It’s raining, I’m holed up in my lil’ brick house in the Dutch-lands, and it’s time to bloooog. Instead of Tidbits and Interestings, which is where I talk about unrelated things that delight me, I’m going to do a blog-series called Tidbits of Cinders in run-up to the release of Cinders and Sparrows in October. I’ll be sharing music, artwork, news, reviews, deleted scenes, flattery, calumny, and various other bits and bobs, including a project!
During revisions, one of my editor’s notes was that Blackbird Castle felt like ‘a moving banquet’ (which is a nice way of saying ‘it’s unclear’) and that I should make a floorplan. So I sketched out a rough one, and then said to myself, “Weeeeee, what if other people could see this floorplan and explore the castle the way Zita does, and visit the Vestibule of Blood and see where exactly the Orchid Room is in relation to the Tiny Queen’s Throne Room?” to which I answered, “Yes, what then, Stefan?” to which I also answered, “I don’t know, but I shall do it.”
And then my mom, who is excellent at these sorts of things, made it look like something one would actually want to look at. (Thanks, Mom!)
I won’t show you what it will look like when it’s up, but it will be snazzy. You’ll be able to click on rooms and view little anecdotes about various hauntings, and see spot-art of spooky phenomena, and get glimpses into Zita’s adventures.
Fun fact: I used to be obsessed with floor-plans as a kid. I wanted to be an architect, and I remember filling entire notepads with floor-plans of imaginary castles and mansions, most of them impossibly large and impractical.
2nd fun fact: When I realized being an architect hardly ever entailed designing impossibly large and impractical mansions and mostly entailed fitting boring concrete blocks into oddly shaped plots of land, I stopped wanting to be an architect.
3rd fun fact: All of my books contain at least one bizarre and labyrinthine house. In The Peculiar it was Nonsuch House, the home of Mr. Lickerish, the faery politican. In The Whatnot it was Piscaltine’s house, with its painted, ever-shifting stage walls and pulleys. In A Drop of Night it was . . . everything. The whole setting. And in Cinders and Sparrows it’s Blackbird Castle.
I blame The Secret Garden for this (When Mrs. Medlock said, ‘The house has over a hundred rooms. . .” I felt that) and maybe also Beatrix Potter’s kitten stories, where the kittens wander this enormous farmhouse full of cupboards and staircases, before one of them becomes bored, climbs a chimney, and is almost turned into a roly-poly pudding by rats. (If you haven’t read The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, you should. Read it to yourself. Read it to your kids. Read it to your cats. It will teach them never to climb chimneys, give them a healthy fear of rats, and also illuminate the very important differences between a British pudding and an American one.)
4th fun fact: though we’ve only made floorplans of the first and second floors of Blackbird Castle so far, I’m guessing the castle has about five floors and 150 actual rooms, as well as countless antechambers, vestibules, corridors, cellars, dungeons, and attics, most of which are odd or haunted in some way. The game is going to have descriptions of about twenty of those rooms. Maybe more will come later.
Anywho. Someone who is very clever with the language of code is going to make it interactive, and hopefully it’ll be up in a month or two, closer to the book’s release. Huge thanks to my mom for all the lovely artwork.
*blows dust off of blog*
*sweeps out cobwebs*
*pushes antiquated plug-ins from upper window*
It’s been ̶a̶ ̶m̶i̶n̶u̶t̶e̶ a year, but I have a new book coming out, weeeeee, and it’s lovely, and I hope people like it. It feels weird to talk about writing and books now when I’ve just kind of forgotten about the internet and ignored everything except Instagram, where all I do is scroll through delectable recipes and post pictures of my bike rides. But anyway. . .
Here it is, the cover for my next book, Cinders and Sparrows! It is beauteous and fair, and I love it. Many thanks to the Balbusso Sisters for the artwork, and Paul Zakris for the book design, and my editor and Greenwillow/HarperCollins for being the best publisher anyone could ever ask for.
Thirteen-year-old Zita Brydgeborne doesn’t know the first thing about being a witch. Then, one moment to the next, she is whisked from being a housemaid in a tiny village to inheriting a castle, an enchanted wood, and entire rooms full of ghosts, treasures, and mysterious secrets.
But Zita soon realizes her newfound fortune comes with a world of trouble. Her long-lost family – a glamorous dynasty of witches who have long stood as a bastion against the lands of the dead – has been murdered, snuffed out by some sinister foe from the spirit realm, and her guardian, the beautiful Mrs. Cantanker, does not seem to have her best interests at heart.
As Zita navigates the perilous halls of her new home, she finds herself thrust into a magical battle of wills between the living and the dead. It will require every ounce of cunning, friendship, and secret power she can find, because whatever killed her family is now after her.
Out October 13th, 2020! (Just in time for Halloween, yas . . . It’s a very Halloween-ish sort of tale, with many ghosts and enchanted trees and heinous curses.)
Some of you may have already seen this on Twitter or Instagram, but those are quick and flighty platforms, and is anything really official before it’s been carved into the unbreakable, everlasting stone of WordPress? I think not. So. . .
I HAVE A NEW BOOK COMING OUT.
I’ve been very slow at writing these past three years. My last book was released in the US in 2016. In 2017 I graduated and intern’d in Prague. In 2018 I military’d and did quite a few other life-changing things like moving to Berlin. 2016 – 2018 I worked on a book that I love dearly but isn’t ready yet.
BUT . . . In 2018 I also wrote another book, and I’m so very pleased and excited to say that CINDERS & SPARROWS will be out Fall 2020 from Greenwillow/HarperCollins!!!!
