The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing
These pages are the result of my one month as an employee of the National Security Agency. I do solemnly promise the reader: it is very unlikely that they shall come under any special scrutiny if they choose to read further.
The NSA express at this time no interest in the manuscript mentioned by the author; and the briefest review of its contents will assure the disinterested observer that any claim he was terminated for having a breakdown at tax-payer expense, was probably on the mark.
I should start at the moment I am perched on a tree branch above the cemetery fence. From there I can jump down to the dark grass and into the story. But the branch is too high to reach again. If I jump, there is no turning back.
'No turning back' was my motto in the Quest. But at the cemetery fence strong words became trash. If I jumped, I was in. In the quest I mean, not the cemetery. Well, I would be in the cemetery too but only on a temporary basis. One could hope.
But first I should explain what the hell am I doing perched on a tree branch above a cemetery fence under the midnight moon, daring cops and guard dogs and ghosts and sprained ankles? Easy enough. I am there to perform The Dark Ritual.
Which, ah, probably requires more explanation. About Mr. Lovecraft and the spirit door and the hackers and the NSA. Also the android at my kitchen table. Definitely him. And I can explain it all easily. It is a perfectly logical sequence of events.
I suppose many people in unusual situations insist on that point. "It all happened logically," they probably laugh, sitting on death row, hiding in the closet of the President, twisting in a strait jacket, choosing a dueling pistol from a silver tray or, I don't know, standing naked on the rooftop of a convent while police helicopters circle about. If they could only explain, you would hear how they arrived there by a series of perfectly sensible steps.
Yes, best to explain why I am up the tree first. The cemetery can wait. Which is probably a good general motto for life. The cemetery can wait.
Reviewing the above words I would like to emphasize that the listed scenarios of bizarre situations were examples. I did not find myself in the President's closet nor naked on the roof of a convent. Nor do I see any sensible steps that could lead me to such situations. Purely hypothetical. Same for death row or a strait jacket, so far. I did wind up in a duel but that was with knives and was not what it seemed.
Not that anything much ever is what it seems.
So if not at the cemetery fence, then where and when to begin? A man I am going to encounter in this narrative once said that in storytelling every act is the result of an infinite series of causes and the source of an infinite series of effects. That was Borges. He didn't say it to me; he just told me I was annoying. But if every story is infinite in either direction, you can't begin at the beginning. You must jump into infinity at some dramatic place you declare the start.
I could go back to my beginning, when I was a misunderstood child. Let's not. I was a well-understood child. I wanted attention, television, no siblings and a constant light dusting of powdered sugar upon all reality.
College? I studied languages, without really learning to speak them. I studied girls, without really learning to speak to them. I kept to myself, a haunter of libraries and bookstores. By myself, but not alone. I lived with books. Some times that worried me. Other people were doing serious things. I was reading 'Harry Potter' in German and making an Elvish to Klingon translation dictionary.
Occasionally my day-dreaming world intersected with the serious world. Some bored teacher suddenly realized I existed, as I waxed like a microwaved candle on the magic realism of my favorite fantasy writers. Borges, Italo Calvino, Philip K. Dick, Franz Kafka, Edgar Alan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft. I translated their ideas into other languages and back to mine, marching the tin soldiers of their metaphors with a command that impressed the most fantasy-jaded professor. I manipulated those immortal writers as pieces in a game played on the Board of Sign and Meaning. And no, I don't know exactly what I mean by that. But since they eventually began using me as a pawn on their board I stick with the metaphor.
So I lived in a world of books and fantasy, thought-game stories and dreams. Someday I will grow up, I reminded my doubting mirror. It is what people do. In stories, anyway. Something happens that reveals the truth, and scoffers stand amazed to see the simpleton had more to him than daydreams and Tolkien quotes. Think of all the stories where some idiot sets out to find his fortune, on some road that leads to half a kingdom and all the princess.
In a completely un-story-like way the road ended with graduation and the job prospects of a, of a (struggling here with examples of buggy-whip designers, Saharan forest rangers, turtle wranglers), - of a someone that no one wants to pay money to for existing.
I needed a job. I needed something serious to do with my life. Something to make me serious. Which brings me to the manuscript, as logically as the manuscript brought me to be perched on a tree branch above the moonlit cemetery.
