Earth Day 2019 Short Story Winner
The winning story for the Bear With Me Books Short Story Competition is The Last Straw, by writing team The EV & Commando Jugendstil, based between Milano, Italy, and the UK.
We were looking for planet-based stories about people or animals making an attempt to impact their environment in a positive way. The Last Straw delivered with a story of a not-too-distant future where the latest abuse of power from an unchecked administration makes a neighbourhood band together and give rise to a re-wilding society, a society where people become the gardeners and protectors of their land.
Stories about the environment are stories for everyone. Tales from The EV & Commando Jugendstil tell us that, “since the environmental issues we're all facing also have their roots in social issues, we propose visions where both the environment and society have evolved - or are evolving - to become a better version of themselves, a version where they're working together to create a virtuous cycle”.
Here's their story.
The last Straw
“Three! Two! One… Pull, neighbours! Pull!” the elderly Philipino lady who owns the local laundry yells into the pink megaphone she has bought especially for the occasion.
Ropes creak and tense as teams of people with electric cars and bikes rev their engines in unison. The concrete cracks and fissures with a sound like fireworks, and then the three-meter tall, green metal fence recently installed by the Mayor topples to the ground amid a chorus of applause and exultation.
The teams hoist the fence out of the way and move on to the awful statue standing on an equally ugly plinth in the middle of the green, while a few younger kids with slings and stones take care of the security cameras.
Hot on their heels come the restorers, with bags of wildflower seeds and pots of native plants.
After the disaster wrought by the Mayor’s so-called gardeners, they have months of hard work in front of them to heal the garden enough that it will be able to rewild itself to the levels it had reached before. Hopefully, come spring, that patch of earth will be overrun with flowering herbs, with bees, with butterflies, with songbirds and maybe even with an owl or two.
A group of youngsters has managed to salvage the old benches from the scrap heap and is trying to install them in the newly planned water meadow area, while aquaculture experts from the University re-home gobies, chubs and sticklebacks into the little karst lake that has grown out of a botched building foundation when the machines dug into one of the many aquifers that run close to the surface in the Pianura Padana.
As reclamation operations go, even the neighbours have to admit that it is pretty extreme, but, after all that had been said and done about the fact that people need to take a leading role in ensuring sustainable futures, the Mayor and his cronies had it coming for fencing away yet another public green space for reasons of "noise prevention and public decorum".
Gods forbid if people were actually allowed to enjoy public spaces instead of having to traverse them as quickly as possible en route from one place to the next!
Can you imagine it? People sitting together, doing their own things? Young folks aggregating with a couple of bottles of beer and a sandwich, talking and singing and making friends? Old ladies knitting and chatting next to the streetlight? Children playing in a true urban wilderness?
And all of this for free and without access restrictions or gatekeeping?
What next? Cats and dogs sleeping together? Fountains of wine and sausages growing on trees?
Since they could not monetise or control the lake, the local authorities, thought it better to fence it off and plant some security cameras around the perimeter for good measure, so that people wouldn't be tempted to force the gate and reclaim their space.
In their minds that was just the first step in the "regeneration" of the neighbourhood, a multi-million gravy train that would "uplift" the area, attracting "aspirational" young urban professionals, sending housing costs through the roof and displacing, as a consequence, the current working-class inhabitants.
The pillars of the neighbourhood would crumble as a result, priced out of their homes and shops, from Mr Hani the Egyptian pizzaiolo, whose son organises the local theatre, to Aunt Gemma the baker, who also reads tarot and dispenses amulets and advice on the side, to Mr Giordano, the last luthier in the whole of Milano, who lives in a semi-basement with his collection of string instruments and gives free music lessons to the kids of the local comprehensive school.
There were already talks of closing the weekly open-air market, which was the heart of the neighbourhood with its cheap, hearty wares, its festive atmosphere and all the opportunities to gossip and negotiate, but which was considered noisy, dirty and "unsightly" by the snobs in the Mayor’s office, and replacing it with yet another hipster “artisan market” in another overpriced, soulless post-industrial development scheme filled with designer boutiques and sushi bars.
Their plan was well-oiled and tested, based on the old divide et impera principle, on instigating insecurity and pitting the elderly against the young, the employed against the unwaged, on dissecting the population based on skin colour and religion, of sowing suspicion and turning neighbours into enemies competing for limited resources, more ready to put their trust in the shiny, aseptic future promised by the politicians than to put up with the people who live next to them.
It worked so many times before that they just assumed the neighbours would take it passively, just as they had taken countless other abuses of power by those who were supposed to have their best interest in mind.
People are too cynical from years of being let down by politicians of every stripe and political colour to unite effectively, they must have told themselves. They’re too ignorant to realise what is happening just under their noses, too overworked to care about anything but the next pay check and their own individual problems.
If they didn’t pip about the fact that the project to build the European Library had been scrapped in favour of more luxury condos, they won’t care about a mere green area, they must have thought.
What they didn’t realise is that that green space is a symbol of all the things that they have already lost, of all the things they stand to lose, of their identity, of their future, which are being ripped away piece by piece, like the three, much-graffitied benches where they used to sit, like the loquat bushes that shaded them and bore bright orange, juicy fruits every year in May, turned into so much kindling, and like the bloodied carcass of Topazio, the friendly, lonely nutria who used to live in the lake, subsisting on loquat fruit, grass and vegetable scraps brought over from the kitchens of the whole neighbourhood.
