Contest #194 winner 🏆

The Idiom Archipelago

Submitted into Contest #194 in response to: Write a story inspired by the phrase “Back to square one.”... view prompt

129 comments

Adventure Romance Speculative

Day 1: The Sundering Seas


Welcome to The Pudding, my little ship hung with true blue sails. She is bravely buoyant upon the sundering sea as she bears me questing for proofs among the Isles of Idiom. Aboard there is a crew of only me and my beagle Salty. I steer the ship on the heaving waves and Salty listens to my meanderings, understanding my moods with his plaintive eyes. You are here too, though you understand much less and exist only in the corners of my reveries.


I am charting these waters and the isles they swaddle. I am good with a pen and a compass, and hope to describe for you the contours of shorelines and the shapes of waves that caress them. If I should discover any proofs along the way—buried in the sand or wrecked upon the reefs or marooned in the island villages—I shall attempt to sketch them for you as well, though, as you have so often told me, I am not good with abstracts. Still, I will make the attempt, and perhaps in the effort you and I will come to some kind of agreement. Perhaps we will narrow the rift between us. Perhaps we will find each other again.   


Day 8: Among the Hat Eaters 


The island rises from the sea shaped much like a tall capotain with a flattened top and a reef encircling it like a brim. The Pudding tossed dreadfully as we crossed the reef, Salty was nearly dislodged from the deck, but I held the tiller steady and we landed safely enough on the shore.


We were greeted by a gentleman with an impressive edifice upon his head, a towering cap made of objects I thought would be better kept in a drawer or on a shelf. I saw a coil of rope, a pair of scissors, a bowl filled with buttons and a birdhouse among a dozen other odds and ends all fastened to his hat. His neck bulged stiffly with the necessary muscles to carry such a load. 


“If you make it back across the reef in that little dingy, I’ll eat my hat,” he said as he strode towards us.


“I’ll wait til the tide is high and going out,” I answered with a smile.


He harrumphed and walked away. 


Salty and I shared a look of bemusement.


The island’s town had one outstanding feature—doors and roofs all built extraordinarily tall, as if a race of ten foot giants lived there. The inhabitants, however, were not of unusual height, except for the hats they never removed from their heads. Like the gentleman who greeted us, every man, woman and child wore an ornament of outlandish proportions atop their pate, each decorated with an astonishing variety of objects. Stranger still, these people seemed eager to wager eating it with every utterance they made.


“If you’re not here for resupplying, I’ll eat my hat.”


“If you’re not from Square Island, I’ll eat my hat.”


“If your beagle there ain’t got scurvy, I’ll eat my hat.”


I wonder what you would have thought of these people. I am sorry to say I saw a bit of you among them—always so adamant that their opinion mattered most. On this island, being right was everything, and the size of the hat seemed to indicate the wearer's confidence in his own judgment and his stubbornness against ever admitting he was wrong. Before I left the island, I saw a sight of tremendous sadness. Old and bent, a man was forced to eat his hat. He could not, of course, consume the colossus assembled over a lifetime, but he would not admit he was wrong. So he was sent off the island, alone, in a tiny barque. As he faded into the darkness towards the crashing reef, I thought of the sea between you and I, and the thought made my neck ache with stiffness.


Day 23: Where All Things are Equal


Short Stick island is perfectly divided, everything in equal proportion. When I moored The Pudding at the pier, the dockman asked me to reposition so the distances between either end of the dock and either end of my ship were the same. Ashore, the trees are trimmed to equal height, the yards are fenced in equal plots, the pickets are spaced with perfectly even gaps and the people all are equally discontented. 


Their unhappiness springs from their shared mantra, posted in every public place and over every private door: “Never accept the short end.”


In the marketplace, dickering voices make vigorous testament to the zeal with which the ideal is upheld. At every stall, proprietors and customers argue their side of the bargain is less equal, and at the closing of every deal both sides are displeased.  


The professional district is lined with offices belonging to the likes of “Murphy and Sons,” “Grieves, Rogue and Blackman,” and a multitude of other practitioners of law. The thriving economy of litigiousness promises their clients “the long end,” and, judging by the marble facades and polished gold knockers, the owners of these offices frequently hold that part of the stick themselves. 


As Salty and I took our repast, I saw a small man and a large woman whose condition made me wonder. The innkeeper brought identical portions of stew, set before them in identical bowls. The thin man reached over his spoon and took a scoop from the woman’s dish. 