Right. It is decided. Let us begin ten years ago with my first job, when I was assigned to translate a mysterious manuscript and fired a month later for doing so. Or for failing to do so, they never told me which. We start with the manuscript. God and Borges know where that will end. Cemetery though it is, from up here all I see are beginnings.
Ten years ago I left college with a Bachelor's in Spanish Literature, a Minor in Arabic and a need for a job. That meant either the National Security Agency or teaching Spanish Literature. A degree in Spanish Lit is only good for teaching Spanish Lit, usually to people for their degree to teach Spanish Lit. I needed a career not a virus.
I got the NSA job. I got a cubicle. I got a boss. I got my first and last assignment: a large stack of pages in an unknown writing. Here were lines of wedges and triangles, points and scratches that seemed familiar. "Bird tracks?" I asked, thinking of the mud banks of a creek where I played as a child.
"Some kind of code," replied my new boss. "Found in an apartment in Baghdad. Show us what you can dig out of it."
Years of writing essays on foreign-language extracts where I knew three nouns and suspected two verbs had given me a confidence in my ability to turn hints of comprehension into a solid 5000 word essay that could wring a C+ from the most grudging professor. I felt a surge of confidence. I could do this job.
A real job in a real office excited me, baffled me. A new reality. So many ceremonies of mystery, requiring newcomers to side-study the congregation as we performed the rituals of morning greeting, time sheet sign-in, coffee break banter, and the bizarre status meeting liturgy.
My first day I came to work in fresh-bought store-pressed clothes and sat with a sigh of satisfaction at my cubicle. At last, I was in Grownup Town, state capital of Serious Land, where people knew what they were doing and where they were going, and traded grave nods as they discussed The Work.
I spread my work neatly out before me. It was three hundred pages of bird tracks. The mention of Baghdad made me immediately wonder if it was some kind of cuneiform, the ancient script of that region. It looked like cuneiform. Or rather, cuneiform looks like bird tracks. I examined the top left corner of page one. I studied a long three-toed kind of print, pointing downwards, slightly crossing a smaller print going upwards. No doubt a pattern hid here that would jump out in sudden revelation. I didn't push it. You have to tease these revelations into keeping the appointment. They show up at the right time; at least in stories.
I got up and wandered into the break room where I sipped coffee and studied the motivational posters on the walls. Balloons sailing over mountains, runners crossing finish lines, and hawks swooping down upon prey. The people in the room went silent when I entered. It didn't surprise me. I glowed with idiot newness. I still had a price tag dangling from my coat sleeve but I couldn't get it off it was some kind of carbon super-thread that dented steel scissors.
I stood for a moment by the water cooler, considering whether to loiter, maybe ask “how’s it going?” We could discuss Sports. But the motivational balloons and hawks and runners told me to grow up and get to work. I returned to my cubicle.
I stared at the top page of bird tracks. I followed the path of the large print as it meandered across the page, crossing prints that seemed to be from a smaller foot. Perhaps the larger prints were capital letters. I opened a drawer and found new pencils and fresh clean notepads. I placed them before me. I drew a three-toed bird print on the yellow paper. What did it represent? A letter, a sound, a word, an idea?
The cubicle walls did not block noise. All around I could hear keyboards clicking and chairs squeaking and the banter of workers. I stood up and put a knee on the desk and peered over the top of the cubicle next to me.
The person ceased typing but did not look up. They waited till I sank back down again. I returned to staring at my bird print. It was oriented vertically, but the original was at a sixty-degree angle, roughly. I erased mine and redrew it at the same angle.
I sketched more prints. I numbered them. I searched the drawers for a ruler, found a pad of sticky notes. I considered different ways a bird print could convey meaning. By size, by angle, by the length of the toes, by what it intersected, by what print it proceeded and followed. By what kind of bird? I would have to get a book on bird prints. I wrote that on a sticky note, which I stuck to the dangling price tag on my coat sleeve: 'Find Bird Print Book'.
My new boss came by at noon to remind me that status updates were due twice daily. I nodded vaguely, pretending to be so engrossed in my work that such trivia had no hold on my mind. Actually I was seized with panic, as if the motivational hawk had me in his claws through a misapplication of the metaphor.
