Butterfly Metamorphosis

Yesterday, when J. was watering the flowers in the patio he discovered a swallowtail butterfly on the dwarf lemon tree. It had floppy wings. J. had never seen a butterfly with floppy wings, so he peered at it rather intently. He realized that it had just emerged from its chrysalis and was waiting for its wings to stiffen before it could fly. Here is a picture:


The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a chrysalis and subsequently into a butterfly is among the most intriguing mysteries of life on Earth. What could be more amazing? However, J. had never considered the packing, folding, and unfolding involved, like a parachute opening in the air. A swallowtail is a big butterfly, perhaps the biggest in this locale. The chrysalis from which it emerged was about an inch long from point to point and perhaps 3/8’s of an inch thick. No wonder that the comparatively huge wings were floppy. They had been origami folded into a very tight space. And now they were majestic indeed!

It Flies Away

J. left the new butterfly to mature a bit and went back to writing. When he returned to look at it an hour later, it was startled and flew away, perhaps before it was quite ready. It landed in a hedge. When J. looked for it later, it was gone. The following day, J. saw a swallowtail fly happily by, perhaps the same one.

This caused J. to think about butterflies as a source of similes and metaphors. Their lives and their beauty are fleeting. Their flight appears joyful, random, and carefree. They remind us that life is short, beauty is ephemeral, and we should live well while we can.


In the case of the butterfly, something green and ugly transforms into something dramatically beautiful. This made J. think about a book he had once taught, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. J. thought that the butterfly scenario was quite the opposite of what generally happens in Ovid. In Ovid, nearly every story involves a beautiful maiden becoming a tree, a cow, a bird, or even an echo, often due to a lustful encounter with Jupiter.

But perhaps even more powerful for the metaphorical imagination is the metamorphosis from a crawling thing to a flying thing. Flying transcends the gravity that pulls us down. Flying stands for freedom. We all want to fly in some form or another. And we all imagine a future in which our present circumstances are thrown off and we can fly toward our true potential.

Flight Will Come

J. thought back to the swallowtail, waiting until its wings were stiff enough to fly. When big changes happen, we are not always ready to fly. Our wings are not stiff enough. But hopefully, flight will come.


The Battle of the Paper Wasps


One morning when J. was writing outside on his device, it was brought to his attention that a society of paper wasps was building a nest above the front door of the condo. Sure enough, the wasps had constructed a three-inch tall nest, with open hexagons ready for new larvae. It was suggested that J. should do something about this. J. agreed that a nest of wasps above the front door was not a desirable outcome. As yet, the nest was small. Best to deal with it immediately. J. grabbed a handy broom.

J. had never attacked a wasp nest before, so he did not know quite what to expect. However, there appeared to be only three workers at the moment, and the nest was small. He took a whack at it with the broom. The paper nest fell into a pot of tomatoes. But at the same time, an angry host of perhaps 10 wasps emerged, heading in J.’s direction. J. stepped back, a bit panicked, and stumbled, falling backwards onto a pot from which sprouted a jade plant. The pot shattered, as did J.’s dignity. The wasps, however, were confused and did not attack.

The Wasps Return

J. thought that the job had been done, albeit somewhat clumsily, and returned to writing. However, when when he returned to the scene of the attack, he found that the wasps had started over and were building, little by little, a new structure. This time, he turned on the water and squirted them with the garden hose, trying to wash away whatever nest material had been deposited. This went on for three days. Sometimes the wasps tried moving to a new location about a foot away, but they kept at it. Clearly paper wasps are persistent. One might even say single-minded.

If J. had thought about it, he would have taken pictures of the various stages of the fight. As it is, he can only provide the blank eaves as they existed before and after the battle. The final encounter was decisive and ended in unintentional tragedy for this group of wasps.

Wasps and Bees

J. has nothing against wasps, though they do sting. He was merely trying to discourage them from building a nest in an inconvenient place that would cause further conflict. J. also has nothing against bees. Bees used to invade a previous house once a year, swarming into the oven vent on the roof, with some managing to enter the kitchen through a gap in the filter. Those who entered the house gathered at the kitchen window trying to get out. J. removed the screen and opened the window so they could escape. He also burned incense and turned on the fan in the oven hood to discourage them from making a hive in the vent. One year, he even fed the kitchen bees sugar water because they seemed too tired to fly away. They accepted it gratefully.

J. once rode his bike through a swarm of bees. He turned a corner and there they were. There was no time to stop so J. froze and coasted through. He fully expected to get stung several times. Bees bounced off his helmet, his glasses, and his chest. However, the bees did not interpret passing through as a hostile action. They did not sting. J. thought that this might have been because he passed through the tail end of the swarm, nowhere near the queen. These bees were focused on following the queen.

