Vault of the Wordmonger

This month, in the run up to this year's Remembrance Day for Lost Species  on 'Original Names', we're curating a new online series called Lost Lexicon. Our second post is a short story by Nick Hunt, set in a damaged future world where words – locked away for years – are only just starting to re-emerge from deep below the earth. With image by Kahn & Selesnick from their series 'Auguries'.
Nick is the author of three books about walking and Europe, the most recent of which is Outlandish, a work of gonzo ornithology, The Parakeeting of London, and a collection of short fiction, Loss Soup and Other Stories. He works as an editor and co-director for the Dark Mountain Project, and has contributed short stories and essays to many of its issues. Red Smoking Mirror is his debut novel.

Our father bought words once a week. He was a big man in our town and fresh words gave him status. He paid for them in animal parts from the farm our family owned and sometimes in mineral parts from the mine beyond the hill. He did not own the mine but he had interests there. The animal parts and mineral parts he carried there in his hands and the words he carried back in his mouth. That is the way to carry words. When I say back I mean he carried them back to the house in which we lived. It was a large house with pillars and a garden. When I say there I mean to the wordmonger which is where the words came from. I do not know how it was in your town but that was how it was in mine. 

The wordmonger had her shop at the bottom of the hill and we lived at the top. Not at the very top of course but close enough to matter. This meant that our father carried the words back uphill which meant that he was out of breath by the time he reached our house. He could not use the words straight away or they would come out broken. All of us would gather around waiting for him to speak the words. By us I mean myself and my sister and my brother and my other brother. Our father would speak the words and we would wonder at their shapes. Their rounded bits and their curves. Their hard sounds and their edges. Then he would speak them again with a bit more confidence. Sometimes he would shout them. Later that night he would take his words to the place where other big men drank and he would demonstrate their use. A crowd would grow around him. I felt lucky as a child to have a father who could buy fresh words when he felt like it. I hoped to grow up like him. 

A lot of time has gone by now and I can hardly remember the way he looked apart from his teeth and his moustache. 

If he caught us using his words he would beat us with a shovel. 

Occasionally he let me or my brother or my other brother go with him down the hill. He never let my sister. I was proud to walk with our father down the hill and through the streets with all the people watching us. We went past the salvage yards and over the dried river. The wordmonger had her shop on the other side of the wall which some people did not consider to be a part of our town at all but rather some other place. There were other shops down there selling things that I did not understand the uses of or what they were. The people looked different there but I cannot tell you how. 

Our father would speak the words and we would wonder at their shapes. Their rounded bits and their curves. Their hard sounds and their edges. I felt lucky as a child to have a father who could buy fresh words when he felt like it. I hoped to grow up like him.

The shop was a building made of bricks that looked as if it had been built for a purpose that was not a shop but which no one remembered now. Its walls were painted green. The sign that hung above the door showed the parted lips of a mouth with lines flowing out of it wriggling here and there. I always liked that sign because it had a meaning. There were other signs in our town whose meanings were unknowable such as two crossed lines or an animal with four legs or a stick with a line through it or other things I did not understand. I do not think that anyone in our town understood them. The door of the shop was closed if the wordmonger was away but normally it was open and our father would walk straight in. The wordmonger would be waiting standing behind the counter. 

She was not an old woman but the effect of her was old. Her hands were old and her hair was old but the rest of her was younger. She had a creased yellow face like a piece of picked fruit and a dent above her nose as if someone had pushed it in. Her eyes were small and squinty. There was nothing inside the room but the counter and the booth and a long dark space behind. There were shelves and boxes there which was where she kept things. 

Our father would place the animal parts or the mineral parts on the counter and she would take a look at them. She would pick them up and feel their weight of them in her hands and sniff the surfaces of them and look underneath them. Then she would disappear into the long dark space taking the parts with her and we would hear the sound of drawers scraping and doors opening. During this we would have to wait. Sometimes it took a minute and sometimes it took much longer. I suppose the length of time it took depended somehow on the words but I was never able to work out how. Our father would close his eyes as if he was sleeping. 

