Hi – this is my entry in the New York Midnight Short Story Challenge. It is a knockout format: in my case, my story was entered into a Heat with 26 other entrants. We were asked to write a 2,500-word maximum fiction – in eight days – on a prompt. Each Heat has a different prompt and the top five stories as picked by 42 judges, move on to the next round in March.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: On the brink of war
Character: A mediator
Here is my story, exactly as entered. Your comments are appreciated and you are welcome to play hardball; throw shade; be dismissive and aloof – whatever gets your point across.
(Special THX to sis Char who read, commented and helped a lot!) You may comment here or right on the NYC Midnight forum. I will review those fellow contestants who review my entry.
The Watering of Nations
The planet is running out of water. Can a young woman mediate peace in a world despoiled by climate change, pollution and politics?
IN THE FINAL WEEKS of 2048, Hazel Zehen-Murtagh was appointed to the position of Mediator of the North American Water Pact. The Mediator had the power to amend negotiated positions; make alliances; and enforce sanctions prescribed by the Water Pact, or “AguaSi”, as it had come to be known in the media. The control ceded to the Mediator was broad, but was tempered by the gunpowder reality on the North American continent – war could erupt at any moment.
Europe had already seen shots fired over water rights and had pulled together a shaky agreement that was due for review in six months. The outcome of world peace was seen to rest on North America’s ability to reach an agreement and prevent the first all-out war for water.
Hazel Zehen-Murtagh knew little about world economies, trade, international currency or the arcane legal constructions upon which an uneasy and teetering peace rested. She had, however; been a skilled civil engineer and had worked on desalination projects so she possessed a useful technical grounding. But for the past five years she had been a writer – a successful one – and had become recognized as a voice of calm and reason; well-schooled by her own family history, which informed her stirring historical novels.
Hazel was a small town Canadian girl with a varied background that gave her an eclectic perspective and a well-known public personality. She vetted well.
Her mother was a school psychologist who had become a principal and had then worked her way through the political system in British Columbia to become a member of the last Provincial Cabinet – Education Minister – before enactment of the federal War Measures Act deconstructed Canada’s provincial governments in 2037.
Hazel’s brother Ty was a lawyer specializing in conflict resolution; her cousin Riel a peace activist and wildly popular Francophone musician with fans around the globe. Hazel’s father operated a popular e-commerce site that had become the first to provide online, real-time, barter-for-water. The site operated as a non-profit, with proceeds going to the Mennonite Central Committee – a venerated charitable organization that was on its fiscal death bed, had it not been for the steady injection of “water dollars” that now infused it with new life.
The AguaSi Mediator was attractive, dark skinned, athletic and capable of frank, unflinching discussion. Quick on her feet and intellectually honest, she had a calm demeanour that her brother characterized as being, “good with the puck on her stick”.
Hazel Murtagh had written four books after the death of her husband, Irish Olympic rower Arthur James Murtagh. He had been killed while on a white-water rafting trip in Northern B.C. Arthur Murtagh died before the couple had children and Hazel retreated into the solace of her extended family. It was during this time; doing research for a self-publish book one of her cousins was writing that she discovered her gift for historical fiction. She took her mother’s name, Zehen, and hyphenated it with her taken name.
Hazel Zehen-Murtagh, fortified with coffee (and a finger of Pimm’s) drafted her public acceptance of the Mediator role:
As I write today from my cabin in Tofino, overlooking the vast Pacific panorama, I gaze westward across a planet much different than the one that existed when I entered the world 36 years ago. I see a Russian-Japanese pact that wields self-serving power with no apparent empathy – the last of the surviving protectionists. Then there is China, the might of its regions and peoples able to wobble our globe on its axis; should they so choose. The European Union, now in shambles, is kept viable by its robust backbone; Germany. Then, at last, there is teeming India – ever widening its influence as her billions grow, thriving; directing technology and manufacturing.
America, while still a great nation, is weakened – her coffers emptied by war – and reeling like a besieged champion. Too much trauma has been absorbed. To wit:
California, after a tumultuous secession in 2025 was failing financially as the US government of the day waged economic war in a futile effort to force them back into the Union. Only water from Canada and money from Mexico saved the new nation-state. The two confederates became the Golden State’s enduring co-sponsors, enabling it to continue its destiny of self-determination.
East Texas, Louisiana and Florida: flooded and bankrupt – a lawless, dystopian everglade that the US federal government ultimately abandoned to its mangrove-rimmed grave.
