Runes

Yuri raised a single finger as his new apprentice entered the room. The young man, scrawny and awkward in the throes of adolescence, stood fidgeting, hat in hand, for quite a long time. His eyes darted back and forth between a chair a few feet away that he didn’t have the courage to sit in, the older man hunched over his writing desk, and his battered hand-me-down shoes. Finally, just as the young man was certain for at least the fourth time that his feet would fall off and send his legs through the floor, Yuri leaned back and sighed heavily.

Their eyes met and held each other, the boy trying to look brave and ready, Yuri wondering if the boy was competent and patient enough for the work. “What is your name?” Yuri asked.

“George.”

“That’s my name.” Yuri replied with a slight smile.

“My dad said your name was Yuri.”

“Same thing, different language.” Yuri leaned forward again. “How many languages do you speak?”

“Just English, sir.”

“Do I look like a sir?” Yuri asked rhetorically “I speak six languages: Russian, German, Swedish, French, English, and Spanish. Each language is different.” Yuri picked up the pen on his desk. “But the pen? The pen speaks a language of it’s own. The runes that this pen writes touch the very truth of things. The pen bypasses the barriers of language for any who can produce and decipher the meaning of the runes. The illiterate common man will call this magic, that a slip of paper can pass knowledge from one mind to another. But here…” Drawing his pen from it’s inkpot, Yuri sent it flying across a slip of paper on his desk. He tore the freshly inked symbols off the page, leaned over the desk, handed it to George, and waited to see how he would react.

George took the small slip of paper. He stared at the contorted lines of black ink for a moment, sizing them up and deciding where to begin. Then he grimaced as he set to work on the mental acrobatics required to unlock their knowledge. A golden glow illuminated the page as the first rune untwisted. As the light touched his eyes George knew that the runes before him contained a question. This knowledge etched itself in his mind as the rune itself faded from the page, lost forever.

George continued the process, pulling apart the second rune, watching it glow, and capturing it’s meaning in his mind. The question was directed at him. Looking at the page he could tell that only one rune remained.

When his work was done he held the now blank slip of paper out, offering it back to Yuri. ”Yes.” he answered the question aloud “I can read.”

“Very good.” Yuri grunted, suppressing a smile with raised eyebrows “That will save us some time.”

***

George stared at the page before him, his eyes slowly widening, his jaw slowly dropping. He turned and looked at Yuri with a powerless expression.

“Lost?” Yuri asked with a mischievous smile.

George looked back down at the page, at the hours of work before him. “I don’t know what comes next… I don’t remember what I just wrote. I don’t remember any of it.”

Yuri chuckled, remembering his own apprenticeship. “Just as the runes vanish from the page as they enter your mind, so too do they vanish from your mind as they fill the page. But you knew that, did you not? So why are you surprised?”

“How do you do it then.” George asked with furrowed brow. “How do you write a whole novel when you forget every word you write as you write it.” He brought the gnawed handle of his pen to his lips.

Yuri smacked the pen away absent mindedly. “That’s the challenge of our craft, isn’t it. Flip back to the chapter start and look at the insignia. What does it mean to you? Where does it put you in the story?”

George flipped slowly through the pages, he could barely even remember how many he had written. When he reached the insignia he stared at it blankly for a moment. The insignia was not a rune that would vanish from the page if read. Rather, it was more like a crude picture, a symbolic reminder of what the chapter was about. George knew that this insignia was a cat, he knew the sorts of things a cat could symbolize, but he could not recall what such symbolism had to do with this story.

Yuri could see the confusion and frustration in his eyes. “Welcome to the first great lesson of novel writing. You’ve done well so far, but this is what separates the men from the boys.” Yuri put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Never. Write. Too. Much. Trust your reader to connect A to C, but never give them B. You must cling to B for yourself.  B is for you.”

“So what do I do now? Throw it out, start again from scratch?” George was almost in tears.

Yuri laughed. “You are too serious. No, of course not! Just read it back into your mind and try again.”

George looked at Yuri with astonishment that quickly turned to relief. Without another word he began to read the chapter he had just finished, starting from his insignia. As the runes vanished from the page and filled his mind he remained baffled as to how any of this would lead to the rest of the story Yuri had taught him. He read it as a reader would, ignorant of the journey, though for him the ending was spoiled. Finally, as he began to untwist the last few paragraphs he smiled, and when the last rune vanished from the page he looked up at Yuri. “A cat!” He laughed, shaking his head.

Yuri smiled back and said “Now do it again, but this time hold a little back for yourself. You give enough to the reader so that they can piece together what has happened, but you hold enough back in your own mind so that you don’t forget. You need to trust your reader, and you need to keep your place in the story. That is the delicate balance of novel writing.”

