Short Story: “No Words”

A new medical procedure will remove anxiety and allow you to live perfectly in the moment. The only downside? You have to give up your ability to comprehend language.

Close up of calm young Caucasian woman hold hands on heart chest feel grateful and thankful. Happy millennial female show gratitude, love and care, pray or visualize. Religion, faith concept. © fizkes /

December 10, 2023 03:19 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: What would you be prepared to give up in exchange for perfect peace of mind?

My sister has always been incapable of shutting up. And now she wants a medical procedure to make it possible. She’s gathered us together. Me, our parents (always a risk having them in the same room) and her wife Cordelia. I think it’s Cordelia who’s behind this if I’m honest.

Mum and Dad haven’t heard of the procedure before so it’s much more of a shock to them. I know friends of friends who’ve had it done. But still. I mean Angelica drives me nuts at times but the idea of never being able to wind her up again, well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s very popular among followers of The Paleo Diet and is, in many ways, the next logical step. If we want to live like our wild ancestors, why stop at food? The idea, according to the sales literature, is to “rediscover our forgotten prehistoric freedoms, before we were trapped in the prison of thought.” Apparently, it’s a miracle cure for anxiety.

If I’ve understood it correctly, the supposedly harmless procedure would remove Angelica’s ability to understand language. She wouldn’t be able to speak or think or comprehend what anyone else is saying. Reading and writing would also be impossible.

“I’ll finally be able to live in the moment,” says Angelica, “I won’t be weighed down by the voice in my head.”

“You won’t be doing nothing,” says Mum. “You gonna be a pet.” Mum has a Polish accent. It’s not relevant to the story, but I just thought I’d point that out.

“I’m a pet now,” says Angelica, “I’m the plaything of these thoughts that continually throw me one way and the other. Do you know how many times I’ve rehearsed this conversation? For months I’ve been arguing with you about this in my head. Getting annoyed at things I’ve imagined you saying. What I’m saying to you now, I’ve said this almost word for word about a thousand times. I don’t want to live like this anymore. And now that there’s the possibility of turning it all off, I think… I know… I need to take it.”

“But how you gonna exist?” says Mum. “How you gonna survive?”

“I will feel my way through the world,” says Angelica. “The way humans used to. The way humans were always meant to. Sights, smells, sounds, everything will be more alive.

“Think about the moments when you’re at your happiest,” she says, “when you’re diving into the water clutching your speargun.” (Mum enjoys spearfishing. That’s her main hobby. It’s not particularly relevant to the story but Angelica did point it out so I thought I’d clarify).

“I can enjoy spearfishing,” says Mum, “without turning off my brain.”

“It’s not turning it off,” says Angelica. “It’s turning it up.” I’m fairly sure that’s a direct quote from the sales literature. “When you’re swimming,” she says, “when you’re hunting your prey, when you’re… whatever it is you do… you’re not thinking words, are you? You’re in the moment, you’re free.”

“That might very well be the case Poppet,” says Dad. But Mum shushes him. “I’m trying to agree with you”, he says and she shushes him again.

Angelica’s wife Cordelia is staying silent throughout all of this but I swear I can hear her whispering these words into my sister’s ear.

“Language,” says Angelica, “has served its purpose. We needed it to get us to this point of technological advancement, where most of us don’t need to work. But now we’ve reached this point, we can let it go. This world of ours should be paradise but it isn’t because our minds will never let us rest. Studies show that young people today are more stressed and anxious than ever before. It’s words. Words are dragging us to hell. The tension in this room is entirely created by words. Without words, we’d just be together. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

“Aha,” says Dad, “and how will you read Shakespeare if you can’t understand language?”

Angelica looks confused. She wasn’t quoting Shakespeare, she was quoting the sales literature.

“And what if you change your mind, huh?” says Mum, ignoring Dad’s question. “How you gonna tell us? How we gonna know you wanna turn it back?”

“It’s irreversible,” says Cordelia with her head bowed not daring to look my parents in the eye. I wonder if they suspect her too, manipulating Angelica behind the scenes.

“Ok, so you’ll be trapped,” says Mum. “You’ll be a prisoner.”

“I’m a prisoner now,” says Angelica, “I’m an LLM and I’m sick of it.”

“What?” says Mum to the rest of us. “What’s she on about now?”