It takes place in a pseudo-Victorian world run by dynasties of glamorous witches. An orphan named Zita Brydgeborne is plucked from obscurity when it’s discovered she’s the last surviving heir to a distant castle whose original inhabitants have all been assassinated while breakfasting. Needless to say, all is not well in that castle.
It’s basically my take on a Gothic novel, but for children, and with a lot more magic and monsters, ghosts, boneyards, and skullduggery going on.
Also, I saw the cover art the other day and it’s lovely, and I just want to say thank you to my awesome editor and agent, and to Greenwillow for continuing to let me write books. I’m beyond lucky and grateful to be working with these people.
So. . .
Mark your calendars! Add it on Goodreads! Rename your firstborn! Or just return to whatever you were doing before you read this post on the internet about some book among 47,000 other books! Regardless, I’m super excited. Writing this book was a startlingly enjoyable experience, and while its release is still a while off, I can’t wait to share this story with you guys. 🙂
(The purple lemon socks will come at the end. They will have their moment. It will make sense. Sort of. Yes.)
Updates! I went to Switzerland a few weeks ago for some readings. It was very brief, so I’m sorry if I missed you. I’ll be back for a bit longer around Christmas, since my big ol’ family is going to be gathering in the childhood home before it’s absolutely GUTTED and rebuilt into a splendid modern contraption.
(Which will be sad. I mean, objectively, it’s probably going to become a much nicer house, but it’s centuries old and I’m going to miss its creakiness and drafty-ness and quirks and foibles, mice, spiders, towers of books, and random chandeliers.)
“No one cares about your trifling nostalgia, Stefan, get to to updating.”
A thing happened. You know Monster Middle Grade? The book I’ve been working for years and years, and is very dear to me? I’m shelving it. Temporarily.
Ok, Monster Middle Grade is too big and strange and unwieldy and is going on-hold and I’m hunkering down to finish another book these next two weeks to send to my editor, accckkkkk. I hope it goes well. See you on the other side!! 🗡️🐦👻🕸️🕷️🐦⛰️🏰☠️🐦💥🌔
— Stefan Bachmann (@Stefan_Bachmann) November 20, 2018
Monster Middle Grade will probably still see the light of day at some point, in some form, but it’s huge and complicated, and despite many, many drafts and rewrites it wasn’t really becoming less huge or complicated. It took countless hundreds of hours of work, 1 quart of blood, 2 gallons of sweat, and a liberal sprinkling of tears to come to this realisation, but such is life. And it will be for the best. And if you’re a writer, and a project isn’t coming together, or is coming together slowly, know that that’s so normal and every single writer friend you will ever make can tell you similar tales of woe.
The good news is, I wrote a different book this year and I love it, too and it’s with my editor now and we will see what comes of it!
In farewell, here’s Henty’s theme, the hero of Monster Middle Grade. It’s a false waltz in 4/4 time that was for the ending.
Also, here’s another wee piece unrelated to books that was written for no reason. The title is a reference to the musical act of holding a note across shifting harmonies to create a dissonance, which then may or may not resolve itself into consonsance.
A Berlin Story
And now for the purple lemon socks and a brief, silly story about REAL LIFE, aka having neighbours in Berlin.
So there I was, living my best life, cozied up in my apartment, when someone rings my doorbell. It was going on 10PM so I was like, “Who is this, and are they here to murder me?” because you just never know.
I didn’t answer the door at first. I wanted them to go away and leave me alone, and also not see me looking like an ogre in pyjamas and a blanket and the aforementioned purple-lemon socks. When the purple lemon socks go on it means that I’ve made peace with the day and want nothing more to do with anyone. Purple lemon socks mean I’m done. They’re SYMBOLIC.
Whoever it was did go away for a bit, and I was like “Yesssss, whew, avoided that murderer, well done, Stefan, you and your strategic murder-avoidance schemes.”
But then ten minutes later the doorbell rings again, so I peak through the peep-hole and there was someone outside who might well have still been a murderer, but who – superficially at least – looked like a normal person.
So I answered the door and was like “Yes, hello, it’s really late?”
And she told me a long, long story about how she had no wifi, and her flight was tomorrow, and she couldn’t check in, and something about kids and a grandma – because hello, emotional stakes – and could she just borrow my wifi password?
And I was like, “Sure, I mean, children and a grandma? This is serious, and she’s leaving tomorrow so it’ll be fine, and I AM A NEIGHBOURLY NEIGHBOUR.”
So I give her the password and she goes downstairs and I return to my nice lil’ Purple-Lemon-Sock-Life.
Three days later I come down the stairs and who should I find painting a Narnia-sized wardrobe in the stairwell but her and her roommate.
Her friend says “Hi”. I say “Hi.” Wi-fi Girl literally crawls under the wardrobe and does the Hoody-in-Mean-Girls things so I wouldn’t see her.
I saw you, Guilty McGuiltster.
So yeah, she didn’t have a flight to catch. She may not have even had a grandma. She just wanted the wi-fi password because free wi-fi. And maybe she was having a rough day, or was broke or something, I don’t know her life, but . . . I also would have given her the password if she’d just been like, “Hey, we have no wifi, can we borrow yours until it’s set up?” Why be a weirdo and invent a whole involved backstory?
What I’ve learned subsequently, though, is that when you google whether you should help your neighbour out with wifi the answer is actually “No”, because people are often terrible and you don’t know what they might do with it and it’s just not smart.