They took what made that place special, what made it theirs, and replaced it with a ring-fenced, ridiculously manicured lawn and the ugly, self-referential sculpture they commissioned from whoever it was to give their "improvement" scheme some artistic credit.
That and the pettiness of it was something people could not forgive and would not forget.
The one thing that the so-called urban planners on the Mayor’s team had forgotten in their quest for self-interest and profit is that the camel’s back doesn’t break from the bulk of the load, but from one tiny, insignificant, last straw.
People have organised and have taken to the streets together, the workers from the factories and those from the offices, the nuns from the local Catholic school and the Dodecatheists from the temple on the boulevard, schoolchildren and pensioners, drag queens and hijabi ladies, in all their different shades of pink and brown and deep obsidian, with their dogs and cats, their barbecues and musical instruments, and all their anger turned into determination, into defiance, into hope.
The workers from the local bus and tram deposit have pulled up the paving on the roads around the lake and a mixed troop of elderly ladies and gardeners has started planting all sorts of flowers and edible plants in the newly-uncovered soil.
A team of botanists has brought in more bushes, hardy loquats and apricots and peaches, and then apples and pears and oranges and a couple of young persimmon trees.
They tried to take away their wilderness, so they’ll take it back and make it even bigger, better, more beautiful and more useful, able to provide both a habitat for native wildlife and food for the neighbourhood.
That place belongs to them all, the citizens, not to some abstract idea of citizenship, not to an institution that magnanimously allows them to use it.
It’s their life, their land, their future and they’ll take care of it together and watch it grow, half-wild and resilient, like them.
Other squares and non-places in the neighbourhood are receiving the same treatment: pavements are pulled up, conversation-starter statues are torn down, trees are planted, and the nothingness of transit is replaced with comfortable benches, chairs, tables, where people can sit down and think, in their own time, in their own terms, and talk together, telling new stories about themselves and their neighbours, about the way their new world should work.
It feels so right that they can’t imagine how they could have lived any other way.
Assemblies spring up spontaneously at every corner. The neighbours propose to use part of the new gardens for allotments, to establish beekeeping and rainwater collection schemes, to generate their own power with DIY solar panels and wind turbines, everything that the Mayor has always refused them.
A few people are already making them from what they could find in the recycling bins and with the help of the students from the local colleges and the University, because the truth is that they don’t need his blessing or say-so. They don’t need anything but their hands and their imagination. They don’t need anyone but each other.
Maybe their homemade kit won’t be as efficient as store-bought products, but there will be so much of it that it won’t matter. It will be everywhere, a part of the new life of the neighbourhood just as much as the market and the gardens.
The owner of the local art shop hands out cans of paint, brushes and rolls and soon enough the grey walls of the buildings start blossoming with colour.
Here a huge mural celebrates Topazio, showing him next to his lake in the plenitude of spring, with a tiny crown of whitish flowers on his head and a huge, golden loquat fruit in his paws, black eyes sparkling with joy.
“Topazio Lives and Fights in Our Hearts,” the mural reads.
People are leaving offerings at the foot of it, a flower, a piece of fruit, a head of cabbage. The Dodecatheists have declared him a genius loci and promised they will tribute him heroic cult where he was martyred. He will not be forgotten.
On another wall a majestic wave, all blue and green and silver, crests over a grey concrete wall, pouring all over a parking and a mall, scattering cars and wares and leaving bicycles and gardens in their place.
“We are the river, you are the dam,” a cartouche reads.
“Sol Lucet Omnibus Aequaliter,” the Sun shines equally for everybody, another cartouche says, emblazoned on a huge freestanding solar stela made of coloured perovskite, from which thick cables trail. The members of local activist group Commando Jugendstil are finishing off the installation and, come morning, as the Sun starts shining on it, it will convert light into energy and power a rack of converted electric bikes for communal use.
The main streets partially barricaded with flower-beds, concrete barriers and buses, the only ways in and out of the neighbourhood are the cycle paths and the public transport, whose workers have immediately declared for the revolt.
There are rumours that other neighbourhoods are following their example, that they too are rising, rejecting the system that has trapped them in their houses, herded them in offices and malls and taken their streets, their city away from them.
The atmosphere is frantic and joyous. The neighbours don’t know how long it’s going to last before they put an end to it, but, before it happens, they will drink to the dredges from the cup of freedom, they will show the city and the country that they are not sheep to be led, but people who have decided to take responsibility for their city, for their land, for the place they call home, and who will never be subjects again.
The assembly has decided: if by any chance they win, if their dream resists, the lake will become an urban nature preserve, and if they lose, as it’s more likely, it will be one last act of defiance. The gardeners are standing by with seed bombs filled to the brim with mint and blackberry seeds, and they will deploy them at the first sign of police invasion.
If that botanic ultima ratio is fired, by summer they will have to use flamethrowers to have a chance to get rid of the sharp-smelling leaves and thorny vines, and the gardeners are pretty sure that the plants would still win that particular battle.
In time, whether their rebellion turns into the new, improved normal for the neighbourhood, or the system closes their jaws around them once more, the garden will still become a wild tangle, home to songbirds, butterflies and, once the plants are thick enough, maybe another friendly rodent, or maybe a whole family, will take residence in the lake, taking the mantle of Topazio.
Revenge will be sweet and aromatic.
The aim is to make people aware of the fact that an alternative is possible, that a happy ending can still be written: it's a matter of knowledge and collaboration and you'll always find both in our stories.