To Charles Pear’s regret, Andre Dovenstock didn’t pass away. Despite the hard times, Mr. Dovenstock showed no sign of weakness or surrender, so Mr. Pear had to suppress his hope. He considered moving to another town, any place would do. Although his departure might have implied an admission of defeat, he played with the thought. The rest of us accepted the fact that every place had the likes of Mr. Dovenstock, but Mr. Pear resented our saying so.
To our delight, Mr. Pear stayed in town. And what a town it was! Despite the climatic upheavals that had hit it, an earthquake and a storm, the town rose green and blooming, full of small houses and three-story buildings, a lovely square, busy trade and hard-working, chatty people. Mr. Pear was also fond of his two-room house, especially the sofa’s corner, his favorite spot, where he reclined and listened to the squeaks and yawns and clinking of the garbage truck and the chirping of birds at dawn, the neighbors’ voices during the day, and the nightly silence even the cicadas were reluctant to interrupt. Besides, he liked the local bar.
We were grateful to have both Mr. Pear and Mr. Dovenstock among us. Ever since their youth, when the disaster known as “Eight on the Richter Scale Earthquake” destroyed our houses, school and downtown streets but left the city hall erect, the two had taken matters into their own hands. They started classes of arts and crafts, in their capacity of recent high-school graduates, to take our minds off the destruction. With the money obtained from the increasing success of that initiative they purchased new books and taught us whatever information they had acquired. Obviously, they studied hard, day and night, to remain ahead of us. By doing so, it should be noted, they gradually departed from our common life and advanced into vaster fields of knowledge.
Intellectuals like them, especially longhaired and shortsighted, were rare in our places, small border towns which might not mean much. The men we were and knew wore their hair short and their clothes tidy, and never used round frames for their eyeglasses. However, they were a positive rising power in town, and their similar style proved their special bond, friendship, and maybe even a dependency of the kind outsiders tend to develop between themselves.
After months of teaching, they settled into two-room twin apartments downtown, in a building right in the center, looking down on our houses. It was then that we added the “Mr.” to their names. They used to have other names, first names, forgotten now. At that stage they could have faded into one person in our minds, if Mr. Pear had not drunk with us after class.
“Do you call Dovenstock ‘Mr. Dovenstock’ too?” the barman asked him once.
“I call him Andre,” Mr. Pear said.
We didn’t bother to hide our conspiratorial smiles. It felt nice to know Mr. Pear lied just like the rest of us.
After attending the misters’ general knowledge and arts and crafts classes, we upgraded their position to “professors.” Soon, Professor Pear and Professor Dovenstock convinced us to take up jogging, swimming, biking and hiking—excellent physical activities, for sums we could easily afford. Step by step they made a progress toward an educational empire. But then, their plans were shuttered. Due to our past suffering, a national foundation chose our town for the establishment of a cultural center, offering us classes and contests free of charge.
The professors refused to take the poorly-paid teaching positions in the center. Instead, they entered every contest to remind the town of their worth. The rest of us joined the cultural center and everything it offered. Unlike the bar and the school, the center embraced the whole family, and all of us, men, women and children, were glad to find distraction from our hard work or studies. We escaped the summer’s heat and the winter’s chill inside the ventilated classrooms, and soon, the town fully recovered from the damages of the earthquake.
Once the competitions and contests began, a sharp thrill, forgotten since our childhood, took hold on us. With the adrenaline in a full high, we asked for other, better, more kinds of contests. Undoubtedly, those days were the dawn of our competition history. Each of us came up with ideas for new categories: physical contests, intellectual tournaments and potpourri races, running, vegetable growing, wrestling and general knowledge for the beginning of the season. A month later, we tried shooting, basic astronomy, advanced math and cooking with milk products, and the democratic director organized all the contests that interested us.
As expected, Mr. Dovenstock and Mr. Pear, who were no longer professors but clerks at the city hall, won all the contests, no matter how many or how hard we tried. Mr. Dovenstock’s quiet grace implied that his victories were his natural claim. Mr. Pear did not do badly either, but he often came in second. Less graceful than Mr. Dovenstock, he did his best to prove the judges wrong, and took to cursing their shortsighted resolutions and limited horizons.
It was a good show. The rest of the town’s folks settled for any random placement down the ladder in good spirit. Unlike those two, we were not made of iron nor did we have fire in our bones. The third place had no fixed claimer.
