The Demon in the Page – Joshua Phillip Johnson

The Demon in the Page – Joshua Phillip Johnson

January 2016

“Ochre!” Mahj’s tired shout was the crunch of autumn leaves underfoot, and the densely packed tomes of the library devoured the sound.

“Ochre!” She tried again, her voice straining, tempting another coughing fit. Running from place to place was a student’s game.

“Coming!” came the faint reply, wafting through the archives like a shallow breath.

While Ochre’s footsteps grew from light pats to insistent thumps, Mahj looked again at the open journal in front of her, at her frustrated attempts at translation, each word and letter splitting apart into seemingly infinite variations and meanings, infinite attempts at connection and understanding.

Mahj ran the soft pad of one finger over the page, over the crisscrossed chaos of her pen strokes, trying to trace the force she saw there, the opaque, shifting demon, at times frustrating and clarifying her work, lurking just behind the inky nettles of text.

“I see you,” Mahj whispered to her demon.

As a younger scholar, Mahj had been mocked for her tendency to talk to herself or the books she studied. That had all changed, though, when she had been the first of her peers to successfully translate an Old World Göthelian text during her 3rd year working at the Languages Institute. Since then, the same evidence used to malign her in social and professional circles was used to support titles like “athrylith” or “genius” or “عبقري” or Olive Drab #7.

Ochre raced into the room. Ochre raced everywhere. He had the candle-at-the-end-of-its-wick look worn by graduate students everywhere: tired eyes surrounded by great pillowy masses of discolored skin, hair that had seen neither pillow nor comb, and days-old clothing. He looked a mess.

“Yes, Mahj?” Ochre’s deep voice still shaped words with the thick tongue of Grißla, a dulcet chromatic language that played on the soft palate.

“How is your High Caste Illysial coming?”

Ochre held himself a little straighter, his sixth student sense detecting an exam. Ochre had been a student for a long time, and he could sense an exam, formal or not, from a great distance. And he did not fail exams.

“Very well, Mahj. I have memorized the primary, secondary, and tertiary indents along with successfully mastering 43 of the 55 writing implements.”

Mahj raised an ancient eyebrow.

“Edmund took the rest and hid them,” Ochre said, his confidence slipping away in the face of his annoyance.

Mahj frowned, making a mental note to speak with Edmund, who was the Institute’s (admittedly) brilliant but (just as admittedly) immature head curator. Ever since Ochre’s arrival three years past, torturing the new graduate student had seemed to become a regular part of Edmund’s job. Mahj suspected it had more than a little to do with Edmund’s crush on Ochre.

“Very well. What do you know of the language itself?” Mahj rarely gave these kinds of impromptu quizzes for her mentee, who had arrived from a Very Serious school where Very Important tests were given frequently in order to separate the Great Students from the Good Students, and the Brilliant Students from the Greats. Ochre was not used to gaining validation from his superiors from simply doing good work, and he often wished Mahj would quiz him more, if only for the sake of his own sense of self worth.

Ochre spoke with robotic accuracy, as though he were citing from a book, which, in a way, he was. His photographic memory pulled up the correct page and he simply read it from his mind.

“High Caste Illysial, a purely written language, is comprised of indents pressed into soft, medium thickness paper. The indents, based on their width, depth, and shape, communicate a series of increasingly complex subjects. A series of 55 intricate, specialized tools are used to create these indents. Ink is then applied to the area surrounding an indent or, in rare cases, inside the indents, to articulate the predicate.”

“Good—” Mahj began, but Ochre was on a roll and would not be stopped from putting forward his argument.

“Because of the intrinsically exclusionary nature of the language, and based on its historical usage, it is my contention that High Caste Illysial is the precursor of several modern languages, most notably Lark’s and the Silent Tongue. Although certain scholars disagree with High Caste Illsyial’s impact and historical importance, one only has to look at—”

“I yield!” Mahj cried, wheezing out a laugh and holding up her hands in mock surrender. “Very nicely done,” she said, smiling at Ochre, who fairly glowed with the praise.

Mahj handed him a book of High Caste Illysial.

“What do you make of that? Just general impressions.”

Ochre felt a thrill of anxiety. Mahj was asking about his overall thoughts, but he could sense an urgency pulsing behind her words. She was after something else, something she wanted to see if he could or would find on his own, something secret. This was the real exam, and Ochre did not fail exams.

