His name was William C. Rose. He's dead now. If he were given, still, to self description, he might say: "I am an American chemist."
I ea', bu' I am s'ill hungry...
His body-what remains-consists of a protein alphabet. In it, there are 20 letters, each with its own curious set of molecular appendages. There are spikes and chains. There are hoops-pentagonal or hexagonal-and multi-pronged claws.
When Rose was alive, he performed Oulipian experiments. Rats served as his parchment. There existed, here, an intriguing network of questions-scientific, aesthetic. How might a rat shape itself, if provisioned with an incomplete alphabet? Without A's? Without E's? Without I's?
T, of course, preceded Rose. At his birth, it was several billion years old. It continues-equally robust-in the decades after his death.
It is an essential component, of living bodies; it is an inevitable residue, within the dead.
Before Rose, however, T lacked acknowledgement. It served, unrecognized, all the functions of a letter. It was employed, feverishly, by every sort of writer, human and non-human.
The rats, also, wrote with it. They formed teeth and toes and tails and intestines and triceps, t-t-t-t-t.
The genius of these writers, however, lay on a grand scale. During their artistic periods, the T, as a separable unit, escaped their notice. Afterward, once the fever had passed, they were unable to parse what they had done.
To the rats, Rose supplied the 19 acknowledged letters. Each was pure. The debris of their usual context had been abraded from them.
In the food trough, they glittered unnaturally.
Often, afterwards, Rose would visit the rats. In their dungeons, he would observe and interrogate them. His questions, though pointed, were somewhat conversational. Each session, he asked, "How do you feel?"
In response, the rats employed a new tone. It was deep and hollow. To each syllable, they appended a faint rasp.
I ea', bu' I am s'ill hungry...
I ea', bu' I am s'ill hungry...
Over time, their faces became rather luminous. Above each set of ears, an Oulipian halo shimmered. It was pious and faintly tragic. It hinted at absence, without really stating it.
Beneath its illumination, the whiskers seemed shorter. The lines defining the nose and mouth became terse.
Their necks-stouter than before-swiveled more slowly, and with apparent constraint.
Each time Rose visited, the rats' gibbers became more focused. They spoke less of scampering, less of rutting. They lingered, rather, upon questions of essence.
I feel emp'y.
And, with clearer intonation:
I feel dead.
Eventually, into the rats' troughs, Rose poured a selection of new substances. They were slimy and impure. In them, a colorful riot of entities persisted. Some were familiar; some were exotic. Others were entirely inscrutable.
Eating of some mixtures, the rats lost their Oulipian characters. Their halos fizzled. Their voices became high and irritating. Their ill-managed girth sprawled.
Eating of other mixtures, the rats remained unaffected. Their breaths retained a distinctive scent, remindful of death. Their eyes remained accusatory.
Gradually, Rose refined his mixtures. With washes and lubricants, he coaxed apart the intimate partnerships, which existed between components. (He persuaded them to untwine their fingers. He impelled them to disentangle their legs.) With caustics, he severed the most persistent ones.
After obtaining each new fraction-or fraction of a fraction-he applied them, again, to the rats. With each, he performed a new assessment.
He watched. Did the rats retain a fairy-like physique, with gossamer-light limbs? Or did they regain their old bulk?
He listened. Did their words remain arresting, like the pronouncements of an Oracle? Or did they descend, again, into pedestrian chatter?
He tracked, by stages, the hidden component. He perceived it only in its residues. Into symptoms of deprivation, it printed symptoms of plenty.
He whittled, further. With filters, he shaved the coarser from the finer. He laundered the residues, vigorously, in acids and alcohols.
He performed transfigurations: liquids-into vapors; liquids-into solids.
When he was close, he perceived a glitter. It tickled at his eye's edge. It was unnaturally pure.
Beneath his lenses, there were crystals, shaped like needles. They formed minute war lances, remindful of struggle.
He sought it, further. Its purity, afterwards, was still more unnatural. The crystals' centers became stout. Their points blunted. Under Rose's lenses, they formed six-sided shapes.
Each had an abstract quality-like a symbol in an alphabet, which signifies nothing other than itself.
Receiving it, the rats shuddered. Shock, at the sudden removal of restrictions, induced a kind of epilepsy. Their internal portions tangled, in their over-eagerness to perform actions-to speak words-which had previously been forbidden to them.
They brandished the new component, gaudily. They rolled and snorted. In its glitter, they eschewed all principles of economy. They employed, idly, precisely the objects they most wished for, without the faintest incentive for innovation.
Afterwards, in hopeless hedonism, they produced nothing exceptional.
Rose, briefly, reposed on his laurels, just long enough for a commemorative photograph. It formed a nod to history. In his arms, faintly purring, was the T, which he had purified. It had its own bright halo. Framing the photograph, in a bloody pinwheel, were a selection of tissues to which the T contributed. Tongues, tibias, tarsals, testicles, in a spectacular stutter, ttt-ttt-ttt.
In the book, the picture was marked by a simple caption. It formed a condensed summary, gratuitously T'd: The Twentieth.
After the picture had been taken, Rose dried the laurel branches. Above his workspace, he arranged them tastefully, as a kind of art. They served, in addition, as a potent reminder-to himself, to others.
He kept them, however, far from his bed, so as to avoid sleeping on them.
An alphabet, of course, merely frames a beginning. It is a baseline, acquired by illiterates, as a prelude to any serious scholarship.
With new mixtures, Rose revisited the dungeons. In the rats' flesh, he discerned exquisite scars, caused by the deliberate excision of each letter, in turn.
Into his laboratory notes, he re-sketched the alphabet, in inverse colors. The peculiar shadows, cast by each letter's absence, assisted him.
Amid the rat-generated filth-the tragic brevity of each tiny rat life-he continued to work. Of each, he asked, repeatedly: "How do you feel?"