CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The obstetrician was the first to notice. She held the head of the baby, asking the mother for one last push. Words slipped out of the birth canal attached to the baby’s skin along with caul and amniotic fluid. The nurse held the baby up to the light to be sure, and the look in the physician’s eyes confirmed it. Words. One-syllables at first, sluggish as they dripped from the baby’s belly button, even after the umbilical cord was cut and secured; thin, transparent, and as liquid as spit. After only a few seconds of exposure to the sanitized air, the words dried up from the pink knot on the baby’s belly and took on a consistency like cotton, adhering stubbornly to the baby’s wet skin as if they’d had as much to do with her birth as biology and evolution. Though the words were in no language either the doctor or the nurse could recognize, they both felt it was unnecessary to worry the parents, nor to make waste of such absorbent matter as these stretchy, gauze-like words that seemed to string together in plush, nonsensical fluff around the baby’s fatty legs, lulling the innocent thing into a deep and comfortable sleep. And there was the baby, washed clean of placenta, red still from the effort of breathing, her cheeks pink, her hands little fists, and her feet kicking at the threads of syllables which spun gently around her tiny toes, vowels growing as if encouraged by the baby’s mewls into wispy, soft tufts, so that the baby’s skin was swathed in a colorless fuzz. The mother held the phrase-trussed baby to her breast. The baby looked into her mother’s eyes, opened her pink mouth and a word slid with her drool from the corner of her lip to her chin. It dried, and floated up with the waft of a fan on the tip of her mother’s nose, its width no larger than a cat’s hair. This made the baby smile.
“Sweet,” said the mother.
The father took a picture.
In the months to come the words, which up to then had remained a neutral color like saliva, began to gain consistency similar to the filaments of a spider web, tiny tendrils, nearly transparent, but capable of capturing both light and sound, and of trapping within their secret geometries fragmented descriptions of the baby’s observations. Here was a cylinder the color of tap water, the mother’s curve of a wrist as she washed the neck of a faucet, her mother’s voice hovering over the note of a song she had already forgotten. The words still mostly made no sense, but the parents had soon forgotten to try to decode them, busy changing the soiled diapers and the drooled-on bibs, and in preparing mushy vegetable pastes with their new juicer so that the baby could digest organic food. Now and again the baby would get mother excited by smacking her lips together as she blew out her vowels, sounding a little like mahmahmahmah, but the real words, which had now turned from an undecipherable language to Sanskrit and Esperanto, eluded the baby yet, dancing just beyond the grasp of her little fists, scurrying up her chest and under her chin with the dribble of food that her tongue could not lap up.
Then, the baby grew up. The mother was embarrassed to talk about the words. If at first the manifestation of phrases had been an interesting curiosity, a baby with wispy locks of words curling on the fontanel with her blond hair, now as a toddler, the words grew into complete sentences out of interpretations of the baby’s daily interaction with television. There was the occasional f-word changing from verb to noun to adjective when the toddler had accidentally overheard the soundtrack of a gangster film, and there was no dressing up of pink onesies, bibs, and baby hat that could keep the clever rhythms of the f-haikus from spontaneously forming on the baby’s fatty rolls. Moreover, the words were no longer so much like fabric, but rather tiny tattoos that appeared mysteriously on the toddler’s skin along with scratches and scabs and diaper rashes.
When the baby turned toddler and began to sleep in her own bed, she dreamt of being surrounded by a circle of adult dream-ghosts who taunted her by asking simple questions, for which she had no voice to answer. “What is your name?” the dream people asked. “Where are your parents? Where do you go to school?” She would open her mouth and let out only a strained hiss, while the dream people standing akimbo in a circle around her would glower and frown and repeat their questions, until the child woke up screaming, the words bouncing gleefully from wall to wall of her bedroom, turning into yellow duckies and blue elephants before fluttering back down to her flesh and imprinting themselves in miniscule polka dots on her skin.
