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The Scarlet Labyrinth

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The hesitant light of the early morning began to filter through Xundari’s peach bedroom curtains illuminating her slumbering face. She shifted and rolled over into me so that her face nuzzled my chest and my arms could wrap solidly about her. Her easy breaths warming me through I couldn’t resist the urge to kiss her shoulders and taste her salty skin on my lips.

Her eyes opened, eyelashes slightly parting to reveal her emerald eyes, “Mmm, good morning my love,” she whispered with a content smile.  She softly sighed again, let her eyes fall shut and wrapped her top leg around me.  

Lying awake, I listen for the cooing of the pigeons outside the apartment window. Together with Xundari’s breathing and my own pulse, a lovely, nuanced rhythm was starting to take shape. Like a lullaby it soothed me back towards sleep…

“Hey you! What do you have to smile about?!?”

My memory lost, having been interrupted by this percussive voice, I feel myself once more, feebly trying to tear at the man who was beginning to drive a knife into my brain. Again, I could think of little other than the madness of this business and the sensation of my vitality that was now running from my face, falling frivolously to the floor. Thoughts swirling around and out, reviewing my mistakes, cursing my own ambition and wondering if my writings would suffer a similar fate—every thought punctuated with a twist of the blade. My thoughts begin to congeal, like oil through water—sporadic but solid—as I realize how I came to be in this predicament.




My name was legally changed from Nicholas to Zallen as part of a new federal law to promote the use of W, X, Y and Z in our everyday lives. It was becoming fashionable to use such letters as substitutions for the real letters in words and so the government perverted it, exploited it. A law was passed that stated that all names must include one of the four letters—a tax incentive offered if the new name started with W, X, Y or Z. I think it began when the long-lost relative of Webster decided that America needed to redefine itself through its language. The idea was crude and appealing, as most political ideas had become by 2093. And so, he pushed for bills to leave behind the language and literature of the British, of global English and aimed to recreate our own new versions in their absence. The name changes came first, then a school curriculum which emphasized New Literature, and barely acknowledge anything that was written earlier than 2050. Having recently been appointed Secretary of Internal Cultural Affairs, his projects were becoming increasingly permanent in nature. It seemed that his newest project was a dictionary and dialect revision. The dismissive column from The Daily White House news was still illuminated on my computer screen from this morning:


Galzra, kin of the influential Noah Webster, is once again aiming to save our United States from its own cultural degradation.  Galzra proposed “Language Bill 13: Dictionary and Dialect Revisions” in yesterday’s congressional session. “A national language is a bond of national unity,” said Galzra, “If we aim to maintain these great United States of America, we must regularize our language both in the written word, and in speech to be sure that we appear and function as a unit.” Language Bill 13 is designed to diminish differences in spelling and pronunciation. The proposed dictionaries will have new words and updated spellings for words in current use. A comprehensive guide will be issued to every citizen to facilitate the learning of the dialect named American— what Galzra refers to as “an elegant combination of the Southern-Georgian, New York, and Michigan dialects.” The dialectical composition was chosen by the Department of Internal Cultural Affairs last month. For more information, simply click on the “Current Bills” link on the Whitehouse Activities page.




I wrote for The Daily Lunar (somebody’s poor idea of a joke…something about Sun being used too often in paper titles), as the primary research journalist. Naturally, I was asked to cover this language absurdity as soon as I entered the news room this morning. I followed the Current Bills link, and was bombarded with promotional meetings and merchandise rather than detailed information on the contents of Language Bill 13.

“Hey, does anyone know how to get in touch with this Galzra guy? I need a connection for this story to be worthwhile,” I asked across the matrix of cubicles.

“Hmm…Oh! You could try to talk to his assistant. I’ve heard that she’s one of those simple-pleasure types. Still feeds ducks and reads from print-books. My grandma talks about her a lot. I think she still makes a weekly trip to the West Potomac Park on Saturday mornings,” Wazzel replied from across the way.




There she was sitting on the only wooden bench in the middle of the park that very Saturday. Her red dress was such a stark contrast to the peeling green paint of the bench. Her eyes were of a sadder green, more forest in hue; her lips full and vulpine. I researched her. Maybe that was a mistake, I don’t know. But without her, my career would be nothing.

“Hi,” she called out. “I’ve never seen you here before,” she added with a suspicious smile and a raised brow. “I hope you’re not one of those reporters trying to cement this place over. That would really put a damper on my weekend.”

