an open space for youth writing & mental health discussion
an open space for youth writing & mental health discussion
Manuel’s neck fried under the cruel Texas sun. His favorite long-brimmed Toquilla hat would have protected him. Instead, a baseball cap was a scant substitute. Carlos, his boss, demanded, “Look like you belong here. Not a lawn monkey.”
Manuel picked up a heavy saw and climbed the first of five large oak trees. His usual partner had called in sick. The two were the only Ecuadorians on the landscape crew.
Hours later, Manuel’s t-shirts and pants dripped with sweat. The saw frequently slipped from his grip. I am going to finish cutting the last branch and come down for a short siesta, thought Manuel. He was perched on a thick tree limb when it snapped. For an instant, Manuel felt the cool breeze on his wet skin as his small body plummeted to the ground. The bliss was snatched away by the agony of the saw landing on him. The world around the boy faded black.
I. The Goldcutter
Most people remember my mother for one thing: her golden hair.
Everyone used to treat it like it was something to behold, but I’ve always thought hair was hair and that was it. Then again I wasn’t blessed with Mother’s blondeness, or her beauty for that matter, as both Mother and the other neighborhood matrons have been keen to point out.
In the slender branches of an oak tree, a small songbird alighted gracefully, the branch trembling slightly under its tiny feet. The wind whispered as the bird’s eyes darted around, scanning its surroundings. Suddenly, the bird lifted its head, letting a melody pour from its throat: four short, gentle notes, followed by a rapid trill. The bird paused, looked around, and then repeated the melody.
The lights, a clouded soup of streetlights, lights from apartments, lights from flashing Times Square signs, headlights, and the faintest glimpse of stringed fairy lights draped across trees with a delicate touch, reached towards the stars painted in the canvas above, meeting the darkness in a never-ending battle, a sign that humanity -regardless of ego and pride and self-worth- would always fall to Mother Nature. The urban light towered far above the skyscrapers, but even it ended.
Most things did.
(After Jamaica Kincaid)
Eat your breakfast faster, you’re going to be late for your first day of 8th grade. Make sure your skirt doesn’t go above the knee and wear underpants under your skirt. Listen to the teacher and don’t crack jokes with your friends during class. Adults take first impressions seriously so remember that before you make any choices you’re going to regret. After school, make sure you don’t skip any of your academies and put in all your effort. You have math, art, English and piano today. When you’re done with your academies, don’t eat junk food so you don’t lose your appetite just like you did last time when you ate a whole bag of hot Cheetos secretly before dinner. Also don’t use all your allowance at once. I’m not giving you more this week. Please check on halmoni and halabuji on the way home and pick up some side dishes from them. Halmoni said she is packing bulgogi, doenjang jjigae, radish kimchi, bean sprouts and your favorite galbijjim. Thank them and hangout and talk to them about your school with them for a bit before you come home but don’t be too late. It is dangerous these days.
A single raindrop perched on the windowsill, solitary and serene.
I was lonely for a long time before you joined me. I walked alone in the night, letting the stars lead my way, never believing that my solitary journey would ever come to an end.
The drop was pristine and pure. It was clear and transparent. It sat silently, glistening in the sunlight. The perfect picture of tranquil.
You crept up on me quietly as if I wouldn’t notice, as if I would miss your skulking figure in the darkness of the night. You stayed in the shadows, letting them mask you and protect you. You watched me from afar as I continued on my endless journey. For so long you remained in the safety of the shadows, refusing to venture out and for so long I remained oblivious of your presence.
I remember when I first saw him. Never had I seen a man look so beautiful. In the dimly-lit tent, where all the village drunkards sat for an hour or two, he was the main attraction. All the clinking mugs and raucous laughter came to a standstill as soon as he entered the tent.
I remember how I had forgotten to rub my hands in the chilly December air when I saw him twirl. Shivers which would have made me uncomfortable were left forgotten, like everything else except him.
He was a tall man, and so fair that I wondered if he had come from the moon. Just like how people must’ve wondered when they looked at me, the only fair man in the village. Not anymore. He was just like me, perhaps even fairer.
[**Content warning: self-harm, suicide. If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, help is available. Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741.**]
“Perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take is to be seen as we really are." - Cinderella.
The prettiest people are the most pretentious.
That’s the difference between me and them. I know I’m broken. I know I need fixing. But the world isn’t a wish-granting fountain. We don’t wish for things and they magically happen. That’s the difference between fairy tales and the real world. Most people’s lives are fairy tales. I wished I had parents who would fight over me and a best friend that didn’t burn. A best friend that wasn’t burning in my mind. I don’t wish anything. Not anymore. I only have three lessons.
