Malspoken

"I'll have the Delmonico steak, medium rare, with the house salad." The man hesitated, his menu poised in midair as he made to hand it to the server. He pulled it back and took another glance. "And a slice of the New York style cheesecake, thanks." He placed the menu in the waiter's outstretched hand and swirled the wine in his glass as the man strode away, taking a delicate, appreciative sniff. He set the glass down and smiled, looking out at the high rises that surrounded the glass-walled restaurant. How nice to be able to enjoy the finer things in life.

After finishing his food, the man stepped out onto the street. Should he wait for a cab, or just bite the bullet and take the subway? Opting for the latter, he walked down the block to the nearest subway station. It was only a few stops, after all. He could manage.

He took a novel out once he took his seat, trying to ignore the dinginess he was so unaccustomed to and striving to avoid eye contact with the strangers he was sandwiched between. He had no desire to have a conversation with anyone who would be riding the subway, preferring, unsurprisingly, Plato's ideas in The Republic to the uninformed opinions of Janitor Joe across the way. Better to pretend to be engrossed in the thick paperback, so the other commuters knew better than to engage him.

There was a message on his phone when he made it back to his luxury apartment. It was from his boss. He pressed the blinking red button and a fuzzy holograph of his boss's bespeckled face appeared. "This is it, Caldwell. I have a feeling this is going to be a breakthrough piece for you. Call me back as soon as you get a chance."

He set his bag down on the countertop and dialed back immediately, selecting the 'voice only' setting.

"Hi, Luis."

"Hi Harry, I take it you got my message." Harry opened his mouth, but was cut off.

"Listen, I'm sending you to Africa." To Africa? Harry opened his mouth again, this time to protest, but was once more interrupted.

"You know about the recent stir amongst all those human rights people about the GMOs from way back? Going on about science gone wrong, yea? There've been rumors about major uprisings in Nigeria and the Republic of Karumay, and we're going to be the first to cover it on the ground."

Harry didn't reply. Sensing the hesitation on the end of the line, Luis said seriously, "Look, you can think on it, but I can tell you this is the only big chance you're gonna get." And then in a friendlier tone, "You're looking to become our best reporter. I really want you out there."

There was another hesitation on the end of the line, and Luis twirled a pen between his fingers, waiting for the inevitable answer. "Alright." Harry said finally. "I'll go."


Africa. Harry sat on the plane, browsing through the prep docs Luis had given him in a folder with a label that warned, "Ignorant reporters are tourists, and tourists are fired, not hired." Harry snorted. Catchy. He flipped through the papers.

"A Brief History of GMOs: From pest reduction to language acquisition, how GMOs have changed the face of human society.

It wasn't until the late 21st century that scientists discovered the gene that enables language acquisition lurking, latent, within a variety of plants - crops now called GeMFLOs, Genetically Modified for Language Organisms - and not until much later was the gene integrated into the major agricultural sector the way it is today. The arrival of food products that allowed people to learn a variety of languages had the greatest immediate change on the educational system, but there have been growing concerns about the implications…"

Harry flipped to the next article, this one written by some human rights organization. It advertised in bold letters, "Food based language education only increases disparity between the rich and the poor." He read the first few lines. "It has long been widely held knowledge that lack of proper education remains a serious problem in developing countries, and the increased use of GeMFLO crops in food products - to the point where finding food not made with them is nearly impossible - only makes the issue worse. With families in the present age relying almost completely on diet to ensure their children's language skills, increasing the complexity of the food and therefore language skills as they age, it is clear that this practice puts low income families with access to less food and food types of lesser complexity at a distinct disadvantage. What must…"

Harry neatly tucked the papers back into his folder with a sigh. The information in the pamphlets was fairly commonplace knowledge. It was also a commonly held belief, carried over from past decades, that people who weren't well spoken or literate were simply not very smart. He had seen little over the course of his life that would bring him to question this idea.

And so Harry Caldwell slept for the remainder of his flight to Karumay.


