The Notetaker

1. People are generally unfamiliar with our guild’s history. The early founders were literalists. Stole into homes to pilfer grocery lists from scullery maids; broke into college dormitories to swipe notebooks from med students; intercepted children’s mail to Father Nikolaus. They ascribed some sort of power to the taking of other’s wants and learnings. Foolishness; embarrassing now to look back on it, and perfectly understandable why the guild prefers to keep that origin story under wraps.

2. When the Overseer of Alchemists summoned me I was irrationally worried he might command me into that older line of service. Require me to break and enter, rob townspeople of their lists and jots. No logical reason for it, but then there is little rhyme or reason to much that the alchemists do. I was anxious for I am more a stumbler than a cat burglar. My skills are observational.

3. My initial fear was unfounded—unfortunately so, as the task set before me turned out to be far more difficult. The Overseer commanded: “His Serene Highness the Caliph desires an accounting of the psychospiritual essence of the populace. An enumeration delineating their innermost motivations, private longings, and emotional currents. As Chief Notetaker you are commanded to design a method of observational documentation and analysis that shall capture these otherwise invisible gleanings. You have one month.”

4. Fully aware that failure could mean death (or worse), and without a clue as to how I might rise to the challenge, I spent more days than I care to admit sulking about the verandah while drinking the milk of lions, inhaling Turkish leaf, listening to my ghazals. When I had exhausted my stores of arak and tobacco and had regained some degree of perceptive clarity, an epiphany presented itself. To meet the Caliph’s request I would require a third eye (not unlike the one Aunt Hortense was born with; not that it ever did her any good). Not being blessed with such a gift I would need to engineer a sui generis mode of notation: an alternative means of heightened perception, triangulating three distinct sources of sensory input via some novel mode of annotation invented expressly for this purpose. Sound, smell, and touch were the most logical choices, as I could already rely on my own advanced observational skills (I was not Chief Notetaker for nothing), and the sense of taste seemed at once too intimate and removed from the task at hand.

5. So, sound. I embarked on a quick study of aural dictation, beginning of course with polytonic orthography and a review of enechema and various other pre-Byzantine intonation formulae. A subset of curious notational flourishes favored by Dervish composer Dede Efendi intrigued me, as well as a fairly wild script found in a self-published shaped note hymnal (penned in lamb’s blood, no less) by the “mad itinerant” Oklahoma preacher Elmer “Catfish” Stryker. Phonographic notation of Passamaquoddy “birthing moans” offered some insight into how certain graphic representations allow for enhanced “sound-sight” in response to the “sound-blindness” of conventional Western notation, as did Dr. Alice Moyle’s unique method of rendering imitative bird call syllable strings in transpositions of aboriginal didgeridoo field recordings. My immersion into these more esoteric methods of musical notation resulted in a logical assemblage of their most salient markings.

6. In shifting to the art of olfactive transliteration I returned to a half-remembered passage in Avicenna’s medicinal encylopediae, a footnote in an appendix within the Al-Qanun fi’t-Tibb pertaining to aromatherapy distillation processes. I then cross-referenced this text with instructions outlined in Al-Kindi’s Kitab al-Taraffuz fi al-‘itr for “rendering the literacy of bouquets” (my own awkward translation). After tripping over (quite unexpectedly, a happy accident) a salvaged notebook from a court perfumer in the service of Louis XV who had crafted an abbreviated annotation system for identifying no less than 700 scents, I was soon able to cherry pick calligraphic minutiae from these various olfactory grammars, adapting them for my own scoring.

8. But how to render the sense of touch via written text? Charles Barbier, of course, whose codes of dotted matrices employed by French soldiers forced to communicate under darkness led to the Braille six-dot cell method. Barbier’s invention—”night writing,” it was called—echoed, to my eyes, moments of individualized syntactic patterning in the (male) ritual scarification of the Mursi tribe. The “language of bumps” afforded in both of these examples dovetailed nicely with Franz Joseph Gall’s (see his 1809 The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads) phrenological theory of twenty-seven brain “organs” that could, to the trained practitioner, be read as subtle cranial differentiations, much in the manner of reading Braille. I distilled these different “dot dialects,” in accordance with my needs, into a necessarily abbreviated symbology.

9. All that remained was to determine the final, missing piece: an entirely new shorthand prototype to bind these distinct lexicons together into one cross-sensory semiotics, one that would allow for speedy reading and capture of an individual’s most secret inner core. As a warm-up I revisited the classic shorthand methods. Timothy Bright’s 1588 Charaterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character, along with Jeremiah Rich’s The penns dexterity compleated (1669). Both of them certainly relevant, but too literal and pedestrian for what I was seeking. I dismissed Gurney’s Brachygraphy (unnecessarily ornate), along with both the Pitman method (his upward curves too easily conflated with angled horizontals) and John Robert Gregg’s uninspired dot and loop synthesizings. I was however able to glean possibilities for making hybrid markings by incorporating elements from Theophilus Metcalfe’s Stenography with an assortment of Franz Xaver Gabelsberger’s embellishments. I added a strain of the “punctuation” characters from the Forkner approach, but by far the most helpful source, apart from the Teeline and Shavian alphabets, was the Kamloops Wawa, Fr. Jean-Marie-Raphael Le Jeune’s idiosyncratic rendering of “Chinook jargon.”