Spiders, Good and Evil

So, J. is sorry about the outcome of the battle with the wasps. This is what happened. The wasps, after pausing for a day, had resumed their nest building in the original place. J. used the hose again. This time, however, the wasps fell into a spider web stretched between the wall and a pot of basil, the tangled, crazy web of a black widow.

J. has read that spiders offload some cognition into their webs, just as humans offload thinking into written texts. If this is true, black widows must have mad minds. Their webs are strong, sticky, and randomly asymmetrical. Compare this sort of web to that produced by orb weavers, the spiders that make the circular, symmetrical, and beautifully flat webs that one sometimes sees in the morning, shining with dew.

Orb weavers were common at J.’s previous house. One morning, he came out in the back yard to read and moved a chair that happened to have an anchor line from an orb weaver’s web attached to it. The anchor line broke and the wind folded the web in half. J. was sorry. It has been a beautiful thing. He sat down to read. A few minutes later, the spider, a very large one, came down on a single strand of web and positioned itself right at J’s eye level. The spider and J. looked at each other for a long moment. Then the spider climbed back up to the ruined web. Something had been communicated.

The Outcome

So J. really has nothing against spiders either. But J. does not like black widows. Black widows give J. the creeps. J. felt really bad that he had delivered several innocent wasps to the fangs of such a spider. The pattern of the web made the nature of its owner clear, but as the wasps struggled to free themselves, the spider, red hourglass clearly visible, made an appearance, clearly much excited by the new bounty in her trap. J. felt responsible for this unwanted outcome, but could think of no good remedy. The wasps, magnificent creatures really, could not free themselves. The spider danced around one of them, looking for a way to get in a paralyzing bite. It was awful.

J. grabbed the broom and killed them all.

Human intervention in the natural world often produces cascading unintended consequences. But the wasps have finally given up the idea of building a nest above J.s front door. There is that.

Squirrel Nutterkin

Tree and Lamppost

The ebb and flow of life in J.’s condo complex is governed by the daily habits of dogs, mostly small ones. Every morning and evening, and sometimes in-between, dogs take their owners for long, ambling walks. The owners display various levels of engagement. Often they are on their phones.

J. does not have a dog. The neighbor two doors down has a young black lab, very enthusiastic about walks, other dogs, life in general. On this particular morning, Black Lab had his walk with a professional dog walker who left him tied up in the condo’s tiny patio. Black Lab was unaccustomed to being tied, or being alone, so he began to whimper and make short, high-pitched, mournful barks. His happy universe had gone wrong.

Squirrel Nutterkin

Squirrel Nutterkin lives in the tree in front of Black Lab’s condo. Relations between squirrels and dogs are always somewhat adversarial, and Nutterkin is a red fox squirrel, a notoriously feisty breed. Witnessing Black Lab’s unhappiness, Nutterkin began chittering taunts and invective at him, jerking his tail back and forth and up and down for emphasis. Fox squirrels are very proud of their tails and if linguists ever decode fox squirrel language, tail gestures will certainly be an integral part. Such a linguist will also likely be surprised at how much of fox squirrel vocabulary consists of curse words.


To tell the truth, Nutterkin’s tail is a bit thin on fur. Perhaps this explains his ill-natured outburst. J.’s readers always question his tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior, but having lived with a rather intelligent rabbit for several years (unfortunately now deceased) as well as several cats, J. has found that animals also project their own views when interpreting human behavior. For example, when J. scratched the rabbit’s ears for a while, the rabbit thought that he was then obligated to reciprocate the grooming behavior, so he hopped up on the back of the couch to groom J.’s hair.

Nutterkin did not let up on his invective until the door opened and Black Lab was rescued. In English, the stream of invective went something like this:

You big dumb dog! Why did you let the human tie you up? Ha ha ha ha! You can’t climb a tree, you enormous nincompoop! You can’t even jump over the fence! Ha ha ha ha! Your tail goes wag-wag, wag-wag! How stupid!

This went on for about ten minutes. Some of the squirrel curses cannot be adequately rendered in English.

Neighborly Relations

J. gets along fairly well with Nutterkin. Nutterkin sometimes prances along the fence and asks J. for part of his snack. J. always says “no.” Nutterkin seems to understand and accept “no.” When J. is not looking, Nutterkin sometimes steals strawberries from the strawberry pot. Once, Nutterkin ate most of the leaves of a succulent that came in a florist’s gift arrangement, daring J. to stop him. Nutterkin does not usually curse at J., who has been cursed by other squirrels, but not by Nutterkin.

However, if another squirrel enters Nutterkin’s domain, which consists of about four tiny patios and five trees, a cursing war erupts that can go on for hours. Nutterkin’s cursing proficiency is truly impressive. J. is fortunate to have avoided being the object of it.

