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Emil Brägg

An Old Story

Gypsy with a Cigarette by Edouard Manet


after Kawabata

A man leaves his wife for another woman. He leaves behind his only possession, his horse. The wife is livid. She shouts after him. “And who’s going to clean out the stall?” He doesn’t answer. He shows her the back of his head. Left alone, she begins to obsess about having a son. During the day, she imagines a son cleaning out the stall or working by her side out in the one field that is the source of all she has to eat. Evenings, she hopes for a miracle to bring her a son and tries to imagine what he would look like. Asleep, she dreams about him. One night, she dreams not of the son but of the horse. She dreams of coupling with the horse. When she wakes, she is startled to see the horse is standing over her bed. “How did you get in?” she says. When later her belly grows she understands the dream’s meaning. “A son at last!” she thinks. So as not to bloody the sheets, when the time comes, she goes out to the stall and lies down on the straw. The child is born. A daughter. The wife is disappointed. “Oh well, she says. “I can’t put you back inside.” She feeds the child from her own breasts even though the child leaves marks on her teats. The girl grows. She has a long face. When she laughs, her laughter sounds like a horse’s whinny. She is a real beauty. All the young men in the district fight over her, each believing he has a claim on her, though they are afraid to talk to her or even be caught looking at her. Whenever the wife takes the horse out to work in the field, the daughter kicks and screams and calls the wife foul names. “Have your little tantrum,” says the wife. “The field won’t plow itself.” One day, a river of blood flows down the inside of the girl’s leg. She slaps her mother across the face, leaps on the back of the horse and rides off. She lies across the horse’s back with her hands buried in its mane. They gallop across the open fields as if they are one. It is wonderful to see. They don’t return for three days. The girl dismounts. There is blood on the horse. The people murmur. Someone says, “the girl has taken a lover in the village over the mountain.” “No,” says another, “the girl and the horse are lovers now” and everyone is shocked to hear such a thing. The moon changes; it happens again. Blood flows down the inside of the girl’s leg. The daughter slaps her mother across the face, leaps onto the horse and rides off. The mother stands with her hand on her cheek watching as they gallop toward the horizon. “The girl is high-spirited,” she thinks. This time they don’t come back. For three days, the wife receives eye witness reports of their whereabouts.

A woodcutter says: “I saw it myself. They galloped across the forest right along the tops of the trees.”

A fisherman says: “I saw it myself. They galloped on top of the water right out to sea.”

A huntsman says: “I saw it myself. They galloped up to the top of the mountain and kept going straight up into the sky.”

“And then what?” asks the wife.

“I don’t know,” says the huntsman. “I lost sight of them when they crossed the sun.”


A young wife dies giving birth to a child. Little is known about her. She is not from around here. She has come from a far place riding a horse unlike any horse anyone has ever seen. Its neck is arched one way, its back another way like an “S”. She arrives and marries quickly. That she chooses this man surprises everyone for she is a great beauty and there is nothing to distinguish him from any other man in the village. The husband’s grief causes him to make a spectacle of himself. He tears his clothes and throws himself on her grave. “Why? Why?” he shouts to the sky as if the sky could answer. He can make no sense of his wife’s untimely death. Thinking about his loss confounds his nights and his days are spent in endless repining. The women of the village are drawn to the anguish that shows on his face. They offer him solace but he is too distraught over the death of his wife to think of women in that way. “With time, you will get over your loss.” he is told but he knows that this sadness will never go away and that there is no woman in the village to replace his dead wife. Finally, the women lose patience. “You think you’re too good for us?” they say. “You’re not even handsome!” He resigns himself to living the dreary life of a widower.  He lives each day in a past that, each day, recedes further and further into the past. The child, a daughter, is no comfort to him. He cannot bring himself to love her. A woman, who lives nearby, cooks for the man. She comes to the house every day but not for very long. She has her own household to look after. She cares for the child as best she can but she often worries. She thinks to herself, “What good can come of a child without her mother and a father who does nothing but brood night and day.” Wanting to help, she speaks to the husband. “Think of the girl,” she says but he doesn’t listen. Time passes. The father keeps to himself. The daughter learns to do the same. The only thing left of her mother is the horse. At an early age, the daughter learns to ride. It is as if she and the horse are one. People watch and say things. “She is the image of her mother,” they say. “Even more beautiful.” One night, the daughter stands in the doorway to her room crying. “What is it?” asks the father and then he sees the river of blood flowing down her leg. The father kneels by his daughter and wipes the blood with a wet cloth. That night the man sleeps fitfully and dreams. In the dream, his dead wife tells his daughter to beware her father. He awakes from the dream and goes to his daughter’s room. She is gone. She has taken the horse. For three days, the father makes inquiries.

