Cat's Cradle, p.16Kurt Vonnegut
"I do not mean to be ungrateful for the fine, martial show we are about to see--and a thrilling show it really will be ..."
He looked each of us in the eye, and then he commented very softly, throwing it away, "And hooray say I for thrilling shows."
We had to strain our ears to hear what Minton said next.
"But if today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war," he said, "is today a day for a thrilling show?
"The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of ourselves and of all mankind."
He unsnapped the catches on his wreath case.
"See what I have brought?" he asked us.
He opened the case and showed us the scarlet lining and the golden wreath. The wreath was made of wire and artificial laurel leaves, and the whole was sprayed with radiator paint.
The wreath was spanned by a cream-colored silk ribbon on which was printed, "PRO PATRIA."
Minton now recited a poem from Edgar Lee Masters' the Spoon River Anthology, a poem that must have been incomprehensible to the San Lorenzans in the audience--and to H. Lowe Crosby and his Hazel, too, for that matter, and to Angela and Frank.
I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."
What do they mean, anyway?
"What do they mean, anyway?" echoed Ambassador Horlick Minton. "They mean, 'For one's country.' " And he threw away another line. "Any country at all," he murmured.
"This wreath I bring is a gift from the people of one country to the people of another. Never mind which countries. Think of people....
"And children murdered in war ...
"And any country at all.
"Think of peace.
"Think of brotherly love.
"Think of plenty.
"Think of what a paradise this world would be if men were kind and wise.
"As stupid and vicious as men are, this is a lovely day," said Ambassador Horlick Minton. "I, in my own heart and as a representative of the peace-loving people of the United States of America, pity lo Hoon-yera Mora-toorz tut Zamoo-cratz-ya for being dead on this fine day."
And he sailed the wreath off the parapet.
There was a hum in the air. The six planes of the San Lorenzan Air Force were coming, skimming my lukewarm sea. They were going to shoot the effigies of what H. Lowe Crosby had called "practically every enemy that freedom ever had."
AS IT HAPPENED
WE WENT TO THE SEAWARD PARAPET to see the show. The planes were no larger than grains of black pepper. We were able to spot them because one, as it happened, was trailing smoke.
We supposed that the smoke was part of the show.
I stood next to H. Lowe Crosby, who, as it happened, was alternately eating albatross and drinking native rum. He exhaled fumes of model airplane cement between lips glistening with albatross fat. My recent nausea returned.
I withdrew to the landward parapet alone, gulping air. There were sixty feet of old stone pavement between me and all the rest.
I saw that the planes would be coming in low, below the footings of the castle, and that I would miss the show. But nausea made me incurious. I turned my head in the direction of their now snarling approach. Just as their guns began to hammer, one plane, the one that had been trailing smoke, suddenly appeared, belly up, in flames.
It dropped from my line of sight again and crashed at once into the cliff below the castle. Its bombs and fuel exploded.
The surviving planes went booming on, their racket thinning down to a mosquito hum.
And then there was the sound of a rockslide--and one great tower of "Papa's" castle, undermined, crashed down to the sea.
The people on the seaward parapet looked in astonishment at the empty socket where the tower had stood. Then I could hear rockslides of all sizes in a conversation that was almost orchestral.
The conversation went very fast, and new voices entered in. They were the voices of the castle's timbers lamenting that their burdens were becoming too great.
And then a crack crossed the battlement like lightning, ten feet from my curling toes.
It separated me from my fellow men.
The castle groaned and wept aloud.
The others comprehended their peril. They, along with tons of masonry, were about to lurch out and down. Although the crack was only a foot wide, people began to cross it with heroic leaps.
Only my complacent Mona crossed the crack with a simple step.
The crack gnashed shut; opened wider, leeringly. Still trapped on the canted deathtrap were H. Lowe Crosby and his Hazel and Ambassador Horlick Minton and his Claire.
Philip Castle and Frank and I reached across the abyss to haul the Crosbys to safety. Our arms were now extended imploringly to the Mintons.
Their expressions were bland. I can only guess what was going through their minds. My guess is that they were thinking of dignity, of emotional proportion above all else.
Panic was not their style. I doubt that suicide was their style either. But their good manners killed them, for the doomed crescent of castle now moved away from us like an ocean liner moving away from a dock.
The image of a voyage seems to have occurred to the voyaging Mintons, too, for they waved to us with wan amiability.
They held hands.
They faced the sea.
Out they went; then down they went in a cataclysmic rush, were gone!
THE GRAND AH-WHOOM
THE RAGGED RIM OF OBLIVION was now inches from my curling toes. I looked down. My lukewarm sea had swallowed all. A lazy curtain of dust was wafting out to sea, the only trace of all that fell.
