‘No, but I do recall that children can’t visit the Violet District alone.’ she grinned. ‘I suspect your parents knew that when they sent you the ticket?’

Peter blushed and looked at his toes. ‘They didn’t send me the ticket. My father’s salary isn’t due until the end of the month. That is usually when they send me tickets to our child care house. Lady Footstool is good to us and gives us our tickets even if we are smaller than the legal age for visits.’ the boy sniffed and gave Lady Petal a quick glance.

‘You stole it!’ she rang.

‘I – borrowed it, from Henry Hayworth. He owned me one.’ Peter resolved in higher spirits. ‘I didn’t tell on him when he – well, I can’t tell you! So now he’ll just tell his parents he lost his ticket. Now we’re square.’

‘I see.’ Lady Petal stretched her legs under her enormous flowery dress. She then started fanning herself contemplatively.

‘Are you disappointed?’ Peter asked lowering his shoulders. ‘You won’t tell on Lady Footstool, will you?’ he suddenly realized with a start.

‘I won’t tell.’ she said, staring blankly above Peter’s head. ‘I just wish I had your courage a long time ago.’

‘What happened?’

‘I lost someone.’ The fan stopped abruptly and she turned her gaze to the seat next to Peter. She then looked at the boy, with an expression struggling between sadness and amusement.

‘I lost my grandfather actually. He was more like a father to me than a grandfather. I never really knew my father, well not the real Rosemund Petal II, anyway. He was always busy with his perfume business. Papa used to go  away on trips to exotic places to find new fragrances for his perfumes. He, of course, never bothered to ask me or mama if we wanted to join him. That did not bother me terribly, as he could be quite malleable after a few glasses of cherry. But I preferred to stay home and listen to grandpapa tell me stories from the war or how he met grandmama.’ she giggled but then her face darkened and her lip unfurled in disgust.

‘But the greatest sin that my father ever did was to send grandfather away to the Grey District when he got sick.’

The train whistled wildly as it approached an arched stone bridge. This was the crossing between the children’s Blue District and the adult’s Green District. The bridge had Queen Avrig’s seal in gold on a dark marble plate, cemented in one of the stone walls. The tracks stretched over a valley between two rocky hills, filled with birch trees. Their golden and red leaves burnt brightly all the way up to the dark grey clouds. Soon their crowns began to diminish, as stumps gradually  took their place. Speckles of scrap metal and piles of ash splotched the once green grass.

The train took a right turn a couple of minutes after crossing the bridge. Peter peered through the smoke stained windows to see the ochre brick, glass and metal buildings of the Green District. It resembled Lady Petal’s tangled ball of yarn as a cluster of dark green pipes, shooting out of the ground, encircled the buildings of various heights. The taller buildings were manufacturing centers for furniture, appliances and vehicles. They seemed to spiral all the way to the sky with their tops pouring out white smoke and ash. Alit cinder fell like snow over the smaller bungalows all around the soaring buildings. This was the grown ups’ shared accomodation, with sometimes up to eight people under the same roof.   

The train stopped suddenly in front of a large golden gate. The wheels screeched wildly, the crystals hanging from the stove shook back and forth. Beyond the gate Peter could see a white marble manor house, shaped like a round bottle. Its roof looked like a cork with puffs of pink cloud seeping from its pores. A strong scent of roses and lemons came in through the carriage door as it opened from the outside.

‘This is me!’ Lady Petal said and stuffed her knitting, envelope and fan into her tiny purse with lightning speed.

‘Wait!’ Peter cried. ‘What is the Grey District?’

‘You can just sit in that chair until the Violet District. Feel free to take one of my patron crystals from the stove. I use them for various charity causes.’ she laughed sharply. ‘ It will be your proof that you are under my protection today.’

‘Thank you ma’am. But what is it ma’am? The Grey District?’ He ran to the door to hear her answer. Lady Petal was helped down the steps by two stern looking valets. Their expressions contrasted with their white cheeks,  powdered with pink hues. They were dresses in pointy shouldered white coats, with golden buttons and dark pink leggings. Their shoes were golden, with small tassel sprays around the ankles. The shoes had a spraying mechanism that would squeeze the tassel with every step, so that Lady Petal could walk on a ‘carpet of perfume’, as she liked to call it. Lady Petal’s pink and white dress made wavelike patterns as she descended. She then turned towards Peter.

‘I hope you never find out.’ The door closed with a loud thud.

The train whistled, its sound echoing nostalgically through the hills. A haunting reply came from the heart of the Green District. It felt like a wounded cry to Peter, like the cry he once gave after falling from his grandfather’s apple tree. Grandma was there too, with her soothing embrace comforting him until the ambulance steam carriage eventually arrived to their house in the Violet District.

Peter grabbed one of the crystals from the stove. It was lilac, with thin cracks all around. He put it in his trouser pocket and went to sit on Lord Petal I’s seat instead of his son’s. He grabbed one of the cushions, placed his head on it, heavy with questions, and dosed off for a while.

***

Peter was awakened by a guttural laugh. The carriage was now almost full of well dressed, weary looking people in their late sixties. A gentleman wearing a brown felt coat sighed occasionally while reading the newspaper. The headline said “Adults Protest in the Green District while Demands for More Visiting Hours Are Ignored.”

Another, rather large, man next to him was grunting and sharing opinions with an amiable looking lady on the opposite seat.

‘I don’t know Martha,’ he said, ‘the Violet District is oversaturated and the “Privileged” class still don’t have a place to call their own. We should have more comfort! Compartmentalization by efficiency is a great theory to live by, but some have more needs than others!’  

‘I understand my good Sir George! My concern, however, is more to do with the separated families. What is the purpose of separating children from their parents like this? ’ she asked feebly.

‘Parents work better without distractions.’ he snorted as he noticed Peter shrinking into his seat, on the other side of the carriage. He then added, apparently taking no notice of the boy, ‘The privileged should have more than just travel rights between the districts.’

‘I agree!’ added the felt coated gentleman. ‘Harry Hayworth, at your service. I fervently believe the privileged citizens of this country should have their own district.’

‘My thoughts exactly, sir! George Brittlestone, a pleasure to meet you.’