It seemed to the child that the words had turned stubborn, guided by a tantalizing sort of magic that rested just beyond her grasp, similar to that which made toys come alive as soon as she fell asleep, reverting to a mocking stillness the very second she opened her eyes. But if she’d never witnessed toys moving of their own volition, at least the words had played with her alphabet soup, matching in cereal texture and color whatever random combination of letters appeared on the oily surface of her chicken broth. Still, in a cruel reversal of the toy situation, the words refused to follow her into the dream.
For her part, the girl had never known a world without words, could hardly fathom a difference between sounds and those things that exiled her from socializing soccer games and birthday parties. In spite of her close relationship with language, the girl had a taciturn disposition and was rather more interested in the flux of rearranging phrases that rippled along the curve of her wrist then in contemplating the suicidal lyrics of her classmates’ bands. In this way she stumbled through adolescence, the teachers too intimidated by the annotations that crowded their smart boards to grade her with anything less then the highest of honors.
These teachers had some reason to feel daunted: By the time that she was twenty, the words had reconstructed poetry from almost all the romance languages, as well as from Greek, Russian, and Persian. Recently they had been migrating towards Chinese; over her left shoulder, one day, in the mirror, the girl had recognized the character for tree, squashed under a mole and between the Hebrew sign for life and the Omega. Although she had learned a little Spanish, she was always some considerable measure of behind with the words. They now scratched their mark into the most peculiar spaces, in the whites of her eyeballs through minute webbing of capillaries, or in the gums above her teeth, the constellations of her freckles on her arms and back, spelling entire phrases. The Tao Te Ching climbed her spine from the bottom up; the poetry of Rumi tattooed on the underside of her tongue, the epic of Gilgamesh in its original Sumerian scrolled on the soles of her feet in a pale color just a half a tone lighter then her natural complexion.
A local journalist looking for a story once asked to interview her. He didn’t say how he had found out about her, only offered a sweaty business card printed on an inkjet which left smears on his fingers when he gave it to her. Immediately, the phone number imprinted itself on the palm of her hand, and she, pointing at the life line upon which his name had scrolled, said, “Look. It’s fate.” The journalist had a tuft of brown hair that seemed to fall inevitably towards his left eye. He grabbed it with a gesture that made him look exasperated. He was a spindly thing, his pants tight at the waist but loose below the knee and around his hips, where she saw his bones protrude. He looked not quite mature enough to be alive, an adult in a child’s body, pursuing ideas that seemed beyond his ability to conceive. As they talked, he watched the poetry of Sappho run its verse on her collarbone, its polyphonic orthography transmogrifying before him into the far less poetic, but infinitely simpler, western alphabet. Before the day had run its course the two were sitting in her kitchen close enough to smell each other’s coffee breath, and a cigarette burned in the ashtray untouched as his fingertips grazed her knuckles, and her chest bloomed Neruda verses.
He wrote an article, which he sold to Time, entitled “A Woman of Words,” and it was all about her poetry and grace, as if she herself were the creations of genius that floated about the contour of her mouth when he only just thought of poetry. But what mattered to her were the hours spent watching the names of all the constellations, from their ancient romantic origins to the unimaginative numerations of modern scientists, as they bloomed on her body with only just his mention of the night. His attention was so new to her that she called it love. The names of stars glowed on the girl’s abdomen as she climaxed, a bright halo of mantras lighting up like summer fireflies in the darkened bedroom. She held him in her arms then, savoring the wordless eloquence of their breathing.
But like an original fairy tale, the romance came to a grim end. The journalist could not endure the constant assault of the loosened tufts of lost words on the unedited syntax of his articles, nor the annotations of the many things he did not know that spontaneously formed on the margins of the book he was writing as he read it out loud to her. One day, right after a TV interview in a morning show, she found him backstage, sucking on the thumb of a green room assistant who blinked her eyes at the invective which crackled and popped on her chin and forehead as the journalist muttered, “But you must have known; you must have felt us falling apart.”
And although she stormed out with a tail of Shakespearean insults trailing after her “one may smile and smile and be a villain …” like a comet, she burst and imploded on her own success. Her nervous breakdown occurred in Hollywood style, after her brief debut in a small supporting role with a famous Australian actress. Surrounded by so many thespians, the words burgeoned in unsightly bouquet on the girl’s cheeks and eyelids, so that the makeup artists began to complain to the director about the difficulties of evening her already dark and splotchy complexion, and eventually she was edited out of the film.
