Illustration by Nina de Jonge

Pieter’s First Day Without Words

One day Pieter awoke and found that he could no longer understand a word of what anyone said to him. It had been coming for some time — for the past weeks, months, perhaps years, he had found himself encountering more and more words he must surely have known previously, but which were now nothing more than arbitrary syllables. He would pore over his dictionary when he encountered these words, but find himself unable to even attach the sounds to letters. The pages seemed to melt before his eyes. Still, until now it had only been an occasional absence — a word here and there gone but generally the overall effect quite clear. Now the whole façade of comprehensible language dropped away before his eyes — there was not a single word, phrase or sentence of which he could confidently tell you the meaning. The whole thing was void.

The first he noticed of it was upon stepping into the street. He lived alone, in rented accommodation, and never saw the landlord, so there was no opportunity for conversation before he stepped out into the world. Today, as on any other day, he showered and dressed and left the house without eating breakfast. A habit he had never picked up. He first took notice of his wordlessness, in fact, not during a conversation that involved him, but one between passers-by. He caught only a few words of it — he could not tell what language was being spoken. This in itself was nothing; many people in his neighbourhood spoke other tongues and would rather speak in them than use the local language. To be unable to tell the difference between the countless languages of which one knows nothing — this is no catastrophe. But here was the oddity: he could not tell with any confidence whether they were speaking his own language.

Now, this is by no means unheard of. One encounters a person with a strong and unfamiliar accent, and can’t be certain whether they are speaking one’s own language or another of which one knows nothing. It is impossible in certain cases to tell. But these men did not seem foreign, or — and Pieter shamed himself for making such a crude distinction — not the kind of foreigners whose languages he would judge to be totally beyond the pale of comprehension. They spoke reasonably slowly — the shapes of the words, at least, should have been quite possible to make out — yet he could not even have told you whether they were speaking his own language. Still, this had only been a brief encounter — he had heard not more than twenty words, and, he reasoned, there were certainly vastly more than twenty words in even one’s own language that one could be expected not to know.

With this enfeebled reasoning, Pieter could not convince even himself.

Climbing aboard the bus to work, Pieter encountered an obstacle. The bus driver spoke to him in quite the same way as usual, except that today the words were, of course, incomprehensible. At first he was able to dodge the issue; the driver knew him, and his stop, and Pieter knew the fare. He placed it in the tray without comment. But while counting the change the driver continued speaking, and Pieter had no way of knowing whether he had done something wrong, paid the wrong amount perhaps, or whether it was simply small talk. It surely couldn’t be anything important, he reasoned. He mumbled something without even attempting to form words, and nodded for good measure. The driver looked at him strangely; he fancied he was still waiting for a meaningful response. Instead, Pieter backed away, taking longer than he should have to break eye contact, and made for a seat towards the back.

Now the situation was beginning to bewilder him. What was he to do when he reached the office? He could not possibly function in this state. His peers would treat him as a laughing stock, or worse, an object of pity. It was true that Pieter had never attached much sentimental value to words, but finding himself suddenly without them, he began to consider for the first time the glaring practical issues with the lack. He did not miss inchoate, or whilom, or picaresque, but without phrases like indeed, quite well, and you?, good day, etc., he felt naked.

He found himself relieved that no-one took the seat beside him on the journey; any attempt at conversation would have been futile. But as quickly as he had felt this relief, he disowned it — surely now was the time to resolve the issue, to sit down with someone and persevere to understand their words while they were still insignificant, before his arrival at the office raised the stakes to unconscionable heights. This back-and-forth in his head made little difference; the bus was quite empty aside from him, and cruised past all other stops, seemingly making straight for the office. Though bemused by this circumstance, naturally Pieter could by no means broach the topic with the driver. Besides, he had larger concerns.

They were leaving behind the grey confines of the urban and beginning upon the winding road to the office, which stood a little distance from town on a large hill. The approach, which curved from side to side in a regular pattern to mitigate the sharp incline of the hill, was bordered on either side by grass, but grass carefully kept short and obedient, presumably by gardeners employed by the office. The effect, especially on an overcast day like this one was turning out, was somehow more dispiriting than a total absence of nature. Above this towered the office itself, which Pieter watched now with disquiet. The building was stark white, and on brighter days than this stood out quite impressively against the sky. It had eight storeys, and owing to its already raised position, reached a far greater height than anything else in town. The bus pulled up outside the office, and Pieter stepped out.

The air, despite the colour of the sky, was uncomfortably warm and sticky. Pieter felt patches of sweat beginning to gather in his armpits and staining his white shirt. He would make a bad impression before opening his mouth. He saw a couple of men, workers of some kind, standing side by side outside the office, looking down at something Pieter could not see for their legs. He was not sure of the position of these men, beyond having always called anyone of their approximate class by the nebulous term ‘workers’. Lacking this determining word, now, he felt distinctly uneasy in their presence. Not that they had noticed him so far, but on his way to the office’s entrance he would have to pass by these men and felt somehow that this passage would constitute a menace to his being.