“Everyone knows we men use up our vittles faster, it’s only fair,” he said, depositing the scoop in his own bowl.


 The woman reached out her spoon and took a double portion back. “I’m twice your size,” she said, “it’s only fair.”


The man reclaimed his scoop and took another from her bowl. “I hauled two cords of firewood this morning. It's only fair.”


The woman’s face grew red. “I’ve done laundry for most of the town today, it’s only fair.” She dumped half his bowl into her own.


 “I thatched the roof just yesterday.”


“I birthed your children.”


“I worked my fingers to the bone.”


The stew flew back and forth across the table, and neither man nor woman ate their fill. Finally, both stomped out to find a lawyer to help them argue their case.


I looked down at Salty, who was licking the last from his bowl. “Here,” I said, “have some of mine.”


The innkeeper then asked me to leave, declaring with disgust that “short enders” weren’t allowed in his establishment. 


As I walked down the docks, I thought of you. Your eyes that flash when you are angry and your tears that you try to hide. I wonder if there is truly such a thing as “fairness.” If there is, I suspect now it isn’t worth at all what I thought it was.


Day 67: Twisters and Turners


Though Plotter’s Island is quite small, it has two villages, one on either side—an easy walk’s distance. The residents of each intermingle everyday as they go about their business and I have never seen such friendly greetings and doffing of hats and “pleased to see yous” among any bunch of neighbors. At evening time however, they separate. Twisters brood together in little cliques in one town, Turners seat themselves pensively at tables in the other.


Salty and I sought company among the Twisters. We found them most accommodating during the day, offering help to strangers and exclaiming how fortunate they were to have visitors to their humble land. After sunset, the mood turned different. I tried to join a group of conversationalists, but my presence dampened the dialogue and I saw sidelong looks that made me feel I wasn’t welcome. So I sat with Salty some way off and listened to snatches on the wind. Nowhere have I ever heard such unabashed gossip. 


“The stranger, what have you heard about him?”


“He’s running from the law. Killed a man on Square Island.”


I looked aghast at Salty and rose to my feet to correct this falsehood. Salty cocked his head and whined that I should wait.


“Oh posh, don’t be so gruesome. He’s only a politician. Scandal, corruption and all of that but he never killed a soul.”


“That’s much worse in my opinion. A good wholesome murder in fit of passion is better than scumbag tax embezzling.”


“I heard he’s done both.”


I couldn’t help but snort at such outrageous accusations. The huddled group of Twisters glanced furtively in my direction and shuffled away with lowered voices. 


Salty and I walked briskly to the Turners’ side. 


I took an open seat at a table where half a dozen others furrowed their brows and stroked their chins. The table was shaped exactly like the island, and wooden carved figurines stood across its surface. 


 “What’s the game?” I asked.


“Game?” grunted the mustache next to me, “this is no game here my man. This is ‘just deserts.’”


He lifted a push stick and used it to shuffle a group of figurines across the board.


“Are those Twisters?” I wondered, looking at the pieces.


“Aye, they are. They’re the ones that told that tale about me and Mrs. Brinkman’s cabbage patch. I don’t even like cabbages. But I'm plotting something real good here.” He scratched his chin, then pushed another piece across the board and chuckled darkly, “they’ll never see this coming.”


“They fabricated the most horrible things about me, those Twisters did.” I said.


“That’s what they do,” a gray haired lady across the table muttered, “always suspicious, imagining the worst. But we got them beat here. We turn it all right back on them.”


“Well, I can see how that would be quite satisfying.” I chirped, “I’d like to repay them for their unkind thoughts myself. Have you got an extra push stick around?”


Salty whined from down between my feet. His sad brown eyes reminded me of you, and suddenly this game felt too familiar. 


I scuffed the sand as I walked back to my ship. Twist and turns, thickening plots. I have trouble now remembering where it even started between us and how it ever got this far. I hope you think of me, wherever you are, however far across the sea. I am thinking of you and I promise all my plans are different now.


Day 108: The Simple Things


I could see the tall spires of Hardly Island long before I reached its shores. It’s a marvel of spiraling towers and crystal palaces soaring in the sky and sparkling in the sun. The docks are of a floating metal that lifts and falls with the tide and everywhere I look there is another invention, a wonder of ingenuity crafted with exquisite skill I cannot comprehend. I would’ve asked how they were made, but I could not find a single moving creature. The streets were dark, cobwebs filled the unlit lamps atop their posts and silence alone enjoyed the many miracles.


