From the Vault: Langue

Another fragment. Another incomplete story. Distinctive this time because A) I have absolutely no recollection of writing it (though it’s clearly something I wrote) and B) I have absolutely no idea where I was going with it. But it seems interesting to me.

In a way, it’s more stock than a lot of what I’ve written, particularly for fantasy. At the same time, there’s more of a horror dimension than a lot of my fantasy work.

It’s also distinctive because it’s one of the few stories to involve Fort Baxter, a fictional Maine town along the Canadian border, meant to be my home town of Fort Kent with serial numbers filed sort of off and a fresh coat of paint over it.

I think I probably wrote this while I was finishing up college. I was really into the idea of language critical theory/linguistic critical theory/the sign-significator-significated trichotomy for a while then. I’m a little surprised this isn’t more pretentious than it is as a result.

Apropos of nothing, the lead is named Karin MacDougal.  In 1997, a Karen McDougal became a somewhat more-famous-than-usual Playboy Playmate and then Playmate of the Year. From the tone of this piece, I believe it was written at least four and possibly more years before 1997, so despite the name, this is not an homage to a hot chick.

Also apropos of nothing, I used to make homemade hot cocoa like is described in here.

*** *** *** ***

I was fourteen the first time I heard Uncle Roger use language.

He’s not my uncle. He isn’t even technically my stepfather’s brother. But they grew up together. They spend a lot of time talking. Well, Uncle Roger talks. Dad listens.

We were in the kitchen. I was making Nestle Quik. He was making tea. I heard a noise — like a tapping. It was a chickadee in the feeder, cracking open sunflower seeds with its little beak. I laughed when I saw it. Chickadees look so silly sometimes.

I must have scared it. It darted out of the feeder, landing on its small roof and looking all around itself. It looked sort of like a cartoon character. I laughed again, but Uncle Roger looked at me crossly. Then he leaned close to the glass and spoke through it to the bird.

I didn’t know the words he used, or what language they were in, but the bird cocked it’s head as though it were listening, looking in the house with one amber eye. And then it dropped back down into the feeder and started eating again.

I watched Uncle Roger as he crouched down a little near the window. He was looking at the chickadee, and whispered something. “Arrebee,” I think. It was tender, sort of,

And then he stood up, and took a deep breath. When he turned around, he didn’t look like my harmless old uncle. His brown eyes were deeper, some how.

“How did you coax him back down?” I asked. “Chickadees are scared easily.”

“Birds aren’t toys, Karin,” he said. “You shouldn’t treat them like they are.” And that was all he said about it.

I was seventeen the next time I heard Uncle Roger use language. He didn’t talk to birds that time.

I had more or less forgotten about the bird. It was weird but not too weird. But I had taken to paying more attention to the way Uncle Roger acted, especially when he thought no one was watching. How he would stare at things for a long time. How he would pick things up and heft them in his hand, like he was measuring them. I remember when my mother gave him a ceramic coffee cup her father had made for her. He spent ten minutes just looking at it, running his fingers along the cracks and patterns. There were times he held it to his ear, and tapped his finger on the rim. It made a hollow ringing sound that he repeated until he could hum the same note, about two octaves down.

And I had noticed the way he talked. The cadences he would get in his voice when he told a story or explained some piece of trivia. The way he built a joke up with words, or wove a musical web when he sang. I noticed these things more closely.

And once or twice, I noticed him noticing me. Seeing my interest, and weighing it like the coffee cup.

But anyhow, I was seventeen. It was October, I think, and pretty chilly. Fort Baxter gets snow in November most years. We’re far enough north so that we get a nasty gulfstream. I was mad, because my boyfriend, Brad, was supposed to give me a ride home. He had forgotten he had an evening shift at Andy’s, so he begged off.

My parents’ house is on Farmer Street, right off of College Street. But I was taking the back way since Brad lived downtown, over Village Square Fashions. It was faster to take the back streets, and I was cold and it was raining, sort of. But the back streets weren’t very well lit.

I wasn’t scared. There was no reason to be. Fort Baxter, Maine has a violent crime rate so close to zero it isn’t funny. Even near BaxState it’s pretty quiet. I was just mad and cold and damp.

The wind came in gusts, blowing my hair in my eyes. I pushed it back for the third or fourth time… and I knew I wasn’t alone.

I just knew. I can’t explain how or why. I knew someone was watching me. That they were following me. Or maybe I was crazy, but I started to walk faster.

