Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Councilwoman

This is third in a series of portraits and mini stories that starts with The Word Smith. I suggest, if you're interested, reading them in order.

Councilwoman Mirschett swept into the store, tinkling the door's tiny bell with a violence that caused Chayman to look up from his reading - the fourth volume of Hesse's Authority on Semantics of the Third Epoch. Councilwoman Mirschett caught his eye and raised both of her sculpted eyebrows in response. Before addressing him, she surveyed the shop, taking in its surprising sense of openness and light, underlined by broad pine floorboards and a thick red carpet, small like a door mat, in front of the long counter. In the corner to the left of the front door lurked a young boy, with a colorful wooden box lashed to his back, pretending to browse in a store that clearly had nothing to browse through.

She pushed back the hood of her yellow overcoat, approaching the counter. The Word Smith, dressed in his daily silk, had returned to his reading and appeared not to notice her. She cleared her voice. Nothing, except the sensation of a faint breeze. Councilwoman Mirschett shrugged and began to speak.

"Word Smith Chayman, I have business with you. Two definitions, or so."

Without looking up he trudged over to the counter.

"Just two this time, Councilwoman?"

"Likely. Do you know what he said to me, Chayman? 'Either we will build the bridge or we will not build the bridge,' he thundered! At the Council, can you imagine? What nonsense."

"Perhaps you mean effrontery, Councilwoman."

She ignored the remark.

"So of course I've come to you, Word Smith, the best in town, no, the entire district, to plumb the precise meaning of both 'build' and 'bridge.' As you might guess, I intend to discover whether I might, in fact, build the bridge without, precisely, building the bridge. Or bridge the build. Or however it comes out. You catch my meaning?" She flicked a piece of dust off her sleeve, and raised an eyebrow in question.

"Mm, perhaps. I'll get about extracting those definitions for you." He turned away from her and then paused, before spinning back. "Hey boy!" He yelled, ten years slipping from his face. "Don't touch anything! If you want help, I'll help you. Youth discount even. Just don't touch a single thing."

His mask fell back over his face and he walked off in search of 'build.' The words were grouped in meadows, where many different types of words might cluster and they all flourish, separated from the next meadow over by a thicket of wooden shelves. Chayman had first wondered why they were not sorted alphabetically, but learned, through unfortunate experience, that grouping them by their accidental letters rather than their essence caused them to dry out, to wither away. Some had even been known to die.

One hand resting on the counter, Councilwoman Mirschett watched him finger the polished word boxes on the shelves, as though divining their identity by the slant or curve of the protruding side. She curled one corner of her mouth upwards as she anticipated her coup, but quickly banished the thought, out of fear of incurring bad luck.

Just then, her hand slipped out from under her, sliding recklessly down the edge of the wooden counter as she fell to her side. The seemingly smooth surface birthed giant splinters, tearing her palm in half. She hit the floor on her hip and cried out in pain. Blood flowed from her hand, and her anxiety spiked as she watched it pump out.

The boy was at her side in an instant, offering a scrap as a bandage.

"You alright, madame? That was quite a fall."

She nodded, silently, trying to stem the blood flow. She stood, careful not to step in the blood smudge below. On the other side of the counter, Chayman waited with her first definition.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Puppet Master

This is second in a series of portraits and mini stories that starts with The Word Smith. I suggest, if you're interested, reading them in order.

The face in his hand was a marvel of paint and carving, whose sum was a frozen expression capable of representing a dozen different emotions. Simonth was particularly proud of this puppet, his leading lady, and often removed her from her case just to wonder at her, his hand wrapped in silk so as to not soil her wood with his hands. Those same hands had birthed the puppet only two years ago, but two years was over fifteen percent of his life, he calculated, so he felt justified in feeling that it was an eternity.

Eternity seemed often on Simonth's mind these days. As he raked in the payments from his shows, he wondered if his youth could possibly fund his eternity. As he carved a new puppet, or danced them through a new show, he wondered how long their shared legacy would last. He yearned for fame, he knew he deserved it. He just wondered how long he would have to work to ensure it. He intended not just to ensure it, but to cement it.

While it was commonly accepted that boys made the best puppeteers, and men made the worst, Simonth had decided he would remain a puppeteer into adulthood and beyond. His soaring success after just four years - a full 25 percent of his life, he figured - had persuaded him that such a duration was possible. Even fated, he told himself. Why else would the Neurstra have deigned to grant him with such skill, if it hadn't intended for him to bend the world's rules to that skill?

In the whispers of his darkest thoughts, Simonth hated the Neurstra. Hated the shadows between all his cells where the priests said Neurstra lurked, shaping the world. Hated that someone, something else could weave his body. But Simonth feared giving voice to those thoughts and tried to silence them, to keep them from the Neurstra's reach.

So he plied his trade and planned for his future, intending to discover the road already laid for him. One day, while visiting the Word Smith's shop to look up 'calumny,' of which he had been accused, Simonth decided to look up 'adulthood.' More accurately, not wanting to pay the look-up fee for a word he felt to be quite obvious, he decided to negotiate a re-definition. He had heard of that happening. Or, at a minimum, he could have an alternate definition inserted. Just a little wrinkle, a small exception, slipped into the word.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Word Smith

Chayman relished the passing of time. The more hours that spooled past on fate's spinning wheel, the more time he had with his words, and the more he learned. He had not come to his trade easily; when his father had announced Chayman's apprenticeship to the Word Smiths Guild, his child self had screamed and launched tantrum after tantrum. Chayman had, like so many boys in his neighborhood of crooked narrow streets, hoped of being apprenticed to the ride masters or the fire bearers. Even the light-wielding wizards of the Fiber Optics Guild would have been preferable. But the economic necessity of unloading child number four and his father's provision of a cheese wheel to the Word Smith Guild chartermaster sealed Chayman's fate. It wasn't until twenty years later, after days spent cobbling wooden word boxes and nights spent poring over endless dictionaries, when Chayman opened his first shop that he felt a tiny twinge of excitement.

Six decades beyond that day, Chayman still spent every morning pulling open the bamboo shutters of that same shop. He could mark his own small blood stains on the wooden floors, and could differentiate them from the blood spilled that cold morning from the veins of the Councilwoman. He could remember which nick in his worktable corresponded to the construction of which word box - an easier feat than perhaps one would think, given the relatively few words he had permitted entry to his shelves. And he could, for a few of those older words, tell the interested browser when was the last time, decades ago, that he had slid that word box from its shelf. Sometimes it saddened him to see those grand dames fall into disuse, but most days he accepted it with magnanimity, enjoying his privileged position as caretaker for the old, fragile words.

For truly, that's what it meant to be a Word Smith. Each day he hung his guild's motto outside his storefront, naturally preferring the advertisement of a sentence over the visual allure of a showcase window.

"Words are our tools. We have to take care of them." - C. Mejia

After having repeated that mantra thousands of times with his bruised knees against cold stone floors in the Guild's rectory, Chayman had felt it creep into his heart and overtake him with its simple poetry. Each word box that he built, shaping each hollow letter into a unified wooden word, capable of holding all the meaning they would place into it, was stamped with that motto. All of the word boxes he inherited from Ustery, who had worked in this store until the day he died, bore the same motto. The Guild dedicated their lives to it.

Chayman, being not quite old but certainly not young, and with his lungs bearing the testament of his youthful indulgence in jade weed, expected that his life had been fully dedicated to the motto and foresaw no more than two decades of future dedication. Of course, as we know, he was rather mistaken in that prediction.

* Credit for the Word Smith Guild's motto goes to this author's wonderful co-worker; many thanks for his insight and inspiration.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma