Bogleech.com's 2016 Horror Write-off:
Etaoin Shrdlu- do you know what it means? Perhaps you do. It's a bit of trivia I could certainly have lived a whole life without knowing, and been none the worse off for my ignorance.
Etaoin Shrdlu. It's not a magic spell, no incantation handed down to us by the hoary, tree-anointing hands of druids. It's barely more than nonsense. If it means anything, then it means "Darn it!" Perhaps the more perspicacious will have already discovered its hidden formula. Etaoin Shrdlu, the twelve most common letters in the english tongue, in order of frequency. Once upon a time, when printers manually recorded their missives on rapidly evolving, then-newfangled hardware, their only recourse when they made a mistake was to run their despairing fingertips over the keys. "Etaoin Shrdlu." I screwed up. So you see, it means exactly as much and as little as that most hallowed succession of modern characters, the right honorable Qwertyuiop. In fact, I would go as far as to say the one begat the other- Qwertyuiop, that was sired by Etaoin Sherdlu, that was sired by Johannes Gutenberg.
My insight into the occult science of typography is all due to Henry. I lay it at his feet, the poor devil.
We were once a pair, one of those canny pairs that congeal out of the chaos of this world, a breath of familiarity in your daily routine. You would see us studying together in the university library. You would spy us sharing our lunch under the Chestnut behind parking lot D. Behold, Seamus is auditing this professor's course on lesbianism in french vampire cinema, no doubt Henry will be there as well. Probably you would not have known us by name, although perhaps... well, never mind. We would still be there, and if ever you saw that gangling, straw-haired young man with the slightly lazy eye, you would wonder behind which nearby shrub his squat, curd-complexioned friend was hiding. We were like those two cards in any given deck that, no matter how many times it is shuffled, seem always to appear in the same hand, as if adhering to each other with the grease of fingers, or just attracted by some hitherto unknown principle of cardboard magnetics.
One of our joint activities was our job. Both of us were part of the university's work-study program, and both of us had been fortunate enough to have been placed in the library. More specifically, we alternated weekly between working for the circulation and the archives department. Circulation was overseen by a kind, materteral, middle-aged woman named Andrea. She was very forgiving of late fees up to a point, and enjoyed cutting little patterns out of construction paper with which to seasonally deck the reference desk.
The archives were nominally in the charge of a wraith-like old man named Glen, a dandelion-headed apparition in shabby, dust-colored tweed whose presence outside of his small, cluttered office was almost impossible to conceive of. In all the time we worked for him, I don't believe either of us ever saw him actually enter the archival section except on the day he gave us our keys and showed us the trick of getting the door open (hoist up, keep the handle turned, press with the knee). On the weeks we worked for Glen, Henry and I were mostly left to our own devices. So long as we performed the tasks necessary for the upkeep of all those dull old books, we were left alone.
Don't think I'm some illiterate philistine. It's just that when I say this stuff was dull, I really mean it. Some of the folios were cool, and there were one or two interesting prints that Henry and I discovered tucked away in this or that filing cabinet, but for the most part they were nothing but the records of the local historical society and its findings. The kind of minutiae only interesting to the handful of natives in every town that consider their birthplace to be a kind of sacred grove, every venerable residence and buried family tree a priceless relic.
One of our jobs was to catalogue acres of yellowed tomes for the benefit of these same small town Herodoti. That was how we discovered Louisa Francesca.
"Look at this!" I recall Henry saying. In his hand was what looked like a turn-of-the-century schoolbook. Since Henry was taller, and his bony reach considerably longer, his job was to sort the books on the upper shelves, for me the endless squatting that came with the lower altitudes.
"What is it?" I asked, more than willing to be distracted from the tedious work. My knees popped as I stood up.
"Some sort of workbook it looks like. For practicing french." He handed it over gingerly. Nothing in that room was in any state to be tossed carelessly through space. I flipped through the pages and chuckled with him over some of the more ludicrous passages the exercise-book's indentured servant had been forced to laboriously copy over and over.
