I am writing you today with some sad news. My father, Frank Gedberg, passed away earlier this year after a skiing accident left him without the use of his legs and kickstarted a previously latent neurodegenerative disorder. While I don’t suspect anyone at your magazine really knew my father, I’m sure his name is familiar to you and his absence was felt in your last call for submissions.
My father loved your publication. He saved every copy from the last 30 years and they remain in great condition, in piles of varying heights in what is now my mother’s living room. Save for a few ripped pages from when he couldn’t resist gifting a story or poem to someone he thought needed it more than he did, all issues are accounted for in their entirety. He reread them often and with the utmost excitement. During his last few months, he felt no greater joy than when he received his monthly delivery of your publication (well that, and his medical marijuana prescription).
As you probably know, he was a prolific writer, churning out story after story in time for your quarterly call for submissions. I’ve lost track of how many times he’s submitted, but I know for sure it’s been at least ten years and ten times four is forty so it’s entirely likely that you’ve read forty of his short stories, which you have to admit is quite a lot from one guy.
Despite all those submissions— all that writing, editing and formatting to your weird guidelines— Frank Gedberg was never, EVER accepted for publication. Don’t get me wrong, he, and by extension the whole family, have greatly appreciated your commitment to writing personalized and generally positive feedback to him in your rejection letters, but for fucks sake! You couldn’t have published just one of his stories in the last decade?! Not one????? Look, I’m not writing to berate anyone’s editorial decisions because I get it, you have rules. And while Frank was an ok fiction writer, he totally sucked at sticking to “the rules” so believe me when I say that I get it. No matter how good his stories were, they weren’t under 5000 words and that is your word limit so that’s that. No exceptions. I get it. In some ways, I even respect your commitment to stories 4999 words and under, but, honestly, you could’ve just made one tiny exception. I’m sure it wouldn’t have killed you. Maybe around year eight someone could’ve said, “hey, let’s throw this Frank guy a bone and publish this! It’s not half bad and its only 500 words over the limit!” Why the fuck not? Do you know how happy it would have made him to get published??!! Do you somehow lose money if you go over your precious word limit?
Anyway, believe it or not, I’m not writing this email to shame anyone in the name of my dead dad. He was a flawed man and honestly, his borderline obsession with your magazine was annoying. I’m writing you this email because I’m sending in one last submission, one final literary hurrah from the late Frank Gedberg. I found the attached unfinished story while cleaning up his office and thought it would be an appropriate last submission from your number one fan. In its current unfinished state, it clocks in at just over 7500 words. Way over your word limit, but if my dad could hold onto hope and send in too-long stories for a whole decade, I figure I can do it just once to honour his admittedly absurd perseverance.
Publish it if you want, or don’t. I don’t care. If you do publish it, please donate your paltry $100 writer’s fee to Oakhill Memorial Hospital in memory of my dad, Frank Gedberg, the writer.
Mayra Flenk (née Gedberg)
P.S. In honour of my father we will not be unsubscribing from your magazine, however nobody here reads it anymore so please let me know by email if you actually publish this story. My mom would be thrilled.
Carefully Reading (working title)
The Republic of Gendana and The Island of Swamingo have been at war for nineteen years (so far) because one afternoon, the Princess of Swamingo got bored and decided to try her hand at email scamming. She made a fake email address, email@example.com, and then got to writing. She wrote that she was a nine-year-old orphan girl, named Clara, from the recently flooded nation of Carnadgo and that she had lost her parents when they went out to find food for their starving family and never returned. Clara was now destitute and down to her very last Smung Fruit, which she planned to split evenly with her five siblings. Clara needed money for a train ticket down south to find her grandparents. The email ended with, “Might ya please spare 5 bucks to help a girl out? With Love & Blessings, Clara” and included a link to send money to a PayPal account that the princess of Swamingo had one of her maids register with the name Clara. Once she finished writing the body of the email, she began thinking of who she should send it too. The Princess of Swamingo checked her personal email for inspiration and saw the last thing in her inbox was a love letter from the son of the president of the Republic of Gendana, Felix@Gendana.gov. Perfect, she thought. I’ll send this to all the first names I can think of @gendana.gov.
The Princess spent the rest of the afternoon making a list of 298 first names and then got a maid to put all of those names with @gendana.gov into Clara’s contact list. Then the Princess bcc’d everyone and went downstairs to have supper with her parents.
Unbeknownst to the Princess, the President of Gendana got the email at the tail end of an arduous day-long budget meeting. He glanced down at his phone and saw the words “Clara” and “Carnadgo” in the notification, so he opened it because he has a cousin named Clara in Carnadgo. He skimmed the email and saw she needed money, so he quickly sent off $3000 and closed his phone. Anything for family, he thought, before redirecting his attention back to the budget meeting. His Vice President leaned over and said to stop texting and focus so they could finally finish the meeting. The President assured him that he wasn’t texting, he was merely helping his cousin Clara in Carnadgo who needed money.