George nodded to himself, dipped his pen in the ink, and allowed his thoughts to flow out of his his mind and onto the page. As the last glow of dusk vanished he leaned back from the candle light. He had no memory or knowledge of what the pages before him contained, but as he glanced at the insignia of the cat he immediately understood it’s significance. He tilted his head to the side as he considered what it could mean in the context of the unwritten chapters still full and lush in his mind.

“Faith.” Yuri said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “That is the hardest part, having faith in yourself. The more you write, the better you will be at understanding each insignia and choosing what to tell and what to hold back. If you truly devote yourself to this art, then in ten or twenty years you will write a version of this very novel that is flawless. The jagged edges between each chapter will be smooth, your voice as a writer clean and consistent. On that day you will know the pride of being a true novelist.”

***

George spent most of his waking hours with Yuri and as a consequence he tried to find as many excuses as he could to slip out of Yuri’s tiny office. He had to ‘use the bathroom’ so often that he was surprised Yuri wasn’t seriously concerned about his health.

He wasn’t really surprised though. Yuri’s novel sold reasonably well when it was in stock, but Yuri was such a perfectionist that he could never really produce enough copies to sustain interest. Yuri spent most of his day hunched over his writing desk carving black runes into the white pages and still barely produced enough to put food on the table. Thus the arrangement with George’s father, a landlord with a deep love of literature and vicarious aspirations for his son. Yuri barely noticed George most of the time, only occasionally offering the same stale bits of advice or reading a few paragraphs here and there upon request.

It wasn’t as though George wasn’t grateful for Yuri’s lessons though. On the contrary, the thing George liked to do most during this time away from Yuri was to write. He wrote dozens of short stories, nothing as ambitious as a whole novel, but some of the longer ones required great care in their construction. He never tried to publish any of them, most of them he just read back so that he could see how well he had done.

For a long time George had trouble finding a good place to do his writing. He tried the steps along the street, but it was too busy and loud to focus. He tried going home to the quiet of his small room, but it took too long for him to get there and back. It was an unseasonably hot day in May when George took refuge in the cool, dark basement of the apartments where Yuri lived. The basement was used for storage, and as George wandered the various partitions he stumbled across an old writing desk next to a pile of supplies and a large misshapen object under a dusty white sheet. George was immediately delighted with the setup and moved the desk under one of the high, narrow, street-level windows to capture some of the light from outside.

***

Yuri scowled at the blank pages before him. He looked up over the rim of his glasses at George. “Good.”

George waited for Yuri to continue.

“You have all the pieces of the story, your voice is getting more consistent, and the chapters connect well. You just need more life to it. Your audience needs to feel the characters and events.”

George looked down.

Yuri dropped the pages on the desk, leaned back, and rubbed his face  “Don’t worry, write it a few more times and I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it.”

George shifted his weight and looked to the side.

Yuri sighed heavily. “What? Out with it. There are things to do, don’t waste my time with childish pouting.”

George scrunched his face and looked up at Yuri. “I don’t want to write it a few more times. I want to write something new.”

Yuri paused, blinked a few times, and said. “This novel has been passed down through four generations of novelists, refined by master after master after master. This is a good novel.”

“I know, I just…”

“You won’t find a better novel out there. I promise you that.” Yuri insisted.

“No, I don’t want…”

“And don’t think most of the great novelists would take a boy like you in. A good novelist mentors scholars of high birth, not some landlord’s son.”

“Then what are you.” George spat, and immediately regretted it.

Yuri ground his teeth as he glared at George, nodding slowly. With a sharp exhale he continued in a quiet voice full of conviction “This is a good novel. You are lucky to have it.” He turned away from George dismissively.

George sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. “I don’t want to learn from someone else. That’s not what I meant. I meant I want to write something else. I want to write something new.”

Yuri turned back, eyebrows raised. “New? You mean original? Ha.” He laughed sardonically. “I thought like you when I was younger. I had a dozen stories brewing in my mind. I tried to find a way to write them all and squandered years of my life on the folly. Do not get ahead of yourself. You are a bright child, but you are not yet such a master of the craft that you can mold a novel of your own from nothing but the aether. No, it is better to master one novel, and master it well, than to write a dozen inferior ones.”

George ignored that and continued insistently “Painters paint many paintings in their life. Why can’t a writer write many stories?”

“A painter can see what he paints as he paints it.” Yuri looked George steadily in the eyes. “A novelist must know every detail of the novel from the start. He must know it so well that even as he pours it onto the page he can reconstruct it from what he retains. You are progressing well, but you are not ready to write your own novel. This is a good novel. Master it. Teach it to an apprentice of your own some day. Then, when you’ve poured it from your mind into theirs, then you can write a novel of your own.”