At the edge of town on a humble porch that did not match the surrounding grandeur I met the only living soul upon the island. He was old and frail and his chin drooped against his chest as he rocked gently in his chair.


“Your town here is magnificent,” I called loudly so he would hear.

“Eh? You like it? Gabby and I, we built it ourselves you know.” He rested a hand on the empty rocker next to him.


“Just two of you?”


“Eh? Well yes, just two of us. We’re geniuses you know. She’s a surgeon and a scientist with a mind for detail that never met a problem it couldn’t solve. Me, I’m an engineer, best there ever was. Together, we did all of this ourselves.” He patted the arm of the empty rocker.


“You must be proud.”


“I suppose,” his jowls wobbled as his aged head tremored. “But you know, we spent our lives mapping out synapses and sending ships out into space. Wasn’t till the end we figured out it isn't brain surgery or rocket science that makes you happy, it's the simple things.” He looked over at the empty chair and gave a roguish wink.


“The simple things?” I asked, not daring even a glance at the vacant chair.


“That’s right. Like hand holding and telling someone she’s pretty,” he winked again, “and stealing kisses and being glad you got each other no matter what. That’s better even than driving a horseless carriage through the sands of mars. I’d know.”


“Is Gabby here? I’d like to meet such a fine lady.” I asked, foreboding in my heart.


“Why she’s right—” The old man started, staring at the empty rocker. He licked his lips. “Well, she must have stepped inside. She’ll be right out presently I’m sure, it’s not too late yet.”


Day 109: Course For Square Island


Salty knows we’re heading back. He rests his paws upon the bow and seems to taste the air of home ahead of him, his tongue lolling, his ears perked. I hope I’ll find you there. Perhaps you’re waiting on the bluff, your golden hair dancing on the wind, your empty arms yearning for me like I am yearning for you. I am not coming back the same. The Pudding’s holds are full of proofs. You’ll see them, if you let me show you. The wind is in our favor, the true blue sails are filled and Square Island has always promised new beginnings.

April 17, 2023 21:39

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129 comments

Michele Duess
15:33 Apr 28, 2023

Reminds me of a story I read as a child. The Phantom Tollbooth. The plot was similar, with concrete use of idioms such as “jumping to conclusions.” I enjoyed that book and this story also. Congrats on the win!

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RJ Holmquist
16:05 Apr 28, 2023

Thank you! I should read The Phantom Tollbooth again, it has been a long while.

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Mary Bendickson
15:03 Apr 28, 2023

Ooo. I knew this was good when I read it. It was one of the first ones I read this week. Congrats on well deserved win. So many good ones but only three shortlisted? Wonder why?

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RJ Holmquist
16:09 Apr 28, 2023

Thank you! I know, it seems like the last couple weeks there haven't been as many shortlisted, but three seems like an extra short list

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Jack Kimball
00:59 Apr 25, 2023

You certainly have a unique voice RJ. Highly creative. Now I’m inspired to RE-read Gulliver’s Travels. This one’s so creative. A winner in my view.

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RJ Holmquist
01:04 Apr 25, 2023

Thanks Jack!

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Chris Miller
18:04 Apr 24, 2023

A miniature Swiftian travelogue. Lovely fun story. The narrator's innocent, curious character reminded me a little bit of Piranesi. Nice one.

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RJ Holmquist
18:26 Apr 24, 2023

I haven't read Piranesi yet, but I will have to check it out! Thanks for the comment!

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Chris Miller
15:47 Apr 28, 2023

Well done, RJ! A well deserved win.

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RJ Holmquist
16:04 Apr 28, 2023

Thank you, and congratulations for shortlisting as well!

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15:42 Apr 28, 2023

Exactly! A modern day Gulliver's Travels. Well done :)

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Russell Mickler
14:09 Apr 24, 2023

Hey there, RJ - A creative jaunt around the Idiom Isles and a fantastic way to address all of the prompts at once! I liked your treatment with Salty at the bowl scene - I looked down at Salty, who was licking the last from his bowl. “Here,” I said, “have some of mine.” ... An expert detour from the narrative to appeal to Salty and his needs ... loved that. I also dig brevity tied with ample description: "At the edge of town on a humble porch that did not match the surrounding grandeur I met the only living soul upon the island. He was o...

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RJ Holmquist
14:57 Apr 24, 2023

Oh, you're right. It does need an Idiom Sea Shanty. Preferably played on a accordion with a tenor part for a dog to howl along too. I will have to think on that haha.

