In Olšany Cemetery

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By Anna Evans:

On a weekend trip to Prague they decide to walk in the cemetery near where they are staying in Prague 3. They agree to set out early, visit the cemetery, and then to continue with their day. It is October, an early morning chill in the air, but already the sunlight is beginning to glance down with a nod, promising warmth, an unexpected dawning of late summer spells.

She reads aloud from her book, ‘See, the first line mentions the cemetery…  listen, it says…’ She hasn’t made it very far with the book yet, but is glad to be reading a Czech author. There is something about this place, she thinks. I would like to get to know this city and its complex history; this city of writers and of walking.

Leaving their apartment building, they can see the wall of the cemetery in front of them and trees behind. Crossing the road they find an entrance at the end of the street.

It is one of those rare times when both agree that this is the only place they really want to be, that given the chance they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They listen carefully to the other’s remarks and laugh together as two people who know and understand each other. They agree that it’s good to be away from home, that the best feeling of all is the day stretching out in front of them, the city to explore. The feeling of waking early in a new place, that sense of accomplishment. The promise of black coffee and the warming smell of baking bread. There is a route planned on a map, the streets of Prague, its art nouveau buildings a perfect tapestry through which to wander, to the sound of passing trams.

The trees are filters for the sunlight, and leaves are beginning to cover everything. Wandering along the paths, the gravestones draped in ivy but without the sense of neglect and desperate wildness some cemeteries have.

Those strange eruptions from the ground growing amongst the trees, marble and stone of different shapes and sizes with pathways running between. They are like city streets, laid out in blocks with signs, and all the leaves swept away. Sometimes the graves look like grand city houses. ‘How funny that money and status should continue to follow us into death,’ he says, and they pause, thinking of the years sliding past them.

Walking and reading the stones, thinking about what draws people to cemeteries, trying to describe the sense of peace and watchfulness it brings. There are those tending the graves of family, holding in their hands the span of remembrance; like the flowers they lay down, for as long as their transient bodies remain. The green force flowing through the stems cut off already from their source of life.

Looking at the names on the gravestones, reading the history of families, through the years engraved in stone. Of lost children, and married couples who died within months of one another.

Cemeteries are really places for the living.

Connected to our beginnings and ends, people wander through cemeteries to be close to those who are no longer here. Each city, each place, contains the imprints of all those who have walked its streets and all those yet to come, the ghosts of history who are with us even now. In some places we are more aware of them than others.

Confronting their mortality, but feeling life urging its way through their bodies, they walk around, knowing they will leave and continue the day, saying farewell to those in ivy-covered slumber.

Reaching the main entrance, the sun warmer and brighter, rising higher in the morning sky.  The sound of traffic from the road nearby and people walking past. Soon they will join the movement of the city streets and the day will glide by in all its colours.

For a moment though, they pause and look back. They both know how quickly and how easily the shadow beckons and can fall between them. Like feeling cold on a sunny day, like voices interrupting from the past, ghosts of time and distance.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction. 

Letter to a Stranger

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By Shawna Bethell:

The thing I didn’t tell you was that I met your brother on the ferry. He was looking for you. Your father wanted you home. To this moment, I’ve never told anyone that I met either of you. I felt it would be a betrayal of sorts, though I didn’t even know your names. But I knew your stories, two parts of a whole, none of us expecting I would cross both your paths. Yet I did, within a half-dozen hours or so. Harris is a small island, after all.

I was sitting alone on deck watching grey waters when your brother approached and asked to sit. Together we watched sleek arch-backed porpoises rise and fall as they swam alongside the ferry. We watched a low sweep of rock appear in the distance, growing until it became an island large enough for a port, a village and a road up the coast that would cross a narrow isthmus to another stretch of gneiss known as the Isle of Lewis.

Eventually, he started talking. Told me more than he probably should have about your family, but he spoke with earnestness, and I couldn’t help but listen. He had tracked you to that slab of stone sprawling in the distance and hoped you were still there. In time, we disembarked and as I walked away, he asked me to dinner. I declined and wound my way up the hill, unknowingly, to you.

It was later that evening, in a hostel full of travelers, when our paths crossed. I was rummaging in the kitchen when you came in and I asked you where to find a knife for my vegetables. You were a large man, with long blonde hair bound back by a leather cord and gold wire-rimmed glasses that framed blue eyes. From the leather sheath on your hip you pulled that gracefully thin filet blade with a round wooden handle and passed it to me. I still remember how caught I was by its elegance. Casually, you also opened the cupboard and offered spices from your cache saying I’d likely not find anything but salt and pepper in the communal kitchen. Then you quietly paced the cramped space, crowded with washer and dryer and Formica table, while I sliced in silence. When I returned the knife, you left.

That night, as a woman from Skye cranked open the window above our bunk and slept comforted by familiar cold air blowing in from the sea, I was left sleepless by the same damp chill, so I took my laundry back to the warm kitchen, made a cup of tea and sat down with my journal.

