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Fiction

An Address to the Newest Disciples of the Lost Words

You are here because you ignored the words of your parents and elders, your more sensible peers. You have thrown away promising careers in sheepherding or law, trade or civil administration. You bribed your way here; you stole money for your passage; you broke promises and made new ones that you never meant to keep. You’ve sailed rivers and oceans, crossed mountains and plains, and now here you are at the edge of the desert, on the outskirts of a dead city, at the very edge of our known world.

You studied and practiced till your eyes nearly bled. You passed the entrance exam. You sent your last letters home, and now you’re robed in your new disciples’ clothes and you think you know what it means to commit.

You think that you’ll master the Lost Words.

The Twelfth Word
Anchor: The Wind

One of the easier Words for new disciples to learn. The gestures involved must be fluid and graceful, yet require no special strength or flexibility. The sounds can be reasonably approximated by a standard human voice.

This Word is inherently appealing to many of you.

A flutter of eyelids. A hand pressed to the heart, then flung wide. The whisper of the first syllables, slowly rising in volume and pitch.

I was a boy of twelve when I first saw/heard/felt this Word. There was a woman at the night market of my hometown, performing Words by the river for free.

The anchor for this Word is wind.

This Word is restlessness coiled deep in the heart. It is a longing without a voice.

It is restlessness gusting aimlessly inside your chest, trapped. It is a gray autumn day, and brown leaves spinning in circles before you. It is treading the same paths from home to school and work, over and over; the same chores, the same tasks, the hammering of hot iron or scrubbing of pots or scratching of notes for your father’s account books—all while a wind stirs uneasily in your heart, swirling through your limbs, setting your feet to tapping and threatening to spill out your skin. This Word is what you felt when you kept quiet by the fire as your parents planned out your future, as they spoke of what trade you should follow or who you should marry. This Word is all the stories you ever caught of far-off lands—the tales from traveling merchants, the poet in the square, the old soldier drunk at the inn. It’s the horse you saw tied up next door, whinnying and pawing at the ground. It’s the sound of geese flying south for the winter. It’s music half-heard, and an exotic perfume. It’s the small voice inside that told you there was more to your life than what others said. This Word is the wind moving over bare hills and fields and into your soul.

I knew this Word before I ever heard it. You did, too.

The woman at the night market performed it beautifully. I stood, enraptured, as she spoke the Word again and again. The crowd around us swelled and shrank; the night grew old. I stood there until my brothers took me by the arms and pulled me away.

On Choosing Your Words

Saint Helabora uncovered eighty-eight Lost Words from the desert. Over the centuries, thirteen more have been added. It is expected that you will attain a basic understanding of them all.

But to master even one may take a lifetime. It may take more: it may be forever beyond your grasp.

I advise you to focus wisely.

It is smart to choose Words that align with your natural talents. For instance, Words 40 through 50 are particularly suited for those skilled in hand-gestures and the graceful movement of arms, while Word 53 is known for its demanding footwork. A number of Words require vocalization range and techniques beyond the reach of many of you. Some of the middle Words are good for those with naturally tranquil minds and decent breath control.

Choosing a Word beyond your ability only leads to heartbreak.

Even when you focus on a Word within your range, you must be careful. Ambition has destroyed many a disciple. You may know the story of Varas, who fell in love with Word 44 and, determined to improve his technique, attached weights to his fingers and engaged in bending and stretching exercises that destroyed his own hands. Or the tale of Yi La, who dared a dangerous operation to restructure her vocal cords, the better to sing Word 87, and lost her voice.

Innovation and daring are valued, of course. We owe nothing but gratitude to Master Ruel, who invented a series of string instruments to better approximate the sounds required for some higher Words. These instruments brought us closer to the True Speaking, and allowed those Words to be said by those with no inherent vocal ability at all. But Ruel became obsessed with approaching ever closer to perfection, and died mad.

Remember to drink water. It’s dry here in the desert; those of you from elsewhere often forget. It’s so easy to get parched.

On Choosing Your Words: Addendum

You will fall in love with Words, of course, even those far outside your ability to speak. You are already in love with them. That’s why you’re here.

The Sixteenth Word
Anchor: The Door

The years ahead will be grueling. There will be many times that you wish to give up.

It helps to remember why you came. What Word it was that brought you here. For that, you were willing to leave family and home. For that, you turned away from easier paths. Perhaps you defied a father who, seeing your talent in scholarship and ordinary words, dreamed of how he might use you to increase your family’s status and wealth. My own father, a shopkeeper, hoped to install me as a high-ranking agent in our local merchants’ guild, or perhaps in service to our provincial governor. He did not expect me to run off to the desert.

But I could not forget the woman speaking the Word that is sometimes known as Wind. And I felt in my being another Lost Word.

The anchor for that other Lost Word is door.

It is a physical door, opening into a hidden room. It is a gate swinging into a secret garden. It is the sensation of a door opening in your heart.

It’s what you felt when you first realized that marks on paper could translate to sounds and meaning, to words in your own native tongue. It is the first written word that you recognized. It’s the first map you ever saw—all those cities and countries and rivers and mountains, spread out in ink before you. It’s the first book you were ever given.