In the event, they of course posed no real threat, but it could not be said that Pieter passed them entirely without incident. As he approached, one of the workers, the one further from him, turned to the other. This also being the direction from which Pieter was approaching, it was unclear to him when the man began to speak whether he was addressing his fellow worker or Pieter himself. Pieter considered it highly unlikely that this man should be talking to him, but in the absence of certainty and in a state of confused agitation, he decided it was best to approach and see what it was towards which the man gestured so insistently. He came up behind the two men and tried to stand between them, surmising only when they made no move to part for him and give him a clear look at the object by which they were so fascinated, that he was not the one who had been addressed. Both men were considerably taller than him, obscuring his view, and yet he remained curious upon what object they could be so intent. Without really knowing why, he gripped each man by the shoulder and lifted himself up, standing on the tips of his toes to peek over. Neither man, as Pieter might have expected if his mind were not in such disarray, took kindly to this. The man on his right turned to glare at him, while the left instinctively span around to see who was touching him, dislodging Pieter’s grip. At the same moment, enough good sense returned to him to tell him not to touch strangers without warning, and he let go with his right hand too. He would have made an apologetic gesture had the sudden movement of the man on his left not concluded with a shoulder-barge which threw him off-balance, sending him tumbling backwards onto the muddy ground. The large men looked down at him with a mixture of pity, annoyance and surprise. One of them was saying something. The other reached out to help Pieter up. He tried to decline the man’s help, but in the end he was dragged up against his will. The other man concluded whatever he had been saying and Pieter nodded blankly to acknowledge it. The men turned back to the patch by the wall. Over their shoulders a minute earlier, Pieter had briefly seen the object of their apparent fascination: dog shit. A patch of dry old dog shit. He hurried away, as if fleeing a crime scene.

Upon entering the front doors of the office itself, still off-balance from the previous confusion, Pieter found himself facing another unexpected scene. His boss — or the man one step above him on the ladder, the man he had always thought of as ‘boss’, though the word had now vanished along with his name — was standing a little way into the large foyer, off to the right of the door. Why should his boss be waiting at the door for him? Was he that late? He glanced instinctively at his watch but found it quite unreadable. Numbers too, then. Before he could take in anything else from the room, Pieter felt his boss’s hand grasping his shoulder, firmly but without any enmity he could detect. He was saying something to Pieter, his voice warm and inviting, not cold with censure. Pieter tried to say something, to excuse his lateness and his confusion. The words that came out of his mouth didn’t sound like anything, nor was he sure what he had intended them to sound like. The boss seemed to take them in his stride, acting as if he could understand Pieter when Pieter could not even understand himself. Only now did he begin to notice the loose circle of his colleagues gathered around the entrance, all looking at him with the same encouraging pleasant expressions as the boss. An excited buzz of conversation had risen within this crowd. They were seemingly impressed with what Pieter had said. He wanted to ask them what it was that was so impressive. The hand on his shoulder began to steer him further into the room. Pieter felt that he ought to be responding to the stream of enthusiastic words still being directed his way. He opened his mouth again, but this being greeted with a friendly shushing gesture from his boss (which seemed to say don’t say anything yet; we have something to show you), he abandoned the attempt. He could understand this much. At the reading of gesture, body language, he was finding himself more proficient today than usual. Like blind people who find after the loss of their sight that their hearing improves as if to compensate, he thought. Then he told himself to focus, to try to understand. He would not get through on body language alone.

Pieter allowed himself to be steered towards the lifts, trying to focus on the shape of the words and phrases bombarding him, will them into coherence. The group gathered around the entrance, made up of the familiar faces of women and men to whom he had once been able to attach names, at least for the most part, followed as the boss guided him onwards. In fact, the whole office appeared to have an interest in whatever this was. The man from the reception desk stood up and joined the group as they passed, without a word but with a look of keen interest. Though this small group could not be the office’s entire staff, Pieter did not see anyone else during the journey who did not immediately join them. There were too many of them for a single lift, but by some strange fortune both opened at the same time, and everyone crowded in. Pieter and the boss — naturally — stuck together.

Silence prevailed in the lift; this much had not changed.

Both groups stepped out on the third floor. Pieter accepted being led to an unclear destination. The boss continued to talk, though in brief bursts now — he had evidently run out of things to say. Pieter had been able to make no sense of any of it. Now and then one of the crowd following them would flit to the front of the group to address something to the boss, at which he would chuckle. Pieter thought he could still identify a chuckle. He would sometimes join in, not knowing whether this was appropriate but meeting little resistance to his doing or not doing so. He was finding that it did not matter much what he did.

At the end of one corridor the group halted, and Pieter thought the destination must finally have been reached. The boss swung open the door they were facing with his free arm (the other, his left, had remained on Pieter’s back, gently guiding him, the whole time). The door creaked as it swung open, and Pieter found his curiosity increasing; he wished desperately that his words had not chosen today to desert him, or that his boss had not chosen today to surprise him, if that was what this was. Overwhelmed by events, he had not yet begun to posit a connection between one oddity and the other, nor accepted the possibility that his words might not be restored the next day.

