I always wanted to be an explorer: to seek out new worlds, meet new people, uncover hidden arts. My mother called me a wanderer, a questioner. As a child, I spent every waking moment pestering her:
“What makes the ocean move? How come the moon changes shape? Who controls the wind?”
Though she always tried her best, she never could give me all the answers. She encouraged me to go out and find them for myself. The day I turned twelve years old, I walked two miles to the next town, to ask the apothecary how to create medicine. When I arrived home, I saw my house had been torn apart – broken glass shattered on the floor, shelves pulled from their hinges, furniture gone. Everything we owned had been taken from us. And my mother – my only friend – lay on the ground in a circle of blood.
I ran. As fast and as far as I could, back in the direction I had come. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt my mother. She was beautiful, talented, kind; her voice could fill any room, her smile melted the hearts of grizzled old men. I was never beautiful like my mother; I did not receive her confident presence, or her golden voice.
I’m just… Eve.
She taught me to read and to write. She taught me to rhyme and reason. She taught me to ask questions, to venture forth without fear. These are the pieces of her I still carry with me every day.
In the years since she disappeared, I do what I can to get by. I’ve found solace as a scribe, travelling the world and documenting the stories of others. Recording their voices calms my mind, reminds me of the greatness of the world outside. But when darkness falls, my thoughts wander, through all the towns I’ve visited and all the people I’ve ever met, always coming back to my mother. Her kindness, her smile; our family… our home.
I’ve met wizards on mountaintops, sages in the desert. I’ve traveled across the sea and back again. Yet no matter where I go or what I do, ever since that day, I spend every waking moment searching for one thing: Home.
*background noise of people talking*
“And what brings you here, young miss?” The innkeeper asked, wiping down the glasses at the bar.
“Just a traveling scribe looking for work,” I responded.
“Hmm,” he mused, looking me up and down. “We might have something for ye.”
He took me down a hallway that had seen better days, to a wooden door that didn’t quite shut all the way.
Dusty bookshelves lined the walls facing me. Natural light streamed in from a large window on the left, blocked by towering stacks of books twice my height.
“Me father ran this inn before me, and he shoved everything that didn’t have a place into this room. It sat and collected dust for years and years. I have moved or gotten rid of almost everything, but I don’t have time to organize the vast number of books left by travelers. [sigh] I’m lookin’ to spruce the place up a bit by making this room into a library for the guests. Do ye think ye could organize them?” He asked, eyeing me.
I looked at the piles, mountains really, of books around the room. I had never seen so many books in one place before. I picked one up off the ground.
“Is this even written in the common tongue?” I asked, marveling at the intricate slashes.
The innkeeper shrugged.
“How exactly do you want me to organize these?” I asked, turning in a circle, gazing at the intricate carvings on the ceiling.
“However ye want – make it simple enough that ye could write the system on a sheet of paper, so that someone who came to stay could find what they were lookin’ fer,” he said gruffly.
“And what can you offer me in return?”
He gestured at the library.
“The room is yers until the task is done. If yer around during mealtimes, you can have a share of what’s in the pot. And if yer able to finish in the next twenty-four hours, I’ll throw in ten silver.”
Ten silver, room, and board! That was a fair deal, and I didn’t have the luxury of being picky.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
The innkeeper winked, and closed the door behind me.
I learned to read when I was six years old. My mother read stories to me every night before bed; it was my favorite part of every day. We would travel through the world, meet all sorts of new people, without ever leaving the warmth of my blankets. Once I learned to decipher the symbols myself, I spent weeks with my nose buried in every book I could get my hands on. My mind was immersed in stories of kings and queens, heroes and villains, but my favorite tales were of magic and creatures. Druids, dragons, hippogriffs; it was always my dream to see them in real life, to be among them in nature.
Words were my refuge, my sanctuary. I could be in the darkest corner of the house, my teeth chattering from cold, but entranced in my book, I would be okay.
