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.