Voltaire's Calligrapher

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Authors: Pablo De Santis
even more obsessed with Mathilde. He had come to Paris after fleeing his native city,where he was wanted for destroying a printing house. Dussel had belonged to the Hammers of God, a sect that believed the printing press would prevent man from ever discovering the original language, prior to Babel. They saw the printed word as the true Tower of Babel and, using calculations that were incomprehensible to anyone else, established similarities between the types of lead used in printing and the elements the Bible said were used to build the tower.
    Mathilde’s nakedness was more unsettling to Dussel because he pretended to be pure, while I couldn’t have cared less about purity. Mathilde enjoyed this power and used conversation to try and distract him from his perfectly uniform letters. No matter how tense Dussel was when he wrote (and he was often so tense he would fall unconscious when a job was done), he never made a mistake.
    Dussel would avoid writing on Mathilde’s most secret places, condensing his script so as to finish before the work became unbearably indecent. Mathilde would shift imperceptibly, to force him to use more space, but he never crossed the line he had set for himself. From the office next door, I heard Mathilde issue him an even greater challenge: since the Bible was the only book young Siccard deemed edifying enough to leave in the offices, could Dussel transcribe the entire New Testament on her body?
    Aristide Siccard trusted Dussel, paying him double what he paid me, even though he was no better. In Siccard’s mind, unhappiness was sensible, obsession responsible, and misery virtuous.

The Bishop’s Silence
    I had worked long enough now to report to Abbot I Mazy and provide a little false information for a bit of real money. Not one of the messages I had transcribed spoke of the bishop, but as I walked to see the abbot, I invented the words that faraway men had exchanged under cover of anonymity, women, and the night. I crossed palace halls, descended into cellars, and climbed a dank tower, patiently following directions from monks who had just seen the abbot cross palace halls, descend into cellars, and climb a dank tower. After searching for hours, exhausted, I came to a corridor. Mazy was walking toward me, his white cassock dragging on the ground.
    The abbot looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. I imagined he must have spies everywhere, and it would therefore be hard to remember all of their names and faces. I told him there was talk of the bishop’s abduction, even his death, and that the rumors were insistent.
    “Do they mention proof or witnesses?”
    “No, Monsignor.”
    “Fantasy and rumor are sins the Church has not condemnedenough,” Mazy said. “Come with me and I’ll show you the bishop is alive.”
    We walked down the corridor; leaves and rain blew in through the open windows. Down below was a geometric garden, where plants and shrubs surrounded deep ponds made of black stone. I asked the abbot whether they raised fish.
    “There are some sea creatures that we use to make ink, which we then sell abroad. Darel advised us in this undertaking. Our botany is inspired by calligraphy as well. No strangers are allowed to walk through the garden because of all the thorns and poisons in the species we cultivate. Everything we use to write with can also be used to kill.”
    We were approaching a carved door. It was being guarded by a giant of a man with hundreds of keys hanging from the belt of his green uniform. Seeing us, he nodded respectfully to Abbot Mazy and stepped aside. This set his keys jangling, like bells calling the faithful to mass.
    “Signac holds all of the keys to the palace. We’ve tried to convince him to leave them behind, but he takes them wherever he goes. I trust no one more than good Signac. He’s always right where you need him, to open a door or close it forever.”
    The guard reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a key tied with a red ribbon,

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