If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then just how many words does a writer need to tell a story? I asked a few writers this question. The responses ranged from 4000 to 200 words. Then I asked one of them;
“Can you do 30 words?”
Dalle Abraham was skeptical. “You mean 300?” He asked.
“No. I mean 30 words. Three with one zero.” I told the coolest man from Marsabit.
The shortest story ever written by Ernest Hemingway goes like this; For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. Those were just six words. But it is a complete story with an opening, body and ending. Narrative Magazine did something around the same. See here. There is even a Twitter account for six word stories; @sixwordstories.
I figured, if people have written stories six words long, then it would not be an impossible ask to request for stories with a maximum word count of 30. Sindio? So I asked a few writer friends to take part in a project. The brief was simple: Write a story in 30 words or less.
These showed up in my inbox;
She stares into nothingness. Alone, in a white jacket. Through the window, he sees her reach out to touch something that only existed to her. He writes on the clipboard.
8 years old and married
To a man I could call papa,
8 years old and pregnant
With a child I won’t live to love
8 years old praying for death
He aims the gun at the first one. He’s singing; eyes closed, palms heavenward. It is a good thing he is going to heaven. Slaves will be needed there too.
Walking away from the bin, she felt relief, though she couldn’t stop her tears. “Someone better than me will love it,” she thought, her baby’s cries fading into the night.
(a) “Say your last prayer.” He pointed the gun at me. As he motioned to pull the trigger, someone from his back came through to him first. I am never alone.
(b) I am Solomon Grundy. Everything you’ve heard about me is true.
(a) Only older men could love her. Boys her age and younger, though curious, were revolted by her body, growing outside her.
Then he came and told her, “Let’s run away.”
(b) Mother says she’ll have two glasses. ‘No more than that.’ But by the end of the evening, she’s calling him a bad influence. It’s her seventh one. Neat this time.
On the edge of a cliff in Moheli, I battled wind, kicked my fear, punched the cold, as I leaped into the dark foreboding water screaming “Ancestors! Take me home!”
(a) MUEZZIN INTERRUPTUS
Halima crouched, bui-bui held to her henna-ed body while Mutwiri waited, erectrified, for Muezzin’s call to pass. When she rejoined him he was limp, rubber tugging like an old sock.
In the classroom she mocked and taunted him, to mask last night’s shame. She changed faces and deflated, in public, erections she died for in the dark, where green flies buzzed.
(c) COST OF LAUGHTER
“Mum, today Dad pricked me with his bone ”
She cried and laughed. Yesterday, thirty years ago, I learnt the cost of those tears and wished I could afford that laughter.
Dayo Adewunmi Ntwari
“Tree! Please hide me!” Hairy hands clutching branches, fingernails scratching dead bark. Whimpering at the sound of raging dogs in the distance. Black birds’ red eyes staring curiously.
TWO BLUE TICKS
Fuck. She’s read that. Too much alcohol. Bad decisions. No reply. I love her. My data bundles, done. No Response. Fuck it. More Vodka. Two Blue Ticks. No regrets.
‘So what do you do?’
‘Eat. Sit. Shit. Basic human stuff.’
Six months later. I’ve changed my birthday to April 1st because only fools get addicted.
“You’re so sweet.”
“You want another round?”
“Hun, I was earlier trying to tell you I have HIV.”
“Dear God, what bullshit is this?”
Ian Arunga (Dear Doris)
Blood dripped from the knife she held. Her husband and a woman she barely knew lay lifeless on the floor. Everything was silent until a baby girl crawled into the room.
Jackson Biko (bikozulu)
I’ll be back, she said. A lie. Daily, he waits by the window, holding a cup and the lie in the other hand. He waits until he becomes the lie.
Mother said the man in the picture was dead. Then one day the doorbell rang and the brown face at the front door said “Hello son.”
At their first breath she locks eyes with them. She hopes the heavens for them; sees heaven in their eyes.
They know hell; become it. Break her heart.
GREEN AND WET
She wanted two.
He wanted more.
This will be their eighth.
Every day, she watches the hills.
She wonders if they’re still beautiful.
He strung his punch-numb wife to the new car she bought sans his consent, drove to her ongoing bungalow, left her and a carton of strawberry malt, her favorite.
He looks at me just as I have pictured it a million times before. Why now? I don’t know whether to run to him or run and hide.
Ruth, my wife, is sweating as my excited camera points at the doctor. Red on his hands. But why is the baby not crying?
(b) I DON’T
The church clock now says 1pm. The tux is burning me. Sweat soaking up inside. She still isn’t answering her phone. I know she won’t. Fuck! I need a drink.
(a) A forest of Uganda along the way. The bomb blows. Buses of illegal immigrants on the border. The machines rust. The PlayStation’s lust to graphic traffic terrific horrific magic tragic.
(b) Mboya’s walking out of a chemist shop. Shots to-the-heart stereophone inside a hundred thousand city ears. Jomo’s photo, hanging in every shop on the avenue, shakes, moves out of position.
(c) Acres of factory space. She leans to look at my English sentences. After Fridays of office work.
“If you say goodbye, do you again hope for a hello? ”
He closed the door and leaned against the wall of his own empty room. Fresh memories of many voices singing his praise, except for the aching absence of her voice.
Her brother said, ‘You will find her at the University Clinic.’ When he saw her, chained to the bed, he recalled the first time she sucked him in his car.
I woke up with a swollen face, desperate, and heavily pregnant. Closing the door quietly behind me, I left, because if I didn’t, his chang’aa demons would’ve killed my child.
FUCK THE TALK
Conversation limping along, joints broken by ellipses. Until: fingers questioning inside trousers; not a whisper of response.
“Take your wife off and hang her in the closet for one night.”
(a) “I saw her.”
“Oh. How is he…I mean, she?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t talk. We haven’t talked since the operation.”
(b) “Why don’t you pack your bags and go?”
“No, I want to stay here.”
“Because when I left, I lost my place at home.”
Richard Oduor Oduku
It is a place where everyone has a sad story to tell, he whispers, sometimes children come from the forest with human bones in bundles, as firewood.
In the morning two men holding hands hid their faces. By noon they hugged publicly. Yet before dusk, they married rightfully. Now I am afraid of tomorrow.
At 42, the caterpillar crawls out; seeking respect and reason. Chewing leaves of faith, it enters into its ‘writing’ chrysalis. The butterfly emerges out with wings of freedom and rediscovery.
Tony Ontita Mochama
“May you lie in your coffin, ragamuffin,” roared the priest by way of dasvidanya, “and may your corpse shiver in the July chill.” No one wept. The day remained dry-eyed.