Metonymy Smith felt a certain obligation to follow in his parents’ footsteps as a writer. His sister, Synecdoche, sensed no such onus whatsoever. She, in fact, felt wholeheartedly that it was her duty to put an end to the Smith family’s enduring legacy of verbal terrorism.
Synecdoche’s initial act of subterfuge was enrolling in cosmetology school. Within a week, however, she was taken aside by her instructor and reprimanded for her persistent silence. “A silent hairdresser will never do,” said her teacher.
Dropping out of the school, Synecdoche considered going to a four-year college. But what majors required minimal contact with words? She considered becoming a music major with an emphasis in classical music, but figured that would entail some involvement with opera. She began a class in auto shop but quickly realized that, in this career, she would not only be sullied by coworkers’ colorful slang, but with coaxial cable grease to boot.
With their parents out of town for the weekend, Metonymy, with much hesitation, approached his sister to enlist her help with editing his story for his high-school English class. To his surprise, she reluctantly assented to the task. He watched, in silent self-castigation, as a sickly pallor swept across Synecdoche’s face as she read. With a red felt-pen she began to make marks. Slowly, her pigmentation assumed more color. With each notation she made, it seemed, a distinct redness accrued to both page and face.
Metonymy began wondering if his story was angering Synecdoche. As he continued to observe her, however, he detected a certain glee in her deliberation. Reaching the tale’s end, she looked up at him in an eerie crimson triumph. He looked at the paper she handed him, marveling that that much ink could be wrung from a vessel so small as a pen. Knowing her preoccupation of late with finding a suitable trade, he asked, “Have you considered becoming a butcher?”
While the obliteration of words indeed seemed a reasonable direction to pursue for one with Synecdoche’s convictions, she understood that becoming an editor required substituting one word for still another as much as it did simply eliminating them. Though much damage could indeed be done in this field, she decided far more could be inflicted if she were to become a linguist.
The bombardment with words Synecdoche experienced in the following years of university study was truly excruciating, but her determination proved adequate to the demands. She continued into graduate school and was assigned for her mentor a professor of linguistic analysis with deconstructionist commitments. He denied any objective correspondence between words and the things to which they refer. “Language,” he said, “is a closed system that ultimately refers only to itself. It is the prison in which we live.” Synecdoche could barely suppress her excitement at finding, in this cobelligerent soul, one who could articulate this oppression she had long instinctually felt.
Synecdoche’s parents, given her generally quiet disposition, were oblivious to any concerns with her chosen field of study. They were even delighted about it until she returned home for a visit between semesters.
The explanation Synecdoche gave her mother when asked about the word “ear” tattooed on her nose failed to satisfy her. Synecdoche told her that meaning was ultimately subjective and that the relationship between words and the things they signify is wholly arbitrary. When, at the dinner table two days later, her father noticed the word “nostril” on her right eyelid, she was informed her visit was over.
In the months following, Synecdoche continued to acquire tattoos of body-part words in unconventional locations. By the time of her graduation, no prominent feature survived unlabeled. The university faculty thought her a model of progressive thinking and she easily garnered the honor of valedictorian. She considered writing her speech on her body and reading it as it was projected on a screen, but saw there was no longer room enough on her skin to contain it.
As Synecdoche scratched her nose while pondering a novel approach, she was startled at the feeling of an unusual growth. She shuddered at the though of giving her address to the school with a massive pimple on her face. She went to her bathroom mirror to assess the damage.
Synecdoche shrieked at the sight of the flesh of her nose as it discernibly mutated into an ear. Tears immediately streamed from her left eye while mucous slowly eased its way from her right.
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