In the Land of Red Windmills by Dann Castillo (Lucent Dreaming Issue 13)

Ali and I arrived in Löttorp at the same time, during the early days of spring. Him by boat, I by choice.
No one was waiting for me, but Sophie took me in, nonetheless. She didn’t really care where I was from or what had brought me to her hometown. All she said was that she could use my pen. In reality, I think what she truly wanted was a witness to her story. When she introduced herself, in the quiet car of the Copenhagen-Kalmar train, she told me she was an innkeeper and a big mess, in that order. And yet, deep down, I believed she was a collector. She collected us the same way some people pick up seashells at the beach, washed ashore by foreign tides.

Anya had arrived first. She came from Kiel and Warsaw before that. She had fled the country with a purse containing nothing but her ex’s number, a chocolate tablet and a flock of death threats.

Ali came next. Unlike Anya, he didn’t have any luggage. He hadn’t had time to pack when the police raided his home. What was left of it at least. The only thing he managed to carry in his pocket was a note from his mother with two words written in Swedish: asylum seeker.

By the time I moved in, Sophie had already hired Ali as a carpenter. He had already fucked up the stairs; the nails had pierced the wooden steps and cracked under his weight, blocking the access to the private rooms on the top floor. Anya insisted that, had they been in her native Kołobrzeg, Ali would have been fired in a heartbeat; she urged Sophie to kick him out and get one of the older, more experienced refugees instead. Sophie kept him anyway.

We had no guests, she said. And it was true. Even though it was the middle of the summer and most Swedish villages were overflowing with backpackers and honeymooners, Alvaret Inn remained as empty as the day Sophie bought it. The only time someone had knocked on our door was when Lucas – a German cyclist with a flat tyre – was in need of a phone. Sophie gave him a free bed for the night, and three weeks later, he was our housekeeper. I began to think that what Sophie really needed wasn’t hands, but company.

Sophie was blonde, loud, and big. So big that she didn’t quite fit in just one word. She would cook dinner and take us out for walks around the forest with Lily, her Bull Arab; teach us words in Norrland and Sami and sing to us songs by ABBA and the Spice Girls whenever she had too many glasses of Brennivín. But there was something else, something that made her like Neverland for us, her lost children. She was a wing woman and designated driver for Anya during her nights out in Malmo; a mechanic for Lucas, who we never saw on his bike again, and a character, for me and my writing notepads.

And for Ali… For Ali she was polysemous, she was all the words that he lacked. It was only with her that he would attempt his hesitant Swedish. Only with her that he would dare to go to the grocery shop around the corner to buy her red currant ice pops that he would pay with the stipend he received from the government, and it was only with her that he would cry at night, in her arms, grieving the loss of his life and his family.

Sometimes I would catch Ali looking at Sophie as if she were the Youm he had to leave behind in a land that only existed in past tense. Other times, I would catch them kissing underneath the stairs, during the limited hours of darkness that the Swedish summer could give them. It made me smile. For just a few seconds, it was as if all the borders of the world didn’t exist.

After my dad first left Mexico, the only way my mum could soothe me to sleep was by making up stories. With the shadow of a foreign country hanging over the both of us, she would conjure characters whose names I couldn’t pronounce and imitate accents until I drifted off, alleviated, if only momentarily.

When I saw Ali and Sophie together, hidden below the fractured spine of the stairs, I thought that for him, she was his bedtime story. I never found out if Sophie knew I was keeping their secret, but it didn’t take long before her and I became friends. As I had learned living on the road, friendships tend to develop faster when they come with an expiration date.

Most nights, Sophie liked to sit on the deck in the backyard, oblivious to the late hours and the sub-zero temperatures of May. The first night she caught me watching her, she invited me to join her. I tried to decline. It’s too cold, I argued, but she wouldn’t listen. She promised me a jacket and a story, and I couldn’t resist.

Sophie had just returned to Sweden after living in Australia for three years. According to her, she’d never been poorer or happier than during her time in the outback. For all those years she did nothing but travel, fuck and find a way to stay for good.

