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Mileva Anastasiadou

Once Upon a Dystopia

Once upon a heavy drought, not so long ago, there was a lake that unveiled its secrets. The bones of the dead formed a pile of garbage, and what happened when they were exposed to daylight was something no sane person could have predicted.

The souls, freed from the water that covered them for years, released from all weight that held them down, finally managed to run free, haunting the town, determined to chase the guilty. The sight was frightful to all who saw the awakening. Despite the creaking noises, the bones remained at the bottom of the lake, yet the souls formed slowly into bodies. They moved like ghosts, dissolving when colliding with obstacles then solidifying again, like jigsaws falling into place.

As the souls fulfilled their one desire, crossing the fence that had cost them their earthly existence, a sense of guilt fell over the town. Their presence was like a thick morning mist - or better, a blanket of fog; they made the atmosphere dense and stifling.

The guiltier the living felt, the faster they ran for cover. On the surface, guilt was forgotten in the town. Any traces had disappeared completely when the war started. The town was safe. Civilized.

But things change. Those grown accustomed to safety began to feel the fear they once recognized in the eyes of the people of the other side. The townsfolk had pushed aside the existence of the bodies in the lake, but the curse of the drought served the memory up, cast it into the light. The past is never truly forgotten, only denied, until something awakens it.

Only one did not run away, but stood in silence waiting for her ghost.


Once upon a cold December, much longer ago, in the time before she was a ghost, she left her country in search of a better life. She crossed mountains and seas to reach the borders of Civilization. It was what she expected to find, after wars and violence had stolen civilization from her own country. The wars were over but the repercussions clung on, and she would not wait for them to disappear. She could not lose more of her life waiting - instead, she chose to hurry into the future she deserved, to pursue the happiness far away from her own land, away from the place she called home.

As almond trees that blossom early, impatient trees beaten by cold in their haste to meet the spring utopia, she too found herself unexpectedly disappointed when confronted with hostility. She missed what was left of her family, missed her people, missed all the little things that defined routine.

“Despite all evidence,” she thought, “humans are like trees. They feed from their roots - but their roots are not a specific place, but rather their context of home, home defined mainly by the people for whom they care.”

She had been prepared for the long journey, for adverse weather conditions, but she had not expected the endless fence that stood in the way of her decent survival.

In the beginning she did not mind. Instead she tried to understand.

“It is only natural that people build walls,” she told herself. “People need protection, this is why they build houses. Walls serve as borders to separate their homes from other people's homes.”

She remembered back home, the war. She would do almost anything to protect her own people, those dearest to her heart.

Camping by the fence that separated the nightmare behind from her dreamland before her and waited. The only way to ensure her way through was to call herself a refugee, or she would be considered an illegal immigrant and sent back. She wondered who decided who legally passed the fence and who did not. She heard the other side claimed the place could not support more people who chose to emigrate.

“They think I had a choice. I would never have left home if my family was safe.”

She soon came to realize that the definition of safety was different than the one she had in mind. Poverty was not considered unsafe in the world she was trying to enter. War, on the other hand, was reason enough to seek shelter elsewhere. The laws accepted a person's indisposition to wars, but not to a life of impoverishment. Moral responsibility lay with the individual.

“The whole edifice would collapse,” she would have thought to herself, “their civilization would prove useless if they accepted I am not to blame for what is happening to me.” But she could not think. She was too cold and hungry, already transforming into the ghost the people on the other side treated her like, patiently awaiting her turn to enter their world, never giving up hope.

She saw him staring at her through the fence. Instead of looking right through her, as all others did, he actually looked at her. Their eyes met. They could have hated each other instantly. Instead, they fell in love.


Once upon a life, he was a doctor, dedicated to fight against entropy and death and to preserve life at all costs. At the beginning he was invincible. It took a long time to accept and embrace the natural laws. For awhile he walked proud through life, knowing he might lose the war, but winning some battles made his efforts worthwhile. As Sisyphus must be considered happy, he too managed to accept loss and focus on little victories. No one understood why, bit by bit, his attitude changed. It came to feel he was only postponing the inevitable. Although he knew death could not be cancelled, there came a time when fighting for a lost cause was not enough any more. His whole life became a pointless battle.

It happened the day that he fell in love with the woman on the other side of the fence. He did not considered himself a volunteer, rather as one offering services for free in solidarity to people in need. Few people realized the difference, but he did not mind.

Their love story lasted only a few moments. When she passed away in his arms, smiling, he collapsed and cried. Had he deceived himself that he was not looking down on those who asked for his help? Her body was taken from him and thrown in the lake with the others. There was neither time nor space for burials.

