The Word of Flesh and Soul

By Ruthanna Emrys

The language of the originators defines reality, every word warping the world to fit its meaning. Its study transforms the mind and body, and is closely guarded by stodgy, paranoid academics. These hidebound men don’t trust many students with their secrets, especially not women, and more especially not “madwomen.” Polymede and her lover Erishti believe they’ve made a discovery that could blow open the field’s unexamined assumptions, and they’re ready to face expulsion to make their mark. Of course, if they’re wrong, the language will make its mark on them instead.

They say studying the tongue of the originators warps judgment as well as flesh. I’m not doing much tonight to disprove that belief: instead I’m kneeling outside my advisor’s office with a purseful of stolen keys, straining my ears for the echo of footsteps in the dim linoleum hallway. If I’m caught, I’ll be kicked out of the program. If I succeed, I’ll be kicked out anyway—but hopefully with a publication in hand and a nasty footnote for my legacy. Polymede Anagnos, who broke every scholarly law to produce a deprecated translation of the Lloala ‘chaio.

Make that Polymede Anagnos and Erishti Musaru, who together produced the deprecated translation. Rish, waiting anxiously in our illicit off-campus apartment, deserves that footnote every bit as much as I do.

The keys are ordinary metal, old-fashioned, filched from the administrative office as I flirted with the secretary. The ring is rusted. The minuscule handwritten labels are blurred beyond comprehension, or else lost entirely, their history attested only by remnant scraps of Scotch tape. There were newer, shinier rings in the drawer. They seemed more likely to be missed. More likely to hold complete sets as well, of course, but I’m betting on a Lloala scholar’s longstanding resistance to change. What would it take to make Dr. Rallis accede to a lock upgrade? Aside from what I’m doing now, of course.

Key after key slides into the lock and refuses to twist. The code-iron knobs in the CompSci building would’ve frozen by now, sent out their silent alarms and refused to turn. But Rallis has the simpler, if unintentional, security of an ancient door whose key must be pulled back a half-step, jiggled twice, and whispered to in the secret language of metal, a process that will push the rusty mechanism into motion once out of three tries. So each attempt lengthens as I try the key not quite in its exact seat, and try again, hoping to find the right combination of brass and steel and space. There is, so far as I’m aware, no real secret language of metal, but I mutter the Blacksmith’s Curse under my breath. If my advisor could hear me, maybe he’d admit that I belong in the department after all: a true student of Lloala, so much of my thought transmuted that even mundane frustration emerges in ancient and hazardous form. I risk myself with every breath.

But my pronunciation is good. Better than it’s ever been before—listening for the whisper of shoe against floor, hyper-awareness spills over into my own speech. I hear something new in the words. Not an artisan’s casual anger at a forge too cold or a blade cracked by hidden flaw, but fury at her own imperfection. A curse that reflects back on the one who speaks it, demanding more.

When I look down at the keys, I can’t believe they ever seemed interchangeable. Every corrugation stands clear, a dozen landscapes dangling from a ring whose rust is itself a treasury of texture.

It’s a long, dangerous minute before I can drag my eyes from metal made suddenly gorgeous. Then I pull out my smartphone. Grateful and disappointed to find the amalgamation of plastic and glass and rare earth as ordinary as it’s ever been, I fumble open the flashlight app. Within the lock, another landscape reveals itself, sky to match the mountains and crevasses of the keys. But only one key matches perfectly. Trembling with adrenaline, I join the two halves. Tumblers click. When I can bear the thought of separating key from lock, I open the door. The inner wards, twining and barbed against Rallis’s acknowledged rivals, part like mist for his once-trusted student.

Wan lamplight from the courtyard stripes the office. In the corner, a reluctant computer pays tribute to the demands of university administrators. When not being used to appease bureaucracy, it lies dormant; the bulk of the room is reserved for long paper-stacked tables and shelves of messily labeled artifacts. Herd counts and broken stone receipts, pottery decorated with images of figures making pottery, a night-black stone tablet whose inlaid text reflects moon-like luminance.

It’s the tablet I’m after. On loan from the Institut des Arts Éclairé de Paris, it’s a fragment of the Lloala ‘chaio that no one in the U.S. has seen before this week. Dr. Rallis’s reputation won that access, but there are limits to what I can do under his cautious eye. And in six days, Rish and I are scheduled to bring our article before the board of reviewers for the Journal of Primal Language. Once they discover that I forged Rallis’s sponsorship letter, we won’t get a second chance. Our translation has to take account of every fragment we have available. It has to be perfect.

