The Iron Writer Challenge #208
2017 Autumn Equinox Challenge #3
500 Words, 5 Days, 4 Elements
Author’s name will be posted when the voting is finished next Thursday
Asian men reading the newspaper
A magic hat that can do only one trick.
A giant topiary
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
Hom trailed his fingers along the fence. Thunk, thunk, thunk. His school’s decorative cast iron railings were admired for their thick Victorian fleur-de-lys. Here and there, a chip showed evidence of a century of painting and repainting. Scholastic maroon in the early days, brief spell in cream, before a return to darker colour. In this case, green.
Hom fingered the chipped sections, forgetting the sharp shards of weather hardened paint that lay bunched within the fleur-de-lys.
Sucking on his latest finger casualty, he wandered across Cecil Road. Shoulders hunched in thought. Dr Wen had called him out again. Every week, a word culled from who knows where, was hurled in his direction. The teacher, assuming that Hom did not have the reading for a dictionary, let alone owning one, lorded it over the pupil.
Dr Wen was wrong in his assumption. Hom could indeed read and very well. The schoolboy’s only problem being he just couldn’t be bothered learning things he already knew.
Flicking through the stations, Hom found one he hadn’t discovered before. Radio show in the background as he tackled his homework, the compère used a strange word several times and Hom wrote it down phonetically. His best way to commit to memory. Inn segg reev eeyows. He tried saying it. Rolling it around in his mouth. Come Monday, he’d be ready.
Monday. 9 am. Dr Wen stood and looked at the class. Ah yes, there was Hom. The same idiotic smile on the boy’s face.
As he raised his cane to point at the boy, a voice came at him. “Don’t. Please don’t call me anything. It isn’t fair. It isn’t good. It isn’t mannerly, and more than that – It’s insegrevious!”
The teacher stood back. Then, straightening his shoulders, looked back at the boy and said, “It’s insegrevious is it?”
“Yes sir.” Said Hom, looking him straight in the eye.
Dr Wen smiled suddenly. If Hom had happened on the very radio programme that provided unusual words once a week, the game was up. He’d have no secret ammunition. He was a magic hat with only one trick. Amused by the boy’s earnest entreaty and use of the very word, he himself had about to launch on the hapless pupil, Dr Wen did something unusual for that class. He put his head back and laughed long and hard. The class waited a bit, before joining in.
Getting his breath back, Dr Wen said, “Well done, laddie. So you listen to the radio too. How about you tell me about the most amazing thing you’ve heard on there?”
Hom thought for a bit. “There was a story about a ten foot bonsai tree on the news. The photo is in all the papers. People can’t believe it. Bonsai is supposed to be little. It says so in the encyclopaedia at home.”
‘Encyclopaedia at home’. A phrase, wholly unexpected. Perhaps he’d misread this pupil. Perhaps go a little easier on him. Not to appear.. what was that word again? Insegrevious.
Project Foreman Chang, looked out the window and stated to his assistant clerk, Mingli, “Look at them. The most revered horticulturalists in the country and they’re just sitting around in the shade reading the paper as if they were at home. I’m going out there!” Foreman Chang slammed his hand onto his desk as a gesture of commitment to his decision, but he thought to himself, “But they are the most revered and highly respected artists.” He hesitantly opened the office door, but boldly stepped out.
Chang’s demeanor was blatantly humble by the time he stood in front of the master gardeners, Quingshan and Bingwen. Chang bowed, but the two men kept reading. A little embarrassed, Chang shifted nervously as he prodded, “Master Quingshan, it has been three days and the project of trimming the republic’s giant topiary still has not begun. Is there anything blocking the path which I could possibly clear away?” Master gardener, Bingwen, cleared his throat and shook his newspaper as he folded it closed and shifted his piercing eyes over at Foreman Chang, “Honorable sir,” he quipped, We are not merely laborers. We are artists; intellectuals, and skilled beyond all others at the craft of topiary maintenance. What you do not realize is that art is generated from the creative inner being. It is impossible to separate the act of skill from the inspiration of the spirit. Preparation of the mind and soul is essential before true art can be manifest into the mundane world with its petty concerns and carnal limitations.” Chang stood silent as if he were a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.
Quingshan too folded his newspaper and turned his attention to Foreman Chang. “… and we have not received our shipment of magic hats.” At a total loss for words, Foreman Chang just stared until he finally mustered the courage to inquire, “ … Magic hats?” Master Bingwen obliged him, “Yes, the magic hats we all wear whenever we are working; especially on such a priceless national treasure as the great topiary. We never work without them.” Master Quingshan added, “They bring us wisdom as we work, and skill is simply applied wisdom. It would be isegrevious if you did not already know this, Foreman Chang.” Quingshan smiled and continued, “Maybe you should like to buy one of these hats for yourself, Foreman Chang?”
At that very moment, a rickshaw runner arrived with a package for the workers. Quingshan and Bingwen were very pleased; their hats had arrived.
Foreman Chang returned to the office cubicle wearing a white hat with a flap on the back to keep the sun off the neck. Mingli was curious. “What’s up with the sun-hat, Chang?” Chang was a little embarrassed to tell Mingli he had bought it from the Master gardeners, how much it cost him, and that it was supposed to bring wisdom to the wearer. Mingli smiled, “ You know they buy those hats by the dozens for a fraction of what you paid.”
