Cat's Cradle, p.15Kurt Vonnegut
WHAT BOKONONISTS SAY WHEN THEY COMMIT SUICIDE
DR. VON KOENIGSWALD, the humanitarian with the terrible deficit of Auschwitz in his kindliness account, was the second to die of ice-nine.
He was talking about rigor mortis, a subject I had introduced.
"Rigor mortis does not set in in seconds," he declared. "I turned my back to 'Papa' for just a moment. He was raving ..."
"What about?" I asked.
"Pain, ice, Mona--everything. And then 'Papa' said, 'Now I will destroy the whole world.'"
"What did he mean by that?"
"It's what Bokononists always say when they are about to commit suicide." Von Koenigswald went to a basin of water, meaning to wash his hands. "When I turned to look at him," he told me, his hands poised over the water, "he was dead--as hard as a statute, just as you see him. I brushed my fingers over his lips. They looked so peculiar."
He put his hands into the water. "What chemical could possibly ..." The question trailed off.
Von Koenigswald raised his hands, and the water in the basin came with them. It was no longer water, but a hemisphere of ice-nine.
Von Koenigswald touched the tip of his tongue to the blue-white mystery.
Frost bloomed on his lips. He froze solid, tottered, and crashed.
The blue-white hemisphere shattered. Chunks skittered over the floor.
I went to the door and bawled for help.
Soldiers and servants came running.
I ordered them to bring Frank and Newt and Angela to "Papa's" room at once.
At last I had seen ice-nine!
FEAST YOUR EYES!
I LET THE THREE CHILDREN of Dr. Felix Hoenikker into "Papa" Monzano's bedroom. I closed the door and put my back to it. My mood was bitter and grand. I knew ice-nine for what it was. I had seen it often in my dreams.
There could be no doubt that Frank had given "Papa" ice-nine. And it seemed certain that if ice-nine were Frank's to give, then it was Angela's and little Newt's to give, too.
So I snarled at all three, calling them to account for monstrous criminality. I told them that the jig was up, that I knew about them and ice-nine. I tried to alarm them about ice-nine's being a means to ending life on earth. I was so impressive that they never thought to ask how I knew about ice-nine.
"Feast your eyes!" I said.
Well, as Bokonon tells us: "God never wrote a good play in His Life." The scene in "Papa's" room did not lack for spectacular issues and props, and my opening speech was the right one.
But the first reply from a Hoenikker destroyed all magnificence.
Little Newt threw up.
FRANK TELLS US WHAT TO DO
AND THEN WE ALL wanted to throw up.
Newt certainly did what was called for.
"I couldn't agree more," I told Newt. And I snarled at Angela and Frank, "Now that we've got Newt's opinion, I'd like to hear what you two have to say."
"Uck," said Angela, cringing, her tongue out. She was the color of putty.
"Are those your sentiments, too?" I asked Frank. " 'Uck?' General, is that what you say?"
Frank had his teeth bared, and his teeth were clenched, and he was breathing shallowly and whistlingly between them.
"Like the dog," murmured little Newt, looking down at Von Koenigswald.
Newt whispered his answer, and there was scarcely any wind behind the whisper. But such were the acoustics of the stonewalled room that we all heard the whisper as clearly as we would have heard the chiming of a crystal bell.
"Christmas Eve, when Father died."
Newt was talking to himself. And, when I asked him to tell me about the dog on the night his father died, he looked up at me as though I had intruded on a dream. He found me irrelevant.
His brother and sister, however, belonged in the dream. And he talked to his brother in that nightmare; told Frank, "You gave it to him.
"That's how you got this fancy job, isn't it?" Newt asked Frank wonderingly. "What did you tell him--that you had something better than the hydrogen bomb?"
Frank didn't acknowledge the question. He was looking around the room intently, taking it all in. He unclenched his teeth, and he made them click rapidly, blinking his eyes with every click. His color was coming back. This is what he said.
"Listen, we've got to clean up this mess."
FRANK DEFENDS HIMSELF
"GENERAL," I told Frank, "that must be one of the most cogent statements made by a major general this year. As my technical advisor, how do you recommend that we, as you put it so well, 'clean up this mess'?"
Frank gave me a straight answer. He snapped his fingers. I could see him dissociating himself from the causes of the mess; identifying himself, with growing pride and energy, with the purifiers, the world-savers, the cleaners-up.
"Brooms, dustpans, blowtorch, hot plate, buckets," he commanded, snapping, snapping, snapping his fingers.
"You propose applying a blowtorch to the bodies?" I asked.
Frank was so charged with technical thinking now that he was practically tap dancing to the music of his fingers. "We'll sweep up the big pieces on the floor, melt them in a bucket on a hot plate. Then we'll go over every square inch of floor with a blowtorch, in case there are any microscopic crystals. What we'll do with the bodies--and the bed ..." He had to think some more.
"A funeral pyre!" he cried, really pleased with himself. "I'll have a great big funeral pyre built out by the hook, and we'll have the bodies and the bed carried out and thrown on."
