is the journal of a mana Doctor Felix Straboa scientific
dabbler and eccentric who happens to have been my great uncle. A peculiar
man from birth, according to my grandfatherobsessed with insects.
He dedicated his life to the study of the frost resistant genitalia
of beetles. Apparently he was always compiling a master study of his
investigations, the magnum opus that would reveal to the rest of us
what these genitalia had told him. Unfortunately that will remain lost
to us, as his work was cut short by his disappearance some 57 years
ago. This notebook drifted up in a cod net and was sent to my grandfather
four years later; the water destroyed much of it, but what remains is
The journal itself was nearly thrown out by my grandfather, its
markings indecipherable, and assumed to have been ruined by the immersion.
But a colleague of my great uncles was struck by the uniformity
of the degradation to the text and worked to find some patterns in it.
What he found was the remarkable first mystery of the journal.
My great uncle had spent many years in the Amazon as a part of
his studies, owing to the great profusion of beetles and to the deep
knowledge of their variety, habits and characteristics possessed by
the savages there.
He spent many years with one tribe in particular, the Nemoami;
they were a sort of beetle-worshipping group; a great part of their
medicine and the bulk of their cuisine was based on beetles. They had
their own language, which fascinated my great uncle nearly as much as
the teeming masses of beetles. It drew from them a whole vocalization
based on the clicking and skittering of the beetles. They had no written
language, of course, being savagein fact they were very angry
when old Strabo proposed to help them create one and resisted it mightily.
Their language was remarkably unstableit had few words
that ever remained the same. Most of their communications consisted
of entirely new words, made up by the speaker in the process of communicating.
Even when relating the speech of another person, these confused people
used different words, or made up their own, or changed them around entirely.
Part of the problem lay in the structure of the language itself; it
had few nouns; thus they had no way to fix things, to hold them steady
and define them in order to communicate clearly. Instead, they relied
on a string of verbs, of descriptions of states and transitions between
states. They had a great terror of time you see, and refused to attempt
to override it by fixing definitions onto things. Their world was a
fluid outpouring of constant newness, where a tree in one minute was
no longer a tree in the next, though it may return to being a tree,
or at least tree-like, in the future. Their role as speakers and observers
was one of reporting, not of establishing and their notion of identity
was not one of definition, but one of revelation.
As you can imagine, this made them nearly incomprehensible to
each other and an utter mystery to strangerseven if you managed
to effectively translate a word or thought once, it had already changed
once you had repeated it. In order to keep up with the stream of new
words, it was necessary to be in conversation without interruption so
that you could carry along the meaning to the new words as they emerged.
This was not a problem for themthey were a small and gregarious
tribe, and were used to understanding this endless flow of new meanings.
What do we care? said Reinhold. Are we needing to
talk to the beetles? West regarded him evenly, then continued
as if no question had been raised.
Doctor Strabo believed that he could help them by teaching them
Englishjust the mental energy saved from trying to understand
each other would free them up tremendously for other things. At first
they were amused by himthey thought he was simple-minded and were
entertained greatly by the simplicity of his speech. Being used to a
constant stream of new words, they learned the words of English very
But, as he patiently repeated them over and over and over, they
became alarmed; they were afraid he would become stuck in time somehow
if he did not continue to move alongthat his thoughts would become
fixed and his bodily functions would slow and eventually he would turn
They mocked him at first, but gradually grew afraid for themselves,
that he would spread this thickening to their own thoughts, like a disease,
would moor them in the forest and turn them into stones. He thought
they were terrified of learning, that their heads would fill and burst,
but the simpler he tried to make the lessons, the more upset they becameand
they, in turn, believed that he was starting to turn to stone in front
of them, speaking fewer and fewer words, then simply single words over
and over. They packed up and retreated into the rain forest, pushing
him away violently and threatening him when he attempted to follow them.