When hunger struck Yeong-Su, it was like the venom of a snake. It was long, and painful. It wasn’t like the hunger one gets when it is time for lunch. It was the type of hunger one got when starved for days. Yeong-Su had been spending time with his friends when an artillery strike wiped out his neighborhood, one of the many destroyed towns in Incheon. The Communists in the North were responsible for the flattening of Yeong-Su’s town, and that was why he scavenged for food every day. Although he found nothing, he would always search.
Let’s say there’s a time-travelling machine that only I can use. I am thirteen again and Grandma has finally passed away. I know she didn’t leave any will. Or an inheritance. It’s the winter of 2005 again, the coldest winter since 1992. It won’t be this cold until 2019. Jindos are tightly leashed inside the homes for the first time, because the dog houses are covered in thick snow. At the burial, father and I are wrapped in geese feathers, under a black umbrella.
In the pulpit, my aunts and uncles are giving eulogies. They speak in a dialect so strong, I can hardly understand it. My city-born father is staring at his feet. Whether of respect for his mother-in-law, or to hide his boredom, I am still not sure. No one is crying, so I don’t cry either.
[Content warning: death & grief]
She doesn’t want to believe it.
All the air is pressed out of her lungs; the world sinks in a blur, but not enough to make the devastating sight unintelligible. Sirens blare furiously in a monstrous cacophony as she collapses on her knees; hands shaking as she tenderly strokes her son’s hair. Upon contact she recoils her fingers as quickly as a child from a hot stove. But instead of heat it is the coldness that terrifies her; in the brief touch enough heat is stolen to turn her lips blue. She holds his hand in a cold caress.
His eyes are glassy, and he lies still like a cold kiss of death. It can’t be real. It doesn’t feel real.
What would life be like, she thought, if I could stop time?
Only a hundred pages to go, she said to herself. She hated this; researching why the printer at the office didn’t work was never what she imagined herself doing on a Friday night ten years ago. Thirteen-year-old Josie would’ve been repulsed.
Her whole life had been planned. She would finish her novel, sell it, make a name for herself and write books until the day she died. Josephine Taylor, best-selling author. She could almost see herself on the billboards and the headlines. If only she had the time to finish her novel, it would only be a matter of time before the world knew her name.
[Content warning: domestic abuse/violence]
Lalita does not know where the babies disappear to.
Amma is pregnant again. Her faded cotton sari rustles against the skin of her swollen stomach, and the glass bangles she wears have clearly become too tight on her arms. Lalita watches her as she eats her rice in the kitchen. She doesn’t know if this baby will die too, like the past two--they were twins, Amma told her--did. Her grandmother says people go to Heaven when they die if they are good. Lalita hopes she’ll go to Heaven someday too, a heaven filled with sweetmeats, fried fish and chicken curry.
[Content warning: sexual assault.]
I look around me. I feel my entire body falter. I’m alone. A tear trickles down my face. One more. And another, and another. I can’t breathe. Where am I? How did I get here? I’m afraid. Never in my life have I felt so vulnerable, debilitated. Never in my life do I recall feeling this way at all. I was never susceptible to fear; rather, I was apathetic, strong. I feel an urge. An inexplicably powerful urge to escape, to return. The urge surges from my stomach and leads me to release a scream of exasperation; a sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. A determination to escape. With all my tenacity, I try to push myself off the chair. It's no use. The ropes further scar my body. My wrist begins to shed blood. What have I ever done to deserve this?
“If you keep swallowing watermelon seeds, one day a watermelon will grow inside your stomach.”
Her mother’s voice was stern and followed by an urging frown, her dark eyebrows arched downwards and over her eyes, her forehead covered with wrinkles. The girl was only five then, and her small hands could barely hold up the heavy watermelon slice, red juice seeping out of the fruit and dripping down her hands and onto the blanket. The beach was crowded but they had their own little spot near the rocks, far enough from the splash of the waves but close enough to hear them crashing again and again against the yellow sand.
I believe in lies. They are: aconitum, blue like my hair, creeping into my words; oleander, an innocent pink, slithering from under my tongue; dark purple belladonna flourishing in my promises. Poison blooms, all of them.
A whiff of apricots. Delicate flowers poised on the poison bush. Vibrant blossoms in palms, and passing by chapped lips.
It happens suddenly- at once. A gag reflex, last lunch passing by flushed lips. Air disappears, vanishes into thin-
The roses grow in the old woman’s yard, with cherry-red heads brandished perpetually at the clouds. They only answer the questions of those who ask nicely.
You go to the woman’s house sometimes, to waste away the lonely summer days. She’s an old friend of your grandmother, and she gives you iced tea and cookies when you come over. You’ve seen the roses in her front yard. Gleaming like jewels, scraps of beauty standing against the desolate landscape.
One day you ask her, “Why roses?”
The old woman smiles, as if it was only a matter of time before you asked. “Roses not only symbolize love,” she says, “but secrecy, too. I like that.”
“Guard your heart, darling. Guard it with all you have and all you are.” These were her mother’s last words as her heart stopped.
