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  • Writer's pictureLuca Berardi


One grain. Two grains. Three. Four. This was fun. Five grains. Six grains. Seven… So pretty, so pretty, she thinks to herself. One grain. Two grains. Three. Four. Five grains. Six grains. Seven….

"Elle," a voice sings to her. "You have a visitor."

She looks up to find smiling Ginny. Ginny is always nice to her. She always wears a grey, coarse-looking cardigan and has her hair bunched up at the back, like a young grandma who looks like she is always ready for a nice cozy, winter evening or like she will invite you into her home for a friendly cup of tea and hearty conversations. How tiring it must be to hold up that façade for the world all the time… Her husband left her four months ago and hasn't spoken with her son for much longer. She keeps a secret stash of whiskey in one of the medicine cabinets to which only she has the key. She thinks no one noticed, but Elle did two nights ago.

She always looks lonely when she savors the burning liquor. Only Elle knows, and yet through it all, Ginny smiles. A few steps behind her stands a man who looks lost: her flowy nurse overalls, white checkered with blue, hide the man’s face until she gets closer. She rests her chin on Elle’s shoulder, whispering a question into her cherry-red ears.

"Is it okay if he comes closer?" she sings again, her cheeks wrinkled from years of stretched, painful, false smiles.

She gazes up at her with those deep, dark Aegean eyes filled with hope and light, and Elle, her eyes still fixed on the grains of rice that she was tallying, hints at an uncertain nod. Ginny looks back at the stranger and signals for him to advance. His skin is pale and frail, like glass and his eyes are heavy as if they’re weighed down by the world itself. Out of politeness, he swiftly removes his hat revealing a head of silver hairs, and smiles at the girl in the chair. His footsteps are light. She’s confused but says nothing. She wouldn’t risk offending this curious man before he’d even stated his business, and what that has to do with young Elle.

He moves to grab the chair next to the one Elle sits in, but Ginny takes the man back for a moment and whispers something in his ear. She thinks Elle can’t hear it.

"They say she doesn’t have long…"

"I understand," he nods, grimly. "Thank you, Ginny."

The nurse smiles at both, before making a calm exit toward the booze cabinet that no one knows of. No one except Elle. There are four chairs around the table, each one in a worse state than the last. The man takes the chair directly opposite Elle’s. He opens his heavy rain jacket to release a buttoned, black overall and trousers which are both coated in a light layer of fibrous, grey hair-like things as if he had wrestled a wolf. A clerical collar grasps at his Adam’s apple. Coffee stains his lips and three of his fingers are bandaged. He winces. Paper cuts, probably from leafing through holy scriptures with too much fervor and fire. His eyes are shot from all the nights he’s forced himself awake. A man desperately in search of meaning, a man who’s losing his faith. Elle’s doctor says it’s not good to pry into the personal lives of other people like this, but she can’t help herself: those eyes could never do anything to harm anyone. The truth never harms after all, right?

"Hello there, Miss," he starts nervously. He fiddles with his thumbs and chews on his teeth. "I’m Harold."

He’s met with silence.

"I hope it’s all right: my being here, I mean," he says, placing both hands on the table.

They’re old and worn, but he doesn’t seem to mind or care. He stares deeply into her eyes, even though she tries to hide them as if he wants to tell her that everything will be okay. His eyes remind her of coffee: freshly brewed and brown.

"May I?" he asks, noticing the jar of sugar cubes at the center of the square foldable table.

Elle nods. He bites down the whole cube whole and crunches as he gazes out the window as the flowing autumn tree branches beat against the glass: winter is on its way. He’s a strange man, she thinks to herself.

"Do you know why I’m here?"

He turns back to the girl and observes her. She tries her best to conceal her arms as if they’re charred with wounds, but he sees glimpses of purple and black skin and hates to wonder how or why a girl, so tender in age, would do this to herself. Her hair is stringy and black, and her cheeks are thin and vacant. Her lips move and quiver like she could tell a thousand stories but ultimately chooses not to. She nods. She knows exactly why he came.

