1st Prize Winner (Group III) - If We Ever Blame Literature
IF WE EVER BLAME LITERATURE
Years ago, humans read and wrote. There was always something to say and learn. The synonyms and antonyms, verbs and adjectives, modifiers and pronouns — this endless list of terminology and definitions built up, accumulating upon a mountain of words. Full of fantasies and fiction, the humans learned that they were the center of the universe. With all else inferior, even God was under their command.
At the age of ten, Sam was proud that he knew how to read and write. His dad had taught him how. What Sam didn’t know - what dad never told him - was that reading and writing had to be done in secret. He started school later than others, and on his first day, Sam saw kids listening to machines shipping information into their minds for hours on end. No one spoke, or wrote, or read. The only sound within the room came from muffled voices inside the headphones of each child. The only light was from static screens that played and replayed videos again and again.
“Why is nobody reading?” Sam asked, after he made the kids take off their headphones.
“What’s reading?” the kids asked back.
“Well… it’s sort of like looking at words.”
“What is words?”
“Words are… like… groups of alphabetical letters, except they all mean something.”
“What’s a alfabeticaleter?”
No one understood him. When Sam went home that day, he told dad of this bizarre first day. As dad listened, face reddening, Sam became more worried. Had he done something wrong? Suddenly, dad told him to pack his clothes in ten minutes. Dad ran to his own room and, through the crack of the open door, Sam saw him stuff shirts into a bag.
With everything inside the palms of their hands, the humans saw that nature was shriveling. The world was slowly becoming silent. Everything but the humans was dying. The forests disappeared, despite man’s grunt of an attempt to regrow them. To preserve humanity, forests were replaced with artificial trees. But polyethylene trees cannot preserve the life that once thrived. The animals and plants all left the face of the earth. Perhaps they all flew away to a more deserving planet. Still, the humans did not care. No, all they knew was that history and fairytales centered around humanity only. To them, nature was simply annihilating itself, surrendering the center stage to humanity.
“It’s okay, son. We’ll be alright.” Simon soothed, patting Sam on the back, coaxing him to enter the tunnel. Simon had rushed to leave home, and they hurried to the subway as fast as they could without arousing suspicion. Simon knew that his son was afraid of the dark. He also knew that Sam had never known subways existed. The subways were unused for years, as old technologies reminded people all too much of the past. Holding a flashlight, Sam climbed down, looked up, and cried out to his dad. The father hurried down, placing the lock back onto the gate.Sam shivered, wildly shining the flashlight around, checking all the corners, searching for ghosts. This pained Simon.
To be completely frank, Simon regretted teaching his son how to read and jeopardizing Sam’s safety. It was Simon’s fault that they had to run. If he hadn’t been more careful at instructing Sam to keep reading a secret, they wouldn’t have been discovered. He knew the consequences of others finding out, but, perhaps out of love or foolishness, he withheld his books when they were meant to be burned. They reminded him of Margaret, before she burned her books with the others and abandoned her husband and son.
“Let’s go, Sam.”
Holding hands, they walked in the darkness together.
On a day when humans were feeling especially talkative, the Earth roared back.
“You have destroyed everything!” the Earth bellowed. Its tresses cut, stripped of youth, the Earth lay naked beneath the feet of the humans. Quaking and trembling with the anger it had contained for centuries, it erupted with the boiling lava that was just under the humans’ artificial roads. The walls that grew to become buildings, towers, revered structures, all came tumbling down.
They never saw it coming.
Sam knew dad was afraid. This did not lessen Sam’s own fears. He tried to be brave, but he was crying like a baby.
“It’s okay, Sam. I’m here. It’s alright.” Dad bent down and picked Sam up to carry him on his back. For a second, Sam thought his dad looked old and gray, but the sight disappeared as suddenly as it came, and his omnipotent father returned. This thought quieted Sam, and he stopped screaming. Whatever may happen, Sam knew his father would keep him safe. He had never known his mother, but he never wondered much about her. Dad was enough. He felt slightly better, and a little embarrassed about causing a ruckus.
He was comforted by dad’s tall stature. He wanted to grow taller, to become as strong as his dad. One day, Sam would come home and speak of words bigger than towers, in hopes that his dad might widen his eyes with the realization that his son had grown up.
The two walked on for what appeared to be hours, or was it days since they had seen sunlight? Years? Without the sun, time was indefinite. Sam busied himself by shining his light onto strange pictures on the walls. There were posters of a man declaring war, but Sam didn’t know what he was fighting for. But what caught Sam’s attention were the bright and colorful designs that painted peaceful words over the posters.
“Dad — What are these?” Sam asked.
“They’re called graffiti. People used to draw on walls, even though it was illegal.”
Sam didn’t know what the graffiti meant, but he thought they were beautiful. He felt the same way about the stories in dad’s books. It seemed like these words always had to be hidden, either under the floorboards at home, or within forgotten tunnels.