I searched the magic drawers and found exactly one month’s supply of blank status forms. Ignorant of that bit of foreshadowing, I filled one out. What was I doing, what had I accomplished? I wrote 'Day 1, bird-track manuscript translation. I have begun identification of specific symbols within the object of study.'
That looked good. I calmed down. I signed it with a confident signature and took it to the secretary's desk, placing it in the 'in' basket. I lingered to look at the other status forms. They had more ink. Much more ink. The secretary put down her phone and took the in-box from my line of sight. I returned to my cubicle and spent the rest of the day sketching bird tracks.
And that was day one of my month at the NSA. And that was the manuscript.
Day 2, manuscript translation. I have begun identification of specific symbols within the object of study.
Day 3, manuscript translation. I continue identification of specific symbols within the object of study.
Day 4, manuscript translation. Further identification of specific symbols within the studied object continues.
The office had no windows. We worked under racks of florescent ice cubes that radiated a faint hum and a frosty light. I kept staring up at them. Sometimes they blinked back at me in strange patterns I was tempted to decipher since I couldn't decipher the manuscript.
I stared down at a page crisscrossed with tiny prints, dance-instructions for a parakeet. Turning from that, I stared at my expanding stacks of notes highlighted with optimistic observations like 'possible vowel' and 'repeated pattern?' and 'interesting!' I turned away to stare at the arctic wasteland of a mid-day status sheet. All I could think of to write was: Day 5: Expedition lost. Mission doomed. Send help. I stared up at the lights again.
Was this assignment serious? It had to be a joke. Or a test. Obviously. They were testing me to see if I could tell the difference between sense and nonsense. These efficient, distant office-people were waiting for me to laugh and throw the manuscript in the air. Then they would laugh too, cheering the initiate who had passed the Ordeal.
But they didn't seem waiting to laugh. They were seriously serious. If I shouted and threw the three hundred pages in the air, all the office would watch stone-faced as the pages fluttered down. Then someone would whisper loudly 'what is he doing here?'
And all the reply I could give would be the whine 'it's just bird tracks. How can it have any meaning?' That seemed weak. I was assigned to find a meaning. Failure was finding no meaning. Which sounds so deep, until you realize the infinite number of things that have no more message than the random blinking of faulty office lights.
My boss had an 'open door' policy. This meant when he was away from his office he left the door open. When he was in he closed it. I decided to confront him with my doubts. I loitered outside the closed door, hesitating to knock. I reviewed my arguments, waving the manuscript in dramatic practice. The receptionist picked up the phone and whispered, staring at me.
Finally I knocked, soft. Nothing. Then loud. Nothing. I waited for something to happen. Perhaps the boss would open the door just an inch and peer out, ready to bargain. Perhaps security would come and arrest me. After thirty minutes nothing happened and after an hour I realized nothing was going to happen. I wandered back to my cubicle.
I decided to wheedle clues from the other cubicle-dwellers. But either we had strict rules about discussing assignments, or I was regarded as a lesser creature because my background was in languages instead of math, cryptography or programming. Either way, I received no hints, no help, no sympathy.
At lunch I approached a group in the break room. They were three men in their mid-twenties and each wore a tie of a separate solid color. I felt sure it was not the same color each day for each individual. Yet no two ever wore the same color. Obviously a code system operated here I was not invited to share.
Idly, I asked about the bird writing assignment. The Red Tie munched a banana and confided that their cryptographic programs had concluded it was nonsense. "Pure white noise," he said. "Too pure, actually. As if done to prevent accidental meaning. It's damned difficult to write sequences of random signs without accidentally falling into a pattern."
"Then why am I here?" I demanded.
The Yellow Tie and The Green Tie exchanged looks of smug obtuseness that bought me back to middle school hallways. Red Tie shrugged. "The word 'why' doesn't really count in the work we do. Sometimes it seems important. Other times it seems arbitrary. All last month I was categorizing the flight patterns of insects.”
Green Tie made a hissing radio sound. Yellow Tie made a 'pop' sound with his tongue. These were, I believe, secret signals and not random noise. Red Tie returned to his lunch without further noises, except chewing ones.
As I was leaving Green Tie leaned towards me and whispered, "Don't drink from the water cooler. The Department of Defense laces it with hallucinogenics."
