by Jeff Samson
The boy stood at the podium, his hands fumbling at its edges, his body trembling. He was breathing hard into the microphone, the rhythmic rush of air peppered with the hisses and pops of half-formed syllables lodged in his throat. Sweat slicked his brow, causing his oversized glasses to slip down his nose. Dampness leeched from his armpits, saturating his blue polo in growing circles.
He shook his head and drew a deep breath.
“Cou…,” he started. “Could I have…have…”
He flicked droplets of sweat from his forehead onto the chestnut-stained podium. His shuddering turned his words into a Morse code-like staccato.
“Have…,” he stammered, hung on that single sound.
The audience gasped as he jolted back from the podium, clutching his hands to his stomach. He stood perfectly still, eyes wide yet vacant, as if he were momentarily elsewhere.
He brought his hands to his face, covering his mouth as his cheeks swelled.
He bolted past across the stage, past the remaining contestants and the empty seats along the backdrop, past Natalia sitting near the end of her row. As he darted from the shadows of stage left and into the light of the hallway, Natalia saw the vomit spray from between his fingers. It looked to her as if the boy had been clenching a handful of mustard packets and squeezed them until they burst.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, she thought.
She stared into the dimly lit audience that rumbled with confusion and concern. The expressions on their barely visible faces mirrored those of her remaining fellow contestants. Then she looked at the panel of judges, whose wide eyes and gaping mouths unsettled her even more.
Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
It was unprecedented in contest history, but not a single one of the first thirty-seven of the top fifty contestants had spelled their word correctly in the fourth round.
This just doesn’t make sense, Natalia thought. Statistically it’s so improbable that it might as well be impossible!
Even more unlikely was the fact that most contestants hadn’t correctly spelled even a fraction of their word. Whereas past Bees saw the customary mix-up of vowels and confusion of soft Cs for Ss, nearly all mistakes this afternoon were as egregious as they were senseless.
Many contestants didn’t even attempt their word. Some, like the last boy, had run from the stage, screaming wildly, tears streaking their cheeks. One had fainted mid-word after botching the opening three letters. One poor girl had immediately followed her gross misspelling with a furious bloody nose that left a trail of crimson asterisks across the stage as the EMTs rushed her off.
“Natalia Reznik,” said the judge.
Natalia felt a chill course through her body.
OK, Natalia, get it together. You can do this. You know you can do this.
Natalia shuffled across the stage to the microphone, her gait hesitant, her head low, her lips tight. She moved awkwardly, her preteen muscles struggling to keep pace with runaway bones.
Usually, Natalia might have feigned self-assuredness. But the events of the day had shaken her.
She was also upset at the increasing likelihood of winning, given the abysmal performances of her fellow contestants.
Stupid, stupid kids. Can’t handle the pressure, can’t take the heat. Now if I win everyone’s going to think it was just because all the other contestants were such…such phonies. I might as well go home.
The situation disappointed Natalia as much as it unnerved her. She would rather face peers whose spelling faculties matched her own. To come out on top after steep competition–perhaps after multiple rounds of draws–would sweeten the victory. But walking away with such an easy win felt worthless to her.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Natalia was trying hard not to look at the few droplets of blood the cleaning staff had missed when the official called out her word.
She was surprised and pleased that she didn’t immediately recognize the word.
Ha! Finally a challenge! If I’m going to win at least I’ll have to work for it.
And it was work to do what she did–a process elusive and peculiar. If she–or any of her fellow contestants–were asked to explain, they would have been quite literally lost for words.
She knew many people assumed she just memorized words–spending a few thousand hours perusing the dictionary. And for people who liked simple explanations, that sufficiently demystified the matter.
Let them think what they want, Natalia would muse. There are 170,000 words actively in use in the English language. The idea of memorizing them all is absurd. Absolutely, positively, categorically absurd–even for me.
Natalia also know there were another 50,000 archaic words–many of which the Bee administrators refused to let die–and yet another 10,000 to account for various regional dialects, register-specific jargon, technical terms, and just plain oddball words defying classification. Taken together, the possibility of memorizing them all became even more absurd.
Natalia muttered the word to herself.
She focused on how it felt in her mouth–the path it forced her tongue to follow across her palate, the way it pursed and loosened her lips.
