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From the author: Put on a suit and board the subway. Will anyone notice who you really are?
So - Sz
Any discussion of the creature (that is, any discussion of me) should begin with the question of how I learned to read and write. Although I don’t know exactly how I learned, I taught myself using the incomplete World Book Encyclopedia set that I came across in the cabin. They were the only books I found here when I came looking for food. The old man had frozen to death in his bed, it was a solitary cabin a long way from town, and I was starving. Here I found a house full of frozen meat and bread, as well as a few cans of beer that had not burst when they turned to ice. And, when I had eaten and slept and eaten again, I found the books. It took me a few weeks to puzzle things out, but once I had mastered reading I spent all my daylight hours in study.
When I decided to write my story I felt a strange kind of mental paralysis for several weeks (see also Writer’s Block). I believe now that I was unfamiliar with the use of the first person. The World Book is nearly silent on the subject, and so I made many abortive attempts to describe myself as the World Book might, under the entry Creature, the. I feel these first attempts somehow failed to capture the essence of me, my true self. It was only after much contemplation of the mysterious word “I” that seemed to appear wherever there was a quotation that I began to imagine what “I” is for (see also Montaigne, Michel de). This is the area I’m most unsure of in my essay and I hope that if I am using the first person incorrectly the editors will direct me to the proper entry on the subject. It’s the only way I’ll learn.
Now that I have a language, linguistics has become a passion of mine. I often wish that I had come across encyclopedias in other languages as well. The discussion of the subject leads me to believe that English is particularly difficult to learn as languages go; perhaps that’s why it took me so many days to figure it out. I’m puzzled by a linguist’s description of English as “a Germanic language trying to masquerade as a Romance language.” (see also Indo-European Language Family). Perhaps I would have had an easier time learning a more internally consistent language like Hungarian or Nahuatl. Perhaps knowing another language might make me feel closer to the human species that so fascinates me.
It’s important to note that my experience of language begins and ends with the written word. Spoken language, whatever it is meant to sound like, is beyond me. I have wasted more than a few hours trying to imagine the sounds of words, and have even practiced in front of a mirror, watching my sluggish tongue maneuver about my big yellow teeth (see, for example, Fricative, Coronal, and Alveolar Plosive). Yet after much practice I am still all growls and wheezes and grunts. I suspect that I lack some anatomical adaptation to make speaking possible (see, for example, Hyoid Bone), leaving aside the fact that I have no idea what words are supposed to sound like.
At first my vanity led me to believe that I was a kind of human, or much like a human. The picture of Neanderthal in the World Book (see) bears some resemblance to the creature I see in the mirror, and it flattered me to think I might belong to the same genus as Homo sapiens, or, better still, to a subspecies of the most important creature in the encyclopedia. But even Neanderthal, if they exist today, would fail what paleontologists call “The Subway Test”: if a Neanderthal man boarded the subway dressed in a suit and wearing a modern haircut, human passengers would know he was not one of them. Whatever a subway is, or a suit. I should note that the old man’s set of the World Book is missing Volume 18: So – Sz. I have made inferences about suits and subways based on the references to them in other volumes, and I have imagined them both many times. Without Volume 18: So – Sz, however, I am bedeviled by uncertainty.
In any event, the discovery in 1983 of a modern hyoid bone on a Neanderthal skeleton suggests that Neanderthal was, or is, fully able to speak. I have never tried so hard to learn anything as I have tried to learn to speak; therefore I must abandon the comforting illusion that I am so nearly human (see Wishful Thinking).
Another possibility is that I am the creature the World Book calls Bigfoot. I never thought of my feet as particularly big, but I had no standard of comparison until recently. The old man’s feet were not half as large as mine. Other data support the Bigfoot Hypothesis as well: I’ve lived my whole life in the Pacific Northwest, far from human habitation, painfully shy until now. Now that I have read all but Volume 18 of the World Book, though, my earlier wariness about people seems comic, even pathetic. I don’t know what I was thinking, running for the hills at every sign of a campfire or rifle shot in the distance. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking anything. I really don’t remember; it’s almost as though I didn’t exist at all before I learned human language. I know I must have walked in that wilderness many years, but it’s as though I can remember nothing of that time.
In short, the Bigfoot Hypothesis is attractive. A good deal of counter-evidence troubles me, however. The photo in the World Book, taken from a supposed Bigfoot sighting by Patterson and Gimlin, is most definitely not of me. Like most serious biologists, I suspect that that photo shows a man in a gorilla suit. (This use of the word leads me to speculate that a Suit is an artifact of human material culture designed to disguise the true self). In any event, I was extremely reclusive and would not have allowed myself to be seen by people. And, whatever your other charms, humans are not particularly good at finding creatures who do not wish to be seen.