There are so many rules for studying the tongue. No technological aids—any tool unavailable to the originators can only distort meaning. No readers whose minds distort the world—the language can only lead to enlightenment for those already on their way. Not that anyone has ever made it. My phone’s still in my hand, but I check the window first. Around the courtyard, the other offices lie dark. I dither: turn on the overheads and risk someone asking Dr. Rallis whether his late night bore fruit, or stick with the flashlight app, less obvious from outside but more obviously illicit if someone spots it.

I twist the rod on the blinds to mask my work. Bright stripes wane and vanish. The Lloala ‘chaio fades, then reappears, penumbral in the phone’s harsh beam. A dozen clicks of the camera and I e-mail the images to myself, violating the oath I swore to my advisor in the tongue itself.

Tiny fingers on the back of my hand, like a shark’s second row of teeth, testify that obedience has gotten me no further than anyone else. The first knuckles appeared during my second semester like daffodil buds pushing through snow, fully blossomed by the year’s end. There have been other changes since—those that I can see, like the fingers and my tongue, and probably others that I can’t. My insurance won’t cover an MRI without serious symptoms, but there are foods I can no longer eat. Odd sensations plague me on the edge of sleep, vanishing before I’m awake enough to articulate them. The fingers strain until their knuckles ache whenever I reach for something, though they’re too weak and poorly placed to help grasp. My body shows every sign of intense and inadequate study.

Phone doused, I crack the door. The hall remains silent. No echoes but my own, when I accidentally step on a loose tile. Out of the building, into the parking lot, starting the car, and all still quiet. I’m off-campus and halfway home before my ruminations bring up a phone-perfect picture of the darkened office, just as I left it. Dark, sure—the courtyard’s radiance blocked by the blinds I wound against prying eyes.

“Fuck!” This time, at least, I manage to swear in English. I repeat myself several times while I think. I could go back, fix the shade, and hope my luck in avoiding observers holds. That was luck, a die that won’t love me for repeated rolling. Alternatively, I could leave my mistake where I made it, and hope that Dr. Rallis is either distracted tomorrow or just blames the janitorial staff. The dependence of this latter plan on one professor’s absent-minded obsession, rather than on the random behavior of everyone else who might haunt the Language Arts building after hours, decides me. That, plus my eagerness to share my newly captured text with Rish. Between replaying the night’s tedious dangers, and reporting those dangers to a warm girlfriend, there’s no serious contest.

As I squeeze in the front door, I stumble over letters. Rish has spread them across the living room: the kindergarten-style plush-covered Lloala alphabet that someone gave me as a gag gift when I started the program. Hazardous, my advisor informed me, and in poor taste besides. But Rish loves the feel of them, the physicality. Depending on her mood, she sorts them by shape or by intricately differentiated phonemic characteristics. Tonight’s logic isn’t immediately obvious, but it isn’t flat versus curved. Once I get it, I suspect we’ll add another paragraph or three to the article.

Rish looks up, green hair swinging in her eyes. “Did you take pictures, yes or no?”

I let the grin come out. “Yes. I took pictures.”

“Show me. But don’t disarrange the letters.”

I grab the laptop and kneel beside her. “Hug, please?” She leans against me, warm and comfortable, while the computer wends its fitful way to our wi-fi network.

Some of the images are blurred or just too dark. Letters that shone lunar-bright to the naked eye hide their corners in shadow. Is that a thal or a tli? But they’re clear enough to read. And the words are here, freed from Doctor Rallis’s vigilant restrictions. Rish hums tunelessly as we read. Or it sounds tuneless to me. The songs have words, she tells me—but whether in English or Lloala or some language never translated, her interior lyrics are as private as a diary.

Around us, between her letters, I spread our article notes. Index card distillations of support for our claim: that the narrative traditionally inferred from the Lloala ‘chaio’s available scraps is too simple, that Eloar the high priest attains perfection only with the aid of ‘Rochaol, a character who appears at the edges of those well-known shards. Her role is frequently described as “mysterious,” and she’s often supposed to be allegorical—a prototype to the Greek chorus rather than an actual participant in Eloar’s life.

