Fiction : Prologue to ‘The Last Scentsei’.

Prologue

Itabashi Suburb, Tokyo, 2049.

The silk scarves they had used to construct the ceiling panels of their little makeshift tent were just translucent enough to allow someone to see the little lights affixed to the garland and which were hung from the ceiling of the room. The tent itself was a fairly simple construct consisting of different pieces of fabric which were suspended on a wire frame, fabricated from bits and pieces found in the nearby streets after the markets and shops closed down for the day. Colourful scraps of delicate tissue had been carefully sown together to increase the overall size of the canvas, and the ensemble looked like one of those paintings from the past made by a famous Dutch painter in which he had mixed all kinds of colourful blocks together. From inside the makeshift tent, the lights looked exactly as they were intended to : like the billions of stars that illuminated our skies in the galaxy. The improvised shelter was a little enclave of sorts, a hideaway they could get in to escape the world around them. Even though the canvas was paper-thin it shielded anyone inside from the would outside as if some kind of magic spell had been cast on it.

The little girl inside the tent, – she couldn’t have been a day older than seven -, was lying down on the floor mat, her head resting on the older woman’s stomach. The woman was slowly caressing the girl’s hair in a soothing, repetitive motion. The woman was in her late thirties but looked a lot younger. Her jet-black hair and delicate, pale complexion bestowed upon her an air of sophistication, refinement and intelligence. Her regal features where supplemented by a statuesque figure and sharp jawline, all of which only accentuated the most beautiful aspect of her face : her striking emerald blue eyes. If a thousand ships had launched for Helen as she had once read in a forbidden book, then there wouldn’t be enough wood in the world to build the necessary ships for her. The little girl resting her head in her lap was a miniature version of the woman, even slightly more beautiful if it were possible.
“Never forget, Kaori-ko,” the woman whispered while both were staring at the lustrous lights above them, “people will try and take a lot from you in this world. They can lock you away, burn down your house, cut down your trees, and so on, but there’s one thing they can never take from you.”
“What’s that?” the little girl asked.
“The stars in the skies. If you make them yours, if you declare that they belong to you, then nobody can take that away from you. Ever. They will always be there for you, waiting for you, watching you from above. They will guide you in the darkest of times, when you feel abandoned by everyone and everything the stars will be there for you and show you the way.”
The little girl reached her arm out towards the tingling little lights which reflected in her big, pearl-like blue uncharacteristic blue eyes.
“Never?”
“Never.” the woman reassured her while planting a kiss on the girl’s forehead.
“Why?”
“Because when we leave this earth after our time is up, that’s where we go. We become stars. Every person who has ever walked on this earth represents a little star like that.”
“So that we won’t forget them when they’re gone?”
“Exactly.” the mother smiled.
“And you’ll be here to protect me from all those things too, right?” the young girl asked meekly.
“Always. And if not in presence, then I’ll be looking out for you from above.”
“Like the stars?”
“Like the stars, Kaori-ko. They represent every generation that’s ever lived. If you ever feel lonely, look at the stars at night and remember that you are always surrounded by everyone who’s ever been here.” They laid there for what could have easily been an eternity until the sudden thudding of footsteps echoed throughout the stairwell adjacent to the room. A moment later, a man in his early forties entered the room with a look of panic across his face. He had handsome features, and the first signs of white whiskers near his temples. He was holding onto a box the size of a large book with his left hand, and once he was inside the room he carefully locked the door behind him.

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Flash fiction : “Now is the Time of Monsters.”

Do you remember it? Do you remember what the weather was like that day? What smells were floating in the air that hour? What your heart-rate was the minute before? What the last thought entering your mind the second prior was? The moment when you realised there’s something more than all of what we can observe?