‘I don’t have anything against the underprivileged, of course.’ added Mr. Hayworth cajolingly, ‘It’s just so difficult to find like minded, well read people. People who appreciate high society, theatre, opera, you know what I mean.’

‘I suspect they have little time or money for that.’ mumbled Martha.

‘Nevertheless, one should seek high standard company if one is to progress in any social endeavour.’ Mr. Brittlestone was ruffling uneasily in his seat.

‘I will go today!’ he spat ‘to Her Majesty’s Violet District Advisory Department, to file a petition for a new privilege district. Let’s call it the Gold District!’ and gave a crass chortle.  

‘I’m with you my good sir!’ jubilated Mr. Hayworth. ‘Finally, I can give my grandson, Henry, the future he deserves. He’s wasting his time in that care home. I have no idea why my son had the indignation of refusing my proposal to set him up in a private tutoring house.’

‘That truly is a shame.’ said Martha.

Mr. George Brittlestone gasped as he noticed the boy had left his seat. He rose heavily and surveyed the compartment with an implacable look. ‘Where is he?’ he roared. A sudden heated cough emerged from his voluminous chest, as if choking on his words.

‘Are you all right Sir George?’ Martha enquired in a gentle tone.

‘Ahem, hem, yes, quite alright.’ he replied briefly, still searching the room as he reclined back into his seat. He then added in a subdued voice. ‘There is a stowaway on this train, mark my words. And he’s a boy, without adult supervision. How they let them on these trains I cannot fathom.’

‘Surely we can tell the conductors at our next stop.’ said Mr. Hayworth while fixing his tie. ‘They’ll take care of it…well, of him.’ He then resumed to read his newspaper and the compartment became quiet again.

Peter was hiding under one of the seats, waiting for the train to come to a complete stop. The conductor yelled ‘Violet District!’, but the boy snuck out only after everyone had left. The crowd of elderly people outside was a convenient camouflage for a ten and a half year old. There were a few other people dragging their grandchildren along for the routine grandparents – grandchildren visits.  

It’s been months since Peter had seen his grandfather. The old man had been battling heart problems for a long time and, from what he could tell from his father’s letter, was on his last page. Death is a strange thing for a boy who has hardly seen more in life than overactive children and tired adults. It’s not talked about much and neither should it be, lest it should make the little ones too nostalgic to focus on school. They were only told that grandparents disappear after a while, like a misplaced toy or a glove.  

‘Watch it, boy.’ Peter jumped as a cane pushed him out of the way. He rushed to get to the little alleyways where people keep the trash. He hoped no one would follow him there.  

The conductors patrolled the streets a few times, without much luck in finding him. They had been promptly informed by George Brittlestone as soon as the train had stopped. Peter curled up behind a fence, hiding from the shadows of the officials. Suddenly he got a tap on the shoulder.

‘Hey there friend!’ Peter gasped at seeing the stretched out, crooked smile of a pair of freckled cheeks. A pair of sparkly green eyes and messy, curly red hair followed. ‘My name is Lindy,’ she said and crouched next to Peter. ‘Are you here to see your grandpa?’

‘Y-yes, hi! I’m Peter. I don’t really know how to get to him though. Are you seeing your grandmother?’

‘Grandpa as well, actually. Me and my little brother Bernie.’ she pointed towards a small garbage bag on the side of the alleyway. A large pairs of eyes appeared behind it, gleaming with a complicit smile.

‘This way inspector Norton! I’m positive I heard tiny feet pattering this way.’ Sir George and an apathetic looking officer were rushing towards the alley where Peter and his newly found friends were now hiding.

‘Sir George, you are a respectable gentleman and I have always taken your word seriously,’ the inspector began, ‘I do not see the reasoning, however, behind raising our blood pressure like this.’

‘Inspector, you are the most capable out of all our senior officers. The young recruits brought in from the Green District are too hot headed and superficial.’ Mr. Brittlestone got flustered, snorting heavily.

‘I agree, my good Sir George.’ The inspector turned his stern face into a self pleased smile.

Inspector Norton got out his baton and extended it to a cane. He then began to poke each garbage bag on either side of the alley. His countenance betrayed subdued disgust.

Meanwhile Lindy had dragged Peter through a hole in the wall, along with her brother.

‘There is nothing here, let’s call it a day. We shall wait for reports given by our good senior citizens. They have a tendency to people watch from their gardens, while drinking tea.’

‘A shoe!’ Sir George gasped, foaming with enthusiasm. He ran to the place where he had spotted the little shoe, but it had already disappeared. ‘It was just here! How is this possible?’

‘Please contain yourself my good sir. Patience is the crown of our old age!’

‘Very well said!’ mumbled Mr. Brittlestone, still looking back as he trotted further away from his point of frustration.

Lindy, Peter and Bernie waited for a few more minutes and then slowly crawled out of the wall. Peter saw a few two storey buildings along the alleyway. They were made of sandstone, with large windows and violet curtains.

‘Welcome Peter!’ Lindy whispered. ‘What house do you come from?’

‘Oakwood house, ran by Mrs. Footstool.’ the boy said in one breath.

‘Aaaa, the nice Mrs. Footstool. We got her nasty sister at Willowpond.’ giggled Lindy.

‘She has a nose like a potatoh.’ Bernie hissed through the gap between his teeth.

‘This is Bernie, my brother. He’s four and a bit of a pain. But he loves his grandad.’

‘Pleased to meet you!’ Peter smiled, slightly disappointed that his plan wasn’t original.

‘We’re here to reshcue grandpa Joe!’ spat Bernie, jumping on the spot with glee.

‘Rescue him? From what?’

‘From what they do to grandparents when they’re no longer needed.’ his sister added gravely.

‘Do you mean…the Grey District?’ asked Peter as if not expecting an answer.

‘You know about that?’

‘Someone mentioned it on the train.’

‘It’s a nasty place, where old grandparents are sent to die. It’s said the “death”, as they call it, makes them disappear forever!’ Lindy’s eyes teared up. ‘My grandpa Joe is so old, I’m afraid I might have missed him. He was being sent there when our mother sent us the news.’