Later that night, while checking his emails one last time before bed, the vice president also saw the email from Clara, connected the dots, and sent her $2000 under the impression that he was doing his part to help the President’s family.
Back at work the next day, the Vice President told the Secretary of State about poor Clara and she remembered she had also gotten a similar email and felt excited about being close enough to the president to get involved in his family business. At lunch, she too sent Clara $2000 and included a message asking if there was anything else the Gendanian government could do for her in these trying times. By the end of the day, word had spread around parliament and all the top Gendanian officials had sent Clara money, happy to help the family of their beloved President.
The Princess watched as the number in Clara’s PayPal account rose and rose. By 7pm on the day after she sent the email, the Princess of Swamingo had made an astounding $41,300. In her mind, she had earned the money for being so talented at writing emails. The Princess spent all of two minutes wondering why the poor Swamingans down in the valley complained so much of high living costs when making money was, as it turned out, quite an easy thing to do. Maybe nobody ever taught them how to do it, thought the Princess with a sympathetic sigh. It occurred to her that, as the Princess, it was her duty to help the poor people by sharing her unprecedented money-making knowledge, so she asked a maid to research how to start up a school. The maid nodded obediently and left the room while the Princess transferred Clara’s money into her own account and congratulated herself on having so many wonderful ideas.
A week later, and having never actually read the whole email, the President of Gendana called up his cousin Clara to see how the family was getting on after the big flood. Clara said their house was thankfully spared, being so high up on a hill, and things were more or less business as usual for her. The President was confused. “But your email! I thought you needed money?” Clara had no idea what he was talking about. The President promptly hung up and found the email. His Clara wasn’t 9. His Clara wasn’t an orphan. He’d been tricked! Well, he thought, at least is was only $3000. He decided not to dwell on his mistake and hoped the person that received the money was of age to vote in the next election.
Over lunch that afternoon, the President told the Vice President about his silly mistake. “Can you believe it? Shows how brutal that budget meeting was—by the end of it I was giving away cash to anyone who asked for it!” he said with a chuckle. The Vice President nearly choked on his sandwich. “You said your cousin Clara in Carnadgo needed help! Why would you tell me that without reading the email?!” The Vice President then revealed to the President that he too had sent Clara money and had also talked to the finance minister about it. Over the next few hours, the President learned that every top official in the land of Gendana had sent someone named Clara, who was not, in fact, related to him in any way, a total of $41 300. Taking full responsibility for catalyzing this mass duping, he quickly hired the best IT people in all of Gendana to figure out to whom the money went. Within minutes, they traced the email and the PayPal account to the Royal Castle of Swamingo. The President called the Queen and demanded an explanation. The Queen, having no knowledge of the emails or anyone named Clara, assumed she herself was being tricked and promptly hung up the phone. Meanwhile, the Gendanian officials were getting increasingly angry about the whole thing. Conspiracy theories started to spread through parliament. Did the president do this on purpose? Is he strapped for cash because of a gambling addiction or an illicit affair? Is he in cahoots with Swamingo? Having caught wind of these rumors and deciding to do something about it, the President called a parliament-wide meeting and offered an explanation. He admitted to making a careless mistake by not reading the email carefully enough and offered to personally reimburse anyone who gave money to Clara.
Nobody believed him.
Soon, news of the Clara email scam reached the general public and the conspiracy theories and allegations that had proliferated in parliament increased tenfold among the civilians. Gendanians began calling for the removal of the President since it was clear he was unfit to handle the country’s budget. The President held a press conference and, again, assured people it was an honest mistake that simply showed he was one of them – flawed and willing to own up to his shortcomings and, more importantly, make amends. Again, nobody believed him. The people started demanding that they receive free government money since clearly all of the officials had a lot of extra cash on hand.
After the third worker’s strike, when thousands of people walked off their jobs to gather on the lawn of Parliament and demand $41 300, the President called a secret meeting with the country’s top strategists to figure out a plan. They decided that the best thing to do would be to establish a common enemy to redirect the people’s growing hatred. The obvious choice for an enemy was, of course, Swamingo. They did, after all, have concrete proof that the scam originated from the castle, despite the Queen’s denial. Once they decided on an enemy, the strategists came up with a 20-step, multi-million-dollar plan that would effectively turn everyone in Gendana into Swamingan-hating robots. They hired writers and tv crews to make several shows starring Swamingan villians. They hired advertising people to insert subtle, hateful messages into 65% of all commercials and print ads in the land. They got all the professional sports organizations to amend their athlete’s contracts so that they legally had to talk smack about the Swamingan teams in interviews. They even teamed up with psychiatrists and audio engineers to craft anti-Swamingo subliminal messages that would appear in sixteen of Gendana’s top forty hit songs that season. Finally, when the President spoke on the news and in press conferences, he made sure to consistently, yet subtly, reference Gendanian superiority over the Island of Swamingo.
