The old man took up his quill. Now he knew how the story should begin. How he’d despaired, aware of how fleeting his discovery was! His mind had been full of so many details, but he hadn’t been able to stitch them all together. Something vital had been missing. But today, he knew what to do. He paced up and down the little hut one last time, glancing at the sheets of paper covered in scribbled notes. This time, he didn’t simply add to them. Instead, he sat down at his desk, dipped his quill in the inkpot and wrote: ‘The old man took up his quill …’
The Word woke up. The little letter on its right syllable had gone completely numb. It threw off its blanket and stretched its syllables until all the weariness had gone out of them. Then it got up slowly, dressed, yawned and went into the kitchen, where its parents had laid the table for breakfast.
Its father lowered his newspaper. “While you’ve been sleeping the day away, the world’s got a darned sight crazier,” he announced.
The Word skirted around the table and gave its mother a kiss. “Why?” it asked. “What’s happened?”
“They’ve increased the defence budget again. If things carry on like this, all our research at the Institute will soon just be about finding ways to protect wordkind from humanity. It’s absurd!”
“So there are ways?” said the Word, biting off a mouthful of toast.
“Of protecting ourselves, you mean?” Its father sized it up from left to right. His child’s wordlets had touched a nerve. “We words don’t need to protect ourselves. What we really need to be doing is thinking about how to get more humans to read and write. Writing embodies us in our purest form, in absolute clarity. But when we’re spoken, we get lost in meaninglessness. That’s where the real danger lies.”
“Daaad, please!” The Word rolled its eyes.
“Let’s change the subject,” its mother chimed in. “Have you seen who’s going to be hosting the Linguistic Games this year?”
“No. But let me finish, it’s important. If humans stop reading us, we’ll be forgotten. Words will disappear, and our world will cease to exist.”
“Dad, no one seriously believes that words need humans. You’re the only one who thinks that. Have you ever heard of a word just disappearing off the face of the earth? No: all you ever hear about are terrible stories in the newspapers about words who’ve been spoken out loud, getting mangled and garbled and deformed. Why would anyone believe you?”
“The Linguistics are going to be hosted by Wordsmith again this year,” offered the Word’s mother once more – but nobody was listening.
“It’s not about belief,” said the Word’s father. “It’s about facts, proven by research. We can’t just demonise human beings. We need them; they read and write us. They enable us to exist. Without them, our world would disappear much more quickly than we think.”
“Enough! I’ve had enough of this! Everything’s always about you and your research! Have you ever once thought about us? You built our whole house to look like a giant book, just to get your message across to the rest of the world! Do you know how ridiculous that is? How ridiculous all my friends think it is?” The Word jumped up from the table.
“I thought you liked this house! Come along now, don’t get your vowels in a twist. Sit down and we can talk about this.”
“No!” the Word retorted. It left its parents at the breakfast table and stormed out of the house.
Why did Dad always have to be so stubborn about his research? The house wasn’t the issue at all. It was a lovely house, and the Word couldn’t care less what anyone else said or thought. It was just annoying the way Dad was always so convinced of his own opinion.
The Word followed the wide road that led to its friend Deaf’s house. Other words would probably have been overawed by the sheer size of the house, but the Word had known Deaf since they were very young, and it strode confidently through the open gate. The servants spotted the Word as it approached the front door, and immediately busied themselves with preparations to welcome their master’s guest. They arranged themselves in two long rows outside the double doors of the Great Hall. The Word greeted some of the servants whom it knew by sight. But despite being friends with Deaf for so long, it still didn’t know all their names – there were just too many of them. The Word entered the Great Hall, which was Deaf’s favourite room because it was the most spacious. The servants filed in behind it in a long line and formed a large circle around the room, standing one behind the other. The words which Deaf tended to use most often stood right at the front. In the centre of the hall was a podium, and on it a leather armchair. Deaf sat in the chair and prepared for their conversation by doing stretching exercises with his fingers. When the Word reached the podium, Deaf pointed to a word in the front row of the circle of servants. The word called out its own name:
Then Deaf pointed to another word. This too shouted its name: “Was!”
Deaf swivelled in his chair and pointed to another word standing in the circle right behind him.
And so it went on: Deaf pointed to eight of his servants in turn, and they all announced their names one after the other to form a sentence: “I was hoping you would drop by again.”
“It is great to see you,” said the Word.
Deaf spun around in his chair, surveying the whole of the circle. His servants stepped out of the circle in a certain order – first the word It, then the word Is, and finally the word You.
Deaf watched the words as they presented themselves. He knew all their names, and nodded in understanding. The Word went up to the podium and embraced its friend.
The Word proceeded to tell him what had just happened at home. Deaf was a good listener. He swivelled on his armchair, watching attentively and taking note of each word as it stepped forward. When the Word had finished speaking, Deaf pointed to his servants one by one to compose sentences:
“Your dad is always the same.”
The words called out their names.
“It is such a contradiction,” Deaf went on. “The rest of the world tries to stay as far away as possible from humans, and yet your dad insists we cannot do without them. How can that be?”
“I know. And even if it’s true, and we do need humans, how can we ever win them over? And how can we protect ourselves against them?”
The word Protect was standing quite a long way back, so it took a while for it to come all the way to the front.
Deaf replied: “I can’t tell you how to win them over.” The word I was out of breath from all the leaping around and shouting it was having to do. “But I can tell you a few ways to keep humans at bay.”
“How?” asked the Word.
Its dad had often talked of the dangers of being spoken out loud, and the importance of being read by a human being. But he’d never said anything about how that worked in practice. He was a researcher, and had devoted his life to studying theoretical matters.