I remember it well, the first time I realised that all we can see is not all there is. I had just turned 10 years old. It was the first tornado of the season and we were racing home from a baseball match out in Sandpark Hill. The storm had eluded all early-detection systems and had appeared as quickly as it would vanish later. The moment the meteorologists issued the warning on the broadcasting system and the speakers sounded the ominous alarm, it was already too late. Dad drove our truck like a madman, only narrowly avoiding collisions with other drivers who were trying to do the exact same thing, and we managed to make it as far as Lancaster bridge. Dad and Mom in front, my sister and I in the backseat and Carrot the dog in the trunk. When it became clear that we couldn’t go on, Dad stopped the truck with screeching tires under the passageway and told us to bury our heads in our laps and to shield our heads with our hands. The first truck that crashed into ours ejected me in one sweeping motion through the open passenger window, my body miraculously avoiding any collision with the steel frame of the car, like a basketball falling cleanly into a net. I landed near a pillar under the arches supporting the bridge. It took me a while to regain consciousness but when I did, the view I had was that of our truck laying on it’s roof and being sucked away slowly from underneath the bridge with everyone screaming and crying inside.

The tornado was pulling it out slowly, gently, like I slowly spun a sling of spaghetti onto a spoon with my fork during Sunday dinners. As if the Gods themselves wanted to make sure that I witnessed every slow second of what was about to happen. In an absurdly overzealous miscalculation of my childish abilities I let go of the pillar I was holding onto and started running with my little legs towards the truck. I would somehow manage to pull it back to safety. I saw my mother’s contorted face turn from panic to sadness, as she realised that my doomed attempt at saving them would inevitably also result in my own demise. I will never forget that look of selfless agony on her face, of being more worried about another’s fate than her own. As soon as I reached the truck and placed my hand on the scratched metal of the front bumper, the Gods decided that my misery had gone on for long enough and put an end to it by quickly pulling up the car into the stormy skies. Unwilling to let go I was dragged along until my hand gave way, and I fell to the floor in the eye of the storm.

I had traversed the skin-scratching sandpaper-winds outside and was now suddenly in a vacuum of pure calmness, an oasis of soundless peace. I could see the storm of sand and steel playing out in front of me, just outside of this invisible tube I was trapped in, but inside there was nothing. I looked up to but there was nothing but blurred mayhem. I was caught in total chaos, swallowed whole by the white maelstrom of whirlwinds. And then, on the foggy perimeter just outside my field of vision, it is in that clashing of light and darkness, silence and screams, that I saw for the first time the sights of another dimension. The force of the vortex was tearing the fabric of our reality apart and I caught a glimpse of something that mortals were never supposed to witness. Flashes of light and colours filled my eyes, liquid visions of a millions hues of other worlds and other lives being lived poured straight into my consciousness. A thousand lives and a thousand galaxies we had never been told about. I saw faces of people who could only live on other planets. Of places where gravity worked in different ways than here. I would have dismissed it as a hallucination, were it not for the near-tangibility of it all. I reached out my arm to touch the perimeter of the whirlpool where the visions of liquid light and translucent shadows were flowing through one another at the speed of light like molten steel in a mill. If you ask me now how long I was in there I would reply that it lasted an entire lifetime, a limitless eternity, but witnesses of the scene said it lasted no longer than a couple of second. A thousand generations live inside me now. When my fingers finally reached the barriers of the vortex I was trapped in, the whirlwinds died down as quickly as they had come and I found myself on my scraped knees in the middle of the highway with my arm reaching out into the ethereal nothingness of what I had seen.

People who witnessed my fall rushed to my aid, unable to believe I barely had a scratch on me. They never found my parent’s car, something the city’s police chief assured not to be unusual with storms of this strength. I hesitated to tell them what I had seen, because I was sure they’d never believe me. They’d tell me I had hallucinated everything because of the chaos, but I was sure of what I had witnessed. A secret transition. The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born. And when the planets and fates are unaligned, two worlds collide and breaches appear along the surface. And I was the only one who had witnessed it. I had been where no-one else had been before, trapped in between both. Between two times, between two dimensions.

Now is the time of Madness. Now is the time of Monsters.

