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  • Ambika Thompson

Excerpt from Wormwood: Ambika Thompson

"I spent two weeks this past May at Zvona i Nari. Natalija, Ognjen and their son are all lovely people that I'm very happy to have met. I felt honoured that they allowed me to come and write for two weeks, to have the time to myself. I enjoyed talking to them and the other residents there. I stayed in the flat that houses the English library and binge read several books they had, mostly from Arsenal Pulp Press out of Vancouver, Canada. It was a delightful delve into many wonderful queer novels.

I was working on my own queer novel there. A lesbian, zombie love story set in East Berlin during the summer of Chernobyl. This is a section from that novel. It's working title is "Wormwood". (Chernobyl is the Ukrainian name for wormwood, just so you know.)"

Ambika Thompson is a writer, musician and parent living in Berlin. She has been published with Electric Literature’s Okey Panky, NPR Berlin, Fanzine, Missing Slate, Plentitude, Crab Fats Magazine’s “Best of” compilation, and has been nominated for this year’s Canadian Journey Prize. She was once the ringleader of The Anna Thompsons and is now one half of the cello riot grrrl band Razor Cunts that have been performing at Queer, Feminist Festivals all over Europe for the past two years. She is also the fiction & managing editor of the literary journal Leopardskin & Limes, and will be starting an MFA in creative writing at Guelph University this fall.


The Guest House in the park is full of kids from Alexanderplatz. Kids I’ve gone down to the bunker with. Kids I’ve let touch my breasts just because I was bored. The kids from Alexanderplatz, the skaters, the punks, are moving on the hard, grey concrete dance floor in flashing shades of black, their arms and legs moving in different directions making them look like an orgy of spiders. I don’t dance. I can’t. My role is to stand against the wall grasping a beer as an anchor and attempting to look unapproachable so that I’m approachable. Crowded spaces make me nervous. Darkness makes me tense. Loud music hurts my head. Martin, the very opposite of me in practically every conceivable way, sashays right away into the middle of the crowd like a gay, non-rapey, less discocentric version of John Travolta.

He clears a space for himself and moves to the music like he’s a sound wave emanating out of the speaker. People stop dancing to watch him. He ignores them. I close my eyes and make a wish that he accidentally whacks someone in the head with his flailing arms. It doesn’t happen, thus once more confirming my absolute lack of unique ability to make things happen with my mind.

I know his routine. No matter what the song, he starts with the same moves, warming up, then progressing with each song to a more animated flailing of limbs, then he winds it down to scan the crowd to see who’s intrigued by him. When he finds the person he makes a beeline in their direction. I’ve heard the things he says to these men. He’s suave. He is by a landslide the very best gay in Berlin.

I watch him till my eyeballs begin to hurt. They might start bleeding if I don’t leave. But shit like that never happens to me. It’s probably like still 30 degrees outside, and I’m sweating profusely under my jean jacket that I refuse to take off. I’m establishing my undeniable coolness through physical discomfort.

I want to feel the air, and out here the Guest House is surrounded by trees, the only real plus point to it. It’s like a holiday in the countryside. You’d be able to hear the river going by if the power outed, and everyone inside suddenly dropped dead. I move away from the entrance and down the path a ways away so I can lean against a tree and watch the people, but still be far enough away that they don’t notice me. And if they do, I’m just some sort of leering creep leaning against a tree.

I watch the people go in and out of the club. When a good song is playing the door stays shut. A few people mill about the entrance talking and laughing loudly as though they can’t adjust to using normal levels of volume in the outside. A girl with long dirty blonde hair runs out the door topless chased by two fully-clothed girls wielding glasses of water like swords. They carry on screaming behind the club. They could be murdering her for all I know. If there was moonlight I would have said her breasts were glowing in it. But my small observations, and the lack of more semi-nudes running out of the place, are leaving me feeling a little drained of enthusiasm. I decide that after I smoke a cigarette I will drink the final dredges of my warm beer and head home.

I don’t notice someone coming up behind me as I take a long drag and inhale, letting the smoke fill up my lungs completely, so when she asks if she can roll one for herself I’m startled and start to choke. A cloud separates us, so it isn’t until she hits me on the back, and the storm has cleared that I recognize her.

She mutters apologies in a voice barely audible as though she wasn’t at all sorry but felt the need to fill the space after my choking. Still unable to speak I almost whisper to her not to worry about it. I pull my tobacco out of my pocket and hand it to her. She’s dressed almost the same as she had been when we met before. Her t-shirt looks a little more tattered, her eyes a little more glazed. She looks drunk.

“You inside?” I ask.

She nods, “I saw you come in.”

I take it in, her words, the way they jangle around in my head. I try to remember the faces that I scanned as a I looked around the room in my brief time inside.

“Were you dancing?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I was probably just as bored as you looked.”

I light her cigarette for her and watch her inhale. She tilts her head back, her neck elongating. A giraffe. I want to reach out and run my fingertips along it, but the moment goes by too quickly, and now it would just be too awkward to do so.

“Have you ever read Ilse Aichinger?”

I shake my head. I’ve never heard of her.

“There’s this story. Where I live, about a woman. Over time her apartment keeps sinking down a floor until it’s eventually in the cellar. She doesn’t question it, just goes with it. Goes to her job, comes home, eats her dinner. Life just goes on like that. I feel like that coming to a place like this. At some point in the night the room is full of bodies, sweating and rubbing up against each other. As the night goes on the bodies disappear, you don’t see where. If you stay long enough they all eventually are gone like magic as though they were never there to begin with. As though I was never there to begin with. And then you go home and you may feel happy or sad, but probably just tired. You don’t think about it. It’s what your whole life is. It’s like you were never there and at some point you will have completely forgotten about it. Like one day you’re there. The next you’re not. Unless you make something happen, something that you can remember. Do you know what I mean?”

