On a Prisoner’s Tall Tales

You can travel anywhere in the world, and you can have any adventure you wish—all within your mind.

In jail or prison, time passes differently than it does on the outside. Prisoners of war often feel this as well. One such situation in Italy during the war found two POWs who passed the time swapping stories. Their tall tales seemed to be competing to see which tale could top the other. And Rusty could not get enough of Mark’s stories. “Tell me again,” he would say, trying to engage the older man, “tell about the time the king made you a governor.”

“Well, you know it,” Mark said. “The king said he could trust me with his whole empire, so he gave me an unlimited treasury and the power to match it and said I should govern,” Mark grinned. Rusty roared with laughter. “Ohhh, sure. Sure. I’m sure he did. But that doesn’t top my story about the princess who wanted to run off with me and leave her position and money behind only because I was such a wonderful lover, though, does it?”

And so on.

For the last three years of the war, the two men would swap these tales. Try as he might, Rusty’s concocted tales of romance with fair maidens could never seem to top Mark’s tales of a faraway land of wonderful wealth and sights never before witnessed, a mystical land where he was trusted by a great king and made a ruler by him.

As wars do, this one ended. The men were released at war’s end. The two men parted ways with a brotherly embrace. “Thank you, Mark,” Rusty said in the older man’s ear. “Your stories made this bearable.” “My pleasure, Rusty,” Mark answered, pulling away to look at his friend at arm’s length. “Your stories were good, too. I am in your debt.”

The two men parted, each turning and heading towards his home. Rusty stopped a few feet and turned back towards Mark.

“Hey!” he yelled. “Your stories. Any of that true?”

“Every word,” Mark said without turning around.

Rusty bit his lip in thought. “Wow. All true. Hmm.”

When he reached home, Rusty—Rustichello da Pisa—wrote down all the stories his roommate of three years had told him. He published the book, and it instantly became a bestseller.

You know it as the Travels of Marco Polo.

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