By Inbar Kaminsky
It is said that if you let a child develop its own language without any outside influence, that language would be strikingly similar to Hebrew. It is said that the first human myth about creation involved the Hebrew alphabet descending from heaven to create the world through the physical shapes of the letters.
It was said, over and over again, in ancient scrolls and practices of Jewish mysticism, only we weren’t paying attention. We translated the Hebrew word for God, the primary one used in The Old Testament, and treated it as singular, even though the word Elohim ends with a suffix used exclusively in plural form. We translated the word Nephilim as sons of God or giants that dominated pre-flood Genesis, but we have lost sight of the fact that the name is derived from the Hebrew word for ‘fallen’.
It all changed when they came, or returned; the satellite images first showed three shapes of unidentifiable objects, descending one after the other onto the Nevada desert. The crash site was sealed off by the military and the only information that was given to me along with the satellite images was that they had changed upon landing.
I can’t tell you what I do for a living, even now in retrospect; perhaps I should say, especially now, in retrospect. I was technically on maternity leave, out of the loop as far as newly formed top-secret stuff, knee deep in diapers and human secretions.
“Ella, are you there?” my very young replacement asked timidly when I had to distance my cell to avoid casing it in baby puke.
“Yes, here, wait a second,” I yelled, maybe louder than I should have, in the circus maneuvers of an out of shape gymnast. I placed my baby in the crib, took off my shirt, and put the call on speaker.
“Yes, Alex, sorry, I’m here.”
“I, we… need your help. New project.”
“The one that’s been plastered all over the news?”
“I can’t say anything more—“
“Over the phone, I know.” I interrupted him mid-sentence, impatient once again.
I was a newly minted single mom, more anxious than even the average citizen, regurgitating the conflicting reports of various news outlets. No one could stop the speculations, not in the virtual age of multiple online platforms. The consensus was that an alien invasion has taken place and a government cover-up soon followed. This is the basic story we have all read in novels and watched in movies and TV shows; this was our myth to pass on.
They came in and held the images in front of me, a select group of my colleagues, without pleasantries or idle talk; they didn’t even ask for my baby’s name. My baby was sleeping in his crib and my colleagues were whispering fragmented sentences as they waited for me to speak.
“Familiar…? What’d ya…? Is it even close to…?”
I looked closely at the satellite images, first randomly and then in the sequence in which they were captured. Suddenly it struck a forgotten cord, and a hazy memory of Hebrew school resurfaced: these shapes looked like the first, and possible only, word I regained from that childhood experience. I tried to pronounce the letters but couldn’t remember their names or the sound they make. The only thing I could clearly state was that this particular sequence of shapes, in the chronological order of their descent, looked a lot like the Hebrew word for home.
“Home?” one of my colleagues gasped loudly, and I wanted to strangle him; this revelation paled in comparison to the possibility of my baby waking up from his well-deserved nap after a morning of constant crying.
“Are you sure?” another colleague whispered firmly.
“Did you not consult a language expert? That would’ve been my first move,” I replied.
Alex finally stepped in, “We did, of course—”
“Just the Latin language expert, or—“
“No, there was that Semitic languages guy—“
“That’s it? Well, that would explain it.”
“Yes, but Hebrew is his blind spot. I stressed that in the briefing before I—“
“Well, Hebrew never required our attention before.”
“It does now.”
Home. A curious choice. That’s the only thought that occurred to me during that hushed conversation. I remember I kept glancing at the images; the Shapes didn’t look human to me, or even humanoid, but the resolution was very poor so all I could clearly observe was the Shapes. I didn’t register the possibility that this was intentional, that I was meant to see them as shapes first and foremost.
The symbolic value of the Shapes was a completely foreign concept to me. It didn’t even occur to me at that point that there could even be more to the letters than the word they evoked in succession. It was only later, when they seemingly took over speech, that it became apparent: they had sent their storytellers first, their cultural ambassadors.
The first letter, Beit, is an accumulative letter – as in observing, taking notes, providing and accepting information. It is also the first letter that was used to create the world, heading the word Bri’ah, meaning ‘creation’. The middle letter, Yud, is the divine letter – representing omnipresence as the primary affix of the future tense. The last letter, Taf, is also the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet – representing the fixer, the one who gets things done behind the scenes.