As planned, within two months, the people of Gendana were making and disseminating their own anti-Swamingo propaganda and had largely forgotten about the whole Clara email thing. The strategists reconvened over some champagne and Smung Fruit cake to celebrate and decide what to do next. It was determined that in order to really drive the point home and re-instill trust in the President, he should now declare war on Swamingo. The next day, at one of his many press conferences, the President of Gendana declared war on the Island of Swamingo and everyone cheered and cheered.
The first seven years of the nineteen (so far) war were violent and bloody. Civilian casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands on both sides, although it is generally regarded that the worst loss in these seven years was the world’s supply of Smung Fruit. In fact, the fighting only stopped when forty-six other countries signed a pact stating that if Gendana continued marching their soldiers all over the Smung Fruit crop, they’d go to war with Gendana with the collective force of all their armies. Not wanting to get pulverized, Gendana retreated and the next twelve years of the war mostly consisted of Gendana hurling existential threats at Swamingo from a distance. The Pact, while a valiant effort from the 46 countries, was not clear enough in its language to actually end the war. It merely demanded that Gendana immediately halt all activities that directly affected Smung Fruit. So while physically out of Swamingo, Gendana was still free to wield their might by threatening the much poorer island with chemical weapons that may or may not affect the Smung Fruit crop.
When the Smung Fruit pods died during those first seven years of battle the world experienced incalculable suffering. This is because Smung Fruit, while wildly in demand from all corners of the earth, is a highly temperamental plant that no one has ever been able to grow outside of Swamingo. Scientists in labs all over the world have tried growing synthetic Smung Fruit, but to no avail. It never came out quite right. Farmers in neighbouring islands tried too, believing their proximity to Swamingo meant that they could grow a comparable Smung, but, as the world soon found out, it was only in the soil of Swamingo that the Smung Fruit could properly grow.
It took three years for the pods to replenish and an additional year for the harvest to return to its pre-war bounty, which meant that the world was Smungless for 11 long years. Now, 8 years later, people are still lamenting those terrible times, using the experience as a potent allegory to warn of the unspeakable harm caused entirely by not reading things carefully enough.
Recently though, there have been whispers that a secret lab in Gendana has made unprecedented progress on the development of synthetic Smung Fruit. If Gendana were able to succeed in creating their own Smung, it would effectively mean they could wipe out Swamingo once and for all without going against the treaty. Afterall, the treaty only said they had to protect Smung Fruit, not necessarily the whole Island of Swamingo. As rumors spread about the prospect of a legitimate Synthetic Smung, an interesting ethical dilemma arose. Since Swamingo technically started the war, shouldn’t they suffer the consequences? If Gendana can grow Smung, might it be worth it to just end this silly war and move on? Some people argued that yes, it would be worth it, as long as the Smung stayed.
Naturally, these discussions made Swamingo quite paranoid.
Halfway across the world, news of the possible development of high-quality Gendanian synthetic Smung Fruit reached a journalist named Slip Stilwak. Slip, a man in his early fifties, had had a prestigious twenty-five-year career of reporting on some of the most horrific wars, violent conflicts and mass uprisings the world has ever seen. He was in the thick of it during year six of the Gendana-Swamingo war. In fact, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his resulting five-part article, titled, “Fields of Death: A Story of Smung and Soldiers”. When his source in Gendana recently sent him the tip about the possibility of synthetic Smung Fruit, Slip rolled his eyes and thought, pfshttt, I’ll believe it when I see it. After all, rumors of synthetic Smung Fruit were a dime a dozen these days.
Then, a few days later, Slip’s Swamingan source reported that things were growing tense and the rumors coming out of Gendana about their synthetic Smung seemed different than the others. Apparently, through a complicated hydroponic process, Gendanian scientists were able to grow synthetic Smung Fruit that had the exact same smell as that of Swamingo Smung, which, up until then, was an insurmountable hurdle in growing the fruit in a lab. The smell, although known to change month to month depending on rainfall, had a lemon-y, caramel-y, cedar-y smell that evaded all replication even when the look, feel and taste of synthetic Smung were technically correct. Most historians agreed that the seeming impossibility of replicating the smell of Smung Fruit, and not the Pact signed by forty-six nations, was what gave Swamingans confidence and belief in their future prosperity and safety. But now that Gendana had quite possibly synthesized the very thing that made Swamingan Smung and, by extension, Swamingo, worth protecting, Swamingans were, in the words of the most famous Swamingan YouTuber, “Really completely freaking the fuck out”. Many were even considering moving elsewhere and many more were demanding swift action from the Crown.