Tuesday at the Beach


J. went to the beach yesterday. This is an account of it.


J. brought his folding bike for extra mobility. The morning was cloudy, cool, and quiet. The boardwalk was populated with the usual denizens—regulars, vacationers in the rented beachfront houses, and random beach goers with dogs, small children, and large coolers.

J. biked to a location some distance from the parking lots and turned onto one of the concrete paths that extend onto the beach for about 100 yards and stop. These have warnings about exiting bikes at their beginnings, so they are there for bikes. They go about 1/4 of the way to the water. It would be folly to extend them all the way to the ocean, but why have them at all? J. dismounted from the bike and rolled it toward the water. He came to a sand berm and had to go around. Indeed, a wheeled bulldozer machine was creating more of them, expending fuel and time forming the sand into new shapes that would certainly revert to their natural tendency in a short time. It was unclear what purpose was served.

The Sand Fort

J. stopped in front of a sand fort that had been constructed the previous day. Twenty yards to the left was a small construction of sticks with a square of red cloth attached. J. did not investigate this ritual construct. It seemed best to leave it alone.

When arriving at the shore, one of the main considerations is whether the tide is coming in, or going out. There are almanacs and charts and tables that will inform this question, but J. did not consult these. He watched as the edge of the surf kept licking at the outer boundary of the fort, which defended some interior structures from dissolution. The contest between the fort and the sea was an unequal one, but as the fort had survived the night, it would seem to be placed at the upper limit of current tides. J. stood his bike up with the kickstand resting on a discarded plastic lid found within the sand fort, laid out his towel, and assembled his hiking chair. It was time for contemplation.

At this moment a wave managed to breach the top of the sand fort. Perhaps the decision to locate was premature. But as it turned out, that was the furthest extent of the tide for that morning.

Sea Birds

The main actors in this scene were sea birds. To the right a large gathering of gulls consulted with one another. Other gulls flew back and forth along the shore, making a “churreck-churreck-churreck” call. The sea was largely calm, with breakers crashing right at the shoreline, conditions impossible for surfing of any kind, but farther out, gulls and pelicans swam together in mixed groups, fishing and fighting over any fish that were caught. If fish were caught, other birds flew over to join the group and try their luck.

J. also saw dolphins arching out of the water. This made him wonder, “Do dolphins eat birds?” The floating birds did not seem worried.

While all of this activity was ongoing, a single gull perched on the ramparts of the sand fort to stare at J. Humans always have food, it seemed to be thinking. Perhaps staring at a single human, like playing the same slot machine for a long time, will eventually result in a jackpot.

The Fort in More Detail

Behind the forward wall of the fort the mystery builders had made two round mounds, concave in the center, like wells, or perhaps that might serve as bases for planned towers. These were the structures the wall protected. The leftmost one contained a broken styrofoam cup. The plastic coffee cup lid that now helped the kickstand hold up the bicycle had also been collected from this receptacle. The one on the right, but nearer the center, contained a yellow vegetable, perhaps an artichoke heart. J. did not investigate the vegetable.

Earlier, a crow had picked up the cup, but rejected it as uninteresting. Crows at the beach are out of their domain. They enjoy themselves, but lack their normal swagger. They can’t fish or swim, so they walk about poking at things and enjoying the occasional tidbit of exotic seafood. They are clearly on a family outing.

Mr. Gull Takes the Cup

Mr. Gull by this time had tired of staring at J. and decided more action was in order. He hopped down from the rampart, picked up the cup and began walking around with it. He repeatedly tried to swallow it, but it was too big. He put it down and pecked at it. At one point he had it stuck on his beak. J. was amused, but when Mr. Gull got the cup off his beak, he began punching it into smaller pieces which he ate. At this point, J. intervened. He rose from his chair, advanced on Mr. Gull, and confiscated the cup. Mr. Gull was unsurprised that J. wanted this very valuable cup.

Gulls often think that plastic is food. Crows will eat almost anything but are smart enough to know that plastic is not good for them.

The Inevitable Contemplation of Sand

J. was tired of sitting in the chair so he folded it back up and put it in the backpack. He sat down cross-legged on the towel and began studying the ring-a-ding causality of the sand in front of him. Great slow forces had combined to smash rocks into particles and bring them to this spot. Bits and pieces of creatures were mixed in, a potpourri of quartz, salt, and organic matter. Was this sand entirely different from sand on Mars? Someday, perhaps we will know.

The Ladies

While J. was looking at sand, two ladies came walking down the beach, the only people on this otherwise deserted stretch of shoreline except for some lifeguards who came buzzing by in a pickup truck. The ladies stopped right in front of J. and began having a long conversation. Why, J. thought, did they stop here? They can have the whole beach to themselves. Eventually, they moved on, only to return 30 minutes later and stop in the same spot.