"They called it a psychotic episode," she blinks quickly, rubbing her eyes with the sleeves of her oversized jumper, grey and handed down from patient to patient.

"People were hurt," Harold states, concerned.

"They hurt me! My own mother wants the world to leave me behind."

"Elle, I…"

"They didn’t touch my jars, did they?" she retorts quicker than he can collect his own thoughts.

She jumps onto her own chair, wobbling all the grains of rice that she had neatly organized for hours before, so her chin now touches her knees as she wraps her arms around her legs. She seems so small sitting there.

"Uh… not that I know of," he stutters.

"That’s good, that’s good, that’s good," she repeats to herself, rocking back and forth.

"Your brother is recovering speedily. The doctors say he’ll be home next Tuesday," Harold attempted to cheer up the mood, smiling, but the girl did not bother commenting on this development.

"Where do we go, Father?" Her lips stop moving.

"...when we die?" The priest shifts in his chair and again looks outside through the window.

Elle tries to see what he’s searching for out there, but she’ll never know. Maybe it’s God himself.

"Shall I answer as a priest or a man?" he jokes, laughing nervously. Harold didn’t think it was that funny, to begin with.

"I want the answer from whatever face it is that you hide," she doesn’t blink once. There is silence once again. "You’re just like me, you know?"



"I’m not lonely."

"No, no, you have Him," she scoffed at the ceiling, biting her lip as if she had a grudge against the big man himself.

"I do," Harold nods. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed the sarcasm in her tone. "And a wife…"

"One who doesn’t love you, and who never calls…"

"Elle, please," closing his eyes he brushes off these insults.

She is being defensive. But he does begin to wonder which of the two she was referring to when she said those things.

"You are lonely, Father," she snaps back, her eyes red from holding back her tears. "You’ll just find out too late."

"I don’t understand…" Harold shifts in his chair again, the wood creaking and whining until he ceases to move.

"You could never…"

"Eleanor," he reaches out his hand, but she shakes it away as she crumples herself more into her chair. "I only want to understand."

"Don’t you get it? None of us have anything to live for!"

"I may not understand, as you said, but it sure seems as though you’re talking about someone in particular…"

He gobbles another cube of sugar before he speaks again. "Would you feel comfortable telling me about them?"

Elle’s lips quiver again as if she’s trying to pick and choose her words before she speaks. It takes a moment, but Harold waits patiently. He is keen to listen.

"I had a friend. Her name was Liliana Rosamund. She lived down in the Estate near Hemwick River. All her life, she’d been told that she couldn’t be anything. Her whole life, everyone said that she would be better off dead, silent, and invisible. But that never brought her down, or at least she never showed it. She had always been upbeat, and bright. Very bright! So, so, so, we finish school together, she gets her teaching degree and builds a school right there in the middle of the town. She starts sharing that happiness with all the children that wander into her classes, clueless and in desperate need of guidance, and she gives that to them. By God, she gives that to so many! A year passes and she falls for one of the student’s parents, a widower four years her senior. She was in love. So in love. I teased her about it, but nothing could bring her down. Why would she be? She was going to be a married girl! And yet after doing so much for so many others, after all that, her parents refuse to come to the wedding because of her refusing to consort with a husband of their own choosing. They say she’s a disgrace. Two days before the wedding, she hangs herself. The school closes and her husband-to-be becomes a drinker."

Harold says nothing. For a moment, Elle’s lips spread into a grin so genuine and heart-warming that it is hard to remember if anything could have ever saddened her in the first place. But reality sets back in and the scene turns grey once more. It only takes a moment, but Harold already finds it hard to recall that smile.

"Those kids out there aren’t dying because of some devil-worshipping cult. There will be thousands of dead all because of people like you."

"I’m so very sorry, Eleanor…"

"I ask you, Father, did your God love her less? Or any of the countless others that have died in the last few weeks?"


"Answer my question."

"If I could just…"

"Answer me! Can you tell me that with ABSOLUTE certainty?" Harold gulps, but the girl won’t budge on this it seems. He has to answer.

