I used to think that I was weird because I'm from Apple Island, but I’m just weird. Why else would I write 99 stories, each 99 words long?
Apple Island lies in a northwestern protected sound, star-shaped and only five miles from tip to tip. It is covered in overgrown evergreens and dirt roads and a unique community— small and close-knit but with a distance between people. There is a post office, a cemetery, and a school that I attended until the middle of seventh grade, but there are no stores or centralized services like running water, garbage collection, or electricity.
After I moved off the island, my school years were successful but not extraordinary. I was mostly tractable. I won science fairs. I studied engineering because I made good grades and it was practical. I partied with the cool kids, but I wasn't cool. I bumped along, but nothing shook me. Most of the stories I will share are from my travels because that is when I began to see and feel and shake. A foreign setting fosters awe in simple situations, being the stranger allows acceptance of uncomfortable positions, and naiveté lets you learn from something you will never understand.
When I joined a geologic expedition during my graduate studies, it was the first time I took a risk for me: Russia was better than a boy or research or new shoes. I discovered that I loved traveling and being on my own. I turned three-quarters of a prestigious PhD into a master's degree, and then I volunteered to work in rural clinics in Guinea, on the West African coast. This led to a career as a water, sanitation, and public health specialist for humanitarian nongovernmental organizations. For the next ten years, I enjoyed working with a plethora of disadvantaged communities around the world to improve public health and food security by building latrines and supplying water in any way possible. My responsibilities grew from overseeing several projects in a single zone to whole countries and then to multiple countries.
I moved almost every year, experiencing diverse settings even within the same country. After Guinea, I lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Haiti, returning several times to Congo and Kenya over the years. The nature of humanitarian aid work meant that each posting had some challenge or disaster that consumed it. Each mission was complex, dynamic, and enlightening. I loved my job: I loved learning in tense, fluid, and unfamiliar environments; I loved building things with broken tools and driving on bad roads; I loved meeting crazy, kind people, including my future husband.
A new phase began when we became a family. My introduction to the Middle East arose through visits to my husband's parents in Syria and Lebanon. I spent my pregnancy in Cairo watching waves of chaos bring in the Arab Spring. Then we moved to Dubai with our baby son for my husband's job. Here, life is urban simplicity, safe and shiny. Used to emergencies, adrenaline, and dirty water, I struggled with the return to banal privilege, but I've adjusted. In this rapid city, I’ve slowed down and took time to be creative.
I've looked back on my adventures and written this: 99 words about each of 99 moments when I was left amazed. I started out as an observer, simply trying to share interesting incidents from my travels. Who was I to compare or judge or fix? But inevitably, bits and pieces of me broke through in starts and bursts. And only now that I've strung these scenes together, only now that I've created this, only now that I have finished can I see what they are worth to me.
I like pragmatic brevity, efficiency, and consistency, and I like a challenge: 99 words can be concise, precise, but not always simple or complete. Are 99 words enough to evoke a stinging bite, a flashlight's gleam, a confession, a question, or perhaps a life? Are 99 scenes long enough to tell a story and short enough to listen to until the end? Can they send you around the corner, make you stumble, and forget what you believe?
I like the number 99 because it is three times thirty-three, and three is fundamental: We are three states of matter, with bones and blood and breath. We are water, with three atoms arranged perfectly to hold the charge offset, despite its symmetry. Triangulation determines our precise location within the three spatial dimensions that we can see. Three stones will make a cook-pot steady, and three legs will make a stand. Three primary colors can be mixed to make every other color ever painted by a man.
Each chapter presents a place, beginning with dates, a theme, and a contents list, followed by a series of 99-word scenes, one per page. Words and phrases that appear in italics are defined, translated, or somehow explained in the Glossary. Titles of the art are meaningful and can be found in the List of Art with a full bibliography.
Image: “World map trails.” Trayle Kulshan. 2017. Pencil and pen. © 2017.