I might have believed Green Tie's warning about hallucinogenics. My default dial for 'paranoia' is set on high. It's a kind of comfort level. I often feel there is a complex plot to ignore me into oblivion, when rationally it must be mere coincidence. But I knew the Coded Tie Guys. I knew their kind, I mean. They were the school chess club seniors who lived to fool’s mate a freshman. They were the computer club operators who loved to sneer at your ignorance of some complex programming detail after they hid all the manuals. From then on I made it a daily habit to drink from the water cooler while glaring at everyone; slurping loudly.
The cubicle had a terminal connected to an antique main-frame that did not talk to other computers outside its closed world. I didn't blame it. If I was the last dinosaur I'd be sullen and un-talkative too. I filled out five forms allowing me to leave during work hours to visit the local library, where I pestered librarians into finding me books about writing and cuneiform and birds.
Surrounded by books, I breathed a sigh of relief. This was home. I walked up and down aisles, brushing a hand along random volumes. If only I could work on the manuscript at the library; but no, the NSA had strict rules forbidding even notes from leaving the building.
So I brought what might help back to the office. I opened up 'The Audubon Book of Bird Prints' and began going through the manuscript. The prints on the first page were, possibly raven. They crisscrossed a webbed print that was possibly crane. Did that tell me anything? Nope.
I opened up a book about ancient writing systems, with pages of druid scratches, cuneiform mud-prints and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Apparently there were world-wide myths connecting the tracks of birds with the origin of writing. Interesting, if irrelevant.
I was sneering at a book on hand-writing analysis when the secretary came by for my end-of-day status report. I pulled a blank form and contemplated the arctic white of its infinite virgin space. I had to give them something beyond 'I continue to identify symbols'. The rejected hand-writing book caught my eye. I wrote 'I am identifying different sources within the total manuscript' and handed the lie to her. To avoid eye contact I stared up at the ceiling lights.
They blinked in tell-tale time to my panicked heart. I was going to be fired. The boss would blast a whistle behind me, shouting 'time up, put down your pencil, turn in your answer'. My one chance to be a citizen of Serious Land, and they gave me a work assignment from Oz.
I glared at the manuscript. Bird tracks, writ by an idiot, signifying nothing. Or by multiple idiots. Probably a select committee of lunatics had produced the prints. I studied a few pages. Now that I thought about it, if you considered bird prints as letters then there were handwriting differences, as though two or more idiots were writing to each other in bird prints.
I began going through the sheets. Of course. Why hadn't I seen it before?
Hours past quitting time. The office is empty. The bump and buzz of the cleaning staff has died away, leaving only the faint dialogue of the air vents whispering ghost thoughts. I am tired, dizzy, hungry and the flickering lights pull me towards madness but I keep going, page by page. It grows clearer to my fevered mind with each excited note I scribble. There are three separate but distinct styles to the bird prints. Sources.
I label them A, B, and C, feeling scholarly and rather paternal, as though I brought them into existence. I even detect hints of their personalities in the way they space their tracks, crowding bird-stamps into huddled paragraphs or standing out in single eloquent lines, emphasizing words in bold scratches that dare to overwrite lesser tracks. Mr. A is precise. Miss B is rather wordy. I suspect from the way Professor C's tracks wander that he is a bit of an eccentric. At some point I fall asleep.
When I awake the light is exactly the same, the office is still empty, and I sit surrounded by the same piles of notes. But something has changed. That change woke me. I stare around in suspicion, searching for the cause. Listening. Yes, I am sure I was woken by the cessation of a sound. I can almost still hear it: the faintest, farthest echo of birds, chattering
Understand, that was ten years before I wound up in a tree branch above the cemetery fence. Which was several months before now, I point out. I'm not telling this story sitting in a tree in the moonlight. Nope, I am at the kitchen table with a laptop and a cup of coffee. Spoiler alert: I survive the hackers, the jump into the cemetery, the chase, the duel, the hospital jello (strawberry with banana slices), the Explosion (fiery), the Dark Library (dark) and even the Tribunal of Dreams (weird).
Granted, I suppose I could be dead now. I mean, from the point of view of when this is being read. But I was fine when I wrote it. As I said, the cemetery can wait. I only tell the idiot details of my brief first job to explain why I climbed up a tree ten years later. I suppose that leaves me figuratively sitting in the tree while I do the explaining. But only until I actually get to that point of the story and jump. And I will, I will, don't rush me.