"I’m afraid not," Harold cannot look at her. His disappointment brings along another moment of pause, interrupted occasionally by overlapping chatter from the other patients or the banging tree branch outside.

"I always wanted to get married in the church, with a long, white dress and flowers in my hair…"

She draws a beautiful picture on the table with a lone finger, but no one can see it. There’s a girl in the picture. She looks pretty. Harold can do nothing but breathe for he knows not what to say.

"Won’t I look pretty, Father? In a white dress?"

She smiles, a lonely tear descends to the polished floor. She slowly slumps back into her chair and watches all the other patients intently before being distracted by something in the distance. Harold can’t see it.

"Yes, child," he smiles, holding back the tears. She drifts away as if the priest was never there. Ginny returns and waits awkwardly in the hallway: she doesn’t want to intrude, but visiting time restrictions are heavily enforced and the last thing that Ginny wanted over the weekend was another talking to her superiors. She hates their guts.

"Elle," he tries to catch her attention, waving his hands. Repeating her name does nothing. Whatever dream she’s living, wherever she is now, Harold is not with her.

"Eleanor?" He tries again as he sees the nurse approach him.

"I think it’s best if you go, Father."

She holds his shoulder. It comforts him for a moment before he witnesses the bliss in her eyes. She goes back to counting her grains of rice.

"One grain," she mutters under her breath. "Two grains."

"Yes," Harold continues to gaze at the girl hoping she notices him again. How little time she has left. "Yes, I think that’s wise."

Ginny and Harold both walk out of the large hall as other nurses enter carrying trays of needles, pills, and syrups of every color imaginable. They hear a scream and a shout then silence. Harold gulps uncomfortably: his footsteps feel much heavier now. Every last soul trapped in here is troubled with things beyond Harold’s understanding. He knows this and yet these were things that sometimes he, too, is conflicted with before being simply waved away as frivolous anxieties, bearing no consequence in his life. These same things are torturing an entire generation. Where is the kindness in this world born of a benevolent Creator? Where is their place in this world? Have they been born only to die? Where have they all come from? Where do they belong? Does he belong?

"I’m sorry, if you didn’t find what you were looking for today, Father," she stares at the floor as she walks him to the door.

"We thought we’d made some progress last week, but it’s hard to predict these sorts of things."

"It’s fine."

"What of her parent’s wishes? Did they not wish to be here themselves?"

"I fear that their daughter’s name has been forcefully forgotten now," he mutters, exasperated by this all as he put his coat back on. The evening has grown colder, and the world lonelier.

"So much darkness. So much… death. I can hardly comprehend what my place is in all this. There’s little that I can do but bear witness."

"Don’t burden yourself with the weight of the world, Father. There’s still much to do," she smiles hopefully.

"I thank you for your faith, Ginny. God has not left this place yet."

"He’s not abandoned you, Father McKenzie. You certainly don’t mean that?"

Harold remains quiet. They are outside now and the fog is thick.

"Good night, Ginny," he smiles politely, placing his hat back atop his head.

"I’ve got a sermon to prepare."

The priest disappears into the quickly approaching night. Ginny locks the door.

It’s Thursday, the 14th of November. Harold wipes away the mud and rain from the stone, clearing away the vines so that they don’t hide the name. Harold thinks it is important that names are not forgotten, but this time he is not too sure. The gothic church spires cast a dark shadow upon the land as Harold weeds the Earth, frees it from those quick-growing, incessant abominations. Four hundred and five. That’s how many lives have been lost. Four hundred and five young souls who have taken their own lives as a last desperate act to find somewhere they could belong. Eleanor has been the four hundred and fifth. After managing to escape from the institution that he visited not too long ago, she came back to the church seeking to pray with him one last time, perhaps hoping to find salvation in her last moment of need, but no one was there. There had been a wedding the day before. Her body was found in a bed of a thousand grains the next day and she was buried the day after. A tear falls under the greying sky. It was a lovely ceremony. Nobody came. The mud-ridden handkerchief sticks out of his pocket as he walks from her grave.

Written by Luca Berardi.

Cover photo by Daniela Paola Alchapar.


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