While looking up some words in the dictionary, illustrator Jez Burrows was struck by the example sentence for "study" ("He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.") and was quickly hooked. In Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings, Burrows creates short stories made entirely from these found sentences, and the result is delightful and compelling. Below are some of our favorites.
1. Young Monarchs
She parted the ferns and looked between them. She had completely forgotten how tired and hungry she was. Her robe trailed along the ground, beaver wool. Running away was not in keeping with her character. She signaled Charlotte to be silent—she trailed behind, whimpering at intervals.
The whole town was heavily fortified: a fast-moving river; a dark, impenetrable forest; a wall of silence. The gates were guarded by uniformed soldiers. A line of watch fires stretched away into the night. The eastern boundary of the wilderness.
They arranged to meet at eleven o’clock. There was still no sign of her. The wind had shifted to the east. There must be something wrong.
2. Haunting the Docents
I lived here years ago, when men wore frills and finery and let their hair grow into long lovelocks, before the queen’s fair name was breathed upon, before the war.
The castle was built as protection against the Saxons—a fortress high up on a hill, the lofty battlements thickly enwreathed with ivy. The moon glimmered through the mist, and the minstrels sang of courtly love to the king and his people: a wondrous assemblage of noble knights, cruel temptresses, and impossible loves.
Today, the castle has more than 650,000 visitors a year. And I am returned, an echo of the past, a phantom who haunts lonely roads, an incongruous figure among the tourists.
Our tour guide is very knowledgeable and entertaining—
“The king was tricked out of his land.” You don’t know the half of it.
“He was reputed to have the finest French table of the time!” Is that so?
“It is said the king died a violent death!” I hardly think so. The bells tolled the queen’s death, and he jumped from the window into the moat below. It was done. After her death, he felt that his life was meaningless. He said so himself: “The moon itself is dead.”
The heir to the throne, on a guided tour of the castle. What luck.
Want to see the library? It’s really something.
This is it. Now or never. Speak up. Look sharp. Heave-ho. All hands on deck. The tide has turned. The jig is up. Pack your things. Say your prayers. Eat your fill. Put your best foot forward. Put the key in the ignition. Gun the engine. Raise the dust. Learn the ropes. Ascend the throne. Upset the applecart. Make friends. Make merry. Make money. Do your best. Hazard a guess. Take a chance. Take your lumps. Take to the woods. Take the ax by the handle. Raise a rebellion. Wrestle an alligator. Save a ship in distress. Keep your wits about you. Run along now. Run atilt at death. Go as fast as you can. Go, by all means. Go before I cry.
Dinah looked enchanting. She was full of confidence. She felt exultant and powerful. Decked out in furs, she was mounted on a white horse, and her dress billowed out around her, blue silk embellished with golden embroidery and yards and yards of necklace. She wore a string of agates around her throat, a necklace of cabochon rubies, a bracelet set with emeralds. Everybody was listening intently. They gaped at her as if she were an alien.
“I have a confession to make,” she announced. The last notes of the symphony died away. “We have used all the available funds.”
She coughed discreetly.
5. Going to Istanbul
As the train thundered through the night, an icy breeze filtered through the open window, chilling the compartment. The aurora metropolis filled the whole of the southern horizon like an unattended fire, embers glowing in the darkness. 3:15 showed on the clock, and Lisa lay sleepless.
She stared, slit-eyed, down the length of the gun, gripping the handle until her knuckles whitened. Eyes shining with expectation, she pictured Benjamin waiting. His backswept hair, his oily smile. His last agony, in the dusk of an Istanbul nightclub. Like a cat stalking a bird, she need only wait. Put him in a box and put the box in a hole, then the matter is closed.
A voice stirred her from her reverie—a cry that sank down into an inarticulate whine. She jumped up, swung full around. There was a dull thud as her gun discharged, an uncomprehending silence, and a faint gurgling noise. She felt the ground give way beneath her.
The train jerked forward. She knelt and bowed her head by the still body of the young woman. She sat gnawing her underlip. Eyes ashine in the darkness, she sat immobile for a long time in the tranquil clacketing of the train, until it was time to go.
6. And Another Thing
He let loose a stream of abuse, like water gushing from a hydrant. A torrent of insults, bad language, and bitchy remarks. His repertoire of threats, stares, and denigratory gestures. Unrepeatable. His breathing became ragged, and he began to bang the table with his fist. He raged at the futility of it all: he was mouthing off about society in general, the unemployed, the republican movement, his first wife. He stood for a few moments, catching his breath.
She looked down.
“Do you have a reservation?”
7. A Walk
I took the alternate route home, streets alive with traffic, avenues of communication, abrupt hills, aleatoric music, artwork being sold on the sidewalk, hotels with modern amenities lined up in soldierly array, the aureate light of Coming Attractions! Amazingly Low Prices! Authentic mexican fare! Everything in neat arrangement, amorous couples in the bright apparel of spring, penniless ancients stood in awe of the king, the awfully rich young American in the armor of prosperity, anthropomorphic deities, movie studio apparatchiks, aficionados of the bullfight. Civilization and its attendant morality. All aquiver with excitement, I was not moving anymore with my feet.
8. Table for One
Forty years, there or thereabouts, have elapsed. My date isn’t going to show, it seems.
9. Breakup Side Effects
Dullness of vision
Heaviness of heart
Declarations of love
A paroxysm of weeping
Increased shallowness of breath
Traces of acid
Extremes of temperature
Debilitating back pain
Economy of words
Voyages of exploration
Vows of chastity
Shortness of memory
Excerpted from Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows. Copyright 2018 by Jez Burrows. Published with permission from Harper Perennial and HarperCollins Publishers.
You can find more information about Dictionary Stories here.