In the interval, a long snake-like line of pelicans, about thirty birds, swept by, a conga line of pelicans, skimming just above the water, sometimes flapping, sometimes gliding. An unexpected and beautiful sight. And then a foot-long fish jumped out of the water, just in front of the sand fort.

An Apple, A Nap, and a Philosophical Question

J. got an apple out of the backpack, a big green and red Fuji. Apples taste better at the beach than at home.

After a short nap, it was time to head home. Mr. Gull will live another day, but tomorrow, he will probably find more plastic to eat. Is it right to intervene in small ways? J. doesn’t know.

Stil’s Vision

As you know, Stil doesn’t speak. He understands language a little, but he forgets the words quickly. He thinks in visions and images. When he reaches out with his mind, he experiences the universe in a way that no human can. His vision is not colored by words. Words are convenient and powerful among humans. Spek is a master of them. But words name things, and in naming them, change the way they appear. Stil can see the Real because he has no words.

So when Stil was standing in the water, reaching out to the sky while Big Head’s person-like creatures were trampling Gen’s grove, what did he see? How did he stop the trampling? When Hawk flew from Stil’s shoulder to Spek’s, what message did she convey without words? This is the story of Stil’s vision, the battle of Gen’s grove from a different perspective.

Stil knew from the image Hawk saw that the Big Head army was traveling to Gen’s grove and that the nature of Big Head and the nature of Gen would clash. Generally, the universe doesn’t care about clashes between life forms or their beliefs. The universe just is. It turns according to its own laws. It has no love or mercy, nor hate either. A beautiful day or a dreadful disaster for humans is just the universe turning. It doesn’t care.

Stil is more like the universe than human. He shouldn’t care what happens, but he does. He has friends. He is an in-between creature, human and not.

Stil stepped into the water and opened his arms. He reached out with his mind and stopped the person-creatures from moving. That was easy for him because the person-creatures were just parts of Big Head, not fully developed beings with independent wills. Then he reached out to the local universe to see what could be done. Hawk settled on his shoulder.

The sun blazed at the center of the planetary system. The world moved around it, keeping one face toward it and one face away. Farther out, other planets turned. Gravitational bonds flexed and pulled, plucking vibrations, humming and singing, a celestial music that Stil could feel. Stil’s consciousness pulled far away from the grove and the battle. He could see that his world was a new world, experimenting with lifeforms, largely empty, but full of potential while the whole system turned in a vast circular dance. But there was a dancer out of step. He saw a big rock on a path that was going to hit the world, not immediately, and not for a while, but a big change was coming. Stil shouldn’t care, but somehow he felt fear and sadness. He had friends. And he rather liked his world.

What could he do? Change the path of the rock? That would require tremendous energy and skill. Move the world? Even harder. Protect his friends? What would naturally happen is that the world, new as it was, would start over with its life experiments. Stil would have to think.

Stil noticed Fals approaching with the green flags. Stil did not like Fals because Fals deflected thought even further away from the real universe with representations, words, false beliefs, and distorted images. How could a flag change reality? However, Fals seemed to have solved the conflict, at least for the moment, while Stil’s attention was elsewhere. Fals had a kind of power among creatures, at least language-using ones.

Stil sent Hawk to Spek. He sent something of the vision of the universe, but he left out the path of the big rock. His human side did not want Spek and Gen to be afraid. He did not quite understand this feeling. In the scope of the universe, Spek and Gen were quite insignificant. But perhaps the thoughts and feelings of local lifeforms were important in some way. He would find out.

The Battle of Gen’s Grove

As Spek and Stil walked away from the place where they met Big Head, Laughing Dog was bounding along with them and Hawk was circling above. Hawk, from her high vantage point, saw a small army of person-like creatures rise up out of the sand where Big Head had dissolved. They had red flags and banners. They went off in the direction of Gen’s grove.

Hawk flew down and landed on Stil’s shoulder. Stil, who usually followed Spek, immediately changed direction and began walking back toward Gen’s grove. Spek was puzzled for a moment, but followed. He sensed there was trouble at Gen’s grove. He began to realize that maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned Gen to Big Head. Hawk flew off again. Laughing Dog ran ahead of them.

The sand stretched on ahead of them. They had walked a long way since they had met Gen. Spek hoped nothing bad would happen to Gen. He wanted to hurry, but Stil always walked the same pace.

Laughing Dog disappeared in the distance. Laughing Dog was hurrying.

