by Adam Marx, Borehamwood, England.
The child’s face was cold, with a coating of frost and an icicle hanging off the end of her chin.
The sun glinted off her forehead in fits and starts as it peeked through the clouds, but it was too little to warm her.
It was January, after all, and it had been a cloudy winter.
Jules always cut through the park on her way to work, but she liked it best this time of year. She liked the way the sun made the patches of snow seem to be illuminated from below in the early morning burst of colour. She liked the way her breath misted out and up into the sky, a sign of life in the still and frozen world. Few people were out walking, meaning she had it more or less to herself.
The centrepiece of the park was the statue. The statue of the little girl. Violent hunks of metal jutting out in different directions as if it had burst through the ground, as if the earth itself had lashed out in anger.
And in the middle: the girl. The girl with the pleading look and the outstretched hand begging for it to stop. All of it.
The statue had been installed in the dark of night nearly two decades earlier, placed by a group of parents who’d lost children. Lost them to floods. Lost them to fires. Lost them to asthma attacks. Lost them to bad water, bad storms, bad drivers who didn’t see the children playing.
Lost them to the rush of society, unwilling to pause, to stop, to see what it was doing.
The authorities said they’d remove it by the end of the week.
But then people started coming.
The first one came around lunchtime, leaving a photo of her son, age 5. He’d been swept away in the floodwaters following a hurricane a couple of years earlier. Later, another, bringing flowers and a child’s teddy. Then more. And more.
There was the old man who left a photo of a family of five and a bulbous piece of mangled glass and stone. He’d lost his son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren when fires swept through their town out west. They’d been in their car trying to escape when the fires suddenly changed direction and overtook them. The glass was all that was left, the melted remains of an ornament he’d given them for the dashboard of their car. Something for them to remember him by, and which now served to remind him of them.
He’d come when he saw the memorial on the news. As did so many others.
When city workers finally arrived to remove the statue three days later, the crowd had grown, as had the remembrances. Photos, flowers, toys, cards, young and old, they all stretched out from the statue in a swirl of grief. Assembly and assemblage, alone and together.
Jules had been a little girl, just 4 at the time, but she remembered the moment. Television crews had begun camping out the day before, speaking with people who’d tell their stories of why they were there, who they’d lost, how far they’d travelled to see. To meet. To share. To mourn.
A hiss started in the back, a din rising as the workers tried to make their way through the crowd with their tools. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, one of the workers stumbled, knocking over a photo in a frame, shattering the glass and tearing the photo inside.
The man the worker had stepped around shouted, “NO!” and put his arm around his partner as they both began to weep.
The crowd, squeezing in tight, had turned and was now facing the workers. Wanting to avoid an altercation, the workers apologised and began backing away. Then one stopped and reached into his pocket, taking out a wallet. He removed a photo and set it among a nearby collection. Nodding at a family next to him, he turned back to face the statue, his eyes red.
Jules’ own parents had made the pilgrimage down to the site. Her twin sister had been killed 6 months prior when hit by a car while riding her bike. Jules herself had been injured in the accident and had only recently returned home from the hospital. The community had been complaining for years about how dangerous the road was and the lack of space for pedestrians and for children to play. Yet not even the death of Jules’ sister had seemed to be enough to spur action.
The city government realised after the failed removal attempt that destroying the statue and memorials would make for bad optics, particularly with an election weeks away. During a visit to the site, the mayor, flanked by council members, announced that the statue would not be destroyed, but rather would stay through the end of the year before being transferred to another location.
Instead of being greeted with gratitude, however, the mourners met the mayor with unmoved stares. Looking back to the city council members for help, the mayor fumbled with more platitudes as the crowd grew agitated and began inching towards them. Some began to chant. The mayor and council members hurriedly returned to their cars.
In the following weeks, similar memorials began popping up in towns and cities around the country, eventually spreading across the globe. Climate change, pollution, and unlivable cities, it had touched every community throughout the world. Every family, it seemed, had some connection: a home lost, an illness developed—a dangerous road.
Something fundamental had changed. An insistence that matters must be studied further, assurances that a future technology would save humanity, assertions that the needs of the economy had to be balanced against any changes required, these empty phrases were no longer met with a shrug.
The world couldn’t wait. The matters had been studied. The changes needed were themselves the needs of the economy.
It was only now, in sight of the statues and personal memorials, that the scale of the pain and fear and suffering had become apparent. What had been unspoken, what had been private grief, was now shared in the open, one’s own personal tragedy interlocked with everyone else’s.
Governments began to commit themselves to fund a full transfer to renewable forms of energy. In the following year, a series of emergency meetings were convened and a global carbon tax was announced. Subsidies for fossil fuels were effectively prohibited.
Cities around the world drew up plans to redesign them for life, not merely for commerce. Trees. Bike lanes. Walking paths. Community gardens. Mutual aid organisations sprang up where governments were too slow to take action.
In the nearly twenty years since, those initial moments of shared grief had come to be seen as the inflection point. Not a single big wake-up call, but rather a cacophony of individual alarms that cried out in unison, shaking society’s foundations and moving people to create change.
There were still countless problems to be solved and much work to be done, but the progress since that time was undeniable.
Jules climbed between the hunks of metal and sat down alongside the statute of the girl. Taking a sip of her coffee, she looked out across the snow-dusted grass to a tree. A squirrel ran down its trunk and began digging, looking for a nut it had buried.
Jules felt a drop of water land on the back of her neck. Turning, she looked up at the girl’s face. The sun had risen higher now, and the icicle had begun to melt.
She fumbled in her coat pocket and pulled out a small chocolate.
“Coconut and almond,” she said. “Sorry, it’s all that was left. I’ll pick up a new box after work. You can have one of the ones with caramel filling tomorrow.”
She unwrapped the chocolate and placed it at the girl’s feet.
Glancing back over the grass, she saw the squirrel carrying a nut back to the tree, having found its store of food.
Jules stood up and touched the girl’s upraised palm, lingering momentarily before walking back to her bike. Swinging one leg over, she turned around and smiled, saying, “Bye, Maggie. See you again tomorrow—same time, same place?”
The sound of bicycle bells signalled that other riders had begun to make their way through the park. Jules pushed forward, the cold air invigorating her.
The sun emerged from behind a cloud and took its place in a blue ocean of sky.