by Skid Crease
Note, this story was inspired by a collaborative story writing exercise at a recent SNAP West Bolton “Thought Leaders” workshop.
This is dedicated to the inspiration of facilitator Hilary Van Welter, CEO of Ascentia, choreographers guiding context to create content
The dark grey of the morning mist had begun to lift when Raju finally got out of bed. As usual, it was almost 11:00 am before his feet touched the bare floor and he would have stayed under the covers longer except for the hunger in his belly.
He had run out of Ramen noodles two days ago, but the thought of going out shopping in public – that staring, judging, superior public – had driven him further under the covers. Now he had no choice. Reluctantly, he pulled on some jeans and a fleece hoodie from the pile of clothes on the floor. Then he went to the bathroom sink, splashed some cold water on his face, and did a quick finger comb through hair that badly needed a shampoo. He slipped into his sandals, pulled on a baseball cap, and opened the door.
The hallway was empty as he quietly slipped down the staircase of the old rooming house and into the side alley. He knew how to avoid most of the madding crowds and this route would bring him past the old park. He liked this park because no one played there anymore. It seemed the town had grown up around it and people had forgotten the park was there.
Raju did not like people, or the conversations of people, or the constant scrutiny of people. He had found himself in this small town when he moved out of his home. Moved out? That was overly polite! Driven out would be more like it. Driven out by a domineering father who kept pushing him to higher grades, better jobs, greater success – nothing he did was ever good enough. Driven out by an obsessive mother who questioned every choice he made, every place he went, everything he said and did.
Then one day he snapped. He screamed at his mother, “If I wanted to be questioned every day by the Gestapo, I’d go back in time to Nazi Germany! Tell Father I quit. He can get another lump of clay to mold into his own image!”
And with those words, Raju left, only a backpack hastily stuffed with a few clothes and his favourite childhood story, Hope for the Flowers, he left. He rode his bike to the regional bus commuter lot, ended up on a bus heading north, and got off when his fare was up. A stranger in a strange new land where no one knew him, and he wanted it that way. Raju had started on a deep spiral down, and he was nearing the bottom of the pit.
Rachel was on her way to save the world. Well, not all at once, but one person at a time would suit her just fine. Rachel had a gift. She was a fairy godmother. Not in a cartoon “pumpkins to carriages” kind of sense, but in a “humbug to holiday spirit” kind of sense.
Rachel was simply the kind of person who could see the best in everyone. If she had been in a Star Wars movie, she definitely would have been on the Light side of the Force, drawing on all of the creative and positive energy around her to brighten the world.
Rachel had been born this way. Nothing in her growing up should have nurtured such an optimistic force of nature. Her father, a wonderful storyteller, had died when she was quite young, and Rachel had grown up with a mother who drowned her sorrow in a variety of drugs from alcohol to heroine, finally succumbing to opiod addiction a few years ago. Throughout it all, Rachel had found the higher ground, always remembering her father’s last words to her, “Remember Rachel, on the darkest day, the sun is always shining somewhere in our universe.”
Today she was going to bring that sunshine to someone.
The sun finally broke out through the clearing mists and shone down on the little town. It was particularly bright on an old neglected property. Where there should have been a vacant park, there were crowds of smiling people of all ages. Where there should have been barren ground, there were rows upon rows of plants growing – sunflowers and kale and tomatoes and cucumbers- almost every garden variety you could imagine! Where there should have been no place to rest, there were benches under beautiful shade trees.
Chloe had made all of this possible. Her family had fallen upon hard times in the recent past. The trickle-down economy hadn’t trickled down to them. Between the high energy costs, and the high transportation costs, and the low minimum wage, times were tough and food was often scarce, so Chloe had promised herself that one day she would build a garden, a wonderful garden where people would come to grow food and laugh and play and never be hungry or sad again.
That dream didn’t fade when Chloe was taken away to become a ward of the Children’s Aid. And now that dream was alive today. When Chloe was very young she had seen a movie on TV called The Field of Dreams and there was a line from the movie that became her cornerstone in life: “If you build it they will come.” She had built her field of dreams, and they were coming.