“May I have the language of origin, please?” she asked.
The judge glanced down at the open binder in front of him.
“Greek,” he said.
Knowing Greek and Latin roots was part of it, Natalia knew, as was understanding usage, pronunciation and structure. But for the true masters of the form, the true King and Queen Bees, as Natalia called them, it was much, much more.
Over the course of her years in the circuit, Natalia had spent enough time backstage discussing craft with fellow contestants to know that each had their own methods and processes. Individuals had tricks to tackle words, to grasp them and chew them, to break them down, bring them to life, or make them dance. And for the serious contestants, tackle, grasp, chew and break were hardly metaphors.
Some contestants pounced on words, taking them down like a straggling gazelle on the savanna, tackling, rending, chewing, devouring until they conquered their prey. Some approached words with the cold logic of an engineer or physicist, measuring and calculating, the laws of linguistics as inevitable and immutable as gravity.
Others took a kinder, gentler road, coaxing and cajoling words rather than bending them to their will. And for a rare few, the words simply came of their own volition–at times haltingly shy, coltish and unsteady, and just as often tumbling joyously into place.
For prodigies like Natalia, words had weight. Words had volume and critical mass. Words had a taste and smell as they glided across their tongues and over their teeth, slipped between expressive lips, passed beneath their noses. Words had color and texture and a splendor all their own. Some shone in yellow warmth, some stood cold in cobalt blue. Others glistened in slimy gray, while others seemed as soot-black holes.
Relax, Natalia she told herself. Just relax.
With a drawn exhalation, Natalia shut her eyes, and began.
Out of the darkness of her eyelids, a landscape began to take color and shape. She saw the crest of an emerald green hill, its tall, thick grass soft swaying in a kind breeze, blades sharp against the vibrant, cloudless blue beyond.
Next came the sound. Bird songs peppered the steady hush of the breeze over the field–the floating calls of robins and goldfinches. And somewhere the distant, rhythmic rush of waves meeting the shore.
A silver apex rose beyond the horizon, its arrowhead shape poking into the sky. When it reached the top of the hill it stopped, standing, Natalia thought, rather triumphantly.
It was a capital letter A. And as quickly as it had arrived, it was joined by a capital letter B that bounced into place at its left. The letter C came next, rolling over its open bowl, leaping slightly with each rotation to keep its mouth from biting into the ground. Followed by a D that rocked back and forth like a faceless smile as it made its way forward, and an E and F that shambled awkwardly into place.
In a few moments, the entire alphabet stood before Natalia, shimmering in the majestic afternoon light, attentive to her thoughtful gaze, awaiting her command.
She nodded first to the E, whereupon it ambled forward and stopped several feet in font of the lineup, five characters left of center. She nodded next to the U, which hopped alongside the E, and then to the A and D, who made their way into formation.
Natalia grinned as the word began to take shape.
That’s it. That’s it.
She was about to call for a second E when she realized none had made its way over the hill to take its predecessor’s place.
And in that moment of discovery, a sudden disquiet overtook the scene.
The birds had gone silent, and the gentle sigh of the unseen waves beyond the hill had been replaced by something else, something equally rhythmic but empty of their lulling grace. The distant thrumming grew louder, swelling into the clear thud of heavy feet.
As the noise grew, the sky’s perfect blue retreated behind roiling slate clouds rimmed in ash. The clouds flickered. Thunder cracked. Icy rain began to patter the field.
This isn’t right. This isn’t right at all.
Then something poked its head over the crest of the hill–something heavy and wine-dark, waddling from side to side as it lumbered forward. It wasn’t until the figure rose fully against the dark sky that she realized what it was.
A thick and stout-looking H, with charred skin like fire logs accentuating the menacing row of ivory teeth stretching across its bar, its comically long sick-yellow claws extending from its upper arms.
What on Earth…?
As Natalia watched, it stepped to her silver K and swung its left claw into the crotch of the K’s ornately rendered arm and leg. A swoop ended in a wet thwunk, followed by a thud and the rustle of grass. Just like that, the K had become a poorly balanced Y.
