Each year on the brightest and most important day the lists are read aloud in front of the most popular building. The lists are Ten Happiest and Ten Saddest. When the Ten Happiest are read you can expect wild cheering and dancing after each name. Each recipient gets a smile trophy of size relative to their spot. The trophy for happiest townsperson is uncarriable by one, so it is hoisted by many and displayed outside the happy home for one year. When you have this trophy outside your home, there are always townspeople standing on your yard and having a look. Sometimes the happiest townsperson is the richest and other times the smartest. I have seen it to be the silliest and I have seen it to be the friendliest. It all depends on yearly trends.
When the Ten Saddest are read, the whole town laughs, more loudly as each name passes, and these suckers each get a frowning face trophy. Last year I was said to be fourth saddest in town. The laughter sounded much louder and more mocking when it followed my own name, and I struggled greatly to bring my trophy to my room. Besides being the brightest day, which was making me squint, it was the hottest, and my hands were sweating on the trophy’s beautiful, slippery glass. I live on the town’s outskirt so it took me three hours to bring this trophy home. I kept setting it down to dry my hands and rest my muscles.
In those days I was so sad and I always had to be on top of Rumble Hill, at the small lookout area with a full view of the town. I had the feeling of the lost child who, having become lost—and having been told, if ever lost, to remain in place—both wants to stay and to go, and my place of lostness was Rumble Hill, where I felt lost, but where I also felt I needed to be. It was a jumbled feeling. Each day I would stay on Rumble Hill until the light faded to blue and the town went blue and the line between the last road and what was beyond blurred indistinguishable.
Rumble Hill juts up out of the earth like a horn. A narrow ragged path winds around it to the top and the path is truly steep. I walked up it hundreds of times but I remember only one walk with true clarity. It was a windy day and as I walked through the town on my way to the path’s beginning I kept jumping when sandwich boards of advertisement fell and smacked flat against the street. By the time I reached the path I was weak. I paused, holding the beginning of the path’s railing. Then I remembered that sometimes at the top of Rumble Hill was the vendor who sold flattened fruit. This motivated me to climb. Those fruit were always ripe and bugless.
The vendor was there at the top and sold me two for a medium coin. I slid one fruit into my belly pocket and walked to the lookout railing. The wind was blowing more strongly than before. My hair was damp from the sweat of the walk and it whipped into my face with a sting. I held the railing with one hand and the fruit otherwise. I took bites and looked out at the town. I looked at the garment factory, closed and with no fumes, and I looked at the town’s flag fluttering.
In our lives we will each meet five hundred people and many of them ignore us. I accidentally swallowed the fruit’s sticker of authenticity and was opening and closing my mouth when I noticed someone at the lookout point near me. This was truly rare.
“It’s an OK point,” she said.
“Not bad,” I nodded.
“Well, goodbye,” I said.
“Goodbye,” she said, and neither of us moved.
After some time, I turned to look at her. She was wearing many clothes and who could tell where one ended and another began? Her necklaces in the wind were all ajangle. Her hair was blue, like the rocks around. I had never seen her. She looked more awake than I had ever been.
“Well, I thought you were leaving,” I admitted.
“So did I you.”
“Well, I guess one doesn’t often say goodbye on behalf of others,” I conceded.
“Why are you talking about what one usually does?” she asked, raising her voice.“It’s annoying!”
I noticed we were now both watching the town’s flag and it was time to say something else.
“Will you return tomorrow?” I asked.
She responded as though I’d asked her to leave, walking quickly to the path and winding out of my sight. I stood to continue watching the sun finish.
On the next day I was in my hot room and counting down the minutes to leave for Rumble Hill. When the days were hot, my walls would sweat, and I liked to sit resting on the cold floor of stone. In those days, I collected money from the town in exchange for answering questionnaires dropped off in my mailbox each morning. The questions were often about my moods, my health, my opinion. I did not know if it was a popular job, or if the job was only given to the town’s top happiest and saddest, or what. Whatever way, it suited me.
Much of my sad reputation belonged to my appearance. For one, my hair was always covering my face. For another, my clothes were quite draping and black. For yet another, my eyes were vacant and eerie, and my face had a stern, pointed expression. This expression must have arisen from my habit of only consuming the strongest flavours. I drank no water but only a bitter brew. I ate no grain but only prickly vegetables and the brightest peppers. Of flattened fruit, I only ate Sour. In those days, that was my taste. We eat to match our insides and in this way we are painters.
