Ten Thousand Things  by Josephine Sarvaas

Competition: Flash Fiction Challenge 2020, Final Round

Genre: Open  Location: A dream  Object: A camera

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg


My mother was barely in her grave when she began appearing in my dreams.


I knew immediately it was her spirit. I hadn’t taken the necessary precautions. When my aunt died, my mother sat all night by the casket, keeping vigil as her soul travelled to the afterlife. At home, she tied a piece of red thread to our door. Keep evil spirit away, she muttered, as I rolled my eyes.


Now, as her body was reclaimed by the earth and her soul howled free into the winds, I hadn’t been a dutiful daughter.


Hadn’t kept vigil. 


Hadn’t tied the thread.


Hadn’t even attended the funeral. 


You’ll regret it, my girlfriend said. I shook my head. We haven’t spoken in years. I barely knew her; she barely knew me.  


But here she was.


We stood under a nuclear sky. Anonymous blocks of public housing stretched endlessly outward, as though the architect hit copy-paste all the way to the horizon. The street echoed with a rhythmic, sourceless thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk, like we were trapped in a heart’s chambers.


My whole life I’ve had vivid dreams. As a child I experienced sleep paralysis. A figure would appear in my doorway, gaze pinning me like a butterfly. Closer, closer. So real I could feel its weight settling on the mattress. After I moved away to live with my aunt, it ceased. 


My mother’s hands were streaked with bloodied grime, like she’d clawed herself from the grave. As long as I can remember, her face held the endless weariness that forms when you cross oceans with nothing but that old migrants’ prayer, that tooth-and-nail desperation for a better life. There’s a Chinese proverb: One generation plants trees, another enjoys the shade. My mother spent a lifetime with dirt under her nails. I inherited not shade, but the daunting shadows of her expectations.


Now, my heart jolted.


Her hair was jet-black. It hadn’t been in years. I looked down, registered my primary school uniform. A prickle on my neck made me whirl; the curtains in a nearby house snapped shut. Déjà vu rushed through me. I woke in a cold sweat. 


You see, I remember very little of my childhood.


Moving in with my aunt. My new school. At some point I realised that before that was a blank void. So it rattled me, this dream from a time I couldn’t remember. 


The next night, the same street. The same sound. The citrus tang of cleaning products as she pulled me close, kissed my forehead.


I froze.


Kisses, tender touches, those were uncharted waters. When I moved home at seventeen, I was an open wound of adolescent resentment. By then my mother was a stranger. We spoke in scattered puzzle pieces, my Cantonese washed away by private school English. Sometimes she just stared, as though we held something wordless between us, some shared secret.


Our relationship died under a thousand cuts. Her lack of affection. Endless expectations. The look on her face when I decided to study art. When I brought my first girlfriend home. Like I’d grievously wounded her, like she wasn’t the one throwing punches with her silent disappointment. I’d scream, storm out.

We could barely speak to one another. Eventually we stopped trying.


The next night. The next. She kissed me, stroked my hair, took my hand. Sometimes she dragged her rattling cleaner’s trolley. She never spoke, but I did. There are things you can say in dreams that you cannot give mouth in the waking world. 


“You sent me away-”


“I never wanted to disappoint you-”

“Can’t you see I wanted to be close?


Eventually, my mother’s grip would tighten. I’d turn to see curtains twitching, feel something cold slither through my stomach, and wake.



Two weeks after the funeral, the dream shifted.


I stood in a child’s bedroom. My bedroom. I recognised the doorway, that source of night-terrors. 


Thunk-thunk. Thunk-thunk. 


It came from outside. Cold air caressed my face as I opened the window. 


My mother knelt in the backyard, trowel striking the earth, again and again. Behind her was a bulky shadow: her cleaning trolley. The moonlight’s glow traced its outline. Two pale feet protruded from it.


She looked up, eyes meeting mine. I woke with a strangled cry.


Remember. Remember. But I found only the lingering sense of some half-remembered horror. Confusion. And one day, in barked Cantonese: You are going to your aunt. To a better school. A better place. 


We will not speak about what happened.



I found the locked trunk under my mother’s bed. As her only family, it’d fallen upon me to clean her apartment. I don’t know why she kept it. Inside was a rusted trowel, and a camera.


It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing. Photographs of me as a child, playing in the yard. Walking to school. 


Taken from a distance. From across the street. Then closer. Closer. My bedroom door. Beside me, as I slept. 


And I remembered, then. Not everything, but enough. Fleeting ghosts of memories. Our middle-aged, balding neighbour, who’d lean out his window whenever I left the house: “Morning, darlin’!”


The day before she sent me away, my mother had cleaned his house.

That night, I’d heard a noise outside. What I saw seemed so improbable I wasn’t sure if I was awake or dreaming. My dreams, after all, were so vivid, so physical as to be almost real. A door creaking open. A warm weight on the mattress. Night air on my face. A trowel cutting into dirt, rhythmic as a heartbeat.



I am in my mother’s unfamiliar apartment. She looks as she did when we last spoke: hunched from years of labour, hair white as moonlight. Her eyes hold something hidden, wordless between us.


“I remember.”


She reaches out. Her lips work. What is it that she does not have the language to tell me? But I take her hands, and look into her eyes, and for the first time I understand.




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Josephine Sarvaas is an English teacher, avid bookworm and aspiring writer from Sydney, Australia.




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