I’m not sure I know what she means, but because she had said it so emphatically, and her accent is so sexy, I want to understand. I nod my head as though it was the only response that could be acceptable to her words, and she seems satisfied with how I respond.

“Let’s go then,” she says.

At that moment Martin comes out of the doors with a skater with a purple and green mohawk on his arm. I yell out to him that I’m leaving. He waves me off giving no fucks and goes back to whispering in the skater’s ear. Lada takes my hand and we walk away. Her steps are brisk and fast unlike they had been when we’d first walked together. I can tell that she has a plan, and that plan involves me, which makes the heart pounding in my chest sensitive to my ears. We pass people heading to the club, happiness and drunkenness painted across their faces.

Lada is talking and I’m listening. She’s animated from the drinks. She seems relaxed.

She pulls my hand—she’s always at least two steps ahead of me—and leads me behind the Soviet Monument. There’s a picture of me somewhere when I was in the Young Pioneers posing with my group, the concrete pyramid in the background. Everyone smiling but me. Me in my white shirt and tights, with the blue skirt, kerchief and hat. Even my clothes looked unhappy. My mother claimed that I was always miserable from the day I was born. It’s true. In most, or any, of the photos of me, I am grimacing as if there is a nail about to go through my shoe that someone is forcing me to step on, and it’s only the moment before, so I’m helpless and all I can do is make a dour expression on my face.

I want to stop and look at it, but Lada keeps pulling on me, and I heed as though everything she wants from me requires me only to blindly follow. But I’m not blind. I can see. I can see her and I want to follow. Even though it’s been years since I’ve been here. Even though it’s only mere minutes from my home. It will still be here. She’s right.

The night is no longer as warm as I want it to be as we come out through the trees and onto the small lake. Lada is still holding my hand, her fingers intertwined around mine. She leads me to the edge of the water, uncurls her fingers from mine and starts to undress. In the distance there’s honking. My feet are frozen to the ground as I watch her clothes fall away and pile around her feet.

She senses my trepidation. Perhaps the look on my face has frozen like my feet. I probably look stunned. I try to not let my eyes fall all over her body.

“Let’s make something happen, or?” she says, her eyes reduced to almost slits.

I smile back at her and start to take my clothes off. The last time I was in this lake was years ago when my mother and father brought us here as kids. Our mother would lay on the shore all afternoon, never daring to set foot in the water as though it was acid and would burn her body. She laid in her flowered one piece on the blanket that was strewn across our couch all winter with a crime story resting across her face, her body covered in olive oil. My father didn’t like it either, which is why we rarely came. He would only come in the water knee deep, just deep enough to grab us and throw us in. We loved it. He commented on the dirty film from exhaust and coal dust.

When we were old enough to ride our bikes here by ourselves, or Steffi could bring us, our parents never bothered to come anymore, and Elsie never came period. Frolicking in the sun was something she claimed never to have done. Eventually we forgot about coming here, preferring, first to play kissing games in the cellar on hot days, then later go to Alexanderplatz and stand in the shade with downturned frowns feigning disinterest and artificial intrigue.

Lada probably never did that. She’s seems above everything.

The trains in the distance sound further away than they really are as though we’ve truly gotten out of the city. Lada just stands silently, waiting for me. The water in its stillness gives the impression of its frigidity. Goose pimples jumped up over my body even when I just think about it. When I’m naked I move in line to stand next to her.

“This didn’t used to be here,” she says, “This lake.”

I shake my head. It’s been there as long as I can remember.

She grabs my hand again, the warmth of it shooting through my body.

She counts to three and then pulls me running into the water. The shock of the cold, even colder than I imagined—though imagining how cold something will be seems abstract to me anyways—makes me stumble and pull Lada down with me. I try to let go of her hand but she won’t let me. She jumps up and runs, in the slow motion fashion of running in water, a few feet further and dives in. I follow. We swim out to the middle and tread water.

My teeth chatter as I swim but the movement warms me up. My body becomes adjusted to the water, just as my personality adjusts to the world.

“It’s ok?” she asks.

I tell her it is. We talk and tread water in the depths till our arms, or at least my arms, are almost too tired to be able to swim back to shore. She starts to sing an old German song that I recognize from Elsie. It’s a Dietrich song from the Blaue Engel, Ich bin die fresche Lola. Elsie used to sing it when I was little. I know all the words so I start to sing with her. Our voices boom out as we get louder and louder. Some man somewhere yells at us to shut the fuck up, so we get even louder.

After we pull ourselves out of the water Lada pulls a blanket out of her backpack and spreads it on the ground. I fumble on top of it first laying on my back. The warm air meeting my wet skin brings the goose bumps back again. Lada lays down next to me, our arms touching. I start to sing the song again, but quietly this time. She gets up on one elbow and looks down at me, then she brings her lips down onto mine. I close my eyes and think about this moment.

She pulls away abruptly. My eyes dart open. “I’m sorry,” she says.

I shake my head. I tell her it’s ok.

“No, it’s not. You remind me of someone I used to know.”

I don’t understand. She stands up and starts dressing, so I do the same. I try and touch her arm but she pulls away. She puts the blanket haphazardly back in her backpack and stands up to hand me a book, the one with the story she was talking about.

“I have to go,” she says and then she runs off.


Photo credit: Miami Herald

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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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