Iarlaith, Marco and the Birraglifici by Eckhard Gerdes

Iarlaith was getting annoyed.  His job at the foundry, where he was tasked with separating the individual letters and symbols of lesser fonts, which had been cast in lead, into their separate cases, wasn’t going smoothly.  He kept finding broken pieces among the whole ones.  Whoever was doing the casting wasn’t doing it right.  He tossed the broken letters and question marks and exclamation points and asterisks and ampersands and all into a plastic pail by his feet.  He was going to have to report these defects to his boss later.  But meanwhile, he kept working, and as we worked, he began to daydream about what he and his son Marco would have for dinner that evening.

Iarlaith would stop by the butcher shop on the way home and pick up some calf’s liver.  He’d grab an onion at the vegetable stand.  That would be delicious.  And it would be inexpensive, which was important because Iarlaith was still four days away from payday.  Marco, as usual, was unemployed but had been able to sell some assemblage art recently, which was a big help in keeping up with the bills that would sometimes depress Iarlaith tremendously.  Iarlaith had no idea why his life had been so unsuccessful that he was still scrambling to make ends meet.  An English teacher he’d admired once told him, when Iarlaith had been proud of a particularly good theme he had written, “Yeah, well, if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”

Iarlaith was disappointed when he discovered that this was not the teacher’s original thought, but rather a swiping of an argumentum ad crumenam from the community pot.  The teacher, having proven himself to be at best a minor plagiarist, ceased to interest Iarlaith after that, but the statement nagged at him throughout his life.

Iarlaith’s officious boss, a brute named Lucian, came by to check on everyone’s work, so Iarlaith took the opportunity to ask Lucian about the broken font pieces.

“Boss, if I find broken font pieces, what am I supposed to do with them?

“Broken pieces?” replied Lucian, sounding incredulous.  “Are you finding broken pieces?”

“A few.  I don’t think they were cast correctly.  They must have been brittle and broke on the way here.”

“Well, get rid of them.  Hide them.  Throw them out, but not where anyone can find them.  There’s nothing we can do about them.  Mr. Grebe’s own nephew is working the castings of these minor fonts as a summer job, and Mr. Grebe is not going to want to hear about it.”

Iarlaith nodded.  Mr. Grebe was, if anything, even more ill-tempered than Lucian.  The bucket was half full of defective font pieces by the time Iarlaith was done with his shift.  He emptied the bucket into his black dome lunch box and went home.

“Hey, Marco!” he called when he got in the door.

“What, Dad?”

“Can you use these for your art?”


“Broken font pieces.”

“Let me see,” and Marco came out of the kitchen and met his dad at the door.  Iarlaith opened the lunch box, and Marco gasped.  “Wow, those are great.”

“I know you don’t work with paper anymore, but maybe you can do something with these?”

“Yeah, I think I can.  You know, I was in the library the other day and found some info on an Italian writer and artist named Adriano Spatola.  He used to do pages of chopped-up texts, and they looked really cool.  They were asemic.”


“Yeah, it conjures up the notion of meaning, the way text does, but it’s kind of like reading runes or something that no one can understand.  The shapes he creates with pieces of letters are wonderful.  But the meaning is elusive, or missing.”

“Huh.  Sounds cool.”

“No, really it is.  He called them zeroglifici, which was a pun on geroglifici, which is Italian for ‘hieroglyphics.’  But the ‘zero’ emphasizes that they have no inherent meaning.”

“Well, I’m sure you can do something cool with these.  I have some old letterpress beds in my bedroom—“


“No, really, you can use them if you want to lock them into something for printing.”

“Yeah, maybe.  I’ll check it out.  But for now, want a beer, Dad?”

“Sure.  I’d love one.”

Marco brought out two beers from the kitchen.  They cracked the cans open in unison and clinked the cans together in cheers.

“Hey, maybe you should call them birraglifici,” said Iarlaith.

Marco and Iarlaith laughed together heartily and then finished their beers while settling into the twin chairs in front of the TV.

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