‘Oh no, Lindy, I sure hope not!’ Peter sprang with renewed forces. ‘I will help you find grandpa Joe and find my grandfather along the way. Father said he’s no longer home, where we used to visit him. Grandpa Ioan used to live alone, you see, but he could no longer take care of himself.’ Peter froze with terror at a realization. ‘Father said they’ve taken him to a special place where he can receive extra care. You don’t think -.’ Lindy lowered her head and gave a short nod.

 

***

The Violed District was a cluster of two storey houses, like the ones Peter had seen when hiding from the inspector and Sir George. It was speckled here and there with square parks with neatly cut grass, decorative trees and benches. In the middle of the district, a large, circular pavilion was the meeting point for the elderly. They would come there in the mornings, to drink tea, croche, knit, paint, discuss the kingdom’s politics and talk to each other about their successful children, all grown up and busy in the Green District.

A great river surrounded the Violet District, with a stone bridge separating it from the rest of the world. What not many people knew, however, was that another bridge existed, hidden from inquisitive eyes. Lindy, Peter and Bernie were hoping to find it, as their little feet carried them along the river. Their hopes were only based on rumours, but it was the only possible passage to the notorious Grey District. They moved quietly, hiding as often as they could behind gnarly oaks and darksome willows, listening for any danger. Twilight soon rested over the three children, who were exhausted and hungry after a long and fruitless walk.      

‘I’m tired!’ Bernie sat down with a thump.

‘Let’s take a break behind that log by the bank.’ Lindy said, taking out a ham sandwich out of her backpack. ‘Are you hungry, Peter?’ she noticed Peter had no bag with him.

‘A little, but don’t worry about me. I thought we would find them by now.’ His stomach rumbled noisily. He scooped out some water from the river to silence it.

‘Here, have half of my sandwich. Bernie here’s yours. I also have an apple and a banana…oh and some toffees.’ she ended, smiling at her brother.

The stars soon appeared like white paint splotches onto a dark canvas. Time seemed to have stopped for a moment. The wind blew gently through their hair, whispering promises into their ears. The soft rustling of willows, the bubbling brook and the children’s munching were the only sounds that could be heard.

‘Look, a light!’ Bernie jumped, dropping his apple as he pointed at a dimly flickering light in the distance. It seemed to be coming from the river and was slowly moving towards them. A scent of smoked oak soon reached their noses.

‘Be quiet and stay still.’ Lindy whispered.

The light soon faded away and darkness encircled them in deep silence. The river purred softly in the dim moonlight, while the trees kept watch in quiet stillness.

‘I think it’s gone, whatever it was.’ Peter murmured.

‘Time to go! We’re not safe here.’ Lindy said with authority.

A bright light suddenly flooded the place where they stood. A croaking voice laughed with mischief. ‘Well look what the river brought in!’ the voice rang through broken teeth.

The figure stepped into the light, revealing a lean, crouched man, limping slowly towards them.

‘Grandpa Joe?’ Lindy burst out.

‘Crumpets, it’s ginger kitten!’ the old man gasped, ‘and butterball Bernie.’ he added affectionately.

‘I thought they took you away!’ Lindy sniggered and hugged her grandfather. Bernie just stared at his grandfather in amazement, while picking his nose.

‘They wanted to, but I found a good hiding place.’ Joe chuckled. ‘I was on my way there, actually, to get a few more sorry folk onto my boat.’

A siren broke the joyful atmosphere and lights from neighbouring houses scattered like fire.

‘Quick, in my boat!’ the old man urged.

The children clambered in grandpa Joe’s boat. He then turned off his lights and threw a leafy net over the boat. He pushed the boat away from the bank with a long stick and they drifted quietly downstream. A group of marching officers trotted reluctantly towards the bank. The windows of the side houses lay awake like giant orange eyes. The pupils were dark protruding heads, uttering half witted comments.

‘What’s all that racket?’ spat one long head.

‘We need to sleep.’ grunted another square one.

‘I saw some light coming from the river!’ shouted a round head.

‘Tea anyone?’ asked a short one.

‘No thank you!’ a few heads refused politely.

‘Everything is under control!’ one of the officers shouted as the siren stopped, leaving him awkwardly louder than necessary. ‘One of your good neighbours,’ he continued in a softer voice, ‘spotted some suspicious activity in the area.’

‘It was me, I do apologize for the commotion.’ snorted the round head.

‘Ah, Mrs. Brittlestone, it’s the middle of the night!’ croaked the heads on either side of her window.

‘I’ve got chamomile tea! Any takers?’

‘NO THANK YOU!’

They then proceeded to turn off their lights.

‘I am positive you will find some ruffians by the bank, officers.’ Mrs. Brittlestone insisted.

‘Thank you, madam, we’ll take it from here.’ said inspector Norton, who had just joined the group of officers.

‘Oh, I insist to be part of the investigation!’ she rang. Her light turned off before the officers could object.

‘She’s coming, inspector.’ one of the younger officers observed with apprehension.  

‘Let her come, she’s just like her husband Sir George.’

‘Thirsty for justice, sir?’

‘Self-justice.’ inspector Norton corrected with a flicker of his brushlike moustache. ‘Gentlemen,’ he then proceeded in an authoritative voice, ‘several witnesses have confirmed spotting a small group of children roaming freely through town today. We must find them swiftly and discretely, without alarming.. ’, he softened his tone ‘too many senior residents.’

‘Yes, sir!’ they all shouted in unison.

‘Quiet!’ sir Norton grunted.

‘Sorry, sir.’ the officers whispered together.

‘Spread around and look for any signs of camping!’

A deep throated breathing noise came from behind inspector Norton. ‘Yes, Mrs. Brittlestone?’ he smiled diplomatically without turning.

‘You won’t find them here.’ she said, suspiciously calm.

‘Oh?’

‘The boatman has them.’

‘What boatman, my dear madam?’

‘The kind that floats under your nose, while you’re asleep. Is the deportation tomorrow?’

‘Yes, in the morning.’ he finally turned towards her with increased curiosity.

‘I’ve got a good feeling where you might find them.’ she ended, revealing a crooked grin.