As I grew, I learned to read the unspoken meanings slipped between words. I remember my school teacher telling my mother I wasn’t like the other students, that my reading in class was distracting to the class. My mother answered that yes, I wasn’t like other students. I never went back to that school.
I learned the hard way that sometimes words weren’t enough. Sometimes, there was nothing I could tell myself that made it feel okay.
I contemplated the best way to sort the books. By author, like they had at my childhood library? By topic? By title?
I looked back at the book that had perplexed me. I recognized the sharp lines and angles from a book I had stumbled on as a child, a book about fire, about pain…
I yanked my hand away. The book was written in infernal. It was said that these books sometimes carried curses, that they contained the power to summon the evil creatures that had written them. I shuddered, and turned away.
Looking around, I saw other books with the same slashed marks mixed in with old historical scrolls, dusty anthologies of poetry, and moldy encyclopedias of plant knowledge. The more I looked at them, the greater the piles grew. How was I supposed to organize such a diverse group of books in twenty-four hours?
I started to think I’d bitten off far more than I could chew. My stomach began to constrict, air turning to lead as it passed through my chest. I can’t do this right now, I can’t be alone right now.
I strode back to the main room of the inn. It was only midday, and the innkeeper had made a hearty soup that he sat down in front of me. When he asked how the sorting was going, I quickly asked about the infernal.
“Yeah, we had a couple of hooded folks here a few years ago, couldn’t seem to stop stirring up trouble…”
“What sort of trouble?” I asked, to distract myself from my whirling thoughts.
“Well now, one couldn’t seem to stop…”
As the inkeeper talked, my gaze started to wander. The inn wasn’t crowded for high noon. There were a few tradesmen laughing together at a table, a mother and her son sharing lunch. My attention was caught by a girl sitting alone at the bar, whose electric blue hair was piled suspiciously high on her head. One small dark horn emerged from the center of each blue spiral. I looked down, and sure enough: a long, muscular tail protruded from her patterned leggings. A tiefling! She might just be able to help me.
I turned back to the bartender. “Thanks so much,” I said, grinning. “I’ll be careful with the books.”
I brought my soup over to the bar where the girl was sitting.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m Eve.”
Q: “Hello, can I help you?”
E: “I was just sitting at the table over there, and your pants, um, caught my eye… can I sit with you?”
Q: “Sure, as long as you don’t mind talking to an outsider. My name’s Quest. Quest Everspring”
E: “It’s nice to meet you, Quest. I’m not from here either– I arrived just this morning. What brings you to Tarquin?”
Q: I’m a traveling performer. Just going to whatever town is most interesting or most profitable.
E: What do you perform?
Q: I guess you would call it acrobatics.
E: What would you call it?
Q: Umm… extreme vuwedihw vygzyruzh
I nodded my head, trying to hide my absolute lack of comprehension.
E: I’m sorry… what was that?
Q: [laughs] Sorry, there’s not really an equivalent in common tongue.
E: What language was that?
Q: Infernal. I’m a tiefling, if you couldn’t tell by the tail.
E: I thought so! I mean–
E: I’ve heard stories about tieflings… I didn’t know they would be so… um… colorful.
Q: Or nice?
E: I mean, I’ve never actually talked to one.
Q: (Laughs) That’s alright. Most people haven’t – most of my kind lives at the edges of society, mistrusted and shunted to the darkest corners of the roughest cities. As descendents of people who wove a devil into their bloodline, we don’t exactly look very friendly
E: She gestured to her horns and protruding tail.
Q: People don’t want to talk to us; we barely want to talk to each other. But I didn’t have quite the same upbringing as most tieflings; I’m a bit of an anomaly.
E: Oh, um, wow… How did you grow up?
Q: I was raised in a monastery, it’s where I learned to fight. I was the only tiefling there, so Infernal is about the only thing I grew up knowing about my culture.
E: How did you learn infernal if you were isolated from your culture?