I could hear boots on macadam behind me. I began to run.

Something dull shoved me in the small of the back. It didn’t hurt, but I pitched forward, scraping my knees. I screamed, but no one lived very close. The man landed on me, grabbing my shoulders and yanking me up. He thrust me down hard, then slammed me down again. I started to cry.

And everything got very quiet. The wind died. Even the rain stopped. My sobs and incoherent words seemed louder then they were.

The man yanked me onto my back. He was older — forty, maybe — wearing a parka and bonnet. It was too dark to see what color they were — he looked like any of the local loggers. “Shut up,” he snapped at me, looking around like a startled cat. I didn’t stop crying, of course, so he slapped me and shouted it at me.

I shut up, but not because he hit me. Something — some kind of sound or pressure — was building around us.

“Who’s there!” he shouted. His words echoed around us.

The wind stirred again, blowing brown leaves up into a dust devil. The trees seemed to be whispering. I could smell ozone.

“Who the Hell’s there!” my attacker shouted.

There was a sound — like the hum of train tracks before you could hear the train itself coming. Or a string bass being played with a metal bow. I felt goosebumps ripple on my flesh.

There were telephone poles stretching wire along the road. The metal pins and cable guides began to glow green with Saint Elmo’s fire. The smell of Ozone was everywhere, with a mettalic tinge to it.

With a clap of thunder that sounded like an explosion, the storm broke all around us. The wind ripped at us both, causing the man to roll off of me and wrap his hands over his head in terror.

And then I saw my Uncle Roger. He was walking towards us, arms outstretched and he was shouting something I couldn’t understand. It reminded me of Latin or Italian, but I knew it wasn’t either. He looked huge — more a part of the storm than a man caught in it.

He stabbed his finger at my attacker, screaming a word. A lightning bolt split the sky, stabbing Uncle Roger’s finger and reflecting off of it like a living tendril of light. It grounded into my attacker, and the man twisted and shook, his muscles locking.

I screamed again, and forced myself to my feet running. I wasn’t running for home or for Brad’s house. I just ran from what I couldn’t understand. The thunder tore all around me and the rain drove through my windbreaker, but I just kept going until I reached the woods. There were paths but I didn’t take them. Instead I just kept going, branches and boughs snapping at my feet until finally I collapsed, exhausted, and sobbed at the base of an oak tree.

When I finally cried myself out, the rain had stopped. I got up and turned around.

Uncle Roger was standing there, watching me. He didn’t look ten feet tall any more. He looked like the Uncle who used to tell me stories about Odysseus and Heracles. Like my favorite babysitter.

“You have to be cold, Karin,” he said to me.

“Uh huh,” I sniffed.

“Come on. Let’s get you warmed up. Everything’s okay. I promise.” He held his arms out to me, like my stepfather did when I was little and scared of the dark.

Slowly I went to him, and he wrapped his coat around my shoulders and led me through the maze of trees.

“Is he dead?” I asked Uncle Roger.

“Who?”

“The man. The man who attacked me.”

“No,” he said to me. “He isn’t dead. But he won’t be able to hurt you.”

I never found out what happened to the man. Uncle Roger led me to his house, where he cleaned the cuts I got from branches in the woods and checked me for broken bones. He gave me Hot Chocolate he made from scratch and called my folks to tell them I was okay.

I tried to ask him what he had done. How he had bent lightning and shouted up a storm. But he evaded me, for once quiet. As I was leaving, I turned back to him.

“Will you ever tell me what happened tonight?” I asked.

“When you know what questions to ask, I’ll answer them,” he said, and shut his door.

The next time I heard Uncle Roger use language, I was twenty.

I had tried to bring up the subject a number of times, of course. But Uncle Roger either misdirected my question into a different subject or failed to hear me. I cornered my stepfather once and asked him, point blank.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked me. He looked — maybe scared, or nervous. But mostly like I was prying into something private. Something almost embarresing.

“I saw him hit a man with lightning,” I said. “He shouted something and a lightning bolt wrapped around his hand and went where he wanted it to go.”

“Did the man deserve it?”

“He had knocked me over and… and was going to hurt me, I guess.” I had never told my folks about what had happened.

Dad got a slightly angry look on his face. “Did — are you… were you all right?” he asked.