“No, not at all— although I have no attachment to ducks really…” It was awkward. I’m a writer because I can’t interact well— I’ve always needed that extra chance to proofread and revise my thoughts.

“I’m interested in books and language, and in keeping things more or less traditional. To be honest, I hate all of this new stuff: advertising poured over architecture, mass radio broadcasts, the decline in printing. So I’m here.” It was true. Sort of. As truthful as I could be without telling her I was researching her and her boss. That would have been an awkward conversation-starter.

“Wow. This is a nice change then—I’m used to spending my afternoons with the over-80 population,” she said with a giggle.

She surprised me, confused me a bit. I had expected a cold business woman, despite what Wazzel had told me. And yet, here she was, Xundari.




 I had begun to write my exposé on the newest language debauchery. It turns out that Xundari was eager to help me; she had taken the job with Galzra to try to change things from the inside, but the only previous time she had the chance to make a stand, she was too fearful. The next Saturday, we agreed to meet at the park again to talk business. Although there was no chance of my landing an interview with Galzra himself, she anonymously disclosed information that was privy to anyone who worked in his department—the detailed information that was disclosed from the public.

“So, you see,” she explained, “all of this has happened before in a way. It was some three hundred years ago, so the history of the nation was thin and thus the proposal was not as large of a threat, but the principles and some of the ideas are the same.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a discrete folder and handed it to me across our picnic spread. Amongst the contents were Noah Webster’s Reform on Spelling and Necessity for an American Language proposals.

I must have made an odd expression as I looked them over because Xundari laughed and said, “They’re ridiculous aren’t they? Well, the proposals weren’t very effective the first time through, but they seem to appeal to people in this era. If I were writing this article, I would put the past and current issues in conversation with one another. Draw a parallel and expose the weakness of Galzra’s argument.”


Per her suggestion, I looked to the original debate over language in America for support. I dug up the works of Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson and others who could support my resistance. My exposé was nearly ready for publication when I was called into the Editor’s office.

“Zallen, come in. Sit down please.” Zondin, the chief editor was seated behind the desk with my research and exposé draft spread out in front of him. “Well, the good news is this: the exposé is phenomenal—we all love it. It’s precise, urgent and highly factual. The problem is that I can’t run it. The Lunar Times simply can’t be held responsible for a piece this radical. When I assigned the topic to you, I knew you would nail the story, but you can’t subvert the whole Department of Internal Cultural Affairs. It’s simply too much.” He shuffled through the papers and pulled out an article half the length of my own and handed it to me. “With your permission, we’ll run this edited version.”

As I read through this article, I realized that all of the incriminating details of the bills and Galzra’s mission had been deleted. Instead of an informed call to action, this article provoked a feeling of luke-warm advocacy. I was stunned. “No,” I replied simply, and walked out.

As soon as I reached my own desk, there was already a swarm of writers waiting for me. News travels especially fast among journalists.

“We’ve all been talking this through, and we think you should publish independently. Ztul knows of a print press we can rent—it’ll be more meaningful on paper than the computers anyway.” Wazzel told me.

“We’d all like to contribute too, maybe run some columns to increase awareness. We even could run a pilot to see if it catches on. You know, give the public some light reading before we lay the exposé on ‘em,” added Yaruk.

Delighted that I had a ready-made team of writers, I agreed. We decided to utilize that day’s lunch hour to outline our first edition.




There was a pressure on either side of me, forcing me downward as the blade relieved a bit, allowing another moment of clarity. I had continued to go to the city park on Saturdays just to see her. I no longer needed her for the article, but was surprised to find that I simply needed her; she enraptured me. She was the kind of woman who could skip barefoot through this oasis in the city, and take pictures of the few remaining ladybugs, then promptly slip into stilettos and head into the concrete, senseless business world. We started having dinner at my apartment. She’d bring roses, and black and white films on old DVDs; I’d buy cheap red wine and try my best to cook spaghetti dinners.

One night, as we were lying together on the couch, our bodies perfectly aligned, it occurred to me that I loved her. She was lying in front of me, falling asleep—for some reason or another, each time we try to watch Arsenic and Old Lace, it lulls her to sleep. I was struck by the serenity that I felt as her feet slightly twitched on top of mine and she settled back into my body. It seemed that any part of our bodies that touched was greeted by an acute jolt of excitement that melted immediately into complete comfort. This was the first point at which I truly regretted not telling her all of the details of the independent press. She knew that I was writing columns on a team to try to answer the public’s questions about the Language Bills, and to raise awareness. She didn’t know that I’d been saving my explosive exposé for publication. Although she had initially supported it, she was also convinced that it could be dangerous once she read the final draft. My dreams haunted me that night as I was torn between my obligation to history and language, and my responsibility to this new profound love.


