Editor’s note: “Hearing the Siren Song” was a finalist for the Show Us Your Short-Shorts Editors’ Prize.
“It’s red and white, of course,’’ you answered. “Or maybe just red, and the white holds the red bits together,’’ you added, just in case.
The chains of Qalixy’s swing squeaked as she turned to you.
“No, no, the color of peppermint is actually purple,’’ she said.
“What? Then how come pepperminty things always look so non-purple?’’
“Peppermint gets bleached, then parts of it are dyed red,’’ Qalixy replied without a moment’s hesitation, like she had all the answers, like she could summarize your future job in a sentence or two.
You rocked back and forth a couple times on your swing, swaying not swinging. You hadn’t swung for ages. Neither had Qalixy.
For several long moments, you heard only the shouting of classmates playing dodgeball in the distance.
“Okay,’’ you replied, conceding but unconvinced.
This then became another of the few times when you were glad recess was almost over.
During dinner, you asked your parents, who essentially confirmed Qalixy’s claims. They also provided an explanation: peppermint is turned white and red to give it a colorful freshness complementing its cool, vaporous taste.
That should have been the end of it. Qalixy was right and you were wrong. But something nagged at you—the vague feeling of being cheated.
As you toweled off after your shower, an emotion swerved through you with visceral certainty: indignation. You had been treated unfairly. Because you could not have known or deduced this fact about peppermint. Its original color had never been mentioned to you and bore no relation to what you were learning at school. Qalixy’s question had nothing to do with your reasoning abilities or depth of knowledge. You had been left no choice but to answer incorrectly.
I’ll show her, you vowed to yourself.
After putting on your pajamas, you went straight to your family’s encyclopedia set, to look for facts with only tangential pertinence to daily life. Soon, questions nucleated around the nuggets of knowledge you plucked from the thin pages you ran your fingers over.
How long does it take apples to grow? Why are they red? What decorative shrub are apple trees related to? What nut tree is in the same family as the apple tree?
You grinned. Tomorrow you would be the quizmaster and perhaps again the day after.
But this went far beyond the next two days.
From here on, you and Qalixy alternately and indefinitely asserted the role of quizmaster, embarking your relationship upon the frenemy dynamic of quizzing each other on quotidian facets of life. The ensuing back and forth toss of questions and answers became a game you and Qalixy played over weeks, then months, cementing into a zealous, daily practice—like you were training each other to be quiz show contestants.
Sporadically, rules emerged to refine the burgeoning rivalry. Each week, questions must focus on the topic agreed upon the preceding Friday. No more than 3 questions per person per day. A close answer is an acceptable answer. No kind of score will ever be kept—explicitly.
But the terms of engagement swayed and bent as stakes rose and fell. On good days, the exuberant exchange of trivia questions was banter between you and Qalixy. In darker moods, questions devised to be discomfiting were dealt out in front of mutual friends. These benevolent and malevolent overtones oscillated around a baseline where questions and answers served as your chitchat—as the basis of your rapport, the way your friends had gossip or sports fandom at the foundations of their conversations.
Then, as you weathered middle school’s relentless storm of homework, hormones and hyperbolic hubbub, there was a gradual shift that neither of you noticed. The questions were piquing curiosity. They elicited a desire to know more than just answers. You wanted to know why, for instance, energy spawned in the sun is so ancient by the time it reaches you—what happened on its long journey before it could finally caress your skin on a morning in June?
As you both sought the construction of knowledge over the amassing of facts, the competition shifted toward a demonstration of intelligence, away from the recollection of information. To wage the inquisition as an ongoing testament of intellect, you each worked your own cognitive crucible to forge questions in sleek form factors of smart-sounding phrasing. This meant starting not with factoids but by mining deposits of information, then smelting the ore in the furnaces of conscious consideration to extract ideas. When sufficiently refined, these ideas could be precisely shaped into elegant questions that glinted with the promise of greater knowledge—the enticing suggestion that the world is entirely comprehensible.
No longer quizmasters testing one another on minutiae, you and Qalixy had metamorphosed into scholastic nemeses versing each other in the art of posing, anticipating and addressing questions—the art of getting to know the world.
When 10th grade began, I transferred to your high school, and within a few weeks Qalixy and I were dating. At this point, she had a thing for new kids in her classes. Especially those who came from faraway or famous places.
Not long into our relationship, I was abruptly, unwittingly initiated into the intellectual interrogation you and Qalixy had been long locked in.
One Thursday, when we were visiting Ginger in her giraffe barn after school, you asked, “So, what is the underlying mechanism that gives the proton a mass far greater than the electron’s?’’
Not knowing the question was aimed at you, I was roused into mental action, my attention piqued.
“You mean why do the interactions with the Higgs field and the gluon field have different strengths?’’ I asked earnestly.
Like I had ambled upon a tennis court where a professional singles match had just begun and reflexively swiped at the incoming ball, the rapid return startling the player who launched this serve.
Your eyes darted to Qalixy.
Hers were waiting for yours. As was the smile on her face.
Soramimi Hanarejima is a writer of innovative fiction and the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection that Jack Cheng said “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags.” Soramimi’s recent work has appeared in various literary magazines, including Panoply, Pulp Literature and The Absurdist.