The way most Swamingans saw things, borders needed to close as soon as possible to limit any foreigners coming in and taking the freshest Smung Fruit back to their labs for analysis. Swamingans also feared that a whole bunch of Gendanian military personnel were already living undercover in Swamingo, ready to fight as soon as the perfect-smelling synthetic Smung hit the markets. In other words, everyone was a suspect. People were particularly distrustful of all foreigners and while the government had not completely closed the borders, airports were starting to limit international travel as paranoia increased amongst civilians.
Well, thought Slip, I better leave for Swamingo quickly then.
Slip called his editor and shared what his Swamingan source had told him. His editor, having just watched the “really completely freaking the fuck out” video, agreed that Slip should leave right away to get in on the ground floor of this breaking story. Slip hung up the phone, grabbed his already packed suitcase and hailed a cab to the airport.
After twelve long hours, most of which were spent brushing up on the intricacies of the Gendanian/Swamingo conflict, Slip landed on the sunny Island of Swamingo. He stepped off the plane and paused a second to face the shining sun and once again breathe in the clean island air. As he opened his eyes, Slip focused in on two large Swamingan police officers marching towards him.
“Hello officers! Gorgeous weather today, eh?” Slip had decided that an excessively casual and relaxed attitude would be his best bet in gaining trust from Swamingan locals. Not that it would be difficult. Most townspeople were familiar with him from his many TV appearances after his Pulitzer win. It was for this reason that Slip felt taken aback when neither policeman engaged in small talk. Without saying a word, one policeman grabbed Slip’s bag from the ground while the other placed a firm hand between Slip’s shoulder blades.
“Walk,” said the officer with his hand on Slip, applying slight pressure that made Slip, a man of waifish and jittery disposition, stumble forward. Slip regained his composure as the officer pointed towards the vast expanse of the tarmac, away from the crowd of plane passengers waiting for the shuttle into the central airport.
“Excuse me, but where are we going?” Slip asked, trying to sound calm as he struggled to keep up with the officers’ steady pace. The Swamingans turned around and uttered a one-word response that Slip did not understand on account of not speaking Swamingan. As they rounded the corner and proceded further away from the arrival gates, Slip took his phone out of his pocket and shot off a text to Ramwa, his usual Swamingan translator, while keeping a close eye on the officers in front of him. The text read:
Ram war, police are taking me somewhere from plane. Pleas come to airport and help me from mess.
Slip hit send. Though just as he was putting his phone back in his pocket, one of the officers turned around and began yelling. The other officer swiftly pulled out a gun and aimed it at Slip, while the yelling officer gestured towards Slip’s phone. Slip quickly handed it over and repeatedly apologized in English while putting both hands up to show he meant no harm. The officer with the phone looked at the screen, saw it was locked and gestured for Slip to unlock it. Since there was still a gun pointed at him, Slip did as he was told. Once the phone was unlocked, the officer put away the gun and gestured Slip to continue following them.
“Walk,” he said, more sternly than the first time.
The officers slowed their pace as they huddled over Slip’s phone, presumably looking at pictures and scrolling through emails. While this allowed Slip to keep up with them more easily, he couldn’t see what they were doing on his phone over their broad shoulders. At one point, the officers erupted with laughter. At another, the one with the gun turned around and looked quizzically at Slip, who shrugged his shoulders and offered a nervous smile, which made the officers laugh all over again. After several minutes of walking and, presumably, making fun of Slip, the three men reached a small office building near the edge of the tarmac. They open the door to a vacant room plastered in vintage wallpaper with a Smung Fruit pattern, interspersed with drawings of boats and ribbons. The officer holding Slip’s phone pointed to a green plastic chair in front of a large wooden desk, gesturing for Slip to sit down. Slip did as he was told while the officers disappeared with his phone behind a heavy looking door at the back of the room. In front of him on the desk was an open laptop and some gold picture frames. But because they were turned away from him, he had no indication of whose office he was in. There was a thin window on the door, through which Slip saw the officer with the gun talking to someone out of frame.
Slip leaned forward and delicately adjusted one of the picture frames to the left so he could see its contents. It was a picture of a woman in a red bikini holding a young boy’s hand, their backs turned away from the camera as they looked out at a dark blue ocean. Slip stared intently at the image for a few seconds, committing it to memory in case this minor detail could be used in his story before he gently moved the frame back to its original position.
