Letters Under the Willow
Michaela Mizuki, 7th - Tokyo, Japan
Note: There is a mention of a suicide in this story. Please remember that If you or anyone you know is struggling, reach out to a teacher, counselor, or prevention lifeline. There is always help around.
Who are you? The question echoes back at me, mocking. Laughing. Who am I? I can’t seem to explain the colors that swirl in my head, the images that twist together and flit through my mind. When I try to explain them, the others look at me, with the same glazed-over look they always have in their eyes when they’re Not Listening. Who am I? I tuck my shirt in and watch the wrinkled paper, wondering what my answer will be. Would it be easier to respond with the wild abstractness that always beats with my heart? Would it be better to push my existence into a neat little box that everyone adores, instead of spilling over the edges? I push away the peace of paper I’ve been planning to write on for hours and sigh. My sweat has stained it severely. The blank page, at first glance, seems empty and full of nothing interesting. But I know the thoughts and possibilities of what could have been written there are still there, in another future. This one page has a million different pieces of writing in it, and what I choose to write will be one of them. I take a deep breath, then put my pen to paper. Swirls dance across the page, and they spell out a name:
My existence is the glitch in the universe. I cannot be pinned in a name.
I cannot be pinned in a name.
The words I’ve been waiting for so long leaves me relieved and disappointed at the same time. Bittersweet. I wonder what I would’ve written, if the words had appeared on her paper. But it was on mine first. I tuck the paper into my folder, smiling, and hide it under my pillow. Not very convenient, I know, but being an only child and a book worm has taught me to shut people out in such a way that they don’t notice at all. I wonder what I’ve missed out on, what I could’ve had, if I hadn’t kept such close walls around my heart. Somehow, after all these years, someone had found my stash of pages from my diary, hidden in an alcove of roots under the willow tree no one cares about. And then, on a sweet Autumn morning, her reply had come.
Why can’t you see your own future, if you’re the one that makes it? You are a collection of memories and thoughts and feelings, and you can make your own future. You are never in the past, but you are always in the past. You are always living and you are always dying.
How anyone had found it, I was clueless, but I had considered the letter. Somehow, the peculiar questions were stuck inside my brain, the ones I’d wondered but kept to myself, because everyone began shutting me out when I asked them, or gave me weird looks. I learned to blend in. Lose emotion. Stop following the instincts I’d loved as a child. The words left an imprint on my thoughts for a week before I left a note back, just to see what would happen.
I can’t be explained. The future is so chaotic I can’t find my place in it. What is a feeling like?
And then, a few days later, they responded. For some reason, when I got a letter, my mouth would move ever so slightly upwards and my feet skimmed the floor. What was this? The first letter had come three months ago. Since then, my ventures to the library had become more infrequent as I carefully recorded my answers to the letters in silence, in my small room at the end of the dingy hallway that looked exactly the same as the twenty-three others. Here was the new routine after breakfast. The incorrigible bell would ring, slow and monotonous, and the orphanage manager’s head, perfectly in sync with the noise, followed it around the corner to the doorway to my room. Shooting me a vexed look, she clicked her tongue and motioned to me. I forced my mouth not to twist in the sour line that it wanted to. Why couldn’t Ms. Vexnaw, just once, let me disregard the clock?
Pulling my rucksack over my shoulder, I sprint down the hallway, and managed to catch the watery-gray bus that was stained with the same smell of boredom that somehow seeped into everything in my neighborhood. Welcome to the place you should probably never come, and join us in the everyday activity of Acting Like We Have No Brains At All. Which is being fulfilled right now, actually. Everyone’s incessant blank stare out the windows is unappealing and bordering on unsettling, and I slip my hand in my bag for a book, retrieving a worn-out cover of Call Of The Wild . As my eyes brush the first few pages, a light voice enters my ears. “Hi, have zombies infiltrated Earth?” A strange question, and it takes me a moment to realize it’s directed at me.
I flinch backwards, looking up from my book. I hear a few snickers. The Shock Effect, as everyone’s so kindly named it, is how I react when someone bothers to speak to me. Whenever someone calls my name, I automatically flinch and look like someone’s slapped me; additionally, when I find no one has and someone actually simply wants to talk to me I look shocked. I’m not sure when the Shock Effect began, all I know is I started around the end of last year. I find pale gray eyes fastened on mine, and I avert my eyes uncomfortably. I’ve never been one for eye contact. “Sorry?”