Flash fiction is a fictional work of extreme brevity that still offers character and plot development. It is a favored genre among the English-speaking world’s most celebrated writers for its ability to convey deep truths and universal human emotions in just a few short paragraphs. When done well, flash fiction can convey deep truths and resonate with readers from all walks of life. Flash fiction compresses an entire story into the space of a few paragraphs. There is no defined word count for flash fiction, but some commonly used word limits in flash fiction range from just six words on the short end to around 1,000 words on the longer end. 

Terrible, thanks for asking.

“So, how is working from home going?”

If you happen to be one of the millions like me who has been stuck working from home, chances are that you’ll have been asked this question quite often lately. And even if you’re totally dying inside, you just say “fine,” so everyone can go about their day, right? When you’re entering your third (3rd!) month of working from home (that’s nine weeks for you folks who after childbirth reflexively insist on telling us that little Bryan or Alexia is 30,4 weeks old and not 7 months) it’s a question that while innocuous on the surface can actually incite deep bouts of self-reflection, which in turn can make you understand your life is a total, complete and entire mess spiralling entirely out of control towards an absolute state of total mental entropy. But so is everyone else’s. So cool. Coolcoolcool.

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Book Review : The Enigma of Room 622 by Joel Dicker

Dicker’s latest novel (end of May 2020) is probably one of the most highly anticipated books in the French publishing arena for the foreseeable future and is poised to be this summer’s hit if we can believe the hype surrounding the release. But I found a somewhat rehashed recipe that, although Dicker introduces an interesting narrative vehicle at the beginning of this story, narrowly fails to provide that which long-time fans have been hankering for : innovation. Read on for more, there are no spoilers.

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Coughing in the Time of Corona

“Primary symptoms include loss of smell and taste, a dry cough and fever.”

According to the incessant avalanche of news regarding the Coronavirus we’ve been getting buried under since the beginning of the year, these three symptoms are the ones you really have to watch out for and avoid collecting when we’re talking about the Corona virus. I ended up collecting two of them without however contracting the virus itself, which my doctor later confirmed to be ‘quite the feat these days’. The self-effacing half smile on her face nonetheless revealed that she wasn’t quite sure how I’d managed this ‘accomplishment’. But before digging into this I need to provide some more details on why we’re here.

I am not part of a minority. Consequently, I have never felt the shameful, degrading looks minorities of all kinds get subjected to from people who erroneously fancy themselves better for some reason. Until a few days ago.

The reason for this sudden change? A cough I developed. Much like the one every news outlet has been warning you about for weeks.

It’s a weird thing to be coughing when there’s a global pandemic raging throughout the world. Especially when like me, you’re never ever sick. I can’t remember the last time I ran a fever or needed antibiotics. And then this. What would in the best of times not even get an inquisitive look from most people, is now to be considered as an open act of war if you do it without pulling down a ziplock bag over your head prior to coughing. One cough gets you the furious looks. Two coughs gets you the overly exaggerated gesticulations where people try to cover their entire bodies with just their hands. Three coughs and they’re just about ready to pick up the pitchforks and chase you down the streets.

On the Ides of March (the 14th, to be precise) our country, like many others before it, entered a national lockdown phase in an attempt to contain the corona crisis. Weeks of speculation finally came true, and ten million of us suddenly found themselves stuck at home and in dire need of toilet paper. The problem with a pandemic of this magnitude is that when you’re stuck at home you can’t go an hour without getting some type of news update from outlets you hadn’t even heard of ever before. The incessant overdose of information has been overwhelming to say the least, and one of the unfortunate, less desirable side-effects it has is that it’s turned Jill, Jack, John and Joe into a DIY-medical physician. Spend a second on Twitter reading tweets about the coronacrisis and you’ll want to hang yourself. With all this time on our hands we humans inevitably end up scouring every square inch of our bodies in search of even the smallest signal – sign of God even – that something inside us might be wrong. In the best of days I am not someone who panics quickly, in fact shit has to hit the fan pretty hard before you’ll hear me gulp so I wasn’t too worried about maybe having contracted this coronavirus. But then – as it often does – it came, as unexpected and surprising as a genuinely good movie being released on Netflix.

