“Spreadsheet” by Paul Smith

Nomad, Romain Donato

The spreadsheet originated in Asia Minor, near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Monks started working on it, laying out the foundations of science and mathematics. They transcribed sines and cosines, Bessel functions, the parameters of heat transfer. Then they argued, wanting more detail, finally deciding that the spreadsheet should be what they were and what they wanted. Science and math were only part of it. They looked at each other and started describing their facial features, the length of their robes, when they smiled, how often they prayed. And they were never in agreement, but continued to work on it.

Eventually Phoenician traders found them and their document, and brought it with them on their trading routes that took them all over the Black Sea, the Arabian Sea, and beyond. They swapped the spreadsheet with Arabs for camels and dates, silks and ceramics, beads and sand, and the Arabs refined the math, added their stories of the desert, the wind, the sand and the stars, and passed it on to other nomads along the Silk Road and the one going to Timbuktu. The Phoenicians got it back, now modified, and took it further east, to the Bay of Bengal and the Philippines Sea, trading with more merchants—Malays, Banjar, Dayak, the Chinese, and all the people living on the archipelago—exchanging their goods for what they could bring back. And those from Kalimantan and Sarawak and Gangga Negarra added their knowledge of the spices, the rubber trees, the plantains, the dragon lizards, till the spreadsheet’s papyrus was heavy and waterlogged with words of baffling meanings, translated wrong and argued over, negotiated over a cup of tea under the stars by weary sailors and merchants, who finally gave up arguing at dawn so their ships could sail.

The spreadsheet wandered into the middle of Asia, where it was scoffed at, put in an earthen jar, and left for centuries, declared useless by the leader of the Mongol hordes who swept across the plains on horseback, pillaging the kingdoms and caliphates as they killed the men and enslaved the women. But even here, the spreadsheet grew as a little known scholar and student, whose name is forgotten, retrieved it from the jar and wrote down all the atrocities and murders and destruction the horses with warriors atop wrought on their captives. And labeled their barbarism so the world would know it, along with gunpowder and parades and opium and how monkeys would be captured and tied to a chair while epicures cut open their heads, and ate their brains, after cutting the monkeys’ vocal chords so they could enjoy their repast in relative silence. Then the scholar disappeared and all knowledge of the spreadsheet went into the vacuum of history, reappearing again in the Middle Ages as disease and infidels descended upon Europe.

The spreadsheet was scribbled on again by monks as they wrote and rewrote the histories of religions that swept across the continent, fouling countries, sucking them into war, leading them across peninsulas to destroy other religions, waving flags and banners, chasing acolytes up the steps of the cathedrals—where the spreadsheet, now with multiple tabs, was wrestled away and burned at the stake. And the virgins who watched were hunted down across the parapets and spires and turrets of castles, where their lewd beauty was described in canvass, before they were ravaged and martyred.  When the plague descended, the population was tithed by death and the continent descended into chaos and calumny. The spreadsheet captured it all, written in blood, along with the new inventions of music and astronomy and medicine.  Principalities fell, new ones emerged, infidels marched, Goths overran the old religions that were tweaked to accommodate their pagan lusts till they were so compromised and misled by false spreadsheets that they were no longer recognizable.

Ships sailed again, this time heading west in search of more plunder and a new land.  The natives were killed and enslaved. The women were raped. The land was improved, the buffalo slaughtered, and God was praised and holidays were declared. The spreadsheet predicted a mighty struggle between the reactionaries and the progressives who wrestled with the spreadsheet, adding to it, subtracting, manipulating, deciphering, referencing the mulberry mountains, the endless plains, the cost of governance, the price of freedom, the worth of prairies divided by moonlit rivers. Settlers put up fences, shot rustlers, grew corn and soybeans, heard nothing of the spreadsheet, prospered, died, endured famines, shot more natives. Those who escaped were put in prisons by the moonlit rivers where they wept.  

There was no rest. Far away the reactionaries and progressives elected more reactionaries and progressives to represent them, and they annotated the spreadsheet to their best use. They studied it, categorizing all the theories of science and civilization where heaven and nature sing, finally concluding that the spreadsheet was mostly words and words were abstractions—approximations—that could never tell their story precisely because they could be interpreted and twisted and debated and lied about till one lawyer said to another that he had no business deciphering the spreadsheet and should be hanged for treason and malice.

So they invoked God to bless their spreadsheet. Some said God said those words were His and shouldn’t be tampered with. And others said God never really said that. We think we heard Him and wrote it down correctly, but golly, we’re just not a hundred percent sure.  Through Him all things were made, and that included their words, the reactionaries said excitedly. Without Him nothing was made that has been made, so they could say that nothing was their fault or fruit since God created all this. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. Finally, the light shone in the darkness, especially the darkness that crept across the fruited plains in the solitary evening, conquered by industry and the stamping out of anything disagreeable.

And the settlers gave their stamp of approval on the spreadsheet, which they heard was put under glass in a building they never saw, hundreds maybe thousands of miles away. They told each other how good it was because they were told it was really good, and they hallowed it and allowed it to become theirs, though it would never be complete. And sometimes before they ate dinner, between grace and that first mouthful of sorghum they gave thanks for it and said good-bye to the doughboys who had not yet been born.

Hail to the doughboys who have given the last full measure of devotion—and let us resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this prairie, under God, this congregation of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this prairie.  So they concluded ‘This spreadsheet sounds pretty good, Caleb.’ And then they ate some mutton and pork and fatback molasses and curry and cornbread and counted their blessings—calico, plows, oxen, haylofts, bridles, tin, bolts of gingham, milo, denim, and shrewdness: winking its eye at God, the prairie, and the spreadsheet they heard about.


IMG_1721Paul Smith is a civil engineer who has worked in the construction racket for many years. He has traveled all over the place and met lots of people. Some have enriched his life. Others made him wish he or they were all dead. He likes writing poetry and fiction. He also likes Newcastle Brown Ale. If you see him, buy him one. His poetry and fiction have been published in Convergence, Missouri Review, Literary Orphans and other literary magazines.