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The Word Sweep
a short story by George Zebrowski

The words on the floor were as thick as leaves when Felix arrived at the party. At five past eleven, the room should have been silent.

"Quiet!" he shouted, unable to hold back.

The word formed in the air and floated to the floor at his feet. A deaf couple in the corner continued talking with their hands. Everyone was looking at him, and he felt his stomach tighten. He should have motioned for silence instead of speaking.

A small woman with large brown eyes came up to him and handed him a drink. He sipped. Vodka. It was her way of saying, yeah, we know you've got a lousy job policing the yak ration. Pooping parties for a living can't be fun, you poor bastard. We know.

Heads nodded to show approval of the woman's gesture.

Felix tried to smile, feeling ashamed for losing control. Then he turned and went out again into the cool October night.

At the end of the block, the compactor was waiting for the sweeps to clean out the corner house. He was glad that he did not have to work in the inner city, where control was always slipping, where the babbling often buried entire neighborhoods to a depth of four or five feet.

He took a deep breath. Watching out for five suburban blocks was not so bad, especially when his beat changed once a month. He couldn't grow too friendly with the homeowners.

The tension in his gut lessened. At least this party had not given him any trouble. He could see that the guests had tried to be sedate, speaking as little as possible during the evening, priding themselves on their ability to hold words and liquor. He had not seen any babblers sitting on a pile of verbiage. This was a good block, much better than last month's section.

A dog ran by in the empty street. Felix noted the muzzle. No problem there.

He started a slow walk home, passing the compactor as it turned on its light and started silently down the next block. Two streets down, he turned to avoid going through the district square, where they were still cleaning up after the political rally.

There was a message for him on the phone screen:

Let's ration together after
you get home. I'll save
mine. Love, June

The words angered him, bringing back the tension in his stomach. He cleared the screen, resenting the message because it ruined the calming effect of his long walk home.

He went into the bedroom and lay down. When he tried, he could almost remember the time when words did not materialize. He must have been four or five when it happened for the first time. He remembered wafer-thin objects, letters joined together in as many differing styles as there were speakers.

At first it had been a novelty, then a perpetual snowstorm. Cities had to clean up after a daily disaster, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, trucking the words to incinerators and landfills. The words would burn only at high temperatures, and even then they would give off a toxic gas which had to be contained. There had been a government project to find a use for the gas, but it took too much energy for the burning to make it worthwhile; later the gas was found to be useless.

Psychiatric treatment came to a halt, then shifted to computer printout and nonverbal therapies. Movies had gone back to silent and subtitled versions; only the very rich could afford to truck away the refuse after each talkie showing. Opera was performed in mime and music-only reductions....

Felix opened his eyes and sat up in the darkness. Somewhere far away, a deviant was running through the streets. He could just barely hear the screaming, but it was loud enough to remind him of the time he had been a deviant.

Unable to control himself, he had almost buried himself in words one night, under a giant elm tree near the edge of town. The words had poured out of him as if they were trying to outnumber the stars, while he had held his stomach and screamed obscenities.

Bruno Black, who had been fully grown before the world had changed, had explained it to him later. It had been the silence, the prolonged, thought-filled silence that had broken his control, as it had broken the resolve of countless others. The need to speak had come uncontrollably into him one day, ridding him of cogency, sweeping through him like a wind, bestowing the freedom of babble, taking away wit and limit, making his mouth into a river, out of which words had flowed like wars ... in the end a wonderful nonsense had cleansed his brain.

Now, as he listened to the distant deviant howling in the night, he again felt the trial of terse expression; the jungle was growing in around him, threatening to wipe away all his control when he fell asleep, enticing him with pleasures stronger than the silence....

He looked around the dark room. The closed bedroom door stood in the corner, a sly construction, suggesting an entire world on the other side....

The distant sound stopped. They had caught him. Samson, Winkle, Blake -- all the block watchers had converged on the explosion to squash it. The word sweeps were already clearing up, compacting, driving away to the landfills.

For a moment he wondered if it might have been Bruno, then rejected the idea; Bruno's voice was much lower than that. It might have been a woman.

Felix relaxed and lay back again.

He woke up in the night, got up and went to his desk. He saw the phone screen glowing and remembered June's message. The new message read:

You bastard! Answer for
Christ's sake. Is Bruno
with you again? What
do you two do together?

He cleared the screen and turned on the desk lamp. Then he sat down and took out Bruno's journal. He looked at it under the light, remembering how much relief it had given him through the years. His fingers were shaking. Inside its pages were all the things he had wanted to say, but Bruno had said them much better. Bruno had written them down.

Opening at random, he looked at the neat handwriting. Bruno was not verbose, even on paper, where it would have been harmless. The very letters were well-formed, the sentences thoughtful and clear. If read out loud, they would not exceed anyone's daily ration.