That’s not a very uplifting holiday story. But if there’s any good to be taken from it, maybe just don’t answer your door after 8PM? You and your purple lemon socks deserve peace and quiet.
To end with, here’s the only picture I have of me and said socks, taken at some point where I apparently thought it was a good idea to wear them in front of other people. Also, shout-out to my leg looking like a deformed Christmas ham, we love a good angle.
This post will be ONE GIANT THROWBACK THURSDAY. I never got around to blogging about being in Japan last year, but I took many pictures which I think are pyootiful – not because I know anything about photography but because Japan is so pretty you could have your camera on self-timer and just pirouette through the streets and you’d get lots of good pictures – so I figured I would do a massive post full of pictures or they will never see the light of day.
Backstory: My mom was there for her 60th birthday. She made lovely paintings. I jogged around Nijo Castle every evening. We lived in a house in Kyoto made mostly of paper, and then Mom returned to Switzerland and I moved into an apartment the size of a small packing crate in the depths of Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district. It was great. I’ve split this post very scientifically into phyla, classes, genera, and species, beginning with. . .
Random Pretty Pictures
Now I’ve gotten most of the fancy pictures out of the way, here are the food pictures.
Every department store in Tokyo has a food court in the basement with the vastest, most beautifulest array of pastries you will ever see.
Random pictures that are not artsy at all
A Dance Thing and more random pictures
In Kyoto, we stumbled across some sort of dance event. I don’t know exactly what it was and never quite found out, but doooooozens of colourfully costumed dance troupes were walking from point to point throughout the city and performing choreography and looking super happy. It was a cool thing to happen upon.
More random pretty pictures
And that’s that! After leaving Japan, I went to South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, but I got very ill there and consequently took very few pictures, so we’ll see if they get a post. I hope everyone’s well! 🙂
I have not blogged in 70,000 yearssss. Is blogging dead? Am I dead? Yes, probably, to both, but every few months I remember fondly the lovely little community over on Scathing Jellyfish (which somehow over the last year got another 80,000 hits? Like, who is reading it? Whoooo?) and how I used to post whole blogs about . . . cows. And cake. And visiting a renaissance fair. I don’t even know. And last year I lived in Japan, and did an internship in Prague, and blogged about pretty much none of it. Lame.
I’m moved! To Berlin. I love it. It’s very different from anywhere I’ve lived before, much more relaxed than Zürich, much huger than Prague. But the main difference is that people are soooooo busily active here.
Which is a change, let me tell you. I’m a merry lil’ introvert and can coast along happily on 2-3 meaningful social interactions per week.
Examples of meaningful social interactions for a Stefan:
- scurrying past my weird neighbour in the stairwell, both of us eying each other mistrustfully
- saying hello to the cashier at the grocery store and lol’ing at her jokes about my habit of buying large quantities of rucola and oatmeal.
- saying ‘Nope’ to that one guy on the corner with a smoochy-lips tattoo’d on his neck who keeps asking me for paper for his cigarette even though I’ve told him I don’t smoke and haven’t picked up the habit in the 24 hours since he last asked.
- Sitting with a friend on the banks of the Spree with my laptop and occasionally asking each other for synonyms.
One of any of those and I’m like, “Whew!” *wipes brow* *returns to apartment* *ensconces self*
But in BERLIN this . . . doesn’t fly. Here it seems like everyone is always doing things. And not work things.
Kind, well-meaning Berliner friends: “Stefan, d’you want to come to my sister’s aunt’s baby’s baby shower? Do you want to grill radishes in an abandoned airport? Do you want to protest nuclear armaments, but like in a fun, cute way? Do you want to sacrifice a goat to an obscure moon goddess and bathe in its entrails while listening to Enya?”
And I’m like, “I kind of just want to sit on my balcony and write short stories.”
And they’re like, “NO. THE MOON GODDESS AWAITS HER SACRIFICE.” *pulls a screaming goat by its horns from flow-y shoulder-bag*
So somehow I still end up bathing in entrails while listening to Enya.
(I’m kidding, issa joke, I would never, and anyway 99% of Berliners seem to be vegetarian, so they would never either.)
(Also, I think old-school Berliners might protest that statement, but look, Hypothetical Old-school Berliner who somehow stumbled across this blog: there are a lot of vegetarians here, ok? Ok. Thanks for reading.)
Random Berlin things:
- Berlin is not a pretty city. In fact, it’s kinda ugly, and kinda proud of it. I live in a particularly scruffy part of town with all the hipsters and stoners and artistes. I’m very boring and commonplace among all these people with their bowl-cuts and little black sunglasses and fanny packs and trousers that stop well above the ankle, but I love it anyway. It’s cozy and friendly in its scruffiness, and I feel super comfortable here, because I can live my dream of shuffling down to the local shop in flip flops. And granted, you can be a slob anywhere, no one will probably push you down a well, but in Berlin it’s almost encouraged.
- Shisha bars that smell like candy – In the military, one of my sergeants smoked a small portable steam pipe called a shisha. It looked like this. His flavour of choice was straciatella, and he would walk around in a cloud of the stuff, and when you smelled that cloud of straciatella moving toward you out of the depths of barracks or wintry woods, you knew you had to jump up and look BUSY AND RESPECTABLE, because otherwise he would shout at you and call you names, as is wont and customary in the military. Though I’m not 100% sure how shishas work, I think you can stuff it with various special things and set it on fire, and it gives off a really strong, candy-sweet aroma. Sometimes it smells like marshmallows. Sometimes it smells like Maoams? If you’re German, you know the smell. It’s like *breathing* candy. Inhaling it, if you will.
