Content Warnings: POV trans/intersex phobia
"The Invention of Terms" by Derek Des Anges | 3,065 words | Short Fiction | Content Warnings: POV trans/intersex phobia
In Siwàch, the time had come to revitalise the data systems. One census having been completed but recently, there was just sufficient time, according to those who ordered census-takings, to create a better, more cohesive, more comprehensive (and, their detractors said, more invasive) system before the next census needed to be taken.
Gone were the days, it was determined, that the precise area of land owned by each individual male was a necessary entry in the data catalogue. The plants simply couldn't cope, and it was irrelevant. Everyone was crop-sharing now. Conversely, several other pieces of information vital to proper taxation and service provision (and, their detractors said, surveillance) were not taken.
In order to take this information usefully, a system of categorisation that wasn't several hundred years old and prone to intermittently killing the data plants, overheating the propagators, and allowing for additional interference and bribery, would probably be necessary.
Žwibufoñiddžoktuw-àmà, or, without his work title, Àmà (an auspicious name meaning 'probability' had seen him rise to his position with ease), was not in charge of the entire project. That would have been a ludicrous undertaking. Rather, he presided over the integration of vital data rather than economic data. In theory this was less fraught. People did not mind so very much turning over information about their height, weight, genitalia, and hair colour as they minded confessing to number of offspring (taxable), size of dwelling (taxable), hours worked (taxable), and proximity to recent deaths (not taxable but quarantinable at present).
In practice, the census data was to be publicly available, which meant that every single propagation house had to carefully review the terms used for different demographic indicators and economic categories, many of which were so archaic as to be outright offensive.
For example, Àmà thought as he studiously decanted seedlings, his gloves already speckled with blood from their biting heads, the family income department would have to devise a more delicate way of phrasing "sbi-džewu", an ancient term translating literally to "crush-economic" with strong implications of refuse and laziness, equivalent to "freeloader", which had been all very well when they'd implemented the data propagation houses but had since taken on a very derogatory meaning. Likewise, he reflected, passing the empty tray to his assistant in silence, since they weren't actually at war with the people styling themselves "žàdžudžà" and hadn't been for over a century, it was probably impolitic for the nationality demographics department to keep filing them under and making them seed the trays labelled, "hairy-chinned foreign bastards".
Àmà turned to his assistant and waved vaguely for the next tray. Wàttiw, despite the potentially inauspicious name, was not generally slow to comply, but something appeared to be on his mind.
"I know," said Àmà, who prided himself on his perspicacity, "We do have far too much to do to be considering such a trifling addition to our workload for long. It's hardly the business of the census farm to invent new words." He took the tray out of Wàttiw's hands, as the wispy young man was taking his unholy time actually giving it to him. "Surely the business of poets."
"I'm not sure I'd trust the poets to come up with something suitable," Wàttiw said a little dryly, referring to the recent incarceration of a satirist for some extremely inappropriate words seeded into a very public lawn. "I was under the impression we were striving to offend fewer people."
"Very good," said Àmà, waggling the tray at him. "Very good. No, but we can hardly merge the trifling, irritating subcategories that barely get used into their nearest neighbours, either. It would resolve a lot our problems with running out of space–" An enormous problem, in fact, with the population of Siwàch expanding incontinently, and one of the reasons the system was being reconfigured, and the child-tax brought in. "–but then we'd be running into problems of inaccuracy. Damn these outliers."
Àmà slammed the seed tray onto the counter with bad grace. It would take years for the category-plants to reach maturity and they could hardly be expected to adhere to the right forms if they were given contradictory instructions or tiny pots. It was important to get it right.
"At least with regards to the current problem," he said, prodding the soil with a gloved fingertip to produce the correct size of well, "there's no reason to be coy. It's only for appearances. Mifàtsodžif, tsodžif, and then I suppose we have to use a poncier term for chààsh-guo and chààsh-chààsh or someone will complain. But chààsh-guo and chààsh-chààsh is what everyone calls them..."
"Ye-es," said Wàttiw, in a tone of voice he usually used for tactfully pointing out when Àmà had put his foot in fertiliser or dropped numbers into the wrong tray. From long instinct, Àmà looked down, but he was neither standing in animal shit nor spilling seed document where it ought not be spilled.
He gave his assistant an enquiring look. Wàttiw had not yet grown a beard, unusual for his age, and he hadn't been through a scarification ceremony yet either, arguing that it was 'a waste of time until I'm sure this is what I want to do'. Àmà touched his own scars thoughtfully. "Well, it's not like they're ever in a position to view the information anyway," he added. Chààsh-guo and chààsh-chààsh, terms roughly equivalent to "monster-orphan" and "monster-orphan that has somehow managed to become pregnant", were usually employed in the same professions as the wordless or the limbless, as far as Àmà knew.
That is, they were not employed in any profession and considered, especially since the overcrowding began, an excessive use of resources. Not to mention the old superstition about what touching one did to fertility. A baby whose gonads were undecided was an indicator that someone had been dabbling in medicines they shouldn't have been, after all. And a few censuses ago the reporting of chààsh-guo had been enough to get the parents fined for presumed misappropriation of protected plants on those grounds.