Yuri paused for a moment to let his words sink in, then he said “No more talk of this, let us return to work.”

***

Months passed as George continued to act as Yuri’s apprentice six days a week from dawn to dusk. It’s easy to lose interest in something when you spend every waking moment focused on it. The human mind craves variety and challenge. George spent more and more time escaping from Yuri, but less of it writing stories of his own. He would draw pictures in the corner of his writing paper, throw wads of balled up paper at various objects around the room to test his accuracy, or else stare up through the window at the legs of people walking by in the street.

On a cold day in February George sat shivering at his basement desk. He looked around the room for some additional source of warmth. He hadn’t given much thought to the large oddly shaped object in the corner, but the white sheet thrown over it might offer some protection from the cold. He pulled the sheet off, shook out the dust, and threw it over his shoulders.

Standing there clutching the extra layer close and waiting for it to warm up, he eyed the large object, now exposed, with new curiosity. It was some sort of machine. George wasn’t really sure what it was doing here. The other contents of this storage partition led George to believe that it belonged to Yuri. He had always just assumed that the object under the sheet was some piece of furniture too bulky for Yuri’s small apartment. A machine though? What would a novelist like Yuri want with a bunch of rusty gears? George almost considered asking, but he didn’t want to draw attention to his frequent absences or let Yuri in on the little office he had set up for himself down here.

Maybe George really was growing tired of writing. He liked thinking up stories, but he just didn’t seem to have the patience or persistence to be a true novelist. His father would be disappointed, but perhaps it was time for George to try his hand at something new. Why not machinery?

***

George beamed as he entered Yuri’s cramped office and dropped two stacks of papers on his reading desk. Yuri blinked and looked back and forth between the two stacks. “What is this?” Yuri asked.

George’s grin broadened as he said “Look closely, what do you see.”

Yuri picked up the first page of each stack. He scanned them without reading and then nodded “They look very similar. Good, your consistency is improving.”

George chuckled, almost a giggle. “No, not similar. Identical.”

Yuri looked at him, puzzled, and then looked down at the pages again. “Identical?”

“Read the first paragraph of each.”

Yuri did as he was instructed and then leaned back in his chair. George didn’t really notice the sweat forming on Yuri’s forehead, he only saw the broad smile on Yuri’s face “Impressive, but how did you do this?”

George sat in a chair beside Yuri’s desk and scooped up one of the manuscripts, excitedly shuffling through the pages. “A few months ago I found an old machine in the basement storage. I had no idea what it was at first but I just thought it might be fun to try and figure out how all the pieces fit together, see if I could figure out what it was meant to do. Well, I figured it out. I figured it out and I got it working. It makes copies. Identical copies!”

George hadn’t noticed the change in Yuri’s face until he looked up. What he saw in Yuri’s eyes startled him. He had been scolded by Yuri many times, but this was something different. They locked eyes for a moment and George suddenly found himself without the nerve to speak or move. Then, without a word, Yuri stood, pushed passed George, and walked out the door.

George blinked at the door left hanging open, mouthing confused non-words, then he followed. “What’s wrong? What did I say?”

Yuri headed for the stairs without acknowledging George. His footsteps were heavy but steady as he walked with clenched jaw and fists.

George hesitated at the top of the stairs, unsure whether to follow. “Was it your machine in the basement? I thought it might be. I’m sorry I didn’t ask permission…”

Yuri was already turning the corner of the stairwell, headed down to the first floor. George scampered after him.

“Are… are you still going to mentor me. I do like the novel. I know sometimes I’m impatient, but you’re right, it’s a good novel, and I never meant to disrespect it. But it’s okay, because now, with the machine, anyone can read the novel, and I don’t have to write it fresh each time. I can write new stories. Oh!  And now it will be easier because I will be able to read them back without losing my work. Imagine that!”

The door leading from the stairwell into the basement storage slammed in George’s face. At times George had felt small, stupid, and embarrassed as Yuri’s apprentice, but he had never felt as hurt and powerless as he did staring at that door. He slowly put a hand on the knob when the sound of metal striking metal echoed through the door. His eyes went wide and he pulled the door open hard. He ran as fast as he could through the door and down the corridor to the third storage space on the left. There he watched in stunned horror as Yuri brought a heavy wrench down on the machine. A second huge dent appeared in the side of the device as the metal frame buckled with a loud crash.

“No!” George shouted, eyes wide with fear “What are you doing?”

Yuri turned and glared at him, face red with anger. “This is my machine, my mistake. I should have destroyed it years ago.”

“Why? No! Please, don’t you understand what this means?” George protested.