After what seemed like a long while, they saw green on the horizon. After more walking, they heard Laughing Dog barking. Soon they came to the edge of the grove. Gen had put up signs that said “No Trespassing.” Spek guessed that Fals had taught her to write and make signs. But the grove was not peaceful like before. Person-like creatures with Big Head’s face, but with small bodies were running all over, trampling the bushes, muddying the water, chasing the frogs, and making lots of noise. They had red flags with Big Head’s face. Gen stood next to the water screaming at them, while Laughing Dog barked and tried to bite them. Stil walked into the center of the pool, turned his face to the sky, and stretched out his arms.

The person-creatures froze. Everything was still.

Spek walked up to the nearest person-creature, who was holding a red Big Head flag on a stick. The flag fluttered in the wind. “Why are you trampling Gen’s grove?” he asked. “The signs say, no trespassing.”

“She is a friend to you. Your other friend destroyed Big Head. We are the Big Head army,” said the person-creature, though it had trouble moving its mouth. “Also, we cannot read the sign, so it meant nothing to us. It had no power.”

“Stil has power.” said Spek, who was beginning to realize that his friend had a lot of power. “He can destroy you too.”

The person-creature said nothing to that. Everything was still except for frogs hopping. There seemed to be a lot of frogs.

Gen walked over to Spek. “This is all your fault,” she said. Spek groaned inside. It was partly his fault. He should not have mentioned Gen to Big Head. But how could he have known what would happen?

Hawk was circling. She saw something approaching. She landed on Stil’s shoulder, but he did not change.

“I can write,” Gen said. “But writing is no good against ignoramuses like these. They can’t read. And you can read, but here you are in my grove again, with more creatures.”

“I am sorry Gen,” said Spek. “I did not know this would happen. Perhaps Stil will destroy these creatures and leave you in peace.” But Stil did nothing.

Laughing Dog barked and they saw that someone else had arrived. It was Fals, carrying a bundle of sticks. “I think I have a solution,” said Fals. It unrolled a flag from one of the sticks, a green flag with a picture of Gen. Fals went up to the person-creature that Spek had spoken to and said, “I will trade this green flag for your red one. Green is a less angry color. Then you will not be destroyed.”

“Do you speak for Stil?” asked the person-creature. “Can you guarantee that Stil will accept this bargain?”

“No,” said Fals. “Stil and I have nothing to do with one another. But I think this will save you.”

After some hesitation, the person-creature accepted the green flag. All but one of the other flag carriers did too.  One of them just furled its red flag and hid it.

Fals said, “Now you are not the Big Head army. You are Gen’s army. You have a new leader. You must do as she says.”

The hawk flew from Stil’s shoulder to Spek’s. Spek suddenly knew what to say. He said, “Now you are Gen’s army, but you are not needed now. Sleep in the sand until she calls for you. When she needs you, she will say this poem aloud to command you.”

“Flitter flatter birds flutter. Flowers wave their petals like waving bird wings. Sticks are falling from the trees. As the leaves paddle and come down. Arise now and defend Gen and the Grove.”

The Gen army bowed and retreated to the edge of the grove, where they melted into the sand.

Spek turned to Gen and said, “Now you have an army to command and defend you. You don’t need us any more, so we will leave.”

“You caused the problem that you solved, so I am not too grateful,” said Gen. “But you did help, and that is something.”

Stil folded his arms and began to walk out of the grove. Hawk began circling. Spek began following Stil and called to Laughing Dog. Laughing Dog barked once, but did not move. Laughing Dog wanted to stay with Gen. Spek looked to Gen and she smiled. Laughing Dog stayed.


Thanks to Freyja for the summoning poem.

Spek and Stil Meet Big Head

As Spek and Stil wandered the world, they heard a big commotion. Dust was rising and something was going Bam! Bam! Bam! Someone with a big voice was shouting “Me! Me! Me!.” They walked toward the noise and came upon a huge head with eyes, nose and ears but no body. The head was bouncing up and down and shouting. They stopped and watched for a while. Finally, Spek asked “Big Head! What are you doing?”

Big Head didn’t respond, so Spek shouted louder. “Big Head! What are you doing?” Big Head turned to face them and smiled. “Followers! You have come just in time! Bow down to Big Head and recognize your master!”

Spek and Stil did not bow down. Spek asked, “Why are you bouncing up and down? You are making a big noise and raising lots of dust!”

Big Head looked very angry. “Bow down or I will smash you flat!” he shouted.

Spek asked “Why should we bow down to you? We are just wanderers passing through.”

“I am the biggest head in the world! I have the loudest voice of all! I can shake the world! I am the greatest and the smartest! Bow to me or I will smash you flat!”

“But you have no legs. You have no arms. You have no body. You cannot move. You just bounce up and down.”

“You are little. You can walk and talk, but you just wander without direction, which is like going nowhere. Your friend can’t even talk, but I have many words. I am bigger, smarter, louder, and superior! Bow down to me or I will smash you flat!”

“How can you smash us if you can’t move?”