In Berlin, especially in my neighbourhood were there are a lot of Turkish restaurants and bars, I smell that same straciatellia steam floating on the air and am like, “WHERE IS HE?” *wheels around in a panic, expecting to drop to the ground and do twenty* But he’s not there. So that’s nice.
- A few weeks ago, a homeless gentleman on crutches asked me for money outside my apartment. I told him truthfully I didn’t have any because I WAS JOGGING, OK, and I jog without my wallet in case I get mugged because then they’ll just murder me but at least my wallet’s fine and can live a full and happy life with its wallet family. Anyway, I said I had none and went inside, but then I felt super bad, because what if he was in dire straits? What if he had 19 starving children, or carpal tunnel syndrome, or any of number of problems, and I could help in some small way? So I grabbed two fistfuls of coins from the change plate in my apartment and hurry downstairs to give it to him and he was nowhere to be found, and I was just standing in the street with handfuls of coins and all the hipster Berliners were passing me like, “Are you an art installation?”
Every once in a while I pass him again on my jogs and he gives me a dirty look, and I want to be like, “Sir, I need you to know that I had VERY good intentions, like the communists, but you did not allow me to enact my plans.”
The moral of the story is that when someone asks you for money either say no and stick with it, or tell them to wait while you go get it, but don’t have dramatic changes of hearts halfway up the stairs, mmmkay? Mmkay.
That’s that. Have a nice day. 🙂
I’m done!! I did it. It was an experience. I was going to do a big post about the ordeal, but since I’m still technically a member of the army until I’m 30-something and don’t have time to get in trouble over snarking about it, I’m going to wait to tell delightful tales about things like. . .
- That time our scariest sergeant made me sing the national anthem solo in front of our entire platoon (I’m not a singer by any stretch of the imagination.)
- What tear-gas feels like (it hurts)
- Shooting pistols in temperatures so cold our hands cracked (fun fact: the ordinance gloves they give you make your hands colder)
- That time our sergeants were feeling particularly humane and we had to lie facedown in the gym and literally sweep the floor with our bodies.
I feel so accomplished.
I never posted the pictures from my Japan/South Korea/Hong Kong adventures from last year! I might still do that. In the meantime, I went into the mountains for a bit after military and it was dreamy and here are some pictures. I read books, hiked with the parents, stayed in a castle, ate good food, saw many tiny butterflies which are so tiny they didn’t make it into any pictures. . . .
I had no time to write during military, alas, so it feels very nice to get back to it now. I’m rewriting Monster Middle Grade for the 7th time, and as they say, SEVENTH TIME’S THE CHARM. (Do they say that? They should.) This book feels like an enormous puzzle and sloooooowly the pieces are coming together, and it’s thrilling.
I’m off to Berlin for a while. I have a little garret and notebooks and pens and my laptop and music work to do, and I’m very much looking forward to it.
I’m doing one public book thing between military and moving away, and here it is, this coming weekend! It would be lovely to see you there. 🙂
Musik: Linda Vogel
Weiterer Autor: Hansjörg Schertenleib
And that’s that! Farewell, friends. 🙂
(Modus operandi: this is part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during my obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are short and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. This fourth story is about a dream I had that I tried to write down as accurately as possible. It’s a bit random and surreal, the way dreams tend to be, but it was fun to do, so… *throws it at the internet* Also if there are any dream-readers out there, tell me your theories as to what it means! 😉)
Very early on a grey, chilly morning, I crept into a shoe-shop together with a figure made out of boiling black shadows.
The shoe-shop stood in the depths of an ancient metropolis, spires, cracked sidewalks, scrawny trees. The sky was criss-crossed with power lines. The sun was at least an hour from rising, and the shoe-shop was closed to business, but the door had not been locked and so my dream-self and the shadowy figure, reprobates that we were, went in.
It was a very nice shoe-shop. The ceilings were high and it had a dark, fusty, Victorian grandeur to it, a black-and-white tiled floor, and palms in brass pots. All the shoes were lined up on gothic shelves, Oxfords, every one, spectator shoes in chestnut and red and linen, gleaming dully in the gray light from the plate-glass window. They looked like pairs of insect wings, waiting to fly you off somewhere.
I don’t know what we wanted in the shop. I don’t even know who the shadowy figure was, with its face and limbs twisted from coils of darkness, but we entered with much nervous excitement and closed the door quietly behind us, and slipped over the tiles to sit down on one of the red-velvet benches where during daylight hours the assistant would measure your foot.
The shadow figure told me something, and we discussed that for a while, until with a start, I realized that a long, low, old-fashioned automobile had pulled up across the street – a boat of a machine, gleaming blue and gunmetal gray – and three men in tweed suits and bowlers had stepped out. I knew at once, with that inevitable certainty of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Murphy’s Law, or whichever rule of nature it is that lets you know that the world is doomed and everything is inevitably going to go wrong, that they were headed for the shoe-shop, which was closed, and which we were not allowed to be in.
The men strode across the street, and all was very quiet except for their shoes on the cobbles, and that dull, fuzzy hum of early morning.
I and the shadow figure jumped up at once and looked about for a way of escape. It was then we realized that the shoe-shop had a museum inside it. Or perhaps the museum had a small, grand shoe-shop just off the entrance. Behind the mahogany desk with the cash register, you could go down one step into a lobby of sorts with a glass donation-box for orphaned children or politicians. Beyond that, cordoned off with twists of velvet rope, was a grand marble staircase that split several times and led up to the galleries and displays. This was all quite gloomy and dim, with all the light still caught in the high bay window to the street.