After a week or so they returned to himto see what he looked
like made of stone, no doubt. They were astonished to see him walking
around, but shrank back again when he repeated the same set of words
he had when they saw him last. Puzzled, he tried to speak to them in
French, and they came forward again, translating it effortlessly into
their own tongueuntil he began to repeat himself again and they
became wary. Then he switched to German and then Latin, and the little
Italian that he knew, and a few words of Russian. They were delighted,
and began to chatter freely again, leaping enthusiastically into whatever
tongue he offeredsupposing that his fever had passed and his thoughts
were beginning to unlock again. Perhaps he wouldnt turn to stone
after all. As they spoke, he took notes on the sounds and sound patterns
and began to understand the dynamics of their languagefor there
were no stable structures. The sounds formed and reformed in cascades
of new meanings, and there were patterns to the cycles that he could
follow if he listened without interruption.
He began to understand at last how their language worked, if
not comprehend its meaning, and he was surprised to hear in their own
speech echoes of English and Frenchconstructions and patterns
that were familiar to his ear though broken and re-formed. At first
he assumed they were parroting badly what he had tried to teach them,
or were mocking him again to themselves, but as they cycled back again
and again in different forms, he began to see how the invention built
on itself, taking pieces of recent speech and blending them with new
pieces and then blowing them apart again and rebuilding new words with
Here, here is a passage where he describes it:
It is like a dance of the mind, their speaking, and each of them
speaks a kind of private language that only mingles with the othersat
the edgesit seems profuse, exploding like the rain forestit
suits what they seewhen new varieties of the altocanus nemoamus
emerge in the space of 7 or 8 generationswithin a single weekit
seems foolish to attempt to shackle its identity to a single word.
And so he ceased trying to teach them English and worked to learn
their speechhe felt it was the best way to gather their understanding
of the coleoptera, and eventually became convinced it was the only way
to understand beetles at all.
He devised his own written notations for it and the remainder
of his journal is composed entirely in that notation. As you can imagine,
it was therefore fiendishly difficult to translate, as it requires one
to understand the leaps and gaps of his own mind as it creates new words
for the same objects or ideas. It has been a painstaking process to
reconstruct, and even then we cannot be sure we have accurately tracked
the progression of his thoughts. But as I came to understand some bare
hints of what it contained, I became increasingly interested in its
Get on with it, grumbled Reinhold.
I was able to fill in many of the gaps in Happy Strabos
life, and unveil for us a discovery most remarkablethe second
mystery of the journal. My family had thought Strabo was safely ensconced
in the research faculty of a small university hunched over his bugsdidn't
keep a close eye. He was no sailorhated to travel, and yet according
to this journal, he had sailed out of Boston on a 12th of June in the
sloop Blythe, outfitted for a two year solo voyage through the Canadian
Arctic in search of the fossilized remains of prehistoric beetles.
Clearly mad, he sailed north into the pack alone butfools
and childrensomehow made his way north into Lancaster Sound and
began exploring the inlets along the north-western coast, digging into
the frozen gravel for traces of his precious genitalia even as hislittle
sloop fell apart.
As he passed north out of Lancaster Sound, he encountered a number
of unusual phenomena: rapidly developing storm systems with far heavier
snow than is generally found in this region; sudden, powerful currents
that pulled his ship from side to side and once drove it backwards through
the water despite full sails; and air and water temperatures that diverged
greatly from anywhere else in the Arctic.
Unfortunately he had little chance to explore these at any length.
The storms damaged his ship badly, and he was forced to remain in the
hold, pumping and patching as he drifted further and further to the
north. He found himself in a bay free of pack ice but ringed by two
great glaciers that calved masses of icebergs, and between them was
a vast high wall of ice he called the Barrier. The bay itself was filled
with dense fog and chaotic turbulence from the constant flipping of
With his ship leaking steadily, his rudder and mast gone, he
limped forward, looking for a stable shelf of ice so he could safely
abandon. As he moved north, however, the entire Barrier disappearedit
was an epic mirage, created by a current of extremely warm water that
passed down t between the glaciers. Once past the mirage, his ship ran
aground, and he waded through the now-temperate waters to the shore.
He made his way along the channel, the air and water temperatures rising
steadily. At the end, he found a temperate archipelago covered by trees
of fantastic colors that grew from the heat of the earth rather than
the Suna lush Garden of Eden in the heart of the Arcticand
the rest, coleopterists, is unfortunately lost.