Nina did not cry, for crying can upset the heart. She knew of people who let their emotions lead them, and eventually died from a dismal heart.
People like her mother, who fell in and out of love like it was a game.
Nina wished she could love. She hid her dreams and fantasies in sunrises and rose gardens, her ambitions in old libraries.
A familiar pit had formed in Anna’s stomach, and she was plummeting through it. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and she couldn’t stop checking her watch every few seconds. What am I supposed to do? Anna wondered as anxiety continued to marshall its forces. I don’t want to make him mad, but we really have to leave! Her heart pounded, but she gathered up her courage and cried desperately upstairs to her husband, “Jon, honey, if we don’t go now, we’ll miss the train!” Anna tried to make her voice sound nonchalant, but she had calculated the exact time they needed to leave the house, which had passed two minutes ago.
Jonathan thundered down the stairs. “Jesus, I’ll be ready in a second, you don’t need to yell. Call the kids while I finish up.”
A woman and a girl sat on the porch of a white house. The girl stared at her old shoes while the woman watched the cars pass Madison Street before disappearing at the curve. They were quiet and sad, and so they were speechless.
Outside it was still wet from the morning rain. Chipmunks and squirrels were buried in logs; birds hid within the black leaves of the trees and sang to each other; even the mosquitoes were avoiding the rest of the world. A pond on the other side of the street rippled from the sudden leap of a fish. The air was taken by the smell of pine needles and lily pads and petrichor.
A train broke the silence. As the whistle faded the woman checked her watch and then checked it again as if the time had cheated her.
Maybe she would be busy in the back of the shop, organizing the mugs that Brentwood’s Coffee offered to frequent customers. One after the other, carefully stacking them in their designated spots. The bell on the door would chime suddenly, breaking her out of her reverie. She would startle, almost dropping the coffee mug (but not quite because that would be cliché), and turn quickly to see who it was. She wouldn’t observe anything too specific about the man; perhaps a glimpse of green eyes or the small imperfections in his sweater.
As soon as Lelo fell asleep we went out to the balcony for lunch. Lela made mariquitas and black beans, and I cut an avocado for the salad, then dressed it with olive oil and vinegar. We each served ourselves and took the plates outside to eat.
Neither one of us spoke while we devoured our food. Once I had finished I gazed at the sea for a few minutes; the water was blue and green and old. When I was younger, we would go down to the coast and swim for hours while Lela sat on the rocks and watched. Enrique was always the first to get out of the water because he hated being the only boy. Soon after, my grandmother would ask us all to get out; the rocks always smelled like excrement and trash. Then she would wrap us up in towels and take us inside and we would drink hot chocolate and eat the tamales she had made for dinner the night before, even though I never liked tamales. When my cousins moved to Miami, we stopped swimming as often, and on the days that we did go down to the coast, Enrique only ever put his feet in the water, and I was always too cold to swim for more than fifteen or twenty minutes.
Go to the northern side of Pakistan. There's a valley over there; Neelum Valley. Go to the Army Cantt in Neelum Valley, and now sit quietly outside your room on the stairs. Do you feel the nature breathing? As the chilly wind blows around you, do you wonder what it carries within it? Maybe incomplete love stories from the border to a lonely home. Do you feel at peace as this wind kisses your cheek and you know that the one you have been waiting for will be back soon? Do you feel the autumn leaves slowly falling to the ground beneath you, one foot down and this leave will crunch, it will die completely as the sound of its last futile breath makes you feel alive from the inside? Do you listen to the river flowing through the dark nights, do you hear it gushing and roaring? Every roar of this river is a threat to some people and a breath to you. And above you, do you see the infinite stars shining and glistening at you?
November 22nd, 2019
I’m going to try to get this over with quickly and save us both a little heartbreak. I think it goes without saying that this is my last letter. I’m sorry that it’s come to this; there is no way for me to change what is about to happen, no matter how intensely I wish I could. The last year and one month with you have given me the perspective I’ve been craving since my accident. It’s amazing the joy and purpose that comes from a few typewritten pages from you every couple of weeks. I’ll forever be grateful for the short time I was able to have by your side as your days here dwindled down into a few last minutes on an execution table—the world has a sick sense of humor, doesn’t it?
“Verena!” A boy growled and followed his much smaller and mischievous partner into the shadows.
They weren’t partners in a romantic sense, though the girl was certainly attracted to him. No, the girl was one of the most feared and elusive assassins in all of Avianor, and at only age 16 she had slain more men than were on the Emperor’s Guard.
The boy loathed her. As the Captain of the Guard, he was constantly running after her, cleaning up her messes and keeping her out of trouble.
The Captain was in charge of the girl’s safety. You would think the heir to an empire would sit in meetings all day, but Verena was different. Darker somehow and always aching to avenge her mother’s untimely demise. Odd, as her mother had passed away when Verena was only 8 years old
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.