Four Languages Sigrid Dips Into on Duolingo


Sigrid picked up a fractured Spanish in high school, which she later mended slightly for casual conversations at her job. She associates the language with the smell of disinfectants and the careful application of powders, cologne, perfume, and lipstick. It makes her think of coffee mugs and bony hands with prominent veins held in hers at a table, sunlight warming the chairs. She dips into Duolingo’s Spanish because she wants to explore more of the language, see the words in front of her and think more about the spelling and grammar.


To Sigrid, French is a wonderful clotting in the mouth and nose. It’s a language that renders even practical phrases nonsensically romantic. She finds humor in it and loveliness and frustration. It isn’t entirely beautiful, though. For instance, she doesn’t like the word pastèque, which is French for watermelon. It sounds like a gunky watermelon paste. But much of French is lovely, and it’s a hopeful language to her, because she imagines herself in France one day. Not even in Paris, but in lavender fields in the south or on beaches in the north and fields with white graves, gardens with des petits chats, and stony paths that lead to cathedrals.


So far, German is the language of clean airport gates. Glass made brilliant in sunshine, sleek curving chairs, planes patiently absorbing luggage. The same planes later leaping into the air and seeming weightless as they rise. It’s the taste of coffee and formalities. Ticket agents with their hair in a bun and their lipstick tidy. Screens displaying a schedule of flights and the promise of timeliness.


When Sigrid works on Welsh she feels as if a dryad has arrived to summon her on a quest in the forest. She hears the language of earth and trees, and streams engorged with unexpected floodwater. The words are enchantment. They set her circling a forest glade barefoot, with pillowy grass and spikes of pain from twigs and stones. Sometimes, she smiles in wonderment when she encounters a new word. Pilipala, which is one word for butterfly. She wants to discover other words.

Hugh Attends an Unusual Self-Help Event

For lack of anything better to do, Hugh has signed up for self-help lectures. Three of them are online, and 10 minutes in he mutes the screen to trawl through the news and stare out his window. But one of them is offline, in a rented room at the City Folk Art Museum, and he needs to bathe, shave, and wear clean clothes to attend.

The most attractive thing about the lecture is that it costs only $5, to help cover the room rental. The fact that it’s only $5 means that the speaker probably isn’t too full of themselves. Hugh is tired of self-help talks by people who are awash in money or who mention that, during the lowest point in their life, they had friends to help them, a spouse, a sibling. Someone. The speakers are always too normal and put-together. Their dark night of the soul is more like the blinds drawn down on a sunny afternoon.

There are a few dozen people in the audience, each on a folding chair and with spaces between them as if they’re gapped teeth. Hugh chooses a seat in the back, so he can slip out early if he needs to or stare at the floor in a way that would be too rude and obvious in the front row. The people nearest to him are a heavyset lady in a pink tracksuit and an older man scratching flakes of skin off his arm. It’s like a localized snow shower, and Hugh finds it both repellent and fascinating.

As time crawls by, the group pauses in its restless shifting and chatting to look around. “Who’s running this, anyway?” someone complains from the front.

That’s when the lights go out.

Gasps run through the room. One person releases a pitiful cry. “Where’s the light switch?” someone calls from the front of the room. And then Hugh can’t hear anything except for his own breathing.

As the darkness persists, and the silence around his breathing thickens, Hugh grips the edge of his seat. His heart has started to feel more emphatic in its beating, and sweat is gathering under his arms.

“What’s going on?” he asks. When he hears no answer, he tries, “Hello?”

Someone comes into view: The heavyset woman in the pink tracksuit. The rest of the room is dark, but he can dimly make out her figure and her face. She’s older than he thought. Her eyes are almost lost to wrinkles and pouched skin.

“Good evening, Hugh,” she says.

“How do you know my name?” he gasps.

“It’s on your name tag.”

Hugh looks down. With a jolt, he realizes that although he can see her, he can’t see his own legs, his own belly, arms, and hands.

“What’s going on? Who are you?”

“I’m Cate.” She folds puffy fingers over her belly.

“Ok… what’s going on?”

“We’re going to talk for a short while. It’s better, in the dark, before the lights come on. It’s better, in the silence, before other voices distract us.”

“Talk about what?”

“Self-help. Isn’t that what you’re here for? To help yourself.”

“I guess.”

“You guess.” Her face creases in what he’s slow to realize is a smile. “Silly man. You’re not here to help yourself.”

“What am I here for?”

“You’ve got nothing better to do with your evening. Or rather, you think you’ve got nothing better to do with your evening. So you’re here.”