"They probably fucking hated this thing. They'd probably thank us in the afterlife if we burned it later behind the dining hall," Henry observed drily, sorting the volume into one of several ever-expanding piles. I laughed at his remark, but privately I wondered if she really had hated it (she'd signed her name in the front, "Property of Tilda Prentiss, 10."). Perhaps Tilda had liked repetition. Perhaps she really had wanted to get better at french. Perhaps she imagined herself writing poetry in french, or long, indecipherable letters to a secret french pen-pal. Was she even dead? She could just be a very old woman, tucked away in one of the local retirement homes, fondly neglected by two children and seven grandchildren.
"Woah, here's a good one," Henry said, fishing a slender book out of the same box as the last one. It was brown like an old shoe, with gold-tooled bindings and cheaply gilt pages. They still shimmered just slightly in the soft lighting of the archive room. It was the kind of book instantly recognizable across all time periods as a personal diary.
"Open it," I said, not at all shy about invading the privacy of someone I assumed to be already dead, or at least beyond the reach of whatever embarrassing revelations two university students might gain access to by prying into their secret thoughts.
"My name is Louisa Francesca Prentiss," Henry read, scanning the first page before handing the book over.
"Huh! Prentiss! You think she's related to the other girl?"
"Well, they were in the same box," Henry observed, glancing at the wall clock and then at his phone. He was clearly losing the will to continue sorting.
We took the book over to one of the green felt-lined cradles that all employees and patrons were supposed to use when viewing archived material. Louisa's handwriting was about what you'd expect for a school-girl from her time period. That is to say neat and highly legible, looping fatly in on itself and radiating long hours at a chalkboard. She wrote with pencil.
"Ah!" Henry exclaimed wordlessly, pointing again with one of those tapering, pianist fingers of his at a particular passage. "In only a few weeks, cousin Tilda now seems like the younger sister I never had (two months younger, good diary). She is sometimes really a terror and other times my dearest friend. Today we made daisy chains with aunt Marla and put them on Pawsy Bawdrins." This was followed by a pathetically intricate doodle of a cat draped in flowers. The cat had both the look and expression of a young maiden about to hurled into an active volcano.
"I guess they were related." I could tell that Henry's interest had been piqued. Henry was the sort of person who considered most things with stubborn ambivalence. I could never tell what was going to capture his fancy, but once something did, he was lost. I wondered why he cared so much about Louisa Francesca, when he'd been so indifferent to cousin Tilda.
I didn't think again about the diary for several days. That is until I came into the archives for my shift and found Henry already there, poring with what seemed at the time to be laughable intensity over the girl's writing.
"You really like her, huh?" I asked. I didn't laugh, and my tone wasn't at all jeering, but Henry knew I found his interest at least somewhat eccentric. He was immediately on the defensive.
"Not her," he said, tearing himself away from the diary almost reluctantly. "Or yes her, but look." He beckoned me over and carefully flipped to the page I'd already seen.
"What is it?" I asked, not sure what he wanted me to notice.
"Just look," he said. Slowly, he flipped about fifteen pages over, so that I was reading an entry made several months after the first one (Louisa Francesca, it turned out, was but an erratic scribe as far as her personal records were concerned).
"Do you see?" he asked, all alight with whatever he'd found. I confess I didn't see, not at first.
"The handwriting," he finally prompted me. "Look at the handwriting."
As soon as it was pointed out, I saw what he was talking about. Louisa Francesca was writing about the same things she had before, her family, her schoolwork, her interest in drawing. But the handwriting was subtly different. It was more practiced, but rather than a refinement of the previous unexceptional script, it seemed to have mutated into a new creature all its own. It was... more elegant, yes, but somehow also more exotic. Although it was unmistakably english, there was something about it that put one in mind of some kind of antiquated, flowing arabic. She had also switched to ink.
"Wow," I said, perhaps inadequately. "She's gotten a lot better. Was she into calligraphy?"
"Sort of," Henry replied. His voice was low and distracted. "But you haven't seen anything yet." He flipped the pages again, going what seemed like a whole year into the girl's future, almost two thirds of the way through the small book.