The palace, its massive, seaward mask now gone, greeted the north with a leper's smile, snaggle-toothed and bristly. The bristles were the splintered ends of timbers. Immediately below me a large chamber had been laid open. The floor of that chamber, unsupported, stabbed out into space like a diving platform.
I dreamed for a moment of dropping to the platform, of springing up from it in a breath-taking swan dive, of folding my arms, of knifing downward into a blood-warm eternity with never a splash.
I was recalled from this dream by the cry of a darting bird above me. It seemed to be asking me what had happened. "Pootee-phweet?" it asked.
We all looked up at the bird, and then at one another.
We backed away from the abyss, full of dread. And, when I stepped off the paving stone that had supported me, the stone began to rock. It was no more stable than a teeter-totter. And it tottered now over the diving platform.
Down it crashed onto the platform, made the platform a chute. And down the chute came the furnishings still remaining in the room below.
A xylophone shot out first, scampering fast on its tiny wheels. Out came a bedside table in a crazy race with a bounding blowtorch. Out came chairs in hot pursuit.
And somewhere in that room below, out of sight, something mightily reluctant to move was beginning to move.
Down the chute it crept. At last it showed its golden bow. It was the boat in which dead "Papa" lay.
It reached the end of the chute. Its bow nodded. Down it tipped. Down it fell, end over end.
"Papa" was thrown clear, and he fell separately.
I closed my eyes.
There was a sound like that of the gentle closing of a portal as big as the sky, the great door of heaven being closed softly. It was a grand AH-WHOOM.
I opened my eyes--and all the sea was ice-nine.
The sky darkened. Borasisi, the sun, became a sickly yellow ball, tiny and cruel.
The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.
I LOOKED UP AT THE SKY where the bird had been. An enormous worm with a violet mouth was directly overhead. It buzzed like bees. It swayed. With obscene peristalsis, it ingested air.
We humans separated; fled my shattered battlements; tumbled down staircases on the landward side.
Only H. Lowe Crosby and his Hazel cried out. "American! American!" they cried, as though tornadoes were interested in the granfalloons to which their victims belonged.
I could not see the Crosbys. They had descended by another staircase. Their cries and the sounds of others, panting and running, came gabbling to me through a corridor of the castle. My only companion was my heavenly Mona, who had followed noiselessly.
When I hesitated, she slipped past me and opened the door to the anteroom of "Papa's" suite. The walls and roof of the anteroom were gone. But the stone floor remained. And in its center was the manhole cover of the oubliette. Under the wormy sky, in the flickering violet light from the mouths of tornadoes that wished to eat us, I lifted the cover.
The esophagus of the dungeon was fitted with iron rungs. I replaced the manhole cover from within. Down those iron rungs we went.
And at the foot of the ladder we found a state secret. "Papa" Monzano had caused a cozy bomb shelter to be constructed there. It had a ventilation shaft, with a fan driven by a stationary bicycle. A tank of water was recessed in one wall. The water was sweet and wet, as yet untainted by ice-nine. And there was a chemical toilet, and a short-wave radio, and a Sears, Roebuck catalogue; and there were cases of delicacies, and liquor, and candles; and there were bound copies of the National Geographic going back twenty years.
And there was a set of The Books of Bokonon.
And there were twin beds.
I lighted a candle. I opened a can of Campbell's chicken gumbo soup and I put it on a Sterno stove. And I poured two glasses of Virgin Islands rum.
Mona sat on one bed. I sat down on the other.
"I am about to say something that must have been said by men to women several times before," I informed her. "However, I don't believe that these words have ever carried quite the freight they carry now."
I spread my hands. "Here we are."
THE IRON MAIDEN AND THE OUBLIETTE
THE SIXTH BOOK OF THE BOOKS OF BOKONON is devoted to pain, in particular to tortures inflicted by men on men. "If I am ever put to death on the hook," Bokonon warns us, "expect a very human performance."
Then he speaks of the rack and the peddiwinkus and the iron maiden and the veglia and the oubliette.
In any case, there's bound to be much crying.
But the oubliette alone will let you think while dying.
And so it was in Mona's and my rock womb. At least we could think. And one thing I thought was that the creature comforts of the dungeon did nothing to mitigate the basic fact of oubliation.
During our first day and night underground, tornadoes rattled our manhole cover many times an hour. Each time the pressure in our hole would drop suddenly, and our ears would pop and our heads would ring.
As for the radio--there was crackling, fizzing static and that was all. From one end of the short-wave band to the other not one word, not one telegrapher's beep, did I hear. If life still existed here and there, it did not broadcast.
Nor does life broadcast to this day.
This I assumed: tornadoes, strewing the poisonous blue-white frost of ice-nine everywhere, tore everyone and everything above ground to pieces. Anything that still lived would die soon enough of thirst--or hunger--or rage--or apathy.