Foreman Chang took off the hat and set it on his desk, “You see, Mingli? I’m feeling wiser already.”
The Insegrevious Hat
A magic hat you say? Why would you ask? Do you think good magic hats are easy to find? Hardly, I tell you. They are not. I had one. Not a good one, but I had one. As a magician, I despised the stupid thing.
Yes, I practiced my hand at the craft for a bit and made a few bucks out of utilizing stage props for the wow effect. And then, here comes this ordinary looking magic hat. My thoughts were to use it in my act as any other prop.
I had rehearsed with the thing a thousand times. Pull the cute little bunny from the hat and the crowd becomes in awe- you know, the whole crazy show stuff. And then, when I got on stage, nothing happened. Nothing! The crowd sat in silence. I sweated like a pig, but still nothing happened!
It was the worst magical performance of my life. Like an idiot, I just froze there. The audience became so bored they just pulled out newspapers and started reading. Well, needless to say, I was asked to never come back there. And, I tried to perform after that, but I my act was wrecked. I just couldn’t do it. Every time I tried, nothing happened.
So, I drank a little too much one night, and stood on a bridge over the Hudson Bay. I thought about ending it all right there, but I thought about the real cause of my current mess. It was the damn hat- that stupid magic hat that did nothing but give me stage fright. So, I took it off, and I slung it out over the water.
I watched it descend. I watched it sink. I breathed a sigh of relief as it went under the surface. I walked away from that bridge like the weight of the world had been lifted from these shoulders. Can you understand something like that?
The next morning, I woke up with one heck of hangover. The room was still spinning around and around. Yet, when my eyes came into focus, guess what the first thing I saw lying there on the dresser might be? It was that insegrevious, stupid, aggravating, numbskull magic hat!
I’ve tried to destroy it so many ways, in garbage dumps, in fire. I’ve even mailed via FedEx. The hat always finds me. Again and again and again!
So that’s why they found me trimming that giant topiary bush, wearing my hat. And when I could not stand anymore of it, I took it off, and with the shears I shredded into bits. I suppose that fit of insanity was why they put me in this here asylum. Something broke inside of me that day as they drugged me up with meds, and I passed out.
I woke up in here the next day with the hat on the dresser. The Dr. came in mumbled something at me. I sat there in silence in my restraining chair. Before he left, he put that hat on my head. I laughed and laughed and laughed. The laughter was of a special kind. Insegrevious laughter, it was.
Connie tugged at her sun hat—a ridiculous thing, floppy and pink with a cluster of faded yellow roses clinging to one side—and peered out beneath the brim at the old men outside the grocer’s. They clumped together, like the roses, she thought, setting everything off balance and growing thin and papery with age and too much sunshine. Sweet smoke from stubby brown cigars wafted toward her. It sullied the crisp spring air, aging it, like the musty air in her grandmother’s attic. Newspapers rustled. Connie thought of rats nesting in the shredded paper of those crates where she found the hat, boxed up and ready to disintegrate with the rest of her mother’s things.
“I recognize that hat.” Long-haired white eyebrows rose above the dingy grey paper, and two black irises peered back at her.
“Mr. Zhang, I’m—”
“Minzhu’s daughter, yes.” The man folded the newspaper delicately, and his hands, just-so. “I recognize the hat.”
“I would like a job. Sir.” She pushed into the cigar smoke, and stood stiffly. “My name is Constance.”
“I have no work for girls.” Zhang fingered the edge of his paper, impatient.
“You had work for my mother.” The familiar temptation of disobedience tugged at Connie’s edges, threatening to pull her apart. She would unravel, her grandmother warned her; like the threads she insisted on fiddling with instead of fixing, she would tug too hard at propriety and end up naked and broken. Dead. Like her mother.
“Your mother had a gift.”
“And I have her hat,” Connie said. Her heart flinched; she had done it now. Now, when she most needed to do things right. Proper.
“Talk to the rabbit,” Zhang said. The newspaper unfolded like the petals of a strange, ugly flower under the hot, white sun. The eyebrows disappeared.
Connie tore the hat from her head and ran, tears streaming down her cheeks. Why did she have to be like this? Insegrevious. Despicable and nonsensical. She crumpled the hat in her fists and clutched it to her chest. And without thinking, she ran into Zhang’s Oriental Gardens.
Inside the stone walls, she sat in the shadows of the famed topiary menagerie. Here, at least, she could breath. She had spent hours here with her mother, as she trimmed and shaped the hedges and watered the flowers. She had had a gift. Why did I think I could be like her, Connie thought, when I look so silly in her hat? Still, she smoothed the thing and put it back on her head. Insegrevious.
“—told you.” A voice swirled beneath the brim of the hat and into her ears. “She couldn’t stay away for long.”
“—too young.” Another voice, like wind rushing in the leaves. Connie pulled her knees to her chest, hid her face, and listened. “Zhang sent you, I suppose?”
“Hello?” Connie looked around curiously. There was no one else in the garden. “Are you talking to me?”
“Who else?” She looked up. A great, green rabbit looked down at her. “You must be Min’s daughter. I’d recognize that hat anywhere.”