***

Grandpa Joe was puffing his pipe contemplatively on the side of the boat. His eyes glimmered with starlight as he stared at the sky. ‘Please God’, he whispered, ‘let us not be too late.’ The little ones were huddled up on large cushions in the hull of the narrow boat. They had revealed all their grand plans to the old man and had fallen into the arms of slumber. He had smiled and laughed conspiratorially at their enthusiasm. It reminded him of a time when he was too young to believe some quests were too hard to accomplish. These children were a reflection of his lost hopes and strengths. Joe began to feel that some of these hopes were clinging onto him once more. He watched the sky until the sun stretched its brush to paint the horizon with gold and pink hues.

‘Grandpa?’ Lindy trudged next to her grandfather, her frizzy hair reaching epic proportions.

‘What’s the matter kitten?’ he wiped the tears from his ancient eyes.

‘I’m glad I found you!’ she smiled and hugged him. ‘But I wish to find Peter’s grandpa too.’

‘I know kitten, we’ll find him together.’

‘Do you know where he is?’ Lindy’s eyes opened up with a bright shine.

‘I have a good idea where he might be. Is everybody up?’

‘Yes, they’re ready for breakfast.’

Peter was still rubbing his eyes when grandpa Joe walked in and poured a giant pot of fishy gruel into a few bowls.

‘Ewww, what’s that shmell?’ Bernie said as she finally got up.

‘Breakfast dear, eat up and then we’re going to the departure pit in the Grey District.’ he added as if describing a field trip.

‘Pit like under pits?’ Bernie giggled.

‘It sure smells like it there Bernie.’ Grandpa Joe forced an encouraging smile. ‘I should know.’

After breakfast the children followed Joe along the river bank. They had hidden the boat under a couple of willows. Peter felt anxious, but couldn’t understand why. He understood that grandparents can disappear when they’re too frail to be of use any longer. It’s what grown ups call death. He understood from grandpa Joe that the departure pit was a cruel, smelly place. Is death really as bad as his friends made it out to be? Why do people die?

‘Grandpa Joe?’ Peter began, running to catch up with the long legged old man.

‘Yes ma boy? Don’t be too eager, you’d be amazed at how many coffee drinking, cat stroking, window peering old roosters there are around these parts.’ He gave a toothless crackle of a laugh, his eyes twinkling with conspiracy.

They were now on the outskirts of the Violet District. The river ran through a small thicket of trees. Painted wood houses could be seen seeping through the trees. Some of them had streaks of smoke puffing gently in the morning light.

‘Are we really going to the place where grandpas disappear?’

‘Right you are, in the middle of it all! Some of you might still find them there if you haven’t heard from your pa’s and ma’s in a while. I know Lindy would have found me there if it wasn’t for my escape.’ He gave a bittersweet smile as Lindy leapt to grab his hand.

‘So grandpas can still be found? They don’t go forever?’ Peter asked with hope.

Grandpa Joe patted Peter on the back, but could not answer him.

‘How did you escape? Did you fight all the officers with your strong fists?’ Lindy smiled.

‘Did you burp really loudly and scared all the birds to fly into the bad men?’ Bernie added trotting behind his sister.

‘There are no bad men, children, only misunderstood ones.’

Grandpa Joe became very quiet and contemplative for a while. His walk became heavier and his frown deeper as he shrank lower and lower behind a tree. The children followed like pebbles tumbling in a brook.

‘Listen to what I’m telling you, oddballs. We’re here to look for your ma’s and pa’s. We’re not leaping like hungry caterpillars at a giant leaf. If you see them, I’ll go and turn myself in. I’m the only one who knows the way out.’ His moustache bristled with determination.

‘Grandpa you can’t leave us!’ Lindy’s eyes swelled up with tears.

‘Ginger kitten, I’m not leaving you. I’ll show those old bats the way out and come right back at you. Once I give you the all’s clear, you can come and greet them.’

They stopped on the cusp of a bleak, misty valley. A dark, heavy smell of firewood and wet dog entered their nostrils. Smog had covered the ground with grey ashes. The wind stood still, the air thick and warm with despair. At the feet of a wandering old man and three children stood the place where hope goes to its deathbed, the departure pit.

After waiting for the morning mist to lift, the children could see a tall fence surrounding a group of small brick huts. In the middle of the fenced area a giant pit fumed slowly. A thick grey moat surrounded the fence, with only one bridge connecting the recluse island to the mainland. A small blue bus drove slowly over it and waited for two heavy iron gates to open. A deep, melancholic screeching noise echoed through the valley. The bus drove through the gates and stopped in front of the fuming pit. A stout driver stepped out with a grave walk, his uniform tight around his belly. He opened the bus door with a jerk.

‘Everybody out, deportation time!’ he groaned with a deep voice.

Pairs of half bent, half limping elders stepped out with the help of three softly spoken nurses. They were saying things like ‘ Alright dearies’, ‘Here we go’, ‘We’ll soon have a cup of tea.’ or ‘How do you feel about watching some telly?’ Responses were retorted with feeble moans or forgetful laughs or the odd ‘How is Bessie dear, did she pack her bags?’

These lonely souls, either with indifferent relatives or dissipating minds were, as the districts called them, inefficient to society. Their minds could no longer count numbers, their hands could not lift items heavier than a spoon and their voices had little sense left. Here was the place where they went to be forgotten or to forget the world they left behind.

One lanky middle aged man pushed a cart filled with luggage through the mud. He stopped when reaching the pit and reluctantly started lifting and throwing the contents onto the ground. The three nurses took each suitcase in turn and rummaged through meticulously. They were all wearing pastel coloured clothing with white aprons and had neatly combed hair.

‘You won’t be needing this, Mrs. Matthews.’ said a plump looking nurse as she took out an alarm clock with flowers encrusted on the sides. She then flung it smiling into the pit.

‘Families are no longer needed now, I’m afraid, they will only increase suffering.’ said another nurse, with a rather large nose, and threw a framed photograph into the pit.

‘Sir, you don’t seem to have a name tag, what is your name? ’ asked a third, bulky nurse, with the arms of a man, as she took out a toy train from an old man’s suitcase.