Scholars who had once exalted her in academic journals scoffed that she possessed no innate knowledge, publicly proclaiming her a paradigm of pop culture insipidness. A civil liberties group sued them for attempting to treat her body as a national archive (the lost Dead Sea Scroll appeared one day tattooed beneath her nipple), but the lawsuit was eventually dropped, and the public lost interest, and like so many starlets, she was a nobody again, left intoxicated and partly asleep in her rented London flat, at risk of choking on the vomit of her own verbiage.
One day, a single syllable cracked from a word and ended up dangling loosely from her ear, translucent, variegated by the light that struck it. It came alive when the wind blew in the appropriate tone. Then the broken word set off all the rest of them, acting like a free radical, its unrestrained vibration dangerously catalyzing its sympathetic twins across the billions of syllables imprisoned in the neural net of manuscripts that had been weaving around and onto her body since birth, their chaotic symphony floating rapidly across invisible nets of reasoning, causing cataclysms of mistranslations down centuries of archiving and all the while humanity proceeding as if all were well …
She suspected nothing. Except one day, in a clothing store, the words radiating with chaotic insistence set off the alarm system. She held up her arms, one hand clutching the plastic bag that held a single garment (one plain colored T-shirt with no logo or print, the optimist in her offering the words a truce, a settlement), and the other clutching her receipt as evidence of her innocence, but they accused her of vandalism. She was frisked, thrown in jail, called a freak by the inmates, released. The end.
But not for the words: They set off lasers, beepers, cell phones, sent off entire novels in text messages to adolescents in Japan, wired speeches to charities in Peru and Michael Jackson jokes to eco-terrorists in Alaska. Once, when she had passed near a school, all one hundred and twenty Hindu words for god had imprinted themselves on the main wall in black carbon smears. The rising accusations of the scandalized teachers who ran to shield the children’s eyes lodged like pin pricks into the back of her neck. As the words came and left her body, a dark cloud followed her so that more and more she resembled an adultlike, gender-corrected version of Pig Pen.
The words had lost control of their own orbits, and they were no longer content or able to gyrate within the microcosm of the girl’s body. She had grown to be a tall girl, almost five feet nine, yet the words, ever greedy for more surfaces to distend upon, crawled into her mouth at night and lowered themselves down her larynx until they reached her stomach. There they pushed nourishment aside, until her skin stretched into long, flaccid blankets of loose dermis, which the words immediately took care to paint in clever, interesting arrays of sentences that, in space-saving initiatives, held different meanings if read backward, forward, upside down, downside up, right to left, left to right, or diagonally.
And if someone spoke wisely out loud, the sentences, one by one, would burn a bright and vivid color on the loose skin around her hips, the equivalent of which did not exist in the spectrum of visible human colors, but which gave off a queer aura all the same. She knew that washing did not help, but all the same she scrubbed her skin and scrubbed and scrubbed, and out loud she pleaded with gods, medics, and doctors to find a cure for the unbearable curse, her body a human billboard incomprehensible to most. In the water, the words would tingle for a second or two and, like mosquito bites, itch just barely enough to be annoying, while the meaning and context would either float up with the faint scent of alcoholic ether or sink deeper into her dermis, where she suspected they mixed with her blood.
Each word carried its own gravity, but what weighed her down and made it difficult for her to sit up straight was when her parents, after endless counseling sessions, raccoon eyed and yellow toothed, told her in an exhausted pule of bad breath, “But darling, you must be doing something to attract this; how will you ever find a partner with this condition of yours …”—what gave her the stoop in the shoulder, and later in life, a droop of her head that caused her long, long hair to drape around her face like curtains in a play, hiding away whatever final words of disparate wisdom ate away the paleness of her cheeks, were the contradictions of varied truths, the weight and flux of knowledge itself, and the curse of living within the orbit of ageless loquaciousness, surrounded by all that connected the human dimension with the divine, and her awareness of being just too small a vessel to contain it all, her share of understanding glaringly inadequate for the great task of damming the tidal flush of humanity’s logorrhea.
