by Alicja Maciejowska (age 15, Passage West, Cork)
You have the right to be alive.
The sun peeked out from behind the hills and sleepily climbed his way up into the pale blue sky, softly greeting the candyfloss clouds. The night’s cold air warmed slowly into a more hospitable chill and shadows retreated, letting the countryside fill with golden light.
A girl was in her garden, singing and moving water through the air like dancers’ ribbons. It seemed like the entire garden was dancing to the music, and the girl laughed as some of the water fell down onto her.
A boy walked down the centre of a road that headed east, out of the village and towards the sea. It wasn’t a well-worn path but Ethan knew where he was going; he’d walked this way before.
The road led him through the downs and ahead of him it curved to run along the edge of the woods before beginning its steep ascent to join the cliff path. He was still a few minutes away from the trees when he spotted smoke coming from behind a hill. If it were anything else he wouldn’t have bothered, anything else he wouldn’t have felt anything at the sight and would have continued walking. As it was, Ethan could not distinguish between a safe fire and a not-for-burning object and he thought it would be rather shitty of him to ignore a potential fire hazard, no matter how hollow and dismal he was feeling.
So he stepped off the path and climbed up the slope, his unaccustomed muscles already beginning to complain. He didn’t look behind himself at the trail of browner grass and wilted daisies he left in his wake.
It wasn’t a burning building, though he already kind of knew that. It wasn’t any other potentially dangerous fire. It was a small house, with a chimney that was letting out smoke from a fireplace lit to push out the early spring chill.
There was a garden. It was beautiful, filled with a multitude of plants and decorated with flowers and absolutely overflowing with life, and there was a person in it. She was holding a watering can and moving slowly from one potted plant to the next, examining each as she went. Every plant she touched seemed to perk up a little, come alive with a new energy and nearby trees and bushes stretched their branches towards her. That’s when he noticed that the watering can, which he had previously thought she was holding, was actually floating along a few steps ahead of her, tipping gently over each pot. There were shears too, trimming a hedge, the leaves and branches dropping into a neat pile in one spot.
Then her head turned and spotted him. He had no idea what to do with the kind smile she gave. So, a little hesitantly, he gave an awkward wave.
“Hello stranger,” she greeted.
“Hi.” He had no idea what to do with this conversation. “Sorry I was just passing by and I saw your garden, thought I’d take a look?”
“No worries! Not many people come this way so it’s mostly for my benefit, but it’s nice when others can enjoy it too.”
“It’s really amazing, honestly. I mean damn, I may be dead inside, but I would love to draw some of those flowers.” She gave a startled laugh.
“Thank you! You’re welcome to stay and do just that if you’d like. Unless you have somewhere to be?” What a question.
“Oh, I was just heading for a walk on the cliffs, to clear my head, and stuff. Nothing important. I don’t have any thing to draw with though . . .”
“Would you like to come in for a cup of tea anyway?” she asked.
“O-okay,” he stuttered, and she smiled at him.
“My name is Cinna,” she said, holding her hand out over the garden gate.
Ethan isn’t much, he thought. He’s not much of a son, not much of a villager, not much of a friend. He doesn’t have very much to offer. He shook her hand.
He gave her his name.
It was peaceful, just sitting there and looking at the flowers and watching Cinna move around the garden and the day flew by, filled with interesting conversations about a myriad of topics but mostly about flowers. She stopped him as he was leaving.
“The apple tree is going to be blooming soon, and the blossoms are a beautiful sight. Would you like to come visit again then?” she suggested.
“Oh, that would be . . . I wouldn’t want to be a bother . . .”
“Of course you wouldn’t be, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t enjoy your company, and it can get lonely here by myself. You can come sketch the blossoms, or just if you feel like it. And when summer ends I’ll be making apple pies, so I would love some help eating those.”
So he left with a promise to come back, walking out the gate and turning towards home.
* * *
He didn’t think he was a very good houseguest. Some days when he was feeling desolate he would come visit and hope it would make the bad feelings disappear, but all he managed to do was sit in silence on the porch, in the living room when Cinna finished with the garden and not really contribute to the conversation at all.
Cinna didn’t seem to mind. When guilt rose up in his throat she would press a cup of tea into his hands and sit with him, and would talk about the garden, her books, the village, meals she wanted to cook. Sometimes she would read aloud to him. By the time the sun had started to set he had forgotten to feel guilty.
Other days he would be more than fine, okay enough that he would help out in the garden, following Cinna’s orders because he had no idea what he was doing. Eventually, he started joining in a bit when she sang, allowing small smiles at her antics and it was good.
He fell asleep on the grass one day, and he woke up to a patch of forget-me-nots that wasn’t there before, tickling his face.
* * *
One grey and cloudy day when Ethan arrived, Cinna wasn’t in the garden as usual, and he found her inside washing the dishes.
“Hey,” he said. She didn’t turn around but the scrubbing becomes a little less vigorous.
“Not in the garden today?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“I finished up early.”
He sat down and they were in silence for some time. Ethan observed her hunched, tense shoulders and he wasn’t sure what to do. Then the plate she was holding slipped out of her hands and crashed into the sink and Ethan was startled at the curse that came out of her mouth. Cinna stood at the sink with her head bowed.
He stood up and approached her silently and laid a hand on her shoulder, hoping to provide some comfort.
“Hey,” he said softly. He didn’t get a response. “Hug?” he ventured, and she turned around, pressed her face into his shoulder, and wrapped her arms around his waist. He put his own arms around her shoulders and they stood there for a few minutes, not saying anything.
After a long while, he led her to the couch and sat them down.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her. She sighed tiredly.
“Yesterday was just . . . everything was going wrong and I let myself get frustrated enough to mess up even more, and I haven’t really done anything about it. I should have, but I just hoped if I didn’t let it get any worse everything would go back to normal. Then I didn’t get enough sleep and today isn’t going any better.”
“Do you feel better now?” he asked. She pulled back a bit to give him a watery smile and he saw that she had been crying.
“Yeah, I think so,” said Cinna. Ethan hummed and rubbed her back.
“Maybe we should take it easy today,” he suggested. She sighed and nodded in agreement. “What do you want to do?” She looked him in the eye with a decided look on her face.
“You know what? I think we deserve some hot chocolate today,” said Cinna. Ethan laughed.
“Absolutely,” he agreed and kissed her forehead. “I’ll go make us some.”
When he got back to the living room with the two steaming mugs, Cinna was curled up on the couch under a frankly alarming amount of blankets reading a book. He handed her mug back to her and buried himself in the warm cocoon. Cinna sipped her drink and began reading out loud.
There, on the couch with mugs of hot chocolate and blankets piled on top of them, Ethan was lulled into a peaceful sleep by the pitter-patter of the rain and Cinna’s voice as she read.
You have the right to be alive