When the prize-winning text was posted on the fence, it was intended for road-weary travellers to read as they motored east on highway five. Sentences, if there were more than one, ran the entire length of the upper meadow: ten-inch laser-printed helvetica in black, switching to orange near the end. The letters were meticulously cut out and hung by Scotch tape and staples. It, the text, but also its accelerating decay due to fragile suspension on page wire, caused quite a stir in the village; sardonic smiles and not a few frowns with no irony at the corners. Gilles concluded, having overheard stories bandied about at Jo’s Café, that sparrows were to blame. Unless it was those starlings. The latter, in great numbers, had been spotted evening and morning along the edges of the marsh several days in a row, but no one had seen them in the meadows. So, sparrows, he concluded.
Gilles was forty-seven, lanky and wan, while his friend Rowan, ten years older, was wiser although short: five-seven – his two favourite numbers – in feet and inches, and now years! He would not say it, but Rowan felt his height and current age propitious. He did not have Gille’s forensic bent; he rather expected an out-of-the-blue revelation to come down apropos these letters on the fence. “The punctuation had to be wrong,” he thought. He tried fives and then he tried his sevens for numinous clues. He sent aloft trial balloons filled with permutations of the winning words and punctuation but none popped as they wafted this way and that in his numerical breezes.
When the two friends met at Mary’s for Scrabble, they racked their brains on the topic. Mary weighed in with entropy, citing decay from wind and rain for the failure of tape and dew soggy paper, Sharon thought mushroom magic because the chanterelles were unexpectedly exercising a late revival and she thought it was their turn, and Carl suggested vandalism which all except Grace pooh-poohed. “Too obvious, yes,” said Grace. “But what if nothing else grabs us?” she added, and drew a little nervous laughter around the room.
This game, sitting six at Mary’s round dining room table with a Scrabble board on a lazy susan in the middle and a letter pew facing each party, was open to all comers with $25. Tonight there were the six regulars and two of Carl’s nieces, Elizabeth and, coincidently, ‘Little’ Grace, seven and four, visiting from Saskatchewan and playing for free on the floor with a stained and sticky board and a huge quantity of discarded letters in a bag, top folded down twice into a sturdy rim. Rowan, by the way, had a niece and a nephew, Genevieve and Alex, seven and five!
The snacks always included brownies with and without weed and there was bottomless coffee, scotch, rum and Coke. The five principal ingredients – cocoa, sugar, caffeine, pot and alcohol – were serious participants throughout the night, and their calculated consumption critical to the strategy of most players. The subtle complexities that Mary had introduced into her game required some control and some abandonment of control. Well, maybe the rule change was not so subtle: it was no more than that laughter replaced the dictionary as authority when qualifying a word. Neither were the coffee and brownie recipes subtle.
So, nothing in fact was subtle. A word qualified when everyone agreed to it, a decision based quite simply on the quantity of air exhaled on its behalf; that is, the level of noise it generated. A word without emotional or intellectual traction was met by murmur, and died. No points. The tiles, however, were left on the board and the failed attempt counted as a turn. Also, any juxtaposed words that the limp word may have created or expanded could not be counted even if, indeed, any of them met with hilarity or debate. Ah, but! There was also this caveat: that a discounted word might be resurrected later, before the end of the game, and counted then. And it did happen on occasion that a dead word surreptitiously haunted minds through the evening to renew interest and adjust the score. Once, even as the winner, Marj Remple, was putting on boots to leave, laughter from the kitchen drew her back and she ended up losing that night’s round! The reluctance to leave, the late hour, the vagaries of caffeine-riddled conversation, these could all be blamed for a sudden change in fortunes and thereby any hard feelings that a spell of misinterpreted laughter might propagate were publicly diffused.
This feature might be construed as subtle, but had Lars Goên not introduced the term when Mary’s game was first described to him – “Gee, that’s subtle” – the descriptor may never have intruded. That night Lars had stayed to observe, but neither sound nor sense tickled him and he didn’t even smile despite consuming a potent brownie. He paid the full fee and did not come back, subtleties notwithstanding.
On this night, general discussion and several of the words placed on the game board related to the fence. Rowan conceded the bird evidence which now included Gilles’ additional evidence that someone at the café had closely observed many letters spackled with sparrow-plausible shit. Gilles also revealed his surmise that gaps in the text, and indeed anomalies of punctuation, were deliberately set. In his opinion, there just wasn’t enough debris evidence in the field to explain the lacunae by wind, rain or bird.
“How do you figure?” asked Rowan, sniffing a shift towards authorial motive.
“Well,” Gilles began, but Carl jumped in. “We’re off track. Shouldn’t we go back to the ‘as is’ text?”
“Yes,” Rowan said, nearly slapping the table as he once had done, making letters jump and forcing the salvage of an unrecognizable board. “It’s what I’ve been after, the incidence of bees and gees. The data forms a pattern.” And Sharon was quick to concur. “There are definitely fairy rings under those spruces on the north side of that meadow. I wrote a poem about them. Circles.” Now all Carl wanted was to get a first-impression census of the meaning on the face of it. “Why bother with theories?” he said in some distress. Grace hoped to calm him but instead dropped another little bomb. “What if she had the original letters in her satchel but pulled them out in the wrong sequence and just said fuck it after working her fingers to the bone all night?”
“Maybe it wasn’t the winning author that posted,” chimed Mary. “Maybe the world is round,” returned Gilles. “Archaisms. Gravel faeries” offered Rowan. “That explains it,” said Sharon.
Interpretations started to flag when Elizabeth, who had been quietly concentrating on helping Little Grace with her spelling all evening, suddenly picked up her pace and began setting down letters in manic disorder across her side of the board. She randomly filled in blank spaces and got cranky. “Why doesn’t someone just ask the person who won the contest? she blurted.
This was met with neck-cricking silence for a second, and then a gust of genuine mirth. Mary nearly passed the girls a plate of ‘good’ brownies. But Carl saw instantly what should happen and guided both girls to the guest room where they dug a cave in the coats and hibernated for the rest of the night.