Q: According to Archwizard Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory, it’s actually sort of in our blood when we’re born, but my masters at the monastery were nice enough to help me learn how to speak it as best as I could.
E: Sooooo, hypothetically, do you know enough to translate and organize a library of Infernal books??
Q: Of course!
E: How convenient!! I’m working on a *fantastic* project–I was wondering if you could help me.
Q: What kind of project?
I thought back to the mountainous piles of mildewy books. If I wanted her help, I would have to sell her on the job. I leaned in conspiratorially.
E: Within this very inn, there’s a secret room full of books and ancient scrolls, that have laid untouched for years. The innkeeper bestowed upon me the grand task of sorting them, and promised illustrious rewards for the completion of this noble deed.
Q: So you want me to translate them, I’m guessing?
E: If I want to make this library into anything remotely resembling organized in the next 20 hours, I’m going to need another pair of hands–and I could pay you for your time?
Q: Hmm… this inn got a room I can sleep in?
E: Once we move enough books, we could share the library?
Q: Done. (Her tail moved her empty glass to the barkeep) And I’ve got that other set of hands you’ve been looking for.
E: It’s just down here
I led Quest back down the hallway, back to the heavy wooden door, and pushed it open. Weak daylight streamed in through the window. Quest strode in; her gaze took in the piles of books, eventually landing on the infernal book I had seen.
Q: Oh look! It’s a baby book for devils! I had this growing up.
E: Like an alphabet book?
Q: Like baby’s first words. You know, “W is for Wuwzyr”
E: What does that mean?
E: Oo, what’s another one? I asked, peering over Quest’s shoulder
Q: Hmm, let me see… “Ieedy” means apple, she explained, tracing a complex series of slashes.
E: How do you read it?
Q: Infernal is written like a snake. You start up top, trace the first line down, then start the second line from the bottom and read up to the top.
E: That sounds rather excessive
Q: I don’t think devils write to maximize comprehension
E: Good point. [slightly awkward pause]
E: So… what’s banana?
E: Ouf, I like it better in common
Q: As well you should. Bananas are used in ritual sacrifice all the time. Or so I’ve heard.
E: WHAT? Ugh *shudders* I changed the subject back to something babies would actually talk about.
E: How do you say… Mama?
Q: Well, there isn’t really a word like how you know it. I think the closest thing is “kurzmqujyr.” It literally translates to “birthgiver,” like your word for “parent” I guess.
E: What about “home”?
Q: Mm… There isn’t a word for that either. Devils don’t build homes together. I only ever learned it as the word in common while I was at the monastery.
E: Are there a lot of words like that, that you only remember in one language?
Q: A few. So when I’m speaking in one sometimes I’ll just use the words from the other so it feels like I’m actually saying what I mean.
E: That’s really interesting
*cue montage of random book sorting*
E: Okay, what if we start with two piles: fiction over here, nonfiction over there. Then we can figure out how they should be sorted after
Q: Sounds good to me. She tossed me a book with her tail. Think fast!
E: I did not think fast The book flomped to the ground, and opened to images that were deeply pornographic. Quest and I shared a look, and then quickly pretended to be busy
*action music begins*
Q: Oh, I’ve heard about this book! It’s the fifth in the series of the most notorious murderers in all of Andalasia. I’ve always wanted to read it!
Q: Eve, get this! The foreword says… ‘Nathaniel should be ashamed of himself for ever having the nerve to steal my sandwich.’ Eve, this guy wrote an entire murder novel about a guy who stole his sandwich!
E: Never cross a scribe; they can ruin a reputation as sure as losing a battle… you know?
Q: *laughs* whatever
Quest picked up a red leatherbound book, whose pages were clasped shut by a rusted lock.
Q: This one–won’t–open (strained voice er, agh etc)
The mechanism, weakened from years of disuse, came off, and from between the pages of the book emerged a horned devil, seven feet tall with wings that stretched halfway to the ceiling.