The room beyond the door, it transpired, was empty but for a messy pile of desks and chairs in one corner. The floor was coated with dust. The room was basically unremarkable except for its capacity to induce a strong sense of claustrophobic unease. The window opposite the door was its only source of light, and this was unusually small, its tiny pane dirty almost to the point of opacity. It was set impractically high in the wall. A smashed light-bulb hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. The room could not have been designed according to the architectural conventions of the rest of the office. Pieter let himself be guided in, wondering what he was missing, while those who could manage (the room was small even without proper furnishing) filed in behind. The boss began talking again in the same soft urgent tones. Pieter nodded and tried to smile and eventually made a noise he hoped would pass for assent.

At this the boss guided him back out of the dingy room, once again assuming for them a position at the head of the crowd and leading him — somewhere else. Pieter had assumed there was only one stop on this tour (that was the concept Pieter had now begun to attach to what was happening, even if the word itself remained absent). Instead, it went on in the same fashion in which it had begun. Pieter was led through a maze of corridors (and why should it be, suddenly, a maze? He had worked here for several years, and thought to know his way around well enough. Had his sense of direction vanished with his vocabulary?) to a series of destinations of unclear import, intermittently spoken to by his glowing, effusive boss, who seemed to understand or pretend to understand everything Pieter said in return, and not to mind his incoherence. All the while followed by this crowd of sycophants — though really, he had no reason to believe their enthusiasm was anything but sincere — bobbing their heads, gazing as they ought to have gazed at an important and respected visitor. They looked expectantly at him all the while — and yet they led him not to the most interesting or worthwhile attractions in the office, but to the unsightliest — a malfunctioning coffee machine that sprayed a brown liquid onto the ground; a clogged toilet; a wall of windows on the fifth floor, from one of which the glass was entirely missing. All these things they pointed at and watched him and smiled and spoke in the language he no longer understood, waiting as if for magnanimous comment or polite applause.

A long time passed in this fashion; Pieter, no longer able to read his watch, nevertheless felt certain it was four or more hours. A sort of tranquillity came over him as the morning (and, he had to assume, part of the afternoon) wore on. He was seeing parts of the office he had previously had no reason to venture into, though he could not fathom what interest they were intended to hold for him now, or why so much of the place should be in such evident disarray. Yet his input did not seem to matter, or rather its specific qualities did not — he was clearly an indispensable part of things, however little it seemed to matter that he was, as he must surely be, talking nonsense. After it had gone on long enough, the experience became homogeneous, one patch of mould began to resemble another, the creaking of the doors blended into one long drone, and Pieter found himself able to drift carelessly through the process. A sort of tranquillity in bafflement.

When the tour ended, it took him a few moments to realise that it was over. The boss had clapped him on the back and the crowd begun to disperse, drifting off in various directions, an excited buzz rising around him as they began to talk amongst themselves. Still in a contented daze, Pieter did not at first recognise where they had stopped. Then for a few seconds after recognising the room he was in, he searched for its name. Nothing. He shook his head. He knew the function of the place, its reason for being there, but somehow words continued to escape him. A large room, a space with tables and chairs and trays and food, he thought, though not in these words, not in any words. He was working by shapes, faint blurry concepts which without labels to determine them were drifting apart, turning incoherent. I will eat, he thought, or: I want to eat. Without words the distinction between a statement of desire and one of decision was a more subtle one than he could hold in his mind. He thought: I eat. He ate. He picked up a tray, then there was food on it, then not. He stood, at a certain moment within the previous he had sat down, and now he sat up stood up. People were around him, at the tables, the other ones and possibly his own. People were. Talking. He tried to hear whether they were saying good things about Pieter. He thought something had changed in their tone though he didn’t know the words and he became sad for a moment. The doors came towards him, he went towards the doors, he was in the corridor and then another, corridor corridor, two and then three, he walked from place to place. Concepts deserted him, the big ones and then the little ones and then the big ones. He passed through a room and then another, rooms plural, he began to miss picaresque, he began to think the tour had not done him good, in the room(s) people were pointing and talking, talking and pointing, he tried to think of the concept of ridicule but could not remember it, he tried twice. He was in another room which was a corridor, of this much he was certain, the corridor was a room, a small room with a big window, a cubicle or foyer. It was getting dark though he was certain it was still lunchtime, he spent a long time staring at a clock in a dark room, or a short time, who can say, he spent a time and then he was elsewhere, outside, though in darkness and without words, he was without words he remembered, it was difficult to distinguish between them, outside and inside. He tried to remember the way home, he tried to remember the concept of home. Water leaked from Pieter’s eyes and he laughed, that water should do such a thing. Dry old dog shit. Pieter shamed himself for making such a crude distinction. He remembered these thoughts and pictures but without words to pin them down they drifted away, what does that mean, dry old dog shit? Not what does that mean, but what means that? He tried to remember where one was meant to sleep, how one was meant to sleep, how one was meant. Chronology deserted him. Pieter took off his clothes, first his underwear and then his trousers, his socks and then his shoes, his hat, had he a hat? Pieter took off his clothes and lay down under a tree, he thought this was correct, yes, he knew it, the ground was wet, Pieter took off his clothes and lay down under a tree and waited for sleep, Pieter took off his clothes and lay down under a tree and waited for his second day without words.

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