The first sign on the wall that something might be wrong was the headache I woke up with on Monday the 18th. The headache was accompanied by a little voice in the back of my head : This is it. Get your affairs in order. You’re about to become a statistic.
Now as I said before, I don’t panic quickly and as such I immediately reassured myself that this was nothing. I’ve had headaches before and I’ll have then in the future too. Then the headaches went on for three subsequent days, accompanied by an overall fatigue and aching joints and muscle pains.

See, there it is. Now with pain in the muscles and joints? That’s your body telling you it’s done for.
  Shut up.

Still, the panic didn’t set in. I reassured myself that these were side-effects associated with the fact that during this first week of lockdown I had gone from an average daily step count of 11,000 to no more than 2,000. If there’s a thing as too much sport, surely there’s a thing as too little sport. I cruised ahead with work that week, needing naps to push through the day as if I were closer to 80 than 30, but nevertheless hopeful that a weekend’s rest would bring the required solace and feelings of being in better health.

Then the fever came. And the night-sweats.
This. Is. It. Shut up. It’s not. Yes it is.

I woke up that Saturday morning feeling like a wounded dog that had narrowly escaped the clutches of a live-animal food market in Wuhan. Headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint pains, and now a fever and night-sweats. I quickly pulled up the checklist of symptoms to watch out for and crossed off two more that I had now managed to collect. I felt like improving the world’s worst stamp collection. The important badges I was still missing were loss of smell and taste and a cough. I somehow sourced a weird, mistaken feeling of mental tranquility from this. As if everything was still alright, as long as I lacked those two symptoms. Like a gunshot victim counting his blessings that the bullets only hit a normal artery and not a carotid artery. Alive, but barely so. And so, following the protocol and guidelines laid out by the government I locked myself in and started bingeing gram after gram of paracetamol and chasing it down with Aquarius, much like a college freshman the morning after an all-night rager. At first the paracetamol worked wonders. As soon as I had ingested it I would eagerly count the minutes down until it would take effect, and I’d resort on my fever-free cloud of bliss. Then after a couple of days of this repeated routine, the countdowns became longer and the fever-free cloud of bliss dropped me before I could recite the alphabet backwards. Something was wrong.

Even paracetamol isn’t working anymore. That’s a sign, if any. Shut up.

If by that point any confirmation was needed (it wasn’t) that something was wrong, the coughing came. The penultimate badge of (dis)honour. The membership card to the club you never want to be a part of.
This is it. Pack your bags Dorothy, you’re going to CoronaKansas.
It’s around this time that I really started to question whether or not I, who is never ever ever sick, had really contracted this corona virus somewhere in the last few days before the lockdown. I’m sure the delirious night-fevers played their part in trying to convince me that I was done for.

Over the next few days, the fever came and went like the tides. It would come as soon as the gram of paracetamol I was surviving on stopped working, and recede like the waves from the shoreline once the next gram would kick in. For days I felt like a broken fridge with a bad cough. Hot/cold, hot/cold, hot/cold. Sometimes cold/hot, cold/hot. My fridge door slamming open and shut every time I coughed. This fever had me in its grip like a pesky, unsolicited instagram ad. I didn’t know where it came from, but it was always there, never far away. Lurking in the shadows, ready to strike a blow at any given time. A lack of available Corona tests meant that I couldn’t get tested for the virus straight away. I needed to consult doctors over the phone x-amount of times who would need to refer me to the ER room as soon as they could feel my fever over the phone. Let me tell you something about medical consultations over the phone : they’re about as useless as diet water. I could’ve trained a parrot and he would’ve been diagnosed as ‘probably corona positive’ after this brief phone conversation. It’s also very weird. As if you were ordering something shady from the delivery menu of a restaurant you’ve never eaten at before.

