Bo

It was enough for me to know that in the Bo language, the word for ‘flower’ had been an inflection of the word for ‘flame’, itself a shortened vowel away from the word for ‘star’. I’d curled my tongue and then my brain around these gentle, sensible contours for a decade since taking Linguistic Anthropology 101 with Dr Denizen M. In the intervening years I’d published a thesis myself, gone public with my love, and now only my admiration for Denizen was private – especially from her. Dr M. had been asked to discover what had been the purpose of the Bo culture, and whether the recent extinction warranted United Nations commemoration, and so it was only natural that she and I board a boxy airfreight out of Kolkata bound for the Andaman Islands community at Port Blair.

Our home was an adobe shelter, a tumbledown joy. During the day I fed scraps of rice and chicken to the brightly coloured frogs. I ran for miles on dusty paths and forgot about my research work. In the evenings we sat and looked over the water towards distant dystopian Myanmar. Denizen was tired after three weeks of oily interviews with dignitaries and cricketers, and no further forward in her mission. Nobody could say whether the Bo culture had a purpose. How would they measure it? She slept fitfully, woke fretting. In contrast, I slept the sleep of the dead. When I woke the 34 Bo words for dappled light played across my mind. It felt like an eternal spring.

Bo. Prototypical, archetypal Bo, a grandmother among languages, spoken long before biblical Jericho was even a blueprint, before those cities of Ur and Harappa had sprouted from and crumbled back into the alluvial dust, before the great texts of the Torah and Veda, the epic poetry of Beowulf and Gita. Before writing had invented our future.

It was on a rainy Sunday that the pakora seller knocked on our door and told us that the last word uttered in Bo was ‘tikh’, a word he translated as: ‘feelings that span and change worlds’. After we had shared his savoury tray I looked up the word in my own Bo dictionary – a work in progress. Etymologically, ‘tikh’ was among the oldest unchanged words, a time machine stretching way back into the Pleistocene era. My rather inferior definition had it as: ‘the compelling happiness or sadness one takes between states of consciousness that change these states thereafter’. I thought it referred to waking and dreaming life. I marvelled that such a word existed.

At 70,000 years old (give or take) Bo was, perhaps, the missing Afro in Indo-European. And that last word breathed by this dying culture: ‘tikh’ – feelings that span and change worlds – how fitting.

While Denizen worked I walked. I ran. I discovered 45 new words for mangroves, another 17 for the reflections of water on leaves. The word for alcoholic drink, I found at a beach bar, had changed sometime in the 19th Century from horseshoe-bat-behind-your-eyes to death-will-call. People knew these things, but nobody could tell Denizen the purpose of Bo. She began to sense failure.

I cashed my life assurance, who wants to live forever? I called home, sold my car. Sold my stuff. I stopped paying rent on my university apartment. Denizen grew jittery. I wrote my last assignment, saved it on my laptop and FedExd it to my university office. Inside, on the screen I stuck a Post-it: ‘Thank you for the work, it was fun but I’d like to stop now please’. I made shelves in our adobe house. I started making shelves for our neighbours’ adobe houses. I planted vegetables. Two days after she left for home she called me from New York.

“I slept all the way,” she said.

“You were exhausted.” We listened to each other breathe. I knew she was fidgeting with her hair. My stomach tightened.

She said: “At the airport, I asked a pakora seller about the purpose.”

“Of Bo?”

“Yes, of Bo.” She was silent again. In the background I could hear sirens wailing.

“What did he say?” I caught myself whispering.

“Well, I know it’s a meaningless question now,” she said. “He laughed at me.”

“But did he say anything?” I said.

“He said tikh,” said Denizen.

“Tikh?”

“I miss you,” she said. “I’m coming back.”

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33 Responses to “Bo”

  • marc nash Says:

    This is so wonderfully super-subtle. There is so much crouched down just out of conscious range behind the words and ideas. Almost like all the shadows and sounds you can hear in the jungle, but which your primary sense, that of sight, lets you down on nailing.

    First there’s the rich metaphor of the last known-speaker of a language dying and that language dying with them. Then the world asks itself whether we should preserve it, keep it preserved in a persistent vegetative state on a respirator somehow… But how they frame that question – “What was the purpose of the Bo culture” – ugh, they chop down trees even as they count their rings…

    Then the masterful facets of the word ‘tikh’. I’m am put in mind of the very advanced quantum science that proclaims the observer distorts what he observes by the very act of observing it, of course a wisdom come to millennia ago by the ancients such as those of Bo.

    “Before writing had invented our future” – or possibly even strangled that future. The jury is still out on that one, but Socrates was against writing, afeared it would impact on rhetoric and the dialectical arts. Sound familiar e-books???

    And finally the misnomer that is ‘life assurance’. It provides not one scintilla of assurance, merely a financial underpinning of those you leave behind. It is the one wager you can make in life that you are guaranteed to win, though you can never collect your winnings.

    Did I mention I loved this tale?

    Thanks Simon.

    Marc

  • Cathy Olliffe Says:

    Hey Simon: your story took my breath away, left me slumped in front of the comp, staring blindly and drooling slightly. It was all so beautifully literary and I was gobbled up by your well-placed words that flowed rich with power… and then the end, the bittersweet romantic end with one word that spoke volumes… sigh…
    I guess that’s why they pay you the big bucks, eh?

  • Anne Tyler Lord Says:

    Geez, this was another brilliant story. I am totally convinced that you just wrote a factual essay. I was totally intrigued by the dead language and trying to preserve it, figure it out. “tikh” and it’s meaning was very profound.

    I am in awe of your writing style and amazing details!! If I was better with words, I could tell you more about what I like – but you will just have to feel my awe, for now.

