An image of velvet drapes, slung low under the weight of their tastelessness, was projected on the wall. The Marker repeated the section of my figurative language lesson that we were stuck on. “Periphrasis,” it said. “What color are the curtains? Answer using periphrasis.”
Again my gaze shifted from the Marker’s gray metal face to the virtual material. “Red,” I sighed, knowing my answer was unacceptable. For three weeks I’d been confined in the State’s Rhetorical Betterment Program, standard punishment for demonstrating linguistic weakness in public. I’d called a police officer a “palatine” when she gave me a summons for pissing in an alley. The word was simply a replacement for the harsher term I had in mind, which I feared would land me in trouble.
Oh, sweet irony! When the cop asked me to define “palatine,” I replied honestly that I didn’t know what it meant, but liked how it sounded. And that, my friends, turned out to be the very definition of linguistic weakness. They committed me to the Eloquence Ward for training in the proper use of the spoken word.
The moment I identified the drapes as red, the Marker robot lifted its “thunderer,” a sheet of aluminum hammered thin enough to wobble on impact with the victim. It didn’t break bones, but it stung like hell. The Marker slapped me on the back of my right upper arm, speaking in rhythm with its blows. “Peri…phrasis.” I knew the sharpness of its articulation was caused by the shape of its speech device. Still, I read anger into the clipped diction. “Peri…phrasis.”
My arm was getting raw. “Look,” I ventured, “even if I learned the definition, I don’t have the literary imagination to come up with an example.”
The Marker, impervious to reasoning beyond its programming, lowered the thunderer and started the lesson again. “Periphrasis. What color are the curtains? Answer using periphrasis.”
Before I answered this time, I considered. Periphrasis. A specific thing standing in for another thing. Adjective and noun or adverb and verb. It wasn’t the most sophisticated way to think of it, but I was very tired and couldn’t think of red by any other name. Still, I embellished my answer as best I could. “The curtains are something that’s very red,” I shouted, hunching my shoulders against the imminent blows.
But the Marker held the metal sheet frozen. “Metaphor?” The raised pitch of the last syllable betrayed its lack of certainty. It lowered the thunderer, which burbled metallically at the motion. “Nearly metaphor,” the robot decided. The question remained whether “nearly metaphor” was good enough to save me from pummeling. Sadly, no. Up came the thunderer. “Peri…phrasis,” barked the Marker, slapping me hard.
It had taken me two weeks to figure out why they were called Markers. At first I’d assumed it was because they graded one’s performance in the lessons. But eventually I’d realized that the tender purple streaks and blots around my body, corporeal payment for my literary dullness, were the marks referred to.
“Peri…phrasis!” the lesson continued. Rolling up protectively, I tried to spin so my back was against the wall. “What color are the curtains? Answer using periphrasis.”
I looked with deep loathing at the projected drapes. They were red, damn it all. “Red as a…” I began.
“That is simile.” Wham! Down sliced the thunderer at an angle. My soft flesh split under the blow. Through my tearing eyes, screwed half-shut, I saw the edge of that weapon as the Marker pulled it from my wound. It dripped with my blood, bright red, almost fluorescent. The very color of the drapes.
Standing despite the pain in my shoulder, I growled, “I’ll give you your periphrasis, you ruthless clog of wires.”
It lowered the thunderer, bordered in crimson. I played the upcoming conversation in my head: “Periphrasis,” the Marker would begin. “What color are the curtains? Answer using periphrasis.” Without hesitation I’d crow, “Liquid life.” And I’d be released to sweet sleep in my cell for the rest of the day.
Resolutely I pointed at the drapes. “Ask me your question.”
The Marker seem to regard me carefully, although it had no visible eyes. It turned toward the projected curtains. It turned toward me. Finally it spoke.
“Synecdoche. By what means did you arrive at this facility? Answer using synecdoche.”
I sank heavily to the floor, defeated. Curse those Ancient Greeks and all their fancy word games! I’ll never get out of this place.
Anne E. Johnson, based in Brooklyn, has published short fiction in Hogglepot, Spaceports & Spidersilk, and Crow Toes Quarterly, and she has works scheduled in Shelter of Daylight and elsewhere. She was a winner of the 2011 Historical Fiction Contest sponsored by Children’s Writer.