The booth was a sort of wooden box with an entrance on each side. I imagined it was very old but I had no way of knowing. When the wordmonger returned she would go in one side and our father would go in the other side and sit down on a little stool. We were not supposed to look but sometimes we looked sideways. Between them in the wooden wall were lots of small square holes and our father would put his ear to the holes and she would put her mouth to the holes and speak softly into them. This is how the words were exchanged. This is how he received them. When his ear was full of words he would rise to his feet and brush his knees and say thank you to the wordmonger. I never heard him say it to anyone else but he said it to her. Then we would leave the shop and walk back up the hill. We were not allowed to speak to our father on the journey home. 

Normally he was pleased and often his lips would be practicing the shapes of the words silently. When he had a difficult word in his mouth he would frown. Occasionally the words he received were ones that he already knew or ones he did not know the uses for and he would be disappointed. But he never attempted to take them back or to complain to the wordmonger no matter how disappointed he was. Our father would argue with anyone but he did not argue with her. 

People would stand aside as he walked back up the hill. They knew he was full of words and they did not want to spill them. The only person who was not respectful was the skinny old man who begged outside the salvage yards on his hands and knees. He was from the older time when words were not approved of. When he saw our father coming he would spit at him or make crude signs and our father would react or not depending on his mood. Sometimes he would kick the old man or try to step on his hands but mostly he ignored him. The old man was wordless and not worth the trouble. 

Through the years of my childhood and my early adulthood I watched our father grow with words. He swelled and glowed with them. The outside of him did not change except in the usual ways but the inside of him changed in ways no one could see. There were thousands of words in there stored up ready to be used. Even if he did not know their uses they gave him power. Even if he never spoke them but kept them inside himself they still made him powerful. Perhaps even more so that way. Because he had so many words he was admired by everyone apart from the old beggar man who hardly counted as a man. He was admired by the bigger men who lived further up the hill. They came to him for advice and to help them make decisions and to have around them while they drank and played their games.

Our father said that one day his children would receive his words. Before he died he would give them to us dividing them equally. By us I mean myself and my brother and my other brother but not my sister because some words were not considered right for her. In my mind I planned to share them with her anyway. This was a great inheritance but it never came to pass. All we had to do was wait but unfortunately we did not. 


It was my other brother who came up with the idea. Not my brother but my other brother who was the youngest one. The idea did not come from nowhere but from the beating he received after our father caught him using one of his words. I do not know which word it was because I did not hear it. All I heard was the sound of the shovel thumping on my brother’s legs and on his backside and on his back and his crying afterwards. When he had finished crying he came in search of me. 

He did not want to wait for our father to be almost dead before he got his words. He wanted his own words now. His idea was to follow the wordmonger when she left her shop and went into the dead woods which she had been observed to do. He thought that she must know a place where words were just lying around for anyone to pick up. He would help himself. Once he had got words of his own he planned to leave our family home and marry the girl he was in love with lower down the hill. The word he had been beaten for was stolen to impress this girl but it did not mean what he thought it did. She had only laughed at him. 

We chose a day when our father was out counting animal parts on the farm and we knew he would not be back until the evening. The two of us went down the hill and over the dried river. The door of the shop was open which meant that the wordmonger was inside. We waited there for several hours but no one left or entered. The day was hot and there was no shade in the area beyond the wall and we were thinking of going home when the wordmonger appeared. She locked the door of her shop and went off down the road. 

