Word Bank

On April 9th, 2018, Voices published a story about Swarthmore's very first "Sci-Fi for Social Change" event, organized by faculty with the help of the Andrew W. Mellon grant for the arts and humanities. This event included a short story contest with four student winners. The following story won second place along with 'Nick in Neck'. The first place winner will be published in Voices later this week. 


"A tuppence for your thoughts," a tinny voice jingles, and she slips a coin into the machine — it clatters down the metal tube — a flash in her head — the word apparates — "chaos," the word she's been searching for all along…

There are strict regulations on the use and dissemination of words from the Third International Bank of Verbal Elements:

1. Words are the property of the Third International Bank of Verbal Elements, Incorporated.

2. Books are also the property of the Bank. The same regulations that apply to words apply to books.

3. Words one buys must not be used, in any way whatsoever, to obtain other words without paying the commensurate price.

4. All uses of words must be sanctioned by the Bank, and a fee must be paid for an unsanctioned use.

5. If one does not understand a word in these regulations, one must pay the commensurate price.

These regulations were on every subway in the city, and John, like everyone else in the city, he supposed, was starting to get tired of seeing them on the cold metal walls. He didn't actually think this aloud, of course, because who knows what the Enforcers would catch, but that was what he felt, deep down, on the commute to and from work.

But there was another problem with the regulations. He couldn't quite say what it was, and neither could he call it a problem, despite his excellent vocabulary — which included the word "commensurate" — but it had something to do with the how the third and fifth regulations both had the word "commensurate," and how the third and fourth both had the word "use."

The train came to a stop, loud and final. Everything was gray as the faces looked up from their phones and the occasional expensive book into the brightness of the station.

At work, John did the usual things with numbers. The addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, the integrals, derivatives, statistics. He was — what's the word again? — he couldn't find the right adjective. Whatever it was, he couldn't get his mind off the regulations.

He decided to ask his colleague Mary, who was very smart, about them.

"There's something," he said slowly, "about the regulations. Why do the third and fifth regulation both have the word 'commensurate,' and the third and fourth both have the word 'use?'"

Mary smiled, since she'd found a good use for a word she'd bought from the "Buy a Random Word" sale of the day — a word unlike any she'd ever heard.

"I think," she said excitedly, "that if we used words to get more words, or did not pay the price for them, or used them in ways the Bank doesn't like, there would too much chaos."

Mary wasn't at work the next day, the day after that, or the day after that. John didn't talk more about the regulations — to anyone. He decided that that, too, would make too much chaos.



Reuben Gelley Newman '21 (he/him/his) is a prospective English major from New York City. He loves to write, sing, and take walks in the Crum.