by Christina Dalcher
The man in the dark suit leaves a banana on the table and exits Bobo the Gorilla’s playroom, nods once to the zoologist who has spent her life teaching the ape to speak in signs. The zoologist, a handsome and earthy woman of fifty-odd years, does not return the nod because the portion of her body used for such gestures no longer exists.
Bobo the Gorilla waits for her trainer behind a window of one-way glass, swigging juice from a bottle and signing a series of familiar words: eat, banana, Bobo. Child spectators coo with delight at the marvel of science and nature. Bobo is hungry, Bobo wants a banana, and Bobo can communicate this in signs. Within the hour, the great ape begins to sign other words: drink, finger, rug. She can visualize the banana, see herself peeling it, taste the sticky fruit, but the symbols and shapes have left her lexicon. Only instinct remains.
The man in the dark suit watches the effects of his experiment as zoo-goers exchange shrugs and surprised stares. Change has taken less time than expected, and is complete.
When the man in the dark suit is no longer a necessary asset, another man, this one in uniform, directs immediate distribution of the chemical. He has not met its producers, is unaware of the drug’s impact, and follows his orders before returning home to read his children their bedtime stories. The localized neurotoxin, code name Wernicke 27X, is dispatched into the water supply of one hundred major cities by men and women with the intelligence to know better and the training not to ask questions.
No one will die. No one will hurt. But things—unspeakable things, it turns out—will occur:
Dr. Myers of Chicago, who has been a surgeon longer than he hasn’t been a surgeon, downs his usual bowl of cereal, drives to his hospital, and greets one of the operating room staff.
“Pretty to smile you, Nurse Pruett. How are your quakes?”
If she had not stopped off at the corner bakery for a cruller and a cappuccino, Fanny Pruett might have sensed a certain oddness in the doctor’s elocutions. Instead, Nurse Pruett smiles and says, “Happy foot.”
Jeremy Stone, mutual fund manager at a Manhattan firm with a double-barrel name, speaks at a client though his headset. “Wonderful apple and pencil for you to share,” he tells her. The client, a San Francisco native, instructs Jeremy to sell and buy and jump drive-in screens.
Captain Eliza Sanchez keeps the runway at Logan in her sights as she requests instructions from the air traffic controller with whom she shares both a professional and personal relationship. He responds immediately in a cheerful voice, “Purple bubbles sleep deeply, my mountain hedgehog!”
It has begun, and it continues:
Dr. Myers requests perks instead of pick-ups and songs instead of scalpels. Nurse Pruett reads charts, translating the tonsillectomy procedure as tinkling applesauce while the anesthesiologist confuses her handwritten doses by three orders of magnitude. Everyone laughs as Dr. Myers makes an incision into his patient’s chest.
Jeremy Stone presses buttons on his laptop and sings Seussesque songs to the tune of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” whenever the machine beeps. The phrases are you sure? and confirm trade? rhyme with Don Ho razzles and pork dances. Jeremy entertains himself in this manner until well past midnight.
The Airbus 300 Captain Sanchez is about to land steers on a collision course with another jet. In the control tower, six men and women scream Gogo Yoko! and fine chairs at the ballpark! Immediately before two aircraft explode, someone calls out bun sea!
It is continuing, and coming to a close:
The survivors in Chicago, New York, Boston, and other major cities have ceased travel and commerce. For a short time, they live simply and in the moment, guided by their senses, making ends meet with muscle and memory. When they speak, their words carry no meaning, no hatred, no bias.
Wernicke 27X travels by way of water and toothpaste, Mrs. Field’s cookie dough and jug wine. Smiles take the place of coherent sentences in this new, languageless world, and all the people, before their final days of hunger and pain, are as content as a great ape with a ripe banana and no words to describe it.