By Paul Teese
Emma was doing something she hadn’t done since childhood. She was playing with a straw. While holding a plastic bottle of ice water, she sealed her lips on the thick elbowed tube that poked through the lid, and with a determined precision, she raised and lowered the column of water, pulling it ever higher, until finally the cool liquid spilled into her mouth.
Propped up by pillows, Emma was resting in a hospital bed that had been delivered to her house a month earlier. She was seventy-eight years old and had received a diagnosis of end-stage pancreatic cancer. Now, she was enrolled in a home hospice program.
Rita, her companion of the past few years, was in the kitchen with a hospice aide. In their absence, Emma had reached the water bottle on her own, a small victory.
Rita appeared at the door. “Emma, would you like the television on?” she asked. “There might be some returns by now. The voting opened in east Asia a couple of hours ago.”
Emma smiled and nodded, “Yes, please.”
How could she choose otherwise? Emma had spent a lifetime studying words, but in particular, the derivation of proper names. Her fascination had led to a distinguished career in linguistics at a major university. In fact, she had colleagues who had participated in the very project that had reached its culmination tonight. Its significance was immense.
Rita handed Emma her eyeglasses and turned on the television. It was easy to find coverage. All humanity was following the story, and while there would be no official result for several days, this night felt historic.
On the screen, a couple of hosts interviewed an authority who had served on the original task force. The male host was speaking. “Almost everyone is familiar with the Naming Project now, but take us through the last few years once again. How did it all come together? What were the critical moments?”
The guest warmed to the task, “It’s astonishing how it coalesced. It was a convergence of events and ideas whose time had come. The storylines include identity and a coming of age for our species. Of course, the origins of the project can be traced back to 1758 when Carl Linnaeus named our species Homo sapiens, with he himself as the type specimen. In English, the translation is commonly rendered ‘wise man’.”
The female co-host smirked as the guest continued.
“Given the current conditions of the world, our altered climate, degraded ecosystems, overpopulation and a resurgence in authoritarian rule, the name had taken on a certain irony. Not only the name, but the process by which it was chosen seemed inadequate. With this recognition, academicians in biology, philosophy and other disciplines began a project to rename our species. The genus Homo, which is shared with extinct relatives, would be retained, but the specific epithet would be reevaluated. The project was soon popularized in the media and people from around the world warmed to the idea as their input was solicited. Finally, advocacy groups arose spontaneously to campaign for favored selections.”
Rita settled into a chair. Emma sipped from her water bottle. Both watched intently.
The guest continued, “But you asked for a critical moment. In my opinion, it was very early on, when the international committee in charge of taxonomic nomenclature agreed to make an unprecedented exception to its code. After reviewing the proposal from the project task force, the scientists agreed that this was not some capricious stunt, but a timely and proper decision by the one species with the cognition to rename itself. And under their auspices, the new epithet would become humanity’s official name henceforth.”
Rita glanced at Emma. She seemed comfortable and engaged. Her face was relaxed. The pain meds were working.
The hosts went on to converse with an expert on information technology. He explained the technology that underlay what was happening around the globe at that very moment. Using a smart phone app created expressly for the project, men and women of all ages, races, religions and nationalities were making their selections. Preliminary results were being relayed to project hubs where translators worked to capture the essence of word meanings, to render them in various languages, and compile popular choices for runoff ballots in the days ahead.
After a few minutes, the host interrupted to announce that the first returns were available and a computer graphic appeared on the screen. Accompanied by voiceover, the graphic was a word cloud that was continually updated with real time results. Almost alive, it moved and grew as it accreted names, and the names themselves shifted and jostled for a more central location.
Within an hour, despite her best efforts, Emma had tired and fallen asleep. Rita got up, set the water bottle onto the table, careful not to dampen Emma’s notepad, and quietly left the room. But the television remained on and the sound up, and in her sleep Emma dreamed of word clouds that danced and swirled.
A few days later, Rita entered the room to find Emma scribbling on her notepad. Emma was making a list. Inspired by current events, she had begun compiling plausible epithets that could be appended to her own given name. Rita was glad. It seemed a marvelous exercise, a sort of life review that was well-suited for a linguist. Here then was Emma, literally providing the final word regarding her life.