Yet, much of the evidence against the Bigfoot Hypothesis is just as much evidence against my very existence. The main criticism of cryptozoology (see) is that all large animal species, if they are to maintain a viable gene pool, must exist in such numbers that they could not possibly escape human notice. I must admit that this critique strikes me as persuasive. I don’t remember ever seeing another creature of my race, except of course my mother. And even my mother I don’t remember well: she persists in my memory only as a scent of wet hair, a flash of dark fur, a powerful arm carrying me through the forest the way Bronko Nagurski carries a football in the World Book photo accompanying his entry.
Whatever I am, the World Book has led me to wonder what I am. Bigfoot seems as apt a designation as any. My name is like the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays: they were written either by Shakespeare (see) or by someone else using that name. I venture to call myself Bigfoot. No man in a gorilla suit will dare call me a liar.
I puzzled a while over how I might tell my story to the world. At first I had hoped to contact a television broadcaster by telephone or Internet. This was my impetus for wasting so many hours trying to learn to talk, in fact. However, I found nothing in the cabin to match the World Book’s description of a telephone or computer. The cabin does appear to be wired for electricity, but nothing happens when I use the light switches. Perhaps I am using them incorrectly. At any rate, my inability to speak reduces my options: I can’t imagine that I would find a sympathetic audience on Oprah or Larry King Live. The Oprah Test is just one more form of the Subway Test.
Therefore, I have decided to introduce myself to the world through print journalism. First I will try the news weeklies of widest circulation―Time and Newsweek, et al.―as well as reputable literary journals such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I found no magazines of any kind in the cabin and so I can only infer their editorial policy, but I trust that editors will have enough interest in my story to overlook my peculiarities and deficiencies as a writer (see Narrator, Unreliable).
Still, I struggle with doubt. How ignorant am I of human ways? How much knowledge is lost to me, locked away in the missing Volume 18: So – Sz? How did it come to be missing in the first place? I never dreamed before I came to the cabin, but now every night is as busy with dreams as my waking life with study. Almost always the dream is the same: that I stumble across Volume 18: So – Sz hidden somewhere, sometimes hidden within another volume of the World Book. Always Volume 18 is written in another language, one I am incapable of learning, and I howl in my dream cabin through tears of rage.
I have consulted the entry on The Interpretation of Dreams, yet the World Book offers me limited help as it provides only an account of Freud’s book rather than the book itself. It is only the finger pointing at the moon rather than the moon itself (see Buddhism, Zen).
I have looked everywhere in the World Book for advice about incompleteness, as if the book itself would provide instructions for a time when the book is not there. At first Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (see) seemed exactly what I was looking for, but to the extent I understand it, the theorem seems to be about something else. I feel reassured sometimes, and sometimes despair, when I consider Gödel’s claim that all mathematics is doomed to be incomplete. By extension one might argue that any self-referential system (e.g. language, the genetic code, encyclopedias) must suffer from essential incompleteness. That is, the World Book fails as a true encyclopedia even if I could somehow make Volume 18: So – Sz appear by magic, because the World Book’s entry on Encyclopedia implies an entry on Encyclopedia Entry, which of course is not there (and if it were, no encyclopedia is so ludicrous that it would include an entry entitled Entries about Encyclopedia Entries).
But that’s enough silly philosophizing. Really I’m only trying to console myself (not very well, I might add) for the loss of Volume 18. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is only useful for those who believe they have a complete system. I know that I don’t. I know So – Sz is lost to me.
I take more consolation from the World Book’s entry on Library. The picture of the Reading Room at the New York Public Library looks to me like a photograph of heaven. It is almost too much for me to imagine sitting there, reading Volume 18: So – Sz. In fact, why stop there? Why not read Shakespeare and Montaigne and Freud themselves? The thought of it fills me with such joy that for a moment I feel at one with the world and I weep loud mammalian sobs.
But I know that going to the library is just another kind of Subway Test. And even if I could disguise myself somehow in a human suit, what would I be expected to say in a library? If you heard my grunting you would know I was not one of you.
It’s painful to admit, but I’m still afraid of you. I know I don’t have the courage to walk this manuscript to the offices of The New Yorker. I know I’m not brave enough even to sneak into the town by night and drop the manuscript in a mailbox. These recent days have been sunny after so much fog and blizzard, and every day I hear humans on their snowmobiles running their mysterious errands. Now that you have come near again, my old terror of you returns.
The sun warms the cabin by day, enough to thaw things out within, and now the parts of the old man that I didn’t eat have begun to stink up the place. With almost unbearable sadness, I realize that I cannot carry the World Book back with me into the forest. But I feel driven to flee as I have always fled, as I hear your snowmobiles rasping like enraged bees, like the subways of my imagination.
This story originally appeared in 5923 Quarterly.