Fine! Assume that until I jump, this story is told you from a lunatic ten feet above the ground, seen darkly in the shadows of a great oak tree whose branches cross the fence of a large, inner-city graveyard. Cue moonlight, owls and distant traffic sounds. Don't stand below me I have a poor sense of balance. I might fall, particularly if I get excited and start waving my hands excitedly. I tend to do that.
From this tree I scan for security guards and attack dogs lurking among the rows of headstones. I also look for ghosts, although I do not believe in ghosts (which has nothing to do with the fact I am here to summon a ghost). Every moon shadow seems cast from a person standing just where I can't quite see. I worry about the drop. It's a long way down.
From this branch I can see ten years ago more clearly than I can see ten feet below. Observing my snoring form (the fool of a past me is going to start camping in his cubicle, staying up all night, napping in the day) I see a young, blank, well-intentioned dreamer, full of the sound and fury of ten thousand fantasies, desperate to have someone serious appear in his mirror. If there is anything special about him it is only the ability to look at an ink blot and imagine a man staring at an ink blot while ninjas creep up from behind, upon which realization he will whirl about to face the ninjas.
Is he exactly the right person to face the challenge of translating 300 pages of an incomprehensible script? Or completely the wrong one? I don't know, I can't see that far. From this tree, from this dark, all I can see is that he was desperate to try.
Oh, and I see this: after that faintest dream of the absence of the sound of chattering birds, nothing in his life, or my life (me being him) was ever entirely untouched by the mystery of the manuscript. It did not matter when they fired me (as they will do after I translate the manuscript), nor when I stomped offstage vowing to grow up and become the most serious human being on the planet. Nor ten years later when I am a serious adult led by a series of logical moves into sitting in a tree in the cemetery at night talking to a host of shadows and ghosts, and you among them. I remained forever marked by the manuscript and its mystery. I suppose I was translated too.
My second week at work felt more normal. True, I was ignored in the halls, sat by myself at lunch and spent hours staring at pages in a language I couldn't understand, but for me that was normal. I pretended I was a grizzled old-timer, greeting the security guard by name and complaining loudly about the vending machine choices. My suit now had a wrinkled veteran look, even with the price tag still dangling.
I had learned things. For example, I knew to have something in my hands when walking in the halls. A coffee cup, a stack of paper, a white pebble, anything for the gaze to focus on to avoid unwanted eye-contact.
I learned that if I gave the secretary a status report in French or in bird prints then she ceased coming by to demand a status report, which was a plus. Granted, now the boss came by instead, which was a minus.
I learned important people didn’t bother with meetings. If you had hours to sit while people droned you lacked Seriousity. Under the inspiration of the motivational posters that told me to soar over mountains, cross finish lines and swoop upon prey, I began skipping meetings. I couldn’t soar and race and swoop sitting in meetings. I had The Work to do, which meant sitting in my cubicle.
So I sat. And stared at the manuscript. It was still 300 pages of bird prints. All through the day I sat frozen in the headlights of the assignment while listening to a happy office whistle as it worked. I gave up trying to talk to anyone. The Club of Coded Ties avoided me. I believe they did. Given their habit of walking close to the walls while whispering to themselves it is difficult to say if it was personal.
When the boss came by I presented new and improved spreadsheets with cross-referenced indexes of prints, groups of prints and combinations of groups of prints. I thought it looked very professional but he seemed dissatisfied. The ceiling lights began their panicked flickering again.
But at night, alone in the empty office my brain could move past the words 'failure', 'fool', and 'fired'. So each day I worked later, confining my world to the bathroom, the vending machines and my cubicle. I had occasional conversations with Alba the cleaning lady. Her English was bad as my Spanish, but we understood each other well enough. She told me about her kids. I told her about my rare Spanish copy of Philip K. Dick's Ubik.
In the dead of night under bright office light I stared at bird tracks until they morphed into letters in Egyptian, Greek and Chinese. Sometimes they danced. I began to wonder about the chemicals in the water cooler. Maybe the warning about hallucinogenics had been more than a joke. No one else ever drank from the water cooler. It made a clug! clug! sound each time I filled a cup.