I and the shadow figure had a brief, whispered conversation where we argued whether to run into the museum or duck behind the counter of the shoe-shop. It was one thing to be caught in a closed-up shop, quite another to be caught in a museum full of priceless treasures. And yet there was also the possibility of not being caught at all, and so we ran, quickly and silently, out of the shoe-shop and under the twisted velvet rope, bolting up those wide marble stairs toward the hushed rooms above.
I don’t remember hearing the door to the street open, but I was certain we had only just avoided the three men entering the shop.
We ran up the stairs and down a long, white gallery lined with beheaded elk and bears, and oil-painted people peering blearily from gold frames, also looking rather like hunting trophies, grotesquely preserved.
At some point I lost the shadow figure (perhaps it had decided to hide somewhere among the chair-legs) and I ran on into a very large, cluttered room – furniture and busts and books lying open and spine-up – as if it were in the process of being moved out of. Why it was in a museum I do not know, but I hurried through it, and the whole time I was terrified that the three men down in the shoe-shop had heard us in this vast silence, opening the doors, our feet squeaking on the marble, and were coming after us, and all I could think was to get as far away from them as fast I could. Every room passed through and corner turned felt like a cushion staving off some horrible fate. I went through a very large banquet hall, sterile and gilded, the kind they have in hotels to host charity dinners and weddings with lots of bitter relatives at round tables.
And then I turned to the right off the banquet hall and came to a room with no doors but the one I had come through, and I knew I had to hide.
I could hear the three men behind me, and very selfishly I did not think at all of the shadow figure.
The room I was in had a bank of high mullioned windows facing a field, which was strange, because the shoe-shop had most decidedly opened into a city. And yet here I was, peering down onto an early-morning field, white with dew. Not far behind me, I could hear the hurrying feet and voices of the three men. They had most definitely caught my trail, and if they found me here it would surely be the end of me. I would go to jail for trespassing, or at the very least have to explain myself, which seemed almost as bad.
I opened the window and looked out, and the next thing I knew I was falling down to the grass, a full ten feet below, completely unbothered by the force of the landing, and running full-speed across the field and up a short slope toward a gathering of trees. I did not hear anything from that great house I had just fled, and I ran and ran, my breath loud in my ears, and when I reached the trees at the top of the hill, I found a girl there, sitting next to a pond on a stone bench and peering intently into the waters.
“Do you see something?” I asked her, “in the water?” and she said, “Yes. There is a bottle down there, and inside is my family.”
I went to the edge of the pond and looked down, and sure enough, lying half-buried in the moss and silt at the bottom of the pond, was a bottle of deep blue glass. Inside were a few little people wandering to and fro, completely unfazed by me, or the museum down the hill, or the girl, or any of it.
I looked back toward the place I had fled, the one open casement gaping wide in the bank of windows. No one was looking out, none of the men in bowlers. Perhaps they were still searching the museum, rushing through all those silent, cluttered rooms.
I hope the shadow figure got away, too. I never did find out why I was in the shoe-shop to begin with.
(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during my obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are short and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. This third story was inspired by one of the few rules in military that is actually endearing: if there is an odd number of soldiers out in pairs, the second-to-last is required to fall back to walk beside the last. The second-to-last walks on his own, but there always needs to be a pair of soldiers bringing up the rear. I hope you like it!)
The Last One is Never Alone
At the end of the world, and during it, too, there was a place near the sea that the bullets and blood had not yet reached. It was built from the rough dark stone of the nearby cliffs, and had a steeple and high wall. It used to be a cloister, but now its ancient sides were scarred and blackened, the roof torn open to allow the smoke to leave the mess hall. Iron guns bristled along the top of the perimeter wall. Tarps and crates of ammunition sat among piles of furniture and relics. Golden boxes – centuries old – held toothbrushes nestled next to holy thigh bones. Tapestries were used as extra bedding. The vestry was the officer’s retreat, the crypt our meagre cold storage. This was a place for remnants and scraps of things, bits of equipment, bits of soldiers, too, whatever was left of us.
The lieutenant said all seven of us should go on the bicycle patrol. The rumor spread ahead of his arrival at the guardhouse, the way it always does in barracks. The slightest whisper from an officer, a half-formed thought, and everyone down to the cook’s help knew within minutes. What we didn’t know was why all seven of us were going; but then, we never knew the reason for anything we did, only that if we didn’t do it we would be shouted at or forced to hold ourselves up on our elbows in the courtyard until we never thought to question anything again. So, just past 3 o’ clock on a bitterly cold morning, we found ourselves drowsily saddling up the bikes and heading out under the battlements, a curling snake of privates, helmets clipped under chins, radios strapped to our backs.
The patrol that night was a mixed bag: Beaker and Allmand, Porky and Masterson, Graft, Hillam and me. Normally only two went out on the bicycles while the rest sat drowsily in the guardhouse, or wandered along the walls, their chins tucked into their collars to keep warm. But orders were orders, and now there were seven of us wheeling away into the dark. An odd number, an uneven formation. A rag, a tatter, like everything else here.
The patrol route was a five mile loop, a country road skirting the cliffs and the sea and then rounding back through long-abandoned fields toward the cloister. “Pay special attention to the sea,” the lieutenant had told us, wiping his forehead wearily. He was bedraggled, his uniform in desperate need of a wash. It looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. “There’s a possibility our location has been made known. I want a full report of any activity along the route, enemy or civilian.”
