The sense of presence slid gently across the cluttered desktop, palpable as sunlight. Nudging past my elbow, it rippled up my spine and chilled my shoulders, staking its claim to my consciousness like a squatter moving into a deserted house.
Suddenly attentive though not yet uneasy I turned, expecting to see my calico scowl of a cat peering at me across the dining table, irritated with my absorption in my work, intent on drawing me away for a bit of play. But the cat was nowhere to be seen. When her name and a gentle, trilling call brought no response, I stretched and looked, unwilling to move from my chair. She wasn’t under the table, not hidden in the plumpness of sofa cushions. No sleeping cat lay draped across the wooden chair, her paws kneading at the air where they rested between turned spindles.
Perplexed by her absence as much as by the vague promptings that had unfocused my attention, I turned back to the computer, ready to dismiss my unease and settle back into my work.
Then I saw it, nearly hidden by the papery chaos overflowing the desk’s half-shelf. Crouched behind a small stack of notebooks it seemed to be doing a bit of stretching of its own, staring at me with a combination of insouciance and fear. Accustomed to occasional spiders who seem to enjoy setting up housekeeping in the undisturbed corners of my life, I barely glanced at the creature before I asked my usual, half-humorous question: “Well, look at you. What are you doing here?” “Waiting to introduce myself,” came the reply.
Startled beyond words to discover I wasn’t confronting a spider at all and wondering if I could smack my tiny visitor into submission if it turned aggressive, I responded as though carrying on a converation with something that had just crawled out of my books was the most usual thing in the world. “Who are you?” I asked. “Vacillatory’s the name,” the word-creature said. “But you can call me Val.”
Despite years of speaking and writing words, it was unnerving to hear an adjective speak back to me. I might have thought less of it in those mysterious hours between midnight and dawn, the madrugada, the time when time itself slows and flutters in the night breezes like the curtains of our dreams , but this was full afternoon, and I was awake. “And why is it you’re here?” I asked. “I saw your last post, about technology, Twitter and texting,” Val grimaced. “I thought you might be able to help me out.”
“What seems to be the problem?” I asked, remarking to myself that if a word could pout, Val would be the poster boy for the practice. Finally, he got around to his point. “Nobody likes me.” “Val,” I said, “that’s pure silliness, and you know it. Vacillatory’s a perfectly good word. You’ve got a nice balance of consonants and vowels, you’re beautifully symmetrical on the page, and even if you are just a tiny bit obscure, you certainly aren’t archaic.”
“I know,” he said. “But I’m too long. I’ve got five syllables and no one wants that many syllables these days. I’m too long for Twitter and texting, and they can’t abbreviate me. I’ve suggested vty, but they think that’s short for ‘victory’. Vcilty gets turned into ‘velocity’. I really like vsltry, but that ended up making me the hero of a Russian novel, something like ‘Vasily tries’. I just don’t know what to do.”
“Well,” I suggested, “what about a spelling bee? Those folks always are looking for nice, long, uncommon words. Couldn’t you pick up some work there?” “They only happen once a year,” Val demurred. “Even if I got used in practice a good bit, no one would know about it. And they’d never pay attention to me at the contests. Everyone would be cooing over those cute kids.”
“Fine,” I said. “Then what about National Novel Writing Month? I don’t know how many people are participating this year, but even if it’s only a few thousand, when you multiply those writers times 50,000 words, there surely would be a place for you.”
“NaNoWriMo – are you kidding? Val rolled his eyes. “Those are good writers with good vocabularies, but word count’s the name of that game. I might make it into an edit, when they’re got a little more time to fancy things up, but no one’s going to plunk me into a first draft. It’s the same with the NaBloPoMo folks. It’s hard to post every day, so most of them want easy, accessible videos or simple, straightforward posts. They don’t have time for creaky old multi-syllabic geezers.”
Determined not to run aground on his negativity, I tried a different tack. “What about plain, old fashioned bloggers, then? I’ve used you once, you know.” Obviously exasperated, Val scrunched forward to make his point. “Of course I know you used me. Why do you think I showed up here in the first place? Humans aren’t the only record-keepers in the world. I happen to know I’ve been used 24 times in the past year – eighteen times written, and six spoken. It isn’t much, but I’ve done far better than my friends Exuviated and Skirr. That’s why I dropped by. I thought it might be worth the effort to track you down and see if I could get a little more work. Being under-employed’s not much fun.”
Distracted by the cat, who’d heard our conversation and come out to explore, I turned away from Val and leaned down to scratch her ears while I thought. Finally I said, “Well, Val, I’ll do my part. I promise. I’ll use your full name – Vacillatory – once a month, and do what I can to get you out there in front of the public. How’s that?”
There was no reply. While I’d been tending to the cat, my adjectival friend had slipped away, leaving nothing but silence, the soft hum of the computer, and a last sliver of sunlight fading through the glass.
Later, in the darkness, I wondered. Had I imagined Vacillatory’s visit? Had I been conversing with a multi-syllabic elf with a bit of an attitude? Had my Muse come calling, or perhaps some weird, word-obsessed version of Marley’s ghost? Whatever the truth , it was impossible to deny the message written across my experience. There are words which long to be spoken. No longer content to languish inside a dictionary or thesaurus, unwilling to be consigned to pages of dusty prose, they seek us out, longing to discover new friends who still might be willing to give them voice. Obscured by a blizzard of acronyms, fallen from fashion, thought to be too difficult or arcane for daily use, they are irreduceable and irreplaceable, resonant with meaning accrued over the centuries. They are the elders of our language: filled with wisdom, able to heal and ready to speak to those inclined to hear.
A lover of the Madrugada, poet Stephen Dunn captures the magic of its nightspell in a line from his poem of the same name:
“I love how life nags
and language responds.
But sometimes it is language that nags and life which is called to respond. If the best of our words are to be preserved, if our sentences are to shimmer with meaning and paragraphs entice our readers with kaleidoscopic beauty, we are the ones who must commit ourselves to remembrance, understanding and use.
Val and his friends are depending on us.