“What could I be doing that’s better?”

The creases on her face deepen, and a bubbling laugh bursts from her pale lips. “That you even have to ask is pathetic.”

“Thanks.” He feels stiff suddenly and wants to stand and walk around. But he still can’t see anything else in the room. For all he knows, he’s in an abyss with just himself, the lady in the tracksuit, and the chairs they’re sitting on.

“You should be prowling the streets,” she says. “You should be baying at the moon. You’re an old wolf without a pack and in some ways you’ll never heal. In some ways you’ll never recover from what you’ve lost. But why do you deny what you have? The blood in you, the thirst for life, for sensing, for exploring. Yes, you’ll limp to your grave, but why not make your blood stir in the meantime? You should be rolling your shoulders, padding into shadows, snapping your teeth at strange scents. Instead, you’re here.”

In some ways, her words make little sense to him. But his heart is beating faster, and his stomach is clenching. “What do you want from me,” is the only thing he can think to say in his confusion.

“What do you want from me,” she mimics. Her face contorts into a sneer. “Apparently you want nothing from yourself. Just living a cooped up life, spoonfed pap in rooms like this, your blood sluggish. You wretched nailbiter, you shivering ghost, you strangler of vital hours. Get out of here.”

The lights in the room come back on. Hugh blinks quickly and peers around. Everyone is sweating and shivering in their seats. The only person up on her feet and moving is the heavyset lady in the pink tracksuit. Cate, she called herself. Hugh follows her with his eyes as she strides out of the room.

What follows, over the next several minutes, is anger and confusion. “We paid money to come here,” says one person. “I canceled plans with a friend,” says another person, who may be lying. 

No one mentions the time they’ve spent in the dark. Hugh doesn’t breathe a word about Cate. What he does is simmer with impatience. He fidgets in his chair. Finally, he lurches to his feet. “I’m leaving,” he announces, the sound of his own deep voice startling him.

Years ago, before a downward spiral of failure and drinking, he used to give speeches. He isn’t used to his voice anymore.

People blink at him, and he walks out the door. He’s miles away from his home in Kilter Street Manor, but he decides to walk. He can’t bear to rattle through a subway or pack himself onto a bus. He needs to move. Already, he can’t remember Cate’s words. They’ve darted just beyond the reach of his consciousness. But he does feel an urgent need to walk.

If he stops now and then to inspect the curve of a shadow in an alley, the light of a streetlamp glancing off a window… if he pauses to curl his nose at ripe garbage and sniff at roses tumbling over a fence… if he attends to the squeal of a truck and the electricity of cicadas… he’s not sure why he’s doing any of this. He only needs to be outdoors, sending his senses outwards and reeling them in with whatever they’ve caught. 

Why sleeping during movies isn’t so bad

Mrs. Selby doesn’t mind falling asleep during movies or shows. The other day, she settled in for a viewing of the 2009 Emma mini-series, a BBC production. Here and there, she flickered into a light doze. Whenever she woke up, there were pretty British people waiting for her on the screen. Or beautiful landscapes presided over by large homes. She enjoyed herself tremendously.

The way she saw it, sleep didn’t make her miss out on much. Movies and shows were rarely good the whole way through. They usually had their dull patches. More often than not, the character development was written awkwardly, with missed opportunities. Memorable moments of dialogue weren’t the norm. As far as she was concerned, she could nap while sampling the bright spots of whatever she was watching.

So, there were Emma and Knightley, experiencing gentle but profound revelations on a dance floor. And there they were, touching their foreheads together while seated on a bench. Seemed they were having a lovely day, after many a quarrel and misunderstanding. They looked very well deserving of this moment, and Mrs. Selby was satisfied with that.

Movies and shows really were at their best in a handful of crystalline scenes that had the right words and gestures, a tender look on someone’s face or some dramatic music. Who cares what came in between. Screen productions, like people, were at their finest in doses of five to ten minutes with breaks for snoozing.

Howard rediscovers Erana’s Peace

When Howard thinks about the height of the pandemic, two things come to mind: a fog of anxiety and an escape into old computer games.

Instead of marathoning movies from the 1940s, which is his usual anxiety management strategy, he took a dive into classic Sierra games. He dipped into the King’s Quest series to revisit Daventry, Kolyma, and the land of Tamir. He muddled his way through the first Laura Bow game, spying on people through paintings.

And he returned to the first Quest for Glory game. The original with the EGA graphics that had once been called Hero’s Quest.