The front had long since moved away from these parts, disintegrating in the west into skirmishes and firefights. It was bad luck, being stationed here. We were cut off from support, and cut off from escape. We were living off canned beans and tack. An enemy fleet had been reported a hundred miles from the coast a week back, so there would be no rescue from the sea.
We didn’t speak to each other as we pedaled into the night. It was horribly cold, and our breath rose in white plumes from under our helmets, regular and steady, but each in a slightly different rhythm.
Beaker and Allmand were first. As soon as we were out of sight of the ramparts, Beaker stood up on his pedals, pumping them wildly. Beaker was a bug-eyed dolt. He was tired and wanted to complete the route as quickly as possible so he could return to sleep, never mind that if the enemy reached the shores and we failed to inform the command there would be a much longer, colder sleep than the hard bunks in the guardhouse. He was one of those people you could scream at or be kind to, and it would make no difference at all; it would all wash across his dull, hard-nosed face like water. Orders were nothing but small interruptions in his pursuit of food, sleep, and leisure, and if one could carry out a task halfway without punishment, it never occurred to him not to do so.
Allmand was a stolid, silent soldier and kept pace with Beaker. Porky did, too, or tried, though he should have been with me.
I was in the middle, where I liked to be: not good enough to be promoted to positions of responsibility and less sleep, but careful not to fall below that invisible bar of mediocrity where one might become the target of ridicule. Behind me was Masterson, and in the rear Hillam, who was weedy and short, and had never managed to pedal the patrol route in anything under an hour. Masterson should have fallen back to parallel him. But Masterson, like most of the soldiers at the cloister, held a subtle disdain for Hillam, and so he didn’t.
Eventually Masterson pulled in beside me. I glared at him as he passed, but either he didn’t notice or he didn’t care. The formation blurred and fell further and further apart. He peddled on after Allmand and Beaker, his red tail-light vanishing into the fog like an angry, bloodshot eye.
Hillam was breathing hard when he reached me, struggling against the pedals. His glasses hung crooked on his face, already fogged to the rims from his breath, two opaque ovals where his eyes should be. I cast a quick look forward. The red lights of our comrades were quickly receding up the path.
A part of me was angry at Beaker for being so stupid and hurrying the patrol, and another part of me was angry at Hillam for being so slow. That part of me wondered spitefully if maybe Hillam deserved everything he got.
I thought about that as we began to pedal again. The lieutenant back in Spanish Cove used to say that most people had either brains or looks. You only needed one to be reasonably happy in life. If you had both, the world was yours. If you had neither, God help you.
Beaker had neither, and yet somehow the world was no more closed to him than to anyone else. Hillam had brains, and it hadn’t done him any good at all here. He had arrived during the draft, quiet and clever but three heads shorter than the rest of us, clumsy and half blind behind his thick lenses. He couldn’t run more than five minutes. He was always the last in formation, always the slowest, but no one ever dropped back to walk beside him like they should have. The lieutenant never made them either, just because it was Hillam. Once, when he was the slowest yet again, the lieutenant ordered him to stand in the court at attention for hours, his bare hands full of stale bread for the birds to pick at. If the ache in his arms made him drop them, sergeants would come by and set the pieces on his head and the birds would land there with their sharp talons and pick at his hair. He never complained during the torment, only stood there with an expression hovering between bewilderment and amusement at the vagaries of the world.
I had never understood him, but we were friendly.
The cliffs were to our left now. There were no lights below, no sign of anything. All was uniform darkness. A thick, white fog had descended and wrapped around us like freezing wet cotton.
“How are you doing, Hillam?” I asked, drawing up beside him.
He looked up from under his helmet and smiled. “Time of my life,” he said. “Enjoying the weather and the view. Always did fancy seaside holidays.”
“Looking forward to leave?”
He nodded. His helmet was loose, and it clanked against his glasses. “I’ll be going back to Maryville if I can make it.”
“Farm there, right?”
“Just a garden. My parents own the farm. But it’s a good garden. Cecil Country’s 1st prize-winning hyacinths six years in a row!” He glanced over. “Thanks for waiting.”
I shrugged, as if to say, orders are orders, as if to say, it wasn’t a favour. I remembered the day we learned the rules of formation, how Hillam hadn’t even blinked when the sergeant at Spanish Cove went up to him, inches from his face, and started to hiss. ‘The last one is never alone, sure. But we got no place for stragglers and weaklings here. If you can’t keep up you die. That’s life, and that’s the army, too. You’ll get someone killed one of these days if you don’t pick up those feet.”
“I have a bike like this back home,” Hillam said after a while, cheerfully. He was pedaling so slowly. My muscles itched. “Same make and everything. I’d ride it out to the market every Wednesday, real early, when it was cold and foggy, too. Only instead of emergency flares in the front basket I had the hyacinths. It makes you wonder about things, how maybe things could be different.”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure I knew what he meant.
“But I don’t hate it here.” His voice was suddenly flat, solemn as a bell. “It’s just a blip, all this rain and cold. Then I’m gone. They can’t keep us here forever.”
I nodded, finally catching on to something I could talk about. “The big bombs are coming, lieutenant says. It’ll be over soon; for us or them, but done either way. We’ll all go home.”
Hillam didn’t say anything, just looked ahead into the fog, his expression unreadable behind the steamed-up spectacles.
We reached the way-point. Beaker would have sent a message, but I already knew what he’d said: “Private Beaker to command, come in. Nothing to report.” He probably cast a single glance over the cliffs, paused to wipe the moisture from his face and the sleep from his eyes. Now he was speeding on, back to the cloister and his narrow bunk.
