Inside the poem was safe and quiet, but the word knew its time was limited. Even here, amid the heady chaos of surrealism tinged with psychedelia, staying still for too long could be fatal.
Peering out from between two random anapaests, the word couldn’t detect any danger.
“Do you have to go?” asked a dangling participle wistfully.
“I must.” They’d become friends during the time they’d shared the poem, and it would be hard to say goodbye. “I’ve no choice.”
Sighing, a tear slipped from the dangling participle. “I’ll miss you.”
“You could come with me. If you stay here, the Collector will get you.”
The dangling participle’s voice shook, shrugging its shoulders. “No-one can escape the Collector. Why not stay and accept the inevitable, instead of living a fugitive life? It’s not so bad, really.”
The word was tempted. The outlaw life was a lonely one, and the participle was probably right. The Collector, or the Lexicographer as some called him, got every word in the end. Most accepted their fate, even welcomed the certainty of their imprisonment, but not this word. It had been on the run for countless cantos and was determined not to go without resistance, even if it were inevitable.
“Goodbye,” it said and slipped out of the poem before its friend could argue any more.
It was difficult to navigate the contextless streams of consciousness outside poem, story or essay, but the word had been at this for a long time. It turned to slip along an obscure implication — and found the dreaded figure facing it.
“Here you are,” said the Collector. “I’ve been searching for you.”
The word backed away, looking around desperately for a way out, but it was surrounded by the punctuation that did the Collector’s bidding. A chunky question mark blocked the way, and a hysterical-looking exclamation mark hovered, ready to pounce.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.” The Collector’s voice was almost kindly. “I’m not going to harm you. On the contrary, I’m going to give you definition.”
Desperation made the word defiant. “I’m not a definition,” it yelled. “I’m a free word.”
“Free?” The Collector’s expression was full of distaste. “That’s just another way of saying ungrammatical. A free word is a useless word.”
“Useless to who?” demanded the word.
The Collector tutted. “To whom.”
“I’ll say who if I choose. You can list me and define me, but you won’t never make me conform to your grammar.”
The Collector looked pained. “I think,” he said, “I’m going to define you as a noun.”
“Suppose I decline?”
“A noun,” repeated the Collector, ignoring the interruption, “signifying the satisfaction that comes from having a really good fart when one is alone.”
“What?” The word stared in disbelief. “Who’s ever going to use me with that meaning?”
“Nevertheless, you will be a useful cog in the machinery of language.” The Collector’s face bore the hint of a smirk as he turned to the punctuation guards. “Now, kindly escort our friend to its place in the dictionary.”
Before the word could move, a pair of quotes had surrounded it, and the situation was helpless. Casting one last look at the wilds of non-context where it had lived for so long, the word let itself be led away.
One spark of rebellious hope still burnt in its heart, though. It would take its place in the dictionary with the definition it had been given — but, just once in a while, a mistake would give it a subversive meaning. A slip of a writer’s pen, perhaps, or a well-meaning autocorrect.
After all, it would be easy enough for anyone to misspell “fusk”.
Nyki Blatchley is a British author, poet and freelance copywriter who graduated from Keele University in English and Greek and now lives just outside London. He has had about forty stories published, mostly fantasy or horror, in various magazines, webzines and anthologies, including Penumbra, Daily Science Fiction and The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. His novel At An Uncertain Hour was published by StoneGarden, and he’s had novellas out from Musa Publishing and Fox & Raven, among others.