  • Laurita Says:

    Oh, to have the ability to create things such as this. Brilliant in its subtlety, every detail is a treasure – even simple phrases like “tumbledown joy”. Beautiful.

  • Marisa Birns Says:

    I join Anne in the expression of awe for your writing skills.

    Details, storyline, dialogue, ideas. All combine to make this story a pleasure to read and ponder.

  • Laura Eno Says:

    Beautiful! So full of a simplistic “being” to become a part of. It reads like out of someone’s journal who’s gone native.

  • CJ Says:

    You NEVER cease to amaze and awe me. Collect your stories into a book so I can buy them.

  • GP Ching Says:

    I’m not sure where your ideas come from but keep it a secret. No one writes like you and your topics are inspired. Great stuff here. Your prose is so strong that I forget that you can also write dialogue. Don’t be afraid to use it through out. You are just as good at it and the ending of this piece is a prime example.

  • Deanna Schrayer Says:

    *Applause!* Add me to the list of those in awe. Simon, your prose is simply astounding. I had to read this twice, just to feel it through to my soul.
    Bravo!

  • kim Batchelor Says:

    So beautifully written, a story about language itself. I wondered at the end if there could be something that changed the entire world in the Bo language. Instead it implied that the change was in the main characters.

  • Cynthia Schuerr Says:

    May I just say that I am in awe and I love the way you write?

    Warm Wishes,
    Cynthia

  • David Masters Says:

    Gorgeous writing that intrigues from the outset. Other languages always seem more interesting than our own… or maybe English suffers from poverty of meaning?

  • John Wiswell Says:

    I love that flower, flame and star share linguistic roots. That’s such a beautiful way to start a story.

  • Tony Noland Says:

    This was stunning, Simon. It was like watching someone go from reading a book about plants to seeing a garden firsthand… and then lying down in the grass. Amazing work.

  • Lou Says:

    For some things there are no words, and you just used words to prove it.

    Amazing. You’re an inspiration.

  • Estrella Azul Says:

    Writing about a dead language an interesting flash like this is a great achievement, very nicely done!

  • ganymeder Says:

    I love the subtlety of this. Beautiful.

  • Jane & Nathan Says:

    Your writing draws me to read on -I liken it to stepping stones,leading me across unknown waters. I know the words will take my weight, yet I’m often taken aback by the depth of the content. Love it

  • Cascade Lily Says:

    Simon, another masterpiece. You simply must start publishing these. You should submit your best 10 pieces as a chapbook. Seriously, they are worthy.

  • Melissa Says:

    You had me from sentence one, after which I “curled my tongue and then my brain around these gentle, sensible contours.” I stopped and did that. This is just wonderful, Simon. As I read, I grew sadder and sadder to lose such a beautiful language with such beautiful concepts. (And it’s happening NOW all over the earth.) Of course, some of the beauty of the Bo language lives with me now. I’m amazed at your creation. 🙂

  • Melissa Says:

    You had me from sentence one, after which I “curled my tongue and then my brain around these gentle, sensible contours.” I stopped and did that. This is just wonderful, Simon. As I read, I grew sadder and sadder to lose a culture with such a beautiful language and beautiful concepts. (And it’s happening for real NOW all over the earth.) Of course, some of the beauty of the Bo language lives with me now. I’m amazed at your creation. 🙂

  • Melissa Says:

    Oops–sorry about the double post. It wouldn’t post and I stopped it and tried to post again. (Obviously it posted the first time though.)

  • Josie Says:

    Dear Skycycler, I haven’t got the words to say how beautiful I found this, though I suspect that Bo contains the ones I don’t know. Thank you. Made me cry – I so love your writing 🙂 x

  • Mel Morton Says:

    After I saw the tweets about your fantastic story, I had to come and have a read. First off, I loved it because we had and lost the most beautiful black cat called Bo.

    Secondly, as everyone else has says this is beautifully written and so touching. It flows wonderfully, and is so light and draws you in. I also agree with the earlier comment about the use of dialogue, which really makes it sing.

    A real pleasure to read…

  • Jared Branch Says:

    Ah, how sweet. What a beautiful story.

  • Virginia.Moffatt Says:

    Very beautifully written and paced. I loved the way you used the words of the dead language and forced your characters to understand the meaning of a culture by living it. Great stuff…

  • Christian Bell Says:

    Beautifully told story that is rich with images and descriptions and is nicely complex. You do an excellent job using the ancient language and culture as a device to tell this story. Well done!

  • Mark Kerstetter Says:

    ‘Beautiful’ is the first word that comes to mind, also ‘thoughtful’- something Borgesian about the way the word “tikh” seems to lie as a template of consciousness, connecting present moments of heightened awareness to such moments in the past, stretching far back. Beautiful work.

  • danpowell Says:

    A lovely, slow build leading to the reveal of the phone conversation. Thus is the first I have read of your work. With prose of this quality I will be reading more.

  • Jessica Rosen Says:

    What an utter delight. My own fascination with word origins was enraptured by your world. Gorgeous, Simon. So subtle, so beautiful. I sighed and smiled at the last lines.

    Take care,
    Jess

  • ~Tim Says:

    Oh, I like this a lot. Intriguing idea. Well done.

  • mazzz_in_Leeds Says:

    How did I miss this last week? I mean, I know I was busy and all, but blimey!

    Amazing piece, Simon – I want to move to my own tumbledown joy and savour the beauty of a dead (but oh so alive) language

  • J. M. Strother Says:

    I loved this piece, Simon, from the very first sentence straight on through. Methinks the Bo have not died out after all.

    ~jon

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