After several minutes, a woman dressed in a crisp white suit came through the door holding Slips phone. She sat at the desk and Slip recognized the shape of her head from the photo. In broken English, she asked Slip why he was in Swamingo. Slip explained he was a journalist with a long history of siding with Swamingo in their ongoing conflict. He pointed to the laptop and told the guard to google him so she could see how sympathetic he was to the Swamingan cause. She seemed to understand him and turned to the computer and started typing Slip’s name into the search engine. Slip watched her read for a few seconds and then asked if she found his 5-part Pulitzer prize winning article. “Yes, of course,” she said. “Please be quiet”. Slip sat back in his chair while she read. Aside from periodic clicks of her mouse, she made no more effort to communicate with Slip for the next half hour. She remained fully engrossed in her reading while Slip fidgeted in his chair. Twice he tried to ask if he could go, first to the bathroom and then, maybe, perhaps, out of the airport, but each time he uttered his first syllables, he was promptly hushed by the reading woman.
But then, just as Slip’s bathroom situation was growing dire, Ramwa stumbled into the room, panting and sweaty. Despite the dramatic entrance, it took the woman a second to focus her eyes on Ramwa after staring so intently at her screen for the better part of an hour. When she recognized who has barged into her office, she jumped from her desk yelling “Ramwa!” and something complimentary and excited in Swamingan. She bounded across the room and pulled him into a big, warm hug. Slip was now beside himself with shock and relief at the sight of Ramwa. He too got up to greet his old friend but was promptly told by the women to “stay” so he sank back in his chair.
The two Swamingans talked, huddled together and with their voices low, for a few minutes until Slip, on the verge of peeing himself, took a risk and blurted out, “Ramwa, it’s really so good to see you again. I’m happy to cooperate with whatever is going on here but can I please, PLEASE, go to the bathroom very quickly in the meantime?” Ramwa smiled and relayed this information to the woman in Swamingan who narrowed her eyes at Slip before gesturing to the door. “On your right” she muttered while turning back to Ramwa.
When Slip returned from the bathroom, the woman and Ramwa were both standing behind the desk. Slip sat back down and the woman pushed his phone toward him. “Here,” she said. “It’s yours again”. Slip put the phone in his pocket and thanked her. Ramwa explained that they were simply doing a routine background check, with, of course, a few added security measures since, as an award-winning journalist, Slip presumably had something to gain from Swamingan misfortune. Slip, appalled by the mere thought of using the downfall of a nation to further his own career, began rambling about journalistic integrity and the importance of news media to create awareness and empathy and that, besides, he loves Swamingo and by that he means the people and not just Smung fruit, which of course he also loves but people first, that’s what he always says and—
Ramwa cut him off and said it was time to head into town.
“Right. Yes. Let’s be off. It was, um, nice to meet you,” Slip replied to the woman, who was again engrossed in her laptop.
“Byebye Shaylo!” Ramwa said with a smile. She said something back to Ramwa and blew him a kiss, which he returned, as he and Slip ducked out of the office.
“I can’t thank you enough for saving me in there. I thought I was going to piss myself!”
“Brother, urine was least of your problems! I can be honest now so I will tell you. Please look at the text you sent to me. You wrote Ram War instead of Ramwa! You know Swamingo cannot afford Ram War right now! We barely have any rams left! Those officers, they were taking you to a press suite to freshen up after the long flight, you know, have some food and drink and nice freshen up rooms, but then you start acting strange, like you have secrets, and then they saw that text, then that photo of your toe—by the way, friend, is everything ok?-- so they bring you to the Investigations Bureau for International Espionage, only to be safe. You must be thankful, because Shaylo, who, by the way, my brother, runs the whole Bureau and is very famous for being the only government employee to not send CutieClara42 any money back in the day, she is a family friend and recognized my number. You had much luck, Slip. Much luck indeed.”
“Geez” said Slip, feeling embarrassed, first about his inability to read the police officers’ body language and second about the toe picture he took for his doctor.
The two men walked in silence around the perimeter of the airport until they reached Ramwa’s van. Slip, now feeling slightly less mortified, turned to his friend and asked how things have reallybeen in Swamingo these past few months.
“Not great, Brother. Not great at all. You remember my wife? Pinnel? She has been insisting every day we move before next Gendana invasion. All her uncles were killed in the first part of the war, you see. But I tell her, I’m Swamingan translator! How can I do my work away from Swamingo? You see? She is positive we could find other jobs, but me? No, I more realistic these days. I belong here. In my home. I worry she leave. I tell you the truth, every new rumor that comes from Gendana makes me fear more loneliness than war. And, listen, it’s not only my family! All Swamingan family has story like this. Do we stay or do we go? What is right? Who is friend and who is enemy? All we do is wait and wait and wait for the worst and hope and hope and hope for the best. I am tired, Slip. I am very tired.”
