Joshua Phillip Johnson’s story “The Demon in the Page” was published in Metaphorosis on Friday, 1 January 2016.
The idea for “The Demon in the Page” showed up at the most inopportune time.
My graduate program in English-Literature required me to pass a foreign language translation exam; it consisted of a relatively short passage in your chosen language (German for me), a bilingual dictionary, and a time limit (an hour or so, I think). To call my German rusty at that point would have been an insult to rust. I hadn’t spoken or written or read German for something like six years, and the test wasn’t going to be easy, even with the dictionary to aid me.
I made it to the tiny room on time, was given the passage and left alone to work. And just as I began to scan the passage (an intro to a literary edition of fairy tales), I had this incredible vision of a face staring out at me from behind the text. It was long and thin, with gaunt eyes and horns, and it simply stared and stared.
So, like the good and dutiful student I was, I spent most of the next half hour staring back at that face, imagining it to have thoughts and beliefs and words, all of which were caught in the barbs and lines of the text, and if only I could decipher this damn German, I could understand it. I imagined the two of us reaching through these layers of text, brushing fingers and almost touching, and there was something so sad and poignant about that image for me.
Once I came back to the real world, I only had 30 minutes left of the test, and I frantically translated (well enough to pass apparently, though I suspect the bar for success on that test isn’t especially high) until my time ran out. But that face in the page (a demon, I’d decided, and an angel, too) stuck with me, and that night, instead of doing my homework (did I mention I was a dutiful student?), I spent the night thinking about translation, between languages and idiolects, and I imagined a person who had dedicated her life to reaching through the tangled barbs of words in order to find the person on the other side. I thought about how sad her life might be, but how powerful and important and valuable, too. And there was Mahj.
Story ideas, though, are slow things for me. The demon and Mahj and Ochre germinated in my mind for several years before I set about writing the story, but once I did, the levies broke and it poured out all in a single sitting.
And in the writing, I had the chance again to see my friend in the page, buried in my words now, still reaching, still hoping.
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