“Paper is standard synthetic vellum. Cover is surprisingly soft reinforced Estin leaf.”

Mahj waved a hand to move Ochre on.

“The text. What about the text itself,” said Mahj, her voice easy, the light in her eyes belying her casual tone.

Ochre blew a spout of air up from the corner of his mouth, causing a frazzled thatch of hair to puff up and settle again. He opened the book and scanned through a bundle of pages at random before quickly and systematically working through and commenting on each chapter. His eyes moved often to Mahj’s face, and his happiness of only a moment earlier dimmed a little each time he saw no spark of recognition or praise there.

“Standard index with class-specific gerunds integrated into an otherwise typical syntax,” he finished, knowing that he had failed. He passed back the book, defeat plain on his face and in the slump of his shoulders.

“That’s just fine, Ochre,” Mahj said, taking the book. Her words were a blow to the graduate student, who was not used to being fine, not used to having his work be fine.

Mahj opened her mouth to say more, perhaps to reassure her pupil that he’d done a wonderful job, perhaps to lie and say that he’d found exactly what she was looking for. Perhaps to tell him the truth and to ask him to look again for the demon lurking there.

But she erupted into a coughing fit, and Ochre, his motions practiced and routine these days, passed her a handkerchief before placing firm hands on her shoulders, holding her upright. If her coughing fits were a storm, Ochre was the sturdy foundation Mahj huddled under.

It ended slowly, the coughs crumbling away into nothing, leaving Mahj red faced and short of breath and Ochre concerned and uncertain how to help. It was an uncertainty he’d come to know well.

“Are you alright?”

Mahj nodded and gestured for Ochre to sit. While he did, Mahj ran a finger over the closed cover of her journal, thinking again of the demon.

“What,” Mahj began, her voice thin atop her shallow breathing, “is the purpose of translation?”

This was a cherished and well-worn conversation between them, a debate relished by both the teacher and the student.

Ochre leaned forward and sent another spout of air to unsettle the hair falling into his face.

“Translation is the process of shifting content from one medium to another. The goal of translation is to preserve content as perfectly as possible, to maintain meaning and syntax in the face of linguistic barriers.”

He grinned, knowing his next statement would be met with rolled eyes.

“Translation is mathematics. The translator balances the equation. The good translator balances the equation elegantly.”

Mahj disagreed, as she always did during these discussions, though she struggled to articulate why. Ochre presented a theory of translation held and taught by every expert in the field, a theory so widespread as to be thought a certainty.

“How robotic and rigid your translations must be,” she said, smiling at her student. “What of the moments when perfect translation is impossible? What of the moments in translation when a text proliferates in meaning, one grapheme splitting into three or five or ten possible and viable meanings?” She held up a book Ochre had become increasingly familiar and annoyed with in his time with Mahj.

Translators the world over called it The Blank Book: a private joke celebrating their failure, lessening the blow to their collective ego. A text as old as the written word and filled with a monolithic language, but it was still devoid of meaning for all their attempts at translation. And so it remained The Blank Book. The author, as best they could guess, was someone with initials that translated to EY. Or perhaps VC. Mahj had published several papers arguing for a female author named EY, and this many years later, she had almost no idea if she had been right.

Ochre, the dogged optimist and rule-abiding absolutist, glared at the book in Mahj’s hands and said, “No more than obstacles to be overcome by the talented and clever translator.”

Mahj reached for her journal.

“Take Grißla for example,” she said, pursuing her point despite Ochre’s defense. She pointed to one of her entries on an ink-filled page. “ ‘Hooker’s Green’. A color whose meaning, when translated, splits into several related but distinct possibilities. One does not arrive at the meaning through context; one arrives at several meanings through context. Even if that one were, as you say,” Mahj arched an eyebrow and leaned forward, “a talented and clever translator.”

Ochre laughed and offered his rebuttal. And the student and teacher talked late into the night, interrupted only once more by another coughing fit.