Big Head howled in anger. “I can move!” he shouted. He strained his face and his ears. Each bounce moved him a little bit toward them.

“Bring me flags with Big Head on them! Bring me more followers! Bring me soldiers with shields and swords! Write impressive songs about me! I want to conquer the world and make everyone bow down!”

“Sorry Big Head. Most of the world is empty, at least what we have seen of it. We don’t have any flags or soldiers. And you don’t seem very nice. I don’t think anyone would want to follow you.”

Big Head howled again. “You are prejudiced against people with no bodies. You are a bad person. But if you help me, I will smash your enemies flat!”

“We don’t have any enemies. Gen doesn’t like me, but I like her, so we are not enemies. Stil doesn’t like Fals, but Fals is not an enemy. It is just Fals, according to his nature.”

“Fals! It said it would help! It is the one who gave me the idea about the flags and the songs. But it never came back with them.”

“Fals is unreliable,” said Spek. “It is its nature.”

Straining forward, Big Head was getting near. Spek stepped back, but Stil held his ground. Spek was worried about Stil. “Stil!” he cried. “Run!” But Stil stood his ground.

Just as Big Head came smashing down on Stil, Stil raised his fist in the air. Big Head came down right on the fist. “Smashed you!” he shouted, looking triumphant. “Your friend is smashed!” he said to Spek. “Now I’ll smash you!” When he bounced up, Stil was gone.

But suddenly, Big Head looked queasy. His smile disappeared. He stopped bouncing for the first time since they had started this conversation. Then he began to melt. His substance flowed into a pool and was absorbed by the sand. Where Big Head had been, Stil stood with two creatures; one with four legs sat by his side and another one with wings and feathers clung to his shoulder.

Spek was surprised and happy. I will call you “Dog” he said to the the creature with four legs. And because you look like you are smiling, I will call you “Laughing Dog.” Turning to the winged creature he said, “You are Hawk.”

Laughing Dog ran in circles around the others. Then Hawk took off and flew in lazy circles in the sky. “You are an interesting friend,” Spek said to Stil. Stil smiled, which was unusual for him. Perhaps he was becoming a little bit human. But he said nothing.

Spek and Stil Meet Gen

Spek and Stil wandered the world. They walked on sand, sometimes soft sand that was tiresome to walk through, and sometimes salty, crusty sand that went crunch, crunch, crunch as they walked.

Spek was looking for someone to talk to. His friend Stil listened to words and understood a little, but he was not a good conversation partner because he never spoke. Stil was looking for objects to ponder. He had experienced the sun, the sky, a hill, some stones, and lots of sand. Was there more to the world?

After walking a long while Spek saw a patch of green on the horizon, some rare color in an almost colorless universe. “Do you see it, Stil?” asked Spek, pointing with his finger. Stil stopped his reflective pondering and gazed at the green spot. His face, unexpressive for the most part, showed a flicker of interest.

The Grove

The friends soon came to a grove of willows with drooping branches and leaves. The wind rustled through trees, making sounds like laughter and conversation. A pool of water glittered at the center of the grove. Stil walked directly into the shallows and stood with his arms outstretched, feet in the water and his face turned to the sky, pondering the in-between, wet and dry, water and air, earth and sky, in a pose of blissful contemplation. Spek knew that Stil would stay like that for a long while. With a sigh, he sat down to wait.

Screened by trees, Gen observed the intruders.

Spek began to write in the sand. He wrote about difference, water and land, Spek and Stil, talk and silence. He wrote about the real, the imagined, and the represented. He wrote about the in-between. As he finished his sentence, he noticed a footprint in the sand. It was smaller than his foot. It was smaller than Stil’s. Then he saw a shadow fall over him. He turned and saw Gen. “Who are you?” he asked.

Gen scowled at him. “I am Gen,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

The Lady of the Grove

Spek thought that Gen was the most beautiful person he had ever seen, though it was true he had not seen many. And she knew words! She could talk! Spek introduced himself and started explaining writing, the importance of words, the names of the stones, the cactus fruit, everything he was thinking about. His heart was singing too much to register her displeasure. And he recited a poem about Gen:

Black hair and brown skin
Water and trees in green eyes
Lady of the grove

Gen scowled again. “No, I meant why did you enter without permission? You are trespassers.” Spek pleaded ignorance. He said, “We are recently created. We did not know to ask.” Spek felt strong feelings he had never felt. He wanted to embrace Gen, but her eyes said no.

“What are these marks you have made in the sand?”

“They are copies of words I thought in my head.” Spek began reading them aloud. Gen said, “No, no. Don’t say the spell. It is bad enough that you wrote it! What is your friend doing in the water?”

“I am not sure because he doesn’t speak, but I think from his body language that he is thinking about being wet and dry at the same time. He is thinking about water and air and in-between. For him, all the universe is one, but there are wrinkles, divisions and differences that interest him.”

