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The Orthographers                                                             

by Kane X. Faucher



  could flatter myself to believe these mysterious people were impressed by my precociousness, but it was more likely their boredom and isolation that allowed me to tarry longer in their domain as they had made no motions to do as my guide had announced in speeding me off.  I was slowly introduced to the mysteries they so carefully guarded.  Perhaps by the curious twist of their metaphysical outlook and its complete exclusion of any possibility of, or place for, accidents, my simply being there was an act of a higher will, linked perhaps to predestination or fate.  In time, they relaxed the derogatory predicate of trespasser from my name and began treating me—not with excessive hospitality—with a measured laconic tolerance.  Seeing that I was harmless and more or less grateful to having been saved from the harsh desert, there was less reason for them to be secretive.  As a nomad, I could present them with little to no jeopardy.

In time, I would learn their names, although names served a different function, closely reminiscent of medieval naming where a surname like Cook, Butler, Smith, would announce one's profession.  Each member of the Guild was assigned a letter at birth they would be accountable for.  The man who had rescued me was named—and responsible for—the letter P.  Each of the 26 members were given to profound reflections on their respective letters, experimenting with phonic variations, drawing elaborate tables of connections where the letter was prominently in use, the geometric permutations of the letter, and so on—a whole of one's life devoted to one assigned letter each.  They were also, I learned, each responsible for the manufacturing of their assigned letter using a large typesetting apparatus (I would later discover that the black sands that dominated this stretch of desert were actually a mix of stone dust and black ink from these machines).  By contrast, my name, composed as it was of ten letters, must have seemed to them a jumbled incoherence.

Each letter had a guardian and an elder advisory council.  The guardian would be entrusted to train the novice at thirteen years of age when the child was taken from the parental home.  At the age of 26, if the novice passed the educational requirements in the study of the letter, he would take the position of the new guardian while the old guardian would be given a seat on the advisory council.  The training was of a demanding rigour not found even in some of our most renowned schools.  Concurrently with the training specific to the letter, the novice was expected to read the Book of Aleph (Liber Alephi) so as to lend the requisite spiritual gravity and instruction as to why guardianship of the letter was necessary.  I was given no indication if their studies included mathematics, geography, history, or the natural sciences, but their knowledge seemed to embrace all fields of study as it pertained to the study of the letter.

Despite the rigour of instruction, their studies were pragmatic and the subjects gracefully economical.  A history of American presidents, for example, would most likely be considered highly peripheral except where letters were somehow involved—the repetition of W in the initials of Woodrow Wilson would have some relevance to one studying the letter W.  Neither was their education so exclusively specific as to disregard the importance of other letters in the alphabet.  I've already mentioned their quasi-theological text, Liber Alephi, but every six months they were expected to pass a test on a letter outside their guardianship.  This survey knowledge of other letters gave the student insight on how letters connect as a whole.  By the time they reached the age of 26, on top of mastering their own letter, they would have gained approximate knowledge on the remaining 25.  This was consistent practice in their pedagogical view of gradual development and the cohering of orthography.

For obvious reasons of guild privacy, I was not permitted to read the Liber Alephi, but the guardian of Q was kind enough to tell me select notions from their devotional text, doubtless taking care to omit a great deal so as not to subject the book to the eyes of the profane.

The Guildmaster's suspicion of me as a foreigner was waning, almost as though I had ceased to be of any alarming significance.  His nonchalance trickled down to the remainder of the tribe who took very little interest in me, my travels, or the land from whence I came.  In fact, they seemed to lack that bone of curiosity most others are born with, and so my incessant questions must have seemed odd, if not mildly offensive and exasperating.  I more than made up for their signal lack of any astonishment while they regarded me like one would the presence of a chirping migratory bird.

I cannot reliably say just how many weeks I spent pacing those winding stone corridors and black sands, alighting in one workshop or another (they were all of homogenous size and contents save for the difference in letter).  To say that I was permitted to observe their work is too formal an acknowledgement when, in fact, they took increasingly less interest in my presence.  In each of the 26 workshops, all hewn in stone, there was a monumental letter (also of stone) in the centre announcing the workshop's charge.  By the evidence of small stone chips strewn around these sculptures, the letter was always being refined and reshaped.  A baffling array of instruments and measurement tables bespoke of perpetual modification and analysis.  To say these people took letters seriously would be a crude understatement:  for them, the letter was a religion, a way of life, and the reason for existence for which no higher purpose could exist.  The fact that I had no trade in the letter placed me in the maligned position of being inferior.

