There are secret places in the world. Our maze was one of them. Sometimes a queen or an astrologer or a poet followed some inward silence and found our maze; sometimes a king or an architect or a musician followed some outward cacophony and sought our maze, and we hid ourselves.
We saw the army first, but the woman, the woman we welcomed. She came out of the mountains, hiding herself from the soldiers who roved the hills like wolves. We opened the lids of the books-that-watch, whose text was etched upon our gates, and saw her: scarred; carrying a shortbow of wood, horn, and sinew; at her belt, a knife with a hilt of bronze and gold, a cut-off tassel hanging from the horsehead pommel. She came afoot, although we guessed her to be a horse-nomad. In her heart was silence.
None of her people had passed this way before. This made communicating our greeting a difficulty. She reciprocated our efforts. If she had been deaf to the mysteries of language and the treasures of our maze, we would not have admitted her.
Early efforts resulted in a pidgin of some dozen languages. We spoke local trade tongues to her, hoping that some borrowed word, some accident of similar syntax, would ease her learning. When she could understand and be understood with only occasional confusion, she spoke of her origins in terms of myth: where the hawk flies, where the first archer shot down nine of ten suns, where footprints flower in the grass. Our glimpses of her own language placed it in a familiar category, further dispersed than expected, and changed in ways that pleased us to contemplate.
We learned a name that might have been her true one: Nanmori. We did not ask her about the pursuing army. She made no offer to tell us. However, she demonstrated her archery upon targets of bamboo and pale paper, assisted in the preparation of foodstuffs, and marveled at our aboveground gardens, which spelled out sustaining words from the books-that-eat. We gave her salves for her scars and teas for her aches.
Seasons passed, and she wove herself into our routines of gardening and bookbinding. We judged that she understood us well enough to receive the full, formal greeting, and ask the questions that hounded her here.
We said this to Nanmori, as we had to astrologers and explorers, exiles and shamans: The world lies in sound and in silence. We are the secret of its speech, the silence at its heart. You have found that we lie above a great maze, whose voices you may study. Some day we will write all that is to be written here, and open our pages to the world at large. You may leave whenever you please; you may add your bones to the gardens if it suits you.
Her head lifted a little as we spoke. When we had finished, she pressed her hands together, then bowed. Her eyes shone. She stayed.
The books-that-watch opened upon words of iron and bronze, numbers marching in precise columns. A general’s poems wrote themselves upon the books-that-dream, filling our sleep with sword-weight and shield-burden. We had a legend to maintain in the world’s whispers. We had a guest to safeguard. We whispered back to the books-that-watch and the books-that-dream. The roads rewrote themselves, and the rosters unnumbered their tallies. We left the poems intact, admiring their pointed brutality.
We closed ourselves to the army, and thought little more of those wandering soldiers.
Nanmori descended into the maze’s mouth. There, words echoed in litanies while a wind scoured out of the passages. She asked what the words were and what our libraries had to do with them.
Nanmori could not read. Words were a thing of the body, shaped by lips and fueled by lungs. Counting, too, was a thing of the body, following a sequence from fingers to earlobes, elbows to ankles. Our previous visitors had been skilled with stylus or brush, counting rods or codes knotted upon colored cords. Answering Nanmori required more seasons teaching her the shadows that sound makes upon paper, bamboo, clay. Her hands, which competently wielded the knife or guided arrows, never mastered the simple writing system we devised for our Nanmori-pidgin. She persevered with her large, awkward letters. It sufficed.
We showed her the library where we transcribed the maze’s words, our slates and scrolls in ever-descending stacks. We showed her the notation we used to capture the syllables and their intonations. We read her countless examples.
She asked why the transcription of maze-words consumed us.
We had to teach her mathematics beyond the simple sums that had sufficed in her past. We taught her that nothing was a number, and how to contemplate numbers smaller than nothing. We showed her subtraction with piles of fruits, then arithmetic and the nuances of more difficult systems. After she accepted the numerality of nothing, the rest came with greater ease.
Then we told her the nature of the maze-words. Each word spoken in the world’s hearing has one and only one inverse, which is rarely an antonym and need not be in the same language. A pair of inverse-words spoken together forms a moment of irreproachable silence, a return to the void that birthed the universe. When a word is spoken outside our sanctum, the maze breathes its inverse, which echoes until it is transcribed.
Nanmori’s eyes showed a taut, terrible eagerness when she heard this. She suggested that we spoke of a bowstring’s motion, which could be canceled by opposing vibrations: the superposition of waves. Her understanding, once again, was a thing of the body, and it was correct.
What Nanmori sought to unsay, or to whom, we could only conjecture. It concerned the halfway tassel, the absent horse, the literary general. It fed the uncanny sense that led her through our indexes and archives. We began to dream her voice in the maze, her footsteps in the library. Her presence became part of our geography. Sometimes we dreamt of another’s voice in answer, or a chorus of voices. Upon waking, we could not say which.
The general stopped writing poetry. When he put brush to paper it was to send discouraged reports to a distant ruler. In the weeks that followed, his army frayed. We untangled its path in hope of more poems. We almost convinced him. One evening he put brush to paper, stopped, started again.
That night, Nanmori disappeared. She left her latest bowstring with its ends knotted together. We took this as her farewell and inscribed her name within our garden, imitating her round, awkward hand. Then we tangled the paths to keep the general from her, or us. We were safe, but we missed her.
The next morning, the books-that-eat starved themselves of color. The books-that-watch closed their covers.
We found a poem in the books-that-dream, a Nanmori-poem in the language she never shared entirely. Did it answer the general’s last poems? Was she seeking him or fleeing him? Had she spoken the right words too soon or the wrong words too late?
The bowstring was a loop, a representation of nothing. Her world, unstrung. As the books sang and fluttered, we heard the impossible word that Nanmori alone had sought. It is the singular word that is its own inverse, which cannot help but annihilate itself, just as nothing and nothing make nothing. Or so we had understood it.
Nanmori told us differently-had tried to tell us in the language of dreams. In the end, she returned to her first, most natural language, a thing of the body: She walked outside to open our doors, hoping we would follow so she could return hospitality for hospitality. For we are the word at the center of things, which cannot be erased by anything save itself.
We write, and the books heed us no longer. We speak without feeding our words to the maze. Its secrets, like Nanmori’s, will remain unbreathed. She has unstrung us. Now we scatter our pages to the world’s winds. Perhaps wiser ones will find that words upon words create more than words, that literature does not sum to nothing.
Until then, we will remain silent, listening.
For Myn and her semiprimes; for Mrissa and her inverses.
Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Sybil’s Garage. She was inspired to write this story by abstract algebra and a friend’s remark that languages might have inverses.