10. To say my efforts produced an unprecedented form of notation would be rude understatement. Upon regarding my incomparable compendium of notional marks, strokes, gestures, curls, spirals, squiggles, dots, crosshatchings, slashes, twists, helixes, glyphs, and logotypes—none of them required to march in obligatory horizontal or vertical rows like virtually all of standard script throughout the history of authorship, but rather designed to self-compose across the page intuitively and automatically in direct response to my observational input—I daresay I had manufactured nothing less than a most occult strain of stenography: a synergetic mutation existing midway between drawing and writing. I named it “night script.”

11. I spent every day until my appointment with the Caliph wandering aisles and alleys of the Kourosh Bazaar, the largest souq in the city, scouring the crowds. I had purchased a new set of crow-quill mapping pens just for the occasion, and after some searching was fortunate enough to procure a deliciously rich dark ink a crippled hag was selling, made from logwood extract, ground pitch burl, and charcoaled remnants from cremated ossuary remains. The tint had the same depth as raven feathers, so black it appeared blue in the sunlight. Page after page I filled with my scribblings, one for each subject, drying my impressions with powdered cuttlefish before concealing them in my satchel. What word will suffice? For I was not writing, nor dictating, nor drawing what I saw, but rather descrying, channeling my subjects while eye, hand, ink, and newfound abecedary collaborated autonomously and without conscious intervention. I spent hours at a time entranced, barely aware of my faculties, capturing humans of all stripes, children and the aged, free and slave, men and women, hale and infirm. In no time at all I had become fluent in how to read, translate, and set down the unspoken, unrealized, repressed, and yet all too visceral cravings, lusts, and yearnings housed deep, deep in the sub-basements of the people. Their hungers and appetites became more and more clear each day. These were not to be confused with the all too common psychoanalytical itches and buried wants discerned through customary analysis. No, what I discerned were primal urges locked in, unbeknownst to the humans within which they were trapped, and unreachable by any known arts of psychology. It was not my role to try and fully interpret my jottings, nor did I have the skills to do so; that would be a job for the Caliph’s assembly of clerics. Still, I felt something off-putting about my renderings, so much so that I was almost afraid to hold some of them. And yet, there was nothing overt within their content that I might pinpoint as to the source of my unease.

12. So thrilled was I at my notebooks of magical script—and I use the word intentionally, with only the slightest hesitation, for how else to characterize the effect of such enigmatic and arcane documents?—that I could barely contain my excitement when the time came to report to the Overseer. He too seemed to share my enthusiasm, and apparently had briefed the Caliph likewise, for when the consulates marched me into his receiving quarters, the Caliph held a slight smile of anticipation. As I walked with confidence up the steps to where he lounged on the royal divan, carrying my transcriptions balanced ceremoniously on my outstretched arms, I afforded myself the luxury of contemplating how I might be rewarded for my efforts. Chief Notetaker, while nothing to sneeze at, was a title now clearly beneath my talents; what I had done was nothing less than conjure a new art-writing—a mode of divination—a magnifying glass able to reveal what could only be called the human soul. What excitements awaited me!

When I tripped at the uppermost step, causing all my papers to fly through the air, fluttering across the stones, the floor, his rugs, and settling in the Caliph’s lap, I saw, for the first time, what had been the source of my unrest. Many of my pages had landed turned upside down, offering a perspective I’d not noticed in the course of their making. A likeness, buried but distinct, within each page of notes, of the subject I had observed. But these unintended portraits, concealed and now revealed within the shorthand, were more ghastly than anything my eyes had ever seen. The humans I had captured on paper, each and every one, were revealed to be leering, wild things, depraved and abhorrent and reveling in their malign urges.

The Caliph’s look of happy expectation turned instantly to one of shock and dismay, for he could clearly see the gruesome caricatures too. He took one of the hellish portraits—for that is clearly what my texts had become when displayed upside down—and held it up for the Overseer of Alchemists to see, who recoiled visibly. Held it up for the consulate to look at as well, who reflexively raised their weapons, several of them gasping. He did not have to say a single word; with a combination of fear and fury in his eyes, he motioned to the guards.

13. I have not been informed of my fate, nor of how long I am to remain imprisoned in this tower. But after seeing what my notetaking invention has revealed to me now—the degree of petrifying depravity, the vile essences previously entombed within the subjects of our city, invisible to all, themselves included, until now—I am comforted to be locked here, in isolation, protected from the masses. If I am to be held within these walls for the rest of my days, I would welcome the judgment. Why, if they might allow me some fresh paper, and my pens and inks, I could while away my days attempting to undo what I have done, perhaps by drawing bucolic landscapes and building delicate poetries. Or perhaps simply write lists of all the things I once did in the course of my days, before the surrounding nightmarish humanity were revealed.

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