“The Big Trade with Pokrass Prompts”
Exchanging recipes | Fiction | Fresh Soup
Whenever I come across a writing prompt, I get excited. Because on some level, a prompt is a promise that if you keep going, a story awaits you. Like a billboard on a desert highway informing you that in 100 miles you’ll get to a diner or a motel with a hot shower, a writing prompt indicates the likelihood of a story somewhere down the road. People wouldn’t waste their time putting up a billboard if there wasn’t really something good up ahead, and Meg wouldn’t dedicate a whole Substack newsletter to prompts if she didn’t think people were going to use them to write something worthwhile.
When I suggested to Meg Pokrass that we collaborate, I was thinking of an ecological idea: what if I sent her an old story of mine, and she used it as inspiration for a prompt, which I would then use as inspiration for a new story?
Was it fun? A lot more than I’d expected.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.
If I could take only one writing prompt with me to a desert island, which one would I choose? Well, that’s going too far. I think we should stop here.
Meg's prompt: Write a story in which a character is forced to tell a story they no longer believe in.
The aliens’ spaceship arrived every Thursday. Meron, holding a cooler, would wait for them next to the ruins of what used to be Ramat Gan City Hall. They always came in groups of five, or four if you didn’t count the hovering robot who seemed to be their guide. Meron had a regular route: first he took them to see the Great Synagogue that had remained almost intact, then they made their way to Ramat Gan Stadium, which had long ago turned into a swamp, and finally he led them to the wreckage of Ramat Gan Theater. That was where, a few months after they started going out, he and Rona had seen Romeo and Juliet. Standing by the pile of rubble that used to be the theater, he told the aliens the story of the infatuated pair who were so desperately in love that they opted to die rather than live without each other. After his romantic monologue, Meron would open the cooler and hand out the popsicles that he and Rona looted from the grocery store near Oasis Cinema, where they’d worked before the disaster. The aliens would suck the popsicles curiously. Their body temperature was much lower than the half-melted treats, and all it took was for one of their tongues to touch the popsicle for it to completely freeze back over.
After the tour, the robot always gave Meron a tiny metal box containing a handful of “health pearls.” Rona came up with that name. They never figured out why the aliens needed the health pearls, but their effect on humans was incredible: swallowing just a single pearl would make you feel full, healthy, and not at all depressed for a whole week. It was a win-win: the aliens got a moving historical tour led by a near-extinct life form, and Meron and Rona, the last human beings in the universe, got enough health pearls to survive until the next group’s visit.
Rona never met the aliens. Every time they landed, she would duck into the hideout they’d set up in the public library’s basement. If it were up to her, she would have joined Meron, but he was adamant: the robot and the tourists were always well-behaved, and Meron never felt in any danger. But still, he thought it would be safer if the aliens believed he was the only person left on Earth. When he gave his spiels about the different sites, he never so much as hinted at Rona’s existence, except when he delivered the monologue about Romeo and Juliet and their overpowering love. Although he didn’t mention her by name, he felt Rona’s presence in every single word.
Rona developed sepsis, from a rusty nail. The health pearls that offered protection from so many ills turned out to be powerless against tetanus. And so, after surviving an asteroid strike, two hurricanes, one tsunami, and the most catastrophic series of earthquakes ever to hit the planet, Rona finally died of a disease for which humans had developed a vaccine more than a century ago. Meron buried her next to the bench where they’d first kissed, in King David Park. When she got ill, he’d desperately insisted that she take all the health pearls they had left, but now, as he slumped on the bench, he wished he’d kept one. He wasn’t sure exactly what he had, but he was burning up with fever and all his muscles ached. “Maybe this is the end,” he thought as he lay sweating on the bench near the fresh grave, and shut his eyes. Maybe it was like in Romeo and Juliet: if he and Rona couldn’t be together, they were fated to die together.
When he woke up, Meron saw the robot hovering above him, with a small group of aliens not far behind. He must have been in such a deep sleep that he hadn’t heard the spaceship land. Meron felt weak, but he knew he had to give the tour to get more health pearls. He got up and made his way heavily toward the synagogue. The tour took longer than usual, mostly because Meron had to do everything very slowly and he passed out twice. When they got to the last stop, at the theater ruins, Meron, shivering with fever, approached the robot and held out his hand. But instead of giving him a box, the robot emitted a dissatisfied whistle. Meron shrugged his shoulders uncomprehendingly and kept his hand outstretched. The robot responded with another whistle, this time at a frequency so high that it hurt Meron’s ears. He sighed. As far as the robot was concerned, the tour wasn’t over until Meron told the story of Romeo and Juliet. When he finished telling them about the couple who were so in love that they saw no point in living alone, Meron wept and held his hand out to the robot again.
Only after the spaceship took off did Meron allow himself to open the metal box and put a pearl in his mouth. His fever broke almost immediately, and by the time he got back to King David Park, his aches and pains had vanished. He looked at the grave. He and Rona had always thought the aliens travelled from the other side of the Milky Way because they wanted to see the Great Synagogue and the mosquito-infested swamp that used to be a soccer stadium, and to enjoy a frozen treat on a stick. But that wasn’t it. They didn’t fly across all those light years for that. The reason they kept coming back was to hear Meron stammer about true love, and about a race so rare, so sensitive, so unselfish, that it would choose death over heartbreak and loneliness.