It surprised him how much of the game he remembered. Dancing with the fairies in the mushroom patch, getting squashed by a bouncy blue Antwerp, the wizard in the pink mansion with the gargoyle over the door. It was a game his older brother had introduced him to, an older brother he barely spoke to these days. Rediscovering it was a delight, but also left him feeling tender and bruised in his heart.

Erana's Peace from Quest for Glory I.
Erana’s Peace

One part of the game came as a shock to him. He remembered it, but the memory didn’t prepare him for the effect it would have on him now, as an adult.

For the first time in years, he set foot in Erana’s Peace.

Erana’s Peace is a meadow in the northern part of the snowed-in valley where the game is set. It’s a place of safety. The forest monsters can’t follow you there. You can sleep at the foot of a tree that bears bejeweled fruits, and no wraith or monster will murder you. The fruits from the tree are healing. The meadow embraces you, calling you to rest. It’s a place of restoration and a haven where no harm can come to you, even when you’re wounded or sleeping.

But what makes this place truly special is the music. Music that speaks of sweetness, peace, and melancholy. Much can be restored in Erana’s Peace, but certain things can never come back. And yet, there are consolations. 

The first time Howard re-encountered this melody, he felt a wave of emotion that closed his throat. When playing the game, he frequently brought his character back to the meadow, to linger without obvious purpose. Even in the middle of the day, even when he was strong enough to slay the most powerful of the forest monsters, he savored Erana’s Peace.

He remembered that as a child he had done the same thing. It wasn’t something you spoke about when you told people you were playing a computer game. You talked about tips for leveling up and getting a high score. You didn’t tell people that you had found a balm for your fear in a computer game from 1989. 

He must have carried that meadow in his soul for years. It had remained secreted away, and now he found the path back to it.

Howard wonders if there can be a place like that in real life. Can he recreate it? He doesn’t know how to draw well, and he doesn’t know how to play any instruments. (One year of trumpet lessons at age 13 doesn’t count.) Can his apartment become a home to a small tree with glistening fruits that wink in and out of sight?

For the time being, Erana’s Peace remains in the game. Howard keeps returning to this game now. You can play it as a fighter, a mage, or a thief, so his excuse, if anyone asks (no one has) is that he’s just running through it as different character types. But the main perk for him is to hurry through a dangerous forest to the meadow and its melody.

Plus, if you use magic in the game, you can discover something under the large rock in Erana’s Peace. An extra bit of calm.

Lucia: A Short Story

If you aren’t a mother, it’s hard to make friends in Lesser Hollows. Moms flock together for their own activities, like mommy meetups at the park, where they command the paths with their strollers. Moms discover each other through the PTA, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, Little League, the 4-H club, baby-and-me activities at the library, and church.

About a month after she moves to Lesser Hollows, Diane attends a church down the street from her apartment. It smells of damp wood and incense, dust and floral perfume. After the service, she hovers by the pale green and lilac walls as families clump together and parents greet parents. Vibrating with tension, she perks herself up with a smile, even as her insides wilt with pessimism. One person, a young woman with a bowed back, gives her a quizzical smile and quickly looks away.

Slipping out of the church, Diane wonders if they somehow know about her. That she can’t easily leave Lesser Hollows, because her driver’s license is suspended. That she burned away past friendships by not knowing how and when to stop drinking.

Continue reading “Lucia: A Short Story”

Short Story: Good-Bye, Douglas

My older brother’s bedroom door was locked. It usually was, but I always liked to rattle the knob to check before knocking. Each knock varied in strength and landed on a different part of the door. I thought of it as a sisterly tap code, and it only ever conveyed one message: “Come out, Douglas. I’m lonely.”

That night, Douglas didn’t respond to my knocks by screaming at me to go away. He didn’t invite me inside either. From his room, I heard nothing.

A few weeks earlier, he had covered the top half of his door with an illustration of a demon stuffing a young girl into its slavering mouth. The girl’s face wasn’t visible, merely traces of her white-blonde hair and a purple sneaker poking out of the demon’s fist.

Uncoincidentally, I had white-blonde hair and wore purple sneakers.

The child-gobbling demon had kept me away, until my loneliness overcame my fear. I missed Douglas, the old Douglas who had been nice enough to play board games with me and sometimes watch a movie we would both like. He had been replaced with a rageful and melancholy version of himself. I knew that knocking on his door would do nothing but anger him, unless I could tell him something that would tempt him into a conversation. 

“Doug!” I called. “Dougie,” I added, in the hopes of annoying him into a response with a hated nickname.