Journal Entry 38

Hooker’s Green; Hex triplet: #49796B; sRGBB (73, 121, 107); CMYKH (73, 36, 59, 15); HSV (163°, 39.7%, 47.5%):

Noun: 1. Password, passcode, secret word; 2. Shibboleth

Adjective: 1. Secretive, covert; 2. Clandestine

(An adjectival Hooker’s Green is often found juxtaposed with a subjective Carrion Red or an indirectly objective Chartreuse. Interestingly, a nominal Hooker’s Green often begins an expression and undertakes the chromatic modifier without leading to or necessitating an adjunct. Another worrisome example of a linguistic unit or phrase multiplying its meaning through translation. Could this be the work of the demon?)


Mahj walked along the table, an overly long slab of repurposed wood that had once comprised part of a ship’s hull. Edmund had acquired the wood at a sale and spent the long, laborious hours straightening the slab and refinishing it. It was a beautiful piece, elegant and impressive in an old-world kind of way, as though it should have stood in the middle of a grand and wonderful mead hall, weighed down by heavy gauntlets, thick drinking horns, and the viscous consonants of dead languages.

It was an impressive table, but in the few weeks following Mahj’s debate with Ochre, it had become increasingly hard to see the wood beneath the thick layers of overlapping texts it had accumulated. Books from myriad cultures and in myriad languages covered the table in a mesmerizing bricolage of attempts at communication.

And in the middle of all of these, the only text on the table given its own space, like a sacred relic, hallowed and venerable, was The Blank Book.

“You asked for me, Mahj?” Ochre stood in the doorway, surveying the textual proliferation spawning across the room. Scrolls and books covered the table, yes, but there were also piles congregating on the floor, each one with mountainous aspirations.

“Well?” Mahj turned to look at her student, her eyes questioning. A rill of anxiety ran through her, as though she were a first-year student again, nervous to receive her grades. She’d given him a draft of her most recent article, a lengthy academic argument about translation and the demon. It was the first draft she’d given out to anyone at all, and his would be the first reaction.

Ochre reached into his bag and removed the bundled papers.

“A Demonic Tangle: Discourses on the Intrinsically Problematic and Entangled Spirit of Translation,” he read before looking at his teacher. Mahj nodded, her enthusiasm bubbling away beneath the surface of her eyes.

“Yes, yes. I am sure our colleagues at other institutions will call me a fool or a heretic. But what do you think?”

Ochre felt a little part of himself break into pieces at that. His brilliant teacher cared for his opinion, not as a student but as a peer. He considered his next words carefully, wanting to hold and cultivate this newfound relationship as best he could.

“It is certainly ambitious,” he began, emphasizing the word with raised eyebrows and softening it with a smile. “Your argument regarding the spreading of meaning through translation is brilliant, Mahj. Easily some of your best work.”

Mahj nodded, flapping her hands, pushing Ochre onward. She’d experienced enough professional praise in her lifetime to be able to brush it away as flattering but more than a little useless.

“What of the rest, though? What of the demon?”

Ochre felt more of himself shatter as he spoke next, knowing he was disappointing Mahj. This was not a simple disagreement between two peers, a debate filled with sly grins and well-intentioned criticisms. To truly respond to Mahj’s article would be to call her faculties and her sanity into question, and this was not an endeavor Ochre could imagine a loyal and loving student undertaking.

“I am not so sure, teacher,” he said, hoping she still was his teacher, still would be. “It seems, perhaps, too great a leap you make.” He flipped through the draft, stopping on a page adorned with his comments, marginalia composed of curving question marks and statements that dribbled off into ellipses.

“Translators,” he read from the article, “offer the metaphor of a mathematical equation, but I instead offer the metaphor of a woman on a horse. This woman is clothed in resplendent garb, and her horse clip clops proudly. The woman rides into the thick, dark wood of translation, a place never touched by the light of a sun, and when she emerges from the other side, she is very nearly the same. Her clothing is still impressive, though the colors have shifted somewhat. And she no longer rides a horse, or perhaps she does, but this horse has a long, leathery tail and wings made of ash. And the woman’s hair has grown and turned curly where it was once straight.”

“You can accuse me of purple prose if you like,” Mahj said, smiling, her enthusiasm preventing her from seeing the anxiety and worry in her student’s face and voice.

Ochre, instead, continued reading.

“Translators today spend their days examining this new woman and this new horse, categorizing and codifying the changes, questioning their meaning. But we have missed a very important question. Whom did the woman meet in the wood?”

