38th Writing Contest • First Place, Fiction
George Choundas of Pleasantville, NY has won the New Millennium Fiction Prize for “Troth.”
He will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
“George’s story imagines a world exactly like ours, except for three subtle differences that change everything for the better… or do they? Founding Editor Don Williams declared this story to be ‘among the best work New Millennium Writings has ever published.'”
By George Choundas
It was a world exactly like ours, with three differences.
First, short went first. When two people crossed paths, the taller gave the right of way. Same if they reached a doorway at the same time. Or bumped into each other.
The rule was simple. Even children learned “sky hangs, earth moves” and fumbled past each other in reverse height order. The rule was logical. A taller person could better view and anticipate a crossing situation, then make up lost time with longer strides. With time the rule became custom. It reigned in all cultures, including those where in this world ladies go first, and where the reverse is true, and where age bestows priority, and where strangers’ shoulder caps are things for sudden nuzzling because no convention adheres.
The time saved in any given encounter was small. Multiplied across the other world’s bus stops and vestibules and elevators, it saved days and months. It happens that nine lurching dances of uncertainty in a hallway contain enough moments for a breakthrough in the arts or sciences.
The other world was globalizing as relentlessly as ours. The rule accomplished there what the jagged heap of customs in our world cannot. Take for instance the Walloon, the Yemenite, and the Aleutian Islander who converge on the same entrance to the duty-free shop in Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2A—the narrow entrance, the one to the side. In our world they are destined each to lose three seconds picking at the floor with sheepish feet and blinking. Four, if a mixed-gender assortment. In the other world they moved around each other like breezes in a courtyard.
There was another benefit. Persons equipped to navigate physical encounters with ease and poise, even without common language, could not help but feel better about almost everything. There was nourishment in repeatedly confronting a problem, one so fleshy and immediate, and solving it instantly. A steady drip of these small but sure successes made people think of their souls as places where good things happened, rather than sticks that chafed against life’s corners.
The other world, in sum, was more accomplished, more fulfilled. It was a better world.
* * *
He shows up late. The groom strolls over and thanks him for arriving before the couple’s first child. They join the other groomsmen.
At front a priest speaks instructions to the church’s ceiling.
Across the nave stand the bridesmaids. They loom around the bride. She is a tiny woman with nervous looks and perfume that wears like a shriek. Except when speaking she offers her friends only the sides of her head.
When it comes time to rehearse the procession, both groups filter into the nave and make their way back toward the entrance.
He first sees her when she stops. This bridesmaid has paused to let a short groomsman pass. She waits with her head at a kind tilt. She resembles someone hoping everything will turn out all right.
She first sees him when the rehearsal is over. He is waiting to use the restroom off the narthex, yawning.
* * *
Second, people had two hearts. Each. One heart took the same place in the body as yours or mine. Were one a doctor, or a fitness trainer anxious to suggest erudition, or the kind of person who has attended an auction of ancient maps, one called it the upper heart. Otherwise it was known as the high heart. Like hearts in this world, the high heart enjoyed the shelter of a rib cage. The low heart, and there will be no surprise in this, sat lower in the abdomen. It also had four chambers, but was smaller. It wore the liver like a sun hat.
A second heart was the fruit of evolution. In the state of nature, torpor is death. In the other world, too many early humans had fallen asleep after meals, their blood wicked away from brains to working stomachs. Too many had woken up bleary and confused, under trees, outside caves, aware for a weird instant that their heads had turned into agonies and these agonies had a color and this color was specific but oddly indefinite, either stabbing red or crushing black. Too many survived just short of realizing that ravaging jaws meant both.
A stray mutation changed everything. After a large meal the low heart could dedicate itself to the viscera. This freed the high heart to keep the brain alert as an indignant bird. The evolutionary advantage was significant. The two-hearted were better nourished for not having to choose between eating well and staying safe. They were less vulnerable to attack, and so lived longer, and so procreated often and saw their offspring through adolescence.
The two-hearted quickly established themselves as the dominant line. The one-hearted fought off sleep but not extinction.
Popular myth doted over the two hearts. Many believed the caged heart an animal, lurching against its bars, responsible for the passions: fury, revulsion, brutality, righteousness, elation. The low heart, on the other hand, was a jewel that needed plushness and velvetry to protect it. So it glinted quietly: pride, regret, resentment, sympathy, contentment. In certain traditions the high heart stoked new love, while out of the low one leached the serene affection of couples with grown children and a preference while dining for sitting side by side. In others the low heart discharged prudent love, the kind that revels in cheerful, circumspect, adequately insured spouses, while the high heart craved velocity and calamity and ex-convicts with darling white teeth.
