Machine - Winner

Nika Jelendorf



Nika moved from Zagreb through Berlin to London, where she now lives with her partner and their growing number of cats. In her job, she listens to the narratives people tell about themselves, and in her free time, she reads the ones they put on paper. This is her first published work.

Chatillon By Nika Jelendorf

They came into the forest one after another, some of them men in suits and some boys with dead eyes. A procession of them, each parking their own machine behind another. They left the cars looking out of place, like a row of shoes arranged in the middle of a road. The last one who came drove a Renault Dauphine to the end of a line. It was an elegant, rounded, powder blue car with silver bumpers. The front had a small crest with a crown relief in it. The man who abandoned the vehicle should have been a boy. He locked the car and walked back to the base, where he would get on a boat and return to where he came from. The premature lines on his face spoke of his reasons, but the forest didn’t know how to read them and wouldn’t have cared even if she could.
For a little while, the forest ignored the cars. Animals circled them, knowing the cars didn’t belong. The machines were unmovable, soldiers standing at attention, waiting for a hand to guide them. The fourth time it rained that summer, a fox was passing nearby. Having just eaten a frog, the fox was pleased with herself and wanted to enjoy that feeling instead of getting her fur wet. She crawled underneath the Dauphine and took a nap, cosy and dry. The rain fell gently around them. Clusters of mushrooms enjoyed the soaking, calling for their peers to come out of the ground and join them. For this afternoon, the Dauphine was content.
After this, the forest started to eat the vehicles. She was slow at first. Specks of moss were the first to lay their claim, growing where the rubber seals met the bodies of the cars. Weeds started germinating in the front and rear cowls under the windshields, taking nourishment from the piles of rotting leaves accumulating there.
The men who left the cars picked a hidden spot, but eventually, someone stumbled onto it. The first to come was a couple who were delightfully shocked. They wandered through the metal maze, enjoying each other’s amazement and trying the doors until they found an unlocked Citroën they disappeared into. They emerged half an hour later looking sombre and didn’t return, and there were no people for a long time after.
The cars started to lose their formation. The day’s heat and the night’s cold bent the bodywork, making them look like deflated balloon animals from a fair a few weeks ago. The air was escaping the tires, making the cars sink into the forest floor, sometimes at an angle, as some tires were older than others. The paint started to flake away like sad confetti.
The next human to visit was a man who inspected every car slowly and methodically. This one did return, in a car of his own and with a toolbox and started taking parts away. From the Dauphine, he took the crest with the crown, the radio, the stick shift, and the motor, leaving the car feeling naked and uneasy. He went for the steering wheel too, but he noticed it was cracked and smudged in places, so he let it be and left the doors open. The man came for three days in a row, and then he never came again. But soon after him, a spider saw the wheel and decided it was a great place to build a web. He abandoned it when it became evident that not many insects wandered into the machine, but by that point, the car began to realise that being inhabited was no longer her role.
Slowly the cars began to rot. Covering them in moss and rust, the forest had painted their outlines in colours that suited her better. The Dauphine went much quicker than her sisters in arms. The edges of her were the first to go. The joints between the doors and the frame, the front and back hood, and the arches above the wheels became serrated like a breadknife. The rot spread quickly, and the front hood, weakened by the man who stole her crown, popped open. She yawned wide and ate the rain, leaves and dandelion fluff that fell into her mouth.
Some of the cars fought back against the forest. They dripped iridescent poison on the earth, killing plants, weeds, and insects. They infected their surroundings with chips of paint, which dissolved into heavy metals. They shed rubber dandruff from their tires, letting it spread out on the wind and reach far beyond their resting spots, killing birds and fish. They dropped broken windscreen wipers, sunroofs, and bumpers on the ground, destroying anthills. And still, the forest kept eating them.
At some point, a storm came that shook everything it touched. The rain pelleted the cars’ roofs like bullets. Lightning struck, and a branch fell, cracking the front windshield of the Dauphine. A small circle spread across it, mirroring the spider web underneath it. It burst almost a year later in the middle of the day. The glass exploded inwards over the moss-covered top dashboard, glistening like diamonds on a velvet bag.
The Dauphine wasn’t always alone. The spider had left quickly, but field mice moved in at some point, thrilled to nibble on the leather seats and snuggle in the stuffing. They dug labyrinths inside the car, where many generations of their family slept, mated, and were born until the rot forced them to move out and abandon her for a more hospitable home. By now, lichen stretched out over the Dauphine, making her look like a dried-out mermaid, powder blue peeking out from under ash green. The forest liked that look.
Some seasons later, a forgetful squirrel buried an acorn underneath the Dauphine. The acorn was lucky – the hood stood open at just the right angle, giving it a balance of shade and sun, letting the water drip but never soak the earth. The acorn grew. At first, it was a sprout, but it endured, then it was a sapling, and still, it grew until it became a real tree, proud and secure in its standing. It knew it was going to outgrow the car. The tangled branches slowly started pulling the Dauphine apart. First, it bent the bodywork, weakening every joint. The back left door gave way and fell off, even though neither the car nor the forest would have expected it to be the first to go. As the tree pushed out, the Dauphine pushed back in. The hood was thin and had teeth carved into it by the rust. It bit into the tree. But the rest of her couldn’t fight much longer. Over the years, the tree shot up, and the hood rose with it. People were coming more often, mostly hikers and adventure hunters, oohing and aahing at the scene.
All around the Dauphine, the others were defeated by the forest too. Most of them had long lost their shape and colours. They were now smaller, painted the brown and red of the earth, the green of the foliage and the grey of ash. Some held shape better than others. Some sunk in the ground, bottoms devoured by the earth, tops covered by bushes, so they looked more like mounds than cars. The forest took some casualties, but she was winning.
And then different people started to appear. Photographers with multiple lenses, clicking. People with placards, yelling into their phones. The occasional person in a suit, frowning into a camera. Decades after the machines were left in the forest, people were paying attention to them again.
Finally, two people arrived, an older man with a face like a tree bark and a woman with a clip chart. The man walked around touching the cars, and the woman kept making notes. They started at the opposite end from where the Dauphine was parked, so her spot was the last they came to. The man walked around her in a circle, once to the left and once to the right. Then he turned to the woman.
“Shit, man, this won’t work unless I fell the tree” he said.
“Can you get the motor out?” she asked.
The man bent closer to the tree and put his fingers against the bark, pushing as if he expected it to give way under his fingers.
“It’s in the back” he said, and nodded, to whom it was unclear. He popped open the back hood with a crowbar and looked at the empty space where a motor once existed. The woman looked over his shoulder.
“Leave it then? The paint is almost gone anyway.” She said, and they walked away.
The man returned later with many others and vans full of screwdrivers, hammers, chainsaws, and chisels. They walked around, attacking the cars, shouting at each other from across the forest. One of them brought a speaker and played music even though most of them wore headphones. The noise was deafening. It took them a few days, but they cut, chopped, and sawed, and soon, the forest looked just like any other forest, for the most part.
 As the new vehicles left carrying away parts of the old ones, the tree that was part Dauphine waited for the night to fall. 

