This year it’s a verb. She extracts it slowly, patiently, until she has worked it entirely out of the lexicon. It’s a delicate process, and this being a fairly common word, it must be woven out flawlessly. It is some time until she is certain it has taken. When she is sure, she knows she will survive another year. This one will last through seasons. It is some time until she is able to calm down – she was on the hunt for a very long time with this word. Finally, inhabiting it fully, she rests.
The world goes on without the verb. It is as if it never existed. Not a single person will utter it for the year that she feeds on it. With the rare words this is hardly a problem – it’s usually chalked up to the inadequacies of the language. But when she takes a common one, there are noticeable repercussions. Sometimes the entire concept dies out. Other times it shifts, is described by three words that do an inexact job of it. Sometimes the failure to find the right word at the right time costs someone their livelihood, or their spouse, or even their life. There are always casualties, even with the rare ones. Every century a missing term starts a war.
There is method to her hunt, to the choices that she makes every time her hunger awakens. Were the words gathered, someone might be able to decipher it, to find a reason why she alternates sometimes between a rare adjective and an unexceptional noun, and other times devours crucial verbs for years. Is it selfless? Does she take great pains to choose the perfect word because the world must retire it, or is she merely a hunter vigilant for the perfect prey? Some describe her as the arbiter of history, and others as a monster. Whatever definition, she watches and waits and feeds and hunts, and one fragment at a time dismantles our known world.
When she has subsisted on the word for long enough and it no longer supplies her with whatever nutrients she needs, she releases it back into the world. Sometimes there is a communal sigh of relief, and immediately the term floods conversations and re-establishes its place in the lexicon. This is rare. More often there is a long period where it is uncertain whether the word will take. And if it doesn’t, the entire concept becomes extinct.
For now she sits calmly, content in her cave, looking out on the world as she feeds on her verb and marveling at the world without it. Behind her the cave goes on for some distance, hollows out the entire mountain. None know what her stores hold, and why she has such a massive lair. There is a disturbing theory that her damage is cumulative, that she never gives back the words she steals. One by one, some believe, she is robbing the world of the ability to speak. Her art is invisibly dismantling our language from the inside.
She smiles quietly as she sits and watches, pondering her next word. Wondering at a world without it.
Illustration by Kaethe Butcher