The Fifth Syllable
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A brass bell sat silently on the low table between us. I hated that bell. It was a small and ancient thing, covered with a complex patina of wondrous beauty, but God damn, I absolutely detested it. Across the table, the Master spoke a single word, the mystical Fifth Syllable, "[mystical symbol]". The bell replied with a beautiful note, an auditory sunbeam, a cool musical breeze, the acoustic equivalent of a crystal clear lake. It made me sick. I loathed that sound.

For months now, I had been trying to pronounce the Fifth Syllable, one of the most crucial sounds in The Art, but also one of the most difficult. Every morning, I woke before the sun, and did my chores: cooking, cleaning, walking to the market, whatever the little temple required. Every evening, bleary-eyed and exhausted, I sat across from the Master while the accursed little bell mocked me with its silence.

The Master spoke again, "[mystical symbol]", and again the bell rang. He looked expectantly at me, and I repeated the Syllable, just as the Master had, and although mine sounded exactly the same as his, the bell did not respond. Again, the Master said, "[mystical symbol]". Again, the bell rang. Again, I repeated after him, and again there was no reply.

Month after month, there was no reply.

One evening, when I was particularly bleary-eyed, particularly exhausted, and very particularly fed-up with failure, I dared to complain. "Why," I asked, "is the Fifth Syllable so difficult to pronounce? There must be an easier way. The Third Syllable has two forms, one difficult and one easy. Isn't this also true for the Fifth?"

The Master did not like questions. He paused for a moment, glared at me in disapproval, and finally responded, "It is not so."

His hesitation irritated me, and my manners began to slip even further. "I cannot believe that," I replied. "It does not make sense that something so fundamental to The Art would be so complicated. I have to believe that there is an easier way. Perhaps, even in your great wisdom, you have overlooked something."

There was another pause, longer than the last, and another glare, even more disapproving, before the Master suddenly changed the subject. "Tell me, do they teach geometry in your American schools?"

The Master knew that my doctorate was in mathematics. He was just being a jerk. If he couldn't answer my question he should just have admitted it. I wanted to punch him in the face, but you don't study The Art without first learning to tolerate abuse.

"Yes, Master," I said politely, "I have taken classes in geometry."

"I have heard that if one measures the distance around a circle, then measures the distance across the circle, and then divides these two measurements, one always gets the same number."

"That is so. The number is called pi."

"To have such a name as 'pi', it must be a very important number."

It was strange to be talking about geometry with an ancient wizard atop a secluded mountain in a distant land, so very far from all the colleges and universities of the mundane world, but it had been a long time since I had taught mathematics, and I had begun to miss it. Thus, I began to lecture on pi. "Yes, it is a very important number. Engineers use it when designing buildings, automobiles, and airplanes. It is needed for navigation and for studying the stars. Telecommunications needs it, and even the design of electrical circuits cannot be done properly without knowledge of pi."

He said nothing. In this candlelit place, there were none of these things: no cars, no planes, no cell phones, no spaceships. The Master was not impressed.

I tried again. "Pi turns up over and over in the study of mathematics, even in contexts not related to circles, such as the study of triangles, or probability. In many ways, pi is a fundamental number in mathematics. There is the famous equation, e + 1 = 0, which links five important constants. This is not possible without pi."

The Master nodded. "A very important number." He paused, then, "Tell me. What is this number? It seems to underlie all of Nature. It seems to be a thing of the Center. I must assume that it is 4, the Number of Balance."

"No, Master, it is not 4. It is 3.14."

Puzzled, he repeated the digits. "Are you sure that's correct?"

"Well, actually it is more like 3.14159." I did not like being second-guessed. What did a few digits matter to an old man?

"Ah," he said, but he still did not look satisfied. "And there are no more digits?"

"There are more. In fact, there are an infinite number of them, and they never repeat. Pi is a type of number called 'irrational', a very special type of number."

The Master scoffed. "Special? It seems to me that it is a very inconvenient number. A number as important as this, which underlies all things, should be simpler. Perhaps you have calculated it incorrectly."

I was beginning to get very angry. "Master, no. I am sure of this. Men have studied pi since the time of ancient Babylon. We have since calculated it more and more accurately, and now it has been proven. It is infinitely long and it never repeats."

"This may be, but if it is, then I must believe that your mathematics is very poorly made. This pi is central to the whole system, but it cannot even be written down. Shoddy work indeed."

At last I became enraged. I had studied mathematics for half my life. I knew what I was talking about. I knew I was right. I shot back at him, "Mathematics isn't messed up. It just doesn't matter if pi is inconvenient." Furious now, I was shouting at him. "It doesn't matter if you don't like it. It doesn't matter if it fails to align with some half-assed idea of perfection. We couldn't change it if we wanted to. The Universe is just that way."

He did not respond, and I suddenly realized what I had done. The student does not raise his voice to the Master. He was going to send me away, and all my years of pain and frustration, would have been for nothing. The Master remained still and unblinking for a long moment. Just as I was rising to leave, he spoke. Softly and slowly, he said, "Indeed. The Cosmos does not exist for our convenience." He looked away. "I will teach you nothing more tonight." As I rose, the Master placed the antique bell in my hand. "Think on this lesson and practice well. Let there be no further complaints."

Relief washed over me. "You are very kind," I said, and bowed deeply. As I turned away, I felt a sharp blow on the side of my head. The Master had struck me with his stick. I faced him and saw that he was smiling broadly. "I forgive your anger, but the student must not presume to instruct the teacher." He laughed and waved me away.

A few days later, in the place where the Master slept, I found a dog-eared copy of David Hilbert's Grundlagen der Geometrie. Inside, on a yellowed piece of paper, in the Master's own handwriting, was a six line proof of the Riemann Hypothesis. I read this, I double-checked it, and in my own way, I became enlightened.

"That sneaky son of a [mystical symbol]," I muttered, and somewhere nearby, I heard a faint and very beautiful chime.

excerpt from the journal of Dr. Tobias Gideon, Adept of the High Art.

Book of Eleven Hours, Volume X

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