Now I saw what had him so entranced. The writing was like nothing I'd ever seen before, as unlike the casual loop-de-loops on the first page as humanly possible. It was, once again, still recognizably english, but it was different from any cursive I could imagine a small town girl learning in her one-room schoolhouse. It was liquid and occult, at times almost drunken looking, ecstatic. There were a lot of extra flourishes in it that served no purpose but to embellish the gorgeous calligraphy. It put me in mind of nothing I'd seen before, not arabic, not mandarin, certainly not the blocky roman alphabet in its usual form. And yet, it was imminently legible, as if someone had happened to invent the exact same alphabet and grammar as ordinary english by working from a completely different origin, some buried, glyphic cave writing, still smelling of crushed petals and spice. It was the sort of penmanship I could imagine bearded priests deciphering frantically, the ink still drying from the peacock plume that a sybil had clutched in her death spasms.
I was speechless. When I finally looked up, I saw Henry grinning at me expectantly.
"Well?" he said.
"It's... beautiful..." I replied lamely, knowing that the word was all wrong.
"It's something else," he said, and that was a bit closer to the mark I think.
"Have you... have you tried copying it?" I asked. For some reason I was trying to imagine the characters in my mind's eye, and failing.
He produced a page of cramped scribbles, in no part resembling the ethereal hand of Louisa Francesca.
"Does she say anything about why she started writing like that?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing concrete. She mainly talks about wanting to be an artist. Looking for inspiration in the country-side. Hating her cousin."
That jarred me for some reason. "Hating Tilda?"
"Oh yeah," Henry said with a smirk. "She starts out not minding her so much. You saw it. Then she gets more and more irked by everything she does. By this entry she can't fucking stand her. Thinks she's stupid and close-minded. Thinks her whole family are dumb yokels. She wants to move to the city."
I admit I was a little taken aback. I still had the image fresh in my mind of Louisa and Tilda braiding flowers together to throw on the cat, laughing in some green pasture. It made me a little sad to know their relationship had turned so very sour later on.
"I'm gonna ask Glen if I can take this one to my room," said Henry, snapping me out of my daydream. "I really want to get this writing transcribed accurately."
Over the next couple of weeks, I felt Henry's absence for the first time. It's not that we had been joined at the hip, but we had done most things together up until that point. I saw him more and more seldom, and when he was around he was terse and uncommunicative. He spent most of his time in his room. I still could get him back to acting like his old self, but only for short spurts, and only by asking him about his new obsession: typography. Etaoin Shrdlu.
"The uppercase letters are majuscules, the lower case are minuscules," he explained to me. He wouldn't let me in his room anymore, but his bag was always stuffed with inky calligraphic samples and dry-as-dust technical manuals. "I know why I couldn't copy her before. There was so much I didn't know, about spacing and kerning and ascenders and descenders, that sort of thing. She was a genius, Seamus. Every mark she made on the page had meaning, nothing was superfluous. And its a totally unique hand, like no hand I've found in any of my studies. I want to turn it into a font. I'm positive it will revolutionize how we write english."
"That's cool!" I said, and meant it. I was anxious to show interest in Henry's projects. I wanted to prevent him from drifting further away from me.
For some reason, he reacted strangely to my response. His face... crumpled, puckered up into this pink angry mask, like he was literally about to spit on me. "It's not 'cool'," he said through gritted teeth. Then he relaxed, and smiled. But it wasn't his old smile. It was cruel. A sneer in a smile's uniform. "You're not really very smart, are you Seamus?" he hissed. I recoiled like I'd been punched in the gut. Henry could be acerbic, yes, but he was never mean, especially not to me.
Before I could muster any sort of response, I was already watching him go.
Eventually, within the month in fact, Henry withdrew from my company completely. From everyone's company, actually. Some people asked me where he had gone, particularly our bosses, who wondered why he was missing work. I tried to make excuses for him. I didn't know what else to do. His door was locked. He wouldn't answer my knocks, or his phone. He wasn't going to class. I never even saw him eat.
I was working in the archives again, on the day that I had resolved to tell campus counseling about Henry's whole situation. It felt like a betrayal, but I didn't know what else to do. Something was undeniably wrong with him. His whole chemistry had been thrown off since discovering that diary. And then, completely by accident, I tipped over a box with some old donated books in it, and I found myself face to face once again with Tilda Prentiss's French primer.
My instinct was to thrust it way, but I began thumbing through it nostalgically. It reminded me of when Henry had been normal. There was something reassuring about Tilda's arduous scribblings, almost noble in their tedium. They were the complete opposite of Louisa Francesca's mad, divinely inspired rumination. I imagined that Tilda may have grown into a happy woman. For some reason, I doubted that that was her cousin's fate.