I hadn’t realized any one else was around when you walked in from the TV room and spoke. As before, you paced the perimeter of the room past the washer and dryer, along the counter and back before pulling out the chair across from me to sit.

You said you were from Finland and had worked a lucrative desk job as expected by your father until a few months before. Then, with no word to anyone, you left. You landed on the island and hired on at a fish cannery off the rocky shore. You said you liked the physical labor, liked the men you worked with. You said you weren’t planning to stay on the island, but had no plans to go back either. 

We talked a lot about family and expectations. I told you about the Midwestern United States, where people were rooted by generations of family loyalty, a pull so strong that I felt my choices in life were abdicated before I was old enough to know I had choices to make. I loved my family, but when I finally left the Midwest, it was with a sense of escape. I landed in a mountain town in the western U.S. populated with out-of-work miners, scientists, artists and travelers. It was a place where people accepted you as the person you presented yourself to be, and it was where I gained the freedom to be the writer I wanted to become.

In the dark early hours of morning, you put on your jacket and went outside, cigarette in hand, and through the window I watched the orange tip burn as you paced the walk out front. Shortly you returned, explaining you had to catch the ferry for work in only a few hours and needed to get some sleep. I don’t remember that we even shared a ‘good-bye.’ You just walked away through the drafty, concrete-block hallway, and I was left to pull my clothes from the dryer and stuff them into my pack. Then I followed the hallway to my own side of the dorm where I fell easily and unexpectedly to sleep.

By daylight you were gone and I caught a ride north, jotting a quick ‘thank you’ and tucking it into your spice cache before I left. We never did exchange names. It didn’t seem necessary, I guess. But I still think of you, and I wonder if your brother ever found you. I wonder if you ever went home. I did, eventually. For better or for worse. Sometimes, I’m still not certain. But that strange triumvirate of love, loyalty and obligation will call even the most wayward of us back.

Wherever you ended up, I hope you went there by choice and without regret. I hope you found the life you wanted. I wonder, though, if you ever knew, if either of you ever knew, if you ever talked about that woman you both happened upon, who carried two men’s stories back out to sea.

Shawna Bethell lives in the central Midwest of the US. Her work has appeared in the Denver Post, The Mountain Gazette, High Desert Journal, and This Land Magazine among other publications.

The Housewife of New Friends Colony

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A story by Rita Malik

Her husband Ravi had eaten a strange leaf in the first strange country he had visited long ago, under the pretense of his business affairs, no doubt. But his gastronomic tendencies were awakened to the new possibilities. Possibilities that did not include in any way shape or form, yellow or red ground spices, mixed all spice, cinnamon, nor betel nut, no hing, no lentils, and no unnecessary red or green chilies. The peptic ulcer his personal physician had for so long profited over, that helped house him in a perfect Mercedes Benz, was no longer going to provide the funds. The salt had lost its savor. He was a connoisseur of all things non-Indian. He could even gallivant and float and beam over the most delectable and bland fish, boiled potatoes, as long as they were associated with a culinary culture and a national pride of some independent nature, such as Irish dishes. Yes, Ravi had developed a taste for Irish food.

Meanwhile, his friend Vijay had hatcheries all over China. Seema had wondered during many pillow talk parlances with Ravi about the state of affairs if one has only to rely on the revenues from various chicken hatcheries to make a living.

“But he’s doing very well,” Ravi had told her. “How else could he live in that beautiful farmhouse and all that acreage in the middle of Delhi?”

“Inheritance,” she’d replied, flipping a magazine page without looking up. “He’s his father’s son.” Vijay’s grandfather had been the Mayor of Delhi once upon a time. The family had depths of connections, especially in political circles. His wife, a pretty woman, who went by the name of Penny, outright non-Indian, even though she was a Kashmiri, had the gift of youthful looks and a fine figure, Seema reflected ruefully.

Seema herself was darker skinned, but by no means of the blackish sort, seen in the people of Dravidian descent. Her family was from U.P. Bihari’s. Wheat skinned. And there was no noble lineage. She had been able to hide this from her friends. In fact she had led them on to believe she was descended from a long line of Rajputs, before the drastic changes took place, industrialization, globalization. She made self-deprecating remarks and joked about the Rajputs along the way, endearing herself with the Dolly’s, the Sweety’s, and the ruffians of Punjab, as she would call them, in her parlances with Ravi after their partying.

Still, Ravi never understood. He did patiently hear her out, as she ranted about the housewives of New Friends and South Extension.

“Shopping and kitty parties and showing off, that’s all that these women find time to do.” Why she had done this, the deliberate misleading as regards her lineage, she did herself not know.