Two hours earlier, at dinner, we had sat three feet apart at the kitchen island eating microwaved pizza. Our parents had fluttered between the living room, the kitchen, and the first-floor master bedroom, adding layers of fancy evening clothes to themselves and pausing frequently to peer at their phones.

Our dad had spoken to us once, to chide us about our poor performance at school. Douglas was in ninth grade, and his test scores and homework in all subjects had recently become abysmal. As for myself, I made an effort with my work, but other problems weighed on me. My fourth-grade teacher had complained to my parents about my absent-mindedness, a tendency to get tangled up in imaginative threads. “Imagination is wonderful,” Mrs. Carron had remarked at the parent-teacher conference, “but even good qualities need moderation.”

Or, as my dad had put it, “You need to grow up, Emily. Your behavior is getting ridiculous.”

After dinner, the babysitter had turned up. She was a sullen college student who lived two doors down. Douglas had insisted that there was no need for a babysitter, because he was 14, but my parents hadn’t known how late they would return. They hadn’t wanted to give my brother the responsibility of looking after me for so many hours.

Whenever the babysitter was over, she left us alone. As long as the house wasn’t burning down around her or getting burglarized, she would stay squashed up in an armchair in the living room. She would ignore my requests for games and tell me to feed myself if I wanted bedtime snacks. Although my parents always offered her the use of a spare bedroom, she would fall asleep in the armchair in a cloud of soft snores. Even though she was in the house that night, I was essentially alone with my older brother.

I pressed an ear to his door, at the spot where the demon’s clawed foot was embedded in a gray and brown scree. I imagined I could hear the scratches of colored pencils through the door and the puffs of my brother’s breath.

“Douglas!” I nearly whined. “I need to show you something!”

The crack of the lock and the door flying open arrested my speech. My brother didn’t look surly or furious. His cheeks weren’t blotchy with frustration. Instead, he looked as if he had fitted a tight, pale mask to himself, from which his eyes, dark and frantic, sought escape.

Continue reading “Short Story: Good-Bye, Douglas”

Outage – A Short Story

Inspired by a recent outage in the City of Possibility.

When Joan woke up from her nap, the light she had left on in the bathroom was out. Time to replace the bulb, was her first assumption. But when she shuffled to the kitchen for some water, she noticed that the digital time display on the oven was blank. Several steps across her studio apartment and she was at her desk, where the dead smartphone she had plugged in before her nap hadn’t recharged.

A power outage. Whether it was just in her apartment, the whole building, or many blocks beyond she didn’t yet know. She raised the window shade to find the sun setting on a summer evening and not a single light in any neighboring building. She heaved the window open, letting in hot, stale air. Nine floors up, she expected to hear people or cars, but the street was silent, and what she could see of it was empty.

With a gusty sigh, she yanked down the shade. She hoped this power outage, unlike the one a month ago, wouldn’t last a full day and spoil the contents of her fridge. She pulled off her striped pajamas, which were pasted with sweat to her body, and eased herself into jeans and a baggy brown t-shirt.

Her movements were stiff. Right after that last power outage, she had gotten into a car accident. Stiffness, tiredness, and headaches had slowed her down most days since. On top of these lingering problems, she continued to struggle with legal issues. Because she had zipped out of the building’s parking lot on her way to the supermarket for milk, eggs, meat, and everything else she had lost to her temporarily impotent fridge, she was being held at fault for the accident.

“As if you could call what happened a tragedy,” she muttered. Sliding her keys into her pocket, she opened the front door. Out in the corridor, only the emergency lighting was on. Every other ceiling lamp was dark, leaving most of the corridor in shadow, with deep pockets of darkness at each end. She listened for several moments but heard nothing.

She locked the door behind her and padded towards the stairs. The light in the stairwell was on, a strong yellow-white glow. She pushed at the exit door. The door shivered, but stayed shut. Repeated pushing only made her shoulder sore.

Joan stepped back from the door, panting, and peered up and down the corridor.

At one end, on the edge of the pocket of darkness, a woman stood, short and hunched.

Frowning, Joan made her way towards the woman, who remained still.

When Joan was several feet away, there really was no mistaking who it was. The pinched mouth, the piggish eyes, the hair a dull gray. “Helen,” she gasped.

Helen had been Joan’s neighbor. For decades, they had nurtured a mutual hatred that had made them notorious on the ninth floor.

They stared at each other, before Joan shoved her hand into the front pocket of her jeans. Her apartment keys were gone.

“Not a power outage,” Helen said. Though she had died a month earlier under Joan’s car, she stepped spryly now. Her hand closed around Joan’s wrist, and she drew her old neighbor into the darkness.