*fun music stops, and dark music plays*
DEVIL: “WHO DARES OPEN MY TOME?” he boomed
E (narrate): I ran and hid behind a pile of unsorted books.
D: I WILL SMITE THE LOWLY BEING WHO ATTEMPTS TO STEAL MY HIDDEN SECRETS, SECRETS THAT WILL SHAPE THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
Quest didn’t follow me: she stood tall in front of the devil.
Q: Oh, that’s new.
D: YOUR BIRTHGIVER IS NEW
Q: Alright, no need for that. You need something? Cause we’re just trying to clean up this library and you’re kind of slowing down the process.
D: OH, A DO-GOOD TIEFLING; HOW TRITE. BUT DON’T YOU KNOW, LITTLE ONE? YOU CAN’T DO GOOD.
He exposed his sharp teeth in a terrifying smile.
D: YOU’RE JUST LIKE ME. YOU DON’T BELONG HERE, HELPING THESE HUMANS WHO FEAR YOU; BUT IF YOU GO TO HELL, YOU WILL RANK BENEATH THE LOWEST DEVIL. YOU DON’T BELONG ANYWHERE. *cruel laughter*
I couldn’t stand to listen to him continue to insult my friend. I gripped the book in front of me, stepped out of hiding, and threw it at him in one swift motion.
The moment the book touched the devil’s head, it passed right through. The devil didn’t even seem to notice I had moved.
E: Hold on… what did you say your name was again?
D: “WELL I–”
Q: Save it. You’re not real–you’re just words
Quest stuck her hand out to grab the Devil’s tail, and came back with only air.
With a sad sigh, the image of the devil evaporated into thin air. A small scared worm huddled between the pages of the leather-bound book.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the worm said. “I was put here to protect the memory of Bartimaeus III”
Q: “Protect from what?”
W: “From people who want to read his diary!”
*break into laughter*
E: That’s what we were so scared of? A diary? A worm?
Q: “This little guy?” Quest picked up the worm
W: “Please, I am a good worm” the worm protests.
Q: You’re lucky I’m a good tiefling
She opened the window, and threw him outside, a look of disgust on her face.
Q: Let him find where he belongs, out there. [pause]
E: It’s not true, what he said.
Q: I know. Quest sighs. I had no idea what it meant to be a tiefling until I left the monastery. I wanted to prove myself to my master, to show that all the time and love he invested in me has been worthwhile. I’m searching for a quest that can prove it. But it’s awfully hard to find a quest when people don’t trust you, just because of the way you look.
E: That sounds awful.
Q: That’s why performing is the only thing I can do. I can perform alone, whenever and wherever I want. People can watch me from afar. But I miss the community I had at the monastery; I would love to join a circus someday.
E: That sounds wonderful.
Q: Yeah. [silence]
Q: Let’s finish this thing, I guess?
E: [remembering the task at hand, watching the last remnants of sunlight dwindle out the window] Oh, yeah!
*action music resumes*
E: I was thinking we should do nonfiction in alphabetical order by topic, so that people can easily find the subject they’re looking for. I began to write the system down on a piece of parchment. Fiction should be by author’s last name, because that’s how most stories are known. And all the history scrolls we can put in nonfiction under h, but organized according to the time they address!
Q: O-Okay?! Yeah, why don’t you take the lead.
*Moving books, flipping through pages* Time passes. It gets dark outside, and we light oil lamps around the piles. Looking through all these stories reminds me how much I love to write. Witnessing masterpieces of the millenium and garbage autobiographies. It makes me wonder if I could write one–write my own story.
Q: Is that… it?
I looked around. All the books were on the shelves, organized.
E: Oh my God, I thought this would be impossible; I did not think I would be able to do it all. If there was a list of things that I thought I could do, this would not be on that list. Even knowing Grand Sorcerer Hawking’s infinite universe theory, it did not occur to me that there would be a single universe where this present reality exists. In–
Q: Yep! I guess it wasn’t as bad as WE thought it would be
E: Because you were here. Thank you so much for all of your help, Quest; I could not have done this without you.