“The apocalypse,” the girl says patiently. “Is it here yet?” I shrug.
“Sorry, but you’re asking the wrong person. But if I had to make a guess, I’d say no, from the lack of deaths. Not today, at least,” I say. “Always could happen anytime, though.” She gives me a faint smile before leaving.
I’ve never wanted to think much about how much I rely on them, the letters under the willow. There’s freedom in anonymity- freedom in knowing you will not be pinned to your actions. More than that, the notes I receive are open. The questions I ask are actually considered, instead of having the ready-made answers shot back at me. Because even though they do matter, the opinions of others have never made solid dents in me. I grew used to the strange quirks of society, and while society didn’t accept me, they tolerated me, like a weird growth on an evergreen tree that stretched up to the heavens. Clinging on. Barely there, but still there. That was the difference. There was dead and nearly dead. Failed and nearly failed. The few things that changed which ones changed everything.
Because whenever there is a suicide broadcasted on the news, or the tearful face of a peer who can’t handle her life anymore, I know in my heart the distance between that person and me is too small to bear. The letters are a distraction. The letters are a drug. When my family forgets about my existence, the letters are all I have.
So I’ve never cared much about others, too immersed in my thoughts. But when I reveal my dreams, my soul, to this person I have never met except through our letters, I am basking in anonymity. I could be vulnerable. I could reveal the things I did to my friend that still plague me with guilt at night. But not only that, I am connected most to the one person I will never meet, whose words are tinged with laughter and every added thought weighted with insightfulness. Because I’ve never cared much about others. But I do so very much care about what They say- what new words will touch my heart at the end of a long day.
Am I a bad person?
You made a mistake. But you’ll never be bad to me.
You’ll never be bad to me.
The letters have been coming for a long, long time. Longer than I care to remember. I still remember brushing aside the pale roots of the tree, trying not to smile, then feeling the crinkle of paper against my hand. Seeing the elegantly sprawled writing, painting worlds that I could never have begun to imagine. I had replied, half out of madness and half out of sheer curiosity. It had started from there. I have never spoken of them to everyone. They are precious to me- precious in such a way that I cannot manage to force their existence into words. They are merely a presence in my life that drapes itself around me like a cool, soothing blanket. I do not want to know who is on the other end of the line. I do not want to think about the day I will have to move and will never see them again.
As I cross the street, my mouth curves in a smile as I think of the latest note they’d left me- a neatly folded pink post-it. We have an unofficial system now. When one of us has a note to put down, we put it down after nine at night. The one who put the note keeps away for the next week until the other finds it. It could be strange, wholly trusting we will both follow our traditions. But we do. “Hey!” a voice calls from across the street. I look up to see a bright smile and a pair of sparkling eyes to accompany it. “We’ll be late for school!” Automatically, I feel the corners of my mouth twitching downwards, then hurry to pull them back up. Already, something is pressing down on my shoulders. The weight of empty friendship stretches between us, wide and yawning. Awkward conversations and half-finished sentences. It’s not her fault, I remind myself. Stuffing the letters in my pockets, I race to get to her before the light blinks red. And then my foot twists on the smooth pavement.
When my hand plunges, yet again, into the knotted hole, it comes up empty. Nothing. I swallow tears of frustration. Why isn’t there anything? I clench the crumpled scrap of blue-and-white paper in my hand, staring at the willow. For a long time, her last response is the one that echoes in my mind. As I lay awake at night, as I slip away during a playdate, as I’m staring out the bus window on the way to school. Over time, I take her notes with me everywhere. And finally, one day, I find it. The goodbye. As I’m walking along a row of smooth chipped stones, I see a piece of red-lined white paper, fluttering in the wind, penned to the smooth rock it sits on. There’s one sentence on it.
If there was one thing in the universe that made my life better, it was your letters from the tree. Carved on the gravestone, jagged and thin, is her name: Maria Davis, 2003-2019.
I’m not sure how many more times I visit the gravestone before I have the courage to do it. The letters, shredded into thousands of tiny scraps, dance in the air as I let them go. For the first time in ages, I’m not thinking about the next letter and the distraction it will give me. The encouragement it will give me, or the courage to go on. I am no longer leaning on her letters. They will always stay with me, but they do not make me. As I leave the cemetery, I see a willow tree’s branch, fluttering in the wind.
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Students 6th-12th Grades