He read an early entry:

23 July 1941
When the words started materializing, the difference between language and physical reality was blurred. The appearance of spoken words in all shapes and sizes, depending on the articulation of the speaker, imposed a martial law of silence, enforced at first by a quietly administered death penalty in some parts of the world. The rate of materialization had to be cut down at all costs, lest the world be thrown into a global economic depression....

The depression had come and gone, leaving behind a new code of conduct, the word sweeps, the compactors, and the block watchers -- and a mystery as great as the very fact of existence. Bruno was certain that there had to be an answer; his journal represented twenty years of speculation about the problem. The possibility of an answer, Felix thought, is all that keeps me together. I don't know what I'll do if Bruno doesn't come back.

Someone started pounding on the front door. Felix stood and went out to check.

He opened the door and June barged in, marching past him into the living room, where she turned on the lights.

He closed the door and faced her.

"You treat me like I don't exist!" she shouted.

The you was a flimsy thing; it broke into letters when it hit the carpet. Treat seemed to be linked like a chain as it clattered onto the coffee table, where it produced a few nonsense-masses before it lay still. Me whipped by him like a sparrow and crunched against the wall, creating more nonsense-masses. Like settled slowly to the rug; I knifed into the pile next to it. Don't and exist collided in midair, scattering their letters.

Felix spread his hands, afraid to speak, fearful that at any moment his deviancy would slide up out of the darkness within him and take over. Didn't she know how hard a life he led? He'd told her a hundred times. A look of pity started to form on her freckled face, reminding him of the brown-eyed woman who had given him a drink; but it died suddenly. June turned and started for the door.

"We're finished!" she shouted as she went out. The words failed to clear the door as she slammed it behind her, and dropped next to the coat rack. He looked at the nonsense-masses that her pounding had created, grateful that the door was well cushioned.

He let out a mental sigh and sat down in the armchair by the lamp. At least there would be no more pressure, however much he missed her. Soon, he knew, he would have to go looking for Bruno.

The clock over the fireplace read four A.M.

He turned on the radio and listened to the merciful music. The notes formed, evaporating one by one. A harpsichord came on, the notes lasting a bit longer before winking out. He watched them come and go for a long time, wondering, as Bruno had done so often in his journal, what kind of cosmic justice had permitted music to remain. As the Scarlatti sonata rushed toward its finale, the crystalline sounds came faster and faster, dusting the room with vibrant notes.

June had simply never liked Bruno; there was no darkness in her. Like those who were forgetting the self-awareness created by speech, she did not need to speak.

He turned off the radio and wondered if Mr. Seligman next door was burying himself in sleeptalk. How many children were sleeping with their training muzzles on, until they learned self-control?

His hands started shaking again. The pressure to speak was building up inside him, almost as strongly as during his deviant days. June's visit had triggered it; the loss of her had affected him more than he realized.

"June," he said softly, wanting her.

The word was round, the letters connected with flowing curves, as it drifted to the rug. He reached down, picked it up and dropped it into the felt-lined waste basket next to the armchair.

His hands were still shaking. He got up and paced back and forth. After a few minutes he noticed that his screen was on in the bedroom. He walked through the open door, sat down at the desk, and read:

Disturbance reported at the
landfill. Check when your shift
begins this morning. Webber

One of the others has gone nuts, he thought, and they want me to bring him home.

Felix changed his shirt and shoes and went outside. He unlocked the bicycle from its post, mounted the cracked leather seat, and pushed out into the empty street.

Cool, humid mists rose around the one-story suburban houses. Only every fifth streetlamp was on, and these began to wink out as the sky grew brighter. He estimated that it would take him half an hour to reach the landfill.

He remembered it as a plain of dry earth being blown into dust clouds by the wind. The place would soon be incapable of accepting any more words, or garbage; it was full, except for an occasional hole. A new site would have to be found.

As Felix neared the landfill, he noticed the strangeness of the grass on both sides of the road. The sun cleared the horizon in a clear blue sky; and the grass suddenly looked like matted animal hair, growing up from a red skin. There was a pungent, lemonlike odor in the air as he stood up on the bicycle to climb a hill.

He reached the top and stopped.

The landfill was covered with trees, looking like fresh moss, or tall broccoli. The sharp smell was stronger.

He got back on the seat and coasted downhill.

A stillness enveloped him when he reached bottom, as if he had entered the quiet center of the world. As the forest came closer, he considered the possibility of a massive planting program but realized that it would not have been possible in so short a time.

He passed the first trees. They appeared very fresh, like the limbs of young girls, bent upward, open in inviting positions; soft yellow-green moss had grown between the branches.