‘Ioan Arinis.’ said the old man reluctantly. ‘I wasn’t given time to get a name tag.’ he added.

‘Well, yes, these procedures can be quite rapid and the inessentials get lost along the way.’ she then turned to throw the train into the pit.

‘No!’ Ioan burst ‘l-l-leave the train.’ he stuttered.

‘I’m sorry Mr. Arinis, but you won’t be needing this. You have all the comforts in your forget-me-not-house.’

‘I-I don’t want to forget.’ he pleaded and grabbed onto the nurse’s arm.

‘Mr. Arinis please keep still!’ she demanded and signaled to the other nurses with a raised chin and tight lips. They immediately took hold of him.

‘What is it that you don’t want to forget?’ she now asked with visibly reduced anxiety.

Ioan bowed his head under the strain of tears.

‘Or…should I say..who is it that you don’t want to forget?’ the nurse added with a sugar coated tone.

‘Grandpa!’ a voice bellowed from the gates. Peter was running wildly towards his grandfather.

‘Firecrackers in my pyjamas!’ grandpa Joe exclaimed, still on top of the hill. He had lost track of the boy as he had snuck down the hill quietly.

‘Stop that boy!’ the three nurses hissed.

The round driver stretched out his arms to grab him, but Peter dove under and stopped into his grandfather’s arms.

‘Quick, oddballs,’ grandpa Joe urged, ‘we don’t have much time! After me!’

The children and grandpa Joe ran clumsily down the hill as the gates were shutting with an eerie echo. Peter and his grandfather were separated by two of the nurses.

‘There are no visiting hours here, young man.’ the manly nurse spat, clasping his arm like a boa constrictor.

‘Peter, my boy, you shouldn’t have come.’ grandpa Ioan said in a feeble voice.

The gates opened once more and in the middle of their frame stood Mr. and Mrs. Brittlestone, with inspector Norton and a dozen officers. Grandpa Joe and the rest of the children were being pushed forward with sharp canes. George Brittlestone rubbed his hands and licked his lips with satisfaction.

‘Ah, here we are.’ he snorted, a few stowaways forgetting their place. ‘To the pit!’ he demanded with menacing eyes.

The officers did as they were instructed.

‘No more children in the Grey District and those that call themselves children should be no more.’ Mrs. Brittlestone uttered prophetically.

Peter looked at Lindy and Bernie who were holding grandpa Joe’s hands. Lindy’s gaze was downwards, the blush had lifted from her cheeks. The group was now at the brink of the pit. The strong armed nurse grabbed grandpa Joe and turned him towards her with force. ‘You look familiar’, she smiled with contempt.

‘Throw them in.’ rang Mrs. Alma Brittlestone, wringing her hands maliciously.

‘Madam, I’m not sure that is within the protocol.’ protested inspector Norton, surprised at her outburst.

‘The lines are grey here, my good sir Norton.’ Mr. Brittlestone laughed stupidly at his own pun.

One of the brick houses started descending into the ground, similar to a lift.

‘Who ordered that?’ demanded the plump nurse, trying to look taller than she was.

Three of the officers, led by inspector Norton walked towards what was now a submerged roof. A moment of silence followed, as the view reminded the senior looker-ons of a tombstone.  

‘Was someone inside?’ asked Peter, breaking the silence with a crude realization.

‘Not yet, my boy.’ whispered grandpa Ioan with a sigh.

‘Quiet you two!’ grunted the large armed nurse. ‘If you’re up to something, mark my words, you’ll be in for bitter tears.’ Her fingers were now digging into Peter’s shoulders.

Silence settled once more and it seemed heavy and long. Lindy could hear Bernie’s heart beating. Peter looked at his grandad who seemed to be praying under his breath. ‘All will be well!’ he finally said.

A clunking sound soon emerged from the gravelike structure as it slowly lifted to its original place. Bustling, breaking and mumbling noises could be heard from inside. A familiar sudden laughter soon emerged as the door sprung open.

A few dozen children came racing outside, their eager eyes searching for their beloved grandparents. Their shouting and cheering filled the valley with the joyful sounds of childhood.  Behind them, fanning herself vigorously, lady Daria Petal advanced with a cheeky smile.

‘What is this nonsense?’ the Brittlestones shrieked with indignation.

‘Lady Petal!’ inspector Norton greeted her, taking his hat off with respect. ‘What brings your ladyship here…in such a fashion?’

‘Ah, I was hoping to find you here inspector.’ she smiled with a shrew look. ‘As adviser to Her Majesty, I managed to finalize the plans for dissolving the Grey District.’

‘WHAT?’ George Brittlestone foamed with anger. ‘What do you mean, DISSOLVE? Where are the inefficient old hags to go?’

‘I believe this official document,’ lady Petal continued unsinged, ‘will attest the proposal of having grandchildren look after their grandparents and…erm, old hags as you call them.’ She then handed a sealed letter to inspector Norton.

‘But this is absurd!’ Mrs. Alma Brittlestone clenched her teeth. ‘Children are incompetent – little – rodents.’ she erupted and rushed to grab Bernie from his grandfather’s grasp.

‘Contain yourself madam.’ Sir Norton removed Mrs. Brittlestone from her prey with one arm, while reviewing the document. ‘It seems legitimate.’

He cleared his throat and gave a minuscule smile. ‘Officers, please escort our young and elderly folk to the Blue District and make sure they are taken care of properly.’

The children rejoiced with confusion and gratitude, while The Brittlestones were circling around the group like a couple of hungry vultures. Everyone was slowly walking towards the gates, trying to make sense of their newly found freedom.

‘Lady Petal!’ Peter finally burst out, ‘Thank you, thank you so much!’

‘Ah, it is you Peter that I should thank. You reminded me of the one person that I truly cared about.’ she then shook Peter’s hand and he noticed her golden ring had disappeared.

‘Did you get in trouble because of me?’ he continued humbly.

‘I pulled a few strings…and broke some of them.’ she laughed and gave him a hug. ‘Let’s just say this is the dawn of a new era, to make it sound dramatic.’ Lady Petal flung her head back, then lifted her pink dress slightly as she stepped over a puddle, towards grandpa Ioan. ‘You must be the lost grandfather!’ she smiled and raised her right hand to his lips.