“The demon,” Mahj whispered, sweeping a hand over the books on her table.


Journal Entry 51

willað hy hine āþecgan/ gif hē on þrēat cymeð:

1. They will rip him apart if he approaches their pack.

2. They intend to serve him if he comes toward their band.

3. They desire to feed him if he brings their peril.

(A fragment of the famously untranslatable ancient poem Wulf and Eadwacer. The line is rife with proliferations of meaning. For instance, ‘willað,’ an anomalous verb, implies a sense of futurity, though it is unclear whether that futurity is a hope, desire, or certainty. Further, ‘āþecgan,’ a class one weak verb, oddly translates to both “serve/feed” and “kill,” with even more figurative readings possible. The line writhes beneath my hands like a snake. The demon is here, a shadow behind the words, pulling them out of true, poisoning them with endless and opposing meanings.)


“These books are becoming my tomb,” Mahj mumbled, her words as dry and flimsy as the pages in the texts surrounding her.

She sat amid her books and felt herself dying. It was not an immediate thing, not the all-body constriction of a seizure or the thunderclap terror of a stroke. Mahj felt herself going gradually, her mind and body putting everything back into its right and proper place and giving one final look around before turning off the lights on a mind once filled with glister and sharp edges.

“Just as well,” she told herself. Her article had been published purely, it seemed, on the strength of her name and the absurdity of her claim. It had been published to nearly universal criticism, every scholar and translator hastening to join the mob intent on panning Mahj’s most recent work and questioning her past works. She was back where she had begun, just Mahj, no longer the eccentric genius.

She leaned forward and stared into The Blank Book, her tired eyes searching around the hooked angles of letters for the demon, striving to see that which had so confounded and frustrated her. It was there, she knew, hazy and indistinct, just beyond seeing. Just beyond knowing.

It was her obsession, her fascination. This beast convoluting and confusing language. Even now, so far into her career, Mahj felt the fire of discovery burning through her veins again. She had found something, something that made her past work seem insignificant by comparison.

She saw Ochre and Edmund arrive together for Ochre’s lesson. They had been doing that more and more in recent days. Ochre pecked Edmund’s bearded cheek before playfully pushing him away and walking into the library. The joy drained from his face as he saw Mahj sitting in her chair, The Blank Book on the table in front of her.

“Hello, teacher,” he said, stepping into her line of vision. When the criticism began to arrive in response to Mahj’s article about her demon, Ochre had been one of the few to defend her, despite his inability to see her work as anything other than the product of a failing mind. She was still his teacher. She was still his friend.

“Ochre, good. Sit, sit,” Mahj waved a limp hand at the chair next to her. “I have been thinking of The Blank Book. That and the demon.”

Ochre drew in a deep breath and released a sigh.

“Teacher, I’m worried that this has begun to get the better of you. The Blank Book is simply untranslatable, an impossible text. There is no—”

“Yes, yes. You’re right,” Mahj said, intervening in his words smoothly, with no resistance. “Untranslatable. Absolutely.”

She nodded at Ochre as though he had said exactly what she was hoping he would say, but he felt no joy in it this time, no victory. Only confusion and worry.

“I have realized now what this demon represents. What it is. The demon, the being in the woods, does not merely exist in language; it is language.”

Mahj held her arms aloft, encompassing the texts embedded in the walls around them.

“How long have we spent translating these texts, poring over pages covered with ink and color, rippled with indentations? And in each one, obscuring meaning and twisting language, is the demon.”

Ochre nodded, not because he agreed but because he didn’t know what else to do. Here was his teacher fallen so far, her mind filled with things Ochre could neither see nor believe. This was no coughing fit, and he could not shelter Mahj from herself.

A great wave of sadness filled Ochre as Mahj continued to speak.

“It is troublesome, I agree,” Mahj said, turning to The Blank Book. “But I am no closer to translating this, to understanding what EY wanted to tell us all. I feel so close to her but still held at a distance, held back by the powers of this demon. I feel I can see her so well, can see her in my mind and feel her words floating on my tongue, but I am stopped, prevented from more. I feel as though we have only brushed one another in darkness.” Tears filled Mahj’s eyes.

Ochre put a hand on his teacher’s hand and, not knowing what to say, simply sat in silence.


