A framework for understanding entropy in clique networks
From the very beginning she’d been an extreme peripheral. Was it her degree in information theory? Her clothes? Her face or body? Maybe her mistake was to smile and introduce herself; a few women did say hi back, limply, before the group closed tight, radiating exclusion; shoulders formed a fortress which dominated the room, bird-like feet pointing inward, no outside eye contact.
Every morning the dread swooped in as the doors slid shut behind her; she braced for a sudden hush, the squeaks of chairs swivelling back to screens. Inexplicable bursts of laughter. Noise, silence, other forms of signal corruption. Seeing them gather, to go for coffee, lunch, post-work drinks. The mailing list for “everyone” from which her name was inexplicably deleted, added and re-deleted.
The dread hovered near the ceiling, descending when she used the bathroom or had to work on a different team. It sat on her shoulder, beak of bronze brushing her ear; spread its leaden wings, threatening to blot out the fluorescent light. She acknowledged symptoms—headache, nausea, shakiness. Plotted her course throughout the day, strategic movements in hostile spaces. Repeated private hexes: Stay professional. Calm. Krotala, krotala.
There were other outsiders, she noticed. Equally shunned with no recourse. Briefly tolerated or sitting in odd corners. She found an ally to eat lunch with. Then another. Her allies grew. The centre of gravity shifted, pulled askew; became more chaotic. A new blood-red mist of desperation coated desks and screens. One woman was spotted howling at the moon outside the emergency exit as the dread circled and multiplied.
All at once the clique schismed into opposing camps. She’d overhear things: ‘I hate the way she looks at me.’ Tidbits like this. ‘It’s just her face. I used to think, when she told me to eff off, it meant she hated me, but I realised it meant she liked me.’
Picked off one by one, the clique dwindled, until finally the last two dropped by her desk to hint about lunch, shedding plumage with each step.
She had other plans.
They murmured, ‘Eff off then.’
‘But could do tomorrow?’
On her way out she saw them huddled featherless over their sushi in the breakroom, the last Stymphalian bird hanging over their heads; visceral raptor, sad monstrosity.
Seen, named and known—off it flew toward the sea.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born and raised in Kirikiriroa, Sharni Wilson is an Aotearoa | New Zealand writer of fiction and a literary translator from the Japanese. Her work has appeared in Landfall, the Malahat Review, and the Stockholm Review, among others. They were a finalist for Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize in 2020, and won the At the Bay | I te Kokoru inaugural award for a manuscript of hybrid works for their collection, One to many.