‘Ioan Arinis, ma’am, the pleasure is all mine.’ he bowed to kiss Lady Petal’s white fingers.

Lady Petal gave him a wink, which soon turned into a squint as the small blue bus splashed her with muddy water. The bus raced past them, with the apathetic faces of the three nurses in the back. Lady Petal used her fan to shake the moment and the water off and then quickly turned to Peter.

‘Now, how would you and your friends feel about some nice rose tea and honey?’

‘Oh yes pleashe!’ Bernie shouted from a few feet in front. ‘And then all the pa’s and ma’s can come to our houshe and live there forever!’ he jumped with glee. Everyone became silent.

‘That’s a story for another time, ma boy.’ grandpa Joe ended with a smile, as they stepped over the bridge and out of the Grey District.

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Chasing the Light, Stories

Murmur

A writing exercise done during a Bath Writers: Beyond the Margins meeting…

Someone let the cat out in the rain. Or did it leave by itself? Doing what most people at the Broken Institute could not do. The cat stepped reluctantly onto the wet grass. Its white persian fur was covered in hard dents of rain. It shivered, but stepped forward.

Soon the windows of the building were filled with faces. Porcelain faces of people wrung with regret. Their hands flattened against the glass. One red haired lady mouthed the word ‘Murmur’. She was dressed in her lavender nightgown at four in the afternoon. ‘Come back!’ she whispered.

Her eyes were swollen from the tears she had cried in the morning. But Murmur had comforted her then. The cat would come to each room, to be stroked. It would start with her, Lorelei, and then walk to each of her neighbours. From morning till dusk Murmur was the sole comforter. It would hear each sigh, and wipe even the smallest tear away. It would listen to stories of woe, of lost children, of burnt down houses or harsh words, spoken at a wrong time.

At night, Murmur would rest by the fireplace, where it could lay aside the worries of the day. But now someone had let the cat out. Or maybe it left by itself. Maybe it thought people could comfort each other. Or at least step out into the rain.

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Chasing the Light, Stories, Thoughts About Life

The Songs of Birds

magnolia

God gave the sweetest melody to the smallest of birds. A cluster of goldcrests fly from branch to branch. Their little tails shake with anticipation, while their beaks are picking at the sweet flowers. Ah and the tree, a magnificent giant covered in ivy! I can’t even see its trunk or begin to decide what family of trees it belongs to. It stands there, with its crooked branches pleading to the heavens. Covered in parasitic veins and leaves, it breathes heavily. The bark bleeds under the tight grip of the ivy, but it still finds love for the little creatures that play amongst its withered forms.

The tree reminds me of a man, whose once rich possessions have succumbed to decay and misfortune. His status, albeit stained by wretched gossip, strains to stay afloat. He sits on a chest in the middle of his once grand, now empty, ballroom. His eyes close with delight as the soft voices of songs once sung there caress his soul. ‘I have lost my worldly glory.’ he whispers. ‘I have seen the cruelty of man at its peak and have tasted the bitterness of poisonous lips!’

‘Alas’, he sighs, ‘But I cannot forget the beauty of man’s soul when he loves. And when one loves, one sings! I shall have one last ball here, with the last of my earthly possessions. Let the grandest singers and musicians come and share their tunes! And after everyone has heard their songs and got their fill of gladness, I shall go into the world happy. Poor in my attire, but rich in my heart.’

Such is this tree as it listens to the goldcrests and black birds nesting in its wounds. For this tree is wiser than me. It bears its pain with patience, listening for what rings true and lets it rest on its shoulders. It does not shake the winged messengers away, but rejoices in their gifts. The tree knows that its roots are deep inside the earth and that the ivy is tight around its neck. It also knows that the songs of birds speak of a world it cannot yet see, but whose beauty and truth bring a promise of freedom.

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Chasing the Light, Stories, Thoughts About Life, Traveling

Lost in the Forest of Dean

Silence never felt so deep and yet, I was not alone. I looked up at the haunting sway of trees, their branches both sheltering and menacing me. A gun was shot in the heart of the forest. My heart stopped for a moment. My flee from the Dean’s castle had not gone unnoticed. But I could not marry this shadow of a man. He who had lurked in darkness, watching his own men die on the battlefield.

trees

I knew a place where I would be safe, The Speech House. The lady of the house would surely host me and send my pursuers away. I stepped over the moss covered branches, pressing them deeper into the mud. My feet were cold and wet, but eager to make haste. The sky was on the brink of sunset and I seemed to have lost my way.

A crow hissed a warning as I got closer to its nest. I took that as an omen to turn away. How long had I been running for? Hours, perhaps, but they weighed on me like days. At last I could see the welcoming lights of the manor house on top of a hill. The statue of a stag watched over me as I squelched my way up the hill. I could hear hushed voices amongst the trees.

My dress got hooked by a thorny branch. I turned to untangle it. My eyes filled with fright at the sight of four men with their hunting dogs on thick leather leads. As I forced myself free I could hear the sound of the leads being set loose. With the last bit of breath I flung myself over the massive oak doors of the Speech House. They were locked! ‘Let me in!’ I cried. The dogs were almost at my feet, their growls drew nearer with every pound on the door. I covered my face in anticipation of a fierce encounter.

*

The doors of the bus open. I have been waiting in the snow covered night for half an hour in front of The Speech House, in the Forest of Dean. ‘Are you going to Coleford and then Gloucester?’ I ask the driver, a young man, not more than twenty two. ‘Yes, there are no other buses coming this way.’ ‘You saved me!’ I say. ‘I would have been stuck here for the night if it wasn’t for you.’ I get in, shivering from head to toe. At least I can get home now. What an adventure it was!

 

 

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Chasing the Light, Stories, Voice Mountain

Voice Mountain – Ch. 2

(!) Read Chapter 1 here.

Ten years later …

‘Your hands are floating along the keys, Josephine. You don’t have enough precision.’