"Ye-es," repeated Wàttiw. "But it's not actually illegal to employ them."
"Well, no," Àmà conceded. "But who would?"
At first Àmà took no notice of the silence, which seemed only natural in their vestibule of the data farm, especially as they were covering the period of the day when most others went outside to watch the Lungs flowering. After a while, however, it became thick and cloudlike, reminiscent of the heavier spore fogs which had once plagued Siwàch, although only in the figurative sense. Àmà looked up from the seed tweezers and gave his assistant a curt jerk of the eyebrows, intended to compel Wàttiw into speaking.
"Why wouldn't anyone employ them?" Wàttiw said, and although it was clear his intention was to sound conversational there was a certain tension in his voice which made Àmà very conscious of the position of authority he had over Wàttiw, and the responsibility entailed in it. He realised he knew very little about from where Wàttiw had come, or what he had done apart from arrive with a sharp brain and knack for plant-handling and taking orders, which had been all Àmà particularly cared about in the chaos after his last assistant took up a position in medical statistics instead.
"Er," said Àmà, beginning to feel warm around his neck. He fell back on what his father had always said. "They're confusing the natural order."
"Like the filing hybrids?" Wàttiw asked in a surprisingly quiet voice. The overall silence of the room had undertones of words unused, and Àmà began to feel itchy as well as warm. "I recall those had to be bred specially. You were pleased with them."
Àmà discovered that he was holding his trowel too tightly. He gently unpried his fingers from the wooden handle and laid the implement down next to the seed tweezers. He didn't remember picking it up. "Should I be asking you a question?" he said, at last. The hour of the flowering Lungs would be over soon and he wasn't sure this was a conversation it would be propitious to have in front of anyone else.
"Only if you want a question answered," said Wàttiw. He began to tidy up the potting bench, although it was not, as far as Àmà knew, time for that to happen. "Is there something you want to know?"
Àmà picked up the trowel again and tapped it nervously on the bench. There was no point in flagellating the foliage, he thought. Might as well just get it out into the open. "Did you lie on your application?"
His assistant paused, one tray held an infinitesimal distance above the other in the process of stacking, but not quite set down. "I think lie is a strong word."
"Did you omit to refer to yourself as a, a, a chààsh-guo, then?" Àmà winced, in spite of himself. It had always seemed like a perfectly functional turn of phrase, but now confronted with a perfectly capable assistant with a pleasant demeanour and no awkward ambitions towards sudden career changes or theft like some of his predecessors, the term stuck in his mouth. It was uncomfortable to look at Wàttiw and to think–to suspect–that some accidental misalignment of cells had created an ...an abomination. Rather difficult to look at him and think that the word, so reminiscent of 'garbage' or 'throw-away', was appropriate.
He hoped Wàttiw was just engaging in some particularly stubborn rhetoric.
The trays in his assistant’s hand didn't touch. They remained frozen where they were.
"Would you affirm a categorisation that said that you were worthless while you were asking for a position of worth?" Wàttiw said, somewhat acidly. He put the tray down with a sharp click. "I didn't call myself trash because I'm not trash."
His voice was not entirely steady, which Àmà could hardly criticise when his own hand was giving small judders against the potting bench. "Er, the time of Lungs flowering will be over shortly, and someone will be along to take over," he said, passing the trembling hand in front of his face. "Just...take a little extra break; I'll clean up here."
The look of reproach Wàttiw gave him was uncharacteristic, Àmà thought, as the assistant left. He'd always been so unobtrusive.
Until the belated closure of the day's work, Àmà found small ways to avoid his assistant. There was an incongruous quantity of defunct seedlings that he'd been allowing to pile up behind one of the benches and that should really be moved. Everything would have to change with the overhaul of the data farms in time for the next census, and he might as well get down to it right away. Then there was an accidental stockpile of unused, unaltered, and probably genetically dead seed pods which had mysteriously found their way into deconstructed data seedling trays.
Indeed he was so determinedly busy that he almost forgot to have a complete and total inner crisis about the additional complication to his work. So much wanted doing that there was no time to be spared upon such fripperies.
Àmà concluded the day with what he considered to be a stroke of absolute genius.
Preparing to leave the data farm, he turned to Wàttiw and, avoiding his eye perhaps, said for want of anything better to say, "I think perhaps it would be best if you took on the problem of, er, third-category genitalia reporting yourself. I'll relieve you of some smaller tasks in exchange but, er, I think you've proven yourself capable of, of, er, handling more responsibility."
Wàttiw eyed him warily, and Àmà decided that perhaps he had something stuck in his throat and wasn't entirely sure how to get it out, so he examined the dusty recesses of the root ceiling above.
"Thank you," Wàttiw said, very quietly, and without what Àmà would have called enthusiasm. The assistant departed.
The problem of course was, Àmà reflected as he waited for his assistant to quit the area entirely, Wàttiw wasn't stupid. Had he been intellectually incompetent, Àmà would have first have had grounds to dismiss him for some past error or palm him off onto another worker without regrets, and second have had fulsome gratitude for handing the young...man...an ostensible reward.