On the television, the latest news reports were now declaring that the human race was near a decision. As successive rounds of runoff votes were tallied, an unexpected name had emerged even as more conventional choices had flagged. It hadn’t been the first pick of many, but it embodied an indisputable truth that a growing multitude had come to acknowledge. The epithet was realistic, but not judgmental. It didn’t aggrandize humanity, nor for that matter, did it denigrate us. It was neutral, open to interpretation, a name half-full and half-empty.
Rita watched the television for the latest vote count, then turned down the sound for easier conversation. Emma looked up from her pad, relaxing her bony grip on the pen.
With a gesture toward the screen, Rita asked, “So, what do you think of the leading choice?”
Emma took a moment to consider the question. “It fits,” she said.
Rita had wished for more, and Emma sensed this. With effort, she summoned up the energy for a more learned and lengthy response. “We went from being wildlife to becoming the first self-domesticated animal. We changed ourselves and an entire planet too.” She paused. “Whatever else we may be, we are agents of change, for better or for worse.”
Satisfied, Rita turned up the volume in time to hear a reporter say, “With the voting nearly complete, it appears that humanity’s new name will be Homo commutatus. The epithet is a reference to the Latin verb commuto: to alter, to commute, to change or to transform.”
Only a week later, in the early afternoon, Emma died. The end came in the manner she had wished for, at home and in comfort. She had elected direct cremation, and Rita had duly contacted the crematory staff. They arrived promptly and removed the body, but they were required by law to wait twenty-four hours before proceeding further.
That evening, with no family and the hospice staff gone for the day, Rita was left alone, and the full torrent of grief descended on her. She wandered aimlessly around the house, as if in futile search for Emma, and returned repeatedly to the room where Emma had died.
The hospital bed was made up, and the room held little evidence that her dearest friend had been here, alive, warm and breathing only a few hours before. Rita scanned the space. The bedside table was tidy, the water bottle removed, but beside a vase of flowers, the notepad remained. Rita stepped to the table, and with a mournful gasp, lifted the pad to read it. It held the list of epithets that Emma had compiled, each one lined out in turn except for the last.
Her eyes filled with tears, Rita tried to read the final line, but it was a blur. Then a tear drop fell to the pad, smudging the last word. Rita was annoyed and upset, but after examining the pad, she still felt confident she knew what it was. As Emma had tired of the game, and accepted her imminent death, she had told Rita with a wry look that her final choice was Emma expira. It meant Emma dies. But conveniently and cleverly, it also meant Emma exhales, an apt allusion to the means by which words are spoken.
In an instant, Rita knew there was something she wanted to do. She called the crematorium and explained that she had a scrap of paper she wanted placed on Emma’s lips before cremation. The staff agreed and waited for Rita’s arrival the next afternoon. Once there, and having passed along a folded note sheet, she had chosen to stay as a witness.
As she watched, Emma’s mortal remains were rolled into a brick and concrete furnace. The machine was ignited and sprang to life with a loud whoosh. A rush of bright flame swept over the simple container that now enclosed Emma’s body, and everything, all of it, began to turn to hot vibrant gas that roiled up the chimney toward the vast blue sky above.
And so, Emma was transformed. But so was Rita.
She was grateful she had looked closely at the paper one last time before handing it over. Yes, the ink was smudged, but by the light of day, she realized there had been one last annotation she hadn’t discerned the night before. She was now certain the first two letters of the word, expira, had been overwritten. It now read Emma aspira. Emma hopes. With the change of two letters, her dear friend had transformed a dark despair into a brilliant hope.
Rita was filled with wonder at the way a life can shift with such ease and simplicity. It spoke of an ineffable grace, always at hand. And so, on the drive home, Rita opened every window of the car and let the cool fall air rush in and swirl around her. And as she pondered all these things, a beneficent breeze tossed her hair playfully and lovingly caressed her cheek.
Paul Teese was born and raised on Long Island. He attended Gettysburg College where he majored in Business Administration. Over his varied work life, he has been a tennis instructor, an officer in the USAF, a federal bureaucrat, an ecological researcher, an instructor at a university, the director of a small non-profit, and a candidate for public office. Along the way, he took a few years off to live on a commune where he learned to milk cows and weave hammocks. Now retired, he has recently taken up creative writing and is working on his first novel, The Flora of Heaven. He lives with his wife in a quiet village in rural upper Bucks County.