Josephine was now a young woman of only 17, sitting up straight onto a dark mahogany stool. She was wearing a white linen, frilly dress, which swooped all the way down to her knees. She immediately corrected her technique, intently studying the music sheet. Mrs. Sylvia Prackson was reclined in a green velvet armchair, with her legs crossed and tapping the timing with her right foot.

The large grandfather clock on the other side of the broad living room struck 9 am. Rays of sunlight splashed round spots of red, green and yellow through the stained glass windows. Only one set of windows was transparent and they also served the purpose of a set of doors towards a rose garden.

Mrs. Prackson raised from her armchair and with rhythmic footsteps, matching the grandfather clock’s ticking sound, walked towards the garden windows. She lifted a long, wrinkled, white hand to pull a small rope, residing next to the windows. They opened smoothly with a slight clicking sound every 5 degrees.

Josephine, who had been playing solemnly until that very moment, suddenly stopped. She turned to see the tall, slim figure of her music teacher, soaked in sunlight. Mrs. Prackson was facing the garden with her left hand on her hip and her right arm folded against the rim of the door. Josephine admired her bright blue silk dress, shining in the sunlight as she half turned and said, ‘I didn’t say stop. You still have 4 bars left.’

As she said that, Sylvia stepped into the garden, grabbing a pair of metallic scissors from  a little toolbox hung on the outside wall. Josephine finished playing the piece and then quickly turned again to see Mrs. Prackson returning with a small red rose. ‘Perfection!’ she exclaimed. ‘Behold a creature that  knows nothing of praise, but still manages to attain the measurements of the golden mean.’

Mrs. Prackson walked to a round mahogany table, with stained glass motifs encrusted in its top. She gently placed the rose in a thin, clear glass vase, with a spherical bottom. Her long fingers brushed over the bright petals as she dropped a round pebble of salts in the vase. She watched as it dissolved with a light hiss in clouds of grey fumes. In a matter of seconds, the water was still again and Sylvia turned towards Josephine.

‘You must return by the time this rose withers, or else your talents too, shall wither. I have cut this rose from its source to show you how important it is to stay connected to a moving system of parts that work together. No more absences!’ she ended.

The living room door suddenly opened with the same clicking noise as the garden doors. Sylvia’s right arm was stretched towards it at a perfect 90 degree angle. Her chin was raised and fixed, while her brilliant green eyes were following Josephine out of the room. ‘Thank you Mrs. Prackson!’ she whispered mechanically as the front doors in the hall adjacent to the living room also opened.

She curtsied and walked away in a rhythmic fashion, slightly out of sync with the grandfather clock. ‘Same time next week then’, she uttered as the front doors were closing in front of her.

Josephine turned around to see Blossom Square in a frantic, but also organized state. School children were running around with large leather backpacks, with more books than their little bodies could handle. Their mothers and, occasionally fathers, would follow them with measured steps and composed features, without the slightest glimpse of remorse or surprize.

‘Good day miss Arundel, may I say that your complexion is most exquisite today!’, said a young man of impeccable posture as he beamed confidently towards Josephine.

‘Charming as always, my good Mr. Tickson’, she replied diplomatically. ‘I hope that my spirit will follow through with my flawless outward appearance.’

‘Do call me Richard, I believe our acquaintance has exceeded the allowed time for pointless formalities. See you in class!’ he concluded with a sharp nod and went on his way with an energetic trot, that reminded Josephine of the metronome on top of Mrs. Prackson’s piano.

The cherry tree, in the middle of the square she now stood in, shone of sap green and golden hues, as autumn was starting its long reign. A small group of children was forming a circle around it, while a tall, elegant lady was measuring the radius, with the help of a foldable ruler.

‘Not much progress since last year,’ she uttered briskly. Her name was Monica Mathews and was the local school’s most acclaimed geometry teacher. Monica followed Josephine’s weary walk for a while and sighed to herself. ‘The angular velocity is disproportionate to the global displacement field.’ she said to herself and then turned 180 degrees on her toes. ‘What else do we need to measure today, children?’

A little girl, dressed in a checkered uniform, thrust her arm up in the air. ‘Yes Caroline!’ ‘We need to count the number of trees along the Cosine river, to ensure enough support is provided for the river bank.’

‘Very well done Caroline! You’ve been reading ahead. Indeed children, everything must be counted, measured and analyzed. If we have the data, we have control over our lives.’ The children nodded and followed lady Mathews in what looked like a miniature army march. Their backpacks were bobbing up and down, in an attempt to balance the weight of the many books inside.

Josephine was walking slowly towards the school, which resided in the east part of town. Her gaze lifted from the ground where she had been projecting her thoughts, to see the school entrance sign: “Arundel School of Sciences.” and the motto “A man without knowledge is like a tree without roots.” The school bore her family name as Josephine’s ancestry was one of great mathematicians, physicists and chemists.

The first half of a normal school day consisted of theoretical lectures, while the second half was dedicated to practical experimentation. Josephine’s feet turned towards lecture hall 301, where her father, Frederick Arundel, was waiting for his students. His field of study was Sensory Physics, the physics of the five senses. Optical Acoustics was his speciality and where he spent most of his life researching and publishing for national journals of Applied Science.

‘Welcome Josephine! I see you decided to join us today. The forest did not tempt you to study its path distribution?’

‘Father, you don’t always have to be so formal.’ Josephine replied with a hard sigh, as she took her seat, at desk 14A, in the middle of the class.

Every number had an exact purpose in Arundel school, even in the classroom.  The door number represented the advanced year and month the students were in. The seat number represented the current level of knowledge attained by the student. There were 10 years of study in the Arundel School: 4 for basic sciences, 3 for intermediate and 3 for advanced sciences.

Everyone was seated in respectful expectation. Professor Frederick was a very clear and confident speaker and knew all the most recent discoveries in his field. ‘A breakthrough has been made this week,’ he began, ‘Professor Gabriel Armitage from the Institute of Renewable energy in Brookcastle has created a perpetuum mobile.’

The class applauded in sync, creating a light echo around the classroom. ‘Since Valleycross is 30 miles away from Brookcastle, we are expecting to view a demonstration in the following month.’ he concluded with a slight sign of enthusiasm.

