First-person short story competition - Runner Up

Micha Horgan

Runner Up
The Awakening
First-person short story competition


Micha Horgan is an Irish-Iranian writer and artist based in London's Hackney. He has written for The Times, Vice and other publications of fictions including SoftPunk, The Ember Chasm Review and Writers Online. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel at Faber Academy. His art can be found around Hackney, or on his Instagram @chairmanhog. 


Photo by Grégory Pierrain.

The Awakening By Micha Horgan

I had been on the ward only six months when the girl came in. She was young, twenty-eight or twenty-nine, with mousy brown hair, and heavy purple eyelids that looked like the petals of some tragic flower.

As with the other patients, the girl’s skin had taken on a ghostly translucence, and yet unlike them, she wore it in a way that seemed intentional, even regal, like the powdered face of some lost princess, waiting to stir the hearts of her anxiously waiting courtesans.

There was no denying that even in a comatose state the girl commanded a certain and unrelenting dignity.  Her nails, which crowned each of the fine fingers, appeared less as nails but rather by their precise curvature and enameled sheen, to be more like miniature moons, fallen upon hands of rare grace and majesty.

The other nurses on the ward had noticed her too, and it seemed that they, like me, would take what opportunities they could to tend to her. Cleaning and feeding her as though to earn her favor.

Where possible I would go to her room and watch her, her slender limbs, serene brow, the soft curve of her line down to her ankles, freckled delicately as though with stars. I must admit I felt protective over her. I had never before doubted the other nurses but for the first time I no longer felt sure they could be trusted to tend to her.

I roamed the ward, moving through my duties with her in mind. I was hasty with my other tasks but no less precise, and so I allowed myself more time with her, more time to get to know her.

With her:

Sliding the curved metal hook in under her nails I gently pulled the silt-like build-up from under, wiping both sides of the file against the tissue with each nail.

Her feet, though they had not walked in weeks and appeared uniquely ornamental to me, required more time than the hands. Perhaps, evident in their beauty, the hands had drawn more attention from the other nurses and so had been better tended to. It seemed to me, filing each perfect toenail and cleaning beneath them, that this was our most intimate pact.

Away from the hospital, in my one room bedsit, I thought of her. At dinner with my boyfriend, looking at his hands around the stem of his wineglass I found that I thought not about his sturdiness, not of our desire or affections, but of her.

Having completed my other duties on the ward I went to her the following day but there in the room was one of the younger nurses. She sat at the foot of the bed, a tissue in her lap and a curved metal nail file in one of her hands.

I wanted so much to burst in, to send that girl away but could think of no way to do so that would not have betrayed me and so I stood and watched as this imposter filed and cleaned, in an act that appeared to me as something like desecration.

I waited on the ward that day until I was sure I was alone, and it was only then that I entered. Bitterly I found that the nurse had done a good job, she had even buffed the toenails! It had not once occurred to me to do such a thing. It was a crude act and yet never had her sleek hands and feet looked so glorious, so utterly angelic. Looking at those nails I felt stupid, remiss, and even a little betrayed.

‘You tarted up for her and not me?’ I said aloud. Then, though it had been done, I took up the nail file and went ahead with the motions of cleaning.

For the first time, her silence seemed no longer serene but affronting, insolent and disinterested. As I used the file to pull the invisible dirt from under each nail I thought of the other nurse and felt the unmistakable pangs of jealousy.

‘This is absurd,’ I said. And when I looked down at her papery hand in mind, I found that the ring finger was bleeding a little. I stared in amazement at the apparition of this small crimson moon, then in shock and horror. It was improbable to my mind that she would bleed, and that I had caused it was too terrible to consider.

I finished cleaning her nails, whispered an apology and left for home where dreams pervaded a broken sleep.

There in my prison I visited banished courtesans, cruel monarchs and poisoned chalices. I dreamed I shared a throne with a queen who had purple petals for eyes and that my throne collapsed beneath me, because it was only a paper chair.

The following day, under slept as I was, I tended to my duties but could not face that room or the nurse who I had seen tending to her. I felt furtive, nervous; I kept my head down and eyes averted. I feared more than anything the moment I would have to see her again: replete, serene, judging.

‘She woke up,’ said one of the nurses. ‘It’s a miracle,’ said another.
‘Who woke up?’ I asked.
‘The girl in room four, with the curly hair.’

I excused myself and went home. I claimed I was sick. ‘You don’t look well,’ my supervisor had said, before signing off on my departure.

Once home I could no longer find the strength to go back to work. In the confines of my room I dreamed of Snow White and the mirror of projected vanity, and of Sleeping Beauty. I dreamed of the needle that put Beauty to sleep and of a needle to wake her up. I dreamed of the other nurse in knight’s armor leaning over a hospital bed to kiss her, and of the curved metal nail file sliding like a needle under the buffed enamel of a tiny moon, drawing blood – cleaving love in two, rousing the dead.

Judges Comments

There is a dream-like, magical-realist quality to The Awakening, Micha Horgan's story that is the runner-up in WM's First Person short story competition.

The first person narrator is a nurse. The patient they are caring for evokes the sleeping princesses of classic fairytales: Snow White and the Sleeping Beauty. In the narrator's mind, they they have an enchanted quality; an unearthly loveliness. In a narrative shifting between detailing the care of this comatose patient and conveying the spell that seems to have been cast over the narrator, the first person voice is ideal. It works really well to express the thoughts of a narrator who is unreliable in the sense that the reader cannot, and is not meant to, decipher whether what they're reading is an imaginative flight of fantasy or an alternative reality.

The strength of this piece is in its ability to convey the overwhelming power of the imagination, and how 'reality' can be transformed into something richer, more colourful and fuller of possibilities. In the narrator's world, the 'everyday' and the 'extraordinary' merge into an original, impressionistic piece of writing where the realms of the imagination exert a forceful pull.