“Yeah. Before the guy could really hurt me, everything got all–”

“Don’t tell me,” Dad said. “I don’t need to know. Just… just remember this. If your Uncle Roger felt he had to attack that man to protect you, he had to. He never does anything he doesn’t have to.”

“But how did he do it?” I asked.

Dad got a far-away look on his face. “He went away for a while,” he said to me. “Somewhere on the West Coast, and then England.” He looked at me again. “After he came back… he could do strange things.”

“But–”

“If you want to know, you’ll have to ask him. I don’t know and I don’t want to. But I trust him.”

By the time I was a Junior at Bowdoin college, I had tried to find the right questions to ask Uncle Roger. I had studied folklore and mythology. Literature and anthropology. I had originally thought to major in communications, but consciously or unconsciously I had switched to English. A B to C student in High School, I was an A student in college. My parents were so proud of me. So was Uncle Roger, who himself taught English at Baxter State right in Fort Baxter. When I was home on breaks and during vacation, he would come over and talk about poetry with me. He spoke passionatly, making the subject come to life. And he showed me some of the poetry he had written and published, and asked to see mine. I don’t know how he knew I had been trying to write poetry, but he did.

When I was twenty I was in my senior year, home for Christmas break. I got in around eleven thirty at night and was met by the whole family. It had been a mild winter in Brunswick, where I went to college, so the thick blanket of snow that covered my home town was almost welcome. Winters should be full of snow and ice coating the trees. I stayed up half the night with my mother and stepfather before road fatigue drove me to bed. The next morning I woke up early, had a cup of coffee (I had taken it up at Bowdoin), and walked down Farmer Street to Uncle Roger’s house.

It was snowing. Big, white flakes that made the boundry between sky and ground suspect. I loved the snow. Growing up, snow meant sliding and snowball fights and skating and skiing. If it snowed hard enough, the school buses couldn’t get through and we had a snow day. Up in Northern Maine, the snow was your friend. So by the time I made it to Uncle Roger’s, I was in a really good mood.

There was a strange car in his driveway. A Lincoln Town Car, black. All Town Cars are black, I think. It had Massachusetts plates, so Uncle Roger had visitors. Relatives, maybe. They might have been over for Christmas.

I knocked and looked at the wreath on Uncle Roger’s door. The Jaycees sell them each year, and Uncle Roger paid for a good one. It was woven out of blue pine, with a cluster of broad pine cones in its center and a red ribbon tied in a bow beneath it. It was festive and homey all at once.

The door opened, and a strange blond man stared out at me.

I was almost shocked to see him. I didn’t recognize him, but somehow I felt… nervous. Frightened, almost. He wore a black suit with a white shirt and gold cufflinks. His hair was combed back and immaculate. His eyes were grey and they stared into mine like icicles.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice colder than the outside air.

“Is… um, is Professor Dalton here?”

“What is your business with Doctor Dalton?” he asked, almost mocking. As though he couldn’t believe I had business with ‘Doctor Dalton.’

“Edward,” my Uncle’s voice rang out sharply. “I don’t believe I made you my secretary, so please don’t screen my visitors.” He stepped into view, opening the door wide. “Karin!” he said warmly, opening his arms to me. I melted into them and hugged him, hard. “I had no idea you were back — you haven’t written to me in too long, young lady!”

“Hi Uncle Roger! I know, I know, but I’ve been awfully busy. Look, I can come back later if you’re busy–” I cast a cold look at ‘Edward.’ “–maybe when you’re alone.”

“Oh don’t mind Edward,” he said. “He’s an old friend of mine who’s unfortunate enough to be a lawyer in a large city. He sometimes forgets what human contact is like.”

“Yes,” Edward said crisply. “In my line of work, I get so little of it. Well, are you going to introduce me to your friend or should I go see what Porter is up to in the kitchen.” Edward’s voice was high — a tenor, maybe — and crisply British.

“Of course. Edward Chambers, this is my niece, Karin. Karin McDougal, this is an associate of mine late of Piccadilly, now of Boston.”

“Niece,” Edward asked with an upraised eyebrow. “I thought that – o-hooo… Frank McDougal’s daughter, of course.”

“Stepdaughter,” I said. It might have been unfair to a man who had served as my father since I was ten, but I couldn’t ever quite call him my real father. There were still days I missed my real father.

“Ah. Stepdaughter but not stepniece? Or have I misconstrued the relationship.” I felt a flash of annoyance and let go of my Uncle. I could tell I’d probably never like Edward Chambers late of Piccadilly.