Frederick then turned on the spot and lifted a black board with acute precision. ‘Today we’ll be discussing how we can preserve and chanel the sounds we produce so that they can travel longer distances.’ His eyebrows broke into a realization and spoke more to himself than to his class. ‘With professor Armitage’s recent discovery, we will be able to apply the perpetuum mobile principles to sound propagation. Telephones will no longer be needed to communicate long distances.’

The alarm went off. Dark, grey clouds were cramming over the little village of Valleycross with urgency. The alarm sound was a combination of a thunder and a sharp ping sound that becomes irritating to one’s ear after a long period of time. Everyone rose without a word, almost like someone had shot them out of their seats at the same moment.

‘A storm is coming. The weather forecast was inaccurate today. I’ll have a word with the meteorology department as soon as possible. For now, please take your student cards and proceed to the emergency bunker on level -3 and wait there for instructions.’ Everyone turned 180 degrees, except Margaret Button, a plump, red haired girl with rosy cheeks and teary eyes. ‘I can’t find my student card’, she pleaded, visibly worried.

Frederick clenched his teeth slightly, but answered calmly. ‘You won’t find it in a rush. Head down with the others and we’ll see what we can do.’ He stomped his right foot twice to grab Margaret’s attention, who was still rummaging in her bag. She saw his left arm lift at a 90 degree angle towards the door, with a subdued, encouraging smile. Margaret wiped her tears quickly and jogged out of the room to join the others.

The bunker was a set of three underground floors, made of a corrosion free metal alloy. Each level was made for each of the school’s expertise levels, basic, intermediate and advanced. Students would travel between the different levels by using the large square lift in the middle of the school. It could carry up to 50 people and was powered by four furious pistons on each level. The lift walls were made of brass, with a door on each side. The school’s emblem, of a sparrow flying along the golden spiral, was encrusted in the door which faced the main entrance on the ground floor.

Floor three filled up the lift and waited patiently for it to descend. As soon as they got to level -3, the doors opened like a swift cut of the knife in all four directions. Students divided with staggering precision into four groups of equal number. Each group chose the closest exit from the lift and walked towards the empty, dark space in front of them. (…)

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Chasing the Light, Stories, Voice Mountain

Voice Mountain – Ch. 1

(!) Read Chapter 2 here.

Silence grew deep over the valley, not a voice could be heard, not a breath could be felt. As soon as the last tired head tilted to enter his abode after a long day’s work, the sun sank completely.

Soft clouds of white smoke puffed contemplatively over the dark blue sky.  A recluse star here and there shimmered over the vast desert of dusk. Their quiet sigh remained unheard by the stone walls of the houses below.

A velvet cat went sharply over the cobblestones, brushing their damp shine with its furry paws. She turned on one of the many lonely alleyways with confidence that not a soul would cross her path.

The cat stopped briskly, her ears pricked with fright. She hid into the shadows of the houses on either side of the alley. A most peculiar scene opened up in the square in front of her.

An old, tall cherry tree stood in the centre of the perfectly symmetrical square of dark grey stone. It was in full bloom and its wide, thick branches resembled the arms of a young woman, struggling to hold a large bouquet of light pink flowers.

Eight narrow paths stemmed from the tree’s roots and led into the different corners of the village. The cat was on the south side of the square, peering attentively at a small, white figure straggling rapidly from the east side. Moonlight revealed the features of a little girl with long, blond curls. She was stomping clumsily towards the tree, with her bare feet in what seemed to a be an ivory nightgown.

With one big leap she finished her run, embracing the cherry tree. For one moment there was silence again. The minute whirlpool of distraction got absorbed by the stillness of the now darker and colder night. A gentle sob then suddenly reached the cat’s focused ears. It was as light and subdued as a thread of wind bowing down to a storm. No one could hear it but the cat.

No sooner had the little girl started crying than a mountain of a man appeared at the edge of the square, where the little girl had come from. His steps were well measured, his arms moved with the precision of a newly wound clock. He neither rushed, nor lagged in his walk towards the cherry tree. A countenance of irritation however, revealed the nature of the man’s feelings.

‘It is 15 minutes past your bedtime Josephine!’ uttered the man with a stern tone of cool disappointment. He had reached the girl in a few of his large footsteps and was now casting a shadow over her softly trembling figure.

Josephine lifted up her round face to look at her father with a pair of clear blue eyes. They were filled with warm tears, which would gently take turns in sliding down her rosy cheeks. Her arms were overstretched, grasping as much of the tree as she could manage. Her little white fingers were digging slowly into the bark as if they were trying to find a way inside.

‘Tomorrow is your first day of school, Josephine. You need a good rest to be productive.’ he said, while bending swiftly to pick the little girl up.

Josephine’s cry intensified and turned into a desperate wail. Her agitation bent her father’s brows for a split second. They soon regained their straight resting place as he contained his daughter’s chaotic arms and legs with a firm grip of his strong right arm.

‘Hush now, you don’t want to wake Mr. and Mrs. Pracktson, do you?’ whispered the father harshly.

Josephine stopped her exasperate gasps as she recognized the door of her piano teacher. The dim street lamps were bright enough to distinguish the old, green paint, scratched in places by demanding cats and the golden number 34 in the top center of it. The child resumed to rest her weary curls on her father’s right shoulder as her glimpse of the cherry tree slowly faded.

As the footsteps drew further away, silence returned to claim its stiff and icy throne. It seemed like all breathing had stopped and the air was devoid of even the wind’s whisper.

The feline witness was still hidden in the shadows and was now watching the tree with acute interest. A few flowers suddenly dropped from the cherry tree. The cat was now on her belly, crawling cautiously towards it. One of the branches started swaying up and down in the moonlight, as the silhouette of a small, black bird appeared on its tip.

With its breast filled with the fresh night air, the black bird commenced a sweet and gentle tune. Its melody filled the square with a light echo, like a verse between two lovers who have regained their lost love.

The song ceased as abruptly as it had begun and the little black bird took off in a frantic flight. A disappointed cat now clung bitterly to the branch onto which the bird had been perched just a moment ago. The cat yawned with disdain and jumped softly onto the ground below. She twisted her tail back and forth a few times and walked proudly towards number 34.

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