Deaf looked at his friend for a moment, then started to swivel on his chair again, composing more sentences.
“When I was younger, for a long time I wanted to be somebody else. This hall did not exist then, and I had no servants. I was a young word who could neither hear nor speak.”
The Word already knew the story. Deaf came from a very rich family, but one who didn’t make a show of their wealth. The family had built this huge mansion solely for their deaf child, so that there would be enough room for all the word-servants. Ever since he was little, Deaf had had to learn to form words in his own special way. But many words found it too complicated and laborious to communicate like this, which meant Deaf didn’t have many friends he could talk to. The Word, on the other hand, was not bothered by Deaf’s unusual way of speaking. It had always loved puzzles and brainteasers, and when it had met Deaf, their first few conversations had felt a little bit like that.
“What are you getting at?” asked the Word.
“When I was younger, I often wished I could just fade away, become transparent to the world and the words in it. I tried every possible combination to achieve this, until one day I finally succeeded.”
“Succeeded in what?”
“I rearranged myself.”
“Rearranged yourself?” the Word echoed.
“Yes. If you want to protect yourself against humans, you need to be rare – you need to be a word that is seldom used. A foreign word, perhaps. Become a word that people do not use because nobody understands it. Become ugly: become an off-putting word.”
Deaf had worked himself up into a frenzy. He pointed around the room in every direction. More and more words from the second and third rows called out their names, and when even that was not enough, more servants were called into the hall. It was hot and crowded. Only by standing high up on the podium could Deaf single out the words he needed.
“Every word has to find its own way to protect itself. If you become complicated, they will only use you rarely. Try to be difficult, unpronounceable, a tongue-twister. Then humans will fear you, instead of you fearing them. Change yourself, rearrange yourself, become something different!”
The Word stared blankly at its friend. “But how does that work, Deaf? How can I rearrange myself?”
At that moment something happened, something nobody could have expected – not the Word, not Deaf, and certainly not the hundreds of servants who were now crammed into the hall. It was Deaf who turned, fear dawning in his eyes, and suddenly pointed not at the servants but at the entrance to the hall. Two creatures were standing there, slender and straight-backed. None of the words in the room had ever seen them before, but they’d heard the stories and they all knew exactly what those creatures were. Vocal cords.
The cords stood motionless. Deaf wanted to say something, but there wasn’t a single word he could call upon. Everyone in the hall was staring at the cords, poised erect in the doorway.
Then panic broke out. The words were so tightly packed together that they started to jostle each other. Those closest to the door surged backwards to escape the cords. Some of the words cried out. A few had fallen over and were desperately trying to get up again.
In the midst of all this chaos, the cords began to move. They contracted, stretched, contracted and stretched again. Then came the suction. Words were swept off their feet and skidded across the floor towards the opening that had appeared between the cords.
The first word – Deaf recognised It – was about to slip between the cords. The little word could not resist the suction, and neither could the others. More and more words began to disappear until whole clusters of them went tumbling into the chasm between the cords.
There were hardly any words left in the hall now. Deaf looked into his friend’s eyes, tears streaming down his face. They had no way of speaking to each other anymore, but they didn’t need to – they understood each other perfectly. The Word had tears in its eyes too. Then Deaf’s strength failed him. His grip on the Word loosened, and it was swept away by the suction. Horrified, Deaf saw his friend being swallowed up by the vocal cords. A moment later, he let go of the armchair himself and went hurtling towards the cords.
The armchair toppled and fell off the podium, and Deaf landed with a thud on the floor beside the Word. The force of the suction drew them both towards the cords. The Word tried to resist and hold on, but there was nothing to hold on to. Deaf clung to the podium with one hand, and grabbed his friend’s wrist with the other. For a moment, they were able to resist the suction’s pull.
The suction had stopped and the cords had vanished. It was quiet. Deaf lay curled up on the cold floor of the empty hall. It had been a long time since Deaf had felt so out of place. In fact, the word lying there on the floor of the hall was not Deaf anymore at all. Deaf hadn’t had time to explain to his friend how words could rearrange themselves. His friend had disappeared, spoken out loud by a human being. But Deaf had managed to save himself. Just as he was being sucked towards the vocal cords, he’d rearranged himself. Deaf had become Fade. The suction had stopped, and the vocal cords had vanished. They’d overlooked him – just as he’d been overlooked as a child once he’d finally figured out how to rearrange himself.
It had been wonderful back then, at first. After rearranging himself to Fade for the very first time, he’d found he could hear and speak just like other words. He could finally do without his servants and leave his parents’ mansion without losing the ability to communicate. It was all he’d ever wished for. But the more time he’d spent as Fade, the less at home he’d felt in this new world that had opened up to him. Other words took centre stage here, had opinions, shared ideas. He, meanwhile, stood on the sidelines and felt ignored. He knew what it meant to be Deaf; but what did it mean to be Fade? He’d fallen silent once more – not because he couldn’t speak, but because he increasingly felt that what he had to say didn’t matter.
Realisation had gradually dawned on him: just because he hadn’t been able to speak like the other words didn’t mean he’d actually wanted to be someone else. As Deaf, he hadn’t had many friends, but the few he’d had – they really had heard him, he felt, in spite of his speechlessness. It was then that he’d decided never to rearrange himself again. It was his destiny to be a mute word, and he would accept his destiny. But then the vocal cords had come along, and now here he was. He’d been forced to become Fade, yet again.
He thought about all this as he lay there crying on the cold hall floor. He thought about all that he had lost – his servants, his unique way of communicating with other words … and worst of all, his best friend, whom he had been unable to protect.