That winter, Mr. Pear moved out of his apartment to a nice little house where he lived on his own. As far as we knew he had lasting relations only with the two local whores. Mr. Dovenstock stayed in the twin apartment until the date of his engagement to the sixth daughter of the Shepherds. Everybody at the bar agreed she must have been attracted to his brilliance and blind to his eccentric appearance.
The town’s feelings took a new route from then on. Though Mr. Pear kept beating us at every contest, his genius was put into question each time he didn’t place first. Besides, his definition of fair play strayed from the traditional distinction between good and evil. He purchased anabolic drugs and consulted a medium who sacrificed a black chicken to no avail. Each defeat to the other made him more unthreatening and likable to us. We empathized with his ambition and pain and forgave him his bad manners. When he attempted telepathy with no positive results, it made us all familiar with his brain.
Mr. Dovenstock, however, remained disturbingly perfect. We wouldn’t have forgiven him any illegal or unethical behavior, but to the best of our knowledge, his only advantage was his natural talent. We had to admire his honesty and accept his stardom. In fact, his solid victory set steady ground under our feet, which is good, but also a planted a reminder and a parameter of our own accomplishments. There is a lot to say for, but also a lot to say against, a crystal-clear-cut way to see the world.
For this reason and others, the steady placement, the rather boring glory, left us wishing to see the hero fall. In the bar, at school and in the cultural center the whole town anticipated the huge thrill it might cause. In the meantime, we engaged in close observations.
As Mr. Dovenstock’s family life sailed on calmly, everyone speculated what Mrs. Shepherd-Dovenstock had found in him beside the obvious skills. Indeed, his almond eyes twinkled with an intelligent spark, and his muscles protruded when he trained shirtless for the upcoming competitions. But he wore big, round glasses, in casual clothes he looked slightly overweight and he was not witty or overly nice. She, Mrs. Shepherd-Dovenstock was not exceptional in looks either, nor in conversation or charm, but you still remembered her with great fondness, if you ever thought about her. She looked, as people say, comfortable in her skin, as if she were the way she should be and where she ought to be.
One day, the town noticed that she had entered a baking contest. The line stretched around the corner as seventy of us waited to try her apple pie. She measured the queue with squeezed eyes, smiled and cut her cake into extremely thin slices. Despite the demand, she called Mr. Dovenstock, who was not even in line, to have it first. When he finished eating in front of everyone, she smiled at us and brushed unseen crumbs from her dress, a soft piece of clinging cloth. She raised the knife, and turned to the next in line, Mr. Pear.
“What a crowd, quite a transtormation,” he said.
“Transtormation means a stormy transformation from calmness to a mess.”
“In which language?” she asked, aligning her eyebrows.
“Ower own, only modernized.”
“Yes, Mrs. Shepherd-Dovenstock. You see, the word ‘ower’ is derived from ‘we’ and is applied to the possessive form.”
“Oh,” she said.
“I am still compiling the dictionary,” he said.
She smiled. “I’mpressed.”
Her thin pieces of cake left nothing but the slightest sweetness on the tongue, and she was placed third. We expected more from her.
The speed with which Mr. Pear renovated our dictionary was not unexpected, but his constant befriending of Mrs. Shepherd-Dovenstock, whom he consulted on a regular basis, was surprising. However, Mr. Dovenstock did not comment about either the linguistic project or the approximation. He could have won the contest of gentlemanly behavior. Of course he could. He would have placed first in any contest at all.
“Well,” people said, “he may just lose that one to Mr. Pear.” Other wives were safe from the second place. His wasn’t! The cultural center boiled with excitement regarding the classical conflict, a triangle that must one day dwindle into a couple. Finally, it was not about brains, muscles, training, talents or anything measurable. Was Mr. Pear’s heart better shaped or in any better shape than Mr. Dovenstock’s? Of course not! The state of the heart is chaos, a random occurrence, magic, something we all might have.
Gray clouds swallowed the town the day the Biblical story contest took place in the cultural center. Mr. Pear, a resourceful man with a knack for words and knowledge of metaphors, explained that the Sabbath’s name dictated the seven-day cycle. “It comes from the Hebrew verb ‘Shabbat,’ which means ‘rest,’ and while religious people believe it was God’s dictate, it could also have been the suggestion of a leader with a socio-linguistic ambition, trying to impose the derivation of verbs upon the daily routine.” He lost us there, right in the middle.
Mr. Dovenstock recited Salomon’s love poems, where pomegranates and white necks represented the feminine body. He left us dizzy and eager for more. The judges proclaimed him the winner.
