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The Riddle

Story by Eleanor Pearson (Read author interview) December 16, 2018

Art by Dean Hochman

We told each other riddles when we were kids: endless variations of dummy tests and bad puns and logic puzzles. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  The one that stuck with me was the riddle about a person trapped in a box.

It was hard to consider when you weren’t in a box, and it’s even harder now that you are.

“What kind of box?” you used to ask, and some smart-mouth would always chime in with, “A square one,” and everyone would erupt in laughter around Kool-aid stained teeth.  We were seven, after all, or eight, and most of our conversations got derailed like that. But you wouldn’t laugh. You were always so logical. You needed to know the truth of everything.

In fourth grade, you got into trouble for drawing feathers onto the raptors in our dinosaur book. You got detention for refusing to apologize. Mrs. Snyder made that year miserable because you couldn’t stop correcting her. But, for you, speaking up was a moral imperative. There could be one idea; one sacrosanct reality; one necessary action.

We were friends from the time you helped me pick up my scattered crayons in preschool. We were close until I learned to be embarrassed for you.

You decided that the chicken came second. The egg came first, since it had to have contained the DNA of the first chicken. It was laid by a dinosaur who was almost—but not quite—a chicken yet.

You decided that life was incidental. When that doctor pronounced you dead, you didn’t depart; you ceased. You would laugh at how silly I’m being, imagining you in the box from the riddle. But I can’t think of this any other way.

I imagine that your box is white. It has no doors, windows, or shadows. There is no pain, fear, or friendship in this place. Nothing but blank walls.

“Is there anything else in the box?” you used to ask, because the point of the riddle was figuring out how to escape. And there was: a mirror.

There is no mirror in your box.

“Smash the mirror and use it to cut your way out,” you guessed. “Shatter it into shards to use as weapons. Lift it up to discover a secret door.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

The correct answer was: you break the mirror in two and then put it back together.  Because after all, two halves make a hole.


When we were older the riddle changed. We began to ask, “What would you do if escape were impossible?”

Some of our classmates insisted they would never give up, throwing themselves for eternity against impenetrable walls. Some immediately resigned themselves to their fate. I said the question was stupid and, frustrated, walked away.

You always answered, “Think.” You thought that you could remember how you got into the box or come up with a way to get out. And I believe you got it right.

You’ll be able to think your way out of this one, if anyone can.

Because after all, if you reflect enough, maybe you can make a mirror.

About the Author

Eleanor Pearson lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she supports her writing habit with a variety of jobs. Her fiction has previously been published in Syntax & Salt.

About the Artist

Find more photography by Dean Hochman on Flickr.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Two

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