When he got off the plane, Harry was handed a bowl of bean paste with bread as well as a plate of American-style spaghetti.

"So you can speak to the villagers."

One of the mysteries of food prepared with the GeMFLOs was that culturally specific foods allowed you to speak the language of that culture, regardless of where the food was prepared. Harry had often found himself speaking Hindi without realizing it after eating at his favorite Indian restaurant, though he was careful to include American elements so he wouldn't be crippled by an inability to speak the language of his surroundings.

He thought back to college – this had often come in use then, too, when the library would provide dishes of food representing each language available in texts in the library. History had often haunted Harry then, when he thought with a shudder of the arduous process students would have had to go through just to read a single text in a language they didn't know. Now, it was as easy as pie, literally.

Henry and the few other journalists practiced their conversational skills in the tribal language with one another. They found themselves somewhat limited by the simple food, but soon ascertained that they were ready to go out into the field. They were told they would be visiting a small Eburu village, a several hour drive even under good conditions.

The drive to the village was very bumpy, very rough and tumble, and also very dusty, the dry earth swirling up to clog what felt like every orifice of Harry's face. Rain has been scarce in these parts lately, the Eburu driver explained. Not good for roads. Also not good for crops.

After several hours, the jeeps arrived at the village, and the driver led Harry and his companions to the chief's hut.

"The village is very poor, and their crop yields low this year. Crop yields low many years. This is why the unhappiness among the people."

The effect was apparent. The poverty was shocking, more so than Harry had expected it to be, given he had known the conditions they would find. The people were skeletal, looking at the Americans with large eyes and a mournful silence. Cold pity and apprehension settled in Harry's stomach as he walked through the barren village, flanked by its speechless inhabitants.

The village chief came out of his hut at the driver's soft call. He looked better nourished than some of the villagers, but scarcely. He introduced himself as Lekan and gestured for Harry and the other two men to enter his living quarters. They sat down inside, declining the bean paste he graciously offered them, explaining that they would be leaving in only a few hours.

They began the interview, asking Lekan questions about dissent among the people in his village and the conditions they were living under. The conversation, which started out with promise, soon became strained as Lekan became increasingly unable or unwilling to answer their questions fully.

It soon became clear that his control of his native tongue was little better than a small American child's grasp of English. When he did answer their questions, he answered them haltingly, in simple terms, with a sort of infancy in his speech surprising for a grown man, and the more they talked the more anxious and confused Harry became.

Upon the conclusion of the interview, Harry asked to speak with other Eburu. The chief's control of words had said more, in his opinion, than his words themselves had, and he wanted to see the state of the rest of the people.

He thought back to his studies. The African continent had been behind in development for some time, it was true, but had it always been this… regressed?

He walked around the village, dust rising from each footstep, and attempted with some difficulty to engage the gaunt men and women in conversation. Most tried, but each attempt ended with the Eburu man or woman turning away with an exhausted, resigned frustration. Many of the children merely looked at him with sad eyes, refusing to make a sound, while others pointed and mumbled unintelligibly.

After only a few hours, Harry was emotionally and mentally spent, lingering frustration and some measure of horror tainting his long held assumptions and expectations for this assignment.

But Harry was, by nature, a tenacious individual, though the trait came out infrequently, and he was determined to follow this story until he came to its conclusion, personal discomfort aside. After a quick consultation with the driver, he invited the chief and another man and woman named Bongani and Ife to accompany them back their hotel and stay with them for several days. They accepted, and together they endured the jarring trip back in silence.


Over the next couple days, the Americans and the Africans focused on rest. They ate, slept, and they built trust, built a makeshift rapport across cultures. Harry specifically requested that the African men and women be fed not only sufficient amounts of their native foods, but also American food, in small enough doses to prevent illness but enough, he hoped, to conduct an experiment - maybe they would be able to hold a better conversation if their interviewees were well fed, and with food and language of a complexity that their own did not as of now allow.

