By: Jessica Smith
Once there was a world made of words. There were words for creation and for destruction. There were words for war and peace. There were words for land and sea. There were words for everything because everything was made of words in this world crafted by letters. There were words for people. And it was these words that held more than any others the ability to create and destroy.
Once there was a child made of words who lived in a world made of letters. Everywhere the child went, words desperately followed and tried to cling to it, tried to attach a label and a definition and a meaning to the child, but the child didn’t want a label, didn’t want a definition, didn’t want any meaning other than that which the child crafted for itself.
But the other people were made of words and were defined by words and wanted the child to also be defined by words. They nailed letters to the child’s forehead, ripping them off and replacing them as the child grew, leaving a bloody crown of letters adorning the child’s brow. He, boy, man.
And when the child was a man and the skin had started to creep up around the word on its forehead, internalizing the letters, making them apart of the child’s own self, there came a new set of words, a new set of definition, a new set of meanings. Children who were no longer children, with no scars on their foreheads and clean neat letters spelled out on their chests proclaiming them women, began to push words on the child. Straight, sexual, masculine. But the child didn’t want those words, didn’t need those words, didn’t need a meaning beyond the one the child created for itself.
But the other people were made of words and wanted those words and needed to impose those words on the child. They pinned those words to the child’s chest like lifeless butterflies on display in a museum. And the child’s heart stuttered and ached and was made motionless by the pins restraining it and the skin began to creep over the pins and the letters and began making them apart of the child’s very self. And the child was left with more scars in the shape of words it didn’t want but was forced to bear and the child was so tired and sore and weighed down by the weight of the letters nailed to its forehead and pinned to its chest.
But that was fine because the world was made of words and there must be a word for everything and as long as the child had a word it didn’t matter if the word fit. It was only a word after all. Only a label. Only a definition.
And every day another word was pinned or nailed or stitched or tattooed onto the child. And every day the child staggered under the weight of the words and cried at night at the itching of newly healed skin and the pain of new and old wounds. Until one day the child found a word that numbed the pain and the itching and the hurt and the self-loathing. It was the word found at the bottom of the bottle, at the peak of a high, in the haze of the smoke. And the child could forget for a time the scars and the words and the definitions and the labels and the meanings the child didn’t want but had to have.
But every day there were still more words and more words and more words and the child ran and ran and ran but tripped and stumbled and fell and was overwhelmed. And then the child found a new word, a secret word, a forbidden word. It was the word found on the edge of a knife, in the burn of a flame, in the air filling an empty bottle of sugar coated pills that had fallen to the floor out of a limp hand that hung off the edge of a bed in a dark hotel room with no one to witness the sharp inhalation of breath before silence filled the lungs and the room and the air.
But there were words that saved the child. Hospital, doctor, nurse. And then there were words that condemned the child. Mentally unstable, mentally unhealthy, mentally unable. And then there was a room painted white and hair cut short and probing words by people in white coats and white shirts and everything was white and empty and hollow.
And every day there were more words. There was no more untouched skin to mark and so the people in white had to carefully layer the new on top of the old, had to carefully craft another skin of new words and labels and definitions that the child didn’t want but couldn’t resist because without words what was the child but meaningless? The old words didn’t fit and the new words didn’t fit but the child didn’t know what would fit so the child just pretended and acted and tried to believe that if it just pretended long enough the words would begin to mean something more than pain and misery and a horrible aching itchiness that could never be relieved.
Until one day the child discovered again a new word, a hidden word, a beautiful word. It was the word found in whispered secrets between two kindred spirits, in laughter and in shared smiles, in the warm acceptance of understanding. It was a word given to the child by another child, a child who also had the knotted crown of words carved into its forehead – man, it read – but the child could tell the other child didn’t want it there, didn’t need it there. Friendship was the word given but love was the word discovered and the child cried every night at this beautiful thing it had found.
And then one day there were fingers slipping under clothes and mouths clumsily slanting against mouths and the child’s fingers brushed against something rough and ridged and raw on the other child’s chest. And the child discovered another word. Gay, carved large and deep and clear into the skin covering the other child’s heart and the child asked what it meant and the other child explained with tears slipping down its cheeks. It was a bad word, a forbidden word, a disgusting word.
But the child didn’t understand. What could be bad about friendship and love and the gentle grip of a warm hand against his own and the comfort of a person who understood what it was like to be labeled and defined by the people made of words in the world made of words. How could that be wrong? the child asked.
And the other child just cried and cried and itched at its own scars and couldn’t explain could only cry into the shoulder of the child and the child grew angry and tired and disgusted by the world made of words and the people made of words and of the words themselves.
And the child kissed away salty tears and kissed every scar and soothed every itch with the beat of its heart hammering in its chest and then the child’s eyes hardened and the child’s resolve hardened and its heart didn’t harden but widened and embraced the other child and the child decided it would no long be defined and be labeled and be told by others that the child needed their words because it didn’t. The child didn’t need their words. The child could make its own words, create its own world where words were just words and not definitions and the child would bring the other child into this wordless world and any other child who was broken and beaten and bruised and wearing a crown of letters and bearing a pincushioned heart.
And the child took the knife that had once destroyed and used it to create. The child cut away man and the child cut away straight. The child cut away unstable and unable and it cut away gay. The child cut away every letter to ever be forced on their skin. It let the blood flow and wash away the sin that had been committed by the people made of words. It let the blood wash away the shame and the guilt and the confusion and the doubt.
And the child created a world without words.
The blood clotted and the skin knit together and the scars still remained as reminders. But no longer reminders of pain and humiliation but as reminders of strength and dignity and belonging and power. Then the child discovered one last word and the child gently painted it on the forehead of the other child and then on the forehead of itself. It was the word found in breath and in joy and in suffering and in perseverance and in the soul.
Human, it read. And human they were in a world without words and without labels and without definitions. Just human. And that was enough.