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Russell Mickler
16:12 Apr 24, 2023

Oh, totally! :) giggle R

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Irene Duchess
21:55 Apr 20, 2023

Oh wow. I love how you entwined all the prompts into this, as if each different prompt created a whole new island. Some favorite lines: -“Oh posh, don’t be so gruesome. He’s only a politician. Scandal, corruption and all of that but he never killed a soul.” “That’s much worse in my opinion. A good wholesome murder in fit of passion is better than scumbag tax embezzling.” -the stew flew back and forth back and forth across the table, and neither man nor woman ate their fill. Finally, both stomped out to find a lawyer to help them argue the...

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RJ Holmquist
23:29 Apr 20, 2023

Thanks for reading and I appreciate you taking time to comment!

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Michał Przywara
20:50 Apr 20, 2023

Oh man - the proof is in the pudding! What a clever, fun story :) Not only did you manage to hit all the prompts, but you dug so much deeper into them, tying them in a lovely tale about love and the traps we fall into. The petty, pointless things which seem to mean so much in the moment, but don't stand up to scrutiny. "capotain" - thank you for the new word. "He could not, of course, consume the colossus assembled over a lifetime, but he would not admit he was wrong." I like this idea, and the whole conceit for this island. All the isla...

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RJ Holmquist
23:26 Apr 20, 2023

Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments!

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Michał Przywara
01:04 Apr 29, 2023

Congratulations on the win!

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RJ Holmquist
01:54 Apr 29, 2023

Thank you!

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Viga Boland
17:43 Apr 20, 2023

Darn RJ! I can’t believe you did what I was contemplating doing and didn’t! Am I talking in riddles or have you figured out what I’m trying to say? If you guessed that I was toying with the idea of bringing all 5 of this week’s prompts together in one story, but while I was toying, you were writing. So fine. I bow to your superior creativity. So darn clever! I guess while some waste time thinking, others do. And you did. Bravo 👏 I salute you noble bard sailing the idiomatic seas.

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RJ Holmquist
19:24 Apr 20, 2023

I don't think I am the only one that tried to hit on all the prompts! You still have time! We all want to see your idea too!

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Viga Boland
19:48 Apr 20, 2023

Thanks RJ but I may have to just leave it at the one story I already posted this week. Have an idea for a Banter, but it’ll be a free submission if I find time to write it. If I can come up with 1000 words, and it’s good enough, could be a further addition to the “Bickering Banters” book I may pull together one day.

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RJ Holmquist
20:15 Apr 20, 2023

Looking forward to it!

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Glenda Toews
12:43 Apr 20, 2023

I sometimes think Reedsy should incorporate a 'love' button. I loved this story. I wish I had your imagination. One that sails along drawing salt from words, spilling them back into your ocean of imagination. That is you. It is impressive! Some where hidden, is a title on Amazon, authored by RJ Holmquist. When I find it I will buy it!

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RJ Holmquist
19:22 Apr 20, 2023

I wish! I haven't got anything out there yet. Thanks for reading!

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Glenda Toews
19:33 Apr 20, 2023

No wishing needed. I heard it said once; 'you want to write a book? So write one. Write one paragraph a day. Even if it's a lousy paragraph, a lousy paragraph is better than no paragraph." I'm looking forward to it. So get to work!

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Suma Jayachandar
02:45 Apr 20, 2023

Isles of Idiom! What a fantastic concept you have brought to life here! It has adventure, humour and of course, romance in perfectly believable places. A very enjoyable and thought provoking piece. Thanks for sharing.

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RJ Holmquist
03:20 Apr 20, 2023

Thanks for reading, and for your kind comment!

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Richard E. Gower
23:24 Apr 18, 2023

OMG, what a triumph of the imagination!! Drawn from the same barrel of wit that was tapped by the likes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. A comment below referred to perfection. I agree. Beautifully done. -:) Cheers! RG

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RJ Holmquist
23:44 Apr 18, 2023

I hadn't thought of Edward Lear! Now I feel like I need to add something pea green in there somewhere...

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Richard E. Gower
20:15 Apr 20, 2023

Decisions, decisions....-:) Also forgot to mention that I liked the nod to Solzhenitsyn in the title...-:) Cheers! RG

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RJ Holmquist
20:20 Apr 20, 2023

That was more by chance...the Solzhenitsyn title did come to mind, but only because I remember seeing it on mom's book shelf. I honestly have no idea what is in that book, other than I assume it deals with Gulags. So if it works as a reference great! If not, oops. I should probably read it now.