What also astounded me was the staggering volume of archives each letter had associated with it.  For example, in workshop F, a copy of Anatole France's The Garden of Epicurus had every F in the text reverentially circled in ink with a single bold underline.  The guardian of F could tell me from memory how many times the letter F appeared in the book which he said was factored into his ongoing statistical analysis.  I learned from him that F appeared on average 97 times out of 1000 characters in the period preceding World War II, but appeared 106 times subsequently.  When I inquired after the discrepancy, the guardian made motion with his hands suggesting there are some mysteries about a letter only the guardian of that letter is entitled to know.

The guardian of Y was much more forthcoming, almost friendly, when I visited him.  He even elected to show me a book that pleased him containing Jacques Derrida's Ulysses Gramophone.

Not here how the philosopher counted the number of instances of Y-E-S in Joyce's Ulysses, he said.  When it comes to the inscription of letters, there are no accidents.

Do you believe that authors intentionally add a set number of particular letters in their works? I asked.

Yes and no.  Rules govern language and predict what can come next in the construction of a word.  There are no words in any language where an X is followed by a K, but Y follows L frequently.  Sound and structure determine orthographic interconnectivity.  Each letter has a limited range of options for what they can connect to, and this is determined by the small range of sounds it can fit with unless modified by another letter.

Like how G can be hard or soft, 'grab' or 'lodge', right?

Yes.  Determined by rules of convention, mutations in language, borrow terms, and the like.

Can you explain why my being here is not considered an accident?

There are rules some cannot see, but still follow without knowing it.  Certain connections in the universe follow broad patterns that may extend as far back as time's beginning.  Every choice made in life, as in letters for the formation of a word, is an exclusive one that annihilates all other possible choices.  Granted, there are some choices that are more highly probably than others.  Y follows L commonly even though K following X is theoretically possible but not probable.  In your case, you came to the desert.  You knew it was a possibility that you would be cheated, become lost, all the risky and perilous misadventures that eventually brought you here.  Some choices are more likely than others.  You could have come here and strangled me or talk to me—the latter choice was more likely.  If someone greets you, it is more likely that you return the greeting with something in kind, and highly unlikely that you take that occasion to slit your own throat or recite a passage from an encyclopedia or peel a grapefruit.

I couldn't have known in advance that I would find myself here since I did not know 'here' existed.

As I said, choices are made according to rules, but not everyone is aware of the rules.  Choices are sequential, and most people make them in specific circumstances without realizing that these choices are formed by all previous experience.

I would not be granted much more insight into this strange tribe of orthographers, for the Guildmaster summoned me to say that he had arranged for my departure.  It was time for me to make new choices.  But, at the heart of my attempts to understand these people, I continuously came up against the wall of their true purpose.  To what end this guardianship of letters? The answer would be given me by way of a riddle.

Words are clean, and names are clumsy, the Guildmaster said.  Some must dedicate their lives to the protection and regulation of the word's smallest and most fragile units so that words may continue to thrive.  The things we name—feelings, objects, ideas—cannot survive without the concurrence of letters that guarantee the sense and sound.  We fashion, we study, we develop so that others may be free.  It does not trouble us that so many take these tiny units for granted, or do not understand the vital significance of single letters, but neither do many who eat think of the harvester, those who use tools think of the toolmaker, those who blindly obey the laws of the land think of the one who wrote them into existence.  Go forth, Jason Johns American.  The letter is yours to wield, and ours to comprehend.

And so it was done.  A member of the guild escorted me for several miles, that tribal fortification swallowed by distance and the stirring of another storm.  My guide left me at the nearest small town, gifting unto me only one statement:  It is written.  The infinite Aleph knows, and men believe they are free.  It is the way of the Aleph and the way of men, their differences united by the pattern of the letter.  That was the last I ever heard or saw of the orthographers.

Since then, I endeavoured to locate where they might have been situated, poring over maps and researching any mention of them.  However, I turned up nothing, and resolved to think the whole affair a hallucination brought on by desert exposure.  The idea still torments me from time to time, that there is a group of chosen people given the duty to uphold the building blocks of language. Who appointed them?  I can no longer jot down even the most frivolous thought or compile a simple list without feeling the tug of what I so carelessly employ. 



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