Marja Hagborg – The Rabbit Hole On Devil’s Island


It didn’t matter whether it was Monday or Tuesday or still Friday, or if it was day or night, the past and the future were slipping away. It felt like being in a tube without a beginning or an end. My life seemed hazy and dreamlike, and my life, normal and happy only a few days ago, started feeling unreal, like something I had seen in the movies or read in a book.

The earlier silent rage was leaving me like a runaway air balloon, disappearing in the never-ending nothingness in the blue sky. The powerless and silent scream stemming from fear and panic was turning into a voiceless desperation, a whisper begging for help that no one heard or understood. I was a nomad again, an alien on this planet of talking machines. The anger, disgust and rage that used to be well-hidden and silent, no matter how badly they had hollowed out my soul and poisoned my body, were leaving me.

Adéle Blais, "Untitled"
Adéle Blais, “Untitled”

There the universe was waiting for me– the universe we all are thrown into, where we are eternally lost like Laika, the Russian space dog from the ’50s, who was sent out to die in silence. That’s what we all are doing, even though most of us, like Laika, don’t understand it until our bodies start to fall apart and we finally die alone in the darkness. We all go back to the nothingness we once came from.

This was it: I was about to die. I realized that it was ironic that I would die in a country I had left ages ago and promised myself never return to. This must have been the ultimate irony of my life: I was pushed on my knees and forced to smell my own poop like a naughty puppy that had relieved herself on an expensive Oriental rug. I was going to die in the country that had already ruined my life and that was the ultimate punishment.

The only thing that happened in my shrunken pea-sized world was the nurse that gave me injections and pills and the sun that I saw through the window. It was going from left to right followed by darkness… followed by sunrise, again and again. A white curtain around my bed gave me some privacy. Through the window, I saw the courtyard where the hospital staff spent its lunch breaks in the sun and where emergency helicopters landed bringing in new patients. This was all I had left of the world that had been wide open to me just a few days earlier. Now I was like a wing-broken bird, unable to fly and an easy meal for predators.

The words and mental pictures had left me even though I understood what the doctors and nurses said in Finnish. I answered in their language, but every word I uttered hurt like a knife stuck between my ribs. Maybe because of the paralysis everything I did was laborious. I had to grasp for air like a fish out of water. It felt as if the connections from my brain to my muscles had to find new paths because the old ones were messed up or destroyed and every new path was made with a machete in the rainforest of my brain.


No matter how pitiful my exterior was or how poorly I communicated, everything felt crystal clear, like a 20/20 vision. I made observations about the stressed-out doctors, perky nurses, bored nurses’ aids and foreign-born cleaning ladies. I understood my frightening condition, the total hopelessness of bureaucracy, the irony of having a massive stroke while on vacation far away from home and the total meaninglessness of protesting. All this was clear to me and there was absolutely nothing I could do to change a single thing.

Only a few days ago I had in my mind exorcised old shadows from my distant past, everything from child molesters, rapists, and homicidal maniacs to social injustice. I had said good-bye to the past that had relentlessly stalked me all my life. I had decided to face my old fears, my torturers and critics and ritualistically force them to disappear and forever leave me alone. I thought I had done it. I had four days left in Helsinki and then I would fly home and never return. Never.

But no, not so fast! I didn’t know I had stepped on dangerous ground; I fell into a rabbit hole, a new and strange world and an alternate reality.


The chatty social worker, who came to see me in the beginning of my hospital visit and told me not to worry, everything would be taken care of, never came back. It turned out that the hospital couldn’t help me with the transportation back home because I didn’t have travel insurance. I was not allowed to fly or leave the hospital–- like I would have been able to do that by myself–and I started feeling that the whole situation was quite surreal.

My guardian angel and rescuer was a perky physical therapist with reddish hair and sparkling eyes. She was a true miracle worker (who I suspect would have made me walk on water if she really had put her mind into it), but the first time she came in and told me we were going on a walk, I thought she was completely delusional.

She came every day always full of energy and optimism, and dragged me to the corridor and up and down stairs. I had almost no balance, I often lost my shoes, and hit my toes, but after a week I took steps by myself. I walked like Frankenstein’s Monster in too big, nauseating Pepto-Bismol pink hospital pajamas with unwashed hair, but I walked, and the neurologist, who saw my desperate wobbling, couldn’t believe his eyes.


Three weeks later I sat on an American Airlines plane taking off and left Helsinki–my Devil’s Island–behind. We were flying higher and higher and the city, the whole country disappeared behind fluffy clouds and sunshine surrounded us. My husband sat next to me and squeezed my hand, my hand that was slowly regaining its function. We were going home. I took a sip of champagne and felt the unbelievable lightness of being.

Marja Hagborg

M.H. is a Scandinavian-born writer/artist who received her MFA ages ago from University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She lives with a Viking husband and twin cats in Chicago and writes mostly dark short fiction.

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