“Ramwa, my friend, I’m so very sorry to hear about Pinnel and what you and all your countrymen have been dealing with. I promise you I will do my very best to get to the bottom of these rumors. To at least give you some peace of mind, some clarity in your decision making.”
“Thank you, Slip. It is good to see you again. Very good.”
The two men rode in silence for a while until they reached Slip’s hotel in the centre of town. Slip thanked Ramwa again for saving him at the airport and the old friends exchanged a hug and made plans to meet for breakfast the following morning.
Around 7am, Slip awoke to a text from Ramwa:
“I’ve tested all the smung in the land and this is the best! Soon it will be ours. 9am”with a link to a map showing the Smung restaurant where they’ll soon meet for breakfast.
Slip arrived at the breakfast spot a few minutes early and took a seat on the patio. A waiter greeted him in Swamingan and placed a multi-page menu, also in Swamingan, on the table in front of him.
“English?” Slip asked.
The waiter took the menu back and told Slip to wait before disappearing indoors. He came back with a crumpled piece of lined paper and dropped it on the table. Slip examined the new menu. The handwriting could only be described as that of a struggling first grader:
Smung Variety Platter…...$20
Coffee, tea, Smung smoothie, and Smung liquor all $5
Tip generously. We thank you.
I guess this is what they think tourists want, thought Slip. He turned the paper over to see if the rest of the menu was on the back. It wasn’t.
“One coffee and one smoothie, please,” Slip told the waiter. Slip figured he’d wait for Ramwa to order food from the real menu. It was, after all, supposedly the best Smung restaurant in Swamingo and Slip didn’t want to have the experience reduced to what the restaurant deemed worthy of an average tourist.
After ordering, Slip checked his watch. 9:07. Ramwa was supposed to be there at 9. “How curious,” thought Slip, remembering Ramwa’s unwavering punctuality during their war reporting days. He sat back in his chair and took in the crowded marketplace across the street. There were rows upon rows of colourful food stalls, most of which had big, colourful signs boasting they alone sold the freshest, most fragrant Smung Fruit in the market. The vibrant yellows, reds and purples of the fruit were illuminated under the morning sun, making the market look like an impressionist painting, thick with daubs of juicy paint.
Suddenly, three kids burst through the painting and ran full speed from the market and crossed the street toward the restaurant. The kids, who couldn’t have been more than ten, were holding bushels of Smung Fruit in their little arms. They stopped running at a large tree, close to the patio where Slip was sitting, and emptied the Smung Fruit onto the ground. Slip watched as the children examined each fruit carefully, seemingly pointing out small imperfections and features to one another before settling on one, perfect piece of fruit. The smallest child tore into it, offering segments to the others, which they eagerly raised to their lips. Slip thought about his own children, who never once experienced this kind of excitement over fruit and felt a sense of admiration for the Swamingans for instilling such healthy eating habits in their youngest citizens.
Slip was so engrossed in watching the children, he barely noticed the waiter set his coffee and smoothie down in front of him. “Chertoo!” Slip called out, remembering the word for thank you just as the waiter disappeared back inside.
Slip sipped his smoothie, savouring the complex Smung flavour. Delicious. Absolutely delicious, he thought while checking his watch again. 9:15. He began to worry that something has happened to Ramwa. Maybe another fight with Pinnel. Slip stood and looked over the patio fence to see if Ramwa might be doing a little shopping in the market on his way to the restaurant. To his surprise and relief, there was Ramwa hurrying through the crowded street, clutching the notebook he always carried to jot down new English words he’d learned on the job. Slip waved emphatically at his friend. He was about to call out to him when, out of nowhere, two police officers appeared beside Ramwa and tackled him to the ground.
“Oh my god!” Slip was yelling. He looked around for other witnesses. “Ramwa! Oh my god! Did anyone see that?!” The other patio-diners glanced in the direction of Slip’s pointed finger and then turned back to their own conversations. “Over there! Oh my god!” Slip took one more hurried sip of his smoothie, threw some coins onto the table and made a run for Ramwa, who was still on the ground, yelling at the officers.
He'd only taken about ten strides when two more police officers emerged, again from seemingly out of nowhere, and tackled Slip exactly as they had done to Ramwa seconds before. They quickly handcuffed him and yanked him to his feet. Slip screamed for help. Nobody around him seemed to care. He called out to Ramwa but could no longer locate him in the marketplace. As the officers shoved him into a van, he shouted at the only people now close enough to hear him: the kids eating Smung Fruit under the tree, “Please! I’m innocent! Tell them I’m innocent!”
The smallest kid, the one who peeled the first Smung, momentarily locked eyes with Slip and held out a piece of fruit as the police car drove away.