Judges Comments

'Chatillon' by Nika Jelendorf, the winner of WM's Machine Short Story Competition, is a striking piece of eco-writing. It personifies the woodlands and its creatures as the fiction imaginatively brings to narrative life the true story of the Chatillon Car Graveyard in Belgium, where US troops abandoned their vehicles inthe forest before returning home.

All stories need a central character and for this one, Nika has chosen a single car, the Dauphine. Through its experience we are shown a world of transformation and change.

Nika recounts the way the forest absorbs the vehicles and transforms them into a part of itself in a dreamy, matter-of-fact voice that seems to compress time and play with it. There are poetic elements in the way Nika evokes the forest's consciousness and the way its values are not the same as human values: The premature lines on his face spoke of his reasons, but the forest didn’t know how to read them and wouldn’t have cared even if she could. The profundity of what is being said is paired with a lightness and elegance in the way it's written.

'Chatillon' is an unusual and beautiful vision of a fiction, packed witih resonant images of the relationship - sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant, sometimes antagonistic – between humans, nature, and machines. At the end, rather than a climatic moment or a resolution, there's simply the tree, which the Dauphine has become merged with, waiting not just for night, but for the inevitable passage of time and the changes it will bring.



Runner up and shortlisted:

The runner up in WM’s Machine Short Story Competition is
John Moralees, Washington, Tyne and Wear. You can read his story at
Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull; Lucy Brighton, Barnsley, South Yorkshire; Alana Beth Davies, Swansea; Melanie Francis, Harrow, Middlesex; Christine Griffin, Hucclecote, Gloucester; Deborah Hugill, Northallerton, North Yorkshire; Rob Molan, Edinburgh; M Stewart Smith, Burley, Leeds; Sharon S Summervale, Bridgwater, Somerset; Sarah Turner; Rayleigh, Essex; Gill Wilson, Norwich.