Learning the thematic value of each Shape became a survival technique for the few of us who outlived the final invasion. Infants, such as mine, were taught the Aleph-bet before they could utter even one syllable; those who retained it as a code, were spared, shielded from the paralyzing effects of the Shapes’ speech. Most of them didn’t survive since they inherited their parents’ misguided notion of the Shapes – the same people who treated it as a language, who failed to explore the Shapes as contours of creation. It was an unconscious thing, not a deliberate choice. Everyone wanted to survive, obviously, but few were able to look beyond the pale version of the Shapes as letters and genuinely treat them as the blueprint of the human mind.
This is the reason most native speakers of Hebrew didn’t survive either: we tend to take our native tongue for granted. Most Israelis found it difficult to look beyond the mandate usage of Hebrew, just as the average American would struggle to see the mystical element of silent letters in English – the ghostly umbilical cord that tethers them to the word they are born with, their material pre-sentence that can never be fully corporealized.
What was first observed as a trinity of entities producing collective consciousness was later depicted by the sole survivor as a highly evolved form of hypnosis. He wasn’t immune to it exactly, but after forty days spent in catatonic state, he was the only one to recover. The rest remained frozen, for a lack of a better word, as if they had been ordered to shut down.
“They spoke in one voice and two echoes,” Eric said to us, lying in a hospital bed in a hospital room inside a government facility. “In English, using future tense and” – he paused as the following information seemed to trigger an emotional reaction. His voice trembled as he said slowly, “and second person pronouns.”
You will land here, all twenty-seven of you. You will rule again.
You will come back to speak the end of humanity as promised.
Much later, after the invasion had been completed, I could see for myself what they had looked like upon landing. Their transformation remained inexplicable no matter how many times I returned to Eric’s recorded depiction; one had to experience them with one’s own senses to have even a basic notion of what they are. It was part of it: luring people in order to enact the poisonous effect of their direct speech and weed out the weak.
The only sustained explanation for Eric’s survival was the characteristic that set him apart from all the government officials and military personnel on site during the first speech of the ambassadors: he was bilingual, a Hebrew expert brought in to consult. This was the basic cautionary tale that was passed on through circulating rumors over smartphone texting and internet forms in the early days before digital technology became catatonic as well. But Eric’s Hebrew didn’t save him; it took us years to discover that it was another cognitive trait altogether that set him apart from the rest. By then, of course, it was too late.
Aleph was first to land after the ambassadors. This was in the wake of the utter collapse of human governments and the ushering in of a new age of technological blackouts due to the overwhelming electromagnet power the Shapes had discharged. This was the last technological observation of the digital age: a brief anecdote about its own demise. Four-dimensional magnets would be an accurate description, but one that is abstract enough to avoid evoking a clear image. This was also intentional, as it became increasingly apparent that the Shapes’ mode of operation was not on a conscious plane of existence.
Aleph was our way out, but we failed to seize the opportunity. Upon landing, every Shape’s transformation collides with its thematic value, its soul. This is the only moment they were truly vulnerable, bound by the meaning of their calling. Aleph symbolizes a breakthrough, and it could’ve been our breakthrough, but instead it was theirs.
People were running around aimlessly then, just before the annihilating speech of all the assembled Shapes. Smart homes became metal shoeboxes, and people had to learn how to adjust to the natural elements. Eric and I had escaped together, along with my baby, from the government facility, which became a useless cave following the final invasion and subsequent blackout. We fled without knowing where we were going or why, and into a world we could barely recognize: a scavenged wasteland.
My baby seemed to take to the Shapes right away, easily recognizing the symbolism of each letter in perfect harmony with what Eric had been teaching him. I was relieved then, realizing he was not doomed to die from exposure to the Shapes’ direct speech. This was incredibly naïve of me, but I was a new mom, still adjusting to the title while the outside world had tipped over and gone mad.
I didn’t know it then, but the time of his birth corresponded to the time when the first Shape entered the earth’s atmosphere, down to the minute. He will tell me this himself, when he turns ten and leaves me. This will be both devastating and somehow expected. He said his first word when he was only three months old, and it was ‘You’. He stopped responding to his given name when he turned one, pointing at himself with his chubby fingers and repeating a word never spoken in his presence, because by then the use of Hebrew as a language had become life-threatening: “El”.
Lamed descended moments after Aleph. This was another missed opportunity since succession of letters forming powerful words was not a coincidence. Aleph and Lamed put together correspond to another word for God, El, but could also be used as a form of negation prefix, such as un- or in- in English. Contradictions like that had a powerful effect on the electromagnetic field because during the brief period of the landing itself, and prior to the transformation of the letters, they canceled the blackout. It was felt as an epic pulse throughout the world, or what was left of it.