Slips went over the facts. Through a sliver of a window at the top of his cell, he knew twelve nights had passed since he arrived at the prison, meaning he’d been there for thirtee days. He knew his cell bed was made of straw and, because he was allergic to straw, he sneezed all night. He knew he could now do thirty push-ups, which was a twenty push-up increase from before he entered prison. He knew he’d replayed images of his wife and kids over and over in his mind so many times that he’d started to feel unsure of their accuracy. He knew the guards assigned to him were named Pokie and Bluggo and that the only English words they knew were yes, no, fruit and shut-up prisoner. He knew Pokie and Bluggo were only a small part the overall workforce in the jail. All day, Slip saw other guards through his cell bars walking up and down the aisle between the cells. He knew the food he ate was terrible except when, every third day, Bluggo rolled a fresh Smung Fruit under his cell door. He did not know whether this was part of the prison diet or if Bluggo was just a nice guy. He knew, despite the many guards, that there was only one other prisoner in this facility, a disgruntled old man from somewhere out East, who spoke even less English than P&B, and who Slip had nicknamed Grumpy Gramps. He knew that he’s received two letters. One from his newspaper, promising to do whatever they could to get Slip out of Swamingo and one from his country’s Office of Foreign Affairs promising the same thing and explaining that Swamingan police had bugged his phone at the airport and had read his last text from Ramwa, the one where he wrote the best Smung would soon be theirs, and that, because of the text, he – Slip – was flagged for espionage. He knew he’d been given no supplies to respond to the letters, despite hours of pleading with P&B for a single piece of paper and pencil. He knew the days felt endless and the nights felt longer. He knew how he’d kill himself if it ever came to it, if things became too hopeless: create a noose out of his pants, attach them to a thick ceiling-pipe he could just about reach if he stood on the toilet tank and then wrap them around his neck. He knew, however, he could never kill himself, that he was innocent, that his government would get him out of this mess and that he would one day see his family again.
Slip went over his list of facts twice a day, in the morning and at night, updating it with new facts as they happened. Other than that, and the push-ups he did, his brief respites in the prison courtyard, eating, sleeping and now expert-level pacing, there wasn’t much for him to do in prison. When he felt extra desperate, he had one-sided conversations with Grumpy Gramps through the cell walls until the other man started banging on the wall and shouting in his own language, which was Slip’s cue to stop.
On the morning of his fourteenth day in prison, Slip was on the floor of his cell doing push-ups. As he approached number twenty-seven, red faced and arms shaking, he heard the guards begin their first march down the long prison hallway. He lowered himself once more just as their heavy boots made their way past his cell. He exhaled sharply and pushed himself back up.
“Hello! What was that? Helloooo?” he said, scrambling out of the plank position and lunging toward the door. There on the ground, at the threshold of the bars and hallway, was a piece of white chalk. It was a few centimeters long and gleaming white. He gasped and backed up against a wall and shut his eyes. He pinched himself hard on the arm to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. He opened his eyes and there it was again. A writing utensil. By now the guards had left the hall, leaving Slip completely alone with his discovery (save for Grumpy Gramps snoring one cell over). He walked over to the chalk and picked it up carefully, holding it up to the small window, as if it was a hundred-dollar bill he had to make sure wasn’t counterfeit. He took it over to one of the grey stone walls and made a tiny mark. Tears sprang to his eyes. He couldn’t believe his good fortune! He glanced back at the chalk in his hand and suddenly realized just how small it was, about the length of half his thumb. Noticing the chalk dust coating his fingers and not wanting to waste anymore of his newly found precious resource, he gently pulled out some hay from one of the bails that made up his bed and placed the chalk on top of it.
“Alright, Slip. Think! What can you write? What SHOULD you write? What do you positively HAVE TO say right now?” he said to himself while pacing and keeping an eye on the hay and his most coveted possession.
“Any ideas Gramps?”
Slip mulled over a number of options in his head. He could write out his list of facts, but at this point felt it was unlikely he’d forget any of them so there was no use writing them down. He could write I’M INNOCENT! I LOVE SWAMINGO over and over in the hope that it would convince one of the guards to release him. He could start the story he was sent to Swamingo to write. That’s it. That’s what he decided to do. He was, after all, a world-renown journalist with a passion for storytelling. If he had any power at all, it was his ability to deliver news. And even if there was only a one in a million chance anyone would ever read it, it was still a chance worth taking. If only to help him feel a small fraction of that power amid the powerlessness of his current predicament.
A moment later, Slip’s thought process was interrupted by a guard, who threw a letter through the bars.