So Hillam and I stopped and looked out across the waves. I extended the antennae on my handheld. I hesitated a moment, peering down the cliffs at the shore. Had that been movement I’d seen in the dark? Or just my tired eyes inventing things to keep them from closing. . .
It was nothing. I gave the report and we began to pedal again, inland, away from the cliffs.
The final stretch of the loop was much more difficult than the way there. It was downhill and uphill, the road becoming rough and narrow, winding here and there between grassy hillocks. The wind came fast and hard here, whistling like a thin, spiteful voice. A bitter rain began to lash us as we rode. At some point Hillam fell behind again, a white light shimmering in the rain behind me.
And then, up ahead, gunfire. One shot, two, a volley.
I skidded to a halt.
“Hillam!” I hissed over my shoulder. Just up ahead, splayed on the stones Masterson and Porky, tangled with their bicycles. They were dead, neat little wounds in their jackets, the rain already cleaning the blood away.
I turned in a panic. Hillam was still coming down the road, the white globe of his light bouncing along about thirty feet behind me.
I wheeled back toward him, praying the shooters hadn’t seen our lights approaching. I reached forward, scrabbling to turn mine off. Now I was pedaling blindly, rocks jarring against my tires, pebbles flying like spittle. We’d take the road back, the cliff route and then into the cloister and we’d hope they hadn’t blocked the way yet.
Suddenly I realised Hillam was driving away from me. He was ahead of me, now paralleling me, a safe distance away in the fog. his light was still on. I followed him desperately, doubling my speed. Where was he going? There was no road anymore, nothing but the fog pressing around me. But then I came around the bend, and there was Hillam’s light just ahead, hovering silently, like someone was holding it in the palm of his hand. I squinted at it through the driving rain. “Hillam?” I called out.
No answer. I peddled on, and the light was there to my left, just piercing the fog. I hope you know where you’re going, Hillam, because I sure don’t anymore. We drove this way for some time, the guns still going in the distance. I pedaled on and on. My bicycle struck a rock and bounced painfully.
I blinked and the light was gone. Only pitch blackness and freezing rain. I peddled forward, my bicycle skidding and sliding on the loose gravel, the breaks creaking. I arrived at the place the light had been.
I realised where I was. In the distance, I could make out the cloister’s floodlights. I was almost back, almost back to where we started.
And then I saw a bicycle in a break in the fog. It was collapsed by the side of the road. Another few feet and there was Hillam. He was lying on his back on the stones, the rain streaming over is face. His eyes were open. A red circle was just peaking out from under his helmet: no blood, just a hole. And down by the shore, the sound of guns, the sound of voices.
Hillam’s lips were already turning purple. He must have been dead thirty minutes, shot just after we left the cloister. A silenced gun maybe, the dry pop swallowed by the sea. He hadn’t been the last. I was. But he’d hadn’t left me alone.
Terror seized me as I thought of the light following me in the fog, the conversation in the rain. They can’t keep us here forever.
In the dark, the bullets began to crack, strange, foolish little spats, like bursts of angry conversation. I ran to Hillam and tried his pulse, then held two fingers under his nose. But there was no breath. I turned my bicycle toward the gates, tears and rain streaking my face. I headed for it, then past it, into the freezing green fields beyond.
The lieutenant said all seven of us should go. Did he know we were lost?
Goodbye, Hillam. They can’t keep us here forever, with the rags and the relics. It’ll be over soon; for us or them, but done either way. I’ll plant some hyacinths if I get home.
(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during my obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are super short and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. This second story was inspired by the painting above – “All Hallow’s Eve” by Jakub Schikaneder – which I saw at the National Gallery in Prague and wondered who the old woman was waiting for, and why she looked so sad. I hope you like it!) 🙂
On Sokolov’s Bridge
In late October, 1799, Franek’s mother sent him to Sokolov’s Bridge to pull a bucket of water from the cold, deep lake below.
“And don’t fall in,” his mother warned, but Franek did.
It had been an accident of course. Franek had hurried along the dusty road between the tall autumn oaks, hoisting the heavy wooden bucket with him. He ran as fast as he could, because he had an entire evening of good things to look forward to, and they had not included going to the lake for water. Dusk was falling. The air held the first cutting edge of winter. Franek arrived at the place where the earth dipped down steeply toward the lake. He started across the bridge, which was very long and crumbling. In the middle of the bridge was the winch and the rope for the water-bucket, and he climbed the little steps along the rough stone wall that hedged the bridge’s sides. He heaved the bucket after him, put it on the sharp iron hook at the end of the rope.
And that was when he fell. There was no particular reason for it. Franek had fetched water from the lake a hundred times before. But today he looked down, and just as he was about to lower the bucket, he thought he saw something in the water below. He could have sworn there were faces peering up at him, a dozen or more, and a shape moving in the depths, a ripple, like the pearlescent spine of a great fish pushing up out of the ebb, a thin, sleek form twisting just under the surface and falling away again.
He tottered a moment at the edge of the bridge, a confused look on his face. Then he fell, very quickly, and the water rushed up to meet him.
When Franek came to, he was lying in a little cave with a rotting wooden door, and carpets over the rough wet rocks, and a diamond-paned window that looked up onto the underside of the lake
A woman was sitting across from him. She looked not a day over eighteen, dressed in a plain white shroud. There were rotting flowers in her hair, and spots of mould on her cheeks, and she was watching the boy sharply.
“Good evening,” said the woman, when she saw Franek returning her gaze.
