Under 18, Non-Native Speaker — Winner 2018



“Beneath The Willow”




The  air  was  filled  with  the  humming  of  bees  and  the chatter  of  voices,  underlined  by  the occasional chirp of a bird. I was sitting underneath a willow, listening to the breeze rustling through the leaves and watching my classmates spend their time a few meters away. Most of them  were listening to  music  or  just  sitting around  in  small  groups  and  talking,  apparently oblivious to their surroundings, but some actually seemed to be enjoying the fresh air and the picturesque view across the lake. A couple of them were playing soccer back and forth across the meadow.

It was quite a cool morning for late spring, but my mom had made sure that I didn´t leave home until I was  dressed in several layers of shirts and had even added a blanket to my backpack, so I was more likely to sweat like crazy than to feel even the slightest bit chilly.

I looked around, revelling in the sight of the flowers and the water and the willow branches above my head. Reaching this spot hadn´t been easy, what with the uneven ground, but it had been worth it.

“Ugh, this place is crawling with ants!” An annoyed cry caught my attention. A girl from the nearest group of students was shaking her high-heeled shoes in disgust. Who on earth wears high heels to a picnic at the lake?

“This whole thing is stupid,” a guy agreed, hardly bothering to lower his voice.

“I could live with a get-to-know trip, but why do we have to sit around out here, in the middle of nowhere?” another girl grumbled. “Why couldn´t it be somewhere with Wi-Fi and no bugs? It´s not like we can play tag with her anyway-” She broke off, horrified, when she noticed that I was watching and hearing every word. I turned my head to stare up at the lush green leaves. She wasn´t wrong, after all.

My fists clenched. I expected tears to well in my eyes, but as always when I saw the branches of a willow, all thoughts and emotions gave way to the memory. Always the same memory. The same voice.

“You want to cycle to Eileen, in that kind of weather? You´ll be soaked! C´mon, I can drop you off at her place if you want.”

Such a simple decision.

“No need to thank me, sis.”

I was distracted from my thoughts by a movement among a cluster of people by the lake. A girl  with  long,  braided  brown  hair  had  got  up  and  walked  over  to  my quiet  spot  under  the willow.  I  couldn´t  remember  her  name,  but  I´d  noticed  that  she´d  looked  back  and  forth between the other kids and me when we arrived here, like she preferred to sit with her friends but also felt guilty about leaving me by myself.

I wasn´t surprised or offended by her final decision. I was still a near-stranger, after all. And no matter how open-minded most people thought they were, I knew that they didn´t speak as freely around me. There was always that one subject they tiptoed around when I was with them.

“Hi,” the girl said a bit timidly. “Do you mind if I join you?” “Not at all,”

She sat down next to me – probably following the advice of our teacher. A nice gesture, but it was more disorienting than if she´d remained standing. I was used to people looking down at me, not the other way around.

She pointed up at the tree. “Do you like willows?”

My gaze wandered upwards. The branches moved mesmerizingly in the wind. They looked like friendly arms to me, reaching out to provide comfort.

“I guess,” Easier to just say that.

In a half-hearted attempt to keep the conversation going, I added, “I once planted a willow sapling with my older brother in our garden when I was four.”

A painful stab, the crystal clear memory of a smiling face, frozen in time. I probably would´ve done better not to mention that specific story – or rather, that specific person.

“That sounds great. I always wanted to have a huge garden with lots of trees when I was younger. How big is the willow now?”

“It was cut down,” I said shortly.

“Oh, I´m sorry to hear that. Was it sick, or…?” Her voice trailed off.

“Not exactly, but…” Pressure started building in my chest. I had to be careful not to say too much, or I wouldn´t be able to hold back the memories. And I couldn´t afford a breakdown in the first week of school.

“It had to be removed.” That´s what my parents had said when I asked about it. Of course, the willow itself had been fine until then. But someone else hadn´t.

“Oh,” she said again, hands fidgeting with the rim of her sleeves. I could tell that she was searching for something to say, but more out of politeness than actual interest in our conversation. I appreciated the effort, but I had no wish to keep talking, either, so I just smiled at her and went back to losing myself in the maze of leaves. The green blots looked like coloured raindrops caught in mid-air. Rain. I could still hear it drumming against the window of the car, my brother sitting next to me behind the wheel and talking excitedly with that big, earnest grin on his face.

The girl cleared her throat and stood up.

“Um, I´ll go back to the others now. It was nice to talk with you, though!”

She smiled, but it took me a moment to realize that she wasn´t actually looking at my face. The friendly reply died in my throat. I just nodded.

I barely registered her departing footsteps. The sun was shining through the branches. Just like the light that had appeared so suddenly out of the misty rain and blinded my brother and me, followed by the sound of screeching tires. I experienced the impact again in my mind, remembered my body going weightless as the car around us flipped over, felt something sharp cutting into my arm, a blow to the head and then darkness. Even when I had come to again, there had been nothing. No pain, no feeling at all. No brother.

And when I returned home, the willow had been removed, too.

I don´t know for how long I sat there until the teacher came over, a smile painted on her face. Behind her, the other kids were packing their bags and backpacks, getting ready to leave.

“We have to get going now, I´m afraid. Did you enjoy the trip?” I nodded vaguely.

She gestured at the “Do you need help with –?” “I´m fine, thanks.”

With some effort, I managed to turn around and struggle back across the bumpy ground.

All the while, I could feel my classmates´ eyes on me. But they weren´t really looking at me. They couldn´t see the girl who liked to draw, the girl who owned a cat, the girl whose favourite colour was blue, who had a personality just like everyone else.

All they could and would ever see was my wheelchair.