"I can do this," I told the water cooler. "How many times have I taken an exam facing a question I don’t understand about a book I haven't read in a language I don’t know? Forget what the question is. What would an answer be?"
Obviously, an answer would confidently translate the words of Professors A, B, and C. I studied how their separate parts formed the total work. They were saying things, and then commenting to each other on what was said. It was a kind of conversation, I was sure. But what on earth about?
Wednesday night, I considered a strange detail. All three occasionally wrote random scrawling tracks. Not writing that resembled bird tracks. More like real bird tracks, sketched from some patch of mud by a river.
Puzzled, I chose two samples from Mr. A. One page was clearly writing in letters of bird-prints, moving significantly up and down, left or right. The other was obviously bird-tracks that merely looked like writing, wandering anywhere. The difference became obvious when you stared long enough without blinking. Or sleeping. I kept trying to sneak little naps at my desk in the daytime but people kept accidentally coughing loudly and dropping staplers nearby to wake me. Perhaps I snored.
Thursday night, humming with the humming office light, blinking with the blinking office light, I had, not a breakdown but a breakthrough. Suddenly it was clear. A, B and C were presenting real bird tracks and then interpreting the tracks in a script based on bird tracks. This realization hit me like the discovery of fire, sex and sliced bread all upon the same day. I twirled around in my swivel chair excitedly till I felt sick so I stopped.
At first I fell into the trap of wondering why. Why take bird tracks and then write about them in a script based on bird tracks? Wrong question, I told myself. What was the question. I mean, not 'what was the question', but 'what were they saying about the real tracks' was the question.
Well, what did the real tracks say? Nothing, obviously. How can the random footprints of birds have any message except to some fool hallucinating meaning? I ignored that and asked myself, what would Mr. A say that real bird tracks said? Something dry and clever. And Mr. B would ponder, and Miss C would postulate. There was a narrative in the manuscript, a definite give and take. I could almost hear it in the late-night whispering of the air conditioning. I understood that one voice was insistent, and another pedantic and the third excited. I felt I knew just how they felt. Only the mere words of what they said eluded me.
Friday night I slept at my desk and dreamed of birds, squawking and piping, whistling and croaking, cooing and cawing at me in different voices as though I attended a tribunal of birds. At last some critical point in the argument was reached. The tribunal clamored and beat their wings till it became a roar and I awoke to Alba running the vacuum cleaner under my feet. She picked up a random paper and looked at it curiously. "Pajaros?" she asked. “Birds?”
I nodded. She considered the paper a bit, then pointed at a scribble of bird prints. "Aqui se dice 'piedro'". I rubbed my eyes, yawned and wondered if I had enough change for cheetos from the vending machine. I was halfway there when the meaning of her words filtered through my weary consciousness. "'Here it says 'rock'".
I stumbled back. She pushed her cleaning cart down the hall as I shouted after her. "What? Can you read did you said what was that you meant what?" Alba panicked and began pushing her cart faster. I ran alongside, switching between incoherent English and broken Spanish, asking how she was able to read the bird prints.
She stopped and stared at me, I think with pity. She spoke slowly and I tried not to interrupt. I could not entirely follow her Guatemalteco Spanish but her words were roughly, that her grandmother was a bruja, a fortune-teller, and could read the clouds and the water and tea leaves and cards and the tracks of birds. Her mother told her: "bird-tracks were the best but the hardest. You had to picture how the bird moved as it made the print." And with that she hurried her cart through the maintenance room door where my security card allowed me not.
I went back to my cubicle, unsure. I picked up the paper that she had read and studied it. Behold the immediately recognizable style of crisp and sardonic Professor A. I tried to picture the motions of a bird as it made the tracks. It was bobbing, dancing; miming... what?
I lined up the weary troops of my notes and began assigning the tracks into two categories: collections of bird prints whose variations had a meaning as letters, and those prints meant to depict the motion of the bird. Perhaps it was a dual system. Egyptian hieroglyphs were sometimes symbols representing sounds, sometimes pictures representing an object. And sometimes a picture representing an object chosen for the sound of the name of the object. The hieroglyph for 'tax' in Egyptian is sometimes a pig, just because their word 'pig' sounded like the word 'tax'.