We were living a Hollywood Golden Age sort of romance, and I was living a growing political career under the safe pen name of Thelonious (chosen per my taste in music and for its lack of W, X, Y or Z). Wazzel, the others and I were increasing production of our columns. The first edition of writings was free and only totaled about five newsprint pages. Our readership had grown so rapidly, that we were putting out a thick, bi-weekly independent paper that included not only our own columns, but editorials from around the state. Rumor had it that copy-cat operations were cropping up in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles as well. Zaina even suggested that we sell subscriptions instead of freely distributing, but in the end, we all decided that free distribution was more faithful to our mission.


The vote for Galzra’s latest bill was days away; the time had come for the special issue that would publish my exposé. That morning, we distributed so many papers we had to double our production. People were beginning to form ‘peaceful’ protests outside of the Capital; churches were giving sermons on the importance of moving forward but preserving our culture and history.  The resistance was going better than planned—I couldn’t have been happier with the reception my writing had received. That is until Xundari came over that evening for our five-month anniversary with a fresh copy of my exposé slipped into the case of North by Northwest.

“So, Zallen, when were you planning on telling me that you were going to publish your exposé as-is and two days before the vote?” she said coldly as she set down the movie and sat on the couch. She poured the Merlot into a glass, watched it fill, then crossed her legs and slowly, deliberately pulled those forest-green eyes upward to meet my glance. It was torture.

“T-ttoday,” I lied, I stammered. After my initial regret, I had convinced myself that the two lives were functioning well separately, why bring them together?

“No. I don’t think so.” I couldn’t tell if she was going to cry or throw the glass at me. But she did neither; she inhaled and let out a kind of slow sigh like the air was a hookah. “I wish it wasn’t true. You know, you probably would have been okay if you hadn’t started the print revolution along with your language protest. But all of the columns, the excitement, now combined with this?” she scolded. “Galzra’s really quite pissed about this whole thing, and printing will make you much easier to find. And he’ll want to find you now too, because this article was published at a critical time,” shaking her head she added, “ I don’t trust the Lunar writers enough to believe that no one will let your identity slip.”

 “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I didn’t really know how to tell you.” I meant it too. “Look, you know I can’t sit by silently. Writing is my career and I’m not going to abandon it. Wazzel and the team thought that today would be the best day to publish the article because of its urgency and its poignancy. Besides, anyone who incriminates me will be exposing Wazzel, Yaruk, Narez, and Zaina as well. I have trouble believing that anyone is prepared to suffer that burden. I’ve been through scandal before, so this shouldn’t be a problem.”

She swirled her wine in the glass, drank it down in one graceful swoop and said, “Fine.”

As we watched the film, the tension slowly subsided and she was joking freely again—telling me that we should take a train someday and romp in the sleeping car like Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. We thought of where we’d go, if trains still went everywhere.

“I want to go to Lake Tahoe,” said Xundari, “I hear that the water is a deep, crystal blue there. We could hike and boat. Sleep in a tiny tent, the works!”

“But the water’s freezing, isn’t it? Let’s go to Louisiana. Swim in the gulf water, attend crawfish boils and dances,” I suggested. “Or maybe Arizona.” I looked out the window at the repetitive grayness of the buildings, the wide, car-infested streets. “Really, I’d be happy going anywhere with you as long as it’s outside the limits of D.C.”

She laughed at this, began kissing my cheeks and joked, “What? And leave all of this?”




Through the blistering metallic torture, the shape of my apartment takes form again; this time the bittersweet aroma of scarlet roses lay in stark contrast to the ransacked appearance of the room. Upon entering I had been flanked on either side by two towering men whose conviction and precision of action is astounding. With the cue of a billowing sensation the scene fades.

The scent of ether awoke me. I stared groggily from the fetters on my wrists and feet to the Council arranged neatly before me. The Supreme Court. I said the first thing that came to my mind, “What the fuck? What the hell’s going on here?” a string of questions and accusations escaped my lips until I was interrupted by a stern, calloused man.