And then one day, the words began to fight each other over their own meaning. Crowded curve to curl, period to comma, they bid for the remaining available real estate by surveying for redundancies, and they debated the discarding of various disputed translations of the Bible, dubious speeches attributed to Socrates, the entire United States tax code, chapters of the Pali Canons according to the Buddha. The words could not come to an accord about what had actually been written by Shakespeare and what might have been the work of his contemporaries, and scholarly debates on this subject were entirely too voluminous.
The girl was by then a middle-aged woman. She attempted to leave the country for an island in the Galapagos where she had heard no human (or language) lived. At the airport, however, she was careless, passing near a newsstand and allowing her eyes to roam over the colorful tile-displays of a magazine rack. It all happened quickly, shouts, bells ringing, a squad of undercover marshals surrounding her with their shouts of “freeze!” slapping her chest like an open hand. She was taken to a tight metallic room with soundproof walls and asked questions about her luggage, her destination, her peculiar aura of syllables humming like hornets. As best as she could piece it out, the root word “bomb” had broken away from its “astic” attachment just as the final book of a bestselling vampire trilogy crowded in unexpectedly, causing a surge, and breaking several innocent free-standing dictionary entries (like bombastic), setting them ringing all at once.
“You said bomb!” insisted her bleach-haired interrogator. She tapped her pencil on a form, unimpressed by how the word imprinted itself in different languages on the girl’s eyelids.
She didn’t try to explain. Guantanamo seemed as good an idea as the Galapagos, where anyway she’d have had to cohabit with seals and compete for fish. She laid in her cell on the cot, relatively happy in spite of the sweltering heat of Cuba, the claustrophobic confinement, the mosquitoes and the vicious repetitions of the nursery rhymes that played at early morning hours through crackling loud speakers. At least now the immigration of words into the country of her body were limited to the questions of her interrogators, who were too unimaginative to come up with much that didn’t already reside in the mouth of her tear ducts. They asked her only things like, “Do you know this man?” holding up pictures of tawny, chicken-chinned radicals. They could have asked questions like “Where does a mathematical equation exist?” and that would have been dangerous enough to her, but they seemed unaware of such possibilities.
She barely had enough strength to observe the escalating war between the words, collusions of crusaders against secular knowledge, the old science versus religion shibboleth, nursery rhymes sung to hide the horrors of pestilences, celebrity chef recipes challenged by Southern grandmothers. One after another, the words hurled themselves into prolonged hisses, dissonant vibrations reminiscent of Buddhist horns, rebel yells, yodels, and professorial drones of the most dry kind that left her one morning so dehydrated she had to be put on an IV, some words bouncing off of her toes in exodus, fed up, maybe, and looking for more fertile intellects then her own.
She longed for the wordless dreams she had as a child, to be able to hide somewhere where the creations of mind, the building blocks of matter, could not follow her or do much more than vanish like breath. Words: evanescent seeds of concrete nightmares like genocide, weaponry, torture, and reality shows. She would look down at the knot in her belly, the knot that once tied her to the breath of her mother, also the source of an illusion of knowledge relative only to human constructs. None of it was hers. But somehow all of it had passed through her, turning her into a living farrago, as if God had singled her out to stand as witness to the decadence of civilization.
She was found dead in her cell the next morning, an unmistakable expression of relief etched in her rictus. It was said that her body, once a dance of skin-veils tattooed in cryptic verses that graced, in photographs, every pinot-noir-and-brie catered art-gallery reception around the globe, had turned, in the end, into an emaciated blur of red ink, incomplete fragments of sentences like unfinished thoughts tapering off at the edges of her long nails, a corporal testament of madness smelling faintly of sardines, a twig of human flesh destined to putrefaction, to bone dust and warble.
Laura Valeri’s story collection The Kind of Things Saints Do won the John Simmons and John Gardner awards in fiction. She’s been published in many magazines, including Glimmer Train, Big Bridge, Gulf Stream, Adirondack Review, Night Train, and Creative Nonfiction.