It became time to walk up Rumble Hill. While climbing, I was certain I would see her from the previous day. But when I reached the lookout point there was nobody and not even the fruit vendor. So I watched down below where the shadow of the statue stretched out across the area of lodging. I did not know what the statue was of. I was always too near or too far to see it properly, and now I was too far. I was embarrassed to ask anyone what is was of, and there was no placard. It didn’t look so much like anything and it was the tallest structure our town had. I was watching the furthest tip of the statue’s shadow about to touch the worst jail and then I heard her voice behind me.
“There’s a limit to what can be gleaned from this view.”
“So it must be,” I said.
There was not much sound then. Well, there was the ticking and chirping of a nearby bug and slight wind in the grass. I asked of her job. She said she was poet for the town. I asked what she meant and she said she wrote poems about the town and its notable residents, to be preserved and read by a select few. What she said next truly surprised me. She said she’d once written a poem of me, as I was fourth saddest.
“How did you know enough of me?”
“I have access to documents and records of each townsperson,” she said. “I have the poem memorized and I could read it now.”
The poem was terrible to hear. It described a townsperson of my name and physical attributes, but the townsperson was greatly disfigured through sadness. I would not wish to encounter this townsperson. I suddenly felt I was a great monster, up there on Rumble Hill, away from all others except the poet, who had finished reciting and was looking at me with expectation.
“You read it with style!” I said with false confidence.
“And the content?”
“I did not like the words. It did not seem to be me.”
“Well it was,” she said.
Then she left. An hour of sun remained, which I watched alone.
The next day I was smiling walking up Rumble Hill and it was too bad nobody was around to see the smile of mine. I was smiling while walking with no cause in view, which is a sign of happiness and might have helped me climb from the Ten Saddest list, had it been seen by anyone. But rarely was anyone on the path up Rumble Hill. Most townspeople took the trolley up when they needed to.
On this day the poet was already there and looking out over the town. On this day she had beat me to the top, and it was clear she was liking Rumble Hill more and more. I was glad to see her on this day. The reason I had been smiling was I had thought of some great questions for her so we could know each other more.
“I thought of some questions for you,” I told her. “So we can know each other more.”
She extended her arms as if to mean, “Go on ahead, man.”
“Have you been on either list?”
“No. As an observer of life I am presumed neutral.”
“Do you know what the statue is?”
“Yes, but it is different for each person.”
“Will you write a new poem of me? Not for the town but a personal poem?”
We both stayed, looking out. Our town has no difficulty reaching temperatures and hardly anyone walks around while the sun is up. The town is dried and the roads are burnt and split, yet when the sun goes down everything turns blue, because of the minerals of the stones. All the water dried at some point. A wide water tube snakes into the town and constantly delivers the water. And spurts of water shoot high in big looping arcs into the air and fall into small lakes on the ground of mud, because of cracks in the tube or missing screws and bolts. The tiny workers below fixing the tube looked like bugs on a string. The tube would always need work. That was my job before answering questionnaires, fixing the tube, and it was hard.
“That was my job,” I told the poet, pointing to the tube. “Fixing the tube.”
She nodded nicely.
“And it was hard,” I said.
The sun had gone down so I felt I had to leave. The poet it seemed would stay.
“Well goodbye,” I said, but pretended not to leave, as a joke from before. She liked the joke and smiled. For whatever reason, I felt glad the poet now knew I’d worked on the tube.
When I was atop Rumble Hill the next day, I saw the rare sight of two people there at once: the poet, yes, plus the fruit vendor, who had been coming to the lookout almost never lately, likely because of the extreme heat. She was old. She was very old and it must have been a challenge for her to get the cart all the way to the top with all the fruit on it. I don’t know how she did it.
I bought from her two flattened fruit. The varieties are: Sour, Sweet, and Normal. I bought Normal, the most popular. I bought these to be safe, though I prefer Sour. I planned to give one to the poet, and wanted us to be eating the same fruit.
“Here,” I said to her from behind, tapping on her shoulder with the flattened fruit.
I noticed I often felt happy around her. She reached out and took the flattened fruit from me and had a small bite without ever looking fully over at me. That was interesting of her to do.
“I hoped for Sour,” she said, chewing.
“Yes,” I agreed, “Sour is best.”
But when I bit my own fruit, I found its Normal taste very good and more enjoyable than Sour.
