BY PHILIP COHEN
Copyright is held by the author.
TO CELEBRATE their 25th anniversary, Gustav and Iris launched their sailboat from Miami for a month’s cruise around the Caribbean.
As they neared the Bermuda Triangle, tragedy struck. A freak storm sank their boat. Gustav and Iris managed to save themselves, and, like modern day Robinson Crusoes, they found themselves on a tropical island alone among the flowers and the trees.
That their daily routine was disrupted was most distressing. In particular, they now couldn’t engage in their daily Scrabble game.
In good times and bad, wherever life carried them, Gustav and Iris had played Scrabble every afternoon at 4 p.m. So evenly matched were they that over the years neither dominated. Their sally into the famous word game increased their vocabulary even as it continually sharpened their ability to squeeze every last point out of any situation on the board the fates might give them. Their scores were always high, but rarely more than a few points apart one from the other.
On the island they were bereft of the tools required to play: the board, those tiny squares containing letters and their point value, those wooden stands for the letters to rest upon, and, naturally, a dictionary to provide the element of truth to their play. Not that they would ever cheat, heaven forefend. But every now and then their Websters had to be impressed into service to adjudicate a claim that this or that word actually existed and was actually spelled that way.
In the early days on the island, as they scrambled to establish the means needed for long term survival — shelter, food and the like — they were unable to reconstruct this daily foray into letters, words, and points, and it showed in their demeanor. They became cranky; a critical, perhaps THE critical, piece of their lives had been stolen from them. Their 25-year partnership hung over the abyss.
Well, glory hallelujah. One day a genuine miracle occurred. Among the flotsam that would occasionally wash in on the tide from the remains of the sailboat, their Scrabble game came floating in like the cavalry to the rescue. Because its last resting place was on a boat, where a sudden jolt might have knocked it to the ground, spilling the contents of the box, it had always been covered by plastic and secured shut by a thick rubber band. Now, soaked through and through, the board, the pieces, and their wooden stands emerged from this waterlogged box more or less intact. The board was a mess, but careful drying in the tropical sun made it useful, though more than a bit warped.
Until they were rescued, this would do. Life’s balance had returned.
“But we have no dictionary,” said Iris to Gustav.
“No matter,” Gustav responded with confidence. “We hardly ever needed one before. Why, I’d often thought we could do without one. Now my thesis will be put to the test.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Iris, anxious to get on with things.
And get on they did. In the midst of foraging for food and fresh water, maintaining their shelter and attempting to contact the outside world, every afternoon, as the sun began its westerly course toward day’s end, they would sit with the board between them and engage in the contest that had been their bedrock for so many years.
But as the days passed, Iris grew depressed. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was the constant diet of passion fruit and the occasional fish. Perhaps it was the deformed Scrabble board. But perhaps it was the absence of a dictionary. Whatever the cause, Iris became increasingly unhappy. One morning, without Gustav noticing, she snapped.
The change manifested itself in that afternoon’s game. About halfway through, after a long hesitation, sweat dripping down her face, Iris laid down the word, sneplant, connecting to the word ball.” Triumphantly, Iris counted her many points and sat back wearing a broad smile.
“All seven letters,” she said, meaning, of course, an extra 50 points. “Plus, the points for balls.”
Gustav stared. Quietly he asked, “Dear, what’s a sneplant?”
Iris said, “Oh come now. You know what a sneplant is.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“A sneplant is what we call a female mersht.”
Gustav did not like where this was going.
“And a mersht . . . what’s a mersht?”
“Oh my, dear husband, how forgetful our time on this island has made you. A mersht is a kind of pert that on a resif blonds.”
Gustav drew in his breath. Sneplant, mersht, pert, resif, and blonds (clearly not a reference to hair colour) — five words whose reality, in the absence of a dictionary, could be neither verified nor refuted. He could argue about it, but he had no means by which to prove his claim. Gustav exhaled, realizing he had no choice but to accept Iris’s word.
Iris’s creativity continued through the remainder of the game. Gustav challenged one more time, then gave up.
He lost by 250 points.
He had a miserable night’s sleep. Yet at the end of the night Gustav experienced something of a revelation that helped him wake up refreshed and steeled for the afternoon’s sally into the new world Iris launched the day before.
The next day at the game Gustav put out the first word: imprect.
“Excuse me, my husband,” Iris said, “but I cannot recall the meaning of the word imprect. Would you kindly inform me of its definition?”
“Simple, of course,” answered Gustav with authority. “Imprect means intubulac wipparsting. Of course, imprect is something we do several times daily.”
“Of course. How forgetful of me. In fact, I think that I will go and imprect right now,” Iris said, and immediately walked away. She returned ten minutes later to continue the game.
“That’s better,” she said.
Now that both understood the rules, they could compete properly. Their former competitiveness returned. They created new words at the rate of roughly 30 per game, plus several others associated with any new word that found itself on the board.
Perhaps three years later, a passing ship discovered Gustav and Iris. When the rescued couple boarded the vessel, the captain, who spoke several languages, was shocked to observe that he could not establish what language the rescued couple was speaking.