On the seventh day of consecutive fever – and when I mean fever I don’t mean 38 degrees Celsius but very much nearing 40 – I decided enough was enough and I went to the Emergency Room of the ‘specialised’ Corona virus hospital in the neighbourhood. What? God allegedly created the whole world and universe in seven days and I couldn’t get rid of this stupid fever? Come on.
Your time has come. Step aboard the train.  Shutupshutupshutup.
Stepping into the ER room was like going back in time and walking onto the movie set of the 1995 blockbuster ‘Ebola’, which- as the slightly revelatory title might suggest – is a movie about an Ebola pandemic that ravages the world. A doctor dressed in the exact same yellow biohazard suit briefly examined me – by which I mean that she took my temperature and asked me to walk six metres as if I was a geriatric patient looking for his walker – and then declared that I just had to suffer the fever a little longer at home and wait it out. This is not the diagnosis you want to hear when you feel like you might spontaneously combust at any given time. Reluctantly I went back home and returned to the couch in which I had nearly fossilised over the course of the past week.

Needless to say the fever did not die down as the biohazard-personage had predicted. And so on the morning of my tenth (10!) day of fever – unwilling to bear another day of fever, night-sweats and all that came in between – I gathered what was left of my strength and slouched over to the ER of another ‘not corona specialised hospital’ close to where I live. The doctors here weren’t dressed as extras of a movie set, but immediately set to work and ran a battery of tests on me. Blood-work, ECG, CT scan, the works. The ER doctor entered the examination room I was in carrying a clipboard in her hand and even though I had ECG-wires strapped all over my chest and going everywhere much like a car-engine being repaired in a shop, I didn’t fail to notice that she was checking things off a list. Crossing them out. To this day I don’t know what it is that she was checking off, but it had to be the list of symptoms I had collected because when she finally sat down next to me her first words were ‘Well you’re a bit in a rough shape, buddy.’
She was right about that.
Pack your bags. Here it comes.
Shut up.

The last thing she did before leaving me in the examination room was the infamous Corona test. I was finally getting one. The test itself is about as pleasant as having a 15 centimetre rod jammed up your nose sounds like. As she approached me with it I couldn’t chase the images away of me a couple of years ago, on my hands and knees over the shower drain with a stretched-out metal coat hanger prodding the drain-plug in a feeble attempt at unclogging it.

After the CT-scan and the chest X-RAY – for which I had to pull myself up on a bar like a monkey at the zoo – they started me on a dose of antibiotics and liquid magic, in the form of a paracetamol IV. Certain that I had contracted Corona – because with all these symptoms in my bag how could I not? – I was moved to a transit ward where you had to wait for the outcome of the corona-test, depending on which you’d be wheeled to a normal ward or a containment ward. I spent the better part of the afternoon in a secluded chamber in that transit ward watching daytime TV (I don’t see any reason to keep this TV thing going. There’s literally nothing interesting on, ever.) awaiting the results. I was then told I’d spend the night because the test results would only be available in the early morning, a decision that I welcomed with open arms because it implied they were going to keep filling up my paracetamol IV every time it ran out. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing the wondrous workings of a paracetamol IV drip, it’s sensational. Works twice as fast and four times as well. I’m definitely getting one for the next time I have a hangover.

At 4am I was woken by the night nurse who entered my room with something I had seen before : a corona testing kit.
“Your first test came back negative, but the doctor’s not buying it.” were her first words. “Not with your symptoms. So we gotta run it again. This might be unpleasant.”
Before I properly realised what was going on my drain-plug was being prodded left and right. That’s a hell of an alarm clock.

The second test came back negative as well, thus confirming that I hadn’t in fact contracted the virus. The doctor who announced this to me was so surprised by the outcome of the second test I’m quite sure she wrote down my name on a list of medical anomalies to be contacted later, once all of this is over. So similar were my symptoms. The verdicts however was a bilateral bacterial pneumonia. For someone like me who is never ever sick (have I mentioned that I’m usually never sick?), one can’t help but wonder at the odds of contracting this thing, that resembles the Coronavirus so much it could pass as it’s weird cousin who sits too close next to you at the family reunion. What was pneumonia anyway? I always thought it was something octogenarians contracted at the turn of the last century after being caught in the rain while riding their open chariots, but alas I was wrong.

