A miniature park with two or three benches, a pair of swings, and a small wooden table, where pensioners sit and play chess every day—one of those little neighborhood commons that used to be in front of every residential building. Ever since high-rise blocks have begun springing up like mushrooms after the rain, these little parks have become a rarity.
It was midnight on a summer evening—when it is most beautiful, Maya concluded. Only in the summertime, when the watch’s hands greet each other at their midnight passing, do you get that perfect blend of darkness and warmth, nor do you have to wait too long to see the sunrise. Just four or five hours. Quite enough.
But that would be too clichéd, she thought, and decided all this had to end sooner, before those first rays that make you squint. There, on the little chess table, she had made her first move when just three years old. On the lap of her grandfather, the best chess player in the neighborhood.
“This won’t do at all; the little one is helping you. You can’t win without her,” his opponent quipped and laughed loudly.
Maya remembered that moment as if it was yesterday. Her first chess move, and later her first victory. All she did that day was move a pawn. But it helped someone, and her grandfather won thanks to her! After that she sat on his lap every day and always moved the first pawn. And her grandfather always won.
Back then she realized for the first time that she was important in this world—she could change things.
Now, sitting on the bench, she just smiled. Her grandfather was to blame. He started it all. It was no coincidence that she had chosen this park. Here, where everything started, it ought to finish.
The two swings hung peacefully. She wanted at least one of them to move a little and creak—that would be so fitting right now—sadly and nostalgically, to remind her of the day she found Jacky.
Jacky was a little puppy she saved from the neighborhood bullies. We all know kids like that—the loudest and roughest, usually from problem families, with a real destructive streak. Maya always thought they were far more dangerous than all the adult thugs and muggers. Children’s viciousness is just as genuine as adults’, and their psychopathic traits don’t go away over the years; people simply learn to conceal them.
Jacky was whimpering pitifully, and it broke Maya’s heart. At one point she couldn’t stand it anymore, and her fear of the bullies was suppressed by the sincere instinct to help and do the right thing. She pushed her way through them, grabbed the puppy, and they fled together. The dog was faster. The roughnecks caught Maya and beat her black and blue. But so what—it wasn’t so terrible. Nor was it terrible that the bashings went on for weeks and months wherever they saw her. What counted was that she had made a difference. She had saved the life of a dog, and it was worth more than that of many humans she knew.
Her contemplation was interrupted by the local drunk. He staggered past without noticing her in the dark and collapsed onto the bench opposite. If it had been anyone else, she would have been frightened. But no one was afraid of Smalley. He slept in the cellars of their apartment buildings, lived on people’s charity, and bought himself rakia with the money from begging. Sometimes he got his ration “on the slate” at the local shop—they trusted him there and knew he was an honest drunk who always repaid his debts.
Children’s viciousness is just as genuine as adults’, and their psychopathic traits don’t go away over the years; people simply learn to conceal them.
On one such evening, many years earlier, she was sitting on this bench with her first boyfriend. He gave her chocolate, and she didn’t know it was actually stolen. That was the greatest love in the world. He even took her with him to the local amusement hall and let her sit next to him while he played video games with his buddies. None of them took their girlfriends with them, only him. That was a real distinction and made her special in the neighborhood—she felt just like she did when she had been the only child sitting with the pensioners, watching them play chess and sometimes allowed to move one of the pieces.
The two of them were sitting alone. He was slobbering around on a bottle of beer that he had managed to smuggle out of home. He proudly held the bottle in one hand and her with the other, and when someone passed nearby he always spoke a bit louder to gain their attention.
Along came drunken Smalley and, as often happened, he collapsed onto the bench and fell asleep.
Her boyfriend was thirteen—big enough to want to prove himself a man but still so weedy that he chose the most cowardly way of doing it.
“Piss off, you creep! I’m here with my girlfriend, and you stink!” he provoked, standing up tall and puffing out his chest like a rooster.
But Smalley was fast asleep. The alcohol had taken hold of him. He breathed heavily and lay like a log on the bench. And he snored—a very distinctive kind of snoring, Maya recalled, now listening to the same sound once again.
“Hey, I’m talking to you, get lost!” her boyfriend yelled and went up to him.
“Leave him alone, he’s not bothering me—,” Maya tried to say but was rudely interrupted:
“Shut your trap! I’ll decide if I’m going to leave him alone or not!”
He grabbed Smalley’s weak, gangly body with both hands and pushed him off the bench. Smalley plumped heavily to the ground, then rolled over and started to moan:
“Oh, leave off it, kid, I ain’t bothering you. OK, I’m going . . .” He tried to stand up but reeled and landed on the ground again, on his bottom.
“Kid? Me, a kid? Move it, you stupid alkie. Get out of my sight! Do you hear? I’ll show you ‘kid’!” he yelled furiously and started to kick him. Smalley couldn’t get up, he groaned and begged him to stop, but the pleas came out as a garbled murmur, perhaps because of the alcohol, or the pain. Or both.
All at once, Maya got up and went to him. Her boyfriend stopped his kicking and turned toward her, amazed by her defiance:
“Didn’t I tell you—,” he blurted, but he never finished what he was going to say. A sharp slap cut across his pimply cheek, and he just stood there with his mouth half open. Words failed him as he looked into Maya’s piercing dark eyes. He would certainly never forget that look, she smiled as she recalled the “strong man” taking fright and bolting, and he never mentioned that evening again. She helped Smalley back to the bench, and he muttered: “I knew you’d help me, my child . . . I knew you’d come back.” The next day, Smalley had forgotten what happened and didn’t remember Maya either. But that didn’t matter. She had helped, she had made a difference.