I fell in love she said in an accent that she’d borrowed from Melbourne. You’ve never truly been in love until you fall for a country.

Why did you decide to come back?

I didn’t.

Her visa had expired. She had tried everything, from extensions to arranged marriages, but in the end, not even her white skin could save her from the absurdity of bo(a)rders.

It’s OK, I have Lily. Sophie scratched the back of the dog’s ear. She’s my piece of Australia.

After she came back, Sophie spent her entire life savings buying a decrepit building from her ex. She had no money and no way of turning it into the inn she’d always dreamed of, but even after months of empty rooms, she still maintained that it was the best investment she’d ever made.

I thought it was our mutual love for running away that brought us together. But, more than anything, I think the real reason Sophie had adopted all of us in that improvised Babel was because she understood grief. She was a woman in mourning, crying the loss of a country that wasn’t hers.

Alvaret soon became a microcosmos, and I, its astronomer. Sophie gave me the room above the kitchenette: an old attic with two twin beds too small to fit a grown-up person even if pushed together. A single window split the back wall in two. The lace curtain above it didn’t prevent any of the 4am sun from entering the room, but it did offer me a personal eye to the world.

Most mornings I’d catch glimpses of Anya sneaking back into the inn, shoes in her hand and stolen glasses from the bar peeking out of her bag. Or Sophie, smoking in the backyard with her legs crossed over the pillows, sending clouds of smoke into the icy air. But mostly, I would see Ali.

He would come down to the garden after dinner, when most of us started gravitating back to our nooks and crannies. The yard was desolated; nothing but empty chicken coops and clothing lines where Sophie dried her white dresses. He would walk around, with that mimetic quality of his, wearing Sophie’s ex boyfriend’s old jacket. Then he would whistle, calling for Lily.

During my first three months in Löttorp, the only time I heard Ali speak Arabic was with Lily. He would take the dog out and throw sticks and pebbles across the lawn. Lily would chase after them, growling and drooling in delight. Fatâta jaydatin, he would praise Lily, good girl, before rewarding her with a sugar cube stolen from the breakfast buffet.

I knew I was an intruder, and yet I couldn’t look away. I knew it wasn’t an intimate moment of any sort, yet I felt worse than when I’d catch him and Sophie under the stairs.

Ali didn’t talk much, and when he did, he used the English he’d picked up from his compulsory lessons. His Arabic was elusive, almost absent. He concealed it like a secret someone contemplates under the bed covers. Sophie used to joke saying Ali only used it for special occasions, a baptism suit made of words. I quietly disagreed. His secrecy reminded me of my father, of the way he tucked away his Spanish when he knew he was being watched. I remembered how he used to tell me stories of his time crossing the Mexican border. How he hid from the migra among the fields, behind the orange trees, and drank the juices from the fruits when he ran out of food and water for the road. But once he arrived in the land of dreams he couldn’t hide anymore. He tried covering his brown arms with long sweatshirts and shaved his moustache every morning with a small blade he kept in the shared bathroom of his new home. But the one thing he never managed to conceal was his tongue.

He pushed it back, underneath the unfamiliar sounds of the extraneous country, but the Spanish kept bleeding between his lips, the Rs stubbornly rolling out and the Js scarring his words like claws. I must have been about seven or eight when I asked him over the payphone why he kept sending me to one English school after another and urged my mum to play old records of The Beatles and The Smiths so I could imitate the cadences of their accents. So you can hide if you must, was the only answer he gave me.

And hide I did.

And with the hiding, came the guilt.

It wasn’t just the English. My complexion was light enough that I could pass as an expat, not an immigrant. I was free to walk around the village, hang out in pubs and even pray without anyone demanding me to go back to my country. My mum had given me the skin and my father had given me the voice. And yet I felt like a traitor to both. During all the time I spent in Löttorp, I was surrounded by a sense of belonging that shouldn’t have been mine.

One night, we gathered around the fire, roasting herring and drinking beer to celebrate the end of summer. All of us, except Ali. It was Ramadan, and the sun hadn’t set yet.