I thought of flavours and looked out over the town. The clouds were so thin you saw past them to the hazy sky of blue. If I looked for long, squigglers appeared. Down below in the town, some commotion was moving down the popular road. Some person or other was on the hoisted chair, and many townspeople surrounded them, waving their personal flags and throwing sparkles. It was clear some good deed had been done.
“We could bang,” the poet said suddenly, looking to me fully.
I was very surprised. While looking at the commotion below, I had almost forgotten of the poet beside me. I looked at her for some time. I noticed myself brushing my hair away from my face.
“Oh, I am deeply sad,” she said. “And I can’t think of any poems.”
“Are you not afraid to admit you’re sad?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid.”
I looked back to the view below. I noticed then that no water squirted from the town’s tube at any point. I realized this was likely the impetus of celebration; the rider of the hoisted chair had likely fixed the tube for good. This made me worried. Rarely was there progress in our town.
I looked back to the poet. She was very forlorn. She was looking at the town but seemed not to be seeing it through her sadness. I knew if she kept this up, she’d be saddest on the next list. Her neutral reputation would not remain. It was clear she was more sad than last year’s saddest, whose famous dessert had killed seven townspeople on the coldest day, and the poet seemed sadder than the families of the Dead Seven, too.
“Well, write the poem of me,” I suggested. “And bring it here tomorrow. Make it a poem of my newfound contentment, which you must have noticed.”
She nodded sadly. She handed me the pittance from her fruit and trudged off.
The next day I ate too much fruit. I arrived on Rumble Hill quite early, and the vendor was there but not the poet. I ate a Normal, then a Sour, then a Normal, then a Sweet, and then a Normal. My stomach churned with the acidity of the Sour, and my teeth were gummy from the sugar of the Sweet. My poet has abandoned me, I thought. Maybe she’d even walked away from the town to die, as some do. But just as the sun was going somewhat down, she arrived with parchment. She was out of breath and sweating. She had been working on the poem and was late for this reason. I liked to think of her in some room working to complete her poem. I felt anticipation. A new poem to celebrate my imminent climb from the Ten Saddest list.
The poet held the parchment out in front of herself and the parchment was fluttering. She waited for it to be still and her face was empty. The parchment was still and she coughed twice. She was staring hard at the parchment and the light was almost gone. She recited.
It was the worst poem heard by any townsperson. It was much worse than the poem of my sadness, and it was worse than the worst danger in the night. The words did not connect and each word made the next one worse. The poem pierced and was worse than pain. The poem was brief, and when it was over the poet sat on the ground of dust.
“I am sorry I asked you to write this poem,” I said.
The poet nodded with tears flowing, and each drop landed as a bead on the ground of dust and did not absorb. She could not stop sniffing, it was clear. It was clear to us both that we should get off the hill. Nothing was to be gleaned. But we stayed. The sun was soon to be entirely down for the day. It was clear that neither of us should return up Rumble Hill the next day, or any day. It was not clear what would become of us, but an idea was forming. I stood still and allowed the idea to come all the way. Soon it was all the way and I knew it was the one.
I tapped the poet on her shoulder so that she would pay attention to what I did. I walked to the fruit vendor, who was organizing her fruit. Without permission, I unlocked the brake on her cart. The fruit vendor stood back, surprised. I grabbed the cart by its handle and began to run, pushing it. The fruit jiggled while I pushed the cart over jutting rocks and roots, and of course some of the fruit fell from the cart and onto the ground of dust. I pushed the cart right off Rumble Hill and it went flying. It flew in the air and then went toppling down the hill, rolling and flipping and with fruit flying all over. I watched with admiration until the cart and fruit were long gone.
The next step was to return to where the fruit vendor stood. She was barely a fruit vendor now, with no cart and no fruit. I picked her up with surprising ease and held her like a baby. I ran holding her and when I reached the edge, I threw her off, and she flew through the air and toppled down the side of the hill without a sound and from then on she was gone.
I took my place again at the lookout point beside the poet and we each held onto the rail, with our hands almost touching. The sun was down and there was not much to see of the town, but we looked out. Neither of us spoke but it was clear what we should do. She turned to me and at once we each made a new surprising face because we realized the town had two lists but there was another way to be and we had just thought of it. We were the first to realize and now it was time to act, and to greatly disturb everyone and everything we knew forever. Surely our eyes gleamed as we clomped down the hill towards town.
Thomas Molander is from Vancouver Island but lives in Montreal where he works on writing and plays drums.