“Probably,” my Uncle said lightly. “You misconstrue so much else in your day.” It sounded like Uncle Roger was joking, but Edward flinched like he were hit.

So there was tension between the two of them, too.

“Well, I’m off to get a paper,” Edward said. “I’ll let you two get reaquainted. I hope I won’t interrupt when I return. Porter!

Porter was a large man in a black uniform. A chauffer, it looked like. The two of them left and I breathed a little easier.

“Sorry,” Uncle Roger said, walking towards the kitchen. “Edward’s rough around the edges. He grates on people, somewhat unintentionally. But he’s not a bad sort, really.”

“I can’t say I like him,” I said, sniffing. I had a minor cold — I got one every winter, and it was worse in Brunswick, near the coast. It didn’t get cold enough to throw the germs into remission.

“You don’t know him yet, Chickadee. When you know him, you can dislike him legitimately. Hot Cocoa?”

“Please! Thanks.” I grinned. Uncle Roger smiled and set about making it. He didn’t use Swiss Miss or Carnation. Instead, he got out baker’s chocolate and sugar and dry milk and blended them in the mug. The cocoa was thick and had money on top and was bittersweet instead of cloying. He asked about classes and we fell into a talk about William Blake, who I was studying in my Romantic and Victorian Poetry seminar.

Edward didn’t come back for quite a long time, and Uncle Roger didn’t seem to be giving him another thought, so I stayed for hours. Finally, around four thirty, I was staring into the fire (Uncle Roger had a Jørdül in his sitting room) while Uncle Roger made a phone call. I felt safe.

“Such a pretty little thing,” I heard whispered into my ear, and I jumped.

Edward Chambers smiled. “Sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t resist.”

“Whatever,” I said tensly. “I better be going.”

“Wait a moment,” Chambers said. “Let me look at you.”

“I’ll be late for dinner,” I said, rising.

Selth,” he said, his left hand blurring into what looked like American Sign Language. I felt a chill run down my spine and into my bones, and suddenly I couldn’t move. It didn’t feel like paralysis. It was like I had no idea how to tell my arms to push me off the couch. Like I had no idea how to make my legs lift me up.

Edward Chambers circled in front of me, those eyes piercing me. “You are lovely,” he said. “So pretty and fresh. But that’s not it, is it.” He seemed to be scrutinizing me. Not leering — or not much. But probing. Memorizing. Trying to learn as much about me as Uncle Roger had learned about the coffee cup, years before. “No… there are any number of girls as pretty or prettier.

“So what are you? A protegé? An apprentice? Your eyes are quick. Your voice is sweet. The potential is there… but is he going to use it?”

“Perhaps he is, and perhaps he isn’t,” my Uncle said, stepping into the room. “Either way, it’s no business of yours, Edward.” His voice was icy cold.

Edward laughed. “Call it professional interest,” he said.

“Release her.”

“Just answer a question or two first. Is she yours? Are you grooming her? For what? I thought you didn’t play our games, Roger.”

The two locked eyes. Uncle Roger made a pass, his hands twisting in that same American Sign Language varient. Chambers snapped his hands up, twisted into their own odd symbols. He whispered as he did it, and Uncle Roger’s forehead beaded with sweat.

“Eldorr Edward Cinjin Chambers aresti!” Uncle Roger shouted, and Edward’s hands and voice froze. “Orbitse.”

Edward’s eyes held Uncle Roger’s for a long moment, then looked to the floor. “Pandeth.” he said, sounding disgruntled.

“Alke ne porth Karin.” Uncle Roger said. It sounded like he was just talking.

Edward looked at me. “Anti se porth Karin?”

“Banne.”

“Tuke.” Edward spelled a word with his fingers, and suddenly I could move.

But I didn’t. I was scared and angry, all at once.

“I think perhaps you should go back to your Hotel,” Uncle Roger said to Edward.

“Perhaps,” he said. He glanced back at me. “She really has no clue, does she?”

“That depends on the mystery we’re discussing.”

Edward chuckled. “I do love your little word games, Roger. Well, say hello to Franklyn for me.”

“Francis. Frank to you.”

“Of course.” I noticed Porter for the first time — he was standing by the door with Edward’s coat. Edward took it and the two walked into the snowy twilight.

Uncle Roger settled heavily onto the couch in front of the fire. He looked weary. “I really am getting too old for this sort of thing,” he said.

“You’re not old,” I said quietly.