Àmà peered around the doorway, but the path was definitely clear enough now that he had no cause for loitering, and if he didn't pick up his pace a little he should be late to meet with his good friend and powerful social sponsor, Fjosubuvjizszuzo-somi, with whom he was privileged to be on name-terms. They would dine, and Somi would tell very bad jokes, and Àmà would be freed from thinking about this for an evening.
As he toiled away through the root-twisting corridors of the data farm in search of the final exit, he was all too aware that Wàttiw, being no idiot, knew full well that he had been given a potential rod for his own back. After all, if the young...man...succeeded, Àmà received the credit. And if he failed, well, then, Àmà could release him as inadequate and be rid of a lying chààsh-guo.
An absolute stroke of genius, Àmà reminded himself. A neat solution to a messy problem.
He broke out into the open air–still spore-laden and filled with the evidence of overcrowding but nowhere near as bad as it had been in his youth, directly after the war–and tried to turn his thoughts to his friend Somi, with difficulty.
Somi's position entitled him to spacious housing which, true to his nature, he had filled with dried specimens and mutations. Somi's spouse, Boñiv, found this an acceptable price to pay, apparently; Àmà had always been amused by the look of resignation on the man's face as he searched for the dinner table under the relentless growth of Somi's work. Searching for the opportunity to get a word in edgewise into the amiable monologue on the subject of Somi's current obsession was, usually, a team effort perpetrated by his guests and the amused Boñiv.
This evening was no exception. Àmà had barely made it into Somi's home before his friend was away, discussing the sex lives of plants as if every other worker in the world were just like him, as versed in the anatomy and complex chemistry of plants, instead of simply trying to wrangle them into working.
"You will come to understand, my friend," Somi hectored cheerfully, as Boñiv rolled his eyes and carefully steered his spouse to the table, "that the charge you have taken on, using our glorious floral friends to categorise neatly and discretely is, if I may use a phrase of which Boñiv is fond, in my earshot, rank bollocks."
"Somi," Boñiv muttered, despairingly, but it was no good. The man was off.
"Plants are not discrete entities! The entire taxonomic system is an overlay devised by the people who study them–" Somi waved a grandiose, dirt-stained hand across the piles of seeds Boñiv had failed so far to tidy away. "– for our own ease of understanding; people have very little minds, you see, and we need little tidy categories," he swept up a pile of seeds Boñiv was in the process of moving, and murmured, "No, no, I'm using them to explain."
"How have you b–" began Àmà, but Somi had his seeds in order now, and crashed on.
"Quite simply, nothing is simple. I shall assume you know nothing of plant reproductive morphology for the purposes of this–"
This, Àmà agreed, was wisest, as he did in fact know nothing of plant reproductive morphology. Just how to align their output with the categorical measurements demanded by keeping track of an ever-blooming human population.
"Consider that we have, for example, only looking here at the morphology of flowering plants, only at the morphology of complete flowers–thank you, dear–" Somi added, as his spouse presented him wearily with the offending blossom for his demonstration. "Carpels. Stamens. We call this type of flower 'complete' because it contains both male and female within it. Here, a staminate flower–we call him male. And here, a carpellate flower, which we call female. They're all part of the same organism, here. All quite necessary for the effective reproduction and thriving of the plant."
"I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at," Àmà admitted, when Somi paused for breath.
"Mm," Somi said, apologetically, passing the flower heads to his spouse. "Neither am I, but I have been thinking a great deal about cultivation in recent weeks and the thought has occurred over and over again that we are wrong to confuse utility with destiny. Just because something has been made to be useful to us–or cannot yet be made useful to us–does not mean it is intended to be useless! Nature does not make things it has no use for."
For the remainder of the evening, Somi rattled on, touching on this and that, occasionally allowing Àmà or Boñiv a brief comment, but mostly regaling them with his own relentless interest in the morality and future of cultivation and the likelihood of reassertions of something Àmà didn’t fully understand. At a few points before he made his farewells and finally exited their home some time after the middle of the night, Àmà felt his eyes begin to glaze over and his thoughts to wander, but less often than usual. The place they wandered to was not one he was keen to explore.
And yet, a little tipsy on good company and too much food as always, when he came out into the dark air–as clear as it ever was, at this time of night, for the night blooms were elsewhere in the city and the crepuscular blossoms had long since ceased shedding their pollen for the night–when Àmà's head cleared he found his thoughts had trailed back to the same point again.
He leaned, a little breathless, a little guilt-stricken, on the nearest trunk, and patted his pockets as if there was something he'd forgotten.
It occurred to him that the reproach he'd seen in Wàttiw's expression might only have been his own, reflected back at him unexpectedly. Wàttiw had only been nervous. Defiant in his decision, but undoubtedly nervous.
Derek Des Anges has been writing for 19 years in a variety of genres, under multiple pen names, and occasionally is good at it. He has published with Less Than Three Press, Owl Hollow Press, New Smut Project, and House of D Publications, and once made Terry Pratchett laugh. Derek lives and works in London, usually in the local café, where he is making inroads into his secondary ambition of being the first person to transcend reality through overconsumption of rose lattes.