The descent of final forms – the five Hebrew letters that change form when placed at the end of a word – brought on disorienting time loops. Eric said that the number of hours we were stuck repeating the same hour of the landing corresponded to the numerical value of each letter.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said over and over again during those endless vortexes of spinning time, “but Hebrew letters really coexist with their numerical value. If you pick up any ancient Jewish text in its original form, you will see Hebrew letters composing the language of the narrative and at the same time marking the page and verse number. There are no numbers, only letters switching back and forth from text to code.”
Throughout the invasion, Eric insisted on speaking in Hebrew. It was never louder than a whisper, but it was there, corporealized by the waves of his voice, following us wherever we went like a pillar of cloud. This was the sin of knowledge – the debasing of the code of creation into everyday speech – and this was explained to the survivors of the final invasion, in a clumsy yet not deadly form of dialogue. This was the reason that Hebrew became strictly prohibited after all the Shapes had landed, or so we were led to believe.
You will only be vessels of Hebrew, not horns.
This sentence was somehow broadcast throughout the world. At this point very few knew of the Shapes’ curious usage of second person pronouns to presumably describe themselves. Eric and I were probably the only ones who realized that the Shapes were not necessarily referring to humans.
“But why would they admit to such a weakness?” I whispered to Eric as we roamed the aisle of an abandoned supermarket, using an empty shopping cart and our worn-out jackets as a cradle for my baby. The movement seemed to cast a soothing effect over all of us, a prickly blanket that temporarily covered our exposed edges.
“Maybe they don’t see it as a weakness,” Eric finally said in a defeated rasp. His grey eyes and slightly bent posture added years to his tender age of twenty-five. I was almost twenty years older, yet we found ourselves succumbing to the comforting passion that ruled us both almost every night. It quickly became as primal and as compulsory as any other bodily function, a reminder that we were still alive.
Shin was the last one, the last descending letter and possibly the most dangerous one. “Shin represents deception and fire,” Eric told me while we watched the darkening sky above us hungrily swallow velvety depths, folding and unfolding in maddening pulses of light and thunder. Twenty-two letters plus five final ones had fallen and transformed, and so had we.
I had asked Eric to write down the principles of the Shapes’ symbolic and numerical value so that I could also pass them down to my son, yet he was adamantly reluctant to do so. After he was savagely killed by drifters, I discovered the truth as I went through his remains: Eric was dyslexic. This was highly unusual for language experts, and he had probably grown so accustomed to concealing this impairment – the very impairment that had saved him from the deadly effect of the Shapes’ direct speech – that he simply went on doing so even when it no longer mattered. This cognitive tendency to rearrange written letters had saved Eric and others like him because the Shapes’ speech was written, inscribed, and embedded into the unconscious part of our language processing as invisible blazes of fire.
They need a horn. This was the bitter realization that struck me as my ten-year-old child, already taller and physically stronger than me, left me to join the Shapes. Like most survivors, we fled to places that bordered on a large body of water, since the Shapes had taken over the deserts and appeared reluctant to wet themselves. We only learned of this weakness years after the invasion, and by then we were too scattered to use it to our advantage. I knew two other families that had settled in an oyster farm in the Bay Area as we had: a single father and his ten-year-old daughter, and a single mother with eleven-year-old twin boys. I had finally come to terms with our new life and even managed to enjoy some of it – soaking my feet in the cool water while watching the sunrise and the sunset; fishing shellfish and daydreaming – when my boy, who already looked like a Greek god among mere mortals, drily informed me over dinner that he had finally found Hamakom.
“Hamakom,” he said while forgoing the incomprehensible second person speech of the Shapes that he had so easily adapted to. “The Shapes finally built it. For me.” I didn’t understand what Hamakom meant, nor did I care to repeat the word in Hebrew, even though the old prohibition was a mere superstition by now. Years later, when I learned that my child had become the leader of the Shapes, Hamakom became his nickname in the Hebrish that had evolved out of necessity among the survivors.
In Passover’s Haggadah, the Jewish tale of enslavement and emancipation, there is a phrase that refers to God as Hamakom. “Baruch hamakom, baruch hu.” Blessed be God, blessed be He. I write these final words as my final hour draws closer. I’m blessed with the knowledge that He, my son, has finally found this place that the Shapes built for him: the space that impossibly occupied matter and spirit over fractures of time and space.