Fiction | Short Story

Hapax Legomenon

It was in a previously unexplored region of the Levant, between several other spots of little obvious interest, that the specimen was found. It generated some buzz, though the team doing the recovery requested as little coverage as possible in order to make their job easier. In the end it was mostly speculation from the […]

It was in a previously unexplored region of the Levant, between several other spots of little obvious interest, that the specimen was found. It generated some buzz, though the team doing the recovery requested as little coverage as possible in order to make their job easier. In the end it was mostly speculation from the usual corners of the media, a daytime TV feature, one or two paparazzi near the site who were quickly chased away, a few columns. They elected to erect a conversationally sterile tent around the piece itself. In its construction all manufacturers had to sign a binding agreement that they would not engage in conversation within 50 feet of the tent. This meant the environment would be as pure as possible for the duration of the excavation.

During the dig they almost stumbled upon one or two possible conversation pieces, which would have spelled disaster. Though they were good finds they left them for other teams as they pursued their far more valuable prize.

Eventually, after sifting through dirt and fragments of worlds long departed, they found it. The hapax legomenon, in the wild, uncontaminated by outside influence.

One of the scientists, on the way out of the trench, was struck suddenly by a case of influence. They were left behind until the rest were safely out of the way, secreting preconceptions and prior learning in a most unseemly fashion.

They were the first to see it, and rued the day their discovery left in the hands of the others while they were stuck taking apart the equipment and left to linger in relative obscurity. When asked, years later, as part of a profile on linguistic dig teams, what they saw they replied “things… unspeakable things” and fell suddenly silent, as per the Wittgensteinian oath they swore upon receipt of their doctorate.

Thea and Dr. Aschenbach, as the two who left with the hapax, were given lab space and the right conditions for dissection and study. All notable features were excised from the laboratory, few though they were, up to and including the gas taps which had caused more than a few to reminisce about high school science lessons and misadventures with bunsen burners. A faint series of motel-tier paintings were projected onto the periphery of their vision so they would be focused primarily on the specimen under the knife.

“Excuse me, there’s a delivery here for yo-“

A silent flurry of scientists shoved the man out into the corridor and sealed the door behind them. It hissed at them.

“What. Are. You. Doing?”

“Dr Aschenbach, I uh… I’ve got some papers for you.”

“Can’t you leave them at the front desk?”

“I’m a courier sir, I’ve been told to give this to you personally.”

He handed over with stained fingers a large folder of papers, and an electronic pad to sign. Aschenbach scrawled Dr A. all over it and handed it back. He shoved the papers in his locker and finished his shift.

Later that night he sat in his study, having eaten his prescribed meal of boiled potatoes and peas – specifically given to the team to prevent culinary conversation. He allowed himself a snifter of brandy, figuring that would not do much apart from let him sleep sooner and in so doing free up his mind from conscious thought. As he took in the liquor his mind turned to the parcel, which was sat patiently at his desk. A few moments passed and the temptation grew. He opened the parcel and took out the papers. The courier was not wrong, there were indeed papers, pieces of paper to be exact. He thought they were all blank, but then against his better judgement he turned them over.

On each piece was a single word, in the middle, printed in a sans serif font.

Mother. Father. Home. Holiday. Birth. Death. Water. Desert. Christmas. Sex. Love. God.

The words were shorn of context, and in that contextless vacuum they grew limbs and from those limbs branches and leaves until in the mind of Aschenbach a forest reigned supreme.

Aschenbach poured himself an extra large glass of brandy as a nightcap and had a night of fitful sleep in which he tried very hard to forget everything he had seen that evening, staring at the ceiling which was plain but at that moment seemed not plain enough.

The next day Ascenbach came to relieve Thea from the guarding of the hapax legomenon. He saw to his relief that it was uncontaminated from the courier’s intrusion the previous day. As he picked at it, turned it and ran it through several different imaging processes he thought of those pieces of paper with their single words. It took him back to the All Soul’s examination, the single word paper. He hadn’t passed, and spent some years in the private sector, eliminating embarrassing word associations and freelancing for various neologism departments at companies from the military to the commercial, with little discernment. This always disappointed his family, CND members as they were. He had to eat, he told them. But you don’t have to eat sirloin, they always replied. Thoughts of steak, medium rare, with peppercorn sauce, served with fried potatoes entered his mind. He almost salivated onto the lab floor before collecting himself and remembering the task at hand.

This was a great discovery he was privy to – him and Thea. It was a shame about the other one, what was their name? But progress must be made and sometimes along with it come sacrifices. Not everyone gets to walk on the moon. Not everyone gets to find a word untouched by anything, used only once, undamaged in the wild. A new planet had swam into his ken.

All these thoughts drifted through his mind, accompanied by sounds and smells and images of what the future could hold but then a klaxon sounded. Contamination threat. Aschenbach looked down and the containment shield was open. The hapax was in his hands. As he cried out in concern it dropped from his lips and all at once it went from pure to spoiled. The test was over. The dig was for nothing.

A few days later and he was escorted from the lab with the result of a lifetime’s work fitting inside a little cardboard box. Somewhere (no-one knows where) someone who may have worked with Aschenbach at some dig site or another sat back and smiled, surrounded by pieces of paper with one word each in a sans serif font. Justice had been served.