“Chertoo!” Slip yelled, grabbing the letter. It was from the Foreign Affairs Ministry and indicated his case wasn’t looking good. The Swamingan government was demanding that in exchange for his release, Slip’s country would need to send them an entire naval fleet to arm themselves against Gendana. Slip’s country could, at most, only afford 3 boats. The letter ended by telling him not to lose hope, that despite the discouraging news, they were still working around the clock on a solution.
In a fit of rage mixed with fear, he tore the letter to shreds and watched the pieces fall to the ground.
“What do I do, Gramps?? I’m fucking toast! Are we gonna die here?”
“Right. Ok. Breath, Slip. They’ll find the boats. They have to, right? God dammit!”
He kicked the hay bail and the chalk rolled along the floor, leaving a faint white line.
He grabbed hold of it. It donned on him that after years of reporting on other people’s stories, he had now become the story. He imaginesd a younger version of himself on his way to Swamingo to cover the story of his capture.
Well, he thought, if I’m the story, who better to write it than me? As a diligent journalist, prone to laying out all the facts, he decided to start from the beginning. Chalk in hand, he went over to a cell wall and wrote his birthdate: March 30th 1970. He then wrote about the day of his birth, how a freak snowstorm blew through his hometown, closing a part of the highway, making it difficult for his parents to get to the hospital in time. He wrote about the complication’s his mother faced in labour, his older brother wanting nothing to do with him, his first word (scoop, if you can believe it), his parent’s divorce and-
He looked down at the chalk in his hand. Half of it had already disappeared.
OK new strategy, he thought. Point form notes from here on out.
- Starting school: lonely, made fun of for large backpack, could read before everyone else.
- Being a gifted kid: moved out of regular school in second grade, had better luck finding friends at new school with other smart kids.
- Only seeing dad on weekends: he let me eat whatever I wanted. Can’t tell if I looked forward to seeing him or eating candy more.
- Favourite grandmother dying: first experience of loss, therapist suggest I start journaling. Began first journal of many.
- Meeting Andy, best friend: fourth grade, Andy moved to town. He was the only boy in class to know more about space than me, a real feat at gifted school.
- First crush, Nelly: never spoke but saw on Facebook that she is now a realtor.
- First swim meet: Mom encouraged me to try out for team because I loved the pool at camp. Made it on first try but quit after the incident.
- The Incident:
But then, as he was about to recount his first real moment of embarrassment—the time his bathing suit flew off while diving into the pool—the nub of chalk he was pressing into the wall disintegrated under his fingers. He began to cry. In fact, he wailed. Excited to get everything down, he’d forgotten to edit himself. His one chance at writing something significant while incarcerated had vanished. Or, more accurately, had turned to dust.
He spent the next two days in bed, depressed and ashamed over his squandered opportunity. He was so dejected, in fact, that even a hopeful letter he’d received from his country, which informed him that negotiations for his freedom were going better, did nothing to lift his spirits. All he could think about was the very real possibility that other reporters, who would certainly cover his release, would discover his failure of a memoir, scribbled messily in point form. A complete and utter embarrassment.
As the sun begian to set that day, Slip rolled out of bed, intent upon rubbing the writing off the wall. He decided it was preferable to not tell any of his story at all than to tell an unfinished and unedited one and risk tarnishing his reputation as a journalist.
He pulled his sweat-stained shirt off over his head and began to ball it up. He was going to use it as an eraser. He reached toward the first line – the one indicating his birthdate – and pressed the shirt against it. He was about to wipe, when suddenly,
He could hardly believe his ears. He dropped his shirt and waited for the heavy footsteps to fade into the distance. When he could no longer hear them, he ran toward the cell door and there it was – a second piece of chalk. Split in two from the fall but altogether longer than the first and just as dazzlingly white and smooth. He began to cry again, this time from happiness. He looked up and profusely thanked god, with whom he’d previously never had much of a relationship. He took a deep breath and realized he needed to make a plan. This time, he promised himself, I’ll make the most of this gift. This time, I’ll tell a good story. He gathered together the hay he had kicked in anger and lay the chalk down in the middle of it so it was safe from tumbling out of his hand while he paced his cell. With new eyes, he reread what he’d already written and realized it wasn’t half bad! He really had painted a clear picture of his life. There was nuance, a clear progression, character development and good rhythm, despite the limitations of writing in point form. After a few more laps in his cell, and now manic with excitement and eager to get back to work, he decided not to erase anything he’d writte and that all of it was important (it was his life after all – so who would know better than him?) and he’d simply pick up where he’d left off and afterward do all the serious editing, especially when it came to recounting his mostly uneventful years in college.
“Here we go,” he said to himself, cracking his neck by moving it side to side. “Back to that embarrassing swim meet story.”
As I dived into the icy pool, I felt a distinct breeze pass through my undercarriage. It was then I realized
- Frank Gedberg, 2021