Bewildering Stories

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Bewildering Stories Editorial

Writ on Water

by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

It's fun to watch words being atomized. I don't mean the words of a vocabulary, the grammar of a spoken language — which will evolve, devolve, loop back, tongue-tie, hamstring, and cash out all on its own — but a concrete representation of a word dissolving, as sugar in water. But I have found it beautifully diverting, like observing words line up in a functional story, to watch individual words fall apart.

I get bored a lot. And, instead of writing as I ought to, I surf the web to allay that boredom. The other day I stumbled across a new game located at: What it is, essentially, is a big Flash-based refrigerator covered in virtual magnets — those ones shaped like letters in garish colors. You can arrange the letters as you like — you are given multiple copies of each letter, so spelling SCHNEEENGELLLAMAAARDVARK is a definite possibility. The only problem is you would never get to the end of the word, probably not even to the fifth letter, before someone else nicked the letter you were going for next. You see, each fridge supports multiple users, all interacting not with each other but with the letters. There are several different fridges a user can select, each one supporting anywhere from 15 to 80 users at one time.

When I first discovered this gem of a distraction, I just sat back and watched it. The board looked like a blank page being written on simultaneously by fifty ADHD authors, each around the age of five (or silghtly older, as SEX is a commonly-spelled word). Words coalesced and disintegrated in seconds, often falling apart before completion as their individual parts went vectoring off to uncharted territories. Some user, or faction of users, seemed to be obsessively categorizing the letters by color. The name MATTHEW kept struggling to form but could only manage six of its seven letters at any given moment. Then it fell apart completely, its atoms contributing to TIME, and WE, and the purple pile. By the chaotic motion of cross purposes, I noticed an N, X, and an O lonely in one corner. "What the hell," I thought. It was but the work of a moment to grab another N and an I (from some poor sap's blossoming I LOVE YOU) and, with a little shuffling, I had Nixon arranged below a wall of unused Qs and Zs.

I counted to myself. I had only reached three when the O shot off. It wasn't even being added to a word-in-progress — someone had merely sought to deface my NIXON. "Oh, no you don't," I said, clicking and dragging the wayward letter home. It had barely come to rest when the X sped off to spell, well, guess what. I took it back and, with my honed video game reflexes, annihilated the S and the E of my thief's project, too.

X and O were back in place, but then the I took off, and I had only begun to reach for it when SEX-boy stole back the X, and both the Ns split to help misspell the word BAND. I was left with a solitary O, a mouth in surprise, and it, being orange, was soon categorized by the mad OCD faction.

I bided my time, watching for letters that were going unused for a twenty-count or longer. A certain aquamarine T was looking like a possible candidate, along with two yellow Ls. No Fs, no Cs, no Ks, no Us to speak of. I grabbed one of the many Es and went for TELL, but it disbanded, the motion of its congregation having sparked someone's interest.

Then I saw it, the word SIDE on a crazy down angle right around the center of the pane. I prefixed it with an I and an N, kiped from close by so they wouldn't have to move as much. There it was, INSIDE. The D left. I hauled it back. The E stuttered an inch down and then stopped. I waited a moment, to see if the burglar had any intentions for it, then retrieved it. Then three letters left at once; I couldn't get to them in time — a fourth was starting to wiggle — so I stole replacements from nearer constructs and got the whole mess under control. I counted. Twenty seconds of this twitch-fest, and INSIDE was still there, creeping out, I hoped, someone who may have just read "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream", or making someone hum the four-note Intel jingle.

I kind of fell in love with INSIDE. It repeated in my head every time I tended to it. INSIDE. The sound started to abstract, and before long it read like the first spoken word must have, frightening and unusual and completely unfamiliar. I was on to forty seconds when one of the Is made off for a DICk, but by this time I was getting tired of counting, so I went ahead and let it.

Not only counting, I was tired of fighting. I sat with my chin propped up in my hands and watched the N and the S divorce and go their separate ways; I watched BEATL come together and disband; I watched MOTH fall apart on the fourth letter, and wondered if it was to become MOTHRA, or MOTHER, or had it been meant to be itself; I watched an ineffective apocalypse wipe the board clean — it stayed that way for a two-count, then was nearly filled again with fluttering, diving, buzzing letters.

I guess I didn't put up much of a fight for INSIDE. Sorry, man. Maybe if you had been SUBMERSIBLE or CINNAMON I could have found that extra reserve of willpower and mouse-hand speed.

Truth is: I don't fight for any of my words. I just let them come upon me as they will, redirect them to the keyboard, to the screen where they stay fixed in the linear progress of an electron gun. Or worse, more apathetic, I print them out and tuck them away as ink, aging, unchanging, like an ancient, tubercular man who wishes for immortality... and gets it, just as he is.

The sap managed to swipe INSIDE's last I and finally finished writing I LOVE YOU.

Copyright © 2005 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

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