A boy throwing stones at a flight of cranes says, “I saw them. The sea opened up then swallowed them whole.”

A woodcutter on the edge of a forest points and says, “I saw them. They went straight through those trees. I watched as the trees parted to make way for them.”

A woman washing clothes on some rocks points toward the mountains and says, “I saw them. The mountain opened up and they rode straight into it.”

“And then what?” asks the father.

“What do you think?” says the woman. “The mountain closed.”


after Hsu Chao

A girl, hardly more than a child herself, is with child. She is a real beauty. Even with her round belly, the men in the village make passes at her in the market. They can do this because the husband is away. He is a spice merchant and is required to travel. He has his own stall in the market. While he is away, the girl runs the stall, opening each day before the sun rises and closing only after the sun is set. She doesn’t complain though the days are long. She likes the exotic scents of the spices and the way a different scent takes her by surprise each time she turns her head. The merchant doesn’t like leaving the girl on her own. She is young and beautiful and he knows only too well the sort of men who frequent the market. But he is ambitious. He dreams of peppercorns and saffron and nutmeg more valuable than rubies. He knows all the ways to dilute valuable spices, how to cut pepper and ginger with dirt and stone and sawdust and how to make false saffron. When he returns to the village, he will tell how he rode on the backs of dragons to reach exotic spices growing high on the walls of cliffs. But, just now, he is resting his head on a rock in a distant land trying to get some rest. It is said that a man, who at any moment might die, should be happy just to catch up on his sleep. But sleep, despite his fatigue, is made impossible for the merchant by a botfly buzzing about his ears. At first, the merchant mistakes the fly’s buzzing for his own thoughts. “How uneasy I am in my mind today,” he thinks, but then, opening his eyes, he sees the fly and realizes at once that here

is the cause of his distress. The merchant claps the fly between his hands, the buzzing stops and the merchant falls asleep. A moment later, a bandit happens upon the sleeping merchant and, being the sort he is, thrusts him through with his sword. A botfly lays its eggs in the wound the sword has left. When the worms mature, they take wing and fly swiftly to the girl sitting in her stall. She hears them coming even before they blacken the sky overhead. She feels, somehow, they are for her. That night she sleeps fitfully and dreams. She rides a white horse so swift its hoofs do not touch the ground. It is difficult to tell where the horse ends and the girl begins. She comes to where the merchant is lying in the sand. She lays down beside him. She sleeps and dreams. She is riding again, only this time the horse’s hooves pound the ground like thunder. When she dismounts, she leaves blood behind on the horse’s back. In the night she miscarries and, in the morning, her bed is soaked in blood. Outside, the horse is standing with the corpse on its back. “So,” she thinks, “it wasn’t a dream after all.” At the funeral, the men approach her. Some are solemn and respectful and express their condolences. Others leer at her and say things they shouldn’t. When the time comes for her to take another man inside her, she will remember who is who.


About the writer:
Emil Brägg is a poet, a playwright, an erstwhile director of avant-garde theatre and a self-confessed dilettante. His work has been anthologized in Rhubarb-O-Rama and Globale Transnational Encounters in Contemporary Literature and has appeared in literary magazines in the US, Canada and the UK, including Bateau Press, Fiddlehead Magazine, Existere, White Wall Review and Café Irreal.

Image: Gypsy with a Cigarette by Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas. 36.2 x 28.9 inches. 1862. Public domain.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

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