My other brother followed her and I followed my other brother. We walked past the empty buildings and the rusted old machines and across the charcoal fields until we reached the dead woods. Neither myself nor my other brother had been there more than once or twice and we did not like it there. Everything was black and grey and there was no smell. We followed her along a path that led to another path that led to another path that led to another path. She walked ahead not looking back and we walked behind. At last we came to a place where the dead woods ended at a wall of grey rock. At the bottom of the rock there was a door. It was not  normal sized but very tall and wide and it was not made of wood but of rusted metal. Its size did not matter though as it was not completely closed. There was a gap. The wordmonger approached this gap without once looking back to see if she had been followed and slipped into the darkness. 

Myself and my other brother waited for a while and when she did not come out we went a little closer. The wall was not made of rock but of something smooth and grey that was as hard as rock. I had seen this stuff before but only in small pieces. On the door was a sign that showed an open mouth like the sign above her shop. But instead of random lines coming from the mouth there were pictures we recognised. There was a human figure with a line going through its body and there were black flames and there was a skull. 

Vault. The word was vault. I knew this from our father. We had heard of places like this but only in the stories. We were not supposed to listen but sometimes we listened sideways. When the big men drank too much they talked about the older time when words were not allowed. They were not allowed because of the bad things they had done. Words had caused a great fire or perhaps many fires and words had caused the sea to spill and drown the towns and buildings. Words had caused some men and women to kill other men and women and the other men and women to kill other men and women. Most of the animals had gone and words had caused that too. I did not understand exactly how words had done these things but for years afterwards they were kept away from us. They were hidden in deep holes and doors were closed upon them. These holes were called vaults and this was one of them. The pictures coming from the mouth were threats like our father’s shovel. 

We had heard of places like this but only in the stories. When the big men drank too much they talked about the older time when words were not allowed. They were not allowed because of the bad things they had done.

Perhaps we would have gone inside or perhaps we would have gone away. I do not know because we heard her footsteps coming back. My other brother hopped about breathing very fast and picked up a piece of rock and put it behind his back. I stood beside the door. Something filled the dark gap and we saw the wordmonger. She had not noticed us. Her mouth was moving as if she was working at the shape of a new word. Or perhaps she was out of breath from where she had gone. As she stepped into the light she saw us both standing there. Her small squinty eyes went smaller and more squinty. She opened her mouth to speak but she never spoke because my other brother hit her with the rock. 

She fell without a sound and lay there without moving. My other brother threw the rock away but it was done. Perhaps he expected words to spill out so that he could pick them up. But the only thing that spilled out was blood. 

We waited for something else to happen and when nothing else happened it was like a sign. We both turned different ways. My other brother took the path back into the dead woods and I went through the rusted door into the vault. 

A lot of time has gone by now and I do not remember everything well. There was a hill inside the earth going down to somewhere deeper. At the bottom of the hill there was another rusted door and it was open like the first. Rocks had been pushed into the gap to keep it open. I wondered if the wordmonger had pushed the rocks in there or if it had been someone else. Someone from long ago perhaps. But everything was dusty and there was no way of knowing. 

Past the second rusted door was a great pit with smooth walls. It went down to a depth so deep I could not see its bottom. There was a hard confusing sound rising up inside the pit. It sounded as if a storm was trapped inside the earth. But it was not a storm. It was words. They were flying around down there bouncing off the walls and bouncing off each other and smashing into little bits and joining up again. Something had unleashed them from their trap and they were loose. I wondered when they had escaped. Maybe it was years ago. Maybe it was years and years. No one knew that they were there apart from the wordmonger and me. Now the wordmonger was dead it was only me.

I lay down on my front and looked into the pit. I thought that there were stars down there but they were little lights. They went bright and then dark and then bright again. There were also bigger things like pale glowing squares. The glowing squares were in the walls and across the front of them passed spiky lines going up and down and up and down. When the words got louder the lines got spikier like knives. I knew that I was seeing the secret shapes of words. 

A great excitement came to me. I never knew that words had shapes. I knew that they had sound shapes but not seeing shapes. If I understood the shapes then I might understand the words.

Then an excitement came that was even greater than before. If I understood the shapes then I might know how words were made. I could make new words. Words that were my own.

