Jelle Cauwenberghs



My arms are very long, much longer than I remember. And I am flaking. It is that time of year, when the ice glitters on the bark of trees and the orioles start to shiver in their thicket by the station.

It used to frighten me, but now I just clean up after the moult. I wipe the shower tray and eat the crumbs and dandruff like a mouse that eats her own young.

I am very tired and all I want to do is sleep. At night I wrap my arms around my torso. In conversation I do the same. I do not wish to strangle anyone. I do not want to make contact of any kind. (That is a lie. Once I slapped a policeman. But I did not want to do so.)

I have been carrying a large suitcase full of bottles. I left a few bottles behind in my last hotel room but my suitcase is still very heavy. It has always been heavy,  it seems, and sometimes I think the weight of  glass is like the compression of sand, the cool grey sand you find at a certain depth, beneath the dark topsoil and the white roots.

I was in the corncrake country all summer. The corncrake country is a small republic. I felt huge when I walked in the streets of its capital. I was; I am. Men scattered like dandelion seeds when I approached to ask where I could find a good restaurant or a post office. They avoided me, even though I assured them that I was friendly and that I had money. They pretended they did not understand my language, when I know for a fact that my language is the mother of their language.

I did not like the heat. I drank from the ornate little fountains they have in every square and sat among the reeds to cool off. Grey amphibians floated in the brown water.  Over there they call them stone-trout. I call them butter-frogs. The city was restless and agitated, like a moose,  so I welcomed the calm of the marshes in the fountains. The secretive corncrakes moved around me but otherwise ignored me. I occasionally saw their chestnut wings flash in the tall grass. The birds sounded like wooden toys.

On some nights I slept on top of rusty train cars and waited for the rain. I wanted to feel the rain on my face, fill my mouth with it, be a pond full of starlight, but the stars hid like stones in a stream, and sadness whistled in my ears, and sometimes my solitude crackled.

Light is precious. I think my bottles will brighten that blue hotel room. I hope so. It was so tidy, but a little morose. I left a note for the cleaner.  I wrote, I am sorry about the broken door, but I desperately needed air. I left a generous tip. It is hard to prevent these damages, but I try to make up for them.

When I outgrow this body, which happens once or twice a year, I have to learn to become invisible again. For  a few days, I leave a trail of destruction, and I have to hide from men with torches who want to capture me. I am vulnerable during the moult. I abhor my bruised flesh, my teethmarks, the sirens at night; I do not want to be destroyed by men, and neither do I want to destroy them.

I do not like to leave traces of myself in foreign residences. That is why I stay in hotel rooms or sleep outside. I am never safe. My history runs parallel to the history of the world. I am a small, fleeting country on the map, a mobile dwelling, but sometimes I have no choice; sometimes the edges fold over like waves, and I become another country, a liquid solid. Sometimes I feel sad, and I think of my suitcase, and the bottles, and I want to crawl to a place where the light can shine through me.

The past is a place, but there is no light. Like all giants, I was born in old ice, and my memories sink like moraine in what I am always becoming.

I had been far away, in the alps, hibernating. I woke up because the phone rang. It was my mother. She told me to come home. My father had not returned from the milk factory and she was worried. But I was too late. By the time I came home my mother was also gone. There were bottles everywhere and the room smelled of curdled milk and stale beer. For a moment I did not notice the broken windows. I did not notice the odour of decay, and the house was pretty, like a crystal cave under a mountain. I could hear the bottles and the wind in the house and spider webs moved in the bottles like tendrils of smoke. LEAVE my mother had written in block letters on a yellow piece of paper, brittle after weeks of silence.

My mother had warned me. ‘You can love them, but they will try and lead you to the blackberry bushes.’ 

When I could no longer tolerate the empty house, I packed my suitcase and filled it with bottles. I moved like a burglar in my own neighbourhood. I did not go inside the museum to find out whether I was right about the capture of my parents; I stood outside and looked up at the dark windows behind which I pictured the marble corridors, the scarlet insects in amber, the blackberry bushes; and in this thorny black palace of time I placed their bodies, frozen and dry, with chalk in their hair, like snow, the melting snow in their fur and their bladders.

I like bottles. I like to fold things so small they can fit inside the slender stems and frog-grey bellies. Until they are elegant, and sweet, and perfectly preserved, like moths and marmalade, like copper and arsenic in human bones, like a skeleton trapped in the ice.

I am not a traveling salesman. My body is my passport. I make a living working in quarries, cutting stone, and I leave when I can no longer tolerate the noise, or I have to escape the unwelcome attention of my overseers, or I can no longer ignore the call of the mountains. My employers do not pay well, but it is work for someone like me, who does not have papers. I work hard, and I have caused few accidents.

I acquired these bottles over time. The bottles from the empty house are only a small part of my collection. Sometimes I get rid of  those that  I do not like anymore. That is all. I do not think I will ever be able to sell them. They are mostly empty and I can only say that I have grown fond of them. Yesterday I drank from a cucumber bottle and I thought, I have forgotten what cucumbers taste like. The trees glitter, and the orioles are quiet. And I know, this is what time does. It becomes the forgotten taste of green vegetables in a country of stone. It becomes the silence of living things. It becomes a memory of winter.

Runner-up in the 2020 Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction. Eleven Stories 2020, a collection of the shortlist, will be published as a limited edition booklet later this year.


Jelle Cauwenberghs was born in Belgium and studied French and English Literature in France. His poetry, essays, and short fiction have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, and he is a regular contributor to Caught by the River. He currently lives in Glasgow, where he works as a bookseller, while pursuing postgraduate research in modern art, poetry, and translation at the Sorbonne in Paris.

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