At last, Sam saw a light ahead. Gradually, Sam realized that the light was not from the sun or the street lamps. When they reached the entrance, Sam saw police lights flashing everywhere and searchlights that shone down from the sky. His dad dropped Sam back onto the ground. Under the glare of red and blue, Sam thought his dad appeared to turn pale.
Confused, the humans realized that the stories had lied. Humans had always been a fleeting moment in God’s greater plans. The walls that fell killed many beloved, but for the survivors, it was an awakening. We came out of our homes and, to our astonishment, found the twins, Ignorance and Arrogance, guarding the doors. As we walked onto the streets, we noticed everything else around us.
Simon’s heart dropped to his stomach––he’d known that it was too easy. The authorities simply couldn’t have allowed them to escape just like that. The whole city was probably under lock-down. He didn’t know what to do. Brain on overdrive, Simon only thought one thing: Protect Sam. He scanned the surroundings. There were no houses around. Police cars were everywhere. The whole land was barren, save for the tree that concealed the hole and fences that protected a construction site.
He looked at his son. “Hey Sam, are you ready to run?”
“We’re going to play hide and seek. When I start counting, you run as fast as you can towards that fence over there and climb it. Then, you’re going to hide. Can you do that, Sam?”
“But, I don’t want to play right now.”
“It’s okay, Sam. It’s just a game,” Simon said, trying in vain to remain calm. “I’ll come find you soon.”
He looked at his son’s face for what he knew would be the last time, and ran out of the dark subway tunnels. When he was far enough away, he started shouting. The sirens blared.
Ten. All the lights focused on him. The world’s spotlight upon the man withholding the world’s greatest secrets.
Nine. Simon took a glimpse behind him and saw a shadow dashing towards the fence.
Eight. The father ran, farther and farther from his son.
Five. Police appeared before him. Armed men surrounded him, but still he ran, shouting.
Four. The men yelled back, uttering words of authority, words that convinced Margaret to leave. Simon screamed louder.
One. Bang. Simon’s chest felt warm and wet. Engulfed in red, he collapsed and saw Margaret’s face as he burned.
All that destruction, what was it for? Those who knew the art of persuasion somehow knew the answers as well. They drew up resolutions brimming with expensive words to ensure that humans would never make the same mistakes again. Their papers detailed the public hanging of Literature.
“It is Literature to blame! We are not in the wrong!” shouted the President on TVs and all the screens in the world. Posters were hung on every wall of every street. Politicians travelled to Paris and came to a consensus, agreeing that the humans were innocent, dumb creatures — puppets manipulated by Literature. Hypnotized by Literature’s poems and enchantments, we were the victims as well, in a way.
Sam heard the unmistakable crack of gunshots. He ran faster.
Dad was coming back. It was just a game. We were playing hide and seek. He was just giving Sam a head start. Yes, that was what this was. Dad will find him soon if he didn’t start hiding. Sam ran into the construction building and sat behind a stack of bricks. His mind was numb. Senselessness beat into his brain, kicking his thoughts black and blue.
He waited for dad inside the darkness, once again. When was he coming back? He always made Sam remember to keep promises, so dad himself must follow through with his own promises. As he looked around, Sam realized how easily he could be found. He was making this too easy for dad. When he was about to stand up, a guard passed by and nearly found him. Sam fell back down, his heart beating faster than he could run. That was a close one. The fright buzzed his mind, shocking him awake. Sam didn’t know the word, but at that moment, he thought his dad was a liar. He had promised to keep Sam safe! But, he said this was just a game. He couldn’t have…
Sam began to tear up. Come back, dad! Sam wanted to lose this game for his father. He stood up. The drops streamed down his face until they were incontrollable. He couldn’t stop hiccuping, but he had to be a man. Numbness spread across his body. He couldn’t even tighten his fists. Sam wobbled backwards, wiped off his snot, and ran into the light.
“Dad?” he called out, voice trembling. “Dad? I quit, I quit. You win. Please, come. I quit.”
The sirens blared again. Voices from hidden speakers spoke cautionary words, but the words meant nothing. These words were metallic to the taste, oddly jagged and sour. They were no longer the letters in the alphabet. Ignoring them, Sam just kept on running.
He finally joined his father.
On March 7th, 2050, Literature died.
It was buried in a graveyard alongside criminals, rejects, and authors. Any mention of Literature became illegal. Of course, freedom of speech was still advocated for, but it was us who no longer saw language as a virtue. We agreed to outlaw any further talk, reading, and writing of Literature. The authors, all heretics, burned away with their books.
Eventually, the buildings were rebuilt and the earth grew quiet once again, but this time, we were quieter. We, the remaining humans, carried on with our dull lives, shuffling to work with the weight of what we lost, heavy on our shoulders. We avoided conversations, and society came to a lull.
By Dannes Zhang,
15 years, Shanghai American School