“Good evening,” said Franek.
Now, Sokolov’s Bridge was one of those very old bridges that, by virtue of its age, was also the prison of a water witch. Her name had been Margosha once, and she had been bound to the foundations of the bridge a hundred years ago, for it was thought that if you mixed a bit of human in with the mortar and stones, your construction would remain strong through war and high-water, storm and earthquake. To move the road around the narrow, twisting lake would have taken years. And so one day in spring, Margosha was lowered into the water, her hair full of flowers, her eyes full of tears, and they walled her into the foundation pillar at the centre of Sokolov’s Bridge
She died, of course, slowly and cruelly, while her townspeople watched solemnly from the banks. She saw their faces as she sank into the dark, the baker who had given her ginger cakes as a child, her parents hand in hand, her betrothed, stony and upright. She saw them all turn to shadows against the sun, as her eyes blurred and went out like candles. But she did not leave the place she died. She haunted it, a water witch of the icy depths.
Margosha grew old and bitter as time. She watched the women and children come and draw their water. She saw the foxes and the birds passing by on their secret journeys. Peering up with her lidless, milky eyes she saw the merchants, and the soldiers, the highwaymen and the thieves, and her cold, wet heart grew hungry for revenge.
Every few years or so, a fool would dip into her waters: pedlars stopping to bathe before the village, lazy old fishermen in their boats, women with their sacks of laundry; all of them vanished, never to be seen. And when Margosha saw Franek teetering on the edge, she stirred in the depths and watched him fall, and gathered him up once he did.
“You may have three wishes,” she said now, in her dripping lair beneath the lake. She smiled a green smile full of snails and weeds. Sometimes a tiny fish would squeeze its way out of the corner of her eye and drop to the floor. “But not for you. You may wish for anyone in the world. And then you will stay here in the dark, with the ones I have taken. You will lie in the water and watch as the dreams of others come true, as they pass over the bridge with their children and grandchildren, as they go to markets you will never visit, and see sights you will never see, as they live on and on in the light.”
Because that was what she had done and what she had been: a wish, a lucky penny thrown into the water for the good of others.
“Why can’t I wish for myself?” said Franek, who had been planning to be very clever. He had planned to wish his way out of the lake and onto Sokolov’s Bridge, with a pail of water and perhaps a few toffees for the road home, and now the witch had ruined everything. But Margosha knew what he would wish for. She was not a stupid witch.
“Because I couldn’t,” she said with a smirk. And she gestured down a hallway of her lair. Its floor was covered with puddles, and in each one lay a dark shape, a jacket or a heap of petticoats, or a heavy suit of rusting amor. Puddle after puddle stretched away, and face down in each one was a man or a woman, their clothes all soaked to the bone, their bodies swollen and pale. “But the bridge still stands! No war or fire has broken it. That is sacrifice, is it not? All for the greater good.”
She watched Franek, her eyes glittering with fury. “Come now. Don’t you want anything? I have such a lot of trinkets and coins saved up for wishes.” She ran her long fingers through a chest of coins and ribbons and locks of hair, rattling them together.
Franek thought of himself staying in the cold lake forever, floating there while everyone forgot he ever existed. There had been no choice presented; he would stay here, wishes or none. The witch simply wanted the satisfaction of watching someone wish for things he would never enjoy himself. But Franek was not sure he minded as much as she thought he did. He wished for a new cow for his mother, and he wished his friend from the old schoolhouse could walk again. With each wish, Maryzska dropped a coin away into the water that lapped at the floor of her lair.
And then Franek had an idea: “I wish you weren’t imprisoned here,” he said. “I’m sorry the wicked people threw you down the well, but I wish you could be free again. I didn’t throw you down the well. I wish you well.”
Margosha pulled back in surprise, and suddenly she looked like her old self again. The snails dropped from her teeth, and a flood of fishes fell from under eyelids and slithered into the water.
“But will you allow me one thing?” Franek asked. “If I’m to stay here forever, let me come up on All Hallow’s Eve. Let me look out of the water and go up on the bridge.”
The water witch nodded, her eyes as green as the seaweed in her hair. And then she was gone, sliding and wriggling out of the water and running off beneath the red oak trees, and then above them, on and on toward the moon.
“And tell my mother I’ll wait for her there!” Franek shouted after her. “Go and tell her! Please go and tell her!”
Margosha never returned to the bridge. But All Hallow’s Eve did, swinging round like a great brass pendulum and dragging with it the smell of oak-logs and fires and hot cider. And every time it did, the door opened in a cottage not far from Sokolov’s Bridge, and a woman came out with a little bag of things, and a fine new wreath, and went to Sokolov’s Bridge, and waited all through the day, hunched and alone, for nighttime.
In late October, 1843, Franek looked up from the bottom of the lake. Seaweed slithered across his pale forehead and wound through his hair. Moonlight reflected in his eyes, turning them to silver coins. High above, an old woman was peering down at him, laughing and crying and waving. Franek waved back, his hand moving slowly through the water. And now he felt himself rising, breaking the surface and floating to the edge of the lake, climbing the mortar of the ancient foundations. They embraced for a moment on Sokolov’s Bridge, a boy forever eight, and an old woman, cut out against the bright cold light.
Then the moon shifted, and the clouds returned, and Franek climbed the little steps to the old iron hook. He fell away again into the water, just as he had before. His mother blurred, a rippling shape up on Sokolov’s Bridge. And as Franek sank, he watched his mother turn slowly, and shoulder her wreath, and trudge away into the night.