Before it could topple over to meet the fallen limb, a rough and muscular F bounded over the hill, springing towards it, swinging a single fat bird-like talon at the wounded letter’s remaining arm, lopping it off and sending it windmilling into the air within a widening spiral of hot blood.
The I that was once a K spun around once, teetered left, right, and fell limp into the blood-strewn grass at its feet.
Natalia opened her eyes and shook the scene from her head. She found the panel of judges staring at her, their faces solemn.
Get a grip, Natalia, get a grip! You can do this. You know you can do this, you know you can!
But Natalia knew something was terribly wrong–that somehow the faithful alchemy that had served her from the beginning without fail was under siege.
“Could you use it in a sentence, please?”
Without waiting for the response, she closed her eyes.
The judge’s words fell on her ears as if she were under water. She returned to her field to find her letters engulfed in a writhing sea of black–the marauding characters overtaking their silver skin like a frenzied tarnish.
Everywhere raged the flash of teeth and claws. Talons swept through the air and tore through arms and legs. Gaping maws rimmed in row upon row of razor teeth gnashed their way through gleaming alphabet meat.
Natalia opened her eyes again, more disoriented than before. The stage shifted beneath her feet. The air clung to her, thick and oppressive.
Focus, Natalia. You have to focus.
“Can I have the…”
She paused, lost, unsure of what she’d begun to ask.
The images once confined to her lidded eyes now bled into her line of sight. Her two worlds were doubly exposed, fantastic violence overlaying the panel of judges and the audience beyond.
Her voice wavered.
Jaws opened, closed, clenched and tore, ripping bowls from stems, serifs from strokes.
The judge leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows.
Gre…, she tried.
Claws flashed, severing tails, sending terminals sailing overhead.
“Could…,” she began.
She watched as an O was eviscerated into a gushing C.
“Could I have the definition, please?”
As a trembling W was wrenched apart in twin Vs.
You have to focus!
The judge referenced his binder as what had once been an S fell to the ground as a pair of limp and lifeless Us.
“Producing or conducive to happiness,” he said.
Everywhere blood spewed from open wounds.
“Happi…,” she whispered, unable to finish the word.
Please, you have to…
The sky was blotted out in a crimson mist.
Shimmering like crushed rubies.
Hanging over the slaughter like a fog hugging a lake.
Oh my God…
She opened her mouth to scream.
The chime sounded ferociously, her waking nightmare transforming the gentle tone into a brash, resounding gong, rattling her to the core. She winced with the pain, reflexively closing her eyes on the glowing digits now counting down, returning to her world.
Her brilliant green field was now a shore to a vast lake of blood–a fine chop on the water echoing the rampage of the now vanished marauders. Pieces of her slaughtered characters glinted on the wine-dark surface like shards of broken mirror.
The scene faded as she opened her eyes, replaced by the leaden faces of the judges–cold, mocking, and worst of all, indifferent.
She knew the word, knew how to make it spell itself out of the letters in her mind. But her letters couldn’t help her.
She opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing, for nothing she could say would matter. Hearing the word in the context of a sentence–in a hundred sentences–couldn’t help. Hearing it pronounced a thousand times couldn’t help. The letters that should have been leaping from her tongue were gone.
When the judge called time, she was already making her way across the stage, her reeling mind fighting the urge to crumple and cry.
Stepping softly, she passed the contestant sitting at the very edge of the stage. A mousy boy about her age who had the appearance of being shy and retiring.
But something in his face didn’t match his timid air. Something in his eyes, but not in his eyes.
Behind his eyes.
And in that brief moment she looked into his eyes she was there, behind the black of his eyes.
His landscape a flat and windswept plane of parched earth–a patchwork of warped, flesh-colored tiles, edges ragged and bowed.
From the distance an even cadence of heavy feet sounded on the plain. Through the haze of hot air and thrashing wind and sand, dark rising and falling forms made themselves clear.
Marching side-by-side in ten formations of twenty-six across and twenty-six deep, stretching back as far as Natalia’s glimpse into this world could allow, to where their shadowy shapes disappeared into the darkening horizon, were thick, black letters. Their blood-drenched bodies steamed in the hot sun.
Responding to an unseen, silent command, they halted in a final, thundering unity of cadence.
And awaited their little master’s command.