Oklahoma too is no more. It is the tornado wasteland where severe storm frequency grew to its current average of 62 tornados per-year, per 10,000 acres. The state is unfit for human habitation for six months a year. Like the perpetually flooded Gulf Coast rim, Washington could not support the ceaseless needs of this land of windborne decimation.
And what of Canada and Mexico?
Canadian defiance towards American petro-aggression in 2020 was backed by the troika of NATO, the United Nations and Germany. Now only Germany remains, but the USA no longer hungers for the oil discovered in the deep wells below the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan and Canada abides – a resource leader.
Fiercely democratic, Mexico is the king of manufacturing for North America. It moves ahead with steady assurance – its shoulder applied to the wheel of industry and commerce. “Hecho en Mexico” is synonymous now with industrial vitality. Mexican workers, who were once seen inaccurately as symbols of indolence and an “unskilled worker class”, now represent productivity as their country leads in GDP per person.
How then do I fit into this matrix of upheaval? What possible relevance could I, a writer, have in today’s fractured world view?
These are answers I do not know.
Hazel stopped writing to take an incoming call from her brother.
“Hey, sis,” said Ty from his office in Vancouver. He was just off the UBC campus, across from English Bay. “Working on your acceptance speech?”
“You know it, big bro.”
“Seriously, how far are you?”
“Mr Nosey Lawyer, eh? I suppose since you have agreed to be my Chief of Staff, I should expect that. OK – I have the outline built; the characters are living and breathing – complete with fascinating back-stories – and I have a rough draft complete. It is a dodgy draft – lots of red pencil, I fear. I am in re-write mode now.”
“Har-har. Hazie, it’s not a novel. It’s two thousand words to buy us the first two hundred days,” Ty said, his tone now even and serious.
“OK, joking aside,” Hazel said. “It’s going well. I’ll send you a draft later today.”
“Just checking. Your new employer, the AguaSi Secretary, called. As you know, we have a big-time obligation to attend the orientation and intelligence briefings starting in two weeks. They will be held in Mexico City, LA, Seattle and YVR. One week each. Remember, you don’t have to chair – just attend and ask lots of intelligent questions, right? And don’t worry, we will have our team there to run strategy, public positioning, legal – the works. Then the formal delegate proposals are set for the following month in Yellowstone. All broadcast around the world, translated, real-time, per your insistence. Your decisions will be required at the end of the discussion forum that follows the formal presentations, unless the delegates sign-off on a deal, and then all you do is ratify it. If you agree, of course.”
“Of course. And also, holy shit,” Hazel said.
“I know, holy shit is right! Have you been reading the stuff I’ve been sending?”
“Yeah, but it’s a grind. Last night I read one page on the Fox Junior bio about four times.”
“Hazel, this is not a college exam here. Like Gramps used to say, ‘This ain’t no disco.'”
“I know, I know. I am terrified. Here’s what I want to do. Let’s get a hotel in Victoria… gather the whole clan – but especially you, Riel, Dad and Mom and Great Aunt Marnie and do about two days to just talk through the whole shiteroo. Glieve jo?”
“Jo! But Victoria is too public a place. How about Harrison Lake? I’ll set it up. And don’t waste that Low German stuff on me. It’s bad enough when Riel and you and the others all start in on the français and tell jokes about me, to my face.”
Hazel stood at her writing desk. Despite what she had told her brother, she was almost up to speed on the delegate bios, government overviews, intelligence, water data and a lengthy list of materials that would allow her to not get rag-dolled by the professional negotiators and lifetime politicians that she would be meeting.
“Billy, you’re so far away from home…” the Dylan song played in her dark cabin – a sentimental ballad about conflict and facing difficult odds. She opened the patio door to hear the shore break and smell the salt and cedar. The surf, she mused, wearing down the rocks with persistence; a wave every ten seconds.
Hazel recalled the trap that her most recent character, Sarah Barkman, fell into in her last novel. In the story, Sarah’s family had built a grist windmill on the shores of the Roseau River in 1922. Her millwright husband John was a leader in the Mennonite church and was the sole trustee for the church money that had gone into the project. After building the windmill and establishing a thriving business that gave the local Mennonites free grain milling and charged profitable fees to neighbouring farmers, John and Sarah had been railroaded. The church alleged that John had attended a Salvation Army revival meeting in Winnipeg. Using this innocuous act as a basis, John was called in front of the church Deacons. In a kangaroo court, John Barkman was excommunicated. His farm – part of a collateral agreement – was forfeit.
