He was splayed painfully on the hot, dry ground: a stake for each limb, stretching him like a Feynman diagram. She walked up, surveyed him from a distance of two feet, arms crossed. Kicked away an adder that was slithering towards his head. She was wearing an apron that had some fruit in it; she pulled one out. “Would you like an orange?”
“No, please, that’s what has gotten me into this in the first place.” But he did sound rather dry.
She started peeling the orange. “Who has put you here like this?”
He shook his head. “It was due to a grafting accident.”
“Compounding. Two words.”
“You are a word grower.”
“I used to be.” He said it oddly: not as most people do, with a voiceless [s], like “use to,” but actually as the two words used and to.
“You used to be…” she said, in the normal way.
“No, please, don’t say it that way.”
“I don’t have to.” She said this also in the normal way, as though it were “half to.”
The ropes tying him to the stakes seemed to tighten. “Please,” he said. “Have to.” He said it with the [v] voiced. “Just now, just for me here now.”
The orange was fully peeled. She broke a segment off it and knelt down by him. “Here. Have a wedge.”
“Thank you,” he said. She put it in his mouth, then another. Once he had chewed and swallowed, he said, “It’s phonology that has taken me to this pass. Devoicing by assimilation with the following consonant, like what happens to used and have before to. Shift of a consonant from one syllable to the adjoining one, like what made nadder, napron, norange into what they are now.” He looked at the orange. “Can I have an other?” Not another, like “a nother”; he said “an other.” Something had really spooked him.
Well, yes, when you’re staked splayed and supine on the dry, hot, hard ground, you may be a bit spooked.
“What would you give to be let loose?” she said quietly, close in, almost to his cheek.
“What would you like?” A little bead of sweat crawled down to the side of his left forehead.
She stood up again, looked him over. “Would you… stake your pain?”
The ropes seemed to tighten. He moaned a little, writhed as he could. “I think you’re a sadist.”
“I’m just… taking pains to see what the situation is.” The ropes eased a little.
“Please,” he said, “take my pains.”
“Yes,” she said. “I will not take pain, but I will take pains.” She took off the apron with the oranges, set it aside, and went over to his left hand and started undoing the rope there. “But have you been doing this long? Compounding?”
His hand came free. He swung his arm and held it in front of his mouth for a moment. “There’s a calm pounding in my wrist.”
She smiled, nodded to herself: Thought so. “A punster. You can get into trouble.” She moved to the right hand.
“If you take away my pain, I will take pains not to do it again.”
“I think,” she said, liberating his right hand, “you have done enough pains-taking for some time.”
He sat up, slid forward, managed to start undoing his feet. “But that’s the nature of the job,” he said. “It’s pains-taking work.” The ropes came loose and he rose.
“And sometimes,” she said, “pain-staking.”
And then, as if nothing had moved but everything had changed, it was she who was staked in pain on the ground… She had staked pain and lost the bet.
“Thank you,” he said, backing away. He turned towards her apron.
She grimaced. “Have an orange,” she said with some asperity. “Have another one. Have a whole nother one.”
He jumped back, then turned and started to walk, faster, speeding up to a run. She grimaced, was about to shout something. Paused. Shouted, “You don’t have to, you know!”