I turned to The Books of Bokonon, still sufficiently unfamiliar with them to believe that they contained spiritual comfort somewhere. I passed quickly over the warning on the title page of The First Book:
"Don't be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!"
Foma, of course, are lies.
And then I read this:
In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, "Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done." And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely.
"Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.
"Certainly," said man.
"Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God. And He went away.
I thought this was trash.
"Of course it's trash!" says Bokonon.
And I turned to my heavenly Mona for comforting secrets a good deal more profound.
I was able, while mooning at her across the space that separated our beds, to imagine that behind her marvelous eyes lurked mysteries as old as Eve.
I will not go into the sordid sex episode that followed. Suffice it to say that I was both repulsive and repulsed.
The girl was not interested in reproduction--hated the idea. Before the tussle was over, I was given full credit by her, and by myself, too, for having invented the whole bizarre, grunting, sweating enterprise by which new human beings were made.
Returning to my own bed, gnashing my teeth, I supposed that she honestly had no idea what love-making was all about. But then she said to me, gently, "It would be very sad to have a little baby now. Don't you agree?"
"Yes," I agreed murkily.
"Well, that's the way little babies are made, in case you didn't know."
MONA THANKS ME
"TODAY I WILL BE a Bulgarian Minister of Education," Bokonon tells us. "Tomorrow I will be Helen of Troy." His meaning is crystal clear: Each one of us has to be what he or she is. And, down in the oubliette, that was mainly what I thought--with the help of The Books of Bokonon.
Bokonon invited me to sing along with him:
We do, doodley do, doodley do, doodley do, What we must, muddily must, muddily must, muddily must; Muddily do, muddily do, muddily do, muddily do, Until we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust, bodily bust.
I made up a tune to go with that and I whistled it under my breath as I drove the bicycle that drove the fan that gave us air, good old air.
"Man breathes in oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide," I called to Mona.
"One of the secrets of life man was a long time understanding: Animals breathe in what animals breathe out, and vice versa."
"I didn't know."
"You know now."
When I'd bicycled our atmosphere to sweetness and freshness, I dismounted and climbed the iron rungs to see what the weather was like above. I did that several times a day. On that day, the fourth day, I perceived through the narrow crescent of the lifted manhole cover that the weather had become somewhat stabilized.
The stability was of a wildly dynamic sort, for the tornadoes were as numerous as ever, and tornadoes remain numerous to this day. But their mouths no longer gobbled and gnashed at the earth. The mouths in all directions were discretely withdrawn to an altitude of perhaps a half of a mile. And their altitude varied so little from moment to moment that San Lorenzo might have been protected by a tornado-proof sheet of glass.
We let three more days go by, making certain that the tornadoes had become as sincerely reticent as they seemed. And then we filled canteens from our water tank and we went above.
The air was dry and hot and deathly still.
I had heard it suggested one time that the seasons in the temperate zone ought to be six rather than four in number: summer, autumn, locking, winter, unlocking
There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The earth was locked up tight.
It was winter, now and forever.
I helped my Mona out of our hole. I warned her to keep her hands away from the blue-white frost and to keep her hands away from her mouth, too. "Death has never been quite so easy to come by," I told her. "All you have to do is touch the ground and then your lips and you're done for."
She shook her head and sighed. "A very bad mother."
"Mother Earth--she isn't a very good mother any more."
"Hello? Hello?" I called through the palace ruins. The awesome winds had torn canyons through that great stone pile. Mona and I made a half-hearted search for survivors--half-hearted because we could sense no life. Not even a nibbling, twinkle-nosed rat had survived.
The arch of the palace gate was the only man-made form untouched. Mona and I went to it. Written at its base in white paint was a Bokononist "Calypso." The lettering was neat. It was new. It was proof that someone else had survived the winds. The "Calypso" was this:
Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end, And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God, Why go right ahead and scold Him. He'll just smile and nod.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
I RECALLED AN ADVERTISEMENT for a set of children's books called The Book of Knowledge. In that ad, a trusting boy and girl looked up at their father. "Daddy," one asked, "what makes the sky blue?" The answer, presumably, could be found in The Book of Knowledge.
If I had had my daddy beside me as Mona and I walked down the road from the palace, I would have had plenty of questions to ask as I clung to his hand. "Daddy, why are all the trees broken? Daddy, why are all the birds dead? Daddy, what makes the sky so sick and wormy? Daddy, what makes the sea so hard and still?"
It occurred to me that I was better qualified to answer those tough questions than any other human being, provided there were any other human beings alive. In case anyone was interested, I knew what had gone wrong--where and how.
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut / History & Fiction / Science Fiction / Humor have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on32 votes