It was generally accepted that the high heart, from its vantage, gazed into the future, while the low heart mired itself in the past.
People in the other world lived longer. They were more awake to life as they lived it. It was a better world.
* * *
The hotel room is warm. She likes this. Maybe it will incubate boldness in her.
She sits cross-legged, shoes off. The panty-hosed toe of the suspended foot dips like a bashful eyelash.
He sits on the end of the bed, bow tie loosened. He watches her face. She takes him in with glances.
You seem like a calm person, she says. The way she holds the wine glass exposes as much web between fingers as possible.
I am a calm person, he says.
Really? You don’t let anything get to you.
She puts down her wine and leans over.
Let’s see. She places a hand on his high heart. So slow.
What about this one? she says, slipping her hand down to his low heart. This one doesn’t lie.
He man-giggles, chuffing twice through his nose with his mouth closed.
It lies less, he says.
I know something that doesn’t lie, she says. Her hand waits a sly moment.
Yes, he thinks, but it spits when it talks.
You’re beautiful, he says.
* * *
Third, there was “troth.” There existed in every language a word that meant “both”—except for three things, not two. In English the term was “troth.” In Spanish it was “trambos.” In Tuvan, “үшелээ.”
It was a small thing. “Thrice” is a triplish word. Terms like “all” and “everything” can refer to three things—or five, or fifteen. An inessential word like “troth” should not have mattered.
But it did.
Perhaps it was because troth was so concrete. “All” and “everything” are abstractions. They flap out of the mouth and alight where they will. Troth grabbed with three hands:
“Still, sparkling, or tap?”
“Troth, thank you.”
“Go to the last verse. Good strong voice, now.”
“‘I will troth lay me down in peace, and sleep, and dream: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety.'”
“A car? With what money are you getting a car? You crying to your mother again? Or maybe you’ll sell your blood, like before. Maybe the rest of you.”
“Maybe troth. Maybe go fuck yourself.”
Perhaps it was because troth brought things together. The word did not simply point, like “thrice.” It gathered. It tied things up with a common twine, conveyed them in a single bindle of a truth. Or perhaps it was because troth seemed like pure surfeit. It forked over both choices and the compromise to boot. It promised a union more populous than even love could manage. It spoke to each who spoke the word of possibility.
Or perhaps it was the peace it gave. In this world, we feel our hearts thumping every waking moment. Even with our single hearts, we feel a double beat: bip, bup. This two-tick, this I-am iamb, is in fact the sound of life until death—the bip heedless, the bup cowed and watchful. It is the footfall of a cripple, hobbled by the knowledge that one day he will not exist.
Those in the other world, who thought more possible, who lived in threes as much as twos, did not feel the same beat. Even when the hearts worked in unison, and made the same rhythm as in our world, the result was different. Bip-bup-bip was the cadence of experience, the first and last moments vital and lancing, the middle a pale slurry. Bup-bip-bup traced the substance of experience: the wandering contemplation of what something might be like, the abrupt punch of it while you’re barely looking, the trailing memory of it thinning out to randomnesses—the dumb extrovert smell of new plastic; a caved-in voice; yellows.
Troth took the sound of dying and made it the noise of living.
The other world brimmed with potential. Life was expansive, hopeful, defiant. It was a better world.
* * *
He frowns sometimes. It is the same frown people make when they crane down looking for lint on their shoulders. Their third dinner, she realizes he does this when he is trying to remember something.
She has a fascinating aspect. It is not her heterogeneous body, its panther parts and its pudding parts, or her skin’s smell like suncooked windowpane. Their third time, he realizes it is that she does not know where to put her eyes.
* * *
In the other world, the short-goes-first rule had one exception. A woman carrying a child went first. Always. It did not matter how tall she was, or if she carried the child in her arms or in her womb. Conspicuously pregnant women moved about as if the planet were abandoned.
This exception was observed as assiduously as the rule. Many contended this was no exception, only rigorous compliance. Babies, whether shucked or pupating, were always shorter.
The exception did not work when child-burdened women crossed paths. These encounters reverted to short-goes-first. Women tended to allow priority not to the smaller woman, however, but to the woman with the smaller child. This started as a small mischief, warm and sisterly and subversive, but ripened into tradition. Pregnant women delighted—or pretended delight, if they were tired, or in a rush—in comparing bellies.