“Dr. Rallis and I only got through the first two sentences,” I say, filling the space left by Rish’s silent concentration. “But I picked out ‘Rochaol’s name later in the segment—this has to tell us something new.”

“Mmmm.” She repeats the name’s initial click a few times. Her pronunciation’s better than mine. Perhaps much better. A year and a half into my program, and her less official study alongside, her only physical change is a dusting of orange fur along the back of her neck where clothing tags used to irritate her skin. She’s dyed it to match her hair. “Where does this go in the sequence?”

“I don’t know yet. What we’ve got for those two sentences—”

“Don’t tell me what Rallis said.” Meaning, don’t bring up something we suspect is wrong, and get myself tangled in it. Rish may sometimes miss when I’m being sarcastic, but Rallis’s biases have a lot less influence on her. I let her rework the opening while I pour myself into the rest of the text. I should go to sleep—if I’m bleary tomorrow I’ll only exacerbate my advisor’s suspicion about the blinds. But then, it’s not weird for a grad student to be exhausted and sleep deprived. And I’m not exhausted now—I’m awake, wired, the poetry of the words dancing through my mind like it never does at school. Paie Eloar tlaeoye Feielro ebraedor…There’s a song in my head now, too. Orthodox Lloala studies forbid computerized analysis, or any other tool they’re confident the originators couldn’t have used. The risk of distortion is too great, they say. But the Lloala ‘chaio is an epic, even if a short one; at some point, it must have been sung. And we never sing, either.

Paie Eloar Tlaeoye,” I sing, and Rish grins and hums along. I scribble glosses, guess wildly at sentences, try to get an overall sense of the story’s shape. Rish notes alternate translations in tiny print, a cloud of specificity hovering around my words like dragonflies.

At 5 a.m., I sit back on my heels. I’ve been wrestling with a single sentence for the past forty-five minutes, and have switched to a separate sheet of paper in case I need to tear it up in frustration. “Rish, how do you interpret theiaroneie?”

She ignores me for a long minute. We used to fight about this, but I’ve learned to wait, letting her come to the end of whatever mental rosary she’s working through before she takes up my question.

Theiaroneie,” she says at last. “On is started but not complete. Eie is action taken by someone who isn’t human. Theiar is marked. Stained. Blemished. Cursed, poetically.”

“Look, how do you read this line?”

She hums over the troublesome piece. “Ummmmm. Right now? Then Eloar brought—no. Then Eloar raised ‘Rochaol into the temple—or the congregation, maybe—because she was being marked by the…the power. That’s weird. Thaodon is incredibly generic. It could mean anything from their highest god to the demons that spoil food to test endurance.”

“Do you think they picked it just to be poetic? Theiaroneie thaodon—it’s alliterative, but it’s such a weird word choice. You never see theiar used to describe people in the temple hierarchy.” I spread my hand, palm down. The extra fingers curl like fronds. “Learn the language right, and nothing will theiar you. It’s a mark of failing at enlightenment. So why would he raise her?”

“Maybe we’re right that she’s important, but wrong about the role she plays,” Rish says. “She could be a bad example, or a scapegoat, or a temptation. ‘Raising’ is good in our culture; maybe it wasn’t for the originators.”

“‘You raise me in the night, early light in the temple of my eyes.’” It’s from a love poem, the first piece we translated together.

“‘Your body writes the word of flesh and soul.’” She offers the next line automatically, reassuring ritual before returning to the academic argument. “Or it isn’t always good. There could be contextual factors.”

“Maybe. What other assumptions are we making?”

Rish licks her lips and turns from the image on the screen. She gathers letters from the arrangement on the floor, starts to lay out the troublesome word. She rocks when she gets to the second eil—the alphabet set has only one. I draw the oblong loop on a spare sheet of paper, making sure it’s the same size as the others, and after a moment she slots it in place and finishes with the et. She touches each letter in turn, and I join her. I try to feel the word: not just the velveteen shapes on my floor, but how they’d have sat in the minds of the speakers. Someone carved those bright letters in dark stone, almost four thousand years ago. Someone struggled over their sentences, just as I do when I strive to say what I mean, and nothing else, explanations chipped out word by word. Did they always succeed, or like me did they sometimes choose Twain’s lightning bug in place of the lightning? A native speaker of Lloala, raised in the tongue, shaped by its perfection, should have transcended such errors.

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