Are you sure you don’t want a small bite? Anya asked, but he politely declined the offer. She shrugged. I could never go that long without eating, she said. For a moment, I was afraid that he’d take offence, but Ali just smiled. Not eating tastes like home, he said.

It was a cold evening. The red windmills were spinning with the breeze of the ocean. We could see badgers and a deer at the edge of the forest and the whoosh of the wind was so strong that it hummed against the pine trees. I’d never been to Syria before, but I couldn’t imagine a place more different from it than Löttorp. Ali was away from the rest of the party, sitting down on one of the old chicken coops.
Motionless and quiet, there was something about Ali that made him almost invisible, disguised against the windmill-filled landscape. I sat next to him. Ali looked in my direction. He smiled but said nothing, probably too apprehensive about speaking to me in a language that he still didn’t feel comfortable with. We remained silent for a bit, contemplating the crooked maypole that he’d built for the inexistent visitors, with its colourful ribbons and fake ivy waving around the garden.

Dusk was practically non-existent during that time of the year, but while Sophie and the others grew louder and drunker, a subtle darkness began to cover the Nordic sky like a tulle veil. When I thought it was safe to do so, I reached inside my pocket and stretched out a fist in his direction. Ali’s gaze was confused, but nonetheless, he opened his hand as I dropped two sugar cubes into his palm.

Surprise only speaks one language, that’s why I think he didn’t have time to translate his bewilderment.
Sukkar, he said at last.

Azúcar, I repeated in Spanish.

The cube shattered against his teeth as he took a bite of it and we both laughed, savouring the rapid pleasure of coincidence. Ali pointed at my knees where I had been nursing a cold tea and, hesitantly, he tried his luck.


Taza, I repeated. Cup.

Naranj. Naranja. Orange.

Zaytünah. Aceituna. Olive.

Moths flew out of our mouths as we unfolded the words for the first time. I hadn’t realised how desperate it would feel after months of safekeeping. The Arabic names were so similar to Spanish that they almost tasted like Mexico. Some said that Muslims were the ones who introduced windmills to Spain, which were then exported to the New World. I found it funny that centuries later we were there, a Muslim and a Christian, in a foreign land filled with red windmills, sharing words the same way people used to share bread.

Growing confident, Ali started to talk in a mix of Arabic, English and pantomime. He told me about how he liked Sweden. He liked the flat grasslands and the fyrs, especially at nighttime. He liked riding Lucas’ bicycle all the way to Kalmar to feed the rabbits, and he liked the snow, but not the cold. He liked working for Sophie, but hated carpentry, and he missed cars and the vague possibility of a future.

Do you still remember your country, I asked. He did. Forgetting was the hard part.

He stopped talking, but he took off his jacket. His arms not only carried the warmth of the country he had left, but also the scars. Even if we had spoken the same tongue, I don’t think I would have found the right words to comfort him, so I did the only thing I could think of and lifted my sleeve to show him a burn mark I had on my wrist. I had gotten it while I was baking cookies with my mother, the night before saying goodbye to her and boarding a plane to Europe.

I would have never pretended that our stories were remotely similar, but the feeling was the same. I also missed home.

The night lightened up, warning us of its near departure. The fire was slowly dying in the pit and sleep claimed its first victims among the other staff members. Before it was too late, I stood up and brought him a plate of fish and vegetables that he began eating quietly.

We didn’t say much the rest of the evening, but words weren’t needed anymore.

The sun winked with its first rays and Sophie started shepherding us back to the inn.

The clank of empty bottles and yawns replaced the music from the speakers and Ali and I stood up and stretched, ready to go to our borrowed beds.

Do you think you’ll ever go back? I asked in English, before heading back.

Insha’Allah, he said.


I hope.

Dann is a writer, illustrator, and professional daydreamer. Born and raised in Mexico, she moved to Scotland in 2023 to study a master’s degree in creative writing. She has published short stories, poetry, essays, and artwork in Mexican, British, and American publications. Dann now lives in London where she works as an editor for a videogame company.
I: @the_dreampacker

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