Journal Entry 59


1. She wrote about the lecture with great attention to detail.

2. She speaks on these formidable topics with sharp accuracy.

3. She will leave behind a powerful semblance of herself that is both herself and not herself.

(This phrase, found in an old diary dredged up in a recent haul by the Titania, highlights the true difficulty of translating Göthel. Several arithmetical nouns in this phrasing interact too situationally with the directional verbs around them, which leads to a greater need for subjective clarification. A single meaning for this phrase is simply impossible to offer; if anything, translation to any given language multiplies the possible meanings, which is troubling. Even in a language of mathematics, I can see the demon’s influence. Equations spawn other equations, meaning grows rampant. And behind it all, the smoky leer of the demon.)


Mahj died ten days later. Every major translator in the field attended her funeral, many of them the critics who had excoriated her recent work as useless and nonsensical.

Ochre wanted to turn the sharp edge of his tongue on them, to let his sorrow explode into rage, if only to give it purpose. Instead, he sat with Edmund and, in silence, missed his teacher.

After the funeral, Ochre left the apartment he’d begun sharing with Edmund and walked to Mahj’s office. He went through her things: to organize, to conclude, and to grieve. Next to The Blank Book, he found her journal. He spent the afternoon reading it, feeling as though he was seeing her for the last time, the real her, feeling as though he was doing with her what she had never been able to do with the author of The Blank Book. He was seeing the true Mahj: his clever, funny, and kind teacher.

Her last entry was a clearly failed attempt at the opening passage of The Blank Book.


Journal Entry 82

|__ _ __–_ -|_ _ _||_ _ – – __ _ –:

1. In time (age?), a community (populace? family?) must/will/does…

(What a fool I’ve been. The demon in the page is no demon at all. Or perhaps it is. But if it is a demon, it is also an angel. If it is a thorn, it is also a rose. If it is chaos, it is also peace.

For so long I have seen our communication as a Sisyphean task, something truly impossible. My debates with Ochre, each of us speaking at length, with fervor, each of us trying desperately to deliver a message to the other, each of us failing.

My life has been a study in metaphor. Metaphors about language and metaphors about a life studying language. And so it is fitting that I end with one more.

We each stand alone. A dense, swirling fog surrounds every person in the world, a fog inhabited by this demon. To communicate with another is to pass a message, a message that is you.

But this fog is thick, too thick for any fully formed message to get through it, and the demon is too sly to allow something so pure to pass by him. So you must reshape your message, your self, in order to make it through the fog, through the hands of the demon.

And perhaps you move about, you seek the place where the fog is thinnest, where the rays of day are just a little brighter. Where you might better see the other.

Even after all of this, though, the message you pass is not what you truly hoped it to be; it has been corrupted, changed by your attempts to pass it through the fog, changed by the person to whom you are passing it. The meaning is lost or shifted or split infinitely and irrevocably, and the demon in the fog smiles at his good work.

But there is victory here, too, and it has taken me all this time to see it. Even as you changed your message, your self, you have also worked to see just a little more clearly through the fog, to better see the other. The demon that has held back your message has also been the angel encouraging you to understand one another.

You have reached, and I have reached, and though the message you pass is not what it might have been, we still brush hands for a moment, and that will have been enough.)



  1. Who would have thought so much emotion within the throes of translation. Beautiful use of metaphors and a moving concluding image that might characterize every attempt at migrating a story from one language to another: “You have reached, and I have reached, and though the message you pass is not what it might have been, we still brush hands for a moment, and that will have been enough.”

  2. A lovely rendition of the future translators and their analysis of language is made up for the story. A psychological study of the demons in books and the meaning of the story beyond the translation.

    A very potent evocation of the mystery behind translations. Well done. Congratulations!

    DORIS agent of God

    Doris Chu
  3. I really like this story. My wife speaks Spanish as her first language and I speak English. We are constantly running into those instances where the demon has multiplied the meanings of our messages. It definitely has brought us closer though, as we make linguistic mistakes, misunderstand, and attempt to translate our own languages and identities. Thanks for the great read!

    1. Thanks, Kevin! Those mistakes are *exactly* what I think make translation (between languages, between people speaking the same language) so interesting and exciting. Thanks for a great comment, and thanks for reading!


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