I wasn't really even reading anymore, just looking at the little illustrations, when something caught my eye. It was english, and not just a translation. Tilda had started writing little notes, personal notes, in the margins of her homework. They got longer and longer, until the spaces where she should have been conjugating verbs were filled with her own thoughts. Apparently, Louisa Francesca wasn't the sole writer in the clan. Tilda's writing, however, remained reassuringly clumsy.
"My cousin LF is growing homelier all the time. People used always to say how she and I were like two pretty peaches grown from the same bud. But she is now lean and sallow. I wonder at how she neglects her appearance so. She walks around in the woods too much, and eats too little. She always stinks of ink. Worst of all, she is becoming unchristian in her habits. I believe she has been disfigured by a canker in her soul, and it has made her miserly and unkind. She is not my friend as once she was."
It was harsh, but I couldn't help but recognize the same transformation that had come over Henry. Was he possessed by this strange, nasty girl from 100 years ago? And yet, it didn't quite seem like Louisa's fault. After all, she herself had once been different. Was whatever happened to her now happening to Henry?
"LF a perfect ghoul. Screams at me when I try to make her eat. Doesn't talk, just howls. Is waxing sicklier each day. Pa very close to sending her to a sanitarium. We all fear she has lost her wits. She wears mittens all the time, keeps her hand tucked into a muff as if it weren't the middle of summer. Says nothing to anyone. Will only write. Write awful things. She slides them under the door. Such disgusting things, I never thought she even knew such things. She calls me... well. She says things about all of us, unspeakable. I will not record them here. She is much more vulgar than anyone could have known."
All of the entries were like that. I began to realize that the primer wasn't really a diary, it was just the only place that poor, long-suffering Tilda could vent her frustration. The more I read, the more worried I became for Henry's safety. The last entry was particularly unsettling.
"LF gone. Pa went up to take her to the hospital, busted her door down. She was not there. Window was closed. Her dress was on the floor. Pa fears she has fled naked into the hills. We checked her diary, but she doesn't talk about going anywhere. I'm sure they will find her soon."
That was all, but that was all I needed. I didn't need to read it to know that they'd never found Louisa Francesca. Louisa Francesca. Her name was like a font. Helvetica; Geneva, Georgia, Arial. She had never left the room, that long-ago day. Not really.
I made like Louisa's uncle (although probably considerably less imposing) and battered myself against Henry's flimsy dorm-room door until it cracked and splintered enough for me to push it open. The room reeked, not like death. Like ink. It was dark like ink too, smothering.
The floor sloshed and the carpet squelched under my shoes. There was about an inch of liquid filling the room, and it trickled lazily out through the broken door. Blood? No. Far too black. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I made out the form of Henry, slumped over his desk. Before I even touched him, I could tell he wasn't breathing. He was icy to the touch. His hair was matted, caked with dried ink. His clothes were stained. His eyes were completely vacant. It wasn't just the emptiness of a corpse either. It was the emptiness of a shell whose tenant has deserted it before they are done with it.
I turned on my phone light. I had no choice. I wish I hadn't, of course. But I did.
He was almost the same, under the grime and the terrible hollow expression. Almost the same.
His hands... were wrong. His pinky and ring fingers had degenerated into boneless, nailless nubs. As for his thumb, his index and middle fingers... they weren't human. They were long, with too many knuckles. I felt my gorge rise as I touched them, half afraid they would seize around me. The shortest of them, the thumb, was almost a foot long, hanging like a pale worm over the side of Henry's desk. It wasn't boneless, but the bones weren't connected to each other at all. They were like segmented toys, infinitely realigning, cracking and snapping into ever more complex configurations. I knew what I would see before I ever shone the light on the papers in front of him.
Lying on top of a mound of scratched out failures, was a perfect imitation of Louisa Francesca's horrible, indescribable handwriting. He had been right. She had had a hand like no one else. No other human, that is. He'd been close, before whatever happened to him happened to him, to completing his font. The one that would have changed the way we look at english forever. He'd written nothing sensical. Just two words. Etaoin Shrdlu.
I remembered how he had suggested Tilda might have been grateful if we'd burned her french primer. I think she would have been more grateful for what I did burn.