My grandmother, among other varied professions undertaken during an eventful life, once sold vowels in the market on Tuesdays in Warsaw. Under the difficult climate of the region, situated as it was between Latin and Cyrillic, they were more difficult to raise than consonants and consequently more rare. This relative scarcity (immediately apparent to anyone who has seen the written language) elevated their value and offered a skillful entrepreneur the opportunity to negotiate an advantage in the general market. Alliances shifted daily among their mingled ranks, from the lowly sellers of the z, their goods so cheaply held that the word makers would buy them in bags and scatter them about almost at will, all the way to the lofty tillers of the %, and the #, who would do business only with bankers’ clerks and the occasional mathematics student come down from the university in search of cheaper prices than the commissary offered.
It must be admitted that my grandmother’s supply was not obtained by wholly legitimate means. In those days, of course, most intercourse with the West was prohibited and the supply monitored closely, but the occasional quiet exchange might occur over the Czechoslovakian border, at night. The goods came from Italy: i and o handed over for fistfuls of d and r skimmed off under the table in the day’s harried trading. My grandmother was not given to the long grubbing hours of coaxing the dots into place above the narrow stems, encouraging the o into its smooth perfect curve and ripening it under candlelight into the elegance of the a. She preferred the dangerous flash of the smuggling run, sitting placidly with her covered basket in her lap like an ordinary babushka on the bus with her shopping, occasionally putting her hand in for the feeling of the letters running through her clever fingers that could pick out the least ink blotch or smudged tail.
A little such activity was tolerated, of course, but she could not resist temptation, and her affairs grew anxiously complicated after she yielded, one journey, to the temptation to take a word: just a very small one, mio, snuggled carefully deep in the bottom of the basket, covered with paper, beneath the fresh stock of vowels. But she did not dare to sell it openly, so obviously a foreign word with its profligate io among three letters, and her attempt at finding a buyer unfortunately ended in disaster when she was denounced to the authorities by an intense young student of opera who sadly proved to be devoted to both Tchaikovsky and the Party.
She was forced to gather her family and flee across the border at enormous expense in bribes, to avoid a more permanently distressing fate. Happily, she had secreted away by then a large satchel packed end to end with z, which provided for the transatlantic passage and the foundation of further enterprise; although she never again dealt in letters, the fondness remained, and made a formative influence on my own choice of profession.
Naomi Novik is the author of Tongues of Serpents. She enjoys making up entertaining lies about dragons.