It’s the great court astronomer of Hu, Ren Aja, and what he felt when he turned his farseeing lenses to the heavens for the first time and saw stars and planets, and moons around planets, that had never before been seen by mortal man.

It’s a key turning in a heavy oak door.

It’s a beam of light sliding through curtains into a darkened room.

It’s your first understanding that the world—the universe—is so much bigger than you ever imagined.

And with the proper stress and tones, it’s a door opening slowly rather than swinging wide all at once. Creaking forward, bit by bit. An agonized journey. The slow, arduous work of mastering your first written script. Of memorizing all eight-thousand characters of the Classical Script. Of slowly mapping a foreign terrain.

I saw a master of Lost Words performing at the night market of my old hometown, and it was a door swinging wide all at once for me. She spoke the word that we refer to as “Wind” in our standard shorthand. But she herself was the “Door.”

On Words of Pain

There are Words rarely spoken aloud for an audience. Words that crowds do not clamor for.

There are Words of such pain that no human has spoken them in full, although we have the instructions for doing so. There are Words that would kill with their grief, should any person say them perfectly enough.

Nevertheless: Saint Helabora taught us that all Lost Words are holy, and we seek to comprehend them all.

There are some Words that are gentler in their pain, and these can offer a strange comfort at times. The Words that speak of homesickness, disappointment, melancholy. Calmness after great sorrow. The reminder that all is transient in this mortal world, that all things pass. The Words known by their anchors as: Bare Trees; The Empty, Rain-washed Sky; Shattered Stones; Vanishing Morning Dew.

There were times that I sang Empty, Rain-washed Sky to myself again and again, falling asleep to its images each night. I never came close to mastering this Word. But just repeating its rhythms in my mind brought me comfort. I knew that there was a Word for what I felt at that time, one that encapsulated all my emotions.

On the Finding of Lost Words

Three centuries ago, Saint Helabora entered the Forbidden City of the Kar Desert. She roamed its underground vaults and penetrated even into the heart of the Labyrinth. She discovered the bronze steles and tablets with their ancient inscriptions.

She studied the scrolls of the buried libraries; she cross-checked their writing with the tablets and steles. And slowly, slowly, she came to understand the written notations and glosses. She learned to read a writing system more complicated than even our Classical Script. And from that she learned, finally, to speak the first of the Lost Words.

It is assumed that divine inspiration also played a role.

We are gathered here in the desert so as to be close to the Ancients, close to where Saint Helabora uncovered miracles. You are welcome to follow her lead and descend into the Forbidden City whenever you wish. You may walk through the libraries, trace her marked steps through the Labyrinth, and even run your fingers over the inscriptions of the First Stele.

Breathe in the inspiration from these physical objects and landmarks. Breathe in their power. You will need it, during these first years of training.

Some of you are more inclined to scholarship and research than active speaking. You hope to follow in the footsteps of famous scholars, to expound on novel interpretations of Words. You long to comb through the archives for yourself, and perhaps, in your secret hearts, you even dream of stumbling upon the written instructions for some new Lost Word in a forgotten volume or scroll. You remember our founding saint’s words: that in the Ancients’ Lost Language, there is a Word for everything in the universe.

I believe this. Though I fear that some Words are indeed forever lost.

You are welcome to prove me wrong.

On Leaving the School of Lost Words

You will leave.

You may not wish to go. But this school cannot keep you all here forever.

Some of you will be lucky enough to find good patrons. Great princes will take you into their courts; they will shower you with silver and praise. Wealthy audiences will clap and cheer for your Words.

Others of you will speak Words for thrown coins at market fairs.

Some of you will try to teach, to pass on the art of Lost Words to others. There are other schools throughout this world, though none as prestigious as this one.

You will struggle to keep the Lost Words alive in your heart. In many places, we’re still seen as a strange and possibly blasphemous cult. You will be met with suspicion and misunderstanding, indifference and worship and fear.

I first left the desert thirty-eight years ago. I rejoined the outer world. I did not go happily.

On Failing Your Words

You will fail. You will fail. You will fail.

You will not achieve as much as you want. You will never master all the Words you wish, or in as great a depth as you hope.

The Ninety-first Word
Anchor: Broken Strings

This Word is a musical instrument that cannot play. A harp with broken strings. A flute without breath. Master Rael’s greatest creations, all rendered mute.

It’s Yi La’s beautiful voice, so lovely it was said to surprise the sun and call birds down from the sky—strangled and dead in her throat.

This Word is silence.

It is the wind that once blew through your soul—now thickened into a smothering weight in your chest.

It is a once-sparkling stream that’s been dammed, that now collects as a black, stagnant pool.

It is a dull ache without relief, a stilled passion with no outlet, a flowing current that’s been stopped, a river drained.

This Word is the lost ability to speak Lost Words.

It happens to so many of us. There is no single cause. There is no ready cure.

I spent years in this state. Under its spell, I could not even speak the Lost Word to describe it.

On Finding Your Words Again

If you lose your Words, you will find them again. I promise you this.

Over the course of your years here, you will hone yourself as an instrument. You will learn to speak with sound and gesture, breath and mind.