I stared up at the fluorescent lights. They symbolized old-fashioned ice-cube racks, and radiated the same cold meaning. I stared down at my notes. Taking the prints that were meant to be letters not dance-steps of birds, I had a smaller but clearer group of symbols. If I assumed in advance what language they were in, then I knew what sounds to expect. When I assigned sounds by the frequency of their occurrence in that language, relating them to the symbols that occurred with the same frequency, I got ... noise.
Pure white noise, as Red Tie Guy said. I gave up. And I got up to go home, then sat again. "Soar, race, swoop," I sighed. Right. My head was buzzing with lack of sleep in time to the lights. I supposed they never slept either. I considered finding the power switch and giving the lights a moment of rest, then brushed that aside. Think serious, I told myself.
A writing system does not have to depict all the sounds of a word. Arabic and Hebrew traditionally only wrote the consonants. Rbc nd Hbrw trdtnly nly wrte th cnsnnts. When the reader knows all the words that have that combination of consonants, they fill them in without thinking, with a little help from context.
I concentrated on A's work, as it seemed the most precise. A bird's footprint could have meaning by its direction if you knew which way was up. It could have meaning by the length of the toe prints, or twists in the lines. It could have meaning in how it intersected other prints.
And it could have meaning based on what kind of bird made the track. I still had the Audubon book of bird prints from the City Library, overdue but I was not going to return it till I was done. A's prints were primarily raven and crow. B's prints alternated between crane and stork. C had a variety of small-bird prints, specializing in sparrow. Suppose that each type of bird represented a different language? When A prints in Raven his language is Arabic. When he switches to Crow he has given us a quote in Latin.
I yawned, took A's raven prints aside, cataloging combinations in a spreadsheet that gave me the frequency of occurrence. I stared. There was a pattern, more than mere random dice-throws would produce. The shock made me throw up two days’ worth of cheetos on the carpet. I did my best to clean it up but it left a bright orange stain and a smell like junk-food sulfur. Alba was going to have a fit.
I began testing different languages to match the frequency of sounds, of syllables, and the occurrence of consonants. White noise, still. As though I were tuning the dial of an old ham radio but still missing the right frequency.
It was a compact writing system. I stared up at the excitedly blinking lights and told them, let us assume it only uses consonants. I compared frequencies of consonants in different languages with the spreadsheet’s frequencies. I stared at the best match in surprise. Spanish?
It wasn’t a straight substitution. I had to guess and fill in holes. But guessing and filling in holes was my super power. At some point, I became certain I was right.
ntncs l prgnt zs pr q s ps ssf rdr n rc cst rrb pr smpr pr dcr l vrdd hr q zs hb d m s ll cn s brz lrddr d n chc bnt zs cntst q n r prcsmnt l cs hb llgd ssf l ry sntd sbr n pdr n l prt nfrr d crnt hll lmntnd ls prblms d l hmndd ls dlrs d l crn ls tmrs d l mrtldd ls sñs rts d l mbcn zs hb …
I began inserting vowels here and there, scribbling down what could be actual words. "roca". "colina". "rey". "hombre". "truco".
Stone. Hill. King. Man. Trick.
I hate crossword puzzles. Get one word wrong and you are doomed to labor forever making the wrong words fit. And just enough will fit to give you hope and lead you to believe in your error till eternity ends or sanity returns. I could not tell if I had filled in the box of 7 letters for #4 down: flowering plants with 'oregano' when the answer was 'orchids'.
I struggled a long time on zs and ssf, suspecting they were names. Eventually I went back to the bird-prints that depicted movement. Why should they not be punctuation? A bird stamping his feet is going to be raising his wings in exclamation. When the bird makes a tip-toe dance, it might be to express a thoughtful ellipse... And what is a question mark except a bird craning its neck back and down?
ntncs l prgnt zs, ¿pr q s ps ssf rdr n rc cst rrb pr smpr, pr dcr l vrdd hr, q zs hb d ms ll cn s brz lrddr d n chc bnt?zs cntst q n r prcsmnt l cs. hb llgd ssf l ry sntd sbr n pdr n l prt nfrr d crnt hll; lmntnd ls prblms d l hmndd, ls dlrs d l crn, ls tmrs d l mrtldd, ls sñs rts d l mbcn. zs hb…
I filled in the obvious vowels, made the obvious capitalizations, rearranged some parts and filled a few more holes. Entonces le pregunté a Zs, ¿Por qué se puso a Ssf a rodar una roca cuesta arriba para siempre, por decir la verdad…
“rodar una roca cuesta arriba”: to roll a stone uphill. I laughed. It was so obvious! I knew Zs and Ssf, they were old friends. I translated the page to English and printed it out. I prepared to read it aloud to the empty office.
