by William Michaelian
Somewhere in the mine, I saw a man weighing words
on a shiny new scale. When I congratulated him on his luck and asked
him what the words meant, he looked at me and said he didn't know
yet for sure, because he had just brought them into camp and was
still trying to find out.
"That looks like a nice one there," I said, pointing
at a word resting on his dusty handkerchief. When I reached out
to touch it, though, he said, "Better not. I haven't weighed that
I withdrew my hand. I had heard about weighing words
many times before, but the idea of weighing them to determine their
meaning had never made sense to me. All the words I knew were more
subtle than that. Even words like Yes and No didn't always mean
what you expected them to mean. Sometimes one meant the other, and
the other meant something else, and people ended up getting into
all sorts of trouble. A scale seemed a pathetically crude instrument
to apply to such a task. But of course I didn't say so.
"Now this one here," the man said with far too much
confidence, "has real promise." He placed the word in question on
his scale with a fancy pair of tweezers. "See here, where it breaks
into another syllable?"
I leaned forward to look. "Are you sure that's a
syllable?" I said. "It looks more like a hairline crack to me."
"Nonsense. That's a syllable for sure. And right
here - look - that's another syllable. This is at least a three-syllable
I held up my lantern. "Could be," I said. "Might
also be an indentation or a soft spot so it can roll off the tongue
more easily. Or it might have been left by an ancient, forgotten
culture. It's hard to tell unless you know what language it comes
"Language? I was kind of taking for granted that
it was English."
"Well, it might be," I said, "but then of course there's
still the matter of dialects, accents, and all the rest. Now, you
take a word I found back in '53. That one - "
"Heck, no. I'm talking about 1453. Anyway, as I was
saying - "
The man looked at me with an air of concern. "Hey,"
he said. "Are you crazy, or what?"
"I should say so. A man's bound to get a little crazy
when you've been down in the mine this long. Wouldn't have it any
other way, in fact."
"Yep," I said. "He's down here too. Been here longer
than anyone. Got word-fever in a bad way. Talks gibberish most of
the time. I think it must be the fumes."
Upon hearing this, the man stood up abruptly, knocking
over his scale and scattering his newly mined words on the ground.
With a wild look in his eye, he said, "I just remembered something,"
then he grabbed his supplies and quickly retreated into the darkness.
When I was sure he was gone, I picked up the words
he'd found and admired them one at a time by lantern-light. Each
was more beautiful than the last. And, like musical notes, I knew
there would be no end of ways in which they could be put together,
no end to their meanings, no end to the laughter and pain they could
evoke, or the memories they could deny or call forth.
When I was done looking at the words, I didn't keep
them as the other miner had intended to do. I left them for someone
else to find. But I will remember them and use them someday. And,
if I'm really lucky, I might even say something old in a new way.
is the property of Heather Blakey and Miners who have generously
shared their work. Please do not replicate any part of this mine
without written permission.