With this excitement in my head I walked around the pit. On the other side of it were bars sticking from the wall. The bars went down into the dark. Ladder. The word was ladder. I put my foot below my foot and my hand below my hand and started going down. 

But the words did not like me being there. They got angier and louder. I wanted to block them out by putting my hands over my ears but I could not move my hands. If I moved my hands from the bars I would fall. Sometimes I thought I understood the beginning or the end or the middle of a word but they were only broken parts. As the word parts filled my head I saw bits of things. Not clear pictures but only ugly pieces that went round and round. Smoke and flames and machines and black water from the earth and animal parts and human parts. Things I did not want to see. Things from the older time. Then I saw the dead woods but they were not dead woods then. They were not black and grey but green and green and green. 

It was a different kind of green to any green that I had seen. A green from the older time or before the older time. The goodness of it made me hurt. The hurt was worse than any hurt caused by the ugly things.  

The green pain filled up my heart as the words filled up my ears. I put my hand above my hand and my foot above my foot and climbed out of the pit and ran back to the light. I ran back to the dead woods hoping that I might see green. But they were only black and grey as they had been before.

The wordmonger was lying with her yellow face against the earth. She looked ugly lying there. I did not want to see her. I took hold of her body and pulled it through the door. Her body weighed almost nothing like an empty bag. I carried on pulling it down the hill inside the earth. I pulled it through the second rusted door and over to the pit. I carried it to the edge and then I pushed it in. It fell into the words and I did not hear it land. The words closed over it and it was gone.

When I got back to our home my other brother was not there. He had returned and packed a bag and said goodbye. He had not gone to the girl he was in love with lower down the hill but to another town or an area between the towns. Our father sent out men to search but they never found him. 

The wordmonger’s shop stayed closed. Our father went there every week and came back sad and angry. He no longer swelled and glowed. He even stopped beating us. The big men further up the hill did not invite him to their games. From that point on it seemed he started growing smaller. 

When at last our father died all of us stood around his bed. By all of us I mean myself and my sister and my brother but not my other brother. We have not seen him again. Our father breathed up and down and we waited for his words. We waited for his words but he did not share them. His face was like a smooth grey wall and his mouth was like a rusted door. When it closed it stayed closed and perhaps that was better.



IMAGE Quantum Augury by Kahn & Selesnick (from Issue 16 – REFUGE)

In the high mountains, the augur spins two balls, one representing the particle, the other, the wave. As in quantum physics, time may be experienced either in a linear, flowing fashion (the wave) or in its entirety in a single instantaneous flash (the particle). During the later, the observer ceases to exist in any meaningful way, making it  impossible to retain the auguries obtained in this state. This does not stop augurs from being attracted to this method, as it is thought to be accurate down to the tiniest microscopic details.

Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick are a collaborative artist team who work primarily in the fields of photography and installation art, specialising in fictitious histories set in the past or future. Kahn & Selesnick have participated in exhibitions worldwide and have work in over 20 collections. In addition, they have published three books with Aperture Press: Scotlandfuturebog, City of Salt and Apollo Prophecies.


Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE

The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and art

Read more




  1. I am touched by your story Nick. As if words are the ocean in which we are submerged, and rather than us speaking them, words speak us. And collapse would take away from our storehouse of language, all those excuses drying up and withering away. You have conjured some strange magic here, my mind is busy exploring a world made of words.
    Well done

  2. What a story! It speaks so much, with so few words. “My other brother.” The poverty is deep and heartbreaking.

    To the editor I have one gentle request: not to give away so much in the introduction. This story works with such a delicate economy, sparking away at a meager kindling, and to give way even one gem without the reader’s work is an excess of reduction.

  3. I am a new comer to Dark Mountain. It is becoming my source of the dark where I sense I must go to deal with the hidden grief and despair that does not show in my daily discourse or in my feeble lectures on climate change.


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