But that lacked drama so I stood. I held it before me, a proclamation to all the kingdom. No, still not good enough. I stood on my chair. Better! As the world and the chair swiveled slowly round, I took a deep breath, and I read out the first page of the manuscript to the multitude of empty cubicles.
Back again, in the moon-shadowed cemetery. I have been ignoring my own story to watch the statue of an angel in the distance. It stands guard beside the door of a mausoleum, and I am sure I saw it scratch its nose very quickly. It's such an innocent gesture, who can blame it? And it isn't frightening, just rather normal and sad.
It reminds me of the campfire story where the trespasser in a cemetery realizes that the statues move when he turns his back. The story inspired the game ‘statues’ we played as kids. Everyone freezes while you look at them (giggling doesn't count) but when you turn around they move closer. Eventually they get you, and you become a statue too. I suppose being in a cemetery makes one think about people becoming statues, statues becoming people. I suppose it is a metaphor about translation, in a way. And I suppose anyone in the dark below the tree, listening patiently, patiently to my story probably wants me to shut up! and get to the translation. What did it say? Was it spy-stuff, terrorist plots, secret formulas? The diary of a bird enthusiast?
This might be a good time to address whether what I wrote out was in fact a real translation, or just the young excitable me imagining a meaning. On the balance scale for ‘he imagined it’ is the lack of sleep, the possibly drugged office water and the whole state of mind of someone staring at stained wallpaper till he is almost sure he sees letters spelling out a fascinating story about someone staring at a wall.
But it seemed real. That’s all I can put into the other side of the scales. Each step was logical, and the progress arrived at a place that had the certified Stamp of Seeming Reality. I took the prints of birds and found different voices, and took those voices and found symbols, and took those symbols and found real words.
Granted, as I read them aloud to the empty office, I didn't care what the words meant. What mattered was that I had succeeded in summoning them, a skeptic magician staring astonished at an honest-to-goodness rabbit in his hat.
I remember the sense of reaching someplace important. There was an incompleteness that exactly satisfied, with a touch of transcendent meaning. I felt I had been given a clear answer to a dream question I couldn’t quite follow.
From this later, higher view, I see the origin of that feel of meaning. Not from the words themselves, but from the act of producing them. A dreamy kid took an impossible challenge seriously, and came up with The Answer. How can that not change the kid?
Okay, shutting up now. Here, I solemnly recount the words from this dark branch. Listen up, ghosts and night shadows, angel with the itchy nose. This was the page I translated, the first part of the manuscript that chased my serious self up a tree, the revelation I read aloud ten years ago to no one but myself. And what it all meant? I knew no more than I cared.
The Gods Considered #1: Sisyphus
Then I asked Zeus, Why he set Sisyphus to roll a boulder uphill forever, for telling Hera the truth, that Zeus had just gone past with his arm around a pretty girl?
Zeus answered, that was not precisely the case. He had come upon Sisyphus the King sitting upon a stone at the bottom of Corinth Hill, lamenting the troubles of humankind, the aches of the flesh, the fears of mortality, the broken dreams of ambition. Zeus had taken pity and put Sisyphus’s spirit into the stone. Sisyphus the man had laughed in relief, at once free of all cares, desires and fears.
But the stone had begun to weep. Now that it had a human spirit, it longed with all its heart to roll upwards instead of down. Sisyphus, with the easy kindness of those who have no sorrows, laughed and began to roll the boulder up the hill.
And so forever. The stone is hopeful when it rolls uphill, despairing as it rolls down again. And Sisyphus is happy, for he wants nothing anymore and would as soon do the will of a stone as the will of a god.
And when Zeus had answered me this then I was silent a while. It seemed a fair answer. Only later did I wonder did Zeus trick me. For hadn't the stone become Sisyphus, and Sisyphus the stone?