Q: No problem, Quest shrugged.
I try to write more than is said. When someone dictates their truth to me, I try to honor and respect it, adding the words they’re not able to say. But every time I’ve tried to write my own story, it’s been too much– too many thoughts, ideas, emotions. I get overwhelmed. I want to create something great, a story that inspires people all over the world. But what if I fail? What if I make something so pathetic, so amateur, that no one ever reads it?
Quest gently lays my cape over me as she blows out the lamps, laying down next to me on the ground. Knowing she’s there; knowing we’re here, in this library we assembled together. It comforts me immensely, knowing I’m not alone.
This knowledge strengthens my resolve, makes me feel more powerful than before. Even if it’s a story no one ever reads, I decide that I want to create it – for myself, but even more, for the ones I love.
After all, words are just shadows of the things they represent, just a means to the end of communicating something I feel. There is no combination of words that will ever be able to fully capture my experience–but that’s no reason not to try.
// outro music
Magic of the Mind is a podcast set in the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons that communicates topics in cognitive science. If you want to learn more about the theories of language written into this episode, learn bonus fun facts about eve, or hear more information about your own mind, keep listening for the science behind the scenes interview with debra titone, a language researcher at mcgill university. This podcast was made with support from Building 21, a McGill space for innovative and collaborative creation. Thanks to Emily Sheeran as Quest, Yves Abanda as the worm and devil, and David Jhave as the innkeeper. Huge thanks to Florestan Bruck for composing Eve’s themes and Dorothea Stefanou for creating our beautiful logo. Additional thanks to Ollivier Dyens, Thomas Barrett, and Helena Zhang for scripting ideas and edits. If you liked this episode, please let me know by leaving reviews on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Check back in two weeks for the next step in Eve’s journey, where she explores attention and perception at the circus. I’m Morgan; thanks for listening.
Hi, I’m Morgan, writer and voice of Eve here on Magic of the Mind. I’m also a fourth-year cognitive science student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. With this show, I wanted to explore different topics I’ve enjoyed studying in class and communicate them to other people in an exciting way. Fantasy has been my favorite genre since I started reading, and playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends was a really fun way to explore a foreign world without having to come up with completely original races, languages, and characters. All of the main characters in the show are actually friends of mine who play their own DnD character, which I wrote into the episode as a way to communicate different topics in cognitive science!
I chose to talk about language in this first episode because it’s something everyone can connect with. We all use language multiple times a day, every day. It’s something that we know is complex, but most of us take for granted. With this show, I want to bring attention to all of those subconscious processes our minds engage in. There were three main topics in language I wanted to explore in this episode:
The first was bilingualism, and the way it can shape experience. Quest, the tiefling played by my friend Emily, is bilingual by nature, though it is common for characters in Dungeons and Dragons to speak more than one language, especially if they’re of mixed race. My character, Eve, is actually a half-elf, which you’ll learn a bit later in the series. There’s a lot of research happening right now in the field of psycholinguistics that explores the brains of people who speak more than one language and how they may differ from people who speak only one.
The second topic I found interesting was the social and cultural nature of language. “Devils don’t have a word for home; we don’t build homes together.” Every language is created by and for the people who use it, and the language reflects this both in the word choice and the structure.
Third was the language-thought connection, how the words we use actually shape our thinking. What has always fascinated me is how the words we use to frame tasks and the world around us can actually affect our perception of these same things. When Eve explains the daunting task of sorting the library to Quest with the spirit and awe of adventure, it becomes exciting, something to look forward to, not a monotonous waste of time.
We also wrote in a joke that I thought I should explain – Archwizard Chomsky is a reference to the psycholinguist Noam Chomsky, whose theories of Universal Grammar suggest an inborn capacity for language acquisition in people.