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Kevin V
23:41 Apr 17, 2023

The thing I love most about your stories is that they are so unique. So clever. You have this way of stepping away and looking at different facets to approaching a story. This is no different. I LOVE how you take the idioms from the prompts and make them islands, populating them with people who personify each idiom so well. Whether intended or not, I enjoy the style that reminds me so much of works done in the early 1900's, using journal type entries to tell a tale. Not unlike Jules Verne. While I tend at times to call out scenes that ju...

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RJ Holmquist
23:49 Apr 17, 2023

Thanks so much for the detailed commment! Yes, I was trying to make it sound old fashioned, since the concept is really just a riff on Gulliver's Travels. Thanks for the suggestions! Out of curiosity, did the awkward phrase about a stiff aching neck bring to mind "stiffnecked" at all? Maybe trying too hard to force in another idiom... Thanks again!

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Kevin V
00:07 Apr 18, 2023

I'm not real sure what you are asking, RJ, but there isn't any reason you couldn't do this: - and the thought made me stiffnecked. Or - the thought gave me a stiff neck I never read Gulliver's Travels, sadly. I should.

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RJ Holmquist
00:21 Apr 18, 2023

Those are helpful suggestions. Thanks again! I should actually read it again myself. I haven't since I was a kid. Here I am copying it by turning Idioms into Islands, while his was so influential that his islands all became idioms

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Kevin V
00:30 Apr 18, 2023

You're welcome. I'm pleased you are gracious enough to consider them in the spirit they are offered.

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Kevin V
16:26 Apr 28, 2023

Congrats RJ on winning this week. It really doesn't surprise me!

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Michelle Oliver
23:27 Apr 17, 2023

I love the way you have incorporated every prompt, every extra idiom you should squeeze in too! This tale reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels, which I hope was your inspiration. Each island had something to teach him about himself. I enjoyed the language, especially the opening paragraph with the lovely alliteration. I wish I had more to critique with to be constructively helpful.

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RJ Holmquist
23:34 Apr 17, 2023

It is definitely an homage to Swift. I am glad you liked the language, I tried to make it a sound a little old fashioned. Thanks so much for reading!

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Michelle Oliver
01:21 Apr 29, 2023

Congratulations on the win, well deserved. Your clever storytelling and character development has been rightfully acknowledged this week!

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RJ Holmquist
01:54 Apr 29, 2023

Thanks so much!

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Mary Bendickson
23:15 Apr 17, 2023

Why improve perfection? You covered all the idioms, the proof is in the pudding. I hope she recognizes his true blue sails.

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RJ Holmquist
23:31 Apr 17, 2023

Thanks for reading and your always kind comments!

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Geir Westrul
02:01 May 06, 2023

RJ, what a tour de force! A whimsical Gulliver's travelogue through the many lands of idioms, cleverly weaving together all 5 prompts. And yet you made it poignant, thought provoking and so memorable. Your voice is so unique. Wonderful! And congratulations on a very well-deserved win!

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Carolyn Wayson
04:36 May 02, 2023

Wow this is really great! I love that it is mixed parts a diary and sort of a captains log. This was giving me serious 20,000 leagues under the sea vibes. I love the part with the old man in the rocker. He seemed to really understand how to enjoy the simple things. Were you trying to make it seem like he thought his wife was still there but she had actually passed away? That’s what I interpreted from that. Congratulations on the win!!

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RJ Holmquist
13:49 May 02, 2023

Thank you! You are correct, I was imagining the old man's wife had passed away, and that he was realizing too late that the simple things were most important. Thanks for reading!

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Carolyn Wayson
14:28 May 02, 2023

Of course! Glad i interpreted it correctly! Keep writing!

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Olive Silirus
13:49 Apr 29, 2023

You demonstrate a fair amount of brilliance in your writing. Well done!

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RJ Holmquist
01:50 May 01, 2023

Thank you!

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Amy Arora
13:00 Apr 29, 2023

I loved this. So creative and your imagery is beautiful. I really liked the love story thread too. Congratulations on your well-deserved win!

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RJ Holmquist
01:50 May 01, 2023

Thank you!

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13:45 Oct 11, 2023

i love it

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Bebars Ashraf
13:16 Oct 06, 2023

I love that

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