“You have been identified as the seditious writer who calls himself Thelonious. The ideas about which you have written caused riots and protests outside of the Capital. These vial proceedings give America a poor public image and inhibit our daily work. Because of you, Galzra’s recent bill may not pass; many of our own politicians have been brain-washed by these persuasive and sentimental writings. Therefore, you are issued a warning: halt the publication of your writings, or pay the consequence of being on the wrong side of political scandal.”

A small blonde frantically typed his decree, handed it to me to sign, and scurried up to the head of the court room to hand it to the man. The paper that I received was quite different. It was a pamphlet on patriotism and how I can support my government. No warning, no signature.




My mind labors to twist again, navigating the helixes of memory until it arrives at my apartment once more. I desperately gathered up the original manuscripts of my columns and exposé, thinking of setting fire to every page that sheds too much criticism on this so-called government until I heard a knock at the door. I froze…the unlit match still in my hand as the brass knob turned. It’s Xundari and she’s in black. She already knows, she must already know.

“Zallen…I,” an eternity rests in her hesitation. “I know that the language sector of the government is planning something. But I don’t know what exactly—I can try to find out. I was afraid this would happen. I just don’t want to lose you.” Her doe eyes began to fill with tears. It’s both terrifying and mesmerizing when she cries; her blood-shot irises lay in such a violent contrast to the green of her eyes. Her sobs rolled off of her eyelashes like rain off of the first spring flowers. Gently, steadily, surreally. I was speechless. What a shame, and how frustrating it is when words elude a writer. But as I have known, I’m more eloquent on paper. And I couldn’t console her.

Instead, I tied up the columns in a pile, and picked up one of the roses that had been knocked onto the floor by the government brutes. I handed both tokens to her.

“I can’t say anything to make this situation disappear, and I know that they are planning something too. They warned me. But I have columns written that I haven’t printed yet, and the information needs to be communicated to the public. If the government is this afraid of scandal, it must mean that I am close to succeeding. I just can’t let him re-write our language, our history. Without these we don’t really exist.” She squeezed the papers in her supple hands, and looked out the window where the rain was trying to caress the impersonal pavement of D.C. “They already took our names, we can’t let them take our history and our language,” I pleaded.

With that, she leaned in to kiss me, a noir kiss with the weight of all our complexity and beauty.


I left for the print shop early the next morning to run off my next column, the others now in the care of Xundari. As I set about my task, three men swiftly arose with synchronized precision from behind the press in the corner of the room. Within a matter of moments, the first, a man much larger than I, had restrained me, and the other two had unsheathed their weapons: a knife and a warrant respectively, both equally deadly.

At that moment, one began to read the warrant in a deep, gravelly voice, “You have been convicted of treason by the United States of America.” Clearing his throat he continued, “Your columns have shown that your allegiance lies with an America that has come to pass, and your ability to gain support from the public has caused a threat to the image and productivity of the current government. There are consequences to such seditious expression. Galzra has dispatched us to dispose of you quietly.”

As if rehearsed, he pointed his blade at my forehead and made his first cut—but a scratch at first, although I realized that this would be an evil finale: dirty and torturous. My mind was a torrent of scenes from my recent past, screaming back at me the precautions I should have taken. My pounding memories reminded me that I had endangered Xundari. Would she know what to do? Regrets of leaving her with a task in spite of my love haunted my draining mind. I tried to control my thoughts, to grasp for her taste, her smell. These thoughts gave way to a singular numbing sensation unlike any I had experienced before; it seemed that my head had rolled forward as I could now see my life’s blood taking the shape on the wooden floor of the scarlet roses I had smelled only earlier that day now mingling with the intoxicating aroma of ink and newsprint. As I drifted out of consciousness, the roses spread apart and seeped down through the floorboards of the fine antique print shop, dyeing the wood with the image of a thorny, scarlet labyrinth.

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I really enjoyed this story. The plot is imaginative and it moves along seamlessly. I think there could be an opportunity to further develop the relationship between the two main characters. Good story.

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Your story is reminiscent of the "Newspeak" in Orwell's 1984 or Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I think that your idea has a lot of potential in this political climate and you do a pretty good job of beginning a plot. I think that you should...

Your story is reminiscent of the "Newspeak" in Orwell's 1984 or Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I think that your idea has a lot of potential in this political climate and you do a pretty good job of beginning a plot. I think that you should continuing working on this and develop it into a novel. It seems like you were rushing through the plot because of time and space constraints when you really wanted to spend more time with it.

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Joshua Hennen
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