Mr. Sacks

prompt-1

What part of “ezam a ni eud emit revo dna” don't you understand?

Bloody hell, none of my so-called "peers" get it. The subject we've been interviewing – one Mr. Sacks institutionalized at Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry – was not speaking some hitherto unknown language to humanity. It's simply English, in reverse: “and over time due in a maze”. English words, but no grammar. Textbook case of aphasia, possible lesion in the Broca's area.

They interrupted my coffee break for this?

I explained my conclusion very, very slowly to my "colleagues", should they have any lesions in their prefrontal cortices. Bugger, I was late for my lecture. I rushed out the doors, ran through traffic, thinking about how even if I was late the ungrateful undergraduates should kiss my feet for even giving the time of my very busy day, thinking about how I'm good enough dammit, thinking so much I did not notice the BMW rushing through the red light about to hit me, which it did, then I stopped thinking at all.


I awoke two months later.

I sat up, and was hit with a headache that made me wish I hadn't put off signing that Do Not Resuscitate form.

A nurse – couldn't make top grades, huh? – noticed my awakening, and called for an actual doctor, although I'm better than most of these quacks. After taking her sweet time, the doctor finally entered my room and said:

“##############.”

...What the hell?

I tried to ask them if they knew who I goddam was, but all that came out of my mouth was:

“#####? #####?! ###############!”

The nurse and doctor looked at each other, then at me, as if I was the one who's gone barmy. Worse, after double-checking my vitals, they transferred me – of all places! – to the Psychiatry ward. And as if Lady Luck wasn't done with me quite yet, the first patient I met there was none other than my former case study, Mr. Sacks. He sat next to me at the in-patient dining room table, a green banana in hand, and said:

“Hah, got you too, eh friend?”


This psychiatry ward is nothing compared to the academic career ladder. I climbed my way up that, I could climb my way out of this.

I'm good enough, dammit.

First, I bribed a med school intern (one who still recognized me) to bring me my phone and charger. Of course, I couldn't just ask him in language – I was temporarily incapacitated in that regard – so I slowly pantomimed my request to him as if he was a slow child.

Plan A was to use a speech-to-text app to figure out what the staff were saying. No such luck. I wasn't even able to read the text on my phone's UI – it was all reversed and scrambled, like my initial messages from Mr. Sacks. Who, this whole time, was being unhelpful, saying things like:

“Why the rush to leave, friend? Relax, stay a while.”

But he would be useful soon enough. Clearly, I'd discovered a new neurological phenomenon with only two known cases in the world: him, and me. They'd name it after me, of course. Once I got out of here, I could use him to propel myself to the top of the ladder, to international glory, and show everyone who never believed in me. My God, they may even name a university after me!

“You're not trapped in a maze, pal. You're exploring a maze.”

In the meantime, Plan B: I wait. Eventually one of my idiot colleagues will come and get me out. Also, I was using this downtime to secretly record my conversations with Mr. Sacks – who gives a toss about some measly HIPPA regulation – so I could analyze his condition later. For now, if I can't understand the others, and they can't understand me, at least I can try to understand this man. I'm good enough, dammit.

“Good buddy, it's all in due time.”

He was still holding that damn banana.


A week went by.

Nobody, not one of my colleagues, came by to visit me.

Were they doing this as some kind of sick revenge? After everything I'd done for them? At this point, I didn't even want them to get me out, I just wanted...

...Well, no matter. I had made a breakthrough with Mr. Sacks' condition. Interestingly, although I heard him in clear English, when I ran his conversations through speech-to-text, it came out reversed and scrambled, the same way as before. By having both his literal words & translated meaning, I could deduce this pattern:

  • He says something like “ezam a ni eud emit revo dna”
  • Reversed, that reads “and over time due in a maze”
  • Break that into three-word fragments, and you get "and over time", "in due time" (reversed), and "in a maze".
  • Each of these three-word fragments are connected by their first or last words.
  • One can plot these fragments as a graph. If you do, a perfect structure is revealed: his words are a winding path through a lattice grid – a grid where each corner is a word, each line is a fragment. What's more, that grid has dimensions N x 3, which looks like this: ###################

At first I thought Mr. Sacks was just another unpromising case study, but now I understood his logic. Besides, he was the only one I could talk to. None of those ingrate bastards ever visited me. Was I not good enough? After everything I did to please them – all the sleep-deprived nights of studying, all the friendships I sacrificed, all the people I pushed aside to get here – was I still not enough?

Funny: I ran the staffs' dialogue and mine through speech-to-text, and analyzed their structure. Most of their paths were straight lines. Mine was a loop.

I told Mr. Sacks all this. Not because I like him or anything, it's just that he can't tell anyone else. In my world, that's as close as you can get to "trust". After I told him all this, he said nothing. Then, he offered me that banana. The one he'd been holding for a whole week. By then it had gone from green to a brownish, almost-too-ripe. I took it, and ate it. Then Mr. Sacks said to me:

“You are enough.”

There must have been something wrong with that banana, because I began choking up and my eyes started watering.


It's been five years.

Mr. Sacks and I do get the occasional visitor now. About three years ago a researcher, Henrietta Molaison, found us and deciphered our language structure. She used to be one of my undergrads.

I'm happy for her, I really am.

Since then, we've had researchers from around the world come to visit us, stick us in fMRI machines, use supercomputers to decode our language, the whole works. It's strange – though I still can't understand people's words, I feel like I understand people better than when all I had were words. When I talk with others, I see: are they a line? A loop? A branching tree? A wandering path? Or a single, unmoving dot?

Mr. Sacks and I are happy. A year ago, the supercomputers were briefly unable to decode our language. They got it functioning again once they realized our structure had evolved: our thought-paths had started intertwining into a braid.

Occasionally I understand short English questions. One we get a lot is: don't we feel trapped? We say, no, we're not trapped.

We're exploring.

– selected diary entries with permission, translated by Henrietta Molaison


originally posted as a reply on r/WritingPrompts

header photo by Daan Stevens (CC Zero)