“You do master the language anyway,” someone comforted Mr. Pear at the bar.
Mr. Pear lifted his head from his beer as if it was as heavy as a bowling ball. “Are you talking about the wemen or the wewen?” he asked.
“We, you know, like us,” the cultural center’s director explained, emptying a longneck.
“Peopils are allready for my dictionary,” said Mr. Pear with a hint of scorn.
We looked at one another and couldn’t help smiling.
“Wemen and wewen,” said the barman. “That’s a good one! Didn’t you say it was time for a new kind of competition?”
“Indid,” Mr. Pear said.
The translation contest came to be the first competition with a meaningful first prize, a sum that would be enough even to bribe the school principal in order to start using the dictionary’s modernized language at school.
The judges gave a quiz to all ten competitors, and now, the last two had to challenge each other.The rules were partly based upon an antique Greek method, as the director had explained. Only one modern rule was added, by which the contestants could consult the public in exchange for a part of the prize.
Mr. Dovenstock, who spoke five languages fluently and could manage with another two, sat comfortably. His wife stood beside him, wearing her soft dress and a shrewd smile.
Mr. Pear, who spoke five languages fluently, could manage with another two as well, and had modernized ours, sat erectly, the way he had sat on the bar stool, when we planned his coronation.
He stared at Mr. Dovenstock and announced he would recite Yunus Emre’s lines.
Mr. Dovensock nodded.
Mr. Pear wiped his hands on his pants, then held his neck as if he were to strangle himself as he recited:
Kindness of the lords ran its course,
Now each one goes straddling a horse,
They eat the flesh of the paupers,
All they drink is the poor men’s blood.
When the applause subsided, Mr. Dovenstock stood up and said, almost sang, strange words of a sweet intonation:
Askin aldi benden beni
Bana seni gerek seni
Ben yanarim dUnU gUnU
Bana seni gerek seni.
He turned to Mrs. Shepherd-Dovenstock and said:
Your love has snatched me away from me,
You’re the one I need, you’re the one I crave
Day and night I burn, gripped by agony,
You’re the one I need, you’re the one I crave.
She smiled differently, softly.
The director raised a sign saying each won ten points for the translation of Yunus Emre.
“Please challenge each other,” the director ordered the contestants.
Mr. Pear bowed and turned to Mr. Dovenstock. “Wemen and wewen hear buy the destinyation of the resultover the place by—” We lost him there. He then engaged in the long, detailed instructions and rules of the modernized language.
The couple raised their heads and listened with care.
When Mr. Pear stopped the flood of strange words, Mr. Dovenstock asked the director to please explain to him what he had to do to rise up to the challenge.
“This is between the two of you,” the director said, leafing through his notebook.
Mr. Dovenstock turned to his wife. “I offer you half my prize,” he said, as he placed his hand on the skin of her back, right above the soft line of the dress. She moved so he could touch more of her skin, and she said nothing.
An excited buzz rose in the room. We knew she was an expert in the modernized language, but more than that, wasn’t half of it hers, legally, anyway? Symbolic gestures usually passed over our heads, but not that one.
“I can’t say it means anything,” she said. She meant Mr. Pear’s words.
The director had to ask for silence.
Mr. Dovenstock shrugged, but said again. “I am offering you half my prize.” Her silence made him gasp for air.
For the first time in a very long time, Mr. Pear won. We had a new hero. We bought him beer and danced all night.
As Mrs. Shepherd-Dovenstock pointed out at the school meeting, the modernized language became more significant to our culture than our original one.
No adults excepting Mr. Pear and Mrs. Shepherd- Dovenstock spoke it fluently.
Mr. Dovenstock did not change his gentlemanly manners, and the couple revealed no apparent signs of tension. Mr. Pear won every linguistic contest, because they were run in the modernized language.
Mr. Dovenstock was extremely sweet about it. He was not as bad as we had thought. He actually seemed much nicer than that compulsive winner, Mr. Pear, whose bribe to the principal became a well-known fact.
We pressed and demanded and argued and laughed and impatiently waited until, finally, the cultural center’s director decided, in the name of democracy, to return the contests to our original language. The principal abolished the modernized language before charges were pressed.
“Life is more than contests and competitions,” we said to one another. And yet we won. In fact, what we meant to say was, as Mrs. Shepherd-Dovenstock put it, that you win as long as you look life in the eye without blinking.
“Heroes are exactly like us,” we said. And this is not as important or as unimportant as we imagined back at the dawn of our competition history.