But your most important instrument is your heart.

Speak each Word with all your heart, and the Lost Words will sink into you. They will take root and become part of you. You can never truly lose them.

As with everything else, this is a technique you must master—ultimately—on your own.

I was once lost for a long time. I did not quite finish the last step of my training. Somehow, the Words had dried up for me. And then I came home to my small market town by the river; I came to pay my respects to a dying father. On the journey I rehearsed in my mind, again and again, what I might say to him. I wondered at how I might play, at last, the role of a dutiful son. When I arrived, he was already dead.

Our small business was gone. High grain prices, business debts. One of my brothers had done what our father had hoped: he’d studied hard, done well on our country’s civil service exams, taken a position with the local governor. He lost everything when the political winds shifted and the governor was deposed. He killed himself.

My other brother was a gambling drunk. Our mother was near to selling her home for debts.

I found a job as a low-level clerk with the merchant’s guild. I worked my way up. I paid off our family debt.

I struggled to revive the Lost Words in my heart. I practiced for myself, late at night. But somehow, somewhere, I had lost them.

But I’ve already told you: you can never truly lose them. They come back.

The Ninety-second Word
Anchor: The Flowing Spring

The anchoring image for this Word is a spring as it emerges from the ground, nearly hidden among rocks and bracken. A tiny bubbling spring, easily overlooked in the forest. But its waters are clear and its source is true, and even if you don’t see it, it’s there: flowing, flowing, flowing.

One day, I felt this Word in my chest. I felt that tiny spring flowing again.

I was married by then, with three children. We were living comfortably on my merchant guild salary. I had responsibilities. Yet I took the time to call to mind old rhythms and tones. Slowly, clumsily, I moved my hands in ancient gestures.

Our youngest son was around four at the time. One night, he could not stop crying. He’d had a fight with his sister, been thwarted in some childish wish by his mother; he was overtired. It was deep winter, and he’d spent too many days inside; I knew he longed to run outside, free.

I spoke for him a modified version of the Wind.

Instantly, he stopped crying. His eyes widened in wonder.

His little hands came up; his fingers spread and moved in an echo of my own. A childish echo of The Wind.

On Keeping Your Words

This school will teach you all it can, and then send you back into the world. Let the world then be your teacher. Learn whatever you can from it.

You will struggle. But you do not need to perform in a prince’s court. You do not need to teach in a prestigious school. You do not need to make astonishing new interpretations or discoveries.

You might become a tired parent soothing your children with Words. You might share your Words with family and friends. You might be the one in your community who knows the right Words for different occasions; who visits those in mourning with Empty, Rain-washed Sky; who visits the dying with the Seventh Word. Who knows the right Words to say for celebrations of joy.

You might teach those who care to learn: curious children, those who chance to hear you speak, those who’ve heard the rumor of your presence.

When the fancy strikes you, perhaps you even go to the market on a warm summer night, and speak Lost Words of meaning to strangers for free.

Perhaps you continue to practice, and learn, and speak, only for yourself.

On Coming Back to the School of Lost Words

You can come back.

You cannot stay here forever, but maybe—just maybe—you might return.

I spoke Words in my community. I taught those who would listen; I continued to learn. I achieved a small bit of local fame. But one thing nagged at me slightly: I’d never quite finished the last part of my training here. I had a conditional degree.

In my sixty-third year, I returned to finish it.

My wife, my love, granted me leave to part with her for a time. Our children are full-grown, with children of their own. They love Words, but not enough to devote their lives to it.

And so here I am before you, an old man just graduating as you are beginning your journey. An old man who has been student and teacher and student again. One who was asked to speak a few words from his experience to you today, and whose discursive ramblings you’ve so kindly indulged.

The Truth of Lost Words

This is the terrible truth: no matter how hard you practice, how inspired you are, you will never speak any Word perfectly. Perhaps Saint Helabora was able to do it at the end. But she was a saint, and long gone.

We—we ordinary people, with our frail human bodies and hearts and minds—for us, everything we say is only approximation. All of it is only translation. Imperfect translations of a language that is ultimately beyond us, a language of saints and angels and gods. A language that speaks of all things, even though we cannot. We have only fragments of this lost language left, and no understanding of its grammar at all.

This is another truth: we will not stop trying.

We will not stop reaching for perfection, even as we know its impossibility. We will not stop seeking the divine.

We will try to say, again and again, the Words beyond our saying.

The Tenth Word
Anchor: Catching the Sea

The anchoring image of this Word: a great ocean, fathomless, endless. A small, frail boat on its surface; a small, frail human inside.

This Word is you on the surface of this great sea, trying to collect what you can of it in a cracked cup. All around you the waves swell; you are gently lifted and lowered. The water runs through your cup, over your hands; you will never catch more than a thimble’s amount, and never for more than a few seconds. And yet you persist, and the song in your heart is both joyous and sad.

Vanessa Fogg

Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures from her home in western Michigan. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical writer. Her fiction has appeared in Liminal StoriesDaily Science FictionGigaNotoSaurusTranslunar Travelers Lounge, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4.  A complete bibliography and more can be found at her website www.vanessafogg.com. Vanessa is fueled by green tea.