He started to leave, to order the pyre built and to get the things we needed in order to clean up the room.
Angela stopped him. "How could you?" she wanted to know.
Frank gave her a glassy smile. "Everything's going to be all right."
"How could you give it to a man like 'Papa' Monzano?" Angela asked him.
"Let's clean up the mess first; then we can talk."
Angela had him by the arms, and she wouldn't let him go. "How could you!" She shook him.
Frank pried his sister's hands from himself. His glassy smile went away and he turned sneeringly nasty for a moment--a moment in which he told her with all possible contempt, "I bought myself a job, just the way you bought yourself a tomcat husband, just the way Newt bought himself a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget!"
The glassy smile returned.
Frank left; and he slammed the door.
THE FOURTEENTH BOOK
"SOMETIMES THE POOL-PAH," Bokonon tells us, "exceeds the power of humans to comment." Bokonon translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as "shit storm" and at another point as "wrath of God."
From what Frank had said before he slammed the door, I gathered that the Republic of San Lorenzo and the three Hoenikkers weren't the only ones who had ice-nine. Apparently the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had it, too. The United States had obtained it through Angela's husband, whose plant in Indianapolis was understandably surrounded by electrified fences and homicidal German shepherds. And Soviet Russia had come by it through Newt's little Zinka, that winsome troll of Ukrainian ballet.
I was without comment.
I bowed my head and closed my eyes; and I awaited Frank's return with the humble tools it would take to clean up one bedroom--one bedroom out of all the bedrooms in the world, a bedroom infested with ice-nine.
Somewhere, in that violet, velvet oblivion, I heard Angela say something to me. It wasn't in her own defense. It was in defense of little Newt. "Newt didn't give it to her. She stole it."
I found the explanation uninteresting.
"What hope can there be for mankind," I thought, "when there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as ice-nine to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?"
And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon? which I had read in i
It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
FRANK CAME BACK with brooms and dustpans, a blowtorch, and a kerosene hot plate, and a good old bucket and rubber gloves.
We put on the gloves in order not to contaminate our hands with ice-nine. Frank set the hot plate on the heavenly Mona's xylophone and put the honest old bucket on top of that.
And we picked up the bigger chunks of ice-nine from the floor; and we dropped them into that humble bucket; and they melted. They became good old, sweet old, honest old water.
Angela and I swept the floor, and little Newt looked under furniture for bits of ice-nine we might have missed. And Frank followed our sweeping with the purifying flame of the torch.
The brainless serenity of charwomen and janitors working late at night came over us. In a messy world we were at least making our little corner clean.
And I heard myself asking Newt and Angela and Frank in conversational tones to tell me about the Christmas Eve on which the old man died, to tell me about the dog.
And, childishly sure that they were making everything all right by cleaning up, the Hoenikkers told me the tale.
The tale went like this:
On that fateful Christmas Eve, Angela went into the village for Christmas tree lights, and Newt and Frank went for a walk on the lonely winter beach, where they met a black Labrador retriever. The dog was friendly, as all Labrador retrievers are, and he followed Frank and little Newt home.
Felix Hoenikker died--died in his white wicker chair looking out at the sea--while his children were gone. All day the old man had been teasing his children with hints about ice-nine, showing it to them in a little bottle on whose label he had drawn a skull and cross-bones, and on whose label he had written: "Danger! Ice-nine! Keep away from moisture!"
All day long the old man had been nagging his children with words like these, merry in tone: "Come on now, stretch your minds a little. I've told you that its melting point is a hundred fourteen-point-four degrees Fahrenheit, and I've told you that it's composed of nothing but hydrogen and oxygen. What could the explanation be? Think a little! Don't be afraid of straining your brains. They won't break."
"He was always telling us to stretch our brains," said Frank, recalling olden times.
"I gave up trying to stretch my brain when I-don't-know-how-old-I-was," Angela confessed, leaning on her broom. "I couldn't even listen to him when he talked about science. I'd just nod and pretend I was trying to stretch my brain, but that poor brain, as far as science went, didn't have any more stretch than an old garter belt."
Apparently, before he sat down in his wicker chair and died, the old man played puddly games in the kitchen with water and pots and pans and ice-nine. He must have been converting water to ice-nine and back to water again, for every pot and pan was out on the kitchen countertops. A meat thermometer was out, too, so the old man must have been taking the temperature of things.
The old man meant to take only a brief time out in his chair, for he left quite a mess in the kitchen. Part of the disorder was a saucepan filled with solid ice-nine. He no doubt meant to melt it up, to reduce the world's supply of the blue-white stuff to a splinter in a bottle again--after a brief time out.
But, as Bokonon tells us, "Any man can call time out, but no man can say how long the time out will be."
NEWT'S MOTHER'S RETICULE
"I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN he was dead the minute I came in," said Angela, leaning on her broom again. "That wicker chair, it wasn't making a sound. It always talked, creaked away, when Father was in it--even when he was asleep."
But Angela had assumed that her father was sleeping, and she went on to decorate the Christmas tree.