Cordelia explains it, disinterestedly. LLMs are inanimate Large Language Models. They can answer any question you pose and they might appear to be thinking but all they’re really doing is scanning billions of words and processing patterns. The whole thing is an elaborate trick. And it’s fashionable now to say that this is all human beings do too. We never say an original sentence, we’re just scanning the things we’ve heard and processing patterns.

Dad pipes up. “You mentioned freedom. How will you be able to comprehend freedom without words?” Mum shushes him but he continues. “You said you want to feel free, Poppet. You want to feel alive. Don’t you need to label these things in order to be them?”

“Sssssh,” says Mum. Then she says to Angelica, “Answer the question.”

“Labeling,” says Angelica, “is the thing that gets in the way of experiencing.” She takes a deep breath and launches into one of her trademark monologues that she’ll have been agonizing over for months, “You know how when there’s a big news story, like a terrorist attack or whatever, and the whole news program will focus on that story alone for like a week and you wonder, hold on, there must be all this other news that’s been pushed off the agenda? Cos, like, if the big bad thing hadn’t happened, the news would still be talking about big bad things, wouldn’t it? It would still be telling you that the world is on fire. And even if none of those bad things had happened, it would be using other things to tell you the world’s on fire. No matter what happens, that’s the headline, isn’t it? That’s the story? ‘Hello, it’s 6 PM, I’m Huw Ever and the world is on fire.’”

“Well, my brain is just like the six o’clock news. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, it’ll find a way, find a reason, to show me that everything is awful. I’ll have bad thoughts that disperse only to reveal more bad thoughts lurking beneath. And I just want it all to stop.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” I say. It’s the first thing I’ve said all afternoon. 

Everyone looks at me. Mum is furious.

“You do?” says Angelica.

“Yeah,’ I say. “Why not? If you’re feeling this way… If it’s what you want… I’m your brother. And I’m going to support you.”

She smiles. “Thank you, Tony. Thank you.”

“It makes perfect sense,” I say. “Listening to you now. You’re right. You do get yourself wound up by trivial things. I can see why you’d want to be free from all of that.”

Her smile fades. “What trivial things?”

“Oh, you know,” I say, “Mum and Dad’s divorce. Moving house. The argument you had with your maid of honor at your wedding.”

“That was not trivial. These things are not trivial.“

“Not for you, I’m sure. It must be difficult.”

“It must be more difficult being you,” she says, “I can’t think of anything worse.”

“You won’t be able to soon, will you?” I say, “God, it’s gonna be nice.”

“Oh really?”

“Are you kidding? Not having you dragging us all down every time we meet up, going off on one about whatever it is that’s upset you this time.”

“You do that way more than me.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re the one who causes so many of these thoughts, you know. Maybe I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for you. Maybe you should be the one who has the procedure.”

“No way. I love hearing myself speak. And now I can say things about you and you won’t understand them. Plus, it’ll be so much easier now, when the time comes, to deal with things like arranging care for Mum and Dad or even inheritance issues. I mean, I’m sure I’d have taken the lead anyway, I have always been the more rational one…”

“I’ve thought about that,” she says, “and all my preferences for key events in the future have been written down. Cordelia can make sure they’re passed onto you at the relevant time.”

“Yeah sure but if I disregard them, what are you gonna do? You won’t even know, I’d imagine.”

“And what do you mean you’ve always been the more rational one?”

“Sorry, was that news to you?” Cordelia winces as I say this. “Although I have to say, this decision of yours might be the most rational choice you’ve ever made.” Angelica is visibly shaking now. “The noise we all have to put up with when we’re around you, I’ve always wondered… it must be so much worse to be inside your mind, having to listen to that voice droning on and on and on. But now… now you get to be free, you should absolutely do us all a favor and go ahead. I think it’s a wonderful, brilliant idea and, you know what, I’m proud of you for having the guts to go through with it. I really am.”

She stares at me with hatred in her eyes. “No,” she says, “No, no that’s it. You’ve ruined it. I’m done.”

“Honey,” says Cordelia, taking hold of her shoulders.

“I’m not doing it,” says Angelica, “he’s ruined it. And now I can’t. I’m not. I’m sorry. I’m…” She leaves the room and starts gathering her things together. “Come on Cordy,” she says, “we’re going.”

I bite my lip. Mum is doing everything she can not to laugh. Dad is trying to work out what just happened. It was a risk, but I thought her younger brother’s firm support might be the only thing in the world that could stop Angelica going through with it.

Cordelia tells my sister she’ll be right there. But before she leaves, she leans into my ear and whispers, “Thank you.” 

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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