Sarah was then informed that her choices were to shun her husband of 35 years entirely (meaning no contact), or to leave the church.
In the course of this month-long ambush, the Barkmans lost their business, their savings, their home and their social standing in the incredibly tight-knit, insular Mennonite community. It was the only life they had known from birth.
For Sarah Barkman, the situation had added burdens. To begin with, English was her fourth – and weakest – language (after High and Low German and Russian). Furthermore, women had only been able to vote in Manitoba for four years and females were secondary members in the Mennonite patriarchal society. Men dominated church governance and the secular arenas of arbitration, litigation and politics.
“Hi, Mom,” Hazel said when her mother answered in Vancouver.
“Hi, Hazie. Up late memorizing water data?”
“Something like that. Oh, hi Aunties!” Hazel said as she spotted her aunts Jenna and Tara in the background.
“Hey Hazel,” they chimed, waving.
“I’ll talk to you chicas later, OK! I gotta pick Mom’s brain a little,” she said, blowing kisses to them as they left the room.
“Mom, tell me again about Gramp’s great-grandmother Sarah and the court case. I wanna make sure I have those facts straight and you tell the story best.”
“OK, sure thing. Let’s see…” Mae Zehen said, gathering her thoughts.
“Start where they had just been kicked outta the church,” Hazel said, prompting her mom.
“So, after the smoke cleared, Sarah and John went to Winnipeg. They borrowed a cart and team from a Ukrainian customer; friends from the mill – the Pidlazny brothers – and rode to the city. Four days. Lucky it was summer,” Mae said, starting the story and rubbing her hands as she recalled details.
“Not only did the Pidlazny brothers loan them transportation, but they told them about the immigration lawyer that they were using. Those guys had come to Canada and were sending money back to the Ukraine so that their wives could follow them over. Seven years,” she said.
“Oh my God, I forgot that part,” Hazel said.
“Anyway, this immigration lawyer also had done a lot of work in the Mennonite community. His name was Hespeler. He was a member of the Manitoba Legislature too, so he was the right man for the job because Sarah and John were going to sue the Mennonite church.”
“Yeah. Good karma about the lawyer, eh?” said Hazel. “The Ukrainians and the Mennonites didn’t always get along – unlike you and Dad. Ha-ha. How come the Pidlaznys were so kind?”
“Sarah and John had given them credit at the mill. It was a secret and the brothers were grateful. Sarah wrote in her diary that they were ‘noble men’ because they sacrificed so much to send money back to their wives and they lived so poorly in Manitoba.”
“Anyhow,” Mae Zehen continued, “Hespeler agreed to take their case. Because John had been excommunicated for what could be argued was a transgression of church rules, the stronger case was Sarah’s. She had done no wrong and yet the church was forcing her to either leave her husband or leave her faith. Sarah Zehen sued the Mennonite church; the Pastor and the Deacons. Hespeler funded the whole thing with some three-card Monte concerning a special Immigrant Emergency Support fund that he controlled. John got a millwright job at a brewery, and Sarah became a self-taught para-legal for Hespeler and earned a salary. Their adult children disavowed the church and moved. John and Sarah’s son Leonard joined the army at the outbreak of World War Two and was a survivor of a Hong Kong POW camp. Others were in Alternative Service as Conscientious Objectors.”
“Wow. And their son Roy was Gramp’s Grandpa, right?”
“Yep. Anything else? My brain is on empty after all that!” Mae said.
“Last thing: Sarah had to hold on for eight years, right? Then she won, but by then that particular church had been closed and had been rolled into another congregation. All John and Sarah ever got was a letter of apology?”
“Correct. That was enough. Sarah worked for Hespeler for years. She was a Deputy Minister before she retired. And John never left the brewery – he was responsible for millions of gallons of ale, although he wouldn’t have more than a bottle or two, and only on a hot day.”
Hazel and Mae looked at one another. Hazel thought she heard a Stellar’s jay squawking in the Maple Ridge backyard. The familiar sound transported her and she thought of her childhood there; birthday parties, snow angels and barbeques… running through the sprinkler.
“Honey,” said Mae.
“Are you ready? Can you do this job?”
‘That’s why I called, Mom,” Hazel said. “I just wanted to hear that story again. We’ll make it, Mom. Just like Sarah and John, we’ll make it.”