Newt and Frank came in with the Labrador retriever. They went out into the kitchen to find something for the dog to eat. They found the old man's puddles.
There was water on the floor, and little Newt took a dishrag and wiped it up. He tossed the sopping dishrag onto the counter.
As it happened, the dishrag fell into the pan containing ice-nine.
Frank thought the pan contained some sort of cake frosting, and he held it down to Newt, to show Newt what his carelessness with the dishrag had done.
Newt peeled the dishrag from the surface and found that the dishrag had a peculiar, metallic, snaky quality, as though it were made of finely-woven gold mesh.
"The reason I say 'gold mesh,' " said little Newt, there in "Papa's" bedroom, "is that it reminded me right away of Mother's reticule, of how the reticule felt."
Angela explained sentimentally that when a child, Newt had treasured his mother's gold reticule. I gathered that it was a little evening bag.
"It felt so funny to me, like nothing else I'd ever touched," said Newt, investigating his old fondness for the reticule. "I wonder whatever happened to it."
"I wonder what happened to a lot of things," said Angela. The question echoed back through time-- woeful, lost.
What happened to the dishrag that felt like a reticule, at any rate, was that Newt held it out to the dog, and the dog licked it. And the dog froze stiff.
Newt went to tell his father about the stiff dog and found out that his father was stiff, too.
OUR WORK in "Papa's" bedroom was done at last.
But the bodies still had to be carried to the funeral pyre. We decided that this should be done with pomp, that we should put it off until the ceremonies in honor of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy were over.
The last thing we did was stand Von Koenigswald on his feet in order to decontaminate the place where he had been lying. And then we hid him, standing up, in "Papa's" clothes closet.
I'm not quite sure why we hid him. I think it must have been to simplify the tableau.
As for Newt's and Angela's and Frank's tale of how they divided up the world's supply of ice-nine on Christmas Eve--it petered out when they got to details of the crime itself. The Hoenikkers couldn't remember that anyone said anything to justify their taking ice-nine as personal property. They talked about what ice-nine was, recalling the old man's brain-stretchers, but there was no talk of morals.
"Who did the dividing?" I inquired.
So thoroughly had the three Hoenikkers obliterated their memories of the incident that it was difficult for them to give me even that fundamental detail.
"It wasn't Newt," said Angela at last. "I'm sure of that."
"It was either you or me," mused Frank, thinking hard.
"You got the three Mason jars off the kitchen shelf," said Angela. "It wasn't until the next day that we got the three little Thermos jugs."
"That's right," Frank agreed. "And then you took an ice pick and chipped up the ice-nine in the saucepan."
"That's right," said Angela. "I did. And then somebody brought tweezers from the bathroom."
Newt raised his little hand. "I did."
Angela and Newt were amazed, remembering how enterprising little Newt had been.
"I was the one who picked up the chips and put them in the Mason jars," Newt recounted. He didn't bother to hide the swagger he must have felt.
"What did you people do with the dog?" I asked limply.
"We put him in the oven," Frank told me. "It was the only thing to do."
"History!" writes Bokonon. "Read it and weep!"
WHEN I FELT THE BULLET ENTER MY HEART
SO I ONCE AGAIN mounted the spiral staircase in my tower; once again arrived at the uppermost battlement of my castle; and once more looked out at my guests, my servants, my cliff, and my lukewarm sea.
The Hoenikkers were with me. We had locked "Papa's" door, and had spread the word among the hou
Soldiers were now building a funeral pyre out by the hook. They did not know what the pyre was for.
There were many, many secrets that day.
Busy, busy, busy.
I supposed that the ceremonies might as well begin, and I told Frank to suggest to Ambassador Horlick Minton that he deliver his speech.
Ambassador Minton went to the seaward parapet with his memorial wreath still in its case. And he delivered an amazing speech in honor of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy. He dignified the dead, their country, and the life that was over for them by saying the "Hundred Martyrs to Democracy" in island dialect. That fragment of dialect was graceful and easy on his lips.
The rest of his speech was in American English. He had a written speech with him--fustian and bombast, I imagine. But, when he found he was going to speak to so few, and to fellow Americans for the most part, he put the formal speech away.
A light sea wind ruffled his thinning hair. "I am about to do a very un-ambassadorial thing," he declared. "I am about to tell you what I really feel."
Perhaps Minton had inhaled too much acetone, or perhaps he had an inkling of what was about to happen to everybody but me. At any rate, it was a strikingly Bokononist speech he gave.
"We are gathered here, friends," he said, "to honor lo Hoon-yera Mora-toorz tut Zamoo-cratz-ya, children dead, all dead, all murdered in war. It is customary on days like this to call such lost children men. I am unable to call them men for this simple reason: that in the same war in which lo Hoon-yera Mora-toorz tut Zamoo-cratz-ya died, my own son died.
"My soul insists that I mourn not a man but a child.
"I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays.
"But they are murdered children all the same.
"And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.
"Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut / History & Fiction / Science Fiction / Humor have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on32 votes