After three days, they gathered together around a circular table. Already, Lekan, Bongani and Ife had brighter eyes, held themselves more upright. They looked healthier, and from the glint in their eyes and their folded hands on the table, they were obviously ready to talk.

Lekan began. He spoke haltingly, as if tasting each word carefully on his tongue before releasing it, but with an eloquence that was startling in comparison to their previous conversations. The process of Harry's worldview being flipped upside down, which had started with their first encounter with Lekan, was immediately in this moment finished, and he reeled internally for a moment before focusing with journalistic precision on the interview taking place.

Relief was evident on the three dark faces as words flowed out almost effortlessly, and over the course of the next few hours they described in detail the true state of affairs in the village.

An unforeseen effect of GeMFLOs, it seemed, was that if they were in the human body, learning language organically the way it had once been done universally was rendered near impossible.

"People don't see." Bongani's voice was past earnest - it was desperate. His words cascaded out, crashing together and nearly unintelligable as he spoke with an urgency that suggested he feared the tap would suddenly be turned off. "Then they think, you are stupid, you can not talk to us. They do not look at the food, they do not understand that we know, only we cannot say."

Harry frowned. "What about food aid? The United States sends tons of food aid here, where does it go?"

Ife looked at him sadly. "We do not see it."

Another American, George, spoke up. "What about all the money that's brought in from oil? And you must've been given some of the technology that was shipped over to help with crop production. What happened to that?"

Lekan exchanged a glance with Ife. "This is why we speak of rising up." He nodded to the woman beside him, inviting her to speak.

"I have been to the city," she began, "looking for work. Cooking, cleaning." She looked around the table. "I have heard the rumours. I have seen what people there do. There, many are rich, very rich. I one day worked in the house of a very rich man, one in the government. He thought I did not understand, but I had been sneaking food from his kitchen, and I heard."

She paused, and in the silence Harry spoke up. "Corruption is regrettable, but it has always existed here. Why should things be so much worse now?"

Ife raised her eyebrows. "They know that all we grow now are GeMFLOs. It is all we have. They do not wish to hear our voices. Silent is docile. Tame." Her face twisted, and her voice rose in anger. "Just animals. To work, mindless. Like cattle. Worse than slaves."

Lekan placed a calming hand on her arm and looked around furtively. Just the journalists in the room, just the three villagers.

"This is why we make plans." His voice was low, resonant. "We know what they do. We need a voice. We do what we must do. If we must fight for a voice without one, fight we will until we get one."


Only a few short days later, they had bidden farewell to the Lekan, Ife and Bongani, leaving them with a supply of food to bring back to the village and promising not to forget their cause. Harry sat upright in his high rise office, surveying the cityscape blindly.

In his head, he was still in Africa.

Luis walked in a dropped a printed copy of Harry's report on his desk. "Well, Caldwell. Can't decide if this is front page reporting or a conspiracy theory. Do you realize what you're saying? About everyone in this city, in the whole world? About the government?"

Harry looked down at the manuscript. "GOVERNMENT KEEPING POOR IN KARUMAY MALNOURISHED AND MALSPOKEN," read the title. Perhaps all capital letters had been too bold a move, a tradition reserved for only the most important headlines. But saying it with any less passion seemed almost civically irresponsible.

"I heard there's a small group of the Amish down in Lancaster who don't use GeMFLOs. Some of the few left who don't. Been thinking about heading down there, checking it out. Seeing about getting some seeds. Maybe I'll even try it out."

Luis frowned. "I'm not giving you leave so that you can go waste your time. You have plenty to eat. Your English is fine. Great, even. No need to go back to the stone ages."

Harry stood up. "Maybe I can write about it. Let me know if you publish the story. Otherwise, I was thinking of sending it around. Someone else might want to publish it." He stopped to consider. "Maybe I'll just put it out in the cloud."

And Harry strode out of the office, jacket slung over his shoulder, leaving Luis spluttering behind him.

He nodded respectfully when he made eye contact with the other commuters on the subway ride back to his apartment.