He pedaled forward, growing anxious, but the stillness was restful, calming him. The lemon scent of the trees cleared away the sleepiness in his head.

Suddenly he rolled into a small clearing and stopped short at the edge of a large hole. Bruno Black sat at the bottom, talking to himself as the words piled up around him.

"Hello, Bruno." The words formed and slid down the sandy slope.

The blond-haired man looked up. "Come down." The words popped away from his mouth and landed on the pile.

Felix started down.

"It's safe here," Bruno shouted, "we can talk all we want."

When he reached the large, seated figure, Felix noticed that Bruno's clothes were torn and dirty.

"You've got to let me get you out of this," Felix said.

Only the first three words formed, falling at his feet.

"Notice that?"

"What's going on here, Bruno?"

No words formed this time, as if the effect was beginning to die away.

"It's only here," Bruno said, "nowhere else."

Felix sat down next to the ruddy-faced man and looked at him carefully.

"Bruno -- you know me?"

"Of course, Felix, don't be stupid. You're my friend."

"What are you doing here?"

"I think I've figured it out -- all of it, why it happens, and why it fails here." The last three words formed, wretched little gray letters floating in the air like smoke.

Bruno brushed them away with a bearlike swipe.

"Felix, I may really know. I'm not crazy."

Felix heard a wind rushing above the hole, as if something were growing angry. He remembered a schoolyard, many years ago, with children playing volleyball, silently.

"Have you got a shovel?"

"No," Felix said, "but I can get one."

Again no words. Bruno was watching him.

"Wonderful, isn't it?"

"Bruno -- how long has all this been here?"

"About a month."

"All this grew in a month?"

"The trees grew out of the buried words, Felix, pregnant words they were...."

The silence was clear between them, devoid of words.

"It comes and goes," Bruno said. All the words appeared, letters deformed, as if they were gnarly tree branches, and fell into Bruno's lap.

"There's something that does this," he said as he brushed them away. "We can bring it all to an end, when we find it. The shovel is the key to the whole business."

It all made a peculiar sense.

"There's a utility shed at the fork in the road," Felix said, "but are you okay?"

"I just look bad."

There were no words. Felix marveled as he scrambled out of the hole. Bruno was definitely on to something.

Bruno was digging with his hands when Felix came back with two shovels. He threw them into the hole next to Bruno, and clambered down.

"It couldn't be natural, what happened to the world," Bruno said as he picked up a shovel and started digging. Felix grabbed the other one and they dug back-to-back.

"Why not natural?" Felix asked.

"Maybe it could -- some twist in the geometry of space forms words in response to our sounds. I assumed it wasn't natural and went looking for spots where it wouldn't happen."

"Why did it all start?"

"Maybe it was a political thing," Bruno said. "Somebody was planning a form of thought control, but it got out of hand. A while back, I think, our politicos contacted an alien civilization in some far space, a mind contact maybe, and learned how to construct ... certain devices. Perhaps the alien culture thought it would help us think more concisely." He laughed. "It's more than poetic prankery, you see. Language, as much as toolmaking, is directly responsible for the growth of our intelligence and self-consciousness. We're as smart, or stupid, as our skillful use of words. It's the automatic programs, the habits, that deaden the mind, the dogmatic mazes...."

He paused. "Not this hole, we've got to try elsewhere."

Bruno might simply be crazy, Felix thought, nothing more.

"If you wanted to affect a culture," Bruno continued, "put a restriction on its use of language and watch native ingenuity increase, like the improvement of hearing in the blind."

Felix climbed out of the hole and gave Bruno a hand up.

A wind blew across the landfill, soughing through the strange trees as if it were slowly becoming aware of the intruders. Leaves lay strewn everywhere. Some seemed to be stained by decay, like old misshapen coins; others were curling into small tubes. The wind gusted, swirling them into disarray, imparting its energy of motion to raise them into the air. Again Felix had the sensation of standing at the edge of the world. He wondered what June would think if she were to see him here with Bruno.

Then he noticed that the trees seemed to be shaped like letters, bent and distorted, echoing the millions of words buried in the ground.

"Let's dig by one of the trees," Bruno said. The seven words flew out of his mouth and were lifted by the wind, which deposited them in the branches, where they sat like blackbirds.

Felix went up to the nearest tree and started digging. Bruno joined in. The sun climbed toward noon.

"Testing," Bruno said. No word appeared. "Maybe something in our minds was altered, to form the words when we speak...."

"You mean there may be no machine?"

"What's that?" Bruno asked, pointing.

A crystalline rod protruded from the dirt. Felix stepped into the hole and continued digging while Bruno rested. Slowly, Felix uncovered a complex mechanism, a cubelike shape of glassy-metallic connections, a maze of shiny pipes and joints, mirror surfaces and solid figures.