She was not one of his people but his pain was immense. Self-contempt only made matters worse. That was when he lost hope. He was fed up with losing all his patients at the end, after putting all his effort in elongating their life span.

He was midway in his training when he changed direction, deciding to become a pathologist instead of a general practitioner. That was when he chose to change sides, to stand beside the one and only winner, death.

His favourite part was dissecting brains. Dissecting the brain was like killing the dead soul, destroying all memories stored in the neuronal circuits created in the living years, cutting away the synapses that once formed consciousness, memories of every single moment the deceased person spent as a living creature.

A few years passed and he gave up medicine completely, only to become entropy's little helper. War came. He joined the army the moment the war started, not to serve his country, but to facilitate entropy's ways: through merciless killing. He was one of the few not caught by surprise. Most in town were at a loss as their hometown, once considered a dream destination, turned into a battleground. They tried to escape, in vain. The fence that once protected them from intruders became the obstacle to their way out. He was the only one willing to fight, not out of bravery, but out of despair. Recurrent dreams of unfenced vineyards, where children played and swarms of fireflies blinked, dreams which he recognized as absurd, tortured him at night.

Then the drought came, and he was asked to stay and help.


Once upon a time, plot, happily ever after. That is how fairy tales are supposed to work. Not in their case. Her ghost approached him silently. He knew he should not be afraid. It was not revenge she looked for. Interaction between them was once limited to meeting her basic needs, so it came as a relief when she talked.

“I miss you,” she said, but her lips did not move. Strange as it was, he could hear her words, as if he could read her mind.

“I wish I could have saved you”.

“I wish you could. There are so many souls who wish you could have saved them, too.”

He bowed his head in embarrassment.

“I do not do it any more”.

“I know. You do not even try.”

“It is pointless and unbearable.”

“You might regret it one day, if you live long enough. All your knowledge going to waste. But you know better than me. Just as your past is happening now, through your memories, chemically happening, through neuronal circuits in your brain which form an image of me, just like that, your future self is watching you through the memories you are building right now. Neuron to neuron, you are now wiring the cells of your brain to form a fence like the one that once separated us, yet serving different needs, the only necessary fence that, instead of dividing, is bringing your whole existence together and gives meaning to your life for as long as you are alive and blood circulates in you body.”

“There is no future,” he objected. “The future died the moment you took your last breath”.

“There is always a future, even if it lasts only one moment,” she said firmly.

“Until there is not”.

She nodded.

“That is our main difference. I never wondered why all this happened. I was not raised to expect anything better, while you were fed with fake promises of invincibility, which were proven wrong, as they always are. Yet I tried. I did my best. Despair is the easy way out. Turning your life into a fairy tale, full of light and hope, against all odds, could be the only way to fight against any dystopia you are trapped inside.”

A distinct buzzing in his ears got louder and louder, like the fireflies in his dreams, as her ghost danced around him as a fairy would in fairy tales, as Cupid does in myths. Only this time, the arrow did not aim for his heart, but the most narcissistic traits of his character.

“You may not beat death, once and for all, but you may beat death in life, if you try. I would tickle you right now, if I were not a ghost,” he heard her last words. “Make sure you tickle yourself, will you?”


Once upon a hot day, he woke to a bright sun shining above him. The fog had gone. As he stood up and stretched, he felt lighter, as if hope were again instilled in him to kill the dystopia he had carried for so long. The buzzing in his ears became a deafening noise. The dry lake was still in front of him, but neither the landscape nor the impending danger could take away his joy.

When the bombs began to fall, he tickled himself but the trick did not seem to work. Nevertheless, he soon started laughing. He ran to the fence, not to cross it, but to bring it down. His efforts were futile, as expected, but he did not mind. Explosions in the sky reminded him of the glowing fireflies of the dream that once tortured him, and children playing in fenceless vineyards appeared in front of his eyes, only this time his dream did not seem absurd at all.

“You may not beat death, yet if you try, you might beat fences, and all death's symbols in life. Despair is the easy way out. To die laughing, this is the only way to die,” he thought, seconds before he hit the ground.

On the other side of the fence, people stood watching the explosions for a while. It was early noon when the bombing finally stopped. They turned their gazes away and went on with their lives, annoyed by the dust and the ashes and the smell, saddened by the lives lost, yet relieved they stood on the right side of the fence - that was once the wrong side. But all memories of those times were buried deep into the collective unconsciousness, forgotten. The once loathed fence now served as a shield against all danger. As it happens in the real world, they fooled themselves into believing that on their side, thanks to the fence, they were entitled to live happily ever after.

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