Author : Daniel S. Helman

Malia read the paper and then again. It was hard to believe. “Really?” you thought. “They’re offering money for that?” It was midweek, and you’d managed to accompany your brother to the store, where he picked up yesterday’s news for half price.

Behind the lists of loved ones, the ones who you prayed and hoped weren’t dead, the tens and hundreds of names with messages like “Ama, come to Uncle Atta’s house. That’s where we are. We’re safe except for Nisan, who died,” and the very sad pictures, that you’d hold in your mind, bathed in light, trying to send a thought or feeling that someone cared—that’s where Malia found it.

Within borders that were decorated with figs and pomegranates, enclosed in elegant swirling lines, was a short notice: “Contest. Cash prize. Answer the following question: What is the basis for calculus? Include at least 15 worked problems. Send answers to …” and then it gave an address that was in the country’s capital, on one of the main streets, a name that you’d recognize. It was odd. What, for heaven’s sake, had anyone the right to hope for, after war? Was it really ok to think of the joys of getting new books, of the paper tablets with those narrow lines, smelling oddly of the gum used in the binding, of new pens, the cheapest kind, but still new?

And Malia wondered what to do. Calculus is a mystery, sure. But there were ways of finding out. It was more a question of time, and not knowing where you’d be in a few days. What would your father decide, and what new unwelcome grief would come—these were the questions now, as life had become one of chores and uncertainties. You hope that your auntie will contact her sons and let them know where you are, so they can bring some extra food, maybe a package. You worry about getting everything done before curfew that needs a hand.

Mostly, Malia wondered about the name on the notice. What was the “Office for Future Growth in Human Affairs?” It sounded like an NGO. Should you trust them? Probably not. But … it is for learning, and there is money.

Fifty four days later, and you and Ham are on the way to pick up a package. It’s only been ten days since the intensity of the work broke. It was almost too much. But the deadline was so soon. Infinitessimals and deltas aside, you’d rather not worry too much about the fifteen. Were they any good? Did it make sense to compare rise and run to the cycles of the moon? Was it ok to include some things that you’d basically copied? At least the work had been intense, and a distraction.

The letter in the package that was addressed to Malia contained a congratulatory note and enough money for your family to buy you food for two months. And this NGO’s strategy had worked. They were able to put money in the hands of ordinary people. They had succeeded where all the world’s governments had failed. And they did it through learning. There was a chance for peace.