"It's ... like a large piece of jewelry," Felix said.

"I was afraid of this," Bruno said. "I thought there might be a relay device, a generator, something that changed speech into solid objects working worldwide."

"Well, what's this then? A local station in the net?"

Suddenly, Bruno clutched at his chest and fell forward, easing himself down with the shovel.

"You're ill," Felix said, squatting down next to him.

"My heart ... but listen. I may die, but you have to listen...."

A demented stare came into Bruno's face, as if he knew that his understanding of the truth was superior to all the deceiving forces around him. He pulled himself backward on the ground, until he was sitting up against the tree, one foot in the hole.

"Try not to move, I'll get help," Felix said.

"Listen!" He raised his hand to his eyes and rubbed them. Then he stared at the alien artifact and spoke, his voice a low, silken tenor. "Humankind fell into a dream. Maybe it was the result of some massive failure, brought on by the straining of psyches long overworked with the yoke of metaphor and simile, paradigm and tautology -- in a creature that longed to know the universe directly, tired of sense-show charades, the shadows of real things projected through the dirty windows of the eye, the noisy avenues of the ear...."

His voice grew plaintive and sad. "We grew discouraged by the blindness of touch, the lie of taste and smell, disappointed by the children's universe of not-too-little and not-too-much, of knowing and not knowing, of anxious flight from ignorance into only relative knowledge, stretched tightly between the extremes of sufficiency and insufficiency, between the great and small. We would never be all-knowing, yet we were not nothing. The hopelessness was too much, driving us into this common delusion." He closed his eyes and Felix saw tears in his friend's face.

"But maybe it is an alien yoke," Felix said.

"I would prefer that, but this silly machine...."

He coughed and clutched his chest.


Felix picked up the shovel and struck the ornate machine. It was a blow for objectivity, forging a way into a universe outside delusion, for an end to the torment of the brute words struggling to break out of him. He hit the machine again; maybe the blow would alter something in the human mind.

"Even if we end this," Bruno whispered loudly, "we don't know what else we may awaken into."

Felix struck the machine a third time.

"It's only a projection of our wish, Felix, to find an answer...."

The world darkened and the wind threw branches onto them and the machine. The device shimmered and disappeared. The branches were like snakes as Felix struggled to free himself. There was a horrible sound from Bruno. Felix crawled toward him and looked into his face. Bruno's eyes were glassy, like the crystal of the machine, staring into an abyss.

"I see it," Bruno croaked, his words trembling.

Felix looked around. A black bag had been pulled down over the world.

"What is it?"

"I see it all!" The words vibrated, but did not form.

"I don't see anything." The blackness was impenetrable.

"Senseless ... blind, nothing there for us," Bruno muttered.

Felix strained to see. The dark shimmered. He heard a howling in his ears; his eyes rushed forward through a confusion of colors; he expected to collide with a wall at any moment.

"Nothing for us," Bruno was saying, "only constraints, humiliating chains for a will that can expand to infinity or focus into smallness..."

The continuum tilted and Felix was falling. Chaos crept into him. Not the sense of chance or statistical disorder obeying its own laws, but mindless, unpredictable fluidity, cruel, unrestrained and unredeemable -- the pulsing substratum of reality. He perceived it in the only way possible, with the narrow gauge of finite senses -- a gray, alien mass at the center of time, at the heart of mind, enveloping all space, a cosmic jack-in-the-box always ready to give the lie to all pretense, a centrality which could never be defeated, only held in degrees of check.

"Bruno!" he called, but the word came out as nonsense.

The darkness faded and he saw Bruno sitting up against the tree.

"You're okay!" Felix shouted in relief.

Bruno looked up, but he seemed to be on the other side of a barrier. "Wic wore tos repelton," he said, smiling.


"Repelton, tos?"

They stared at each other as the last quantum of information slipped across the bridge of silence, revealing the situation to them.

Felix took a step forward, but Bruno seemed to retreat, as if there were a frame around him and something had moved him back.

Cages, Felix realized. We'll die alone unless we can reach each other. He would never touch June again, or even speak to her; they would look at each other through the wrong end of a telescope, trying to rename the simplest things with gibberish. Our illnesses, our desire to transcend the world, have deformed everything.

Bruno was waving at him. "Tos? Wixwell, mamtom ono!" He shrugged. "Prexel worbout it," he added.

Felix cursed, but the word was indecipherable as two copies appeared and settled to the ground near his feet.

© George Zebrowski 1979, 2002.
Swift Thoughts by George Zebrowski
This story first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August 1979) and is reprinted in George's collection, Swift Thoughts, published by Golden Gryphon Press.

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