“Really? That’s good to know. I feel old, though.” He looked at me. “I owe you an apology. Edward’s actions were unconscienceable.”

“You owe me more than an apology,” I said, leaning forward. “I think you owe me an explaination.”

“When–”

“When I know the questions to ask, you’ll answer them. I heard you. Uncle Roger, three years ago you controlled the weather to protect me. Three minutes ago you made Chambers back down — I don’t know how. And Chambers froze me in place and made weird allegations about me. So don’t give me chaff about knowing what to ask. I don’t have the vocabulary to ask you what I need to know. Just tell me something.”

Uncle Roger looked wistful and bemused all at once. “That’s what it’s all about, really. Your vocabulary. When you have the words to ask, my answers would make sense.”

“What do–”

“But you’re right. I do owe you something. I just hadn’t thought we would reach this impasse quite yet. Something else I can thank dear Mister Chambers for.”

“You expected something like this to happen?” I asked.

“Not at all. I expected that something would happen that would lead us to talk. I just thought I had more time.”

He rose. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Sure.”

“Good.” He walked into the kitchen and I followed. “What do you want to know.”

“What can you do?”

Uncle Roger laughed. “My Vitae are quite extensive. Explaining all of them would take some time. For instance, I am a poet, I am an Associate Professor of English, which means I’m capable of critical work and of teaching. I–”

“You know what I mean!”

“Do I? If you don’t know what you mean, I can’t possibly know what you mean, Chickadee.”

“But — God, talking to you can be so frustrating.

Nolo Contende, Karin. I can’t make this easy for you, I’m afraid. If you’re going to get answers you can understand, you’ll have to ask questions that are specific enough for me to answer exactly. Otherwise, I’ll have no way of knowing what you can understand and what you can’t. If you want answers — ask.”

“All right. Magic. You can work magic, right?”

“Yes.” The answer was quiet and unpretentious, but it still shook me. It was confirmation that the world wasn’t what I thought it was. “And so can you and so can everyone.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone can work magic. In ways, everyone does work magic. You have a double-dozen magical experiences a day. When you twist the laces of your shoes into a bow, you’re casting a very minor sort of spell. When a man ties a windsor knot in his tie, he’s casting a varient. Tying a bow tie is a more advanced varient. And the Boy Scouts teach ropecraft that is very advanced indeed.”

“But… that’s not magic.”

“What is it, then?”

“Tying knots? It’s a skill. Something anyone can learn.”

“Really? I was a Boy Scout once, but I doubt I could even identify a sheepshank. I never really got past the square knot and the bowline, and I’ve never used a bowline in my life. My father was somewhat disappointed in me.”

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8 comments ↓

#1 Eric A. Burns on 10.25.07 at 12:18 am

Another note. For a story ostensibly about language, those faux words are remarkably ugly.

#2 Mr Sitouh on 10.25.07 at 1:11 am

Hey, fake language is hard to do.

On an unrelated note, I’d suspect the language used between language-fu experts would be tonal. Although I may be biased.

#3 Tephlon on 10.25.07 at 5:10 am

If you read them with an Italian or Portuguese accent, it’s not that bad.

I like the premise of the story. Feels unfinished, of course, but there is a lot of potential there.

#4 dvandom on 10.25.07 at 10:02 am

I suspect any language of power, language that had to remain secret and unused to retain its potency, would have to be ugly and awkward, else it would be replicated accidentally in common use, or slide into causal conversation by the knowledgeable.

#5 Streon on 10.25.07 at 10:13 am

I like this one.

#6 LurkerWithout on 10.27.07 at 12:56 am

I suspect any language of power, language that had to remain secret and unused to retain its potency, would have to be ugly and awkward, else it would be replicated accidentally in common use, or slide into causal conversation by the knowledgeable.

I’m rereading A. Lee Martinez’s “Gil’s All Fright Diner” at work and it reminded me of this. Since in the book the language used to invoke the Dark Powers of the Old Gods is Pig Latin…

#7 Sigmund on 10.27.07 at 7:05 am

This one seems enthralling, reminds me of susan cooper’s novels

#8 selphie_trabia on 10.28.07 at 2:58 am

Tonal languages are simply put… awesome and very pretty to listen to, but darned hard to sing.

^_^

But if I were to rate all the Asian languages I heard, I would have to say that Japanese sounds the prettiest and Korean sounds the most unfriendly, even when you’re being friendly…

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