“Can you make him stop?”

“I don’t think so. He will stop when he is ready.”

A New Creature

A small green creature hopped out of the water. Gen was startled. “What is that?” she cried.

Spek looked carefully. “It is a new creature. Stil made it, I think. I did not know he could do that. It lives in water and on land. I will call it Frog, an in-between creature. It will be happy here. You will no longer be alone.”

“I was quite happy being alone with my trees. Now you come into my home, put your feet in my water, talk about everything under the sky, make creatures, and write on my sand. Go away and take your creatures with you!”

“The creature cannot go. It was made to live here. It will take care of itself. But we will go, since we are unwelcome. I will leave now. Stil will leave when he is ready.”

Out in the water, Stil lowered his arms.

Fals Brings Writing Materials

Spek erased his writing. He turned to say goodbye, but was surprised to see that yet another person had arrived. It was Fals, master of copies, representations, and lies. It was Fals who taught Spek to write. Spek introduced Fals to Gen.

“Ah, so you have made another friend,” said Fals, apparently jealous. Fals changed its shape, making itself look exactly like Gen. “Am I as beautiful?” it asked.

“You are beautiful, but you are a copy without Gen’s soul. You are not the same,” said Spek.

Fals was displeased. “My lady,” Fals said, “I have brought paper and ink for Spek, who has learned to write. I meant to give it to him, but he is ungrateful and impolite. I will use it myself.” Fals went to the water’s edge, and using the surface as a mirror, began to paint its face. It drew black shadows around its eyes and colored its lips red. “Now am I more beautiful?” it asked.

Gen Learns to Draw

Before Spek could answer, Gen responded. She asked, “Your ink is amazing. Do you have more colors than black and red? Do you have green? Could I use your ink and paper to draw pictures?”

Fals was pleased. “Yes, my lady. Pictures and writing, ink and paper are good for both.” Fals unrolled the paper and began teaching Gen to draw.

Stil began walking out of the water, covering his eyes to avoid looking at Fals. Spek met him and said, “Let’s go. We are not welcome here.”

Spek and Stil wandered on, across the endless sand.  Spek was thinking about Gen.  Stil was thinking about everything.


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Spek and Fals Invent Writing

Spek wandered the world. It was a dry, quiet part of the world. Spek was sad because there was no one to talk to. Speaking words was what he did. He loved arranging words, mouthing them, vocalizing them, pronouncing them. He loved naming things, and speaking about them, telling stories. He loved shouting in a loud voice and constructing arguments. He loved the sounds of words and putting them together in rhyming, chiming patterns. He loved the rhythms of words in lines and sentences. He was an orator and a poet. But he was alone. He saw nothing but sand and sky. No one to talk to.

Speaking with Stones

After a while, Spek came to some stones on the sand. Some were round and smooth, perfect for sitting. Some were cracked and jagged. Some were larger than Spek, but some were smaller than his hand. Spek introduced himself and began talking. He commented on their different sizes and shapes. He remarked upon their beauty and dignity. As he touched each stone, he gave them names, carefully chosen and enunciated. “I will call you Gran,” he said. “I will call you Bas,” he said. “How do you like your names?” he asked. But the stones were not listening. Their thoughts were long and slow. Spek’s words were momentary vibrations, too quick for stones to catch. Spek listened carefully, but he heard no response. He was discouraged. He tried to think of a different topic, or a word game he could play with the stones, but the stones were definitely not listening. He decided to move on.

Speaking with Cactus Plants

After more walking, Spek came to some cactus plants. They were green and covered with spines. They grew in different shapes, and some of them looked like they had large, flat hands. Spek could tell that they lived at a faster pace than stones. He introduced himself and began to give a speech on the value of words. “Words,” he said, “can describe the world.” “I can even describe you cactus plants. You look like you are in a frozen dance. You wave your hands in the air. Your bodies take on magical positions. Your skin is prickly and dangerous. What do you think of that, cactus plants? I can paint a picture without paint or canvas. Without words, can you describe me? I can teach you words.” The cactus plants were not paying much attention. They were too busy trying to find some water with their roots and taking energy from the sun. After a long while, they thought together about what to do about the strange being who spoke to them. They decided to do nothing.

Spek waited a long while for a response, but the cactus plants did nothing. Then he noticed that the cactus plants had purple fruits. He felt hungry and asked if he could eat one. The cactus did not say yes, but it did not say no either. Spek grasped one of the fruits, taking care to avoid the spines. He broke it loose from the spiny green hand of one of the plants. The cactus plants were horrified! A dirty fruit stealer, a plant breaker! Spek ate the fruit. It was delicious. He thanked the cactus plant. “Well, at least he is polite,” thought the cactus. But it did not speak.