“What it means? It would mean the end of our… no, of my profession. I will not allow that.” As Yuri turned and lifted the wrench for a third time George shrieked and lept forward.

***

Roy took the small slip of paper from his new partner. He gazed intently at it and painstakingly unravelled the meaning of the runes.

“Yes.” he replied aloud “I’m literate.”

Sergeant Mansfield sized Roy up while running the tips of his fingers through his beard, then nodded tersely. “Walk and talk, we’re in the middle of a case.”

“Yes, sir.” Roy replied following the Sergeant’s lead. “Is that why we’re meeting here instead of the precinct office?”

“I’m a beat cop at heart, Roy, I don’t have much use for desks and bureaucrats. We’re tracking down a thief who’s been stealing novels. Have you ever read one?”

“When I can afford it. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Maybe someday I’ll retire and write crime novels. It’s a dream, anyway.”

“Hmm” the Sergeant responded under the jarring sound of a steam whistle. They stood silent for a moment, all sound drowned out by the roar of a sleek blue and gold diesel train entering the station. Roy recognized the insignia as belonging to a reputable Chicago guild. Good quality. Lucky. The sergeant continued “We’ve tracked down dozens of sales this guy has made to various buyers around the country. Thing is, no copies of the novels have been reported missing.”

“Wait, if nothing’s reported missing then how is it theft? Sound like he’s just buying up novels and reselling them.”

“That’s what I thought at first, but he’s sold several copies of the same novel, all identical.”

“So he bought one copy, read it, mastered it, and wrote his own versions? That’s incredibly impressive, but it’s not illegal.”

“No, that wouldn’t be, except that when I say identical I mean identical. Here.” Mansfield reached into a side satchel he was carrying and handed Roy two heavy leather bound books and then sat by the window watching the world shutter and start to roll backward. “Those are just two of the copies we picked up. Don’t read, we’re saving them.”

Roy opened one book, flipping through the pages, glancing at the insignia at the top of each chapter. Then he opened the other, doing the same. After a moment he looked up at his partner with a puzzled expression. “Not even a true master could write exactly the same novel, in exactly the same way, twice in a row. There must be some differences.”

“And yet we have about 5 or 6 completely identical copies of that novel alone, and those are just the ones that we’ve uncovered that haven’t been read already.”

“That’s impossible.  How is that possible?”

“That’s what we need to find out.”

The train rumbled along it’s elevated path over the city as Roy stood in silent contemplation of the books in his hands. Finally he sat and said. “Wait, if he’s legally obtaining the novels, then it’s still not theft. Why is this even a concern of ours?”

“The boss is under pressure from the nobility. I saw the governor himself in the boss’s office with one of those.” He nodded at the books in Roy’s hands.

“Why?”

“They’re afraid, I suspect.”

“Why would they be afraid of someone being able to make perfect copies of novels? So the guy sells a bunch of extra novels and gets rich, good for him.”

“What do you suppose happens if his method for making copies becomes widely known?”

“Oh, yeah, I guess people would stop buying novels altogether if they could just make their own copies. Still, it’s not like that would deter writers, you just can’t stop artists from producing art, the church is proof of that.”

“Careful, you’ll get yourself accused of sacrilege.”

“Oh, no, nothing against the church, just saying that art is part of human nature. And anyway, if people really want new novels they’d find a way to gather together and commission them. If it comes down to supply and demand then as long as there is a demand for novelty then people will find a way to fund the supply of novelty. There doesn’t seem to be much to fear there.”

“Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter. It wouldn’t just be novels, it would be anything that’s written. An education would become that much more accessible to the common man.  There would be no way to stop or slow the spread of knowledge or information. And heaven forbid the secret techniques of the guilds were to fall into the wrong hands. They could be copied for everyone to read and reproduce. If the guilds collapsed the whole empire could very well collapse with them.”

“Huh. I see your point.” Roy looked down at the two identical books in his hands. “But it’s still not illegal.”

“If the governor tells you to look into something, you look into it, legal or not. Besides,until we know exactly how he’s doing it we won’t know for sure. And even if his methods are legal, as soon as we find out what they are, you can believe me when I tell you, they won’t be legal for long.”

The train slowed and squealed to a stop. The steam whistle blew again and the conductor leaned out of the engine compartment shouting “Last stop in Brooklyn! Eastbound express to Long Island! All Aboard!”

“Come on.” Mansfield said. “One of the novels being sold was last written by a novelist named Yuri.”

“We’re going to interview him?”

“No, he’s dead. Cold case. Some of the first book sales started shortly after the case was abandoned. We’re going to see if there’s a connection, and we’re going to start by tracking down his missing apprentice.”