Skywalker Li ’22 wins 2021 NCTE Achievement Award

Skywalker Li ’22 has won a Certificate of Superior Writing from the National Council of Teachers of English for his essay, “To Play Jazz,” and his short story, “Ҳикояи марг,” which you can read below. This year, 284 juniors from schools across the country were nominated, and 136 received Certificates of Superior Writing. Past winners from Newark Academy include Annika Inampudi ’21 and Ava Sharahy ’20. Congratulations, Skywalker!

Ҳикояи марг

7/28/23 11:00 p.m.

[An elderly man turns on the camera and looks right at it. He is alone in a barren room. His tattered clothes hang loose to his body even as he wheezes and coughs. While his body is close to death, there’s an alert and calculating gleam in his eyes. ]

Hello? Is this on? Alright, I guess this is it. An accumulation of decades of work and sacrifice. I believe a victory speech is in order. My name is Walter Jacobson, and I am going to die at midnight. For the first time, the date in the book cannot be changed. I’ve tried everything to avert this. But I must not be selfish. I am old, older than any man on this earth and I spent my whole life to get to this moment. Every word I said, every action I took led me to today. Money, love, family—none of these things matter to me. Time is the only concept I believe in, the only thing I want more of. My life is a choose-your-own-adventure, but today, there are no choices. Death waits for me like the end of a video game. 

[The sonorous chimes of an old clock fill the room.]

My clock sits in front of me, the second most important possession I have. The minute hand shifts ever so slowly towards its final destination. It fills my vision. It’s the only thing that matters, that has ever mattered since I read the Ҳикояи марг.

7/28/23 11:07 p.m.

Ah, I still remember how I got the Ҳикояи марг, it’s been such a long time. Back then I was respected, I was a leader. This was during World War Two when the CIA sent me and their finest men to investigate some disturbances in present-day Tajikistan. Rumors told of an unkillable man, a man who seemed to be able to anticipate everyone’s moves before they did them. A grandmaster in the game of chess that is life. He single-handedly took out entire platoons by himself while in the Soviet army. And the only thing he had was a book. That worried the wrong people. I’ve learned that those who take a sip of power oftentimes guard the cup tightly. We had to take him out, but a frontal attack would have been pointless. Luckily for us, the poor guy went crazy. The locals said his book was the reason for his success, that it contained the future, but he read too far. Became deranged at the fact that his family was going to die and he could do nothing to change that. By the time we got there, he was rambling about fate and destiny, gripping the thin, battered book in his hand. I still remember how he looked with his gaunt, sunken eyes, his stick-like body, and the desperation in his voice as he repeated the words Ҳикояи марг over and over again. That’s what we named the book he held with him. 

After he was buried in a shallow unmarked grave, we opened the book for the first time. The others tossed the book aside before I could have the chance to even look at it, “all of the pages were blank” they told me. But something drew me to it, something about it seemed aware, cognizant, alive. When I opened that book, I saw my life, quite literally, flash before my eyes. In neat, looping handwriting, each page contained every major and minor event in my life. Frantically I poured over the pages, reading faster and faster until I got to the page that described what I was doing right at that moment. And I abruptly stopped. I closed my eyes, exhaled, and turned to the last page in the book. All I saw was a month, a day, and a year. The date of my death. That saved my life. The book told me that I would die in 1954, giving me, back then, only 10 years to live. Blood rushed to my head and I froze, wondering which organ would betray me, my body a ticking clock. I knew from that moment, that my whole life had to change, so I closed the book.

After that initial shock, an idea came to my mind.  I knew what I had to do. Heh, that eternal debate over free will versus determinism was resolved by a selfish man and a book. Closing my eyes, I tore out every page until only one was left. The date of my death. It was my greatest gamble. If I couldn’t see my future actions, I had the freedom to choose how I would live. I quickly looked at the page. 1987. Somehow ripping out the pages of the book prolonged my life for thirty-three more years. My heart jumped to my throat and I felt a surge of exhilaration. I could actually change when I would die! That was the true start of my life.

I think that is what everyone would do if they read the Ҳикояи марг. We all want to know when it is all done when we fall into eternal slumber. And once we know we could change when we will die, we all want to find a way to push it back just a little bit further. Live just one more day, just one more hour, just one more minute. But death is patient.

7/28/23 11:32 p.m.

From that day on, I carried that book around with me everywhere I went. Every step I took, every decision I made, I checked with the book to see if my actions prolonged my life. At first, it was simple, take this path to work instead of the usual way. Use this brand of coffee, wear these clothes. Minutes, hours, days, the time kept adding up and I grew confident, so satisfied with my newfound ability to extend my life. I had a good reason too: the date of my death in the Ҳикояи марг either stayed the same or moved further into the future. Then, walking home from work one day while listening to my favorite band my death date moved back. I lost time. An uncontrollable fear welled in my chest and I felt paralyzed, not physically but mentally. It became harder and harder to gain time. I had to give up more pleasure in life. Enjoying a conversation with a friend meant a sooner death date, celebrating a relative’s birthday made it worse. I hid from my friends and family so that I could push back my death date. When I lost my job, I felt relieved, glad when I saw that I had gained three more months to live. I left everything I loved behind, went into hiding without a trace because that was the only way I could live longer. The Ҳикояи марг became my life, there was nothing I could do without it. In fact, one could say it controlled me. 

Wait a minute.

7/28/23 11:47 p.m.

… [Walter is paralyzed with shock. The steady chimes of a clock still present in the background]

7/28/23 11:50 p.m.

How could I be so stupid! I was played, I never had a choice, the book always wins! Don’t you see? No matter what I did, it made me believe it was my choice, that I had freedom! Every action it wanted me to take was presented under the disguise that it would prolong my life, my suffering so that I would follow like a lamb to the slaughter.

[Walter shakes his hands as if he had gotten something particularly nasty on them, muttering to himself. He takes the Ҳикояи марг and looks at the last page.]

Look how the book mocks me still! It controls my fate, my destiny. Date of death, June 28, 2023, at midnight. Ha, Ҳикояи марг expects me to wait, to be a slave to its date. I must make a stand, to show that it will never fully control me, that I still can change my future. My tooth! Yes, my tooth! Ҳикояи марг cannot stop me from biting down on the cyanide pill in my molar! I will prove there is free will. I will own my life! Know this viewer, no matter how hard something tries to control you, you can always fight back. Goodnight.

[Walter bites down hard, winces, and sits down.]

[In the camera’s field of view, the Ҳикояи марг lays open. However, on the last page the date of Walter’s death has already changed: 7/28/23 11:54 p.m. ]

[After four minutes he’s dead.]

[At 7/28/23 12:00 p.m. the numbers on the last page turn blank, with only the words Date of Death written on it. The Ҳикояи марг closes itself, seemingly creating more pages from thin air as the cover shut.]

[It waits for its next victim.]

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