Speaking with the Silent One

Spek went on, looking for someone to talk to. He was feeling very lonely now. He came to a low hill. At the top of the hill, someone was sitting cross-legged on the ground. It was Stil, the silent one. Stil was thinking about how big and empty the world was. He had ears and a mouth, but he had never, ever spoken a word, or even thought one. Spek introduced himself and said, “I have been looking everywhere for someone to talk to. Will you talk with me?” Stil looked up, but said nothing. It took a while for him to leave his thoughts behind and recognize that someone was speaking to him. Actually, he had never met another person before. Spek was so happy, just because Stil looked at him. It was a response! He finally had someone to talk to. So he began to talk and talk and talk. He talked about words, about his travels, about the sky, the sun, the stones and the cactus plants. He described things. He told stories. He argued that words were important. Stil listened. At first, he didn’t understand. His thoughts had always been about spaces, about the sky and the sun, and his own body. He didn’t know words. But after a while, he began to understand a little. After a longer while, he understood even more. But it was hard for the words to have meaning. They slipped away. They didn’t attach to things. Stil became tired and confused. Finally, he put his hands over his ears. Spek didn’t notice at first because he was so caught up in his words, but when he noticed, he stopped talking.

Spek felt ashamed. He had talked too much. He hadn’t listened. Even though Stil did not speak, he should have given him space. He sat down next to Stil and was silent. A long time passed.

After a while, Spek noticed that Stil’s hands were no longer covering his ears. Spek asked quietly, “Would you like to see the stones?” Stil got up, ready to follow.

They walked together in silence for a long time. Spek had used up his words for now and he knew that Stil was tired of them. After a while, they came to the stones. Spek introduced Gran and Bas and all the other stones. Stil sat on Bas and began to think about stones. They were new thoughts for him. He had never seen stones before. The long walk and thinking about stones calmed his mind. He was in peace again.

Speaking with Fals

Spek was thinking too. He was thinking about how quickly the wind blew his words away. If he wanted to talk to stones, he needed more lasting words. He was still thinking about this when he saw a figure approaching. He got up and walked toward the figure. He didn’t want a stranger to disturb Stil’s stone thinking. As the figure approached, Spek said, “Hello, I am Spek.” The figure changed shape until it looked just like Spek, and said, “Hello, I am Spek.” Spek said, “You are confused, I am Spek. You are someone else.” The figure repeated what Spek said. Spek should have been excited because he was having a conversation, except that it did not feel like a conversation. The figure just repeated everything that Spek said. Spek stopped talking and sat on the ground. The figure did the same.

Spek thought for a long time. How could he break this pattern? Finally, he said, “I am not Spek. I am called Fals because I tell lies.” The figure repeated Spek’s words, shivered, and changed shape. Spek had forced it to speak the truth and broken the pattern. Now Fals began to talk. It said, “I am the master of copies, simulacra, illusions, tricks, and representations. I seem to be the truth, but I am a lie, or a defective copy of the truth. I am unreliable, but I am useful. You need my help.” Spek considered this. He asked, “How can you help me? I need nothing but conversation, and your conversation is repetitive and frustrating.” It answered, “You want your words to last. I can make long lasting copies.”

Spek did not trust Fals, but what it said was true. He wanted to speak to slower creatures. He wanted his words to last a long time. He wanted to speak to creatures who might not even exist at this moment. These were big wishes. “How can you do this?” Spek asked.

Fals Teaches the Alphabet

Fals began drawing shapes in the sand with its finger. “This shape represents a sound,” it said. “This one represents another.” “This one is Ah. This one is Kuh.” Fals made shapes for many sounds. Spek learned them and began spelling words. He was amazed. The words remained after they were written. He could read them over and over. But Spek’s happiness was brief. A little whirlwind came across the sand and blew away the words. Spek said to Fals, “Your words last only a little longer. It is no good.”

Fals said, “You just need more durable material. You can carve words on wood or rock. You can mix soot and water or oil and write on plant material. You can draw letters on wet clay. There are many ways.” Spek asked, “Will it last long enough for stones to read?” Fals said, “Stones read very slowly. It is best to carve your words on the stone.” Spek thought that might hurt the stone and make it angry, but he kept his words to himself.

Spek Writes a Message

Spek and Fals walked toward Stil and the stones. When Stil saw Fals, he covered his eyes. Spek saw that Stil was disturbed again. He told Fals, “We will meet again, but my friend needs peace. You should go now.” He watched as Fals walked away. Spek told Stil that Fals was gone. Stil uncovered his eyes and went back to thinking about the nature of stones. Spek knelt in front of Gran and wrote in the sand, “Hello Gran. I am Spek. Do you like your name?” He sat on the ground and waited for a response.


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