Sometimes two persons of the same height crossed paths. For this there was no rule. A solution had to be improvised. Often one person extended a tentative or reassuring or flamboyant palm and let the other go first. Usually this worked. But sometimes the lettee resented this, suspecting the lettor believed himself taller. His resentment was not of the gesture, but of what it seemed to reflect. What, after all, might lead someone, absent visible evidence, to assume he was taller or the other shorter? An arrogance so powerful it warped his sense of his own dimension? A contemptuous judgment of some aspect of the lettee—his clothing or his carriage or his complexion, his resemblance to some miscreant—that in a subconscious instant diminished the stature the lettor believed the lettee could credibly possess? Whatever it was, the lettee was often sure he did not like it. The lettor, for his part, routinely cautioned himself not to expect thanks but found himself searching the lettee anyway for the slightest acknowledgment—an amiable jut of the lower lip, a conscientious tuck of the head, a shifting of weight toe-ward to telegraph a quickening gait—and always, always, begrudged its absence.
The other solution, of course, was for one person simply to forge ahead. This approach (best taken after meeting eyes or trading grins or otherwise signaling mutually an imminent collision) was perhaps the most expedient. It also spared the non-forger the suggestion he was obviously shorter. But the non-forger sometimes took this the wrong way. He thought the forger too ready to favor himself. He bristled at the kind of conceit that could spawn such self-advantaging. These projected antipathies addled like a two-tined serving fork in the underbrain. Meanwhile the forger, outwardly all bluff efficacy, engaged inwardly in his own self-torment. He perked his ears up as he put his head down to pass, daring himself to hear the exaggerated shuff of shoes coming to an impatient stop.
Ethnic differences heated the forkpoints to glowing. Certain populations were taller than others. Encounters between their members happened often in this other globalizing world, most without consequence. But repeated encounters between height-disparate groups planted bad seeds. Ethnic Austrians were one and a half inches taller than Turks, on average. A guest worker and serial lettee from Istanbul might wonder after a fourth tight waiting Viennese smile whether it was the product of the gray matter perched behind it rendering him an ignorant misogynist. Three and a half inches meant that a Finn late for an appointment at Siltasaarenkatu 18 might puzzle over why he subsidized with his irretrievable time the Somalis who had failed to consult him before arriving to throng his city’s sidewalks. Seven inches caused Indonesians in Amsterdam to bustle past as hastily and unobtrusively as possible, which might be viewed as smug entitlement, felt as degrading infantilization, and experienced all around as absurd and inequitable.
The biggest problem, however, was hunkering. Those in a hurry sometimes curved their backs and compressed their necks and trained their eyes on the ground. The posture shrank them, and the averted eyes let them avoid (or claim to avoid) seeing and thus having to stop and wait for other human beings. It was a double license to untrammeled movement. The trouble with hunkering, of course, was the very plague the crossing rule prevented—collisions. Hunkerers mostly got around fine, but from time to time crashed spectacularly into shorter persons who had not guessed the rule would be ignored. Sometimes they smashed into other hunkerers: a game of chicken gone gamy. A double-hunker smash-up seemed like sweet justice, but in fact it fired people’s imagination so powerfully that they were prepared to believe every hunker-caused crash was a double-hunker. This in turn stigmatized the undersized and innocent victims of single-hunkers as hunkers themselves. The slightest, slighted.
Cross-ethnic double-hunkers between pregnant women were rare. But when they happened, there sometimes was violence.
* * *
It is a stupid thing to do. But there is a gland, perhaps part of a heart, that urges it.
They are not married, let alone thinking about a family. Yet they name their unborn children. There will be John, after the church where they met. And Sarah and Peter, after the bride and groom who brought them together.
Sarah’s life is a hard one if troth are boys, he says.
If troth are boys we have bigger troubles, she says.
With you, he says, troubles are adventures.
One day he comes home and finds her in tears.
She does not make perfect sense. She explains, tries, how this love terrifies her, how suddenly they have so much to lose.
He holds her. He tells her he knows, because he has felt these things too. He teases her—if love upsets you, devotion will kill you—and holds her closer. She makes wet noises that are laughter. He is bending down. Before he knows what he is doing, he licks the tears off her cheeks.
He’ll never be able to do that again, she thinks. At least not without making light of this moment, this wonderful moment.
He holds her some more.
They don’t taste like adventure, he thinks.