Thankfully however, they kept me on a healthy mix of antibiotics and paracetamol and within a few days my fever had gone and I could walk around fearlessly again, not having to worry that my cough would attract the fury and storm of degrading looks from strangers. When my doctor came to discharge me, there was something about the way she looked at me that persuaded me that she wasn’t altogether sure that I didn’t really have Corona. That I had somehow managed a magic trick and had fooled the test twice. I left the hospital after five days with a renewed appreciation for antibiotics, paracetamol drips and direct sunlight.

Fine it wasn’t that. You didn’t catch it. For now. There’s still plenty time.
Sure didn’t. Now crawl back to wherever you came from.

Now there’s still a chance that it was in fact Corona. Testing kits have a 30% error margin, and that error margin excludes any type of errors related to the execution of the test itself, so even a double test could in fact have been erroneous. Knowing this generates a certain feeling of unease when being released from the hospital, the idea that you might actually still be contagious to other people. Surprisingly, the tables had turned : I wasn’t getting looks from people anymore now that my cough had gone, but I still felt some kind of ignominy at the idea that I might pass this on to others.

Let me tell you friends, as Gabriel García Márquez himself would agree with : much like love in the time of cholera, coughing in the time of corona is another beast altogether. Stay home and stay safe until all of this blows over.

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The Corona Diaries : Things to do while in Lockdown

This near-worldwide lockdown we’re experiencing for the moment in de midst of the Coronacrisis is a weird time. It’s a time for self-reflection among other things, but even that gets old after a while. For artists who suffer from a lack of inspiration, a mandatory lockdown can be a gift from heaven. The obligation to re-explore your work, past and present, can give way to insights previously thought out of reach. Isolation can also however provide newfound inspiration. Being stuck inside I’ve started browsing my 100+ collection of photo books. (Sidenote : the Japanese have a word specifically for this, the art of accumulating books that you haven’t yet read or might never endeavour to read : ‘Tsundoku’).

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Tram 7. First stop: the 7th circle of Hell

I’m starting to think that Dante and Rodin spent a lot of time hopping trams in Antwerp, because taking one of these on a daily basis is Divine Comedy in itself.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

Anyone acquainted with Dante’s Inferno knows that this is the sign swaying over the entrance to hell in that story. Sadly, it’s also my exact thought every time I enter an overcrowded, jam-packed Tram 7 heading to work in the morning. Being a man of the people, I take the tram/subway to work quite often. It’s not always pleasant. Scratch that, it’s bearable. Sometimes. Not really. On one of the rare occasions during which I managed to grab hold of an actual seat, giving me the opportunity to sit like a decent human being instead of clinging to one of the bars on the ceiling and swinging upright like a drying carpet in that vertical sardine can, I remember catching a glimpse of my reflection in the condensated windows. I couldn’t help but notice the eerie resemblance between the pose I was in and the one Rodin’s Le Penseur is perpetuated in, perched on top of the doors representing Dante’s infamous Gates to Hell. The similarities between that rusty tramlike cage and the cavernous confines of hell didn’t stop there.

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Erkenntnisgewinn

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One of my favorite quotes stems from renowned American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides and goes a little like this :

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

Ever noticed how almost everything you buy these days is preformatted in some way? Computers come with useless software bundles. Your phone comes with applications you’ll never use and can’t delete (hey Apple, thanks for making me delete precious photos and memories so that I can keep super-useful apps like ‘Game Center’ and ‘Compass’ installed) and your brand new microwave comes bundled with a dozen manuals you’ll never read in a plethora of languages you can’t even decipher. There’s no room for personal discovery anymore. There’s no room to wander anymore.

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Life Metaphors

Life hands you metaphors for the phases you’re going through in life at the weirdest times and in the weirdest forms. It’s usually a couple of times each year that you get one of these eye-opening moments. One of the greatest and most exciting things in life is the fact that you never know when life will impart you one of its next bits of wisdom. You’ll get these mini-epiphanies in the weirdest of places and in the aloofest of moments. Be it in a Chinese fortune cookie,  a poster above a strip-club urinal or on a hotelroom doorsign.

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