Elin Olausson

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M iss S is in charge of Song. Every morning after Feeding (red kibble for mornings, brown kibble for nights) she gathers all the girls in the auditorium, where the ceiling is so far up that you can barely see. There are rules for singing like there are rules for everything, and Miss S is good at spotting rule-breakers. When Girl Ten tried to suppress a cough, Miss S told her to go to Headmistress. We haven’t seen her since, or rather, I suppose we have. Here and there.

We have our fixed spots in the auditorium, Girls One to Two Hundred and Fifty on one side, Girls Two Hundred and Fifty-One to Five Hundred on the other. Our voices are weak on their own but booming when they come together, an oncoming storm. We’re not entirely sure what a storm is, but the word is in one of the anthems and Miss S’s concrete-floor eyes light up whenever we sing it. As if there is a fire inside her skull and we’ve unveiled it for just a second.

There are other classes, too, Sewing and Dancing and Calligraphy, but we are divided into smaller groups then and our voices are not required. The needles slip into our fingertips sometimes; we suck the blood away when Miss K won’t see. It tastes like a spark, burning our tongues and then gone.

At night we sleep in the dorms, twenty girls in each, four floors of cold, bunk-bedded rooms. Miss S is in charge of Floor One, she comes in at night to check that things are in order. Her heels warn us long before she opens the door, and she rarely has any complaints to make. Once, so long ago that only some of us remember, a girl tried to snatch the golden pin from Miss S’s head as she walked by. As she got hold of it, she said one word: Sun. We know it from one of the songs, we like how easily it rolls off our tongues. Miss S didn’t say anything, just grabbed the girl by the wrist and took her away. No one is quite sure now what her number was or if she had a name.

We do have names. We’re not supposed to, but in the dorms, when the door is closed and there’s no tapping in the hallway, we use those names that we made up and handed to each other like gifts. They are all from the Book of Song: Hope, Courage, Prosperity… It was only one dorm at first but now we’re all doing it, four floors of girls with names. Sometimes in the auditorium we feel a burst of pride when we sing our own name, but we never let it show. We know Miss S and her fire.

There are other things that we keep secret, things that are only spoken in whispers at night. And nothing is more secret than the Rift.

It was discovered by chance, in another dorm, when a girl in the bed closest to the window woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep. She went up to the window, peeked through the blinds to watch the water. The school is surrounded by water on all sides, a calm, shimmering surface, a spectrum of blue overhead.

But as she watched the night view it started to flicker and fade. Something else appeared, a foggy wasteland, clouds of smoke trailing into a cement sky. And in the distance a red light, a glow that was fire but still not.

Ever since, all of us wait for the Rift. We take turns, one girl waiting by the window each night, counting down to that moment when the night view shifts. We don’t know why it happens, we don’t know what it is, but we do know that they wouldn’t want us to see it. So we wait, and we watch, and when it’s our turn all five hundred of us feel like that red glow is just for us. And instinctively we know that it is real and that the water is not.

There are no mirrors except in the wash-rooms, where we leave our daytime dresses in the evening and put on freshly laundered ones in the morning. We comb our black hair and wash our white faces, we step into our thin, soft-soled shoes. Miss S makes noises when she walks but we make none at all. The toothpaste tastes sharp, it tingles if we leave it in our mouths for too long. One girl bit down on a piece of kibble once and lost a tooth; it fell out on the table and they saw, of course they did. We called her Lucky but there have been other Luckies since, a string of them, none of them very true to their name. Sometimes, in the night, we whisper about that tooth and we wonder if they used it again. If it is still here, in one of our red mouths.

Concert Day comes once a month, as regular as the blood that stains the wash-room floor. All the Misses wear hats and silk gloves on that day, which is how we know. The cameras are small, they whir through the auditorium air like flies. They catch every little detail and we’ve been told we can’t ever look straight into their beady eyes.

“Stand up tall, girls, stand up!” Miss S waves her arms, pushing us around without ever touching. Her hat is the same green shade as her dress, darker than the Canteen walls, lighter than the stairway banisters. The Book of Song is on the table beside her, but she never opens it, knows the words by heart. “It is our duty to sing,” she told us once, “and to be the very best versions of ourselves.” At night, we argue about who might be watching the concerts, and the only thing we agree on is that our audience is not inside the school. Words fly around – city, government, troops – and they settle inside us, these bits and pieces from overheard conversations and the faded letters that are sometimes on the scraps of paper in Calligraphy.

Don’t trust them, embroidered along the hem of an apron in Sewing class. The songs lie, chanted in the dark by girls who neatly vanish the next day. We welcome their replacements, we show them where to part their hair. Sometimes we spot a birthmark, a strange-shaped ear we recognize, but we pretend that it’s not there. We are all good at pretending. While waiting for our turn to watch the Rift, we Feed and Sew and Sing and Pretend. Then, once every twenty days, we sneak over to the window and wait for the image to flicker. We look out over the wasteland, but we only see the glow.

In daytime, in the auditorium, we stand where Miss S tells us to stand. We open our red mouths all at once and the words flow, lapped up by the walls and the spying cameras. We, Girls One to Five Hundred, sing because it is what we were born to do, and there will always be girls here to wear our dresses, eat our kibble, and whisper our secrets in the dead of night. And maybe one day, we will slip through the Rift and become a song of our own.

Hope, Courage, Prosperity.


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Elin Olausson

Author image of Elin Olausson Elin Olausson is a fan of the weird and the unsettling. She is the author of the short story collections Growth and Shadow Paths and has had stories featured in 34 Orchard, Chiral Mad 5, Nightscript, and many other publications. Elin’s rural childhood made her love and fear the woods, and she firmly believes that a cat is your best companion in life. She lives in Sweden.

© Elin Olausson 2023 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: Reshma Mallecha and DreamDigitalArtist.

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