* * *
Usually, the two hearts beat together. But not always. Under stress, the hearts abandoned their bicardia, their unison, and scrambled into different rhythms, dicardia, each heart for itself. Someone waiting in a crowded room to give a speech, or seeing ajar a door she locked a minute ago, or kissing for the first time a friend’s lips, felt her heartsbeat not only accelerate but also diverge. Dicardia intensified nearly every emotion. Imagine the core of you launching into separate tumults. We in this world feel urgency, desperation, when our insides thrum faster. Those in the other world felt these things too, but moreover catastrophe, or rapture, when their insides split apart.
Because the high heart sat off to the left and the low to the right, a state of excitement felt like being cracked into quarters. Limbs seemed to snap off in conspiracy with these phantom dicardiac fourths, and so a person might feel helpless or out of control, rodeo-oxed from his own exploded trunk. Oddly, a person might also feel stronger. Suddenly he sensed two power plants pulsing forcefully and independently inside him. The more the heartsbeat diverged, the more he felt strong as two men. It seemed as if he had a life to spare.
Many believed dicardia meant something more. Many believed that when a person’s two hearts beat separately, he had left the present moment. He was stalking the future (excitedly, anxiously, dreadingly), causing his high heart to race ahead, or roaming the past with his low heart (miserably, remorsefully, longingly). In either case, his one heart moved with purpose and the other straggled, like siblings on a drugstore errand.
Some referred to dicardia as being cleft and quartered. Others called it the soul going in all four of God’s directions.
* * *
He knows not to make it a spectacle. They’ve already seen it done.
On their fall trip, just after getting coffee: they stopped at the outdoor skating rink abutting the café and watched. A few moved gorgeously. Others scraped forward and stared down as if to prop themselves up by the eyes. The rink cleared then, just two people near the center, doing what? Moving slowly, stammering with their feet really, then at a dead stop. Suddenly the man down on one knee, the girl stoppering her nostrils with the back of her hand, the onlookers putting a good face on exile with claps and hoots.
For the spring trip he suggests somewhere else . But she wants to go back. If she knew his plans, she’d insist all the more. He copes by referring sourly to the flight’s connection in a different city as a compromise.
You never like change, he says.
And if that changed I wouldn’t like it, she says.
They go back. Same hotel even. While she showers he visits the same café, makes arrangements with the manager, who cannot stop grinning.
Later, he comes back with her. While she looks for a table near the rink, he orders and hands it off.
A barista—so tall his apron could be a tablecloth—stops her brusquely: Ma’am, you dropped this. Would have been better with a woman, he thinks.
She says, Um, I don’t think so, that’s not mine.
As planned, the employee says oh, my mistake, tosses the ringbox on the ground. Maybe harder than necessary. Walks away.
He moves toward the ring box, and kneels down to get it. She approaches. He launches into it.
Her hearts tear away from her. She stoppers her nostrils with the back of her hand. The same hand he adorns.
Back at the hotel, on the plane home, and for a day and a month short of a year, they like to stop suddenly and say You dropped this and kiss each other’s faces.
Perhaps if she had just said What? and taken it, all of life would be different. Perhaps in an exciting moment she would have pocketed it and urged him in a whisper to start walking. Perhaps they would have huddled together and, like people on an adventure, wondered to each other what to do.
* * *
In the other world, troth scattered possibility like pollen. It denatured death and drained off the exigency of things and replaced right and wrong with depending.
Roads and thoughts languished in disrepair.
Surgeons who placked down hard hallways toward waiting kin felt free to plunge their hands in their pockets and express puzzlement over what to say, or to acknowledge it could have gone better.
Depictions of Justice showed her blindfolded and holding not a scale but an abacus.
There were whole traditions of art and song built around indifferent love—not the act of falling madly in it, or of sprawling heartsbroken out of it, but of loitering in it shin-deep, of musing that it is something but maybe after all simply likely not enough.
In the other world it was possible to be free of fault and still to blame.
* * *
Lately he has been quiet, and gone to bed early. It must be work. It is keeping him busy. He has pulled two all-nighters in a week.
Tonight he is still quieter. Something wrong? she asks after dinner.
Leave something alone, he says. It’s everything’s fault. He winks and starts for the bedroom. She starts to say You dropped this but he looks tired.
The next evening she comes home. There is a phone message from Sarah. Since the wedding they have spoken a couple of times. He sees Sarah more. He has kept in touch with Peter.
She enters the bedroom to change. It is different. Cleaner? She opens the closet. None of his clothes are there. She turns around. His things are gone.
She goes over the room a second time. Perhaps she is wrong. No. All gone. Except the photograph. The two of them in front of the rink. There they still are, on his bedside table, not looking at the camera. They look into each other’s eyes, as if that will prop them up.
