Voltaire's Calligrapher

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Authors: Pablo De Santis
wall was a chest with dozens of wide drawers, similar to the ones at Siccard House. I opened the first with some difficulty and found a variety of mechanisms and gears. Most were made of metal, but some had been carved out of glass. It was obvious that certain pieces fit together like the parts of a sentence, but no matter how long I studied and weighed those pieces in my hands, I couldn’t imagine the grammar that regulated their construction. However, just as an archaeologist may only need to know one word to then decipher an entire dead language, I found something in the third drawer that revealed the whole: sixty-five empty compartments surrounded one glass eye.
    There were footsteps and the sound of keys next door. I assumed it must be M. Laghi, the owner, but saw two men come in from outside. I watched them through the half-open door. There was good reason to hide my face because one of them was familiar: the keeper of the keys from Arnim Palace. The maid stared in terror atSignac’s arms and chest. His keys jangled, a sound conveying the authority bestowed by heavy oak doors and thick iron grillwork.
    “Monsieur Laghi won’t be long. You can wait for him in the carriage,” the servant said in a quavering voice.
    I came out of my hiding place only after they left. Seeing the keeper of the keys had left me shaken. Kolm, on the other hand, sat dozing, completely unaware.
    “Let’s leave your walking stick. We can come back for it later,” I said, anxious to leave.
    The executioner jolted awake and stared at me blankly for a moment. There was no leaving then, for M. Laghi was walking toward us.
    He was dressed entirely in black, as if he were going to a funeral, and in his hand was a small chest. Kolm tried to intercept him, holding up his walking stick, but Laghi barely glanced at it. The executioner, used to asserting his authority, was taken aback by the owner’s disdain. Laghi was in such a hurry, it was as if he already inhabited the future.
    “What do you want? Are you with them?” he asked, gesturing to the closed door and, through it, to the abbot’s men waiting for him outside.
    “I need you to fix this walking stick.”
    The artisan took it dismissively. He tested it two or three times and handed it back to Kolm.
    “Take it to a watchmaker. I deal with much more intricate mechanisms.”
    “I want you to do it.”
    Laghi felt the urge to shove the executioner and call for the men outside to come to his aid, but he hesitated—not out of cowardice but in order not to make the night ahead any more difficult than it already was. He snatched the mechanical hand from Kolm and took it with him. The executioner shuddered at being so abruptly deprived of his walking stick, as if his actual hand had been taken from him.

    T he house now seemed like a machine that processed people in and out at the will of some hidden design. I was hurrying to escape it when I saw a young woman looking in a mirror, at the end of the hall: she was an exact copy of the woman from Toulouse.
    I ignored the maid’s shouts and approached the ghost. She looked at me with wide, staring eyes. Not knowing what sort of sin I might be committing, I kissed the automaton’s icy lips. Her teeth cut my mouth, and I was aware of the metallic taste of blood. Hearing my cry, Kolm came with his fist raised, but he lowered it immediately when he saw it was only a girl.
    “There’s nothing to fear. She’s not even real,” I said.
    Blood suffused the woman’s cheeks, dispersing the illusion and the pallor.
    “Are you sure I’m not a woman?”
    She brought her mouth toward me, and I closed my eyes, expecting to be bit again but powerless to defend myself. Her lips rested softly on mine. If she was one of Von Knepper’s creatures, then Von Knepper was a god.
    “This is the second time we’ve met,” I said, “but the first time, you weren’t there.”
    She gestured for me to be quiet and led me by the hand to a room piled with

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