Dale Cozort

Night of the Black Swans


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Deep in the bowels of a major publisher a light burned, creating a tiny, trivial, insignificant swath of illumination in the stygian darkness that held sway in the rest of the massive edifice. In that insignificant swath of light sat an insignificant entity, Myrtle Smith, first reader. Myrtle engulfed, rather than sat in her tattered chair. Her jowls shook as she peered through inch-thick glasses and chortled. Her chortle was a thing tinged with both triumph and madness.

Around Myrtle Smith, first reader, in that insignificant swath of light, black swans soared--three of them this day--manuscripts that would make the publishing company millions, if anyone but Myrtle Smith, first reader ever saw them. She read, and chortled late into the night, then Myrtle replaced all three black swans in their envelopes, along with a form rejection notice. She e-mailed her fellow first readers at the other publishers, the secret cabal that covertly rules the publishing world, and warned them to be on the lookout for tonight's black swans.

You see, after years of laboring at the slushpile, Myrtle Smith, and all of her first reader colleagues have gone quite mad-mad in the sense of crazy and mad also in the sense of angry. They pass along the mediocre and the adequate to the bloodsucking, soul-destroying leeches that employ them. The transcendent, soaring manuscripts, however, they savor only among themselves, like art collectors hoarding masterpieces.

Dawn is sending tentative fingers into the stygian night when Myrtle Smith, first reader extinguishes her tiny island of illumination and waddles out of the building on her unfashionable, much scuffed penny-loafers. It has been a long night, but a productive one.