She took a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and lit up. She avidly drew in the smoke, pressed her lips tight, held it inside for a second, and slowly let it out. Cigarettes are one of the loveliest earthly pleasures, but anything that is so lovely cannot be good. That’s what makes them harmful. Just like drugs, alcohol, money, and love.
She had everything she needed. She had been through all the teenage phases: experimenting with drugs, getting sloshed on cheap booze, falling in and out of love with all the heartthrob and heartache a teenager can muster. Straight after university she found a terrifically paid job in her line of work, which gave her enough money that she could grow up. And then one of the earthly pleasures destroyed her: security.
The malice, hypocrisy, and lies of adults didn’t surprise her. Already as a small child she had been told to be careful of people, and she often heard of kids entering the adult world unprepared and that it was a total shock for them coming to terms with the despicable things you find there. But that wasn’t true: mean kids grow up to become mean adults, and she never expected anything different.
She just wanted to change the world, and she truly believed that good always prevails. That’s how it was in all the fairy tales and storybooks, movies, and true-life events retold by others; that’s what it said in the holy books and was laid down in every religion. That was the only truth she believed in and followed all her life. She had always been important and significant, ever since she was three. She had the strength to help all the tramps, homeless children, and abandoned pets—to save them, to give food to the hungry, to protect the weak . . . That was the right thing to do, because maybe spiteful people didn’t respect that, but all good people did, and there were still a few of them around.
“They should have warned me . . . they should have prepared me for this,” she thought and flung the cigarette away. “They ought to have told me that it’s only like that in stories.”
It’s not that the people she met in the adult world were terrible—what was terrible was her feeling of powerlessness. Oh, if she had a child she would never have taught it such untruths. She wouldn’t have allowed its whole life to be founded on a great lie. No, she wasn’t important or significant at all. And she couldn’t change the world alone, not if she couldn’t even change her neighborhood.
So, as usually happens, she changed herself in order to fit into the world. Now she had a permanent job and a successful boyfriend, an apartment bought with a bank loan, and was busy, busy, busy planning a future together—a life just like society expected. She didn’t think about all the misfortunes of the world anymore. She didn’t have time: she was thinking about the apartment, the children’s room, and the lounge room with red drapes. She had got the security she so longed for, but with it came the cold shoulder that was necessary to get that far.
Indifference is worse than sadness and pain.
Until one day, on her way to work, she saw the two of them. She had seen little brother-and-sister kittens before. They had been playful, running around the courtyard of the apartment building, and the little kids from the block next door played with them. Sometimes they even patted them, but in secret so that their parents wouldn’t see; otherwise they would be growled at and ordered inside to wash their hands so they wouldn’t get scabies or worms.
One of the kittens was lying on the ground in blood, its slender forelegs trembling uncontrollably and its little belly moving up and down fast, taking its last breaths in this world. The other kitten padded around it with muffled meows, brushing its sister tenderly with its paws. Maya heard the brother kitten crying for help for its sister. It stared at her with its big eyes, begging for help, and she burst into tears like a small child.
But she didn’t stop. She was running late for work, and her boss was a hysterical woman in menopause. She ignored the kitten’s call for help because she was an adult. No one would understand if she didn’t go to work because she had to save a cat or if she spent half her salary on a vet’s bill.
After that, nothing was the same anymore. She had everything she needed to be happy, everyone at the college get-togethers always looked at her with envy, she won prizes for her work, and a week ago her good and successful boyfriend had proposed to her, since that was the next logical step. That came at just the moment when she, indifferent about everything in life, decided she didn’t want to live in a world like this anymore. Indifference is worse than sadness and pain.
She couldn’t change the world, but nor could it change her. Therefore she saw no reason to stay in it anymore. She wasn’t special, and she wasn’t important. Her existence had no purpose or meaning, and she had no desire to keep living on this planet, among these people.
She carefully took the last cigarette out of the pack. She held it between her fingers and raised it to her mouth. In today’s interconnected society it’s as easy as a pie to find out how to make a poisoned cigarette. She knew it wouldn’t be painful and she wasn’t at all afraid. She wanted to leave this world while enjoying one last cigarette. Still, her hands trembled a little, and something made her stomach quiver.
Thousands of lives are snuffed out, thousands of voices seek help every day, and the only way of coping with the inability to help them is through indifference. But indifference toward the unhappiness of so many others leaves no space for you to enjoy the happiness of one life—your own.
She managed to calm her shaking hand and lift the lighter to the cigarette. A loud scritch broke the silence of the park. And then another, shorter one. Then two or three more.
The damn lighter wasn’t working.
Natali Spasova was born in 1989 in Skopje. She graduated from the University of Tourism and Management in Skopje and earned a masters degree in rural tourism management from the MIT University, Skopje. Her first children’s book, First Love in the Pink Street, written when she was only thirteen, has had three printings and has been translated into Ukrainian, Serbian, and Russian. Her work has been included in Russian and Bulgarian anthologies of Macedonian literature. Her second book, The Lighter, was published in 2014 and published in Ukrainian in 2015. In 2016, it appeared on LitHub’s list of ten books by Balkan women that should be translated into English. She has been published in many international magazines. Her first two books will be published in Bulgarian in 2017. Her third and latest book, The Two Princesses, came out this year.
Will Firth was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.