Should've Gone

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By Sibyl Kalid:

We’re standing at the top of Carlton Hill and there’s a fire burning at the oil rig across the water. It doesn’t look like a fire; it is too whole, like someone has trimmed its edges. It’s almost Christmas. M is leaving tomorrow, and I’m going back to London next week. Neither of us is sure when we’ll be back. The city is indifferent.  It winks obstinately, as it has done for four years, cars beating down tracks through the long stems of buildings, pace unflustered by M’s stifled tears. In the time we’ve been here Scotland hasn’t left the UK, the UK has decided to leave Europe, and the Starman has left the earth. We’ve been living on the endless rumble of national events, registering them with the stable acceptance of a barometer. It’s unnerving to discover that now we’re the thing moving, and it was this tumbling collapsing city that was the constant all along.

Last night I had that strange feeling of sleeping in a different room to the one I’m used to – my flatmate’s, mine having been taken over by its new tenant and her green bed-sheets. Most disorienting were hearing footsteps to the bathroom and not being able to place them. I had the realisation that, through the past year, night-steps have been like little sonic messages, bouncing back from a friend to my half-asleep consciousness, orienting them in an identity and route through the mumble of slipper on carpet. Eternally scornful of those with a domestic inclination, I’ve discovered nesting instincts I never knew I had.

In October we started receiving packages from Specsavers addressed to someone called Hannah Steeds. We knew nothing about Hannah Steeds, other than that she was, presumably, either long or short sighted, and had at some point lived in our flat. The Specsavers boxes piled up next to the front door, as poor Hannah must have found everyday tasks increasingly difficult, and our shared apathy halted us from either contacting our landlord or returning the boxes to sender.

The mystery then spooled when a postcard arrived from someone self-determining as ‘Mumsykins’. We assessed from this moniker, and from the quaint stone-walled house featuring on the front of the postcard, that this wasn’t just a gaffe from a friend who had fallen out of touch. The writer of the card indicated that she was looking forward to seeing Hannah at home, that she had recently visited a small rural town in the West Country that she thought Hannah would have liked. The baffling thing was how a mother cosy enough with her daughter to call herself ‘Mumsykins’ could have not kept abreast of her daughter’s address. Using the digitised Yellow Pages we tracked a Hannah Steeds to a family address in Bristol.  It’s not an uncommon name, but we were worried about Hannah’s eyesight and didn’t have anything else to go on, so we were prepared to take the punt and send Hannah’s accoutrements on to that address.

One day Hannah Steeds herself turned up at our door. I wasn’t in when she arrived, so it was my flatmate who passed over the postcard and contact lenses. He reported her as ’25-30, tall, but quiet and shy with the body language to match. Glasses. No Bristol accent’. And, apparently, absent-minded; she lived at 26/4, the flat below ours. She had just given out the wrong address, both to her mother and to Specsavers.

As with the solution to most mysteries, big and small, I found this disappointing. Hannah’s post wasn’t the imprint of collateral scattered in transition. Simply a casual mistake of the misplaced mind, as it unwittingly misplaces the body. There was no great conspiracy of illness, or amnesia, or filial alienation. My bank statements and reminders to renew my National Galleries of Scotland membership still roll into my flat in Edinburgh. But I don’t get the same wistful satisfaction from these forlorn reminders of my past inhabitancy as I did at the prospect that Hannah Steeds once lived in that flat, and that in the lost universe of some long-delayed postcard, or long-neglected mother, still did.

That endless pouring in of ancillary admin also seems like a taunting wink from whatever household god has observed the wearying tugging up of physical anchorage. The sentimentality of moving is always quashed by the picking up of detritus, as we concern ourselves with box sizes and bubble wrap and the turbulent ownership history of a frying pan. Every time I shift I am bewildered by my astonishing ability to explode myself over all available surfaces. My handwriting scrawled over paper pinned to the wall. My broken dvd player, rejected from my family home. Flour I bought for a cake I didn’t make. The fruit bowl with my name carefully painted on it above a picture of kiwis. Four mugs. Three cacti. A duvet. One pillow with case. A soup bowl. Matching coloured spoon. Shampoo. Half empty gin bottle. My desire to become a monk alternates with an impulse to gather everything up and attach it to me in a memorialising shroud, as I assess the ghostly inventory of the things I did do, and the things I could have but didn’t. That’s always the real sting of leaving anywhere. That gnawing concern that you didn’t live a place well enough. The minute you start walking away time horse-shoes and you remember your initial expectations of a place, before you first arrived. What you thought you’d do there. Who you thought you’d meet. Who you thought you’d be. I also start to mourn every grumble, and remember the sense of guilt I felt when my uncle came up for my graduation and commented on how beautiful the city was, how many levels there were to it, as if there were two cities sloping on top of each other. My vision of the city had plateaued into my daily grudge across the meadows, and now I felt like I needed to touch every corner, to make sure I’d appreciated it properly.

On the way home from Carlton Hill M and I climbed up into the alcoves in the wall that faces a graveyard. We felt like statues, whose only duty was to watch, that if anyone walked by we’d be offered the privilege of being an invisible onlooker, eternal and impassive. But no-one did.

Sibyl Kalid’s website