Word Fever
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 one yet."

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 word."

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 from."

"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 - "

"Nineteen fifty-three?"

"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."

"Oh, Lord."

"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.

The Alluvial Mine 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.