It cannot be.
She calls back. Sarah has learned it from Peter and wants to make sure she is all right. This is what Sarah says. None of it makes sense, it makes no sense at all. Sarah is kind, but the only thing Sarah can do is to say, which Sarah does, Let me know if there is anything I can do. There is nothing to do. But she does not grasp this, really is not thinking clearly, and so she is sorrowful, fatuous, wretched when she says it, slowly, because her crying mouth forms words like it is bleeding them. What can I do? Tell me? What is there I can do?
Later she will feel fury and shame and fury for having spoken those things to that woman.
After hearing the stories, she cannot bear to remember saying those weak things.
* * *
Sometimes, in the other world, an expectant mother felt the beat of her baby’s hearts inside her. As in this world, it happened rarely, but it happened. No cynical explanation or medical condescension could contradict this. It was not the mother’s own pulse. It was not indigestion. A mother knew what she felt.
And what she felt, almost always, was a single beat. The amniotic sac formed a contained environment. Rarely did anything interrupt the fetal bicardia. Silk threads and spinster aunts and fetal heartsbeats and little else were at the same time so delicate and so reliable. The beat ticked like a feather at an open window, lighter than the breeze that whispered it back and forth and back and forth.
But sometimes life intruded. Sometimes a mother grew anxious or frightened or angry. She’d feel her own heartsbeat diverge.
Moments later, she’d feel a pair of twitchings. Two feathers. It was the baby, sharing distress it did not understand.
For a mother, this was pure anguish. It felt as if she had taken an axe to her own child.
And because life proceeds as it does, this sometimes happened more than once during a pregnancy. And the second, and third, and fourth times, as the mother grew anxious or frightened or angry, she’d realize what was to come. It was a miserable space, that lag of moments wherein the baby’s single beat still prevailed, and the tiny hearts clutched obliviously to their unison, and the mother braced herself and felt blackest dread and reddest guilt and waited in the solemn company of troth heartsbeats.
Desperate, she’d think about how small her child’s hearts were, how immune by virtue of sheer tininess, to things so large and coarse as her emotions. Or she’d think about all the tissuey fluid that enveloped them, really a whole ocean around two chance and crimson oysters. Sometimes these thoughts helped. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes she hoped so hard that the strenuousness of the hoping was what pried her baby’s hearts apart.
Perhaps this was evolution’s work. Perhaps it was nature’s calculation that a mother learn that, though she’d try until death, it was a certainty that her child would know pain, her child would know suffering, and no matter how she tried she could not protect it. Even mothers who thought it a lesson too cruel, who saw a distinction between causing their own babies harm and standing witness as they grew older, understood in the end they might be free of fault but still to blame.
A mother, after all, gave life.
It was troth a better world, and a worse, and our world exactly.
* * *
Five years and much has changed. Her husband is an accountant with a barrel chest. Her two sons have her looks and his appetite. She works four days a week. Three days she empties her shoes of puffed rice and sandbox.
They have never taken a trip. Weekend jaunts in the car, yes, but no planes or trains or proper suitcases. She and her husband resolve, as if it were exercise, or dental hygiene, to travel somewhere. He researches destinations. She arranges passports.
The passport office smells like cardboard, but stronger, like someone is baking it. Things are crowded but orderly. Those behind the counter make professional-grade efforts at gruffness. As she leaves the office, and crosses the building lobby, she is distracted. She rifles through her papers as she walks, and at the building’s main door she pushes instead of pulls. The door nudges back. It is a couple entering. She makes way.
And then. Her hearts know. They are in open revolt.
The couple’s faces line up like planets, his hovering above hers. She falters to the side in four pieces. The small woman hunkers past nervously and trails perfume. She has smelled it before, and she will smell it again, elsewhere, on others. Each time it will remind her of a feeling like the opposite of nostalgia, inward and loathing, and of the daughter she almost had, of whom he never learned, the first thing to grow inside her, to make her low heart a high heart, whom she damned, when she was young and glib and useless, with a name that did not belong.
As she exits her sheaf of papers goes loose and sheds a bit. The man picks up troth pages and holds them out to her, frowning. She tries to look down as she accepts them, and fails. Perhaps like his wife he does not recognize her. Sky hangs, earth moves, and perhaps he does not remember.
George Choundas has fiction and nonfiction in over twenty-five publications. He is author of The Pirate Primer, a former FBI agent, and half Cuban and half Greek.
"Troth" © 2013 George Choundas