Raju and Rachel saw the poster at the same time. The words: “Free food at Chloe’s Community Gardens” had caught Raju’s attention. The location indicated it was at the old park that was never crowded. Bonus – avoid people, save money and get fed. It was not the poster, but rather Raju’s slumped posture and shuffling gait had caught Rachel’s attention. She knew immediately which heart and spirit she was going to touch today.
As Raju turned toward the community gardens path, Rachel deliberately stepped in front of him. Taken aback, he moved to one side, but Rachel moved with him. ‘Hello,” was all she said. It wasn’t what she said, but rather the sweetness of her voice that made him look up. He found himself staring into clear blue eyes that held his attention like landing lights.
Without flinching she smiled right back into his deep brown eyes. “I’m all alone,” she said, “May I walk with you to the Gardens?”
Raju, who had not spoken to anyone besides his landlord for months, simply nodded, “Yes.”
They moved along the path in silence for a while, Rachel sensing a troubled spirit beside her. At one point, she stumbled and caught his arm for support. Instinctively, Raju reached out with his other hand to steady her. Their eyes met again. “I have been there too,” was all that Rachel said, not taking her eyes off of Raju.
He stood frozen like a deer in the headlights, and then an amazing thing happened. A single tear appeared in the corner of Raju’s left eye. “The window to the soul,” whispered Rachel. And she took his hand as they continued their walk. Raju walked beside her, as meekly as a lamb, all of his anger suddenly gone.
As they turned the final corner to the old park, they were met by an amazing sight. There were people everywhere, young and old, gardening, playing, dancing, sitting quietly – and there at the entrance stood Chloe, waving them forward.
“Welcome to my Gardens, “ said Chloe, “The Gardens of a Beautiful Mind.”
“But,” stammered Raju, “This is incredible! This place has been abandoned for years!”
“If you build it, they will come,” laughed Chloe.
“Hello,” said Rachel, introducing herself, “This is a beautiful place. I can feel the happiness everywhere.”
“Yes,” said Chloe, “We all need a space where we can be happy. And you are?” she asked turning to the wide-eyed young man beside Rachel.
“Raju,” he whispered under his breath, and then more clearly, “Raju.” For the first time in years a genuine smile spread slowly across his face.
“I am so happy you are both here,” smiled Chloe, “Please visit our Community Feast of Fields table – there is always plenty of food for everyone.”
Rachel was still holding his hand. “Come on, Raju, let’s get something to eat. You look like you could use a good meal.” Without any resistance, Raju walked hand in hand with Rachel to the table that looked more like the Cornucopia of Plenty than an old park picnic table. “This is amazing,” exclaimed Raju.
“Yes indeed,” said Rachel wisely, “Isn’t it good to be back?”
Raju looked puzzled, but only for a moment, “Yes,” he smiled, “It is good to be back.”
After their feast, Rachel and Raju walked the gardens, weeding a little here, planting a little there, and sharing stories all the while. Raju was feeling the weight of the world lift from his shoulders, and Rachel was feeling she was fulfilling her life’s purpose. Raju even found himself climbing a tree again to see the whole gardens,
“Rachel,” he shouted down, “I haven’t done this since I was a little kid!” Rachel simply smiled knowingly. They stayed until the light was fading and the gardens began to dim. It was time to go.
“Come back tomorrow,” Chloe called out as all the visitors slowly left the Gardens. She hugged Rachel and Raju as if she never wanted them to leave her.
“Thank you,” spoke Raju from the bottom of his heart. Rachel smiled her sunshine smile at Chloe and took Raju’s hand as they left. “Numquam obliviscar,” whispered Rachel. “What does that mean?” asked Raju. Rachel smiled, “It’s a Latin quote from a story my father used to tell me, “I will never forget.”
The Supervisor appeared at the edge of the walkway, “Chloe,” she called. “It’s time to come back!”
Another Supervisor joined her. “Honestly, I don’t know what she sees in that old park! Nothing there but weeds and broken benches.”
“It makes her happy,” said the first Supervisor. “That’s enough.”
Chloe waved goodbye to her friends as her Beautiful Garden faded into mist once again. Happily, she took the Supervisor’s hand and headed back to the Adam Wallace Memorial Care Centre.
In a quiet corner of the old park, a butterfly was emerging from its chrysalis.